Surveys are not always reliable. Yet if you asked the usual representative sample how they liked to spend time, attending local authority committee meetings is unlikely to score highly.
This is understandable. Public participation is strictly controlled. In Exeter, members of the public can submit questions (3 days in advance) to be asked at any of the three City Council scrutiny committees; and interested parties are given speaking rights at Planning Committee meetings. Exercising the self-discipline of sitting in silence while councillors say things you disagree with is not for the passionate. Attempts to increase public participation in Council meetings have failed on the circular-argument grounds that people just aren’t interested .
Devon County Council operates with fewer constraints. Unlike Exeter, members of the public can ask questions at full Council meetings or Cabinet meetings.
Exeter City Council’s attitude to openness is schizophrenic. It claims to be open and transparent, and often is. Conversely, there are some major issues on which it clams up, such as the Greater Exeter Visioning Board or the Leisure Complex business case (the latter is still in front of an adjourned Information Tribunal, and the whole project has stalled because the tenders received don’t match the budget for its construction).
So it was with no expectation of receiving anything more than a defensive brush-off that I submitted a question for response at the People Scrutiny Committee on 1 June. The question was: “As none of the tenders for the construction of the leisure complex was within the budget for the scheme, will the Council explain why they did not estimate realistic costs for its construction before inviting tenders?” The rules of procedure prevent supplementary questions, but do allow the questioner to speak for up to two minutes in response. Naturally, I had prepared my response in advance.
I bowled up at the meeting, and was shown the seat to sit in when asking the question. I read it out carefully, since the rules say that deviation from the submitted question may be penalised. Councillor Bialyk, who is in charge of the leisure complex project and a man not known for mincing his words, launched into his response.
It was surprisingly informative. Yes, the tenders were not in line with budget expectations. But circumstances had changed since the invitation to tender was prepared, many due to Brexit. Sterling was weaker. The RICS building costs guidelines had changed several times. There were uncertainties over labour supply in the construction industry. In addition, one of the firms advising on the project had given poor advice, and had their contract terminated. Other councils around the country were facing similar problems.
This is genuinely helpful information and makes the Council’s position understandable, far more so than the cryptic statement on their website: “But due to the nature of the tender returns submitted by contractors bidding for the contract, the council has announced that it needs more time to conclude the procurement process” . It made my prepared response – which was critical in tone – largely redundant, and I abandoned most of it.
The City’s only Green Party councillor, Chris Musgrave, also used questioning to elicit the information that the Council planned to appoint a single operator for the Leisure Complex and all the other Council-owned leisure facilities in the city.
The lesson I draw from this is that openness works. There will continue to be a small number of issues that need to be discussed behind closed doors, but these should be very few indeed. Openness helps understanding, and understanding improves the quality of political debate. We just need more people to break through the participation barrier, and start asking .
 See for example the minutes of the Exeter City Council Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee on 23 March 2017, item 16, available at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=37916
 Exeter City Council statement dated 2 March 2017 at https://exeter.gov.uk/people-and-communities/major-projects/a-new-bus-station/
 Guidance for members of the public on submitting questions is available as follows: Exeter City Council at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=444&MId=3295&Ver=4&Info=1 item 7. Devon County Council at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/guide/public-participation-at-committee-meetings/