In defence of Local Forums

22 Sep

Sitting at full Council last week felt like I was stuck in a time warp. The Leader of the Opposition and his trusty sidekick decided to ‘requisition’ the papers that were approved at the last full Council meeting in July which got rid of area committees and introduced local forums.

For anyone who doesn’t speak council, a ‘requisition’ is when councillors call in a decision the Council has made and ask the leadership to look at it again. The requisition and the proposed amendments that the opposition managed to scrape together were voted down, but not after hours of hot air and fist waving.

Whilst I’m not surprised by the opposition, I am disappointed by them. Instead of discussing the big issues – the unfolding crisis in the local NHS, or how we’re going to take care of our older people and children, for instance – they seemed content to fixate on area committees yet again; an old fashioned, outdated and bureaucratic talking shop that everyone is glad to see the back of!I would also just remind readers of a tweet the Leader of the Opposition made last year when he said that attendance at area committees was so bad that they were a waste of public money…

True to their name, the Conservative group spent Thursday night clinging to the past, throwing their toys out of the pram and refusing to embrace change. Change that could make the Council more responsive and democratic, which could help more people get involved with politics, and which will finally give the people of Redbridge the opportunity to say how public money is spent. I’m not talking about the small sums that committees had to spend on their arbitrarily defined areas. We’ve said again and again, pooling the budgets that area committees held will help us achieve economies of scale and provide better, more efficient services for larger numbers of residents. But rather, I’m talking about how we’re going to meet the £70 million gap in our budget, how we’re going to protect the elderly and vulnerable when we’re facing devastating cuts.

So let’s face facts. Area Committees were costly – £400,000 of that cost to the borough was spent on hours and hours of officer time to produce think agendas and reports that scarcely no-one read. Local Forums will cost £15,000 and get people through the doors in a way that area committees never could.

On Thursday night it felt like the record was broken and the Tories showed themselves as the pontificating bureaucrats that they really are. They are stuck in the past, and won’t even take the tiniest of steps forward. Mind you, we shouldn’t be surprised; we’ve had 40 years of empty promises. No swimming pool, decades of inaction on house building which has broken the market and led to beds in sheds and rogue landlords, and toleration of fly tipping and prostitution, so long as they’re in the south of the borough.

So while the Toriesare happy to grandstand about the ‘death of democracy’ and ‘brutal dictatorships’ – basically products of their own imaginations – let’s remind ourselves of what actually matters. There’s an explosion of in-work poverty in London as wages have fallen, social security has been cut and rents have exploded. A crisis is unfolding in the NHS both nationally and locally, and there is a chronic shortage of affordable childcare which makes it harder for already pushed parents to get to work and support themselves. These are just three issues but there are a hundred others. Instead we end up talking about things that only council aficionados care about. We’re talking to ourselves and residents are switching off.

Yes, there will be fewer meetings of Local Forums. Yes, residents may have to travel to surrounding wards to get to one. But considering most of the residents of this borough have family connections that span the world and somehow manage that, I don’t think getting to their local library is going to be a major problem for them. It may not be the same kind of sleepy, backwater ‘tea and crumpets with the Vicar’ experience that some councillors seem attached to, but there will be a level of debate about bread and butter issues that this borough hasn’t seen for a long time.

Local Forums are an experiment to see what works. We can’t have any more poor excuses for ‘engagement’ which lets councillors and officers hide behind bureaucracy and lets business continue as usual. The Council has to up its game – not just because money’s tight but because residents expect and deserve better.

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