TUNBRIDGE WELLS BOROUGH COUNCIL
Date: 11 July 2001 at 7:30pm
NOW in 2003 (2 years later), this will surely never happen again !
FOCUS, August 5 & 6, 2003
Vital public question time axed
Platform for questioning councillors is cut
Axing of the thrice-yearly public meetings in Tunbridge Wells which give residents a chance to question key councillors and officers has been criticised.
Lib Dem councillor David Neve said it was wrong to do away with the forums because they offered a vital platform for the exchange of information and also complaints.
He applauded employment of a dedicated "complaints procedure officer" at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, but said the public meetings were a crucial part of local democracy. Councillors debated the issue at a cabinet meeting on Thursday last week.
"The council claims in the past meetings have been hijacked by people with complaints and with this new officer they do not feel it worth spending £5,000 on the meetings. "They say there is a lack of interest. But at one I went to last year at the town hall there were between 80 and 100 people," said Cllr Neve.
The events which are always in the town, were originally set up by the Lib Dems to give a voice to people who otherwise might not be heard. It was also an opportunity for the council to unveil important initiatives - most recently the brown bin scheme, but also details of the new hospital and parking issues. A formal question and answer session always followed, he added.
"It's sending the wrong message to the public - it's saying we are not interested in your views. It's very undemocratic to get rid of them. People could get that instant feedback on is- sues. And it's important for the councillors and officers to hear what people in the community are saying. It's useful to give presentations, on for example, the Local Plan."
Cllr Neve said the complaints officer would be contacted by individuals who already had a grievance with the council and a ""specific complaint". But the public meetings offered an opportunity for groups and. individuals to ask questions, which might have stopped them reaching the "complaints stage".
"They might just want information about their local area," he said. He said last week's meeting to discuss the forums was a "little late" considering they were usually held throughout July.
Also on the agenda was a plan to increase the budget for the council's newsletter the Borough News. It is proposed to raise the grant from £24,000 to £38,000. "And yet they will not spend £5,000 to carry on the public meetings," he added.
Council Leader Len Horwood said "one off" public meetings about issues which affect large groups of people would still be held.
Monitoring of the meetings held three times a year showed questions asked were about "day to day" problems which should be dealt with through other avenues, such as elected councillors. He said the customer care officer was "extremely well qualified" and all staff were now trained to deal with the public and those in a "frontline" position had a personal telephone number.
KM EXTRA August 15, 2003
Public meetings scrapped in bid to save money
Voters in Tunbridge Wells borough will have fewer chances to take councillors to task after a move to scrap public meetings.
Since 1994, the borough council has held several meetings a year, usually at Paddock Wood and Gran-brook, as well as Tunbridge Wells, for officers and members to field questions from the public.
But the council's Conservative cabinet has now ruled the annual cost of £6,000 is not an economic way of involving people in the decision-making process.
Public meetings may still be called for specific issues, but a report by Ellie Broughton, head corporate marketing and communications, has criticised the others.
She said: "There have been meetings when residents have used the occasion to vent frustrations where they feel the council is taking the wrong action or has made the wrong decision. When this has happened it has only infuriated people more, as they are expecting some new development, or for us to reverse a decision. When neither of these things happens those attending have branded the meetings a waste of time and assumed we don't listen."
Attendance has varied from 20 to 120. The report argued that improved communications through use of e-mail, the council website, and the borough newsletter rendered the meetings redundant.
But Liberal Democrats disagree and want a scrutiny committee inquiry into all the council's consultation and communication processes.
Cllr Bruce Ballantine (Lib Dem, Pembury) said: "Public meetings were the only occasion where people could actually get to debate an issue. "There are lots of occasions when they can ask a question at a council meeting, but that's it. Also, the meetings helped reach people in rural areas. Not everybody can come to the Town Hall."
Cllr David Neve (Lib Dem, St James) said: "There are a lot of hot issues around at/the moment - Knights Park, the waste bin issue. Cancelling the meetings is a good way of getting the Cabinet out of a potentially awkward situation."
After the Telephone House Public Inquiry, during summer/autumn 2001
TWBC Chief Executive's and Director of Operational Services' attitude towards Residents
What went wrong with the Telephone House Planning Applications ?
The uneasy questions to the Chief Executive Rodney Stone and other senior officers of TWBC
2003, the questions are still unanswered - they are as intriguing as in 2001.
The Telephone House Neighbours Association, Tunbridge Wells
The aims are to heighten peoples' awareness and concern for the high-density development on Telephone House site, Church Road/York Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN1.