Reflections: one year on the council

It’s hard to imagine that one year ago as I write I was in the middle of an election campaign. Now I’ve been representing Redland ward as part of the Bristol Green Group for twelve months. So what’s it been like? I am pleased to tell people I have generally enjoyed the year. As a previous employee of the council I had a fair idea what would be required. I also followed the work of my colleagues prior to election in May 2014 so got to know the way things work. The role has been varied and quite demanding: the allowance a councillor gets assumes 18 hours a week of council work; typically it takes twice that in real life. But there are many rewards in terms of interest and involvement in the life of the city.  

The work as a councillor divides into various parts, as I explained before: case work for residents in the ward; taking part in Full Council and a selection of committees and bodies; and scrutinising and questioning the elected Mayor about policies and services and pushing for appropriate council decisions. I discussed some of this a few months ago  https://martinfodor.com/2014/11/07/so-what-does-a-councillor-do/#more-399 

The  most striking thing I’ve realised is how hard our Green Group works. We’re a small but growing group and as I write we’re just below the threshold to gain formal group status and some funded political and admin support of our own. We clearly punch well above our weight, and are influential and widely respected for the work we do. My colleagues and I have an excellent attendance record, and at Mayor’s Question Time (an open question session, just prior to Full Council) and other places where we can question and challenge the Mayor, eg relating to cabinet agenda papers,  we have an excellent record of asking a range of questions, posing supplementary questions that get informative replies, and promoting issues that would be helpful to our wards and the city. Other groups benefit from paid research and pose many questions (sometimes multiple, almost identical ones), but often councillors don’t actually turn up. This means no chance to probe the replies, and it could show some lack of respect for officers and the Mayor who spend hours preparing detailed responses.  We also maintain a constructive approach which gets much more of a supportive response and more likelihood of agreement from the Mayor. I don’t think scoring points or being agressive will ever get much done in the city, frankly, whoever is Mayor.

As a small group we have one rep on each committee. My colleague Tim Malnik chairs the Business Change committee. It’s clearly a major undertaking and it’s a commendation that he’s had really positive feedback from many other councillors and officers for his competence in developing and completing the programme of work for this in a detailed and inclusive manner.  Not all scrutiny commissions have actually got through all their business effectively, although the Neighbourhoods one I serve on has been thorough and done some excellent work examinining issues like waste management, antisocial behaviour, and change in the libraries service – NB this is not a judgement on the government-imposed cuts; just a comment on the way we have examined the issues as we set out to, around how the service might adapt in the future and consult on its options.  Scrutiny is not meant to be a party political process with whips or anything; it is meant to examine politices and decisions underway to help shape the choices the council (ie the Mayor) makes. 

I previously reported on experiences on Development Control. Often known as Planning committee, I serve on DC B, which receives planning applications on an alternate basis to DC A now. So every second contentious planning application made to the committee comes before me, as part of the Local Planning Authority.  I discussed how constrained our role is in this process previously:  https://martinfodor.com/2014/11/29/controlling-development-in-the-city/ But on reflecting on this year I recently realised how this process, probably the most high profile part of the council’s work in many ways – taking big development decisions which attract a lot of attention and controversy – can be so frustrating. There’s a much more limited scope for local decisions to be shaped now the guidance from the government makes clear economic growth (ie allowing whatever development that has been proposed to get permission more often) needs to be a major factor. Officers are very cautious indeed about rejecting any development proposals where the applicant would have strong grounds for appeal (and then get permission from a government inspector,  plus charge costs to the council) so it’s quite hard to reject anything outright, eg the controversial Carriageworks development in Stokes Croft.

Many community submissions do not actually relate to valid “material considerations” that can be used to turn down a proposal. It’s usually a balance between some good and some harm, basically. Yet I am sorry to say that even this high profile, quasi legal, role we have does not always get taken seriously. My colleague Rob Telford and I have a 100% attendance record on the two committees, with substitution allowed for any occasion we might not attend. Other party groups have more places and the same substitution allowed. Yet the 12 person committee typically attracts 8 or 9 members, with some controversial decisions attracting votes of 5:3. Clearly councillors could do more to ensure their place is taken and their role is fulfilled. If the smallest group on the council can fully play its part can’t the larger ones too as part of their public service? 

 A less common role for councillors is to “call in” a decision we don’t feel has been carried out correctly. Four of the Green Group did this over the proposals for digital advertising in the city. The process was notable as the starting point of the committee of councillors looking into our case was that it was interesting but not likely to succeed. As has happened elsewhere we were faced with comments from other politicians that they’d like to agree but if only we’d made a stronger case they could do so.  However after over an hour of cross questioning with each of our statements and then submissions and questions for officers we visibly turned around the decision and it was agreed by the special committee that this matter does indeed need to be referred back to Full Council for a rethink. Our arguments were sound and our case was put strongly enough. So maybe the city will be spared large outdoor digital dynamic billboards promoting junk food, cars etc on what were euphamistically called an initial series of “less sensitive” sites  across the city. 

Our record is therefore a good one and many residents have welcomed our approach to raising issues, revealing information, and pushing for change from our current position as the smallest group on the council.

I’m now looking forward to the forthcoming election results  and a larger, stronger group of Greens to work with.

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