Waltham Abbey Town Council Meeting 1st July 2019

I would like to make some observations and comments regarding the Town Council meeting held in the Town hall last Wednesday evening.

The first comment relates to the Venue. I felt that the use of the James Suite inappropriate for the holding of a meeting of the Town Council. The Council Chamber is a very special place and Full Council meetings have been held there for over 100 years and hopefully will continue in use. Arrangements had been made for those unable to physically access the Chamber to view the meeting via a webcast in the James Suite. As there were no Public Questions at the meeting, and hence no facility for public participation (and I will come to that next), I had considered that the above arrangements would not put anyone at a disadvantage.

However, after further discussion and consultations with the Town Clerk and my group colleagues it was agreed that the meeting could take place in the Town Hall.

I trust that we can all agree that it is essential that access for all to the Council chamber on the first floor is made available at the earliest opportunity, and the Town Clerk has been instructed to do so.

I come next to the subject of Public Participation at Council meetings.

There are four types of meetings which are held by the Council.

  1. Full Council meetings;
  2. Annual Town Meeting;
  3. Committee and Sub-Committee meetings;
  4. Open Public Meetings.

As far as I understand the position to be, the level of public participation at any given meeting will depend upon the type of meeting being held.

Full Council meetings.

These are the formal meetings of the Council and their proceedings should reflect that formality.

The Public is given the opportunity to send written questions prior to the publication of the Agenda so that they can be included on that Agenda.

The reasons for these arrangements are threefold.

  1. For the Town Clerk to assess the question for its suitability and validity.
  2. To give The Town Council to carry out any enquires and research in order to assist the discussion of the matter at the meeting.
  3. So that other members of the public are made aware that the matter is going to be discussed at the meeting, hence giving them the opportunity to participate should they wish to do so.

All the arrangements above are designed to facilitate the conduct of the meeting and to enable the matter to be discussed fully, with the best information available and by the widest constituency.

As far as I am aware, and the advice which I had received from the Town Clerk and other senior members, the above is the only opportunity envisaged for the public to participate at Full Council meetings.

Annual Town Meeting.

This is the meeting held once a year at which the public is positively encouraged to participate by asking questions without notice of Councillors. The answers given reflect that lack of notice, and as a result most will be referred to Council Committees for further investigation.

Committees and Sub-Committee meetings.

These are the less formal business meetings of the Council on to which members of the public may have been co-opted.

The Agenda of these meetings also include an item for Public Questions which are treated in the same way as such Agenda Items at Full Council.

However, as stated above, these are less formal meetings than Full Council and afford a greater flexibility for the Chairman to invite comments and observations from members of the public, at the Chairman’s discretion.

Open Public Meetings

These are ad hoc meetings, usually held to discuss single issues. By their very nature, the format will depend upon the matter to be discussed. However, they are open to Public Participation.

The above sets out my understanding of the current arrangements for public participation at the various types of meetings held by the Council.

 

 

 

Standing Orders

As I believe was referred to at last Wednesday’s meeting, the following Standard Orders apply only where public participation as set out above is available:

 Members of the public may make representations, answer questions and give evidence at a meeting which they are entitled to attend in respect of the business on the agenda.
 The period of time designated for public participation at a meeting in accordance with standing order 3(e) shall not exceed 15 minutes unless directed by the Chairman of the meeting.
 Subject to standing order 3(f), a member of the public shall not speak for more than three minutes.
 In accordance with standing order 3(e), a question shall not require a response at the meeting nor start a debate on the question. The Mayor or Chairman of the meeting may direct that a written or oral response be given.
 A person shall raise his hand when requesting to speak and stand when speaking (except when a person has a disability or is likely to suffer discomfort). The Mayor or Chairman of the meeting may at any time permit a person to be seated when speaking.
 A person who speaks at a meeting shall direct his comments to the Mayor or Chairman of the meeting.
 Only one person is permitted to speak at a time. If more than one person wants to speak, the Mayor or Chairman of the meeting shall direct the order of speaking.

 

It was and is my opinion that The Council only envisaged that the above Standing Order would only apply where the Participation of the Public is allowed as stated in the preceding comments regarding the different Types of meeting. I would again re-iterate that I had confirmed the above view prior to the meeting.

I would like to take the opportunity to apologise that at the meeting, I did not explain the above as my reason not to accept a point of order raised by Cllr Plummer. I should have done so.

However, I do hope that Members will appreciate from the length and detail of my explanation above, that I did feel that this was impractical in the circumstances, particularly given the importance of the subject in front of the Council at the time.

I think that it is also important to understand that, just as our National “Constitution” is a mixture of Statute and Common Law, so the procedures of the Council are based on its Standing Orders which  are informed by the Custom and Practice of the Council over many years.

I do appreciate that the interpretation above of the rules regarding Public Participation at meetings hosted by the Council is far from clear from the current Standing Orders, and this will be addressed as soon as possible.

It is to be regretted that members of the public appear to have had heightened expectations regarding their ability to participate at the meeting. This would, of course have been obviated had the Council been previously notified of those expectations. I am unaware of any such notification having been made.

It does seem to me a great shame that in the reaction after the meeting, little attention appears to have been made to the momentous decision taken by The Council regarding an issue which we all agree should be given the highest priority for the sake of all.