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Ealing and Northfield

Questions, questions

Putting down written questions for council is a relatively badly understood accountability mechanism in our council. The activity is normally one undertaken by opposition councillors trying to work out what the administration is doing. It is pretty unusual for councillors from the party in power to ask written questions, it might look like washing dirty laundry in public and in any case you can just ask your colleagues on the cabinet.

At every council we have seven oral questions from councillors, three from the two main parties and one from the LibDems. These get answered by the Leader or cabinet member as appropriate. Notice needs to be given but councillors can ask follow up or supplementary questions without notice and so can one other councillor. There is a bit of a dance around oral questions with the party in power using them to highlight issues and make announcements and the opposition parties trying to probe problems and ask tricky supplementaries that put the cabinet on the spot.

It is not well known but residents and local business people can also ask oral questions in person at council meetings to both the Leader and cabinet members. You need to give two days notice but you get to speak for up to 3 minutes and ask a follow up question which can be for clarification or a curved ball as you please. No notice needs to be given of the supplementary. You can’t be vexatious or ask something that has been asked by someone else recently. You can’t ask about specific planning or licensing issues either. The public are allowed up to five questions per meeting but I don’t recall any such questions since I was elected in May 2006. If you want to have a go contact the clerk of the council meeting, Paul Jeffries, see here.

On the council meeting web page they also publish the answers to written questions. These are typically attempts of opposition councillors to probe the inner workings of the council. It is like a game of battleships – you lob the questions over and try to score a hit. The officers won’t lie to you but they may wriggle around an awkward question if it is not well drafted.

This table show who asked what questions since the start of 2008. The LibDems, only 3 members in the last council and now swelled in numbers to 5, manage to keep up a constant harassing fire of questions. In the last council when the Tories were in power they only asked 2 questions in two and a half years as you might expect. In the last three meetings, in opposition, the number has jumped up to 94. Unfortunately this is another area where Labour are very poor performers. As well as being poor attenders at meetings the Labour councillors typically haven’t got the wit to ask questions. In two and a half years of opposition they only asked 29 questions, one quarter of what the 3 LibDems asked. Lazy and unengaged.

I will be doing a few postings arising out of our questioning campaign over the next few days.

2 replies on “Questions, questions”

Phil

Excellent.

You must have been on the Adur instead of piddling around Worthing!

There is so much which could be said about the questions and the process, but I suspect you will start getting into bossy mode. So two paras only.

One of things which drives me mad about the way Councils operate, especially Ealing, is that when questions seek timescales there is very rarely an answer given. Try that in the private sector and you won’t last long. Which is one reason why Councils have been held in such contempt since George (not Gordon) Brown. The salaries which G Malcolm elicited, I would have thought are pretty good especially when loaded with a nice pension 30 days holiday plus statutory holidays plus inexplicable extra holidays plus an average of 8 days sick leave on just 35 hours per week plus bonuses for some of up to 20%. What a life of Riley! It would be interesting to know what the average salaries and hours are in the private sector in LBE. And why is it that the Chief Exec gets paid more than the PM? He does not have to make decisions to kill people, or decisions concerning billions of pounds. Sorry, but people will have to go or take big reductions.

Have we been told when the full force of the £50Mish savings (including overt stealth taxes) will be announced? If not what is their timescale? For Labour readers that means a specific Gregorian date in English. You might like to ask them?

George,

You know that I only get bossy when you don’t want to meet me half way!

In our four years in power we were constantly battling against the lack of project management skills of many council officers and more pervasively a culture of being unwilling to make firm commitments regarding timescale. Some parts of the council are good at doing projects, for instance we built the Northolt swimming pool from scratch in four years and got it open. Other parts not so. The parks people have a tendency to seek lowest cost rather than to plan for quickest delivery and minimum downtime. I understand why they try to stretch their cash but running projects such that open spaces are disrupted for long periods gives a very negative impression to the public.

It was three Tory councillors, Stacey, Reen and myself, who asked the pay and conditions questions.

The council has been pretty transparent in the way it has prepared for the cuts and its estimate of £53 million published (see cabinet papers) in June was pretty on the money. This was based on 10% each year for three years whereas the outcome looks like being 7.2% each year for four years. There will be time to adjust. The final decision will be made, as always, at the March council meeting where we set the council tax every year. There will be various papers coming to cabinet in the run up to that. They will have to come back every year with additional savings but hopefully they are doing the work now to ensure that their changes are strategic rather than tactical, leaving all the pain until the end. Going on the calibre of the Labour group I suspect that they will shy away from hard decisions and leave an awful mess for their last budget. Watch them plunder all of the reserves in their last year. They will try to blame it all on the Tories and hope that voters blame the mess on central government rather than their own incompetence.

Hope that answers your question.

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