Last night was the final full council meeting before the elections in two weeks time. It was, therefore, possibly my last full council meeting. It was certainly the last time I’ll attend a full council meeting in the current arrangement of six meetings per year.
After the election the number of meetings will be cut by a third. Effectively all the committees and the full council will meet roughly quarterly.
This will be a change. It means that some items that considered by councillors before will no longer go through formal committee scrutiny. I have mixed views on this; there is an issue about reducing democratic oversight, and I’ve no doubt there will be some adjustments to which papers go to committees as councillors re-assess what’s really important. But meetings can be an expensive luxury. Having a committee meeting creates a huge overhead, from time taken by council officers to prepare the agenda, right down to the physical costs of hosting a public meeting. The council surely has a duty to ensure it exercises democracy as efficiently as is delivers any other service.
On a more practical level where are councillors more effective, in their ward or in a committee meeting? I’d be tempted to argue that a lot of value I have brought to the rôle comes somewhere in between, but particularly in the meetings and discussions I have with officers outside formal meetings (I won’t deny a twinge of sadness at the end of one such meeting yesterday afternoon when it occurred to me it might be the last).
Thinking back to my time as a councillor since the last election, I am probably proudest of Battersea Buzz. It wasn’t a council event—arguably I, or someone else, could have arranged it as a private citizen. It started not in a committee room, or even a council office, but over a coffee in Costa on St John’s Road. From there it took off and brought together hundreds of people who made connections and came up with ideas that are still having an impact today.
I mused about all this while I sat in the council chamber last night. While the debates were a discordant mix of demob-happy and electoral passion, it occurred to me that no-one outside the council really cared that much. Road repairs, education, health services and—yes—even Europe come up when canvassing. Not a single person has raised the machinery of local government with me on the doorstep.
Entirely predictable. But it does make me a bit sad.