BIG CONVERSATION OR BIG CON?

February 11, 2016 8:29 PM

Shropshire Council has been undertaking a 'Big Conversation' with Shrewsbury residents, to find out which services are most important, and whether Council Tax should be increased. You can find out more about the big conversation on the Shropshire Council Website.

On its website, Shropshire Council says 'We know the services we provide are important to you. As part of this Big Conversation we want you to tell us your views on the services you value, the services you don't and the services you and your community may consider delivering yourselves' and 'Your views are really important to helping us prioritise our future budget'.

I believe that Council services can be greatly improved by genuine dialogue with the people who pay for and use these services, and that too often decisions are made remotely by people who won't be affected by those decisions. There are some problems with the Big Conversation - the first phase was very short, and some people have questioned the effectiveness of the survey questions - but I was very hopeful that the Big Conversation was proof that Council leaders were more willing to listen and genuinely wanted to tailor services around the needs of residents.

This new listening approach is however being undermined by the actions of the new Leader of the Council. Cllr Malcolm Pate, recently elected Leader to replace Keith Barrow, is hoping to stop the public from participating in Council meetings. At a scheduled meeting, Councillor Pate is proposing, "The right for members of the public to put their question or statement in person or ask a supplementary question be removed." He gives no reasons for this change. Councillor Pate also wants Councillors' questions to Council to be heard at the very end of the meeting, when public and press may well have left. An excellent article by my colleague Cllr Andy Boddington explains the details of Councillor Pate's proposals.

I had high hopes of the new Leader, who has spoken in the press about a new era of transparency and consensus. It seems that residents' views are not important to this administration after all, despite all the promises of more community engagement through the Big Conversation. If the public are not allowed to participate in Council meetings, we have to ask ourselves 'Is it a Big Conversation or a Big Con?'.