Last night, at the meeting of all councillors on Ipswich Borough Council – also known as Full Council – I took the opportunity to take my campaign for webcasting this meeting and other council public meetings directly to the Labour Administration leadership.
At the beginning of every Full Council there is time set aside for councillors and members of the public to ask Executive Committee members and Chairmen of Committees questions – this is called Council Questions.
I asked Councillor Martin Cook, Labour’s Resources portfolio holder including responsibility for IT, the following question:
Jacqui Thompson, a political blogger in Labour-dominated Wales, was arrested for filming a public meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council.
Hopefully in England we value democracy a little more but could Cllr Cook tell me if Ipswich Borough Council intends to follow many English local authorities and start webcasting their public meetings?
Cllr Cook said the idea of web-casting meetings was “conceptually attractive” but the borough’s webcasting equipment (what equipment!?!?) was not adequate enough and therefore it would be “difficult to see and hear councillors”. The cost of purchasing and installing equipment was something Cllr Cook felt was not possible at the present time. The portfolio holder went on say Ipswich Borough was located in a “narrow geographical area” and residents were no more than 15-20 minutes away from the town hall. There is also supposedly no demand from the public for webcasting meetings.
Council Questions are strictly controlled within tight procedure rules so a debate on web-casting cannot be started, only a question asked with an answer received.
Therefore, I am replying to Cllr Cook’s comments for the first time. Cllr Cook’s initial comment about existing equipment was a bit bizarre. I have no idea what he is talking about. From my understanding, the Council has never purchased web-casting equipment. Please do feel free, Cllr Cook, to use the Comments below to clarify this.
From the research I have carried out, the cost of purchasing the necessary equipment and installing would be £20,000 – £30,000 : this is not a bad price for bringing more residents into the democratic process. Once set up, equipment maintenance would be minimal. The public gallery at Full Council is almost empty with, in the main, the people attending being ex-councillors, Suffolk County Councillors, bloggers, Mr Geater from Ipswich Star and council civil servants. Increasing participation, albeit electronically, has to be a good idea.
On the comment the borough is constrained within tight boundaries where most people can reach the town hall quickly, I don’t see that as a valid reason for refusing to introduce web-casting. Many boroughs in London have similar boundaries, albeit with larger and more concentrated populations, and places like Camden and Haringey webcast their public meetings.
I don’t believe Ipswich Borough Council have conducted a survey asking residents if they would like to see meetings webcast. Perhaps they could use the Council’s propaganda sheet, The Angle, to ask residents what they think of the idea. They may be surprised by the results!
Local democracy is frankly not as transparent and accountable as Westminster politics, primarily because the media tend to focus more on national government rather than on town halls. Webcasting helps to strengthen democracy at the local level and should be embraced by all councils to ensure corruption and wrongdoing is kept at bay. It is particularly worrying that Cllr Martin Cook works for BT but still thinks it is not a good idea to deploy tried and tested technology into the council chamber to help local residents become more connected to the decisions being made in their name at the council.
The campaign goes on.