Gavin Maclure's Musings

My take on politics locally, nationally and internationally


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New law could see councils forced to allow webcasting

Is the day which sets bloggers free to fully report on local councils coming to an end?

Is the day which sets bloggers free to fully report on local councils coming to an end? Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson was arrested in February for filming her local council meeting

As regular readers will know I have been campaigning through my blog, along with Ben Redsell of the Ipswich Spy parishto persuade the Executive committee at Ipswich Borough Council to enhance democracy in local government and start webcasting their six-weekly meeting of all 48 councillors and key committees such as Planning and Overview & Scrutiny.

Cllr Martin Cook

Luddite or just anti-democracy? – Labour Councillor Martin Cook

In February this year, I took my campaign in person to the Town Hall and exercised my democratic right as a resident of Ipswich to ask a Council Question to the councillor responsible for IT, Cllr Martin Cook (and fellow employee of technology giant, BT). I asked Cllr Cook if the Borough Council would follow the lead of other English councils and start webcasting their public meetings. Unfortunately, and in a obscure roundabout way, Cllr Cook refused.

Despite the rebuttal I and fellow bloggers haven’t gone away. We are not campaigning to enhance our readership figures or ‘play with’ technologies.  We are campaigning for local government decisions to be made open and transparent to benefit the democratic process in this town. Up and down the land, including in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, bloggers have been refused permission even to tweet council meeting proceedings and at Carmarthenshire County Council when local blogger Jacqui Thompson tried to film a public council meeting, the Council called the police and had Mrs Thompson arrested. Anyone would think we were in East Germany or the People’s Republic of China based on the behaviour of local government officials.

But now local council mandarins are being brought to book. The Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles MP, is bringing forward a law to enshrine a blogger’s – or any member of the public for that matter – right to tweet, record and report the proceedings in town halls in England. Unfortunately, the law will not have jurisdiction in the devolved assemblies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland so our fellow blogger in Carmarthenshire may have to lobby her Welsh assembly politicians a bit more on this one.

The news laws will be part of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which is set to be debated by MPs in the House of Commons on Monday 28th October, having completed its Lords stages. You can follow it’s passage through parliament on the UK Parliament website.

It is not acceptable for councillors to close their doors on the people who have elected them and effectively take decisions on their behalf with no reporting by the media. Only last month at the Town Hall meeting of councillors in Ipswich, no one from the mainstream media turned up to the meeting. The only reporters were bloggers who are unpaid volunteers providing a free public service because of their commitment and passion for local democracy. During the meeting, three Conservative councillors walked out of the meeting in protest at how the ruling Labour administration were answering the public’s questions. This is a very serious matter – as it goes to the heart of how the democratic process is conducted in Suffolk’s county town –  but the local newspaper – the Ipswich Star – took almost a week to report this story. It was reported within minutes by the bloggers in attendance.

The introduction of webcasting would have ensured the decisions taken or public points swiped away by the ruling Executive were known to the taxpayers and electors of Ipswich in real-time. In Westminster we rightly have televised proceeding of all House of Commons debates and Committees (no one is asking for that in local government) but webcasting is a proven technology and relatively cheap to implement and will go a long way to closing the gap between voter and councillor in local government. Many decisions taken at Ipswich Borough Council actually have a greater impact on the day-to-day lives of Ipswich residents and businesses than those taken in Westminster, which may not have an effect on the town and in many cases have a very long lead time before implementation.

I would ask Ipswich Borough Council’s ruling Labour Party to look again at their decision to refuse webcasting of their Full Council meetings (in the first instance) before Parliament forces their analogue hand into our digital world.


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Huntingdonshire Council allows filming of public meeting after lengthy battle

Citizen journalist Richard Taylor battled with civil servants and the Council Chairman Cllr Barbara Elizabeth Boddington (who called the civil servants her “elders”!) for half an hour before they reluctantly agreed to allow him to film a PUBLIC meeting.

Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Local Government, has recently ruled that all councils should allow filming of their public meetings and the question citizen journalists and bloggers should ask on their arrival in the chamber is not to ask permission to film but to enquire what facilities the council has for citizen journalists like Mr Taylor (e.g. WiFi, power point for charging equipment,  toilet facilities etc).

As you can see from the below footage the Chairman Cllr Boddington and the Head of Democratic Services and the Monitoring Officer (the person who keeps the the council inline with their Constitution), Colin Meadowcroft,  spent a fair bit of time trying to stop Richard Taylor from filming a public council meeting. In the end, after what looks like an intervention from a UKIP councillor, the Conservative Chairman Cllr Boddington relented and allowed (somewhat discourteously) Mr Taylor to film the meeting.

The fact bloggers have to fight tooth and nail for one of the basic tenets of democracy (i.e. transparent reporting) shows how secretive our local councils have become (more akin to the USSR than the UK). It’s time for councils to open up and show taxpayers how their money is being spent and how decisions are made in their name.

I hope Ipswich Borough Council will be making arrangements for their public council meetings to be filmed?


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Ipswich Borough Council refuses to webcast meetings

webcasting council

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 Martin Cook

Cllr Martin Cook

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.


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An idea for improving democracy in Ipswich

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Why does Ipswich Borough Council not webcast its meetings?

Next Wednesday on a cold winter’s night all the councillors of Ipswich Borough Council and most of the senior officer team will traipse down to the Town Hall to have a meeting of the Full Council.

As wind farms or hackney carriage fares are not being discussed, there will be very few members of the public present. If it wasn’t for three bloggers who plan to be in attendance, including myself, the Ipswich public would hardly know anything of the decisions that will be made in their name by councillors next week.

As much as I disagree with everything Labour council leader Cllr David Ellesmere says, I strongly believe his every utterance in his role as a councillor should be heard by as many Ipswich residents as possible. That’s why I would like to see the Borough Council follow the lead of other local authorities and start webcasting key council meetings, such as the town hall meeting and major committee meetings at Grafton House.

Brighton & Hove City Council already webcast their public meetings, as do Maidstone Borough Council, Leicester City Council and Thanet District Council plus many other local authorities.

Why doesn’t Ipswich Borough Council? The technology is simple, the initial investment is not onerous, and with the internet accessible by most Ipswich residents the democratic gain is enormous.

The Borough Council currently makes good use of social media like Facebook and Twitter, with alerts on bin collections during the current snowy cold snap being a particular good example. So why not develop democracy in Ipswich further by introducing webcasting? There’s no excuse really. Ipswich Borough Council has three IT professionals serving as councillors, which was four when I sat on the council, and two current councillors work for telecommunications giant BT at the firm’s R&D site on the edge of Ipswich.

Ipswich should have been one of the first councils to start webcasting. What’s stopping you, IBC?