Peterborough Council resists online access to public meetings.

democracy_live07:07 Thursday 24th July 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[P]AUL STAINTON: So the big question this morning: how do we get you more interested in local politics? Or is it just boring and you feel you’ve got no say and you can never be interested? Well in the last few years we’ve had the fallout from the MPs expenses scandal, Russell Brand urging people to abandon modern-day politics, and an increase in people using local elections to just send a message to Westminster. In some areas of the county like Hampton in Peterborough, only a 24% turnout at the last election. One councillor in Peterborough thinks he’s got the answer to all this. He thinks council meetings should be streamed online. It’s something that Cambridgeshire County Council have just started doing. Well Cllr. Darren Fower put forward the idea at the Full Council meeting last night. Darren, good morning.
DARREN FOWER: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: And what was the response?
DARREN FOWER: I suppose the simple response, the term would be negative, narrow-minded, short-sighted. Yes, they didn’t really go with it.
PAUL STAINTON: Oh. Right. So they thought it was a bad idea. Why did they say they didn’t want people wanting council meetings?
DARREN FOWER: It’s not necessarily a new concept. The Liberal Democrats have been putting this forward for at least six or seven years. About five years ago my colleague Cllr.¬†Sandford, he put forward a motion that was actually accepted, to look at a similar sort of set-up. And surprise, surprise, five years later nothing’s happened. We got told that they were thinking about the idea, but the bottom line is the people of Peterborough, they deserve to see how things actually work within the chamber. And my belief is if it was streamed live, you might find that there’s a different result when it comes to local elections.
PAUL STAINTON: You think it might open people’s eyes a little bit as to what goes on and how people behave.
DARREN FOWER: Absolutely. Absolutely. Again last night we had some very narrow-minded views and comments. We know that times are tough, but the bottom-line is they spend so much money on generating bits of paper, and the people of Peterborough should be entitled, or have at least have the opportunity to log on, watch and dare I say even vote on certain things that are being discussed. And then if they decide to leave they can. But yes, I’m afraid I personally think that we’ve still got a city council that doesn’t want people to see the truth, and they prefer to try and control the news that comes out of Town Hall.
PAUL STAINTON: Or is it just the fact that they’re not very photogenic.
DARREN FOWER: (LAUGHS) Well I for one have never been photogenic, so that’s not a factor that I take into account.
PAUL STAINTON: Well I’ll back you up there.
DARREN FOWER: I know you will. But it is one of those things whereby even from the news point of view, from journalists, from the work that you guys do, you’re coming into our county, you need to be able to access. In today’s modern world, it is 2014 after all, and you should be able to go somewhere now, and people who are waking up this morning, getting ready to go to work, should be able to either listen into something, or go somewhere and see actually what really happened. Because unfortunately we have a city council that does generate minutes, but surprise surprise some things are often omitted.
PAUL STAINTON: Would it be interesting though? Wouldn’t people be bored? Some of it’s dull as ditch water, isn’t it?
DARREN FOWER: Yes, and there is that political strategy that does occur whereby techniques are used to either dismiss people that are being discussed .. but the bottom line is the City Council has a very very important job. It’s there to represent the people of Peterborough. And quite simply if the people of Peterborough want to tune in and see what’s being said, as I say, even if it’s just for fifteen, twenty minutes, it doesn’t have to be the three hours, they should be entitled to.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Richard Taylor is with us as well. He’s an activist. He films and promotes local politics in Cambridge. You’ve tried to film meetings in the past. You’ve got yourself in a bit of hot water from time to time as well, haven’t you?

RICHARD TAYLOR: Yes, well I’ve been around the County as you say, being a bit of an activist about this. I’ve been filming and tweeting meetings. I’ve been thrown out of Wisbech Town Council for tweeting. I’ve been to Huntingdon District Council. They threatened to call the police. And at Cambridge City Council I’ve had lots of very very silly rules put in place, things like I can’t zoom the camera, I can’t pan the camera. I’ve got to leave the camera alone and go and sit in the public gallery while the camera’s on the floor of the chamber. And I’ve been campaigning particularly in City Council and at the County Council to open up these meetings and to get them to welcome people who want to film and tweet. And also to do some filming themselves, which has now happened at the last two County Council meetings.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it fair though to expose people who’ve stood for public office to public ridicule? Because that’s the fear I presume for a lot of people. They’re giving their time to do a job for their community. Is it fair that that’s broadcast live?
RICHARD TAYLOR: Well I don’t think it is exposing them to public ridicule.
PAUL STAINTON: Well it might be.
RICHARD TAYLOR: It’s just letting people know what’s actually happening. And if councillors make fools of themselves and say silly things, like we had one councillor at the County Council saying that it would be impossible to film without studio lights, without make-up. And it’s absolutely right that that kind of thing ends up in the newspapers. I was able to film that speech, which meant that it was able to be picked up, I think on your show and in the newspapers. And it helps people campaign for what they want, for more open local politics.
PAUL STAINTON: You’ve tried to film lots and lots of people. you had a big falling out with Sir Graham Bright of course, the Police and Crime Commissioner. You followed him for a bit.
RICHARD TAYLOR: Well he came to Cambridge, that was during the election campaign. I tried to put some questions to him before the election.
PAUL STAINTON: You and me both.
RICHARD TAYLOR: But he wasn’t very keen on speaking to me on the Market Square, and since. His main decision making body, this Business Coordination Board that he holds. I’ve been lobbying to ask the Police and Crime Panel to encourage him to open it up. But we can’t go there and see what he’s doing. It’s a private meeting.
PAUL STAINTON: Darren, do you think everybody who’s publicly elected has a duty .. do we have a right to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it?
DARREN FOWER: Yes, absolutely. obviously, when it comes to elections. because you know what it’s like, you get these political individuals that turn up and they put leaflets through your door and all the pictures they use are them in their suits and their ties, looking dapper and presentable. But in reality that’s not always the case. And as Richard said and dare I say as well thank God we’ve got people like Richard, real people are out there actually doing the job that really the Council should be doing. But yes, of course, you get elected. You’re there to represent people. You’re working don’t forget at a council meeting. And people who’ve ever voted for you, or anybody should be able to tune in and see what’s being said. And I think, as Richard has just mentioned, you might find that some of those people who’ve been elected to office really aren’t that capable. And then obviously it comes down to local elections when people can have their say again.
PAUL STAINTON: There are other ways that people can get involved, aren’t there? Councils tweet, don’t they now? They get involved in that way.
DARREN FOWER: They’re tweeting, but again that’s orchestrated by one of the council employees, who’s not going to put forward and hasn’t on occasions put forward comments that are being made by Opposition councillors that have made complete sense. They don’t actually provide a real level of commentary. It’s edited I suppose. And yes, quite simply, live streaming means that you see the warts and all. But it wouldn’t be .. well we don’t think it would be expensive. If people are already doing it elsewhere at other authorities, then clearly it is viable. And from by point of view the bottom line with me is the people of Peterborough deserve to see what’s really going on at the Town Hall.
PAUL STAINTON: Richard, what other ways should councillors be promoting the work they do, apart from tweeting and live streaming?
RICHARD TAYLOR: Well one of the things I’ve been pushing for is publish the votes, the voting records. That’s very important. That’s what councils ulimately make decisions (on). And very few councils actually publish which way councillors have voted on matters. But really I think the important thing is if we want to get people involved in local politics we need to give some more powers to our local councillors. There’s a lot of centralisation in this country. Minor things like fences on the commons in Cambridge have to go all the way up to the Secretary of State and the Minister. So I’d like our councillors to have more powers, and I’d like us to have elections more regularly. We could really simplify the system. Having two councils in Cambridge, the City and the County, very few people know which election is really coming up, or which councillor does what, which council does what. We could really simplify things and give our local councillors more powers.
PAUL STAINTON: Has it been boring for you, going round filming all these council meetings? Or have you been interested? Have their been any nuggets that you’ve put out there apart from the lipstick?
RICHARD TAYLOR: No I’m really genuinely interested in what’s happening to my local area. Things like why are trees being cut down on some of Cambridge’s green spaces is something that got me interested. Why are the cycle lanes being badly maintained? Why are all the markings¬†fading out and no-one’s replacing them? So yes, I’m interested about things that I’m interested in, about policing, our local police priorities. Why is there such a focus on anti-social behaviour and youth gathering rather than serious crime, violent crime and burglary? Those are the kinds of things that I wanted to go and find out; why councillors were taking decisions that they were; and to publicise what councillors are actually doing, and comparing that to what they promised during elections, and what they say in their manifestos.
PAUL STAINTON: What do you think this morning .. should all council meetings, should all public bodies and publicly elected people be subject to public scrutiny by a live streaming? Is that the way we hold public people and public bodies to account? Is that the best way of doing it? And what have they got to be afraid of? .. Do you agree? Would you watch? That’s Darren Fower, LibDem councillor in Peterborough, where they’ve just voted against it. And Richard Taylor, political blogger and citizen journalist, gets himself in hot water all over the shop, with his video camera . But he brings the truth to the people.



PAUL STAINTON: Peterborough City Council have been on to us this morning to say “The motion made by Darren Fower councillor in Peterborough was to look into setting up a working group who would then look into the possibility of broadcasting meetings. But the point was made at last night’s meeting that a constitutional review group already exists who could look into the cost and logistics.” So we emailed them back this morning and said “Will you be looking into it then, filming in Council meetings?”. The answer was no. So effectively they’re not going to be doing it anytime soon.