West Sussex Labour councillors delighted as their bid for more county council meetings to be webcast succeeds Michael Jones
West Sussex County Council’s Governance Committee last week agreed to webcast most of the significant committee meetings of the county council, following Labour councillors’ requests for the issue to be put on the agenda for reconsideration.
West Sussex’s policy currently only webcasts the entirety of full meetings of the county council and occasionally when an item comes up at a Select Committee. However, this is only used for Select Committees when something is considered of overwhelming interest across the county, the criteria for this are informal and entirely at the discretion of that Select Committee chair.
- This issue arose recently when the Labour Group requested that the whole policy on what was webcast, and how this was decided, was given a review and reconsidered by the county council.
- In the last year out of all of the dozens of meetings of the Select Committees which scrutinise county council business, only 10 of them had any part of their proceedings webcast at all, and the important Children and Young People’s Services Select Committee which has recently come under criticism from Ofsted for its failure to effectively scrutinise had none of its meetings webcast.
- This request by Labour councillors followed the refusal by one of the Select Committee Chairs to webcast a meeting concerning the controversial A29 realignment plans between the north of Bognor Regis and the six villages.
- The Chair of that committee had refused because, somewhat controversially, he did not believe that it met the informal guidelines and it was only a matter of concern to residents of one particular division of the county council.
- The council is set to procure a new contract for its webcasting in the near future and it was anticipated that changes were likely to be able to be negotiated to increase the number of hours annually the council could webcast its meetings with its provider. Over the past few years, despite having significant spare hours available, the council has not got anywhere close to using its remaining available allocation, leaving it with significant scope to webcast more meetings.
Addressing the committee, Labour Group Leader County Councillor Michael Jones said: “I knew this was a big matter of concern and there were people who would struggle to get to the meeting, and indeed, others who would be working or with some other understandable commitments who may not have been able to make the meeting, but would have liked to have watched the webcast subsequently on the website at a time convenient to them.
“We have a large population in West Sussex, spread over a wide area. Making it to County Hall for a certain time, and a certain date, can be a challenge for the best of us as councillors, never mind the effort and expense it may take members of the public.
“I do think our council taxpayers have every right to expect to view at least our major committees, and indeed I consider it should be every meeting in public the council holds, including Cabinet.
“It would aid transparency and indeed increase interest in this council’s business, as well as making West Sussex County Council a far less of the remote and impersonal institution that I believe it can appear to far too many of our residents. The additional cost for the good it will do seems entirely worthwhile to me.”
Following discussion, the meeting decided that in future there will be a presumption that all meetings of the Cabinet, Select Committees and Planning Committee will be webcast. Other committees can be webcast at the request of their Chair and Vice-Chair.
The Tory majority on the council however failed to agree, despite pleas from Labour and Lib Dem members present, for the addition of the Regulation, Audit and Accounts Committee to the list of meetings with the presumption in favour of webcasting. Cllr Jones warned that this as that committee concerns the correct spending of public money, some residents may wonder why this was not automatically on the list.
The next step is for the recommendations to be agreed by all councillors at the forthcoming full meeting of the county council scheduled to be held on Friday 7 June.
Speaking after the meeting of the Governance Committee, Cllr Jones added: “I think this is a significant step forward. Hopefully the full council will support these proposals and if they do, I think it will go a long way towards opening up the county council and making its work more accessible to the public. I’m very pleased we raised it, it will be a big win for West Sussex residents.”