Councillors would not need long reports on how to grow giant beanstalks or the price of magic beans at a hypothetical advisory group meeting, a committee chairman has suggested.
Last year Horsham District Council agreed to revised governance arrangements, which included the creation of private Policy Development Advisory Groups (PDAGs) for each cabinet member, with a defined membership, a timetable of meetings, agendas, and minutes.
These changes were made to address concerns around backbench councillor involvement, accountability, and transparency.
A governance review has been looking at the effectiveness of the new arrangements one year later, with guidance issued on what information should be provided to members of PDAGs before they meet.
However Toni Bradnum (Con, Nuthurst) raised concerns about giving cabinet members the flexibility about whether or not to provide written reports on subjects prior to meetings at last Wednesday’s governance committee.
She said: “I’m not at all happy with how it is written. It’s an opportunity for things to be hidden.
“It’s an opportunity for certain issues that may be potentially controversial for example to be whipped through because the cabinet member has said: ‘Oh we don’t want a big report on that’.
“I can just see that happening. I can’t see what is wrong with having reports in advance.
“Everyone knows what’s coming up on the agenda, what’s wrong with having a report in advance?
“And why should it be down to the cabinet member to decide whether we have a report or not? It can’t be right can it?”
David Coldwell (Con, Bramber, Upper Beeding and Woodmancote) said: “We need an element of trust in our cabinet members and officers to make a decent judgement here.”
Meanwhile Michael Willett (Con, Steyning), chairman of the governance committee, suggested if they mandated reports on every PDAG item, they might ‘fossilise views or set policy before it has developed’.
He said: “One example I gave which sounds ridiculous, but it’s within the area we are talking about.
“Currently a cabinet member could come in and say we are going to buy some beans and plant them and grow a giant beanstalk up through the clouds.
“What we do need to know is that on the agenda it says that buying beans, giant beanstalk.
“We don’t want a report on the horticulture of giant beans and the price of them, and how to grow them.
“You need some indication of what is about to be discussed and it’s that balance from the full report to some indication.”
Philip Circus (Con, Chanctonubry), cabinet member for waste, recycling and cleansing, said: “I know some people think having a private meeting is somehow wrong, but it’s not.”
He argued it was ‘perfectly reasonable’ for a cabinet member to decide in principle what documentation was appropriate at an advisory group by taking into account the issue or subject matter.
Mr Circus also suggested that some councillors were ‘failing to take their role seriously’ something that had ‘nothing to do with the governance structure of the council’.
He added: “What is particularly galling is that some of these people who do not take their role seriously as councillors were the same people who tried to suggest that their inactivity and their failure to be good councillors was down the structure of the council, which was absolute nonsense.”
He also suggested that HDC has often been ‘attacked’ due to suggestions that member participation is either ‘curtailed or undermined’.
Mr Circus explained: “I’m sorry to say having served on the county council, members do not know how lucky they are to be involved in decision making here.”
However Nigel Jupp (Con, Billingshurst and Shipley), who was also elected on to West Sussex County Council for the first time in May, said: “I’m sorry Councillor Circus but your impression of West Sussex is of no relevance to here.”
Councillors were asked to complete a survey on the effect of the governance changes, and the results were presented to members of the Governance Committee.
However Rudgwick resident Paul Kornycky asked for the second straight meeting what was being done to also consult with residents about the effectiveness of the changes made last year.
He argued this was especially needed since recent constitutional changes have limited the scope of public questions at Full Council meetings.
His point was echoed by Leonard Crosbie (LDem, Trafalgar), chairman of the overview and scrutiny committee, who suggested the next step after increasing member involvement they should be striving for the same with members of the public.