Opinion: Why I want Preston Council to be more open and accountable

John Potter was elected as councillor of the Cadley ward in the 2010 election. He is a Liberal Democrat.

Thursday 3rd February saw Preston City Council (PCC) take the first steps towards becoming more open and accountable to it’s citizens.

At the full council meeting I put forward my first notice of motion (NOM) since I was elected as a Liberal Democrat Councillor on September 16th. NOMs are put forward by councillors who want to change some part of council policy and mine was to make PCC more transparent.

The motion suggested a number of ways that would allow members of the public to become more engaged with the workings of the council, including the possibility of video webcasting of meetings, promoting the free use of publicly owned photos and most importantly finally allowing members of the public to speak in favour or against planning applications.

The debate about the NOM started off in an unexpected way with two Labour cllrs, who despite saying that they agreed to parts or most of the NOM, trying to get the whole thing thrown out on a technicality. Maybe this was simply a political tactic so the Liberal Democrats don’t have something positive to campaign on with the May local elections coming up, we just don’t know. Whatever the reasons the legal officer was very clear in saying they had no case to have the NOM thrown out.

All sides agreed that the council should make an effort to become more open and accountable to the residents of Preston but it was a strange debate with a few Conservative Cllrs speaking against the possible filming of council meetings while some Labour Cllrs spoke very strongly against ‘letting the public off the leash’ in planning committee meetings.

The main objections to the filming of meetings were based on cost but, as it states in the NOM, cheaper technology means costs can and should be kept to an absolute minimum. In my opening remarks I told the chamber that a lot of councils spend far too much for their video webcasting and to illustrate the point I held up my iPhone and pointed out that in a touch of a button I could webcast this entire meeting for free. The webcasting of meeting should be seen as an audio and visual version of minutes and not as a piece of entertainment.

The most surprising aspect for me was the way the Labour group was against giving residents a say in planning committee meetings. In licensing we allow the public to speak, so why not planning? Clearly we now have to establish rules such as length of time given to speakers and the total number of allowed speakers, but to argue against allowing any public representation seems a very negative view on the behalf of the Preston Labour Group.

But despite grumblings about certain aspects of the NOM it was voted through by all sides. The NOM now goes to a task and finish group to work through the viability, scope and detail on possible implementation.

Overall I’m really happy that my first NOM passed through full council and will hopefully make a big difference to people in Preston soon.

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