Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Blogging Full Council

The monthly ritual of full council – effectively the supreme decision making body of Norwich City Council – is so important and yet so misunderstood. That’s why I thought I’d do a fairly simple blog run through of what happens to let people know how we spend three hours of a balmy Tuesday evening.

As always it begins with the Lord Mayor’s announcements. Normally a joyous canter through the many civic duties of our Lord Mayor but this month it was her sad duty to report the death of LibDem Councillor Vic Elvin. A few moments of silence was observed in tribute to Vic, who was described by the Lord Mayor as a “community champion above a party politician.”

Next, newly elected Council Leader Steve Morphew (Lab, Mile Cross) read out a list of aims and ambitions for our new Labour-led authority. Speaking from well-prepared notes, Cllr Morphew explained the roles of his new look executive but also took the time out to blast the previous LibDem administration. Interestingly he fed on the media scramble and announced his sudden opposition to the Costessey Incinerator (cue cheers from the public gallery). However, declared Cllr Morphew, this is no way means any kind of pact with the Green Party (cue cheers from the Tory benches). Apparently Labour will focus on tourism, housing, business and the environment – more or less everything the council does then. Brilliant, Steve! The thing about Cllr Morphew is that he is a very rare thing – a Labour politician you want to listen to. Everything he says sounds so reasonable it is almost painful. In reply, ousted Council Leader Ian Couzens (LibDem, Eaton) made an absolute hash of his reply. Cllr Couzens isn’t the world’s greatest public speaker and not that good replying on the hoof either. He week willed defence of his administration raised a few eyebrows and a few laughs too. Still, at least his contribution was mercifully short. It was left to young ‘en Cllr Adrian Ramsay (Nelson), the Green Party Leader, to stick both barrels to the Council Leadership. Cllr Ramsay’s speeches are often very good but far too long and increasingly far too complex for the “bear’s with little brain” that make up the rest of the Council. Whilst Cllr Read (Green, Wensum) nods furiously, everyone else starts to think about their shopping list. In fact, one Green and one Labour Councillor that I will not mention both were very much on the verge of the land of nod on several occasions during Cllr Ramsay’s contributions. Still, what he had to say was important. He lambasted the period of time without a full council meeting and said that the Council had great aims but had to see them through. For the Conservatives, making my first submission to council, I asked that the Council keep its promise to be “open, accountable and democratic” in its decision making processes. That included, I added, “behind closed doors when the day-to-day management decisions are being taken as well as in the council chamber.” I fear that, coming fourth, a lot of what I would have said had been covered – especially by Cllr Ramsay – and that my remarks passed by largely unnoticed. Cllr Morphew responded and said his administration wouldn’t let people down. We’ll see.

Public questions often fascinate me. Firstly that people can work out how to put them down because the council rarely advertises it (hence the number of non-elected political hacks that do it) and secondly that members of the public have to face off with professional politicians. Rarely do the public come out on top but they can (and do) often humiliate the politicians. Two questions from NAIL2’s Rob Whittle and Nicole Tabor set the scene for the Incinerator debate. Old Labour warhorse Cllr Brian Morrey (Lab, Catton Grove) batted both back – although, along with other answers, the blame or the solution always lies with somebody else. LibDem candidate for Mile Cross, Carl Mayhew, complained about speeding in his area but I feel that the Labour benches contempt for him was barely concealed. Poor lad got crushed but the immense experience of Cllr Morrey. If he comes back as a Councillor he’ll have to do better.

Onto the petitions. One focused on the overhanging bushes around Lakenham Way and contained over 300 signatures. Clearly the residents have worked very hard on it. The second was one from Cllr Rumsby (Lab, Bowthorpe) about a crossing at Wendene. This disappointed me as I hoped we could have worked together. I have worked hard on this for a long time and it seemed more sensible to join forces, but Labour are worried in Bowthorpe so perhaps not. Cllr Rumsby made a sensible and measured speech. However she did insist on mentioned that I nearly got run off the road at that very junction last Wednesday that caused some mirth around the chamber and wry wit Cllr Bert Bremner (Lab, University) to observe, “bugger, it missed?!?”.

Questions for Councillors fall into three categories – the local knowledge questions, like mine on the bus lane, Cllr Rumsby’s on housing policy or Cllr Read’s on speeds on the Dereham Road. The second lot are questions about general council policy like Cllr Collishaw’s (Con, Catton Grove) on parking fines or Cllr Ramsay’s on consultation times. The third is the political mischief making, which very include Cllr Cooke’s (LibDem, Lakenham) on the life story of a plastic bottle – which was designed to demonstrate how expensive recycling plastic is and that’s why the LibDems voted against it. Luckily the response from Cllr Morrey was suitably rude and dismissive of the enquiry. The Greens heckled on as Cllr Cooke failed to get his point across. Oh dear. Most questions tonight were for poor ol’ Cllr Morrey – or “Councillor Morrey Question Time” as Cllr Ramsay put it. Even that Lord Mayor, when calling on Cllr Waters (Lab, Crome) to reply said it “doesn’t feel right” to not be calling on Cllr Morrey. Cllr Morrey is old Labour to his core and his answers were often incomplete and downright obstructive in some places. But then again, that might be revenge for having so many questions! Nothing much to report from the supplementary questions. I’m glad that popular new Labour Councillor Sue Sands (Sewell) asked a good question but failed to follow it up. However the new Greens were much less impressive. Because you only get to see the responses as you walk in the chamber, your supplementary questions need to be good and topical. Cllr Altman (Mancroft), Cllr Stephenson (Nelson) and Cllr Llewelyn (Wensum) all had open goals and didn’t take them. In particular Cllr Stephenson managed to get Cllr Brociek-Coulton (Lab, Sewell) in a right state – she panicked and when pushed on policy fell apart. Note to exec members – being on top of your brief is important and blubbing that you’ll get back to us isn’t an answer. As ever the award for stupid question of the meeting goes to Cllr Couzens for what Cllr Water called his “revisionist history” of his time on the Council. According to Cllr Couzens there was no financial blackhole after all! Hurrah! The chamber fell about laughing – the LibDem rehabilitation is quite far off…

Not even Cllr Water’s amusing introduction could save the dullness of the Best Value Performance Plan. Once again, Cllr Couzens short and dull speech missed the point. Cllr Holmes (Green, Wensum) made an effective job at taking it apart. I pointed out that the document was “dry to the point of being unable to read, so it was the perfect political document to hide unfortunate statistics.” I asked the council to clarify if the targets were aspirations or SMART – I got no reply. When I complained about the level of council tax collection, where the target is still below the England average, naughty Cllr Read stepped in to argue that the difference was 0.01%. Statistically I was right, but Cllr Read clearly sees the Conservatives as more of a threat than his boss does. Cllr Read made cheeky and fatuous remarks about Conservatives and the speeding debate too. Of the “serious” Green politicians (Read, Gledhill, Holmes and Ramsay), Cllr Read is the one who is universally disliked across the political divide. His aggressive tone and dismissive nature can’t have anything to do with that, I’m sure.

Onto Councillor Lubbock (LibDem, Eaton) and her motions on waste and speed limits. The LibDems want everyone to have a one bin, one box collection per fortnight thus cutting down the amount of waste each household can produce. Now that’s OK if you want to force people into environmentalism, but I foresee more fly tipping and a certain amount of civic disobedience over this. It doesn’t help that the LibDems only discovered this idea in opposition. I mean, what are the chances of you holding power for 4 years and then trying to implement a policy like this just as you get kicked out? Poor Cllr Lubbock got torn to shreds. Cllr Morrey was the first onto it, pointing out the cost and practical obstacles to the plans. Cllr Ramsay said he agreed with the principle but not the methodology. I told Cllr Lubbock she had won “cheek of the week, every week” and that she clearly “took the same amnesia pills as Cllr Couzens.” Norwich has a poor record of recycling but is this the way to get our record to match those of fly-away recycle champions Broadland Council? Clearly not, we should “encourage not enforce”. Cllr Morphew said he’d be happy to support it as long as it had a “trial in Eaton”. At this point, unluckily, both fellow Eaton Councillor Brian Watkins and Ian Couzens shook their heads. Oh dear, Judith. Cllr Morphew suggested it went to the Waste Committee – “who’ll report in 2007” yelled Cllr Lubbock across the chamber. Cllr Lubbock declared that (after 4 years in power) they wanted action and said, “I thought this was a can-do council.” Yes, I replied, “We can produce a thoughtful, achievable and cost effective solution” but not with the “back of an envelope LibDem proposals.” When we voted to refer the motion, the Greens, Labour and Tories all voted in favour. The LibDems split right down the middle, with Cllr Lubbock being excluded by her ward councillor colleague and leader Cllr Couzens.

The came the easier subject of 20mph zones across the City. The only real difference here is that the LibDems believe that 20mph “culture” will stop people speeding whilst the Greens believe you need a network of traffic claming et al. Cllr Ferris (Lab, Bowthorpe), the Deputy Leader of the Council, thought that Cllr Lubbock’s timing was “suspicious” and had “more to do with a certain by-election coming up.” Whatever can she mean? Cllr Collishaw, Tory Transport Spokeswoman, asked the Council to consider enforcement very carefully, whilst I pointed out that Portsmouth spent £475,000 on their version and where would the money come from. Cllr Morrey agreed with the motion but obviously blamed the Conservatives for everything. The best bit of the night came at the end when the Greens successfully amended the motion to include traffic calming. That upset the LibDems – so should they vote for or against their watered down motion? When the vote came, half voted yes and Cllr Lubbock kept very still. The heckling started and built to a crescendo of calls for a recorded vote. Cllr Lubbock then started shouting back “Ok, Ok, I’ll vote for it.” Too late, a combination of Green and Tory Councillor (i.e. me) got their way and the vote is on record.

Three hours well spent. Cllr Lubbock well and truly politically beaten up, the LibDems have a long way to go before people start taking them seriously, Cllr Morphew makes a good start, the Greens are flexing their muscles and I ensured that we spoke on everything we could and in one night we made more speeches than the Tories had managed in the last eight years. Be warned – the Tories are back in City Hall!

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