TONY JOHNSON: Off the end of the pier

Do not adjust your set Picture: OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay
Johnson Tony APril
Wokingham Paper commentator Tony Johnson

Thank you to the ever-observant few who’ve pointed out certain topics that this writer had pretty much completely missed.

So if you can tolerate hopping through a number of recent Wokingham Borough meetings in no particular order, it should be just the ticket as ‘the show’ (that was so last week) takes a running jump right off the end of the pier and straight into…

The good old days

You’ll remember these, back before covid when there were meeting rooms and debating chambers open at Shute End.

Alas they are as Yorick – a pale shadow of their former selves.

All those carefully copied and painstakingly bound reams of printed meeting papers have gone, much to some Councillors’ anguish, but to the relief of those who prefer their politics to use less paper.

The provision and maintenance of the public record, that all our elected representatives rely on as well as contribute to, has been hugely improved too. Except where it hasn’t, or when you can’t find things using these search engine thingies.

Meetings are, by and large much more accessible. You can watch them from the comfort of your armchair, no need to walk or cycle to Shute End even.

But …

… and you knew this was coming …

… things could be better.

Do not adjust your set

Every council has to make sure that our tax money’s used wisely and WBC’s Audit Committee is part of the process – required to report to Full Council – as set out in the Council’s rules.

Except that this year, their report got duplicated on its way to an Executive Meeting and an extra million quid was put into it “in the interests of transparency” before being allowed to go for Full Council approval.

To use an analogy, imagine your monthly direct debits all add up to £900. Then you discover that someone’s upped them to £1,000 without your agreement and they don’t all appear to be going to the place you thought they were.

How are you going to feel?

Partly political speeches

At a Full Council meeting, WBC’s rules clearly prohibit Executive Members from making party political speeches.

WBC’s rules also make it clear that the Council’s press releases, along with any statements made by staff, cannot be used to promote a political group.

But there’s no rule banning party political speeches at Executive meetings (the ‘cabinet’ of local government).

So when an Exec Member makes a party political speech at the Executive meeting saying something like “this Conservative-controlled council will not be found wanting” or says “financial crisis” in the same sentence as “control [by] the Lib Dems”, you might think that’s a normal for local politics.

Save that… the rules also say that Council services “should not be used … in connection with party political or campaigning activities”.

And Council services seem to include the Exec meeting videos, Exec minutes, created or provided by Council staff.

So that’s all OK.

Isn’t it?

Yorick’s alive!

While there’s still some way to go until the country has managed its way through the covid pandemic, there’s signs that WBC’s Full Council is planning ahead – as the meetings timetable discussion showed.

It was a mix of the bizarre, banal and brilliant, lasting just under 18 minutes, nearly seven of which were actually ‘on topic’ – but that included almost two minutes for the voting.

While the Leader’s proposal spent rather more time off topic than it did on it, it was refreshing to hear his suggestion that physical meetings could be restarting in the foreseeable future.

But I felt sorry for the Deputy Leader whose speech seconding the proposal came immediately after. OK, he started off topic and tried to keep going, but it was no use.

The Lib Dem opposition leader had finally woken up, realised that a repetition of “Ich bin ein Berliner” might be about as relevant as his £700 million debt claims and he ought to call
a point of order.

Which he tried to do. Valiantly. Except his point wasn’t in order, it didn’t challenge the ‘secret meetings’ (not timetabled, not listed, no public minutes) and he let the deputy leader off the hook.

Who promptly went on, ending up with a political triumph: supporting pandemics; residing with the community; fighting the help.

Maybe that’s not quite right, but a lot closer than Eric Morecambe was with Grieg’s piano concerto.

So while the actual words may have left viewers a debate or two short of a timetable,
as pre-election campaign practice it was great stuff …

For the party faithful.

The Last Word

And if all this hasn’t put you off Council meetings, there’s more coming along very soon.

Tonight’s pair focus on the budget.

We can look forward to the usual buzz words being trotted out, polished to a high shine, lovingly displayed for the electorate to
marvel at.

Of course, it might turn out to be a completely target-free environment with sensible adult debate about Council finances, full of things we can all understand.

And if Jackie Weaver’s free, next week’s commentary might get … animated.


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