- Posted by: Canterbury Labour
- Category: Latest News
For over two hundred years Whitstable had its own town council, a directly elected body who made decisions about the town and was drawn from people who lived here.
Since it was disbanded in 1980 various local political parties (including my own) have called for them to be returned, have argued that many of our urban areas are worse off than rural areas who have at least have parish representatives and debated their relative merits.
Just this week, two people have independently reminded me how much better they consider it was under the old UDC.
Now, putting this argument aside, all political parties agree that politicians should be accountable, transparent in their dealings and accessible. Which it is why it seems so strange that this week, Canterbury City Council is debating removing the last publicly available forum the council has just for Whitstable residents.
The Whitstable Forum, formerly the Whitstable Area Member Panel meets monthly at St Alphege School for members of the public to meet with and discuss their concerns with councillors across the town. Back in 2018, following an extensive consultation, it was chosen by the council as the best way to improve public engagement as they believed the town council was overly bureaucratic and waste of funds. Unsurprisingly it hasn’t met since March this year.
Now the Whitstable Forum isn’t perfect, it still largely attracts people able to wade there way through complicated agendas and its attendance is patchy. In my year as a councillor I’ve attended meetings attended by less than five people and ones with over one hundred people in the room. Attendance is almost always best when the forums discuss things people care about (anti social behaviour, parking, traffic) and often stifled by the council’s belief that putting something on the agenda has chime with evidence we are doing something about a problem and not a full and frank discussion of perhaps how we are not. The agenda of these forums should read like a rap sheet of what people in our town care about and is too frequently set by council staff.
Despite this, local forums are an opportunity for councillors to see first hand the passion of local people and hear local people’s solutions rather than debate those proposed from Canterbury officers. They should be the place where councillors and residents can debate an issue as equals and listen to one another.
The new leader of the council, who rather ironically chaired the consultation of establishing these forums two years ago, suggests that removing them will save officer time and money which post COVID we don’t have, he recommends that they could be replaced with workshops where residents can discuss the plans we already have.
I think the council officers most important job is to serve its residents and ensure public participation is ever present. These forums shouldn’t be junked, they should be reformed, to ensure that they are as vibrant and impassioned as the discussions we see on social media and regularly amongst friends.
That no one turns up is evidence of how far perhaps the concerns of the council have strayed from that of normal people and that, I think, is surely something which we as a council need to sort out.
This week Labour councillors will be voting to keep our local forums, not because they are perfect but because they help us remain accountable. Councillors shouldn’t just be exposed to their electorate once every four years, we should be expected to listen to those impacted by our decisions and have publicly explain those to people affected as often as we can.
It might not be a town council, but Whitstable has a forum where they can set the agenda as equals and the new Leader of the Council is trying to take it away. If the public reaction to the closing down democracy in Whitstable shows us anything its that you’ll miss it most when its taken away.