LBWF and Community Ward Forums: a further blow to local democracy

I have written previously about LBWF’s gradual strangulation of Community Ward Forums, and it would appear that this unfortunate trend is now reaching its logical end point, with, perhaps unexpectedly,  Conservative hands on the wind pipe.

A motion presented by Conservative Councillors Siggers and James to the Council meeting in December 2016 sounded the death knell.

It argued that though Community Ward Forums had been ‘very successful’ in providing support to ‘many community groups’, they had been ‘far less successful’ in reaching and engaging with ‘hard to reach groups’, whose needs well might be greater. Indeed, as the motion put it, ‘[a]ll too often’ Community Ward Forums were ‘attended only by the same people who already engage with the Council and Councillors in other ways bringing up the same matters again and again’, turning the proceeding into mere ‘hot air’.

The answer, so the argument ran, was ‘root and branch reform’ – the abolition of the Community Ward Forum meetings; the re-allocation of the monies saved to support community groups; and further investigation as to how better to engage with ‘our residents…especially hard to reach groups’, and specifically to encourage more involvement with Overview and Scrutiny.

That was the motion as written, and when the Council debated it, the unanimous outcome was very similar, albeit with a few minor amendments (most notably the deletion of reference to Overview and Scrutiny). Thus, the key action points read as follows:

‘The Council…instructs the Chief Executive to prepare a report for Cabinet and Council in the next financial year that:

1.Will review Community Ward Forums as they are currently constituted; and 2.Will re-allocate the monies saved from abolition of the meetings to: a) Increase the grants available in each ward for community groups and projects, which would still be distributed by the ward Councillors via an open and transparent process administered by council officers; and b) As soon as possible assemble a cross party panel to investigate ways to better engage with our residents especially with hard to reach groups, drawing on the best practices across London including social media platforms and digital options’.

Where to begin?

The phraseology used in the original motion is of course very revealing. Some years ago, LBWF officers were found to be privately labeling residents who turned up at local consultations ‘the usual suspects’, and Councillors Siggers and James have obviously imbibed at the same pump. Such contemptuous cynicism speaks for itself.

Relatedly, while the two Councillors obviously think they are making a telling point by alleging that ‘the same matters’ are brought up ‘again and again’, this may say more about their myopia than anything else, because self-evidently if attendees return to an issue, the most likely explanation is that it remains troubling.

As to the suggestion that monies will be distributed by ‘the ward Councillors via an open and transparent process administered by council officers’, this is supposed to happen now, but what residents see all too often is almost the obverse – a process that is poorly documented and audited, accompanied by the suspicion that causes are being supported because of their political usefulness rather than real merit. What reason is there to think that the suggested reforms will make any difference? If anything, it seems more probable, that, with meetings abolished, the temptation to game the system will increase.

Finally, the contention that a solution may revolve around social media platforms and digital options, though of course fashionable, verges on the absurd. For the obvious truth is that while so called ‘hard to reach groups’ may display little interest in Community Ward Forums, they are also less likely than any other section of the population to be on the right side of the digital divide.

Looked at in historic context, it is difficult not to conclude that something rather sinister is afoot. Over the years, and predictably in the name of fairness and inclusion, LBWF has run down the mechanisms that facilitate public debate with councillors.

Now Community Ward Forums look set to follow their predecessors’ fate. And as before, there is no truck with reform – no attempt to breath life into what exists, by advertising it more widely, making it more relevant, and so on – only a headlong rush to impose something new, something which (surprise, surprise) is even more circumscribed, and in particular even more shielding of councillors from questioning.

That the Conservatives are the initiators of this latest development is, as noted, perhaps unexpected, because previously they have at least gestured towards taming Labour’s authoritarian urges.

But on reflection maybe this is just further evidence of what this blog has recently conjectured, the existence of an informal pact in the Town Hall, with an active opposition very much a thing of the past.

Whatever the exact truth, it is certainly not a good day for those who believe in local democracy.

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