The councillor had three objections, which we (1) can call Precedence, Procedure and Price. In the end, none of them stands up, can be allowed to stand up. The Communities Scrutiny Committee (CSC) of Manchester City Council must start looking at climate change as a major threat to community cohesion in Manchester, whether Councillor Chris Paul (Labour, Withington) likes the fact or not. Ultimately, he will not be able – as he was at the 6th February CSC meeting – to prevent the chair bringing climate change onto the agenda.
Cllr Paul started by saying that climate change was not the responsibility of the committee, and that it belonged in Neighbourhoods Scrutiny (and words to the effect of ‘we can’t go round stepping on their turf’). He dropped this objection very quickly indeed when it was pointed out to him that the Economy Scrutiny Committee has already held an entire mini-conference on green issues.
He also objected to the fact that the chair was trying to ask the committee members what they want to discuss. He said that agenda items need to be discussed and agreed by the chairs of all the Scrutiny Committees. Since the Chair of the committee had not done this he was definitely, according to Cllr Paul, bang out of order (not a direct quote, but certainly the sense of what he said) and should go away and do that. He ignored the Chair’s point that the committee is member-led, and doesn’t actually have to go asking for permission for what it would talk about.
It was at this point that Cllr Paul became most emphatic – warning the chair (who is a Liberal Democrat), not to “turn this into a confrontation.”
It’s also a curious thought experiment, isn’t it; if Cllr Paul had wanted the committee to discuss, say, the impacts on a community of the building of a big car park – to choose an example completely at random – would he have been satisfied that a committee member is not allowed to get an item onto the agenda, but rather that council bosses get to decide what is and is not discussable?
This was the least absurd of the objections. ‘Bureaucrats be busy’, it’s true, especially thanks to the cuts shepherded through by the national-level Liberal Democrats at the behest of their Conservative masters. But then, there are workarounds – why not call in experts (academics, practitioners etc) and ask them to come equipped with short reports? They would surely pay their own way. Many would be grateful for the opportunity (the academics especially – this, after all, is how they are being assessed on their “effectiveness” these days.)
The activist community – together with some of the friendly and more switched-on academics and NGOs – could easily put together useful reports on these matters.
Basically, this “objection” is simply using the fact that fewer bureaucrats have more work to dismiss the crucial issue of the 21st century.
Mr Paul may be mistaking his own personal preference for what he would like to happen for what can and should happen. At no point did he ask any of the other councillors around the table – or think of some who were absent, like a former Exec for the Environment – for their opinion. I may not be totally up on my Manchester City Council rule book, but I don’t think individual councillors have veto power over what is and is not discussed at Scrutiny. In fact, even members of the public are invited to pitch in –
From here: “If there’s an issue you want to contribute to, let us know. You can either send a written contribution to email@example.com or you can attend a meeting and ask the Chair if you can speak. You can also suggest a topic for us to look into by filling in our ‘suggestions form.‘ “
In the corridor of Castle Grayskull afterwards Councillor Paul smiled at me and assured me that he is concerned about climate change and wants the conversation to happen. Which explains why five minutes earlier he had very emphatically told the chair “if you want an answer, the answer’s no.” Simples.
If Cllr Paul had indeed told the Chair “yes, in principle but there are procedures to follow before we can start doing this” then the conversations and presentations could have started happening very soon. As it is, there will now probably have to be a pointless six month bureaucratic battle until these crucial issues begin to be aired.
1) MCFly readers could write to the chair of the Scrutiny Committee (firstname.lastname@example.org) asking him to pursue this matter with all possible vigour.
2) MCFly readers could write to Councillor Paul, (email@example.com) politely, explaining that they care as much about climate change as he did about the car park at Christie’s – perhaps more, and they would very much like it if the Communities Scrutiny Committee were able to fulfil its remit.
3) MCFly readers could get involved in adopting a scrutiny committee – see next issue of MCFly, published on March 4th, for full details.
(1) As in, we are the ones being assonant.