Lancashire's county councillors clash over when they are allowed to speak

A row has broken out about the right of Lancashire county councillors to speak at meetings where decisions are being taken which affect their residents.

Friday, 28th February 2020, 8:59 pm
Updated Friday, 28th February 2020, 10:14 pm

Opposition members lined up to accuse the ruling Conservative group of denying democracy by restricting the forums in which they can make comments.

But Tory council leader Geoff Driver claimed that the speaking privilege had been abused by other political groups – and that members still had plenty of opportunity to make their points.

During a full council debate on County Hall’s constitution, the Liberal Democrat group attempted to win support for an amendment that would give residents “the right to be represented by their local county councillor at any decision-making meetings”.

Are councillors able to make their voices heard at County Hall?

Penwortham West county councillor David Howarth described it as a “complete farce” that he had been allowed to speak about the planning application for the town’s bypass at a meeting of the authority’s development control committee – but then refused permission to comment at a later cabinet discussion about related plans to close the sliproad to the Golden Way flyover.

Only cabinet members and the leader and deputy leader of the main opposition group are allowed to contribute to the cabinet debate under changes introduced two years ago. At other cross-party scrutiny committees, non-members are able to speak at the discretion of the chair.

County Cllr Matthew Tomlinson, who represents Leyland Central, said his non-political friends would struggle to understand the logic of the arrangements.

“They would be astounded if they knew that there was something going on in my division that was [being decided] here – [but] that I would not be allowed to go and speak about it.”

However, County Cllr Driver said the situation was of the opposition parties’ making, referring to the adjournment of a cabinet in December 2018 – after the new rules were brought in – when Lib Dem group leader David Whipp attempted to present a petition and "absolutely disrupted the meeting".

“County councillors did have the right to speak at cabinet and why was that right taken away? Simply because of County Cllr Whipp and one or two others, who abused that privilege and used the cabinet to…promote themselves.

“We will always allow debate on any of the issues that are being determined in this chamber [at full council]. That’s the place, where if you want to politik, you can do it.”

He added that the suggested amendment did not achieve what is set out to – instead permitting any member to speak, even if their residents were not directly affected by an issue. A fellow Tory, Tim Ashton, said it risked allowing up to 72 members a right to speak at committee meetings.

Cabinet decisions are open to discussion at subsequent full council debates, but Preston West Lib Dem John Potter said County Hall was a “stressful” place to be a backbencher.

“I was looking to see if there was some sort of legal avenue [I could take] to open up this council. It’s really ugly how one-sided and undemocratic it has been,” County Cllr Potter said.

The Green Party’s Gina Dowding also called for the authority to “redress the concentration of power”.

But the Conservative backbencher Andrew Gardiner told them: “It’s called democracy.”

“If you’re in opposition, the party that takes control always takes the upper hand. I sit on two scrutiny committees and we are allowed to ask as many questions as we like.

“The reason changes had to be made in cabinet is because people were showboating. So if you want democracy, respect democracy – don’t come along and showboat and use your cameras – and then maybe we can be adults,” County Cllr Gardiner said.

Speaking at the time of the December 2018 meeting, County Cllr Whipp defended his actions – which led to a toe-to-toe discussion with County Cllr Driver – saying they were “reasonable and proportionate”.