Recently, I went to the Town Hall for my first taste of local democracy in action.
It was a dispiriting experience. I say this not only for the obvious reason that I and my friends and our many supporters ended up on the wrong side of a decision to sell the Walkley Carnegie Library building to the private sector, but because the scrutiny we had every right to expect fromSheffield City Council’s scrutiny committee never occurred.
Here is what I saw: a committee of 15 councillors who (with a few honourable exceptions) had either not bothered to read the submissions that had been sent to them or who seemed content to ignore the arguments they contained.
This committee was chaired by a person who showed almost no interest in securing proper answers to any questions posed by the councillors on his committee or by the public (in other words he didn’t actually chair the meeting in any meaningful sense).
The body representing the executive, and which was there to provide an account of the council’s actions and to answer questions, comprised one councillor and three council officers.
Any half-decent scrutineer would have been able to recognise the disrepute into which this ill-prepared councillor and her praetorian guard of practised obfuscators were leading the council and its code of governance.
The very forms and procedures of the session seemed designed to provide a simulacrum of participation in place of the real thing.
All public questions had to be asked before answers were given to any one question.
This made it easier for the person answering to be selective about which questions to answer and made it harder for the questioner, other members of the public and the committee members themselves to spot the omissions and evasions.
And any member of the public who asked a question was given no opportunity to challenge the answer, no matter how inadequate that answer might be.
It was as if the council wanted to tantalise us with the menu of democracy before sending us home with empty stomachs.
Shame on those responsible for such ‘scrutiny’.