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Sep 05 2015

Democracy in Action: Harrow Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee

harrow_council_logoTo be fair, the title of the meeting doesn’t bring forth a vision of excitement and fun, but it’s a chance for the opposition to question the Leader of the Council, Cllr David Perry, and the Chief Executive, Mike Lockwood, on pretty much anything at a strategic level. Still, having nothing better to do on a Thursday evening, we took ourselves along to see what happens. Especially since the Council now has free wifi in the building (limited to eight hours, and blocks access to the Hatch End Association’s website, but nonetheless…).

The logistics could have been better: the layout resulted in both David and Mike having their backs to the public, although with only four or five residents watching proceedings, there was plenty of room for a reshuffle. Nonetheless, battle lines drawn, and a gulf of animosity between Conservative and Labour members, it all got underway. It would be remiss of us to fail to mention that the Chair, Cllr Jerry Miles, permitted us to use the table normally reserved for what the council calls “accredited members of the press” – so thanks for that.

Naturally, most of the Conservatives questions were around the Brown Bin tax – the £75 charge that the Labour-run council want to introduce to collect brown bins from next year. Cllr Hall had some very good points around the scheme, questioning if it had been costed properly. Many of the borough’s residents would agree – the petition against the scheme has attracted almost 5,000 signatures online – and whilst it’s an important issue – bins and streets are probably the few things that most residents would care about, if asked – Hall is beginning to attract suggestions that she’s turning into a “one trick pony.” Can she win an election on the issue? Well, that’s a question that only the 2018 elections will be able to answer.

What became clear was that Cllr Perry missed an opportunity for a couple of straight answers. In response to Cllr Ashton’s question of “If the scheme doesn’t work, will you revisit it?” the obvious answer has to be a “yes” – Perry isn’t an idiot, and a positive response to that question, even though it was asked of Lockwood, would have made a nice soundbite. Unfortunately, the opportunity was missed in the rough and tumble of local politics. Perhaps Perry had detected he was being led into a minefield by the delectable Cllr Ashton; perhaps he wasn’t firing on all cylinders – we don’t know. What did transpire was a long and wordy answer, which committed to do nothing, to not do nothing, or to not do nothing if nothing was not needed or not – but even having listened to the recording, we still can’t be sure where he was going with it or what he meant and said.

What did become clear, as Hall latched onto Perry’s trouser leg over the pensioner brown bin discount was that something had changed. A promise made originally, according to Hall, and documented elsewhere on iharrow, was that pensioners – despite being clear on what a ‘pensioner’ actually was – would be given a discount. That promise evaporated, and was consigned to history somewhere between a scrutiny meeting in March and tonight’s meeting.

Highlights from the meeting include:

  • Moving onto safer ground, a safe pitch from Cllr Anderson was lobbed in from the edge, and asked around the number of affordable homes being built. Despite none being built in the last year by the council, Perry said his administration is not sitting on it’s hands. “Houses aren’t built overnight” says Perry, and Lockwood adds that it’s the “number one national issue.”
  • Onto building, Perry says, under interrogation from Hall, that he agrees with planning colleagues who thought the College Road development was “world class” – although it did take a few loops around to get that far. Something looks like Perry isn’t convinced though, and was desperately trying to avoid committing to an answer.
  • Perry’s “Leaders Surgeries” have been, he says, “productive” – something backed up by Lockwood on his visit to the South Harrow residents. ML follows that up with a response to a query on commercialisation – flogging council services, such as HB Law to other counciles – and says we should see £5m of income from around 2018/19, although he wouldn’t be drawn into specifics.
  • Cllr Macelod-Culliane asked about council tax incresaes for next three years; Perry wouldn’t be drawn on it, but said they’d be looking at all the options. Macleod-Culliane follows up asking what’s being done to bring jobs and companies to the borough? Perry responds it’s the government’s policy of converting offices to flats, and Lockwood says he’s pimping (not a direct quote) the benefits of the borough to employers – 12 minutes from London, for example.

In all, the concept of a Q&A with the leader and the chief exec, is a great idea – and something that could be rolled out wider afield across the borough, so that residents have the chance to put their questions to the administration. It would need to be carefully managed and controlled, to avoid getting into the micro-level of issues, which are better addressed by ward councillors, and maybe the administration would consider an event once a year or so. However, the public turn out for this particular meeting was low, disappointingly so.

Our thanks to both Cllrs Hall and Perry and to Chief Exec Lockwood for taking the time for a brief one-to-one that evening.

 

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1 comment

  1. Mark

    Problem is, if residents don’t engage, what’s the point. I recall the council used to run “have your say” sessions many years ago, but only a few people turn up. It is of course far easier to moan about councils than to try and make them better.

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