Newcastle Liberal Democrats Opposition issue warning on hiatus of city's local democracy during Covid crisis
Opposition Liberal Democrats councillors on Newcastle City Council have issued a warning that local democracy is not functioning effectively during the Covid crisis, which has seen local elections postponed, council meetings mostly suspended and day to day decision-making powers passed to senior officers and Cabinet members.
With only a tiny number of meetings of the council's Cabinet, Planning Committee, and Licensing Committee have taken place virtually to date via videoconference, there are growing views among both opposition Liberal Democrats and backbench Labour councillors that opportunities to scrutinise and hold decision makers to account are being lost under the new arrangements. Other local authorities in Tyne and Wear are also largely on hiatus, along with joint bodies such as the Joint Transport Committee which oversees Metro and other public transport provision across the region, not having met or reported since January. Little has been heard from the North of Tyne Combined Authority and its Mayor.
Whilst lockdown has prevented the usual cycle of Civic Centre meetings and required the council to take on new priorities and practices, the Liberal Democrats Opposition feels that the council has now had enough time to adapt to the "new normal", citing Parliament's ability to involve elected representatives and hold votes remotely. However, it seems there may be no Annual General Meeting of the council until late autumn, and the Opposition feels that the online public meetings of the council's Cabinet to date have lacked adequate reports and agendas and are being used as a platform for grandstanding by the council's leadership.
The Opposition is holding weekly online meetings of its Shadow Cabinet and councillor group, and regular videoconference discussions with senior officers about the situation, but ordinary councillors from both main groups on the council aren't really being kept in the loop on what the administration is doing beyond basic information updates. Many issues could usefully be discussed, including on public and workforce health and safety, the impact on care homes and carers, the city's transport network, and of course, the potential effect on the council's finances. Not much seems to be happening and this appears unlikely to change for some months to come.
Cllr Anita Lower, Liberal Democrats leader of the Opposition, said
"We are still going to be in lockdown for some time, but this can't be an excuse to indefinitely delay council business and avoid scrutiny on important topics, including examining how well the council and its public health partners are responding to the crisis at local level. All we have had so far are opportunities for senior councillors to congratulate themselves and the council's key workers on their performance, and no opportunity for local councillors to raise issues affecting their areas.
"This has potentially dangerous consequences for democracy, scrutiny, and accountability. At a time when the Metro is in crisis and losing £1m a week, the city centre's retail and hospitality economy is in dire straits, and our care homes are experiencing significant numbers of deaths, it is essential that local democracy continues to function properly.
The technology is there to do this from home, but it is farcical that so few council meetings are scheduled for coming months. The council leadership loves to talk about Government under-funding, but is less keen to allow councillors of all parties to ask how it is managing the situation in the city. The Opposition thinks that it is vital to start discussing what Newcastle and its economy will look like after the crisis. We will shortly be setting out our thinking on how the city can be healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient in the future, in the absence of any published council reports or plans."