Harrogate Council accused of building a "brick wall" against accountability

Harrogate Council accused of building a "brick wall" against accountability

Published by Local Democracy Reporter Jacob Webster at 1:57pm 10th March 2020.

An opposition councillor has claimed Harrogate Borough Council has built a "brick wall" against accountability

  • The Lib Dem councillor put forward a proposal to stream council meetings online, but it was voted down.
  • Councillors said funding was the main reason it was shut down.
  • They also expressed concerns that residents wouldn't attend council meetings.

A councillor has claimed Harrogate’s local authority has built a “brick wall” against accountability – after his idea to stream meetings online was shut down.

Coun Chris Aldred (Lib Dem) first put forward proposals for webcasting at Harrogate Borough Council in December – but it was scrapped by members of the General Purposes Committee who said there was not enough public interest in the move.

And although exact figures have never been made public, the leader of the Conservative-dominated council, Coun Richard Copper, also rejected the idea, saying it would have cost “tens of thousands of pounds.” 

But in a final protest against the decision, Coun Aldred last week presented a cheque to March’s Full Council meeting as an offer to pay for the recording of meetings himself.

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The proposal would make it possible for people o watch council meetings at home.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service afterwards, he said it was “not an excessive cost.”

He said:

“This is absolutely essential for broadening local democracy. But there seems to be a brick wall when it comes to accountability and it is not good for Harrogate. 

“There are hundreds of councils already doing this across the country, even more across the world, so we are fast becoming in the minority. 

“I am absolutely convinced they purely do not want to do it because they are not into accountability. It is being done elsewhere – so why are we not doing it?”

Coun Cooper previously denied the claims, saying “the meetings of the council are fully transparent and are open to the public.”

Harrogate Borough Council Civic Centre
Councillors said installing cameras would cost "tens of thousands of pounds".

However, Coun Aldred has argued attending meetings can be impractical for some residents. 

He said:

“5.30pm is not a good time to hold meetings. We are a big district – stretching from Boroughbridge to Pateley Bridge – and a lot of people can not physically make it.  

“And to say few people already attend meetings – that is not an argument against it, that is an argument for it.”

Speaking directly to Coun Aldred at last week’s meeting, Coun Cooper said:

“I know you say this serious problem of accountability and transparency might be solved by live streaming – but it just strikes me that you are a member and chairman of the scrutiny committee. 

“It is very good of you to admit your own failings.”

A report previously put to the General Purposes Committee gave the pros and cons of the livestreaming idea. 

It said it would make the council more transparent and give a “more complete record” of meetings, but the drawbacks were listed as the cost in money and officers’ time, as well as warnings that some councils have experienced drops in the number of residents attending meetings.

Chair of the committee, Coun Samantha Mearns, told last week’s Full Council meeting:

“After debate the committee concluded that there was not enough interest to warrant the expenditure. Democratic services reported that they had not received any requests for live streaming of full council meetings from members of the public in our district. 

“Experience of other councils suggested that many of the live hits they experienced were from members of the press or council officers.”