SSDC’s secrecy problem
Item the first
Last night, Thursday 19th September, saw two meetings take place. One in Committee Room A was unannounced. Not flagged on the SSDC calendar, not listed as a meeting of the council.
The item under discussion had not been listed on a previous agenda. Except as an item that was to be considered in closed session. The Leveller understands the item in question was a planning application. If the application was to be discussed in closed session, why did the council feel unable to name the application to be discussed in the agenda. This looks and feels like an over-reach.
The planning application that was considered, The Leveller understands, was a planning application in Martock. It is highly unusual for a planning application meeting to be held behind closed doors. What is being hidden from view and why? Of course we will never know.
Normal procedure for a Regulation Committee meeting requires meeting administration, apologies, declarations of interest etc. There is no valid reason for this part of the meeting to be held in camera.
A decision to hold the meeting in camera also needs to be taken, but it turns out that SSDC are a bit shaky on the correct procedure for this. More on that later.
So last night your humble reporter turned up for the meeting in the full expectation of being turned away. And he was not disappointed. Being told politely but firmly that no members of press or public would be allowed in.
Item the second
What we do know is that the scheduled meeting went on for nearly one and a half hours as the attendees only just escaped in time for the 7.30pm SSDC full council meeting. This too had a confidential item.
As we have reported previously, the item to be discussed was a matter of general procedure, and due process. The justification for holding it beyond the gaze of press and public appears spurious. It cannot be on grounds of commercial confidentiality as it did not relate to a specific financial deal.
All SSDC would do is to quote the Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12A under paragraph 3: “Information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the authority holding that information).”
So we came to that point on the agenda, where the confidential matter was to be considered. Now the meeting took the form of a village parish council c1990. The Chair, all bluff geniality told press and public they would now have to go.
Er no. Although both members of public did go.
The Chair seemed unaware (and the legal officer did not advise him otherwise) that there is actually the small matter of due process. This requires the council to consider if there is any valid reason for the item to be held in camera, and then to vote on it. And it is a fact that members of the public are entitled to remain until the vote has been taken.
Being the last man standing in the room, your humble correspondent took it upon himself to point this out. The Chair looked surprised. Unsure as to whether to shut up the bolshy chap in the gallery or listen to him. In fairness he did his best to take it all in relatively good part.
A vote was duly held with a clear majority for the press and public to leave. Albeit the proposal did not include any valid reason for holding the item in camera, as indeed it should have done.
It was all very jovial. LibDem members presumably took the view that there was only one member of press and public left so what was the big deal.
Here I am happy to help them. The big deal is that it is not a foregone conclusion that any item on any agenda should be held behind closed doors. It was perfectly possible that a councillor of any party might have objected to the item being held in camera. A counter proposal could have been put.
It seems that Parliament and Number 10 are not the only places in the UK where there is a lack of understanding of due process and the rule of law.