Controversial changes to public participation rules at Redbridge Council approved

Manford Way campaigners outside Redbridge Town Hall on September 20, putting forward a petition whic

Manford Way campaigners outside Redbridge Town Hall on September 20, putting forward a petition which has been signed by 4,000 people in Hainault. Picture: Ashley Papworth - Credit: Archant

Changes to public participation rules at Redbridge Council – labelled “sinister” and “draconian” by opponents – have been given the green light.

The changes to the constitution, approved at a meeting on Tuesday, January 7, mean public speakers can't ask the same question more than once in a six-month period and people at cabinet and committee meetings can only ask questions that are related to an item on the agenda.

Questions at full council meetings can still be on any subject matter, but questions may be rejected if they are "substantially" the same as another question asked in the previous six months.

The public participation rules for petitions would remain unchanged, but the provision for a debate between councillors following a deputation would be removed from the constitution.

The council is also proposing to become more proactive in sharing meeting agendas directly with faith groups, community groups and business improvements districts and hopes the new rules and proposals will increase participation from hard to reach and underrepresented groups in the borough.

But the proposals have drawn criticism from both concerned councillors and members of the public.

Resident Andy Walker said at the meeting: "This is sinister, it needs to be stopped now.

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"We need to be looking out to the public for ideas, such as how to save the planet.

"We need to be talking about meeting the public in their wards and councillors coming out and meeting the people."

South Woodford councillor Michael Duffell also said he did not support the proposals.

"We should not restrict what people are allowed to say," he said.

"How are the public meant to challenge or lobby?

"I think it's a bit draconian.

"We should be getting more people involved, not the opposite."

He added: "How can you lobby for change if you have to wait for six months to ask a question to cabinet?

"You are stopping people from lobbying for change.

"I am worried that all this change will make local democracy a joke.

"It's our democratic right to keep coming back and asking questions."

A spokeswoman for campaign group Reclaim Redbridge said the introduction of the new rules was an "absolute outrage".

"The introduction of the six-month rule is the most alarming as this would jeopardise proper engagement from residents on matters that are time sensitive, such as housing," she said.

"Nothing is getting done so that's why it's repeated. The framework isn't working for the residents.

"You only get two minutes to speak, which is undemocratic in itself. They are taking away our rights even further."

But Councillor Jas Athwal, leader of the council, said the proposals have been put forward to stop repetition from campaign groups and individual speakers and improve participations from other community groups.

"We have had situations in the last year where we have had a petition come in to be debated, then a deputation on the same point, talking about the same issue, and then a motion on the same issue put forward by councillors," he said.

"How many times can we discuss the same thing?

"There has to be some kind of sanity brought it."

Redbridge has a population of more than 300,000 residents and last year 26 people made statements, asked questions, or led deputations or petitions at council, cabinet and overview meetings.

"We are trying to reach out to those residents who don't have a voice," Cllr Athwal said.

"What is stifling debate is discussing the same thing. We don't want the views of the same eight people."

Councillor Kam Rai also suggested reaching out to groups to ask for their ideas on how they would like to improve public participation and emphasised that the new rules were about pointing people to the right place where their question would be best answered.

"A lot of questions are simple questions which could be answered at surgeries or by their ward councillor," he said.

"It's about being effective. Rather than waiting for full council to ask a question, we should be putting people in touch with their councillor or put them in touch with the relevant committee."

Cllr Athwal agreed and said: "We should be taking democracy to them."

The committee agreed to review the rules in a year to assess how effective they have been at improving public participation.

All councillors, apart from Cllr Duffell, agreed to approve the proposals.

Cllr Duffell asked that a list of refused questions be brought to the overview committee.

During the discussion on improving public participation, a member of the public requested to speak.

The chairwoman, Councillor Jo Blackman, said protocol must be followed and did not allow him to speak, prompting the man to leave.

Speaking after the meeting, Redbridge Conservatives leader Councillor Linda Huggett said: "We are just concerned about the way it's going. It's cutting away at democracy the whole time."