When councillors table a question or notice of motion (NoM) to full council meetings we’re all emailed as and when they are approved.
Before this rule came in, the first we heard of what our colleagues had tabled was when the public agenda was published a week before the meeting.
This change was brought in during the last council term by Labour group leader Cllr. Paul Miller.
He was concerned at the lack of any safeguard preventing questions submitted after the deadline being slipped onto the agenda right up until it was published.
And so it was, last week, that councillors were notified that three questions and a notice of motion tabled by Tenby’s Cllr. Mike Evans: “have now been approved and will be placed on the agenda for Council on 8 March.”
All three related to the large swathe of council-owned land, Brynhir, on the way into Tenby.
It’s been the source of controversy among some vocal locals opposing its sale for residential development, particularly executive-style homes, and the loss of what they consider to be a valuable amenity.
Cllr. Evans’ NoM was:
That this Council resolves to –
Withdraw from open sale the land owned at Brynhir Tenby, so that a social housing scheme to meet the needs of local residents, including social rented, low cost ownership and innovative self build opportunities can be brought forward in cohesion with Pembrokeshire Council’s HRA [Housing revenue account.] This would also enable Council to maximise any capital revenue receipt.
His three questions were:
1 What financial offers have been received to date for the Council owned land at Brynhir Tenby, including details of any conditions attached by prospective developers in relation to the offers made?
2 Has this Council taken any opportunity over the last 18 months whilst marketing this land, to talk with a SRL? [Registered social landlord.]
3 What values has this Council attributed to this land over the last 10 years?
In a key point we’ll revisit, Cllr. Evans was very alert to the potential sensitivities the three might raise, helpfully stating with his questions:
“If any of the answers above contain commercially sensitive information, I am happy for Council to resolve to go into private session.”
When councillors resolve to go into private session, only councillors are privy to what’s said or circulated because the public and press are excluded for the duration of that item.
Three days later, on 1st March, Cllr. Evans got an email from County Hall telling him that due to an “understandable mistaken belief,” his first question was now deemed off-limits and was going to be scrubbed from the meeting’s agenda, published the following day.
The authority’s head of legal and committee services, Claire Incledon, said that the change of tune came about following the “receipt of information from the Property Department.”
Apparently, they say that Mike’s first question “discloses exempt information, that is information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person/company.”
Accordingly the land is “still being marketed” and any offers submitted so far have been “made in confidence.”
The St. David’s Day email went on to suggest that, if PCC gained the reputation of disseminating private commercial affairs publicly as per Mike’s request, it could deter potential future bidders thus harming this and other council sales.
It continued: “The public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs any public interest in disclosing the information.”
The council’s constitution sets out a number of grounds on which the chairman, Cllr. Paul Harries, “may reject a question,” including if he “considers that the question discloses Confidential or Exempt information.”
For good measure, the constitution says that “The decision of the Chairman in consultation with the Head of Legal and Democratic Services shall be final.”
Readers, particularly Cllr. Evans’ constituents, might have something to say about the fairness in all this.
What about his question previously being given the thumbs up by the chairman under his so-called ‘final’ ruling?
Well this dilemma is obviously something that occurred to the council’s legal department, adding: “despite in this case the initial indication of acceptance,” it’s actually their opinion that the chairman is free to change his mind right up “Until the matter actually reaches the Agenda”!
It has bizarre similarities to my own experience exactly three years ago, see: Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining!
Like that example, I’m afraid this is yet another case of PCC’s constitution being misapplied having been misread or misunderstood.
And by that I’m not just talking about the chairman going back on his word – but the flawed reasoning from legal.
What the constitution actually says is that the chairman may deem a councillor’s question out of order if the question “discloses Confidential or Exempt information.”
What it seems has managed to confuse the lawyers is their concern that the answer to Cllr. Evans’ question might disclose such information.
This is a clear distinction already noted within the constitution.
Members of the public can also table questions to council meetings, where the chairman’s ability to refuse a question is almost exactly the same as those tabled by councillors – save for one important difference.
For questions submitted by the public, the chairman can refuse it if the question: “discloses Confidential or Exempt information, or the response would be likely to disclose such information.”
That last bit I’ve emphasised doesn’t apply to councillors’ questions because if councillors wish to they can hear the answer in private session, the public obviously can’t.
And that’s exactly what Cllr. Evans pointed out in his submission!
Whilst this might be another howler, its greater significance is surely as a quintessential example of the County Hall outlook towards both information and probing councillors.
Rather than looking for ways to help openly share certain information, even if only among councillors, the move here, and the modus operandi elsewhere at the authority, is to preserve the information monopoly, whatever it takes.