New Date Set for Council Webcasts

In December 2013, it was announced that Bridgend Council (BCBC) would – at long last – investigate the live streaming and/or recording of council meetings over the internet (Council webcasts coming to Bridgend?), aided by a Welsh Government grant to improve openness and transparency in local government.

The original plans were for the AGM of the council on May 14th 2014 to be the first live broadcast. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. Then it was said that the facilities to enable webcasting would be ready by the end of March 2015. That didn’t happen.
Recently, I said this:

“….it appears there’s been another delay to live broadcasting of BCBC meetings. It was reportedly going to be ready by the end of March, but I’m going to presume it’s been delayed so either the AGM next week or the Mayoral inauguration later this month will be the first live/delayed broadcast. If so, fair enough.

If it doesn’t start soon though, without good reason, I’m going to have to return to the subject.”

On May 28th, Bridgend Council’s Democratic Services Committee met to discuss an update to the webcast project (pdf). Although this project has overrun by 12-18 months, there was some good news.

Following a successful behind-closed-doors pilot in November 2014, a number of quotes were sought to provide 150 hours of webcasting over three years (50 hours a year). The supplier is due to install the required software and hardware to enable council staff to record and monitor meetings over 9th-10th July 2015, and a test broadcast of the Development Control (aka. Planning) Committee meeting on 23rd July will be made.

If that test is a success, meetings will be webcast from September 2015….but there’s a twist.

Many local authorities only broadcast full council meetings, others routinely broadcast full council meetings and cabinet meetings, a minority broadcast as many meetings as possible.

Although there’ll be flexibility in how they’ll use their ~50 hours of webcasts a year, BCBC’s provisional plans are to broadcast every committee (including cabinet and full council) “at least once a year”.
As BCBC say the Planning Committee attracts the most public interest, it’s the only committee where every meeting is guaranteed to be webcast.So we might only get to see one webcast of the cabinet each year and one full council webcast each year. That’s not good enough.

I can’t argue that planning will be of the most interest to the public, but the cabinet is the most important political body of the council, and full council meetings are supposed to be the main avenue for backbenchers to question leaders and officers.

Believe it or not, but residents in “The Wild West” actually get their tax money’s worth from their councillors.

BCBC’s full council meetings seem to operate quite differently to other local authorities, so it’s understandable that they might not want them routinely webcast. From what I’ve seen, full council meetings in Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, Cardiff and even Torfaen often resemble plenary sessions of the National Assembly – relatively open debates, lots of questions from backbenchers and they usually last the full 3 hours.

In Bridgend, judging by the minutes published alongside meeting agendas (here are the latest approved minutes from March – pdf), full council meetings are a procession of announcements by officers and cabinet members, with little to no involvement by backbench councillors. They seem to rarely last more than an hour.

If every full council meeting were webcast, councillors might be forced to do or say something to properly represent their constituents, asking awkward questions outside of the relative safety of the scrutiny committees. This would prompt a culture shift which some councillors (especially cabinet members) might not look forward to.

So, if BCBC decide to choose which meetings to webcast based on anticipated public demand, then doesn’t that defeat the purpose of “increased openness”? Don’t we deserve to know which councillors are pulling their weight where it matters?