Progress in public’s fight for more say in council decision-making

AFTER a demonstration of people power, the public has been granted more involvement in council decision-making when it comes to housing, employment and infrastructure.

A campaign group, dubbed Council Watch, says it has been fighting for four years to have public access to meetings held in private by Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC), as the local authority works to prepare a single Development Strategy - affecting housing, employment and infrastructure - by 2014.

The private meetings in question have been held by a Development Strategy task force, which feeds recommendations on housing developments to the council’s Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC), which has publicly-held meetings.

“The public and press have been locked out of various meetings where recommendations are made as to where to put gipsy and traveller sites, as well as controversial housing developments in our area,” said campaign leader John Clarke, who lives in Stotfold.

Campaigner Pam Manfield, from Stotfold, explained: “Those recommendations are often passed through because by the time the public has got hold of them the arguments have already been marshalled.

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“A lot of people are very concerned about this issue.”

Mr Clarke said the group had been considering High Court action after being told by the office of the Secretary of State Eric Pickles that the public should be permitted to attend these task force meetings.

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On Tuesday, more than 50 members of the public attended an OSC meeting where councillors considered a number of options, including having an OSC sub-committee and committee which is fully accessible to the public, or continuing with a group which would meet in private and feed recommendations to the committee.

Councillors voted in favour of a third option - having the OSC committee receive council officer reports directly, after a private briefing from officers.

Ms Manfield said: “It’s not the worst option, but it’s not as good as it could be.

“Officers are not looking at the point of view of the community.

“There’s not enough input from the public in decisions which are being made.”

Cllr Ken Matthews, the OSC’s executive member for sustainable communities strategic planning, said: “This Development Strategy is the most important strategy this council will produce.

“We have to have a robust and transparent process, not only because so much is at stake for our communities, but because the law demands extensive consultation and engagement with residents and the councillors that represent them.”

Mr Clarke said: “We will keep a very close watch on this. Let’s see how they behave.”

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