Monday, August 03, 2009

Predictable reaction to calls for open government

There was a depressing predictability to Leicester City Council's dismissal of our legal challenge to their plan to discuss demolishing an historic bridge in the city. And the petty politicking that went along with the decision just made it worse.

Our objection to their decision was put to members of the council's cabinet before they agreed to throw out the press and public so that there would be no witness to their discussions.

In removing us from the chamber they called us irresponsible, erroneous and a rag. Apparently no other newspaper 'in the world' would act the way we do! Of course, I don't really care that they call us names - if I did, you wouldn't be reading about it here because you wouldn't see it anywhere else since we are usually the only people who attend their meetings.

What depresses me is the fact that they cannot bring themselves to step back and consider what is going on. Our complaint is that they are making a huge decision about an area of Leicester without allowing anybody else a say - it just doesn't sit with their claims to support open governance.

As I've said in tomorrow's opinion piece in the paper, if they really believed in openness they would find a way to allow the substantive part of the debate - should they knock down the bridge and allow a sports centre to be built - to be heard in public. They could separate out the bits that they really think need to be kept confidential into a different paper, but they don't, they throw out the baby with the bathwater. We don't accept that any of it needs to be kept confidential at this late stage in their negotiations, but it would at least be better for the residents if they split out the debate. All I am saying is that I wish they would look for ways to hold debates in public rather than looking for ways to hold them in secret.

But that's not going to happen. They sat in private this afternoon and agreed to knock down the bridge. There's no going back on it now ... and now is when Councillor Kitterick says everyone can have their say. Now that the decision has been taken.

We could challenge the decision to sit in private further, but it would probably be pretty pointless. We would have to apply for a judicial review, but, even if we were successful, that would only force them to consider the public interest test (see below) ... and then dismiss it and decide that they were right in the first place. The judicial review would probably fail anyway because they were forced to consider the public interest test by our letter and the fact that we don't like, or agree with, the decision that they came to, they have, nevertheless, carried out their obligation to consider it.

If councillors looked at some of the questions that we have asked of them recently they would see that there is a theme. We don't like the way they make decisions - we are not querying the actual decisions, just the way they make them behind closed doors and without proper communication.

We've queried the way they told everybody involved in the organisation of the special olympics that they would underwrite the games without telling the tax payers, we've queried the way they have not told people about the detailed plans for (and spiralling costs of) the new art gallery in New Walk (although, again we have not queried the actual decision to spend the money), and now we have asked questions about the need for secrecy around the Bowstring Bridge decision.

It doesn't mean that we don't support the city, or even the things they are trying to do ... we just don't like the way they do it.