Open letter from Save Barnet Libraries about the unconstitutional gagging of residents’ rights to participate in council decision-making

On 25 June 2019, Barnet Council’s “Constitution and general purposes” committee agreed effectively to eradicate the rights of residents to participate in council meetings. Only two questions/comments, limited to 100 words, will be accepted for each agenda item at any meeting, including Residents’ Forums, Area and Planning committees. If this proposal is passed by the full council on 30 July 2019, Barnet’s constitution will be permanently altered, undermining the relationship between the Council and residents.

The measure contradicts a core principle of the Constitution: Article 1.3, which states that the Council “will support the active involvement of residents in the process of local authority decision-making”. This principle is protected by Article 1.4 which states: “Where the constitution permits the council to choose between different courses of action, the council will always choose that option which it thinks is closest to the purposes stated above.” These constitutional principles weren’t even mentioned in the report that councillors considered on 25 June.

We urge councillors, all of whom have sworn to uphold the constitution, to follow the lead of Article 1.4 and vote against these drastic, unjustified and ill-considered proposals.

The council is concerned that in a recent five-month period (September to March 2019), “a total of 598 questions were submitted by residents to theme committees (see list here), the Audit Committee and the Constitution & General Purposes Committee…79% of the total number of questions are submitted by 10 residents”. This statistic presents an imbalanced picture of the range and scale of public participation as it excludes questions put to Residents Forums, Area Committees and Planning meetings, all of which will be affected by the constitutional change.

During this time period, the active role played by the “Barnet bloggers” and others has brought to public attention many issues of wide public concern including the high costs and poor standards of the Capita contracts. The beneficial role of such active participation is acknowledged by the council’s Code of Governance which states that one of its purposes is “Developing the entity’s capacity, including the capability of its leadership and the individuals within it”. This is to be achieved in part by “Ensuring that there are structures in place to encourage public participation”.

The council cites the needs to reduce the cost of answering questions, estimated at £42k per year. There is no cost to the council of public comments, yet these are also being limited.  Further, the cost is insignificant compared to the £810k per year the Council spends on its communications strategy, including its magazine “Barnet First” (£75k per year) and its recent “Barnet Together” advertising campaign.[1]

Although we pay for council services, including its democratic procedures, there has been no consultation about removing residents’ rights. This breaches the council’s commitment that “Consultation takes place on any issue that affects residents such as service or policy changes, or various statutory processes (such as planning, traffic or highways matters)”.[2]

Save Barnet Libraries considers public participation to be an essential component of democratic scrutiny and input. During the recent Communities Leadership and Libraries Committee meeting, councillors agreed significant changes to the scope of the library services evaluation after hearing and reading powerful testimony from 30 library users including, a child, an older woman and a woman with disabilities, all excluded in different ways from unstaffed libraries.[3] This could not have happened under the new rules. Would councillors have preferred not to have been provided with this information?

[1]Figures obtained via public questions:

[2] Annual report  on the Code of Governance presented to the Audit committee on 16 July 2019