Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Full Council

Full council is a bit like Prime Minister's Questions. It's the public facing side of council work, and yet it tends to portray councillors in the worst possible light. The work has all been done elsewhere, full council is just about ratifying, grand standing, and - more often than not - shaking your head in disbelief at some of the things your opposition colleagues come out with. Yesterday's was no exception...

To be fair, full council also offers a really important opportunity for public engagement. There was a brilliant presentation by pupils from Pontnewynydd Primary who had won all kinds of awards this year, including the Welsh Assembly's anti-bullying campaign competition. You can see it on the webcast HERE. Then there were questions from members of the public: Mr Simpson, well known to members and council officers alike, who was upset that he had been asked to leave a previous meeting for wearing a body camera (when all meetings are webcast - a fact I played my part in - you kind of wonder, why bother wearing one?), and Mr Watkins who wanted to know why his petition to turn the street lights back on hadn't resulted in more action.

That last was dealt with further under item 10 of the agenda. When it comes to budget cuts, the things which affect everyone  - like street lighting and bin collections - tend to be the real sore points. Mr Watkins suggested we could save money by scrapping Torfaen Talks (the council newspaper) and lighting in car parks, but I don't think either is really viable. Without Torfaen Talks we would have to spend more money on individually mailshotting statutory information, and car parks tend to be substantially more dangerous places than residential streets in this neck of the woods. 18% of Torfaen street lights are switched off, and 33% go off at 12:30am but, if you think your area really needs an extra light, contact your local councillor or petition it. It doesn't always work, but I've had a few lights switched back on since 2012.

There was also the annual report from the ethics and standards committee, and the passing of the new cemetery regulations. The council came in for a lot of criticism last year when a crack down was initiated on items which weren't allowed in the cemeteries - solar lights, wind chimes, etc. It was decided that an overhaul of the regulations to make things clearer was the best way forward, and the report is a really good example in my opinion of how the consultation process works. And, also, the difficulties in getting the public to engage. For a subject which was so emotive, and resulted in protests outside council, you would expect a much bigger take up. I commented that I hope we use the example to highlight how the process works, and how easy it is to get involved if you want to - I think people worry that it's going to be a very time consuming thing. Anyway, the new regs are much clearer, and will be reviewed every two years to deal with any issues which arise. You can read them HERE.

Next came the draft response to the white paper 'Reforming Local Government'. I don't think much of the white paper at all to be honest - it makes more sense to me to merge the community councils with the local authorities (there are 22 unitary authorities in Wales with c. 1250 councillors and 735 community councils with c. 8000 councillors), and then have much closer links between social services and the health boards, and education and the education improvement boards. But, hey, what do I know? I did make a contribution to the draft that the paper didn't take into consideration the reality of moving all the lower level functions of the 22 unitary authorities to the community councils. To fill those seats remuneration will become necessary if the workload increases substantially and, with 8000 councillors, that's going to get expensive...

Eastern Valley is the largest food bank organisation operating in Torfaen, distributing around 120 food parcels a week.

Finally, there was a motion from Cllr Mary Barnett to ask that Gwent Crematorium look at extending its opening hours during times of pressure (there was a four week waiting list over Christmas) which passed unanimously, and then members' questions from Cllr Jeff Rees and Cllr Mary Barnett who asked about food banks. There are three different organisations running food banks in Torfaen - Eastern Valley, Helping Hands,and Jesus Cares - which give out around 225 food packages every week.

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