Seeing through transparency in Council Chamber

Cllr Liz Frost responds to debate.

In a fullsome debate during the Full Council meeting of Epsom and Ewell Borough Council Tuesday 16th April, members clashed over a motion aimed at enhancing transparency in decision-making processes. The motion, proposed by the Liberal Democrat group, called for a policy of ‘transparency by default,’ urging that all meetings and documentation be made public unless specific exemptions under the Local Government Act applied.

Councillor Julie Morris (LibDem College), expressing disappointment with the decision not to refer the matter to the Standards and Constitution Committee, argued that the current approach lacked proper review and resulted in too many discussions being held behind closed doors. She emphasized the need for a more nuanced approach to determine when confidentiality was truly warranted.

Councillor Bernie Muir (Conservative Horton) echoed concerns about transparency, citing instances where information had been withheld or meetings had been abruptly shifted to private sessions. She called for comprehensive training for both officers and councillors to ensure better understanding and adherence to transparency principles.

Councillor Steven McCormick (RA Woodocte and Langley) acknowledged the challenges in navigating confidentiality requirements but defended the importance of open discussions. He highlighted the unique opportunity afforded by debating the motion in a public forum, urging members to engage in constructive dialogue.

Newly-elected Councillor James Lawrence (LibDem College) expressed confusion over the rationale behind certain decisions to withhold information. He stressed the importance of providing clear explanations to the public and fellow councillors, especially in cases where secrecy seemed unwarranted.

Councillor Chris Ames (Labour Court) raised concerns about the misuse of private sessions for political reasons, emphasizing the need for robust scrutiny and public engagement. He criticized the current administration for potentially undermining transparency and urged for greater accountability moving forward.

In response to criticisms, Councillor Alex Coley (RA Ruxley) defended the decision to debate the motion in full Council, emphasizing the importance of public engagement. He questioned the opposition’s reluctance to address transparency concerns in a public setting.

Councillor Alan Williamson (RA West Ewell), opposed the motion, asserting that existing transparency measures were sufficient. He cautioned against broadening transparency requirements, arguing that certain discussions necessitated confidentiality to foster open dialogue.

Councillor Peter O’Donovan (RA Ewell Court) highlighted the distinction between confidentiality and secrecy, emphasizing the need for a safe space to discuss sensitive issues. He cautioned against overreach in transparency efforts, citing the potential risks to privacy and effective decision-making.

Councillor Phil Neale (RA Cuddington), echoing sentiments expressed by Councillors Donovan and Spickett, emphasized the importance of confidentiality in certain discussions, particularly those involving commercial interests or personal safety. He cautioned against inadvertently stifling open dialogue by overly broadening transparency requirements.

Councillor Hannah Dalton (RA Stoneleigh) underscored ongoing efforts to address concerns regarding confidential sessions, promising clearer explanations for why certain items were categorized as confidential. She emphasized the need for balance between transparency and privacy, acknowledging the challenges inherent in navigating sensitive issues.

Councillor Kieran Persand, (Conservative Horton) expressing support for the motion, highlighted frustrations over perceived barriers to transparency within the council. He stressed the need for greater accountability and public trust, arguing that enhanced transparency measures were necessary to rebuild confidence among residents.

Councillor Alison Kelly, (LibDem Stamford) who seconded the motion, underscored the importance of improving communication and understanding among councillors and the public. She proposed measures to enhance clarity around confidentiality, aiming to provide residents with a better understanding of decision-making processes.

However, Councillor Liz Frost, (RA Woodcaote and Langley) Chair of the Standards and Constitution Committee, urged caution, warning against potential unintended consequences of broadening transparency measures. She emphasized the importance of maintaining a balance between openness and the need for confidential discussions to facilitate effective decision-making.

Following the debate, the motion was put to a vote, with a majority ultimately deciding against its passage.

Image – Cllr Liz Frost responds to the motion. Council Chamber. EEBC YouTube