Scrutiny scrutinised #01: Neighbourhoods and Environment Scrutiny Committee, July 2019, CED + 7 days.

What the hell does that title mean?  Well, Climate Emergency Manchester is going to start (1)  scrutinising the scrutiny process.  Manchester City Council has six scrutiny committees, made up of ‘backbench’ councillors (ones who are not part of the 10 member Executive (2).  The committees are made up of anywhere between 10 and 18 councillors. They meet ten times a year, in public (usually in the Town Hall Extension). The meetings tend to last for two hours (this one was longer) and are livestreamed (or ‘webcast’).  The agenda for the meeting is published a week before, and usually the reports which will be scrutinised by councillors go up at the same time.

The six committees are (drumroll please) Neighbourhoods and Environment, Health, Economy, Resources and Governance, Young People and Children, and Communities and Equalities.  On July 10th we wrote to five of the six chairs of the Scrutiny Committees with specific proposals about what their committees could look at, and some more general suggestions for making committees more inclusive. You can read these letters via here.

spotterscard nesc 2019
Spotters cards for all 6 scrutiny committees will be released soon…

Right, so, Neighbourhoods and Environment met on Wednesday 17th July, at 2pm. This was one week and 3 hours after the City Council had declared a climate emergency.  Climate Emergency Manchester live tweeted most of the meeting (check out our timeline at @ClimateEmergMcr.   This blog post is not so much an exhaustive recap, but a summary and some observations.

  1. There was, unusually but with warning, a matter of urgent business:  the Great Ancoats St cycle-lane removal controversy. For an excellent account of this, with links and interviews with key people see Andrea Sandor’s article in Manchester Confidential.  Calum McFarlane of Climate Emergency Manchester was granted permission to address the committee (3) and pointed out that if this is – as the Council agreed last week – an emergency, well, you revisit decisions which have already been made in the light of that…   Different councillors had different views on the merits of the scheme overall (Miles Platting Councillors were keen on anything that reduces congestion) but ALL the councillors who spoke were scathing/withering about the quality of the consultation that had (not) been conducted, and this was the hinge on which they were able to recommend that the big red ‘Pause’ button should be hit. The Executive Member for the Environment and Transport, Angeliki Stogia, was not able to sway them, and her efforts may have hardened opposition.  Whether ‘the executive (see footnote 2 again!) will indeed accept that recommendation, and hit the pause button while further consultation is done, remains to be seen – watch this space.
  2. The next item was the Climate Change ‘update’.  I (Marc Hudson, editor of Manchester Climate Monthly) really could go on for hours (actually, weeks) about this. Buy me pints and I will).  Due to the way that the councillors were sat/were called upon to speak (and that’s NOT a criticism of the chair of the meeting), the central fact that Manchester achieved only a 2.5% reduction in emissions last year rather than the 13% it needs to be ‘zero carbon’ by 2038 was not raised until quite late in the proceedings.  Meanwhile, in extraordinary scenes, the officer and Executive member were able to blithely admit that most of Manchester has not been reached in efforts to reduce emissions, and that the Agency doesn’t know what it is doing (I paraphrase).  The simple question  WHAT THE HELL HAVE WE BEEN PAYING YOU FOR THESE LAST NINE YEARS IF IN 2019 YOU DON”T, BY YOUR OWN ADMISSION, HAVE A CLUE? was not, sadly, asked. The main outcome of note was that a ‘subgroup’ of councillors will be set up to scrutinise more closely and more regularly.  Watch this space for further info.  Subgroups usually meet for 3 or 4 meetings before reporting back to the scrutiny committees from which their members come. However, on this occasion, because of the issue, because of the complexity and the number of councillors who want to be involved, the normal rules may not quite apply. Frankly, what is needed is a seventh Scrutiny Committee, and if the subgroup can show the value of that, then great…
  3. The next item was about homelessness (which is of course FAR wider than rough sleeping). The chair, LeeAnn Igbon (Labour, Hulme) had to leave the room because of a conflict of interest whto do with her employment [This is a really important point – almost all Councillors have day jobs. This is not a full-time gig like being an MP.  We need to remember that when lobbying councillors!)  John Flanagan (Labour, Miles Platting and Newton Heath) took over and was at pains to point out that although the questioning would be forensic, the councillors were well aware that this particular shitshow (my words, not his) is bestowed on us by the Tories changing the rules again and again to screw people over).  Councillors were super engaged with this, of course. It’s what they get heaps of requests for help with and, believe it or not, most of them have come into politics at this level to, erm, help people.
  4. Next up was the reports of the two Executive Members present. Every six months the 10 member exec has to front up to one of the six committees, say what they’ve been doing and answer questions.   Before that, a Hulme resident – Louise Sheridan – was able to address the committee about the Bentley Roundabout.  Turns out there has been inadequate consultation on this too, with contradictory information being given out!!   To be honest, it got quite fraught in the case of Councillor Stogia, perhaps feeling bruised by the Great Ancoats and Climate Report sessions.  The Chair of the Committee (LeeAnn Igbon back in post) had to explain that scrutiny committees, well, scrutinise…  Igbon also read out some of the official council rhetoric around ‘Our Manchester’ in a voice that might just have had a drop of sarcasm in it.
  5. The overview report (which comes at the end) was dealt with, but the webcast dropped out, and your correspondent didn’t catch any of it.

 

Observations

  • The meeting ran DRASTICALLY overtime (again, not a criticism of the chair or anyone else), even with one item about counterfeit goods and Strangeways being deferred to next meeting. This shows that NESC’s remit is too large, and that a seventh scrutiny committee, dedicated to environment, is urgenly needed.
  • There are a bunch of councillors clearly wanting to see the Climate Emergency Declaration turned into deeds.  They have different levels of experience on council, of ‘weight’ (relationships, history) on council, and different amounts of time, energy, motivation.  If we, as citizens, give a shit about a climate emergency being more than the latest in a long long series of green-wash, then we will engage critically but constructively and supportively with those councillors. When they show courage, determination, intelligence, honesty, tell them that we appreciate it.  Keep providing them with analysis (though it seems the Climate Emergency Manchester report didn’t have a lot of traction…)
  •  Scrutiny is and will remain a really difficult thing for activists to energise concerned citizens over. There’s no getting around it, but there ARE things we can do to lessen the alienation factor. Watch this space.
  • Live-tweeting is actually quite difficult, time and energy consuming.  CEM is going to have to make real efforts to increase its own capacity. If anyone wants to develop those skills, please drop us a line on climateemergencymanchester@gmail.com
  • The NESC next meets on 4th September. If everything goes according to plan, a draft implementation plan for key elements of the Climate Emergency Declaration will be presented.  If…

Footnotes

(1) Some of us attended in June, but no account was written

(2) But the word executive means more than you think!  To quote from a very prompt and even more helpful explanation –

‘the word ‘executive‘ has a lot of different meanings in Councils. We have a group of councillors who meet as “The Executive“, but there is a wider group of senior officers who, as individuals, exercise executive functions on a day to day basis, and who, in doing so are part of the Council’s executive arrangements. Scrutiny committees scrutinise the executive arrangements, not just “The Executive“.

(3) These are meetings in public, NOT public meetings. The distinction is worth bearing in mind!

 

Author: Marc Hudson

This post is personal views/reflections, and does not necessarily reflect the position of Climate Emergency Manchester.

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