The leadership of a council which has repeatedly been challenged over its stance towards open democracy has rejected criticism after staging a meeting of its top committee 55 miles from its headquarters to showcase its decision-making in action which no members of the public attended.
North Yorkshire Council’s executive meeting at Selby Civic Centre lasted less than ten minutes before the Tory-led authority’s leader Councillor Carl Les closed proceedings to the public to discuss the confidential terms of a deal to sell four hectares of land at Gatherley Road, Brompton on Swale, near Richmond.
Following a furore over Scarborough council’s confidential deal over the Alpamare water park in 2013, which could cost its successor North Yorkshire Council £8m, opposition councillors said the meeting should have been better advertised and more transparent.
Coun Les told the meeting it was intended to hold more executive meetings away from County Hall in Northallerton and while two Selby-specific items had been moved from the meeting’s agenda, it was “felt it was still important to come on our peripatetic journey”.
Introducing the first item on the agenda, the authority’s council tax reduction scheme for the coming year to help residents on low incomes and the most vulnerable residents, the authority’s finance boss, Councillor Gareth Dadd, told the meeting it was proposed to make no changes.
He said by putting an extra £1m into last year’s scheme, raised through charges to owners of empty properties, the authority had seen a ten per cent drop in the volume of council tax arrears notices being issued.
The meeting heard the second agenda item, regarding the policy over severance pay for senior managers, was “a tidying up exercise”, before Coun Les briefly spoke about proposals to increase councillors’ allowances by £1,500, from £15,500 to £17,000 a year.
The executive, which guides and makes decisions over how more than £630m of public money is spent on services annually, agreed the proposed pay rise, which has been recommended by an independent panel, would be decided by all elected members at a full authority meeting later this month.
After rubber-stamping Department of Education childcare funding, the meeting, which had seen several senior Northallerton-based council officers travel to Selby specifically for the meeting, was closed to the public just nine minutes and 40 seconds after it was opened.
Following the meeting, opposition councillors questioned how the meeting had been advertised, with Selby councillor and Labour group leader Steve Shaw Wright stating even the town council had been unaware of the meeting.
Liberal Democrat group leader Councillor Bryn Griffiths said having no members of the public attending was “very disappointing” given the resources used staging the meeting in Selby.
Richmond councillor Stuart Parsons, leader of the council’s Independent group, questioned whether the meeting had displayed democracy in action and if there could have been more transparency over the land deal.
He said: “Why is it top secret? There are commercial issues attached to it, but you can write a report without referring to named businesses, so at least the public know what is likely to happen to their property and what the risks are.”
Responding to the concerns, Coun Les said the meeting had been advertised to members and the session in private had only involved the confidential terms of the deal.
He said: “I would have preferred to do it openly but with commercial matters you can’t.
“We are doing the right thing moving the executive meeting around the county. We will be doing one at least every two months to make sure we get round all the six previous areas in a calendar year.”