Brentwood Council should not be used as the campaigning mouthpiece of the ruling Conservative party and this is why it has a Public Information Panel to oversee council communications to ensure they are impartial and not political – but this doesn’t seem to sit easy with the under-pressure Tory administration.
I have been on this committee in all my time on the council (four and a half years). I do consider myself to be somewhat qualified for this, being as I was the first councillor in Brentwood on Twitter and I’m, you know, a Chartered Marketer with 25 years experience and all that…..but that doesn’t seem to count for very much.
In this time, it has actually met once, in Summer 2012, after I started to make noises about why it had never met. And it has not met since, even though I have requested it time and time again and raised it at full council.
Furthermore, the only meeting held in living memory was held behind closed doors, in the Leader’s Office. Yes, that’s right – the panel charged with looking into communication is held in private. Oh, the irony….!
Since then, I have been constantly asking for another meeting and also to ensure that they are held in public, webcast and with a clear agenda, not just to discuss what the leader wants. Incidentally, last week an officer told me he had to check with “The Leader” if she wanted a meeting – this is not right….this panel is a properly constituted meeting of the council and should be called by the Managing Director, Alison Crowe or does the leader now decided what meetings we have?
Today, something has happened that has clearly demonstrated the need for this committee.
At the weekend, Pilgrims Hatch councillors were called to deal with some serious parking issues and my Lib Dem colleagues spent a lot of time there, dealing with the situation and talking to the centre management and the police.
At the eleventh hour, following an email from Lib Dem Cllr Vicky Davies, Tory Cllr Roger Hirst rode in to the situation.
Imagine my surprise when this morning I read a press release from the council which spoke of how Cllr Hirst saved the day and everything is good again!
Except this is not accurate. This is.
I raised a complaint about this on the grounds that ward members were clearly not consulted and the release was inaccurate on a number of issues. I asked that this be retracted and that the ward councillors should be spoken to first.
However, this request has been refused. The officer said he had no power to check whether it was accurate and remove it….but apparently he can post it up without checking for accuracy. This is against marketing guidelines.
So, it seems that Cllr Hirst’s word is just taken as gospel with no recourse to the ward councillors who spent hours dealing with the situation. In fact, it’s not really something that warrants a press release at all – but clearly Cllr Hirst wants to show everyone how wonderful he is riding in on his white charger and saving the day!? Oh those jolly old Tories, what would we poor people do without them?
I am furious as a councillor and a marketing professional that this “news” story has gone out without a thought to why – is this fitting with the council’s objectives or is this just the Tories attempting to make themselves look good? Why has this not been passed by ward councillors – is it because they are all Liberal Democrats? What is the sign off process for press releases, or do we just put them out at the whim of Tory councillors? That’s hardly impartial is it?
I have made another formal request for a meeting of the PIP (Public Information Panel) on the grounds that we need to ensure impartiality of press releases, there needs to be a panel overseeing what goes out from the council and how many consultation are going on, as well as ensuring that the language and tone used is such that everyone can understand what they are being asked.
The membership of this panel, incidentally, is the Leader, me and ex-Tory Cllr Russell Quirk. Is this why no meeting has been called? In case every vote is lost 2-1? Well, it won’t be if things are done as they should be, if they are as impartial communications then it will be a very agreeable meeting indeed.
As the Tory leadership gets more desperate to hang on to power, the officers must ensure they are not pressured by politicians and remain impartial.
So, I challenge Brentwood Council to hold that meeting. Soon.