Tuesday, January 09, 2007

I haven't had the chance to blog any comments on last month's council meeting, which took place a couple of days before Christmas, so by way of a catch-up, here are some thoughts from my perspective. First up, I took the opportunity during questions to the Leader and Cabinet to ask about the new form of 'community engagement' activity which has been trialled since the elections last May.

Prior to that, as avid Council-watchers will know, we had what were called 'Time to Listen' meetings, which took place in different parts of the borough every couple of months, with local people invited to come and air their concerns in the presence of their councillors and Council officers. Unfortunately, I fear it was only the 'avid Council-watchers' who knew or attended these doubtless well-intentioned exercises. Whilst I dutifully attended my share, I always felt rather awkward turning up at a draughty hall on a dreary midweek evening to find a couple of dozen determined residents (if that) sitting patiently on plastic chairs whilst their elected representatives faced them from behind a long table, like a low-budget version of The X Factor.

Needless to say, it was often only those with a major grievance or particular bee in their bonnet who turned up and subjected themselves to such a stilted form of communication, and only the loudest and most confident voices that were heard. Not terribly democratic. I was very pleased when the whole charade was abandoned after the May 2006 election.

In its place the Council has now been trialling a new concept - the "Talk Cafe". Instead of booking a hall and expecting the grateful multitudes to come flocking, the Council has come to them, setting up stall at local festivals and public events. It's a much more informal approach, with suggestion boards available alongside information displays, and Councillors make themselves available to chat over a cup of tea or coffee. After attending my first one at the Eltham Lights Up event before Christmas, I was amazed at the difference - the tent was busy and lively, and I and the councillors with me probably talked to more people in half an hour than at all the previous year's "Time to Listen" meetings put together. The suggestion boards also proved a hit, with all of them filled with varied hand-written comments by the end of the evening ("More CCTV please!" ; "Eltham is losing out to Woolwich" and so on). My question to the Leader was simply to ask that the suggestions be taken note of and reported back on, and that consideration be given to developing the concept even further, perhaps on the website. I'm pleased to say both Chris Roberts and Deputy Leader Angela Cornforth agreed the trial has been a success, and I'm told the suggestions will indeed be used in some way. I'll keep you posted on this subject again, as it's one of the few things the Council have got right recently. And of course it is also a good way of exposing what people really think of the Labour administration's performance, so I'm bound to like it! Happy New Year.

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