My Council needs to answer questions

For the first time ever I have had to submit a freedom of information request to the Council of which I am a councillor.

The now not so new Lib Dem Council is only six months old but it runs the risk of being one of the most secretive and negative councils in Kingston’s history. Its lack of transparency is quite shocking and it’s refusal to answer even simple questions put to it by the opposition should worry any Kingston resident who wants their council to be open and honest. Obviously, managing such a large number of Councillors in your own party group is not easy but that does not mean you should not be open about the Council.

The claims that Kingston is going bankrupt have moved beyond the dishonest misleading of the public for Political ends to now worrying those who rely on council services, those employed by the council or those who were looking to invest in Kingston’s future. Who of talent would want to come and work for a council going bust? Kingston is not bankrupt or even moving towards such a position. No reputable accountant is prepared to put their name to such a claim. The council auditors do not believe the council is going bankrupt. The council officers do not believe the council is going bankrupt and indeed the budget that was set in February of 2018 was signed off by all council offices as being one which was achievable. I have now had to submit a formal complaint to the council’s legal officer as this has moved beyond political opportunism towards damaging the reputation of the council.

But refusing to answer questions is the more serious concern. In July 2018 the Lib Dem member for housing, Councillor Emily Davey, made an extraordinary claim that the Council was spending £5,500 per day on interim officers in the housing department. I have written to Cllr Davey three times in the past four months asking her to clarify this figure and I have received no response. What she claimed would be a serious matter because this £1.5 million pounds per year could be spent on housing repairs, as Emily Davey made clear. I asked council officers about this figure and none of them were able to tell me how this figure was arrived at. At the council meeting in October, we asked the question formerly of Cllr Davey and the leader of the council. The leader of the council agreed it was not acceptable to not answer questions but then didn’t give us the information. To date, nearly a month later and four months after originally asking the question, we have still had no response from councillor Emily Davey. I have now had to submit a Freedom of Information request to get an answer. It is mad that a Councillor has to ask their own Council for information through a Freedom of Information request. That is not the open and transparent council we all want it to be.

These are just two examples of where the council is closing down debate, refusing to answer questions and not being open and transparent. Resident groups are also concerned about the way documents are not released on time or incredibly enormous documents put onto meeting agenda for which there is no time to debate. Only in the past week, we had a meeting with some of the most important decisions to be made for the future of Kingston that went on beyond midnight – that is no way to engage residents, let alone Councillors.

Did the Conservatives always get it right when it came to consultation? of course we didn’t. But what we did do was try to open the council to the wider debate, to allow much more participation of residents at large scale planning applications, to try and make sure that the debate was opened up by the use of public meetings and the Kingston conversation events. What is apparent currently is that the Lib Dems are failing to be open and transparent and risking the reputation of the Council with wild, unsubstantiated claims and seemingly refusing to answer legitimate questions. Worse, they are totally misunderstanding the difference between a Council meeting held in public and a public meeting.

They need to be prepared to be questioned more and not somehow think that meetings to take decisions are the right way to engage people, history tells us that will never work.