On Wednesday 25th February, we have our budget-setting Full Council. It is also our first Full Council testing a new format designed to achieve an earlier finish and an earlier exit from the town hall. This is important for minimising repetition in debate noting that all items have been discussed somewhere else before coming to the meeting. It also recognises how the quality of debate and decision-making can fall off after several hours in the council chamber.
Until this Full Council meeting, various committee chairs including myself would read out the page number of every item that had been discussed since the previous meeting. This page-turning or toe-curling experience looked and sounded particularly odd from the public gallery. It was basically an anachronism from a culture of excessive formality whose justification had long been forgotten. Now we will only be broadcasting those items actually flagged by councillors for discussion. Everything else will be noted or voted upon en bloc.
Another challenge is to avoid repeating oneself during debate and what others have already been said. It can sometimes be difficult to restrain the self-indulgent urge to stand up and reiterate the obvious that we have all heard quite enough before. I suppose that there is the temptation to use whatever notes or text you have prepared come what may.
We try to impose a discipline on individual contributions by having a limit of five minutes for a speech. That is actually quite a long time. A lot can be conveyed in five minutes or at least it should be and arguably our communication skills are not up to scratch if we consistently take longer than that.
After four minutes, the red light on our microphones starts to flash. This is code for, “Could you please finish your contribution within the remaining one minute”? Again, this should not be an impossible task, especially for an experienced councillor. The ability to summarise and close down is highly valued and can derive much more appreciation than merely continuing a long finish.
Another innovation to be tested is the guillotine used as a blunt instrument. At 10:00 pm, the Mayor will invite councillors to vote on whether the meeting should continue and the matter will be decided by a simple majority. If the guillotine is then in effect, outstanding motions and recommendations will simply be voted upon.
We have cunningly placed certain items near the back of the agenda, such as statements by cabinet members. Positioned here, these items can accelerate earlier debate if councillors really want to hear them. They also cut our losses if a guillotine motion is carried at 10:00 pm because the most important committee business will have been discussed.
Our new format will be tested for three meetings and then we will decide whether to permanently adopt it. This should be an interesting experience and I really hope that it works.
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
25th February 2009