Redbridge Council accused of ‘chipping away at local democracy’

Redbridge Council has been accused of “chipping away at local democracy” by scrapping monthly meetings where the public can ask direct questions.

During the pandemic the council held monthly ‘local forums’ online, where residents could submit written questions to council leader Jas Athwal.

A council spokesperson has now announced monthly local forums are being replaced with ‘Redbridge in Conversation’ events, starting from October and held only four times a year.

These will involve community events such as litter picking, followed by a meeting with councillors and officers to discuss “big issues” for the area.

Conservative group leader Paul Canal called the newly announced plans “another nail in the coffin of genuine local engagement”.

He added: “There is an inverse relationship between the PR department’s soaring prose and the reality of Redbridge residents being ignored and side-lined.”

“The abject failure to hold a single public planning meeting in a year shows this tone-deaf council in its true light.”

Councillor Canal added that “patronising events with hand-picked participants” will not replace the “real dialogue and scrutiny” that residents had through area committees, which were scrapped when Labour came into power in 2014.

Redbridge’s spokesperson has not responded to Cllr Canal’s concerns, but has said the council wants to “engage with and empower” local people in a “meaningful way”.

They added: “As part of this work, Redbridge Local Forums will be replaced with regular interactive full and part-day Redbridge in Conversation events in different locations across the borough.

“Each Redbridge in Conservation event will be unique, involving council and community action, which could include litter picking or an area walk-about with councillors, council officers and council partners.

“The activity will be followed by a meeting in a local venue to discuss the big issues that matter most to local people in their area and to work together to find solutions.”

Online local forums were introduced in November 2020 to replace in-person meetings that were held four times a year prior to the pandemic.

Covering the north, south, east or west of the borough, the online meetings required residents to submit written questions to ensure there was no “unsavoury content”.

The forums were held with diminishing frequency until the last meeting in March 2022.

Scott Wilding, a former council officer and Lib Dem candidate in the local elections, called the newly announced plans “PR spin on a talking shop”.

He added: “Over the last eight to nine years, Redbridge Council has been chipping away at local democracy.

“I understand that local democracy isn’t very sexy and you might expect me – a Lib Dem candidate for Wanstead in May of this year – to only reflect on the bad things Labour have done.

“However, with 95 per cent of all council seats in Redbridge in Labour hands, and over the last decade a reduction in oversight and opportunities to hold our elected members to account – it seems Redbridge has become a one-party state.

“I would ask for a regular, minuted, planned forums at which members of the public have a chance to hold elected members accountable on pre-planned dates.”

Giving examples, Mr Wilding said area committees, which often had more than 50 attendees, were abolished when Labour came into power in 2014.

Following that, he said the number of full council meetings was reduced and rules were added to limit how members of the public can submit and ask questions.

Andy Walker, a local activist who regularly attends council meetings to ask questions which are outside the rules said he is concerned that there has not been any public consultation on the change.

He added: “Who will decide what the issues are? My concern is that we will have the same nonsense as now, where awkward questions will be ruled out of order.”

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter