Stuart Baillie has worked in the newspaper industry for almost 40 years and in that time he has seen the willingness of our public servants to speak publicly evaporate. Here he recalls the ‘halcyon days’ when the local MP was just a phone call away and compares that with his efforts to get Hastings Borough Council to be open about how much of YOUR money they have given Freedom Leisure. Should we really need to use freedom of information requests to get answers from our councils when the work they are doing is supposedly in our name? We are the masters they are the servants – or are we?
When I launched Hastings In Focus two and a half years ago I hadn’t done any ‘proper’ reporting for over 30 years.
Back in those halcyon days, as local newspaper reporters, we had access to everyone. My contacts book included the phone number of the London flat of our local MP Sir Hector Monro and you could dial it, wait for it to be answered and speak directly to Hector himself.
Over the road from our offices were the council chambers and quite often we’d just nip over to speak to the director of whatever about a story we were writing. Councillors and council officials were free, frank, open and accessible and of course the elected councillors said what they thought regardless of whether it chimed with the stated policy of the political group they represented.
It was therefore hugely dispiriting to discover just how much had changed. Speak to someone in person? Don’t make me laugh! Speak to someone on the phone? Getting them to answer it in the first place is the issue… “…you’ve reached the voicemail of…”. No it’s all sanitised communication, specific answers to to specific emailed questions, if you can even get a reply! And of course no opportunity to ask supplementaries.
In an age when communication is supposed to be easier, it is actually more difficult…
For those in what they believe to be ‘power’ – the party managers – it’s easier that way; no one goes off message, no one says what they shouldn’t, no one gets to express a personal opinion – only the party line is ever promoted. It makes it impossible to forge proper relationships, I doubt I’ll still be in touch with any of today’s councillors in the same way that I’m still in touch with the likes Tom McAughtrie and John Dowson who served on the councils in Dumfries nearly 40 years ago.
Relationship building is important because there are times it’s necessary to have an ‘off the record’ conversation. As a reporter it can help you understand a position or how an issue is being dealt with and will mean in a week, a month, or a year, whenever you come to write that story you’ll write a better informed more accurate piece and your reader will understand things better.
In an age when communication is supposed to be easier, it is actually more difficult; answers from councils, the police, from just about anyone in public life are scripted and formulaic. Gone are the times when one of the first jobs in my day was to go round to the local police station and see the duty sergeant who’d go over with me all that had happened in the previous 24 hours – no, what they want you to know all comes from a centralised press office now,
In setting up Hastings In Focus I wanted to get back to what I’m not afraid to describe as ‘old-fashioned’ values; reporting on events in a balanced way before leaving you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions.
Largely we have not commented, we have not expressed our opinion as that is not what I see to be our job. There are exceptions to every rule and today is one of those exceptions. Borne out of frustration we feel a need to let you know what is being done in your name.
I’m horrified by what the local press in the UK has become. Swingeing cuts by nationally owned newspapers groups mean our local papers no longer have the manpower to fully cover councils and courts and more and more reporting of council meetings is simply just the regurgitation of a council press release that presents only one side of the story – the winning side!
We have focussed a lot on the work of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) because it is spending YOUR money. It has no money of its own, it can only spend what we give it! Let’s remember too what HBC’s key functions are. It’s key functions are to empty the bins, clean the streets and oversee planning – does anyone think it’s doing any of those things well?
…a clear case of shutting the stable door long after the horse had bolted…
At one of the first HBC committee meetings I attended – a planning committee – a councillor was told his objections to a plan could not be considered as those objections, and his alternative suggestions, were at odds with what the officials who work in the planning department thought. Those officials, he was told, were experts in their field, he was not and therefore he could not challenge their advice! So what’s the point of a planning committee? Follow that logic and we might as well save ourselves a fortune and let the officials make the decisions.
Then there’s parking!
In July the cost of parking on the streets of our town rocketed. It was a decision by East Sussex County Council as HBC was keen to remind us. But had HBC objected to the original proposals to increase parking charges in our town?
No it had not!
When ESCC published – in January – specific details of what the new costs would be did HBC complain?
No, it did not.
So why was it only when the charges were imposed and therefore impossible to overturn, that Hastings councillors started to get hot under the collar?
In July the deputy mayor, Councillor James Bacon, launched a petition supported by a video, opposing the new charges – a clear case of shutting the stable door long after the horse had bolted – or maybe just window dressing?
The time for action had been during the initial consultation process in July 2019, or even January 2020 when the scale of new charges was published, but no, Hastings councillors sat on their hands and said nothing.
What about full council meetings?
We haven’t had one in Hastings since February. The official line is that the council’s IT department needs to test the technology – Microsoft teams.
That will be the same technology that hundreds, if not thousands, of small businesses and sports clubs have been using for most of this year for sales meetings, conferences and other events. The same technology that can, straight out of the box, cope with meetings of over 200 people, the same technology that many local sports clubs – some of them one-man bands – used to run training sessions for dozens of people at the same time and managed that without having a full department of IT experts on call as our council does.
…decision to withhold information on how it was spending public money…
It’s also the same technology that HBC has been using for its committee meetings since lockdown began in March, was that nor rehearsal enough?
Suddenly opposition claims that council leaders are trying to avoid scrutiny seem plausible.
A full council meeting is symbolic. Yes the actual work might go on in committee but full council meetings are a stage where YOUR council can demonstrate publicly that it is working in YOUR best interest…!
…it appears to me that councils are exploiting the opportunity to hide certain actions from public gaze…
Over in Rother – where full council meetings have been taking place via Teams – the council has gone public with the fact it has made £415,000 available to support Freedom Leisure. HBC point blank refuses to do the same. It says it is ‘prevented by law’ from making the number – rumoured in some circles to be over £1m – public! When we challenged that, pointing out that Rother seemed not to be governed by the same law we were told ‘individual councils take different legal advice’. So we went back again three weeks ago today and we asked under what legislation was the council basing it’s decision to withhold information on how it was spending public money – we have been ignored!
We could go on we could look at the demolition of Harold Place toilets, the borrowing of tens of millions of pounds to buy commercial property the list is endless.
As the local press in the UK has retreated, has stopped scrutinising its local councils in a way that we did when I started my career 40 years ago, it appears to me that councils are exploiting the opportunity to hide certain actions from public gaze and they know that through lack of time young underpaid local reporters will not have the confidence to challenge or seriously question a council press release.
It’s been an exhausting couple of years at Hastings In Focus and we’re going to drop down a gear for a week or two.
In the meantime, what I’d like to know from you our readers – and in August we had almost 30,000 of you – is does any of the above actually matter to you? Is it just me who is getting all steamed up about how opaque our council and other public services have become? Would you prefer us to concentrate on the light, the fluffy and the entertaining?
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We look forward to hearing from you!