Less than two years ago I blogged here about how Bury’s Labour-controlled council had planned to reduced the Township Forums across the borough from six meetings per year (on average, once every two months) to four meetings per year. They brought these changes in from January 2016 and just 15 months later the council are now proposing to cut the township forums to just a single solitary meeting each year. The council argued back in 2015 that attendance levels were poor (something not evidenced at the Whitefield and Unsworth Township Forum meeting which is always packed) and “advances in digital technology and social media mean that increasing numbers of people prefer to share their views online rather than attend formal meetings”. The council also promised that during 2016 it would explore opportunities to harness technology to test the approach to online meetings.
As far as I can see (as a regular user of the Council’s website) they have done nothing to “harness technology” in any meaningful or different way to how they garner feedback from the public of Bury. If you want to report a pothole or pay a council bill, the website offers opening hours, telephone numbers (for some departments, not all) and feedback forms that can be filled in on-line and submitted.
The council now proposes that instead of regular township forums where residents can speak directly to councillors and, importantly, council officers, instead under the new system the public will be able to submit their feedback online, directly to the council’s website. While this has some benefits (notably that on-line submissions usually have a tracking or reference number allocated instantly), this is very much a one-to-one approach which means that others are not necessarily aware that such a submission has been made.
As I wrote in 2015 our township forums are invaluable and give local people a unique and direct access to their councillors and council officers. The forums also provide an access point for consultations, for example when the Highways Agency attended Bury’s forums to explain how the managed motorway works would affect Whitefield and Prestwich residents.
The council now offers a ‘three-tiered’ approach to replace the successful and popular Township Forums. The on-line feedback mechanism I have mentioned above, the annual township forums which they propose now be re-tooled to “celebrate key outcomes and achievements” and the third ‘tier’ will be a bi-annual forum where “participatory budgeting events”(PB) will take place. Without knowing the detail, these ward-level meetings do not sound that useful (except for those groups that have applied for township forum funding for community projects).
Bury Lib Dem group leader Councillor Tim Pickstone drew attention to the PB meetings at the recent cabinet meeting saying he felt “X-Factor style” meetings were not always the best idea as they can become popularity contests and lead to disparity. It is hard to disagree with Councillor Pickstone’s assessment.
Unfortunately we residents and regular users of the Township Forum have not been consulted on these changes – they are happening regardless of our opinions. I urge you to get in touch and let me know what you think about this change. I can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call/text me on 07870 444 235 or you can comment on this article below.