Democracy failure in Bury as township forums cut

A shocking announcement from Labour-controlled Bury Council has emerged over the last few days concerning our township forums. For those who have never attended one of Bury’s six township forums (covering Radcliffe, Whitefield and Unsworth, Prestwich, Bury East, Bury West, and Ramsbottom, Tottington and North Manor), these community meetings are held every two months and are an opportunity for people who live and work in the area to meet and discuss local issues and problems.

Each areas elected councillors usually attend the township forums and on many occasions council officers attend and can be questioned directly by local people. The 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.

Therefore the announcement this week that Bury Council will be reducing township forums to just four meetings a year is nothing more than disastrous for local democracy across the entire borough. Labour councillor Jane Lewis is quoted in the Bury Times this week saying the changes could come into force as soon as January, subject to agreement by the council’s Cabinet who was meeting last night.

Bury Council’s communities manager Cindy Lowthian claims attendance levels continue to be low, and while I am sure this is true in some places across Bury, surely the council has to accept part of the blame for this. Publication of township forum meeting dates is haphazard at best – not everyone has the time to check Bury Council’s hard-to-navigate website once a week. I am certain that if more local people knew where and when the forums were happening, attendance would increase.

A council report claims 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 further states that during the next year it will explore opportunities to harness technology to test the approach to online meetings.

The bad news continues in relation to township forums, in the same announcement, the council also indicated that funding pots for local projects and groups will be cut by more than £20,000.

I do not remember any of these plans being publicised by Bury Labour before May’s local elections. This is typical of Bury Labour – make vague promises before elections and do something completely different (if at all) after elections.

This is not democracy.