Report on joining Bristol City Council

I attended my first meeting as a co-opted member of the Environment Transport and Leisure (ETL) Scrutiny Committee yesterday, 20th October 2003. I had been co-opted on behalf of Friends of the Earth (FOE)

Prior to this meeting I had had a meeting with Mike Birkin, member of the Bristol FOE group and Regional Campaigns Coordinator of FOE.

For me as the FOE representative the main subject was the setting up of a project called the Best Value Review of Integrated Transport. In my 'maiden speech' I put forward the points that we had agreed in our prior meeting, on congestion charging, better use of railways, air quality and climate change, and the need for a central bus interchange. I also spoke quite passionately to urge the committee to use the opportunity of this (rare) strategic review to encourage bold imaginative thinking. Some of the councillors had been rather negative about it but I was satisfied to note that Chair and the senior officer seemed to appreciate my vision.

As agreed by Mike B and me previously, I agreed to serve on the sustainable transport working party of this strategic review.

Now for more detail.

The previous day I had attended an induction training day on the structure of Bristol City Council, the role of co-optees and councillors and of the Scrutiny Committees or Commissions.

For those unfamiliar with the new council structure (adopted only a few years ago) we have a 'Leader and Cabinet' council. In this model, the Leader has less power than in the 'Elected Mayor' model, adopted, for instance, in London. Power is shared with a Cabinet or Executive of 7 other councillors. This Cabinet has all the executive power - the other Councillors have none. However there are several 'Scrutiny Commissions'. The term seems a misnomer to me because they do much more than merely scrutinise the decisions of the Executive, though that is their main function. They have a say in setting the budgets and can be pro-active in other ways.

Co-optees it seems have the same speaking rights as elected councillors but no voting right. As the co-optees are assumed to be experts in their field it seems their voice is well heard. For instance yesterday the elected councillors got into a seemingly intractable (but non-partisan) impasse and my fellow co-optee proposed a solution that was well received, though it had nothing to do with his specialism. There are four co-optees on the ETL Commission. Besides me Dr Derrick Price who it seems is there in his own right. His specialism is Culture - I gather he is Director of the Watershed. Tessa Coombs from Futere West - the SW regional group[ for sustainability. And Janet Scammell who represents the Disability Equality Forum.

Cooptees have a well equipped room in the Council House where we could hold meetings if they were associated with my role there. We get an allowance of over 300 to over our expenses, but this it seems is dependant on good attendance! We are issued with passes so can use all facilities such as the (very bad!) canteen.

Best Value Reviews are laid upon local authorities by national government. Though serviced by the L.A. they are undertaken by a wide variety of people representing many facets of life in the area. This one on the integrated transport strategy is to be chaired by Prof G Lyons of UWE. Its main group is called the Stakeholder Group and includes: Trade Unions, First Bus, Sustrans, Ferry Co, etc

Yesterday's meeting (of the Scrutiny Commission) was unusual in that most of the time was taken with attempts to 'Call In' two decisions recently made by the Executive. There was a large number of the public present, several of whom read statements supporting their case. One of the Call-Ins related to the decision to build a large swimming pool in Hengrove. One of the reasons was a widely supported concern that the plan would ruin a richly diverse natural habitat, but the officers asserted that it was not necessarily threatened. The other related to the creation of a sub-regional athletics ground. After a great deal of speechifying both Call-Ins were defeated.

We were introduced to the draft budget but the Chair's pleas for some useful comment fell on deaf ears except that a Conservative councillor wanted information on which facilities (e.g. swimming pools) could legally be completely dropped. I echoed the Chair's concern that Bristol spends 27% less on its public libraries than comparable cities.

I mentioned that my name is going forward to be on the Sustainable Transport working party (actually it is called a 'Theme Group'. There was lots of new jargon.) This group's work will include the subject of 'modal shift' which is jargon for getting people to travel other than by car. I hope to raise the concern about under-use of our railways for commuter travel, bus service improvements, and the other concerns I mentioned above.

FOE has a good reputation in the Council due to work it did in the past. Though the Bristol FOE group has fewer active members than in the mid 90s its reputation remains strong. I hope I can live up to it, and look forward to the task. Though I am co-opted on the basis of my FOE membership, and accountable to FOE, I am not restricted to matters of concern to them, but may bring in my own views and those of others in Bristol. I hope anyone and any organisation with an interest in Bristol's environment, transport, and leisure facilities will make me aware of their views.

Stephen Petter.

21/10/03. file:ETL31021