Political row breaks out as Barnsley Council agrees to answer public questions on its website

Public questions are to be answered by Barnsley Council in a new service operated through its website but the decision has created a political storm over local authority transparency.

Electronic conversation: Barnsley Council will answer public questions through its website
Electronic conversation: Barnsley Council will answer public questions through its website

Opposition Lib Dem councillors had raised a motion asking that time be set aside to take questions from residents at the start of major ‘full council’ meetings which happen every few weeks.

But an amendment was tabled, and voted through, that written submissions should be taken instead with answers published on the council’s website where they would remain for three months.

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Council leader Sir Steve Houghton said that was a more effective way of allowing the answers to reach a wide audience, with around 240,000 people accessing the website over the period when each answer will be published, compared to the handful of people who watch the meetings through a webcasting service.

Barnsley Council had operated a public questions session in the past, but it was scrapped because the authority regarded it as being used by political activists to put their questions, rather than to assist the general public as intended.

Lib Dem leader Coun Hannah Kitching responded: “This council is too scared to face their residents”.

Sir Steve told councillors: “This council is always happy to take questions from the public. We don’t think they need to wait for a council meeting to get an answer.

“We had questions. The reason it didn’t work was because it was used by political activists to promote themselves and the public were squeezed out.

“We will take questions in a written form, respond in written form and put them on the council website for three months. That is a much better way to do it.”

When the council took questions verbally, 56 were presented over three years and 47 of those were from political candidates, he said.

“We can do this properly and transparently. We want to ensure the business of the council is conducted transparently and appropriately.”

Coun Phillip Lofts said: “I see people in surgeries, on their doorsteps, I have telephone calls and emails. That is good practice, it is democracy in action, not people coming here as political activists.”

Coun Kitching said the opportunity to raise questions at full council would give the public access to Cabinet members, some of the authority’s key decision-makers.

“It is normal, accepted, practice to invite members of the public to ask questions not of ward councillors, but of Cabinet members,” she said.

“These political activists are your residents. The public will see through this.”

Some councils, including neighbours in South Yorkshire, take public questions but arrangements vary from authority to authority across the country.