Is there a serious problem with Scrutiny at Bristol City Council?

The process surrounding the release of papers about Bristol’s clean air plan suggests that the important process of scrutiny is being undermined at Bristol City Council.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Statutory Guidance on Overview and Scrutiny in Local and Combined Authorities, May 2019, states:

“12. A strong organisational culture that supports scrutiny work is particularly important in authorities with a directly-elected mayor to ensure there are the checks and balances to maintain a robust democratic system.”
And
“13. Authorities with a directly-elected mayor should ensure that scrutiny committees…pay particular attention to issues surrounding…rights of access to documents by the press, public and councillors.”

For the meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Board (OSMB) on 30 October there was only one substantive item of the agenda – Bristol’s Clean Air Plan. Questions for the public forum were required by 24 October, but the Plan was not made public until the evening of 28 October when it was released with papers for the Mayor’s Cabinet meeting on 5 November. This appeared to undermine the ability of the public to ask meaningful questions at the OSMB meeting. The papers amounted to some 1,000 pages and some documents were exempt.

The following written statement from Cllr Geoff Gollop, Chair of OSMB, was included with the papers for the meeting:

“I hope the focus of tonight’s meeting will be on the assessment and scrutiny of the Outline Business Case for the clean air plans, and not on the process that got us here. However, that process is flawed, and I would hope members would be supportive of the following statement going to cabinet.

“5 working days’ notice The practice of producing cabinet papers late on the Monday evening for the cabinet meeting makes scrutiny difficult, and potentially impossible. The Clean Air proposals are potentially one of the most significant and important decisions to be taken by cabinet. However, Scrutiny effectively had 36 hours to absorb over 1000 pages. We thank officers for supportive briefings to assist in this process but wish to put on record that for scrutiny to be effective, sufficient time needs to be factored into the decision-making process for the papers to be scrutinised with proper notice. Cabinet should note that this isn’t solely in relation to members of Council, as members of the public also see the scrutiny process as part of proper public engagement

“Exempt Papers There is a process whereby the Chair of OSM and of the relevant scrutiny commission are advised of any exempt papers and asked to agree with the exemption. In the past that has worked, and I have seen the papers and the exempt documentation prior to publication, with sufficient time to assess the papers and to be briefed if appropriate. I had anticipated there would be exempt papers for the clean Air proposals and asked if this was the case on a number of occasions and received repeated assurances that there would be none.

“I was surprised therefore to receive a call at 7pm on publication day to be advised that there were indeed confidential papers. At that stage I had not seen any of the papers and did not know there were over 1000 pages. I said I would not agree to exempt papers in those circumstances.

“It was surprising to discover that there were other exempt papers for the November Cabinet meeting and none of these had been through the process.

“The established process is an important check and balance to prevent abuse of the exempt status and I would like assurance that this breach will not be repeated.”