» have your say ¦ What You Can Get Away With

As I’ve talked about before, Essex County Council are now holding a consultation on library opening hours, now they’ve announced how much certain libraries’ opening hours are being cut.

You can go here and have your say, and it won’t take you very long as you’ll only be asked two questions. One about which library you want to comment on – for Colchester Borough, that’s Colchester central library, Prettygate, Greenstead and Stanway – and then another about which proposed set of opening hours you prefer. No chance to make any other comments, suggest alternatives or even any attempt to get any demographic data from respondents. So, the responses won’t be able to be weighted by age, gender, location, amount of times people use the library or anything like that. So, if there’s a specific group that might be adversely affected by one set of opening times, there’ll be no way for the consultation to show that.

The choices for the central library are:
Option A – opening from 9am-6.30pm Monday-Friday, 9am-5.30pm on Saturday and 1pm-4pm on Sunday
Option B – opening from 8.30am-7pm Monday-Thursday and 8.30pm-5pm Friday-Saturday. The library would then be closed all day Sunday.

And that’s your choice, so make sure you have your say on which you’d prefer.

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As you may have heard, the question of whether Colchester should apply for status has come up again. The Department for Culture has announced that there’ll be another competition for city status in 2012 to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Colchester applied for city status in the 2000 and 2002 competitions, but was unsuccessful on both occasions.

(For those of you abroad, yes, this is one of those strange British quirks whereby a place can only become a city if it’s designated as such by the monarch – but it’s also quite confusing for us to go the US, for instance, and find places scarcely bigger than a hamlet calling themselves cities)

Supporters and opponents of city status have put forward various arguments as to why we should or shouldn’t apply for it. Some say that we shouldn’t give up our status as Britain’s oldest recorded town to be the newest city, whereas others point out that we were more than just the oldest town, we were Britain’s first city, and we’re claiming back an old title. Some say it would help us promote Colchester and give us a wider profile, while others say we don’t need to do more than we already do and should stay as a regular town.

I’m not revealing which way I lean here just yet as I’d like to hear other people’s views on whether you support it or not and whether you think it’s a good idea.

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Last year, I wrote about how Colchester – along with many other Councils – is having to decide whether to stick with our current system of annual elections and electing the Council by thirds or change to an ‘all-up’ system of four-yearly elections.

Well, the Council is now holding a consultation on the issue and you can have your say on whether you think we should stick or switch by clicking here. There’s a quick online form to fill out, with space for comments or you can reply by email or post – any final decision on whether to switch has to be made by the Council later this year, and the more we hear from the people of Colchester about what they’d prefer, the easier that decision will be! I’ve set out my views on what we should do – in short, I believe the choice is between an option that slightly mitigates the iniquities of First Past The Post and one that heavily compounds them – in the earlier post, but please make sure give your own views to the consultation, whatever they may be. The deadline for commenting is May 1st.

After quite a few months of work through the Task and Finish Group that I chair, I’m pleased to say that our waste and recyling consultation is now live on Colchester Council’s website. It will also be in the next edition of the Courier, which should be landing on doorsteps throughout the Borough in the next week.

If you live in Colchester, then please take a few minutes to let us know your views about waste and recycling, and what we should be doing about them. I know people are cynical about council and government consultations, but I can promise you that this is an open consultation, and we want to know what the people of Colchester think about waste and recycling so we can create a system that’s tailored to your needs, rather than coming up with a system and then attempting to make the people fit into it.

The consultation is ongoing until the middle of January, and there’s also a public event scheduled for December 1st in the Moot Hall, where you can find out more. We’re also in the process of organising meetings with the Borough’s town and parish councils to ensure we get a wide selection of views, so look out for details of that happening in your area.

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The first major item on the Council agenda last night was the open debate on future Council elections. As it’s likely to get missed out by the press in favour of coverage of the other main item, I thought I’d discuss it in a bit more detail here.

Yet again, we’ve been asked to consider whether we want to continue the practice whereby Colchester Council is elected by thirds, or switch to a system of ‘all-up’ elections. In the current system, there are Borough Council elections in 3 out of every 4 years, with a County Council election in the 4th year. In each of those years, one-third (20 out of 60) of the Council seats are up for election and voters in a three-member ward such as Castle go to the polls every year – for instance, in the last cycle for this ward, Chris Hall was elected in 2006, I was elected in 2007 and Henry Spyvee in 2008. The next cycle starts next year, with Chris’s seat up in 2010, mine in 2011 and Henry’s in 2012.

In an ‘all-up’ system, all the Council seats would be up for election at once (most likely starting in 2011) with the elected Councillors all serving the same four-year term after that (so the next elections would be in 2015, then 2019 etc) but would be on the same ward boundaries as now, so voters would have multiple votes – e.g. in Castle, you’d vote for three candidates, and hopefully one of them would be me.

There are good arguments for and against both options – those in favour of election by thirds argue that it keeps the Council responsive, and ensures Councillors remain in touch with the electorate as well as ensuring that changes in local opinion are reflected promptly, while those in favour of all-up elections argue that having a Council in place for four years encourages long-term thinking and planning, and makes the Council more efficient when it’s not having to effectively shut down for elections every year.

I can see good points on both sides of the argument, but I’m still inclined to remain with the current system, if only because of the iniquities of our current electoral system. I don’t think first-past-the-post is a good system at the best of times, but combining it with simultaneously-elected multi-member wards only serves to exacerbate the problems with it. Whereas under thirds a ward might swing back and forth between different parties and wards will often be represented by councillors from different parties, an all-up election makes it much easier for a single party to take all the seats in a ward with just a small plurality of the vote. Under thirds, it is possible for a party with about 30-35% of the vote to get a majority on the Council, but they have to repeat that success over three years to do so – with all-ups, and it’s happened in many boroughs, a party can get a small share of the vote and have power for four years. When you take into account the proposed change to ‘strong leaders’ that will be coming in most Councils, that’s absolute power for just a small share of the vote.

In my mind, if we’re going to have all-up elections then they have to be on a fair voting system and STV – which is already used in local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland – is the perfect system for that, especially as people are already used to multi-member wards in local democracy. That way, we can have a system that is properly representative of local opinion, but it’s not one of the options on the table, of course.

While the straw poll at the end of the debate last night was in favour of all-up elections, that’s not the end of the discussion on this. It was also generally agreed that the final decision on this matter should be up to the people of Colchester. How we’re going to achieve that is still up for debate (suggestions include a mass poll through the Courier or a referendum at the next local elections) but it is up to you now, so before that whole process starts, feel free to leave a comment with your opinion on what we should be doing.

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So, a question for my fellow bloggers – Lib Dem and otherwise – that arises from my time as a Councillor: how common are Have Your Say policies in councils?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain. Here in Colchester, one of the first items on the agenda of all public Council meetings is Have Your Say, where any member of the public can come along and speak for up to three minutes on whatever they want, though it’s usually a statement and/or question on a current issue. As well as the general Have Your Say slot, there’s usually the option at meetings for the public to speak at the start of discussion on a specific agenda item, if their comments are just about that.

I’m just wondering how many other Councils have have something like that – for instance, I know Essex County Council doesn’t – and if you don’t, why aren’t you pushing to get something like that on your agendas?

And for those of you in Colchester, click on the read more link below for when the next Council meetings are, or just visit this page.

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