Council criticized for starting meetings in private
Northumberland's new super council has come in for early criticism for its alleged lack of transparency - after deciding to hold the first meetings of its three area committees in private.
The committees - one covering the north of the county, one the west and the other the south east - offer local people a regular opportunity to question councillors and officials, and get involved in local democracy.
However the first meeting of each of them is being held behind closed doors with the public not allowed in.
The West Area Committee met on Tuesday night, the South East Committee met on Wednesday and the North Committee sits on Monday, all in private session. Next month all three committees will meet for the first time in public, then on a monthly basis after that.
Yesterday self-employed contractor Kevin Little of Haltwhistle, a regular attender at area committees when there used to be six of them, said it was wrong for the new unitary authority to simply decide to hold the meetings in private.
"It is a major function of these three new committees to interface with the public, and it is not a good start when the first meetings are held in secret. I would ask on what authority the council has made these private.
"It is difficult enough to get members of the public to attend these meetings, but it is even more difficult when you bar them for no good reason.''
Coun Ian Swithenbank, who chairs the South East Committee, said it had always been intended that the first three meetings would be for members only, to discuss how the committees would function and their terms of reference.
"Mr Little is looking for something that is simply not there, and there has been no decision made by the three committee chairs to meet in private. The South East Committee had a very useful meeting on Wednesday where we discussed things like our relationships with town councils, how to handle petitions and other technical issues."
Paddy Gascoigne, head of democratic services at the county council, said: "The first official area committee meetings will be held in May. These will have a set agenda and the press and the public are more than welcome to attend.''
The North Committee, which covers council business for the Alnwick, Berwick, Morpeth and Amble areas, meets on Monday May 11 at 6pm in the Alnwick council chamber. The West Committee, which takes in the Hexham, Haltwhistle, Ponteland and Prudhoe areas, sits on Tuesday 12 at 6pm at Merton Hall, Ponteland.
The South East Committee, which covers Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth and Cramlington, meets on Wednesday 13 at 6pm in Newbiggin sports centre.
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