AddThis SmartLayers

Democracy in ‘trouble’ if councils don’t make better use of local press, warns editor

An editor has warned politicians that “local democracy is in trouble” if they do not make better use of local newspapers to promote democratic engagement.

John Wilson, who edits Newsquest’s weekly newspapers in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, has  urged politicians to do more to help their constituents engage with the democratic process by promoting meetings better.

John’s call comes after just 16 voters turned up to a public meeting about the “controversial” Cotswold District Local Plan which was held at 10am.

Newsquest reporter Sarah Watson, who attended the meeting, admitted on Twitter she had been “shocked” by the low attendance for “such an important meeting”.

In turn, John suggested that such meetings shouldn’t be held during the day because “too many people who may like to attend are at work”.

John told HTFP: “The meeting about Cotswold District Local Plan was effectively a rubber-stamping exercise. The consultation period had finished, and there were no further arrangements for members of the public to express their opinions. Nevertheless, it was a final opportunity for local councillors to address voters about a controversial document: the blueprint for how their communities will develop over the next 13 years.

“Cotswold District Council booked the Baptist Church, Cirencester, for the meeting, rather than the council chamber, so it could accommodate more people. Yet our reporter Sarah Watson, who expressed her dismay at the turnout, said there were only about 16 voters there, despite serious concerns in the community about the content of the plan.

“That’s no surprise. The meeting was held at 10am on a Friday in the school summer holidays. Many people with an interest would have been at work or away with their families. No wonder local democracy is in trouble. Significant public meetings like this should be held out of working hours and promoted extensively in local newspapers, which reach many more local people than councils’ communication channels.

“Politicians should also swap their jargon for the sort of everyday English that people can understand, and which will encourage them to engage more in local affairs.”


You can follow all replies to this entry through the comments feed.
  • August 14, 2018 at 9:16 am

    Public attendances at council meetings have always been poor in the past 40 years. The public relied on newspapers getting in there and reporting debates and decisions and generally local papers did a decent job. Only protests from planning application NIMBYs ever provoked much in the way of numbers.
    Now papers never seem to attend or report debates. A lot of stuff from the new so-called local democracy reporters seems to be re-writes of council handouts. Coverage of the various council meetings (not just full council) seems sketchy to say the least, non-existent in most cases.
    Perhaps some more detailed and regular coverage of council meetings might encourage the public. After all, if the press cannot be bothered, why should the public ?
    Does anyone remember when papers covered almost every parish, town, and district council meeting on their patch properly. I can recall sometimes working three evenings a week. Do reporters on local papers do that anymore?
    I fear not, and democracy is the loser.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(29)
  • August 14, 2018 at 11:00 am

    The CDC planning battle had been fought and lost. As John says, it was a case of rubber-stamping the plan. Still, a cynic might consider the timing of the meeting as a way of avoiding any further protest; the booking of a bigger venue a mere sop to conspiracy theory merchants.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(5)
  • August 14, 2018 at 11:28 am

    As someone who has attended council meetings and consultations held on an evening I can say that it matters not one bit for attendance.

    A year or so ago I attended an NHS crisis meeting about funding shortfalls and what and where cash could be saved. It was heavily publicised in the press, online on social media. It was held at 7pm at a central location with plenty of free parking.

    The final attendance was 15. Three journalists (inc myself), four councillors, someone from the CCG with a microphone and seven members of the public. Seven. An online questionnaire and feedback form was also largely ignored.

    Of course, when the cuts came we were inundated with public outcry but no-one bothered to attend. It is always the case. You will never find times that suit everyone.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(8)
  • August 14, 2018 at 11:30 am

    Oh and paperboy: “Does anyone remember when papers covered almost every parish, town, and district council meeting on their patch properly. I can recall sometimes working three evenings a week. Do reporters on local papers do that anymore?
    I fear not, and democracy is the loser.”

    Yes, they are called Local Democracy Reporters and they are a Godsend. You may remember them as what the bitter old hacks on here referred to as “press release monkeys” the other week. People on here need to pull their head from the dark place

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(16)
  • August 14, 2018 at 1:56 pm

    Local plans are not really controversial. They set a direction of travel, but don’t contain any specifics that haven’t already been agreed by planning committees – where objections are normally raised, Seems like a case of generating “controversy” where there was none.

    Probably sent the reporter there hoping for protesters so they could get a decent lead out of it. When none turned up, the paper has to fill a page… and lo and behold here we have it.

    Shows a distinct lack of understanding about council process.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(9)
  • August 15, 2018 at 3:39 pm


    you reckon the LDRs are doing three evenings a week.
    It doesn’t look like it from what I am reading. Perhaps you live in a lucky part of the country. Mine seem to be filing re-shaped council press releases with very little or none investigative work. But I do hope the scheme succeeds because I am helping to pay for it.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(0)
  • August 17, 2018 at 12:27 am

    Some papers do still effectively cover local councils – and did so before the LDRs came in. Until recently I was working as a political reporter for several titles. I would say three evening meetings a week was about average. It was often more.

    John Wilson refers to a local plan meeting. These are notorious hard sells. They are a hugely complex topic in an arena where public engagement is dreadfully low anyway. I found people really struggled with the concept of ‘20,000 homes in ‘X’ town over the next 20 years’ and identified far more with the 200 homes in their back yard when the plan allocations filtered through.

    Local plans often take years. I found even the hardened of campaigners had been ground down by ever-increasing housing targets and by the time it came to adoption, they had understandable accepted the inevitable and lost all faith in the process. Sixteen is actually a good number!

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(0)