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Journalist hits out as press barred from council decision-making process

Jon BradyA journalist has criticised a council’s decision to bar his newspaper and the public from scrutinising decisions until after they have been made as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.

The Dundee Evening Telegraph has raised concerns over Dundee City Council’s decision not to hold public meetings via video link, with a handful of councillors and officers making decisions in private instead.

The criticism comes after neighbouring Angus Council became one of the first local authorities in Scotland to hold a publicly accessible online meeting.

The Evening Telegraph has reported on concerns raised in Dundee about the current process, with one councillor warning that taking decisions “away from public eyes is not sustainable”.

Jon Brady, the newspaper’s council reporter, told HTFP: “At the moment, Dundee City Council is operating like a closed book.

“The chief executive, together with the administration leader and the leaders of opposition groups, is agreeing a handful of decisions that are considered ‘essential council business’ during the pandemic – but the problem with these decisions is that, as well as taking place out of public view, they aren’t subject to any sort of scrutiny.

“Reports that would normally be publicised before a meeting are now appearing in a listing on the council’s website after they are agreed – meaning decisions can only be scrutinised after they have been made.

“In addition, while we’ve seen the Scottish Parliament hold virtual meetings and even a neighbouring local authority, Angus Council, hold a virtual meeting on the Zoom platform with relative success, the view of Dundee City Council appears to be that business will remain on hold indefinitely.

“While I appreciate we are living in an extraordinary set of circumstances, there are decisions being made on council finances, large-scale planning applications and licensing that will directly affect local people without being afforded any examination.”

Jon went on to warn there was a risk that the council would build up a backlog of matters that need to be discussed at committee – which he believes could lead to councillors rushing through items to conclude meetings in a reasonable period of time.

He added: “This is already an issue in Dundee, where the majority of council meetings start at 6pm and can go on for several hours – I’ve seen items rushed through which merited scrutiny because people wanted to get home. That’s likely to happen on a grander scale post-lockdown.

“And while the leaders of each local party grouping – along with Dundee’s two independent councillors – are signing off on decisions, some of their own councillors are frustrated at the situation and are keen to do what they were elected to do.

“But at present, the council’s official stance is that it is ‘carrying out its essential business with cross-party agreement’ and is ‘always interested in what other councils are doing’.

“But being interested isn’t enough – while council staff are doing a fantastic job in delivering essential services the public still has a right to know what decisions are going to be made that will directly affect their lives, before they are made.”

A spokesman for Dundee City Council told the Evening Telegraph: “The council is publishing reports as they are approved under the scheme of delegated powers.

“Any decisions which are taken will also be reported to the relevant committee for information once the council returns to its normal business.

“In light of timescales, reports are approved by the chief executive/executive director, in consultation with the relevant convener, Labour group spokesperson, Conservative group spokesperson, Liberal Democrat group spokesperson, the Independent member and the Lord Provost.”

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