‘If you do not speak your voice will not be heard.’
Virtual council meetings have their advantages and with a few simple improvements they can increase voter engagement, but people still need to stand up and make sure their voices heard.
Main event of last night’s Cabinet meeting was to make a decision on the Liveable Streets Bow report. Liveable Streets, or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) as the rest of London calls them, have proved to be extremely controversial and divisive.
Members of some communities are convinced that LTNs have little to do with road use and everything to do with social cleansing. This perception has been reinforced by an overwhelmingly White [LINK] middle-class pro-cycling lobby pushing their agenda with an almost religious fervour.
They are just bikes guys.
If you did not watch the webcast of the Cabinet meeting last night you can see the archived stream here. East End Enquirer live blogged the meeting as did Local Democracy Reporter Rachael Burford.
As we are all totally reliant on virtual meetings for the foreseeable future a few basic improvements might make a lot of difference to the user’s experience.
The Geek Stuff
Anyone in video production knows that while people will put up with rubbish video they will not hang around if the video’s audio is rubbish.
A big problem Tower Hamlets has is very poor internet infrastructure which leads to bandwidth problems. The internet is what the Web runs on but carries lots and lots of other stuff too.
Think of the internet as a plumbing system. The main internet pipes that run across the borough are not big which means that not much water (bandwidth) can flow through them and many of the pipes that deliver the water to peoples homes are small too.
This insufficient bandwidth means poor quality video and audio for the user.
This is not fixable any time soon so we have to make do with what we have.
And let us not forget the high rates of digital exclusion in the borough with many of those on a lower income not having decent access to the interwebs.
No idea what the bandwidth is coming out of the town hall but our Internet Geekery Department guesses that it is not that high (small pipes). The web streaming service seems to be outsourced so the content of a virtual Cabinet meeting goes from the town hall out to the video service provider somewhere in the UK and then comes back to spread the joy across the borough.
All this geekery is one reason that the size of the video player we use to see the virtual meeting is only 600 pixels by 340 pixels, the bare minimum. Making this full screen has no effect on the video quality which, because of the bandwidth issue, will also not improve any time soon.
All of this makes provision of good quality audio even more important (good geek thing is that audio needs a tiny amount of bandwidth compared to video).
From watching numerous council webcasts it is obvious that the audio quality could be improved but – and here comes the tricky bit – it is down to human beings to improve it.
You are on mute councillor!
Every LBTH Council elected member or officer who regularly takes part in webcasts needs to be issued with a decent headset which has a decent microphone. They then have to use them every time.
Pretty much every computer has a webcam built in so that’s not a big issue and because of the rubbish bandwidth is not that important anyway.
At the moment each individual elected member or officer makes their own arrangements for audio which means that many are inaudible a lot of the time.
Some simple advice from Democratic Services as to the way elected members or officers sit during webcasts and where they sit would also be a good idea. At least one councillor has his webcam very low and he sits very close to it and for some reason has a very dark background. This leads to him seeming to be a backlight figure with face distorted by the webcam lens.
The council webcast’s must all be transcribed (audio to text) so that general accessibility is improved (or the audio was really, really bad) and residents can read the transcript as watching video takes a lot of time.
The council’s webcast service provider does provide a transcription service but the quality is… well, judge for yourself. This is from the very start of the Pensions Committee on Thursday, 19th November 2020
“I want to make I’m Jack yeah we’re good to go and ask take thanks OK and good evening everyone and welcome my name’s Rachael Blake I a councillor in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and until the AGM I was the Vice Chair of this Committee I’m still a member of this committee the Chair of this committee is Councillor Sam Perry she’s unwell and are sent apologies this is actually the first Committee following an AGM at the end of September so there are some new members and so I suggest we do actually do you a of introductions and I’m just gonna go down a participant list if that the so as sorry Chair you’re from you’re breaking up”
Auto transcription of council pensions committee meeting
Ouch. Nothing to do with Cllr. Blake. There is a higher quality transcription service but this costs money.
Who the hell is that?
Residents know what councillors look like and probably recognise the key senior council officers on webcasts. But what about the others?
Last night there were numerous residents speaking at Cabinet and Moley had no idea who these people were. Sure they were introduced by the Mayor but when Moley missed that he was reduced to squinting at the teeny weeny little name labels on the video player (see above) which were mainly indecipherable.
Even if Mole could have read the names that does not mean he can identify who that individual is. He could not find their names on the accompanying documentation either.
All councillors have to declare interests before every meeting and it seems only fair that anyone else who wants to speak at council has to do the same.
They should also be required to declare if they are speaking for or against the subject for discussion.
At least one resident speaking for the motion was a member of Tower Hamlets Wheelers cycling group which has been very active promoting Liveable Streets. That is absolutely fine but everyone should know. Moley knows because he did a quick bit of digging to find out.
Neither Moley or you knows how many of the other speakers were members of pro-cycling lobby groups because their identities are not known. Was it just one person? Or was every speaker a member of a cycling group? Unlikely but you get the idea.
(Note: In the interests of transparency it should also have been made clear at Cabinet that Chris Harrison is a member of PCL Consult which runs Liveable Streets for the Council to which he is seconded. He is not a council officer.)
Stand up and be heard
All the above is pointless unless individual residents stand up and make their voices heard.
If residents speaking in favour of Bow Liveable Streets are members of pro-cycling groups so what? At least they were making their views heard.
Unfortunately there was not one resident speaking against the Bow Liveable Streets scheme. Nobody.
Opponents of the scheme also did not engage with the debate online despite invitations by Moley and Rachael Burford to do so.
If it had not been for Mayor Biggs repeatedly reminding those viewing the meeting that there were residents opposed to Bow Liveable Streets then it would have been fair to believe that there was nobody against it.
The Mayor did not have to do this but he was obviously intent on the Cabinet being run well (he succeeded) and taking residents with him. There was a noticeable conciliatory tone from the Cabinet members which may have been a concerted attempt to repair relations with those opposing Liveable Streets which have been virtually destroyed by one councillor in particular treating residents opposing the scheme with open contempt.
So here’s the thing.
Tweeting about stuff does not count.
Creating Facebook groups and posting does not count.
Complaining to your friends who think the same as you do does not count.
Petitions count a bit (but not that much).
Emails to councillors count as long as they are polite and considered.
The only thing that always counts is standing up to be identified as being for or against a proposal and speaking in a public forum.
If you do not make it your business to find out when you can address a council meeting your voice will not be heard.
If you do not speak your voice will not be heard.
Anyone who does not stand up and be counted is not taking part in the democratic process and forfeits their right to criticise that process or those who do engage with it but have different views to theirs.
That is how democracy works
Remember those members of the armed forces who have died to preserve democracy in our country and that others will do so in future.
Wapping’s Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, was assassinated by a right-wing thug while going about her public duty as an elected representative and expressing her deeply held belief that ‘we are better together’.
So no whining thanks.
The Enquirer, as Love Wapping before it, has a reputation for publicly calling out any local politician who does not follow the democratic process irrespective of their political stance.
By the same token the Enquirer will not show any favour for residents who do not engage with the democratic process while simultaneously criticising the very thing they do not engage with.
Second chance to be heard
Luckily for opponents to Bow Liveable Streets Mayor Biggs announced that he would be organising a village hall type meeting, so giving them a second chance to be heard. Again he did not have to do this but he thinks it is necessary.
Overall last night’s Cabinet was one of the best council meetings I have seen. Long may that continue.
One odd thing about Cabinet were that all the speakers were White middle-class residents. Why?
Proper engagement with those who identify as Bangladeshi or Somali or being a member of other ethnic minorities was an issue discussed last night.
Is ethnic representation an issue?
Seems only 4% of those responding to the consultation process were Bangladeshi or Somali or members of other ethnic minorities despite making up around 20% of the Bow demographic.
One councillor suggested that there should now be additional engagement with these groups to ensure their opinions are heard.
This is wrong.
A quick glance at a list of Tower Hamlets councillors will show that many of them are Bangladeshi / Somali / members of other ethnic minorities.
If these councillors have not managed to engage with all the people they represent irrespective of ethnicity by now it’s way too late.
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