THE Vale of Glamorgan council has been criticised for a lack of transparency and for barring the public and reporters from crucial meetings.
Key meetings—like when councillors voted to increase council tax by 3.9 per cent—are not open for members of the public to watch live. Instead, recordings of meetings are uploaded to YouTube days later.
Access to public meetings was previously protected in law by parliament in 1985. But that access stopped last year when social distancing rules were brought in.
Last summer, councils switched to holding meetings virtually with video-conferencing technology like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Most Welsh councils let either the public or reporters watch them live. But the Vale of Glamorgan council does not.
Some Welsh councils also deny the public and reporters live access to meetings, but uploaded recordings of the meetings quickly afterwards. The Vale council said delays were due to “reliance on private broadband capabilities”.
The reason live access to meetings is important is that voters need to know what decisions are taken in their name, how their money is being spent, and how policies—like raising council tax—are arrived at. Before Covid-19, this used to happen very quickly.
A survey of the 11 local democracy reporters who cover the 22 councils in Wales revealed that there are wide discrepancies between how much access the public and reporters are given in witnessing council meetings.
Councils broadcasting meetings live for the public to watch are Bridgend, Cardiff, Ceredigion, Conwy, Denbighshire, Monmouthshire, Neath Port Talbot, Newport, Pembrokeshire, Powys, and Wrexham.
Councils who don’t broadcast live for the public, but who do give live access to reporters are Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Flintshire, Gwynedd, Anglesey, and Rhondda Cynon Taf.
Carmarthenshire and Swansea councils broadcast some meetings for the public to watch live, and upload the rest the next day. Torfaen council uploads recordings of its meeting the same day, and the Merthyr Tydfil council uploads its recordings the following day.
The Vale of Glamorgan council, meanwhile, does not allow the public or reporters to watch its meetings live. Recordings of its meetings are sometimes uploaded several days later, like the budget-setting meeting on Wednesday, March 10.
This budget-setting meeting—when councillors voted to increase council tax by 3.9 per cent—was not available to watch for the public or reporters until two days afterwards.
Opposition councillors in the Vale have now called on the council to be more transparent and broadcast its meetings to the public live.
Cllr Vincent Bailey, leader of the Conservative group, said:
“While Covid restrictions currently mean that council meetings have to take place online, there is no excuse to deprive members of the press and public of being able to witness events in real-time.
“The technology is there, and if most of the country is able to adapt to the new normal you have to ask why the Vale council can’t.
“There are serious issues being discussed at these meetings, and the public clearly has an interest in hearing what is said on their behalf about vital matters like council tax.
“We want to see greater transparency from the Vale council, including live-streaming of council meetings and the publication of detailed minutes online that actually name the councillor making the comments.”
Leighton Rowlands, Welsh Conservative Senedd candidate for Cardiff South & Penarth, said:
“The Vale of Glamorgan Labour-run council has spent loads upgrading the IT, and they can’t live stream or allow members of public or the press in on public meetings.
“If Cardiff council and other councils can do it I can’t see why the Vale council can’t. It’s not difficult.”
Councillor Ian Johnson, Plaid Cymru group leader, said:
“A year into the pandemic, and nine months into remote council meetings, it seems strange a senior local authority is still not live broadcasting crucial meetings about decisions which impact the community that we serve.
“Clearly the technology exists to webcast live meetings and events. It happens all the time and has been part of the digital shift that we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic.
“There might initially have been other priorities, but at this point, it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that the Vale council is being less than transparent by not arranging public streaming of meetings.
“Important council meetings on the budget, the impact of pre-Christmas flooding or the Dinas Powys bypass are not being screened live — when the public would expect that level of transparency. Making decisions and then uploading a video of the meeting is not the same.”
The Vale council said uploading recordings of meetings are done “as quickly as possible”.
A Vale of Glamorgan council spokesperson said:
“The council uploads recordings of meetings to YouTube where they can be accessed by the press and public. This is done as quickly as possible, but factors relating to remote working and the reliance on private broadband capabilities has meant there has sometimes been a delay in this process.
“Due to similar complications caused by the pandemic, meetings are not currently broadcast live, which is in keeping with the emergency regulations in place at present. However, we are constantly reviewing arrangements in relation to meetings with a view to making them as accessible as possible.”