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June 15, 2018

Behind closed doors: Are councils routinely abandoning meetings because of public dissent – or is it just Lambeth?

By Jerry Green

At a special council meeting of Lambeth Council last December the then Mayor Councillor Marcia Cameron abandoned proceedings after just five minutes.

The meeting had been preceded by a very rowdy special meeting of the council’s cabinet which approved financial compensation to victims of child abuse in homes run by Lambeth Council and its predecessors.

The meeting of the full council was being asked to approve the compensation package, a move resented by many of the abuse victims who want the chance to publicly have their say about the horrors they endured.

Councillors and officers removed themselves to another room at the Kennington Oval cricket ground where the meeting was held while Lambeth town hall was getting a major makeover.

They never came back.

Along with members of the public who were waiting for councillors to return I was eventually summoned over by a suited security guard who said the chief executive wanted a word with me. Fine.

I was met on the way by a council press officer who told me the rest of the meeting was being held behind closed doors. A BBC TV film crew was already there. Four councillors gave prepared speeches. A vote was taken. The meeting concluded without interruption.

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In my many years of covering councils and their committees in London I’ve never known of public dissent causing a council meeting or committee meeting to be held behind closed doors.

Fast forward to May 2018 and the annual mayor-making with Lambeth council back at the town hall.

Retiring mayor Cllr Cameron threatens to adjourn the meeting because of heckling from the public gallery by some supporters of Shirley Oaks Survivors Association (SOSA) – although there was nothing about SOSA on that evening’s agenda.

The meeting is adjourned then restarted with Councillor Christopher Wellbelove taking over as Mayor. He agrees from the chair to meet with representatives from Shirley Oaks. But the heckling continues.

Cllr Wellbelove adjourns the meeting. A press officer comes and gets myself and Jason Cobb from the Brixton Buzz website to cover the rest of the meeting, which is again being held behind closed doors.

In the wake of the Kennington Oval meeting I tried to find examples of councils holding meetings behind closed doors.

The only one I could find was in Brighton in January 2017 – and that was only for a candle lighting ceremony held behind closed doors because of fears of protests which never materialised. The rest of the meeting was then held in public.

I also understand it may have happened during a budget meeting at the London borough of Haringey but that meeting was webcast.

Is there anyone out there among the dwindling number of reporters on the dwindling number of local newspapers aware of other councils abandoning meetings and then holding them behind closed doors?

Jerry Green writes and edits News From Crystal Palace.

Most of his career was spent on local papers including the Balham and Tooting News / South Western Star based in Tooting and the Beckenham Advertiser series.

Picture: Edwardx/Wikicommons

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