Some town councils hold third of meetings in secret

Witney's deputy mayor Jeanette Baker

Witney's deputy mayor Jeanette Baker

First published in News Banbury Cake: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter covering Witney and West Oxfordshire. Call me on 01865 425483

THREE town councils in Oxfordshire ban the public from parts of at least a third of their meetings, the Oxford Mail can reveal today.

Witney, Wallingford and Abingdon town councils have voted to exclude the public and press for what they ruled were confidential matters on dozens more occasions than their counterparts in Didcot, Wantage, Banbury, Thame, Chipping Norton and Bicester.

Witney Town Council closed 25 of its 64 meetings, including the public halls committee meeting last month where it claimed having the Oxford Mail report on plans for the Corn Exchange might ruin its bid for a grant. It also said it needed to “control information that is currently put in the public domain”.

The discussions about a multi-million-pound refurbishment of the Corn Exchange and sale of Langdale Hall were held in private.

Town clerk Sharon Groth said all exclusions complied with the 1960 Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act.

She said: “Staffing was a big chunk of those and it was involved in eight of the finance and general purposes committee meetings. Others included items that were commercially sensitive.

“Councillors receive the documentation in advance so they know what’s in the reports. They tried on one occasion to consider a report in open session, but they felt they had to close the meeting because they didn’t think they could do it without revealing commercially sensitive information.”

Newsquest Oxfordshire, the publisher of the Oxford Mail, has lodged an official complaint with the town council saying the exclusion covered matters that should have been discussed in public.

Deputy mayor Jeanette Baker said: “We’re very keen to have as much transparency as we can but there’s times when that information is so commercially sensitive that it’s not possible to do so.

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“I’m totally sympathetic with regard to openness and so are all the councillors.”

Wallingford Town Council voted to exclude the public during 25 of 32 meetings, but town mayor Bernard Stone said these were only small parts of each meeting. He said they included commercially sensitive information, staffing matters and nominations for town merit awards.

He added: “It’s a very miniscule amount of the business that’s conducted confidentially. It’s not with a view to hiding things going on in the town from the public.

“A council meeting would last for between an hour-and-a-half and two hours and when there’s something confidential to discuss we’re talking about 10 minutes at the end. It couldn’t be more open than we have it.”

Abingdon Town Council excluded the public from parts of 34 of 52 meetings.

Town clerk Nigel Warner said: “We can have a finance meeting from 7pm to 9pm and then it’s closed to the public for five minutes at the end.

“We only exclude the press and public where there’s absolutely very good reason for doing so.

“Some councils do things through working groups so when they have a full council meeting the confidential-type work has already been done.”

There were five closed meetings out of 58 at Wantage Town Council, seven of 37 at Banbury, 11 of 38 at Bicester, and three of 12 at Chipping Norton while Didcot Town Council closed seven of 43.

None of Thame Town Council’s 36 meetings were closed to the public.

MINUTES REVEAL DISCOVERY OF ASBESTOS

ASBESTOS has been found in Witney’s Corn Exchange which could delay its multi-million-pound refurbishment.

The issue was highlighted in the minutes of a Witney Town Council meeting closed to the public, which have now been released.

They also revealed the progress towards putting Langdale Hall up for sale to raise money for the Corn Exchange project.

The Oxford Mail was unable to report from the meeting on March 10 after members of the public halls committee voted to sit in private, citing “commercially sensitive information” being discussed. Substantial minutes of what was discussed have now been released by the council.

The Corn Exchange was closed suddenly in 2011 after a safety inspection uncovered there was asbestos in the building and the council agreed to carry out work to solve the issue.

The mineral was widely used for insulation in the past, but its fibres, if inhaled, can cause fatal illnesses.

Councillors also discussed a Heritage Lottery Fund application for £1.8m and a response would be received in June.

Town clerk Sharon Groth said yesterday: “We’re waiting on some quotes on how much and how long it will take to remove the asbestos before we can start working in there.

“We don’t know what the figure is at the moment or what impact it will have.

“We can’t tender the first phase of the project until we get a report back from our professional advisers.”

Comments (1)

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8:27am Thu 3 Apr 14

Quentin Walker says...

There may be valid reasons for some exclusions, however, well done Oxford Mail for pressurising Councils for Press access to ensure democracy.
There may be valid reasons for some exclusions, however, well done Oxford Mail for pressurising Councils for Press access to ensure democracy. Quentin Walker
  • Score: 3

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