Essex scrutiny committee under fire over 'private' highways meeting

An Essex County Council scrutiny committee system has been criticised for not allowing issues around the effectiveness of highway maintenance to be heard in public. Large parts of a questions and answers session with Ringway Jacobs - the main contractor for road maintenance in Essex was held in private - even though it has been argued many of the issues discussed could have been held in an open forum.

The Place Services and Economic Growth Policy and Scrutiny Committee on Thursday, April 25, heard from the cabinet member for Highways, Infrastructure and Sustainable Transport councillor Tom Cunningham and the operations director for Essex Highways at Ringway Jacobs Simon Butt.

Large parts of the meeting were listed as confidential and held in private - away from the scrutiny of the public - after it was deemed to contain information relating to the financial or business affairs of the company. However, according to committee member Councillor James Newport, many items around how effective Ringway Jacobs is could have been heard in public.

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He says the scrutiny committee is not working and the administration putting Tory chairmen in place means they are "marking their own homework". He added that it was even more pertinent to hear directly and in public from both Ringway Jacobs and the cabinet member given the interest people take in the state of the roads in Essex.

Councillor Newport said: “I am not comfortable with the scrutiny function at Essex County Council as a whole. The problem with the scrutiny function is those scrutiny committees at Essex County Council are chaired by Conservatives. They are effectively marking their own homework.

"It is not best practice for the scrutiny to be chaired by the administration. It is meant to be a critical friend. The chairman, in consultation with the cabinet member, decided to put all that in exempt – because they said it was commercially sensitive.

"He decided to lump it all together for convenience and to hide it and put it into exempt. There were items that could have been taken in public. Absolutely there was a discussion that could have taken place outside of exempt.”

Recently residents fed up with potholes in one street in Chelmsford altered a road sign to highlight their frustrations. Patching Hall Lane was unofficially renamed to Patch The Holes Lane, thanks to the crude handiwork of locals.

Another resident in Uttlesford made his own sign warning motorists of a large pothole in Great Easton between Thaxted and Dunmow. William Farrugia, who lives in Great Easton, says he put up the sign after witnessing the potential danger the pothole poses – he saw one motorcycle almost lose control after driving through the pothole.

Councillor Newport said: "Someone used that specific example of Great Easton. How could that be exempt? It wouldn’t. Why was it left and never fixed? Why couldn’t taxpayers understand why that was? What was exempt about that?"

A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: “Commercially sensitive information about the council’s contracts was discussed in private as it falls within Paragraph 3, Part 1, of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972, as amended. By law, the majority party is required to appoint the chairmen and vice chairmen of scrutiny committees. At Essex County Council, we involve significantly more opposition parties in the leadership of scrutiny committees than the law asks for.

“This includes the Leader of the Opposition being Chairman of the Corporate Scrutiny and Policy Committee. All scrutiny committees at Essex County Council also have vice chairmen from opposition parties. The majority of authorities responding to the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny survey appointed all, or most, chairmen and vice chairmen to their scrutiny committees from majority parties.

“Scrutiny committees set out their own work plans which are included on each agenda for review. Cabinet members also give notice to committee members about their availability and make every effort to set time aside in their schedules. Committee members always have the right to access the information they need to fulfil their roles and we work to ensure it is available.”