Anger Over Refusal to Take Public's Questions at Council Meeting

Labour councillors voted against extending time allowed

Hammersmith and Fulham Council meeting

January 29, 2024

Hammersmith and Fulham Labour councillors were accused of ‘cowardice’ after voting not to extend the public questions segment of a full council meeting this Thursday (26 January). Three members of the public were awaiting the opportunity to speak, one of whom, a resident due to query the council’s Clean Air Neighbourhood (CAN) trial in South Fulham, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) he was ‘not surprised’ by the group’s decision.

A spokesperson for Hammersmith and Fulham said the local authority has ‘significantly extended’ the ways in which residents can engage with it in recent years, and that the primary function of a full council meeting is to ‘facilitate votes by elected councillors’.

Hammersmith and Fulham Council allows for 20 minutes of public questions at full council. Those who do not get air time are responded to in writing via the minutes published online.

Of the 14 questions submitted, nine related to the council’s South Fulham CAN schemes. Similar in principle to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), the CANs involve a range of measures to tackle toxic air pollution. These include tree planting, traffic reductions, and improved walking and cycling infrastructure.

The first scheme, to the east of Wandsworth Bridge, was made permanent in December 2021, and the council says this has reduced carbon dioxide emissions locally by about one tonne a day. A second, to the west of the bridge, is currently being trialled, due to run until mid-2024. As with LTNs, the CANs have not been without controversy.

One of those who was able to ask a question at the meeting, Lauren Clark, raised concerns about the poll to be carried out borough-wide into the trial, amid suggestions responses from people living inside the scheme will count more than those based outside of it.

She was told by Cllr Sharon Holder, cabinet member for public realm, that while the council has engaged ‘extensively’, ‘consultations are not referendums’, and any decision on whether to make the CAN permanent will consider the feedback alongside measures including air quality and traffic speed.

The majority of those who submitted questions did not attend the meeting, and so were not able to pose their issues to councillors. However, with three still awaiting their opportunity to ask questions, the council was informed the 20 minutes allocated was up, having heard from four people.

Conservative councillor Alex Karmel proposed a motion to extend the item, though when put to the chamber, Labour councillors voted against the move, leading to shouts of ‘cowardice’ from the public gallery.

Following the meeting, Cllr Victoria Brocklebank-Fowler, leader of the Conservative group, said, “It is undemocratic and quite frankly rude to refuse to listen to all the residents who come to ask questions at the five ordinary council meetings held in a year.

“In administration we always extended public question time and last night the Labour administration actually voted against extension and residents who had made the effort to come in person, were turned away. Doing things to residents and not with them is obviously their mantra.”

David Tarsh, who was due to ask a question on the council’s transparency around CAN data, told the LDRS, “I’m not surprised that the current administration decided not to extend questions because it was clear they were about to be seriously embarrassed in public.”

Mr Tarsh has previously accused the council of ‘greenwashing’, saying the scheme is a ‘money-making activity’. Speaking after Wednesday night’s meeting, he described it as ‘socially divisive’, and claimed it has increased congestion along Wandsworth Bridge Road and New Kings Road.

A spokesperson for the council said, “In recent years Hammersmith and Fulham has significantly extended the number of ways that residents can question and engage with the council, shape policies and hold it to account. We’ve introduced new policy and accountability committees, new public policy commissions and new neighbourhood workshops.

“Additional to that, the council also facilitates public engagement at the borough’s cabinet meetings and 20 minutes of public questions at full council meetings. Hammersmith and Fulham has consistently acted to make sure we hear and understand people’s views and take them into account when we act to make our borough a safer, cleaner and better place to live and work.

“The full council meeting takes place six times each year. Its primary purpose is to facilitate votes by elected councillors which is a statutory requirement needed to legally enact certain constitutional council matters. It is also an occasion when elected representatives debate the business of each meeting.

“The full council’s published standing orders allocate 20 minutes at the start of every meeting for public questions. This is also confirmed to the audience by the mayor at the start of every full council meeting. Anyone who doesn’t get to ask their question always receives a full written response from Hammersmith and Fulham.

“Many of the people who attended [Wednesday] night’s full council meeting have also regularly attended and asked questions at many others in recent years. Hammersmith and Fulham has also been very engaged with them via community meetings, consultations and correspondence. We will always listen to our residents’ views.”

Ben Lynch - Local Democracy Reporter