An open letter to County Councillor Barry Thomas, Leader of Powys County Council
At Full Council in February, you won considerable respect when, unlike many members of your Cabinet, you voted in favour of a Welsh Liberal Democrat motion, proposed by my fellow County Councillors Gemma Bowker and John Morris, to give members of the public a right to speak ahead of council meetings. I was delighted that our motion passed, with your support, and we look forward to that right to speak being enshrined in the way that Powys County Council does business in the future. In many quarters, it is seen as an advance for openness and transparency.
However, with the plethora of consultations around school organisation and potential school closures that Powys County Council is currently promoting, there is a much greater and more urgent step that is necessary - and which I am calling upon you to take today. The level of unease and pain that has been unleashed in four of our secondary school catchment areas in Breconshire and Radnorshire, combined with the huge uncertainties that flow from the threatened closures of three Radnorshire primary schools, mean that I have been contacted by - and have spoken to - many dozens of parents and community representatives in recent weeks. I have attended numerous meetings in South and Mid Powys on the issue, and have taken the time to listen to the concerns raised.
Apart from all the school specific issues that arise regularly in my own old school at Gwernyfed, but also county wide, there is a predominant theme and that is one of distrust. Parents, pupils and concerned members of the community feel disconnected from the proposals coming out of Cabinet. They feel that the Cabinet, with its disproportionate representation from the North of the County is divorced from them - and unaware of the profound impacts that the proposed closures will have. In particular, they feel that their views receive only lip service at meetings - and that minds are already closed before Cabinet members have taken their place at the table.
As I raised last week in my final Plenary Question this term to First Minister, the Rt Hon Carwyn Jones, the role of the 'informal Cabinet' sessions is of particular concern in this regard. There is a widespread understanding that these extended, informal discussions, of which there is no formal record, are where the real decisions take place - and lines are agreed. The Cabinet meetings which follow are often tightly controlled - and give members of the public little reassurance that there is not already a broadly agreed script for the discussion.
In order to dispel this impression - and in the cause of transparency, I am asking you to take the positive step of conducting all relevant whole cabinet discussion in public, with a full record of proceedings, and to abandon the cosy discussion of 'informal Cabinet.' This would go a significant way to restoring a level of trust in the process - and provide full transparency in terms of the decisions taken.
I attach a link to my exchanges with the First Minister on this topic - and very much look forward to your response.
Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales
Powys County Councillor for Talgarth