Belfast Telegraph

Coleraine Borough Council in U-turn over move to hold private meetings

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

A council has reversed its controversial ban on the public and media attending key meetings after admitting the move was a public relations disaster.

Coleraine Borough Council was accused of trying to keep ratepayers in the dark when it blocked access to a number of committee meetings.

The move prompted a furious backlash with claims it would result in a lack of transparency and accountability.

This week the council performed a complete U-turn and scrapped the controversial policy after a trial period.

A report on members' feedback said the move had damaged the public perception of the council.

"Members expressed a range of concerns about certain aspects of the new governance arrangements including the lack of information, exclusion of Press and public and negative publicity at the time of the review," the report said.

"The general consensus was for an adapted version of the original committee structure comprising full members' committees with Press and public access."

Last May the council approved new governance arrangements which included the ban on public and Press attending important committee meetings and it was implemented in September.

Under the change in arrangements the full council and planning meetings remained open, but a new tier of four smaller committees were held behind closed doors.

Those smaller bodies will continue to operate but the nature of the business discussed will now be in the public domain.

DUP councillor Mark Fielding led calls for the change.

"I abstained at the time of the initial discussions," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The new system provided more committees but there was less information going out to the public.

"People would see the outcomes but they weren't getting the full debates on issues.

"I couldn't see what the point of it was."

Among the vocal opponents of the so-called council gag was former Environment Minister Alex Attwood.

Mr Attwood said council meetings should be open to public scrutiny, describing access as "a fundamental tenet of democratic practice that there should be disclosure and accountability".

The Belfast Telegraph contacted Coleraine Borough Council about the U-turn but there was no response.

A similar move to ban the media and public from committee meetings in Strabane District Council was scrapped the previous February following a similar public backlash.

STORY SO FAR

There was a huge backlash after Coleraine Borough Council announced plans to ban the public and media from a number of meetings. The move was described as anti-democratic, with concerns raised over transparency regarding the workings of the body. Following a trial period it has been scrapped.

Strabane District Council's plan to hold meetings in private is ditched 

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