Free speech is dead in Bath and North East Somerset after the council voted to impose “draconian” rules on members of the public, Conservative councillors say.
At tonight’s B&NES Council meeting, Liberal Democrat councillors voted to bar members of the public from attending council meetings if they fail to send the full text of their speech to council officers beforehand.
Opposition Conservative councillors furiously opposed the proposals, along with members of the Labour Group and other minority political groups, on the grounds that they will severely erode the democratic rights of B&NES residents.
Under the current rules, all residents are entitled to speak at council meetings on any topic they wish. In order to do so, they are asked to alert council officers at least 48 hours before the day of the meeting, and provide a short description of what they wish to talk about.
But under the new proposals, residents must send the full text of their speech to the council in advance or be completely barred from speaking.
This unnecessary rule, which is contrary to the council’s own constitution, has already resulted in members of the public being alienated from the democratic process.
At a recent Cabinet meeting, for example, one resident was barred from speaking because he was unable to send in his full speech beforehand. In the days before the meeting, he had been in Ukraine helping victims of the current war and was shocked to discover that he was still expected to write a speech while in a warzone.
When he was unable to find time to do it, he was refused permission to speak.
The Conservatives also fear that people who are unable to write very well or who prefer to speak from the heart rather than rigidly follow a pre-agreed script will be completely cut off from participating in local democracy.
Cllr Vic Pritchard, Leader of the Conservative Group on Bath and North East Somerset Council, said: “The Conservative Group has persistently opposed this new rule ever since it was first tabled by the Liberal Democrats.
“It’s a draconian imposition that will disadvantage residents who have every right to hold their elected officials to account.
“There is no provision in the council’s own constitution to justify this move and if the Conservative Group wins power at next year’s local elections, we will commit to reversing it and ensuring every resident has fair access to democracy.”
In recent months, the Liberal Democrat administration has faced a number of tough questions from the public over a questionable transfer of land at Bathampton Meadows, the massively overrun Cleveland Bridge works, attempts to restrict access to the city centre and the cancellation of the world-famous Bath Christmas Markets.
The Conservative Group believes this new move to restrict access to local democracy is an attempt by the administration to evade criticism and hide from scrutiny.