Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reflections on the Neighbourhood Meeting

I went to the Neighbourhood Forum meeting at Ernulf College on Monday 24th October 2011. The first problem was where was the meeting taking place? I took a chance and headed for the school building and went through the doors. I couldn't see a single sign up pointing the way. I wasn't the only one a bit lost.

Having found the meeting I was a bit taken aback at how few residents that actually turned up. I would have thought the more would be there. This was an opportunity for the Cinema groups to turn up. Also as parking in Longsands Road was on the agenda I thought many from that area would also be there. Only a couple of residents.

Anyway looking at the agenda there was something local with the Police, Longsands Road and the new Traffic Light system for the Town Centre. Goods bits of information. There was a piece by the Skateboard Users which was enlightening.

Also on the Agenda was a bit about Hate Crime.

Now I'm against Hate Crime and I can see the reason why this was put on the Agenda. Getting people to know about a service is generally a good idea. But should a Neighbourhood Forum be about puff pieces for District services?

This is the downfall of the Neighbourhood Forums. How are the Councils going to get people involved and attending if it doesn't allow residents to speak of their concerns? It is the chicken and the egg question. Which comes first?

This is the problem with Neighbourhood Forums. They don't address what concerns people may have for the future. Some instances:

The cinema has never been talked about.
Changes to the District Council opening hours at its St Neots Office.
Changes to Street Lighting.
The Open Air Swimming Pool has never been talked about.
Car Park charging at Riverside has never been talked about.
Changes to bus services has never been talked about.

These are some instances I've just thought about.

And when important decisions are talked about these seem to happen in Kimbolton or Great Gransden. St Neots is the central conurbation to this Neighbourhood Forum. I know there is a wish to get out and about with these forums. The expectation seems to be that everyone should go to the small villages to hear about St Neots. Whilst this is a good idea, in practice the Neighbourhood Forum should be held at the Priory Centre and only there. The Anti-Windfarm lobby were able to turn up to one meeting held in St Neots. If is is decided to have meetings in the villages then don't talk about St Neots issues. Why the St Neots Drop In Centre was talked about in Great Gransden is a bit beyond me.

And the chicken and egg question? I feel the Neighbourhood Forums are pretty useless. Yes, they could be much more. Instead of Councils presenting what they think the public wants to know why not ask the public what they want to know about. Yes I know there is a section within the Agenda for this to happen. But which comes first. Instead of talking about issues such a Hate Crime, talk about the cinema or the swimming pool or wind farms or whatever.

As for input, if the Councils want Neighbourhood Forums to have a higher status then what happens at these meetings should be reviewed by panels and committees at the various councils. Currently they are not.

There is also an issue of publicity. The Councils need to look at the publicity for these Forums. On the District Council website is good. But this didn't even touch the Town council website or their Priorities propaganda rag.

The future of Neighbourhood Forums looks pretty bleak. Instead of talking about what the Councils want residents to hear, these Forums need to have a purpose. That must be to discuss the upcoming issues and decisions. This will allow the residents to have an input into Councils' decisions. Therefore Councils should think like residents and put items on the Agenda that are controversial.

Whether any changes will mean a much greater attendance I doubt. The residents will only turn up if they see a reason to turn up. Cuts are happening. Yet nothing is really said on how these cuts are going to affect residents.

I know I'm probably putting in too much into 2 hours four times a year. But an attempt to make these Forums a useful tool for residents rather than being a useful tick box for the Councils could make these Forums actually useful to residents.

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