A while ago, I tweeted some links to things on the City Council website which are useful for keeping track of what PCC are up to. The Council do put a lot of very useful information online, but these days it’s not possible to rely on media outlets to do the sort of analysis of it we need. Since those tweets, PCC have revamped their website and a number of the links are dead. I’ll update this page periodically, I think there are still changes to be made that will need to be watched out for.
How does the City Council work?
Someone could write a book on this, never mind a blogpost. This is a very simplistic and partial account, but it’s a start. Portsmouth is divided into 14 wards, each having 3 Councillors. We do not elect the whole Council in one go; each May, we elect a third of it (i.e. one Councillor in each ward). Councillors serve four-year terms, so once every four years we run out of Councillors to elect, and we get a year off voting!
The Council is effectively run by a Cabinet and a Leader of the Council, broadly mirroring how things work at national level with the Cabinet and Prime Minister. As the Lib Dems have a majority on the Council at present, they hold all the Cabinet positions. Cabinet and its portfolio holders have wide powers delegated to them to take decisions and decide policy. The full Council meets once a month, but its decision-making powers are fairly restricted, and real power resides with the Cabinet. Opposition spokespeople attend Cabinet decision meetings but they have little power except to protest.
Planning and licensing (and some other regulatory) matters have a full committee set-up, consisting of members from all parties. There are also “scrutiny” panels which are concerned more with the effectiveness or philosophy of decision-making, and also the Governance, Audit & Standards Committee.
Who are the Councillors?
They are the usual mix of people, some invisible until they want your vote, some don’t actually live in Portsmouth (despite the addresses they list on the PCC website), and some are perfectly sensible people. You’ll have to figure who’s who in that sense for yourself for now, but details on all your Councillors are here.
“What’s On” at the City Council
PCC maintains a couple of calendars, one to track “key decisions”, and one tracking dates of meetings of the various committees, Cabinet portfolios, full council meetings, and so on.
A “key decision” is what it says on the tin, it will affect a key item of PCC policy, or involve a spending commitment of over £250k (or do both). These decisions are previewed on the Forward Plan, which is updated regularly and looks forward three or four months at a time:
In looking at it now, (though it’s not on the bit I’ve taken a screenshot of) I’ve just spotted that there is a report to the Cabinet due in January on the Palmerston Rd pedestrianisation fiasco. There’s an update due too on the Council’s plan to consolidate the amount of space they use in the Civic Offices, and let some out commercially. This is a very sound idea in principle, but one fraught with the potential to become another fiasco.
The monthly calendar of PCC meetings is here:
It carries details of all the meetings of PCC bodies – full Council, committee meetings, Cabinet or Cabinet portfolio “decision meetings”, and so on. Fairly self-explanatory, click through to any item and it will take you to the relevant agenda.
Agenda are generally available five working days ahead of the meeting, and you can view or download whatever reports or papers are going to be considered, and the minutes of the body’s previous meeting should be there too.
After the meeting has happened, PCC will also upload a written record of decisions taken at the meeting to the page (this is a new feature I think). An audio recording is made of many meetings, and it would be good to have these uploaded as a matter of course to the PCC website so that those of us who can’t get to a given meeting can catch up later. The issue of recording of meetings and openness of process is a contentious one I’ll be coming back to soon in another blog.
Don’t ask me at this point how the “add meeting to your calendar using VCS format works”! I’ll update this blog when I’ve figured it out.
Members’ Information Service
This is PCC’s “headline news” bulletin, aimed at Councillors, but freely available and updated every Friday. It’s usually available after lunch and can be found by clicking on from the top level page here, and then on each month’s page is a link to the PDF of the specific bulletin. MIS is split into three parts:
Part 1 lists decisions taken by Cabinet or individual Cabinet portfolio holders.
Part 2 lists proposals from Council officials, who have authority delegated to them to act on behalf of the Council. These are by no means necessarily trivial!
Part 3 is “Information and News Items” and rounds up anything else going on, usually including a preview of the next week’s meetings and what the decisions to be taken are. After the relevant meetings, these decisions will then be recorded in next week’s MIS, in Part 1. Any other Council initiatives or things likely to go on in public in the next week will be listed in Part 3 too.
Also in MIS is the list of planning applications due to be determined by the Head of Planning each week. We’ll come back to planning in a second. It’s complicated.
If you want to keep an eye on what the Council are up to, MIS is absolutely the key document to read first. You can drill down to the detail easily enough on most things afterwards, as long as you know your way around the Council website.
Planning matters are often contentious either locally, or on a city-wide basis, and the process is explained here. On that page, it is explained that once they are received, applications and the paperwork relating to them are stored in the “PublicAccess” system. On the PublicAccess homepage, you’ll see you are presented with a few options:
If you register for the site, it opens up functionality such as being able to save and track specific applications to your profile and receive email updates on the progress of each application:
Every application gets a reference number like that in the left-hand column. If you already know the reference number of an application you are interested in, you can straight away access all sorts of details about it, by putting the reference number in the “Simple Search” box.
If you know there is an application in for a site, but don’t know the reference number, there are a couple of ways of tracking it down. You can use the Map function to zero in on the area, and it will show in the right hand column any relevant applications in that area. It’s quite a clunky method, slow to respond, and I only use it as a last resort.
You can more easily search for a property if you know the postcode (fairly easy to find out from Google) or know a form of the address the system is likely to recognise. You can enter that in the “Simple Search” box, or use more complex search terms in the “Advanced” search function.
For a general look through applications as they come in, use the “Weekly/Monthly Lists” option. This allows you to browse through applications for whatever time period you select, and I usually do this once a week (at the same time that I read MIS usually). You can select items directly from the lists for tracking if you’ve registered for the site.
If you already know what the reference number is you can enter it in the “Search” box on the main PublicAccess page and it will take you directly to the page with details of the application:
So you have the summary of what the application is about, and tabs for Comments (either from members of the public, or the bodies who are statutorily consulted on planning matters), Constraints (e.g. whether the site is in a Conservation Area), Documents, Related Items, and Map. The Documents tab will have in PDF format all the paperwork associated with the case – application forms, site plans, drawings, and so on:
Related Items will show any other applications or planning enforcements currently live for the property, and there will usually be a link to call up any historic applications for the property as well. The Map tab is just that, but most applications will have a PDF map which is a lot less clunky with the application. So once you’ve identified an application, it’s a piece of cake to see what it entails and where it is in the process.
This completes the update of the links I tweeted a while ago, and hopefully it allows you to get some insight into what business PCC has on. While it is true that PCC operates in difficult financial circumstances, it is still true that Councillors and officials wield a lot of power in the community, and it’s in everyone’s interest to understand how they do that. I’ll update this post as necessary, and there are still a few bits I’ll come back to in future in terms of openness and accountability. These are two areas where at present PCC falls a long way short of the ideal!