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Council votes against holding public question session at full meetings

South Staffordshire councillors have voted against allowing members of the public to ask questions at their full meetings.

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Neighbouring authorities including Stafford Borough Council already include a public question session. But South Staffordshire District currently does not.

Penkridge and Acton Trussell councillor Sam Harper-Wallis called for the introduction of a dedicated public questions agenda item within full council meetings. Liberal Democrat group leader Paul Harrison, who represents Kinver and Enville, seconded the motion at this month’s full council meeting.

Councillor Harper-Wallis said “South Staffordshire District Council has always prided itself upon listening to residents’ voices. Our recent district council residents’ survey is a testament to this commitment, providing a platform for our community to express their views, concerns and aspirations.

“However, when it comes to direct engagement in our council meetings, we find ourselves lagging behind our neighbouring councils. Unlike many of them, we are yet to establish a formal mechanism for public questions in these sessions – this motion aims to bridge that gap.

“With the introduction of a public question section within our full council agenda it’s not just about fulfilling a procedural need, it’s about reaffirming our pledge to open government. By allowing residents to submit questions in advance, and ensuring their voices are heard in our meetings, we foster a deeper sense of trust and collaboration.

“At a time when public confidence in institutions is increasingly fragile it’s imperative we lead by example. This motion is a step towards ensuring that our council decisions are not made in the presence of our communities but with their informed input – and we also send a clear message that the views of our residents are not just welcome, they are essential to the fabric of our decision-making process.”

But Conservative member Val Chapman, who represents Codsall, opposed the motion. She said: “South Staffordshire Council’s full council is to clarify meetings which have already happened.

“Everything has previously gone to full scrutiny prior to full council. Questions should be raised at overview and scrutiny, which all members are aware of, and any residents who have questions should do this through their elected representative.”

Fellow Conservative Victor Kelly, who represents Penkridge and Gailey said that according to law members of the public were allowed to attend meetings, but there did not have to be a public participation section. He added: “I agree with my colleague we shouldn’t have this.”

Conservative councillor John Michell, who represents Codsall, said: “I’m not against openness – I do feel though this is being taken in isolation. I think it’s got to be looked at more in everything the council does, not just added in ad hoc, and I shall be voting against it.”

Independent councillor Christopher Steel, who represents Essington, said: “Why would anybody not want questions from our residents who put us into our position?” And Liberal Democrat and Kinver and Enville representative Greg Spruce said: “This kind of public question slot in an ordinary meeting is pretty standard practice in the West Midlands.

“I don’t think it’s anything controversial or is going to cause difficulty for officers or members. At times residents just want to come to a meeting and put forth their view on something – and if they want to do that I think it enriches these meetings and the role of the council.”

The motion failed to gain enough votes from the full council however and was defeated. Speaking after the meeting, Councillor Harper-Wallis said: “The Liberal Democrat Group is profoundly disappointed by the decision of the Conservative group to block this crucial motion.

“Our aim was to empower the residents of South Staffordshire, allowing them to pose questions directly at council meetings—a practice already long established in neighbouring authorities. This motion was a step towards enhancing transparency and accountability in local governance.

“We will continue to advocate for increased community involvement and transparency. The public deserves a council that welcomes scrutiny and actively engages with its residents.”