Local Democracy: Reporting on the power people can have

By Rebecca Curley, local democracy reporter for Surrey

Rebecca Curley’s coverage of Surrey County Council has already tsken her to the Court of Appeal press bench

At a recent public meeting I attended, one man stood up and said: “It’s amazing what the power of people can do.”

The venue was a small one and the issue the man was talking about related to concerns about a proposed housing development.

But I was fortunate enough to attend Britain’s most famous courts earlier this month to witness this principle in action.

Rebecca Curley

A judge at the Royal Courts of Justice in London had been asked to carry out a review into a decison which had far-reaching implications for hundreds of people with special needs and their familes.

Few people could have predicted that a decision made by senior councillors at Surrey County Council would end up being fought over in one of the country’s highest courts.

It is part of a new trend which has seen people affected by cuts to council services which they depended on taking their fight to the courts — often funding their cases out of their own pockets or through crowd-funding campaigns.

The storm was already brewing when I stepped into my role as a local democracy reporter in Surrey back in March.

The newspaper where I was based, the Surrey Advertiser, and my reporter colleague Isabel Dobinson, had already written extensively about the cuts to this service.

And, barely a week into the job, I attended the council cabinet meeting which ratified the decision to cut £21m from the county’s special educational needs budget.

But within weeks of the decision being made parents of children affected had started to band together, launching a campaign aimed at reversing this decison.

The fiscal reality which our councils face is undeniably real. Find me a local authority that isn’t having to make cuts and find savings.

But it increasingly appears that the public are no longer taking these cuts lying down. They are turning to the judicial system to bring decisions — and the thinking behind them — into question.

My colleague Isabel was determined to keep the spotlight on these cuts, providing case studies and updates from the campaigners which continued to feature in the Advertiser.

For my part, I was able to shed further light on the cuts and how they would affect families at subsequent cabinet and council meeting as more financial details emerged.

The council leader and lead cabinet member for education and families knew of the interest and opposition to the cuts.

But I made a point of keeping an ear out for comments, justifications and more details at subsequent meetings.

We knew readers cared about this deeply. Every time once of my articles was published — either byn the Surrey Advertiser or other media organisations — there was a big response.

In August another key hearing was held. A similar case in Bristol involving parents, a judicial review, a local authority and £5million worth of cuts.

The judge found in favour of the parents ordering Bristol City Council to reverse its decision and fuelled the confidence of parents in Surrey to bring their own challenge.

For two days, I sat in the famous oak-pannelled court room and listened while barristers picked apart the discussions which the councillors held eight months ago.

Had Surrey County Council’s decision been lawful? Had the people elected to make those decisions done so with their residents in mind?

The report which the councillors had used to make their decison was scrutinised in forensic detail by QCs along with minutes from their meeting and the notes from schools forums with headteachers.

It almost felt as if local government itself was being put on trial.

There was significant interest in this case.

Campaign groups around the UK were on tenterhooks to see if this case would open the door for similar challenges in their area. The case featured in the BBC, ITV evening news and national news outlets.

I was live tweeting the evidence throughout.

The result itself is still in abeyance with Lady Justice Sharp due to write to both the council and the families who brought the case in due course with her decision.

But — whichever way the case goes — something about the case has changed the dynamic between councils and the people they represent.

Councils and councillors are ultimately accountable to voters at the ballot box. But having to defend and justify their decisions in court in this is a new development.

Families who are affected by cuts like this have seen a second case like this go to the High Court and many of them will be itching to take their own cases to court.

It could mean that more local democracy reporters like me visiting the High Court as more council business is brought into question.

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