People pay their taxes, they have a right to know what’s going on
IN January 2017 the first Local Democracy Reporter started work focussing on council business. Twelve months on and 50,000 stories later there are now 150 LDRs providing impartial coverage of local authorities across England, Wales and Scotland.
To celebrate the first year of the BBC funded scheme, Rebecca Curley, LDR for Surrey, explains how and why it works.
“IT’S okay, the media never come to these meetings”!
That was a comment by one councillor said within just a couple of weeks of me starting out as Surrey’s Local Democracy Reporter.
And thank goodness he made it.
So many people are struggling day-to-day making their cash stretch to feed their family, heat their homes, run a car and all the bits in between.
So when that resident/business owner is handing over a big chunk of their cash each month in council tax or business rates they have a right to know how it’s being spent.
That is at the forefront of my mind when I sit down on the wooden benches at Surrey County Hall or the borough and district town halls, listening to comments about over-subscribed primary schools, cuts to libraries, and why there just isn’t enough cash to fill in badly potholed roads. (By the way, the chairs in the council chamber at Spelthorne are the comfiest).
For me, being a Local Democracy Reporter is about holding the council to account on behalf of all residents in the area. And I love it!
My main priority is covering the work of Surrey County Council — attending meetings, following up reports, looking deep into agenda items and, most importantly, trying to decipher pages and pages of council jargon.
Sometimes there could be two or three meetings in one day. Or they could be in the evening. So the trusted packed lunch box and a hot flask of coffee is often seen out and about with me.
I have my weekly schedule of meetings to attend and will know in advance what I think I will get from them.
But the beauty about covering council meetings is you never can quite predict how a meeting is going to pan out.
At the Surrey County Council meeting in a committee room looking into audit and governance of the council, where the comment about no media was made, I walked away with three stories.
And then there was the time a councillor took a bag full of road and tipped it out onto his table to make the point of the poor state it was in.
At another meeting a young mum and her baby were in a room of councillors and council officers fiercely defending why a children’s centre should not be closed. Just the mum and her baby against the world.
And at one meeting the public gallery was full of supporters for a local library in specially-printed T-shirts waiting to hear the fate of their campaign to save it from closing.
The thing about local democracy is that it affects everyone. And that is who we are there to represent — everyone.
Funded by the BBC and rolled out through local newspapers, the idea of the Local Democracy Scheme is to share the resource.
We produce copy to certain editorial standards; publishing articles to a central system, which is then made available to every outlet signed up to the scheme with the support and guidance of the newsdesk and editors at Surrey Live and its associated newspapers — Surrey Advertiser, Surrey Mirror and the Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser — who employ me and oversee my work.
Then there can sometimes be radio interviews with the team at BBC Surrey to delve further into the story, and a weekly slot on the DriveTime show on a Thursday to discuss three of my stories from that week.
Live Tweeting, I can keep people updated about what is going on as it happens
.The core work of the LDRs is to provide impartial coverage of local councils and other public bodies, such as NHS trusts. It helps ensure public oversight and public accountability of those who take decisions on behalf of their communities, through facilitating local media scrutiny and coverage.
Outside of meetings there is plenty to keep me busy. I am meeting up with contacts, chasing up off-diary stories or features, submitting Freedom of Information requests to the 11 Surrey borough and district councils for a more rounded story and analysis, as well as making sure I am interesting and cool on Twitter and Facebook, and then lining up stories for the following week.
The LDR scheme has been years in planning and developing and, I think, has already proved its worth.
When you are in that stuffy council chamber you are the parent, child in care, pensioner in a care home, teacher in school, social worker, business owner, taxpayer — in fact anyone living in the county — as well as trying to balance that out by seeing things from the council officer’s point of view.
Because the democratic setup of our local councils impacts everyone, and everyone deserves to know what is being done with their money.
As for the bag full of road….that made it to the front page of the Surrey Advertiser and — as of Monday this week — repair work.
Cllr Mike Bennison explains: “I got so frustrated with having spent eight years trying to get Elm Road in Claygate resurfaced that I picked up a bag full of stones and at a local committee meeting poured them all over the table.
“Thanks to Rebecca being at the meeting and the attention the story got it did the trick. Working together as a counsellor and a journalist we’ve achieved a brand new surface of a vital road that serves the doctors’ surgery, the day centre, and the youth club let alone a number of houses along its full length.”
Thank goodness there was someone from the media in the room.