Residents’ access to democracy under a new unitary authority has come under fresh focus after councillors were barred from engaging with residents’ concerns at a meeting.

While numerous residents attended a meeting of North Yorkshire Council’s Thirsk and Malton constituency committee, which was held at Ryedale House in Malton to improve “access to democracy”, they were told they were not entitled to hear the views of elected representatives about any issues they raised.

Questions over North Yorkshire residents’ access to democracy have persisted since plans to merge district and borough councils with the county council emerged.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Ryedale District Council Picture: LDRS

Those concerns have escalated significantly since North Yorkshire Council’s launch mainly due to a greatly reduced number of planning applications being considered by councillors due to officers determining decisions behind closed doors.

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Some members of the constituency committee voiced exasperation and residents appeared confused as the committee was told it would not be until at least its next scheduled meeting, on December 1, that any matter they raised could be discussed by councillors.

Independent councillor Lindsay Burr said: “Obviously members of the public have come today and probably would expect councillors to get involved. Are we able to ask questions to try and help them understand their problems?”

The committee’s chairman, Conservative councillor Nigel Knapton, said under the Tory-run council’s recently revamped constitution councillors were not permitted to ask questions during the meeting’s public question time.

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In response, Cllr Burr said: “Because members of the public have travelled and would like this – obviously democracy is really important – could we suspend standing orders today to enable us to do that and actually engage with our public?”

Cllr Knapton replied: “I am not prepared to do that. What I don’t want to see is a debate on an individual planning application done by this committee because of pre-determination and all sorts of other reasons.”

Cllr Knapton was then told councillors would not be debating the merits of any planning application because the decision residents were unhappy about had already been made behind closed doors by officers.

Cllr Burr told the meeting that the committee needed “to give residents the benefit of the doubt that we are actually engaging with them, rather than just saying we have got a policy”. She added: “So we’re actually not going to let our public speak to us.”

Liberal councillor Steve Mason told the committee pre-determination was being used “as a reason to hide behind”.

Officers then advised the constituency committee while meetings were held in public “for reasons of openness and transparency”, they were not public consultation meetings.

Due to the constitution, the meeting heard, residents had a “very functional and transactional” opportunity to ask a question and get an answer and had the right to then put a supplementary question arising out of the answer given.

An officer stated if members had questions or concerns arising from public questions they could debate at the end of the meeting whether they should be examined at a future meeting of the committee, which convenes about once every two months.

Alternatively, councillors were told, they could raise issues privately with a member of the council’s executive or senior council officers.

The officer said: “It is not an opportunity for members or members of the public to freely debate the matter.”