Since becoming leader of the Royal Borough I have been trying to make the Council a bit more open or, in the jargon of community engagement, “permeable”.
One of the ways I’ve been doing this is through Ask Nick, a series of public meetings around the borough at which residents can put questions to me and to the other cabinet members present.
The ninth Ask Nick is on Tuesday 23 February. It takes place at St Mary The Boltons starting with tea and biscuits at 6pm and questions getting underway at 6.30pm.
Because the Council is responsible for a lot of services, in fact just over 600, it would be helpful if people would submit their questions in advance. That way I can gen up on issues that are a little unusual like, for example, what we are doing about the increasing phenomenon of gulls ripping open plastic sacks.
But of course you don’t have to; you can just turn up on the night and ask away and if I don’t know the answer and no one else does either, we’ll find out and write to you.
In truth, I can’t really claim that I always enjoy Ask Nick events. That’s because the bowling can sometimes be rather fierce especially when subjects like mega-basements and a certain transport infrastructure proposal come up. When that happens, I can generally be relied upon to come up with a perfect riposte… but sadly not until I’m on the way home.
Much as I am sometimes discomfited at Ask Nick events, they are necessary I think. Some residents think the Council is remote, that it exists for others and not for them. I want to challenge that and if I, my cabinet colleagues and senior officers turn up in their corner of Kensington and Chelsea ready to answer their questions, surely that will help.
And it is not all one-way communication. Usually at these events the local community police have an information stall, as do teams from planning, customer services and some others too. I know that the local Bobbies on the beat find the events very helpful as residents will often raise concerns with them directly which they can then follow up.
Not so long ago I tried to explain all this to one of our graduate trainees and she told me that Ask Nick reminded her of “the American Town Hall tradition”, a form of direct democratic engagement which has its roots in seventeenth-century New England.
“Yes indeed,” I bluffed, “that tradition was very much in our minds.” I think she bought it.