Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Want to find out what's going on in Brigg? In addition to visiting and being a regular reader of the Scunthorpe Telegraph, you can also view some helpful information on the North Lincolnshire Council website. Planning applications and decisions, for instance. Soon after being received/decided they go up on the site.
Whether it comes by newspaper or website, it's always helpful to have such information 'in the public domain' so people living near a proposed development can have their say before a decision is made. But it's not always been like that. Oh no!
Turn the clock back a quarter-of-a-century and things were very different.
At that time I was working for the Lincolnshire and South Humberside Times weekly paper, based at 57 Wrawby Street, Brigg.
One Thursday morning the news editor, who was taking the morning off to go shopping in another town with his wife, pencilled in an important item for the lead story on page one. It was to be discussed at a committee meeting of Glanford Borough Council, due to start at 10.30am in the council chamber at what is now Hewson House, off Station Road.
That left a good couple of hours to get the story, write it up and phone it over to Hull, where the Times was printed on Thursday afternoon, on the press of the Hull Daily Mail.
Unfortunately, the councillors, quite legally, excluded the press and public (instigating Local Government Act 1972, Section 100A)to discuss some long-running drainage issue in Bottesford, and with the deadline fast approaching, and a big hole on page one, a crisis loomed for the 'second in command'.
I was sitting in the members' room, near the council chamber, and spotted the agenda for next week's planning meeting, waiting in the Lincolnshire Times' pigeon-hole, in an envelope addressed to The Editor.
Once opened, it revealed a cracking story: Council officers were recommending approval of a major development, which had already resulted in huge opposition.
I scribbled out a story on the back of the envelope (still doing that today - bad habits die hard!) and rang it through to Hull.
Next day, when the Times hit the streets, there was uproar. The council's clerk (chief executive in modern terminology) was livid. Robert Crosby was a council officer very much of the old school and he felt a confidence had been betrayed.
He had issued the agenda in advance as a courtesy so we could be aware what was coming up; it was not intended the Press should publish such information before it had been discussed by the elected members. The fact it was a matter of great public interest made no difference to Mr Crosby. He spoke to not only our management, but to our rivals. He wanted a "gentlemen's agreement" such a thing would not happened again. And he meant it.
Currently I'm re-reading the excellent Yes Minister book, written to accompany the fantastic light-comedy TV series about Mandarins running Whitehall.
Reading of the exploits of Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister and Head of the Civil Service, Sir Humphrey Appleby, so brilliantly portrayed by Nigel Hawthorne (pictured), reminded me very much of Mr Crosby. And that's not meant unkindly.
They both got to the pinnacle of their respective areas of central and local government by being extremely able men.
Sir Humphrey often refers to 'A need to know basis' when discussing information he'd rather no-one knew about.
Mr Crosby, in the case of the Lincs Times page one lead, cleary thought, as Sir Humphrey would have put it: "Although we knew you knew, we thought we knew you would not print it without letting us know."
I feel Mr Crosby - a likeable chap - would have been very much in favour of the current Cabinet system of local government, where a handful of important folk seem to make most of the decisions.
The old Glanford Borough Council system of 41 councillors sitting on every committee and considering every issue is long gone.
But what would he have made of putting council information onto a website, and inviting members of the public to email their thoughts?
You can hardly have a gentlemen's agreement with the general public!

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