BLOG: To empower or intimidate? By Cath Buckley, Senior Governance Consultant at CfGS
To empower or intimidate?
When I started my secondment with CfGS I didn’t anticipate the fascination I would develop with council chambers.
They really are the most enchanting spaces, each one unique, with walls that you want to be able to speak to so they can tell you all that they’ve seen and heard.
I make no apologies for my romantic language here, council chambers are spaces where significant decisions are debated for local communities and as such they have a direct impact on people’s lives. They should evoke strong feelings.
And the feelings that spaces evoke impact on how people act when they’re in them.
Early on in my secondment, I visited Bromsgrove where the chamber reminded me of a school hall, with trestle tables laid out in a horseshoe shape. Some members there told me how they yearned for a more formal space that was more befitting or the work carried out there. Cornwall’s chamber simply blew me away, the shape of the seating, curvature of the desks, natural light and public gallery really are awe inspiring.
But it was a visit to Lancashire County Council that inspired this post. Having asked to visit their chamber (which again, is a thing of beauty!) I was telling their councillors how magnificent I’d found it, and one of them told me how empowered they felt every time they walked in. For me, the feeling was different, despite being astounded by its beauty, I’d felt intimidated by the space and immediately suffered a sense of dread and fear, anticipating how an officer might feel entering the space about to present a report to councillors. The variance in our feelings was stark.
When we think about good scrutiny, we should think about the spaces we use to ask the questions and how that can impact on people’s emotions. Councils such as Lancashire and Cornwall don’t use their chambers for scrutiny committee meetings as they have a range of less formal rooms that are better suited to scrutiny. However, for smaller councils, especially those who want to live stream meetings, their Chambers are the only spaces available. Chambers are the place of political debate in Full Council, but in scrutiny we ask for independently minded committee members, we ask for committee members to work as a team, and we ask that all those attending come ready to listen and learn from one another. We also want to build in public voice, so having spaces that the community feel safe in should also be reflected on.
Looking at the space you use for scrutiny and trying to make it as welcoming as possible is one way to support more constructive discussion and open conversations. Think about the position of the Chairperson and whether avoiding use of the dais could support better conversation, consider where the witnesses are seated, how committee members are spaced around the room and the interplay with the public gallery.
Making subtle changes to your scrutiny space, especially if that space is your Council Chamber will help to make sure that the space is less intimidating, yet still remains empowering and retains a sense of grandeur.
What message does your scrutiny space give out?
How could you improve it?
The aim for everyone to feel empowered and never intimidated!
We’d love to hear from scrutineers about how you’ve adapted your scrutiny spaces, if you’d like to share a photo or write a short case study please email email@example.com