Councillors log off as ‘informal’ meeting turns farcical

Environment scrutiny panel one of several January meetings taking place unofficially via MS Teams, reports James Cracknell

Panel chair Mahmut Aksanoglu pictured shortly before he logged out of the meeting
Usual panel chair Mahmut Aksanoglu pictured shortly before he logged out of the meeting

An informal meeting of Enfield Council’s environment and climate action scrutiny panel descended into farce when a new unofficial chair was elected and three councillors logged off in protest.

The panel’s official chair, Labour councillor Mahmut Aksanoglu, began the evening by insisting that despite it being an informal meeting being held online “the meeting will be managed as if it were a formal in-person meeting”.

But in scenes reminiscent of the infamous Handforth Parish Council meeting which went viral on social media last year, this claim quickly unravelled, as several members of the panel took advantage of the informal status of the meeting to rebel against Cllr Aksanoglu’s chairmanship.

Conservative councillor Andrew Thorp started by expressing his “disappointment” that the panel “was not meeting in person”. He added: “I feel we could meet perfectly safely in the chamber wearing masks as we did previously. I’m also disappointed we have an agenda pack that hasn’t been made available to the public.”

When Cllr Aksanoglu attempted to proceed, independent panel member Daniel Anderson interrupted and said: “This is not a formal meeting and I am trying to understand the formalities you are trying to insist on – I don’t understand what the chair thinks he is doing running a formal meeting.”

Director of law and governance Jeremy Chambers explained that although the meeting was informal “that doesn’t prevent it being chaired and run as if it were a formal meeting”.

However, Cllr Anderson seized on the informal aspect of the meeting to state that he “does not have confidence in the chair” and wished to “move a different chair”. Jeremy responded that panel members could choose a new chair for this meeting if they wished and “talk over each other” or, he said, “we could get on with the business at hand and let the meeting progress”.

When Cllr Anderson asked if he could nominate Cllr Thorp to chair, Jeremy replied that councillors could conduct themselves “how they liked – as long as they don’t breach the members code of conduct”.

At this juncture Labour panel member Susan Erbil said: “I think what you are doing Cllr Anderson is very unacceptable. Cllr Aksanoglu has done nothing wrong – we have officers waiting to present the agenda, so what difference does it make who chairs? It is very rude what you’re doing right now. Let’s just go ahead.”

Cllr Aksanoglu added: “There is no need to do these kinds of things. Members were aware of the situation relating to this meeting. The decision [to hold meetings informally] was made with the opposition as well. If you are not agreeing to it, I don’t understand why you are here.”

Cllr Thorp insisted the move to hold informal meetings in January had not been agreed by Conservative group leader Joanne Laban. At this point Jeremy confirmed that although Cllr Laban had spoken to council leader Nesil Caliskan in December about the risk to public health and agreed to cancel some meetings before Christmas, “since then the decision was taken to expand this into January, and that decision was taken by the leader of the council, the chief executive and myself”.

Jeremy added: “If members wish to carry on this discussion over who chairs the meeting […] I will ask all officers to log out. Because we are here to present reports to you as councillors – we have officers who are here to do that. If you don’t want us to do it, let us know and we will log off.”

Asked by Cllr Erbil why he was trying to evict the chair, Cllr Anderson, referring back to December’s panel meeting at which Cllr Aksanoglu had refused to allow members to debate the council’s controversial low-traffic neighbourhood (LTN) trial scheme in Bowes Park, which has since been made permanent, said: “Given the incompetent chairing of the previous formal meeting, I have no confidence in the chair.”

The motion was seconded by Green councillor Charith Gunawardena and a vote was taken – which could not be seen on the stream – to elect Cllr Thorp as chair of the informal meeting. Cllr Aksanoglu then said he was leaving and insisted he had “done nothing wrong” and that “the previous meeting was chaired appropriately”. He added: “It’s a shame members have to take this as a political opportunity. We are trying to get business done in hard times, we are doing as much as we can to keep council staff safe.”

Cllr Erbil said she was leaving for the same reasons, and both councillors logged out. It later transpired that a third councillor, Labour’s Ahmet Hasan, who had not contributed to the meeting, had also logged out.

At this point Jeremy said: “It is worth noting that once the panel reconvenes in a formal setting, Cllr Aksanoglu, who has been elected as the chair by the council, chairs the meeting. I have only permitted this to happen because this meeting has no standing in the authority – it is all informal.”

After Jeremy also confirmed that whatever was discussed and noted at the informal meeting may or may not later be ratified formally by the panel, Cllr Anderson said: “What you are telling the public is that this a futile meeting – you have facilitated a process with no validity. You have just confirmed it.”

Jeremy hit back: “This is an informal meeting. Officers – and we may get to their presentations eventually – can give a steer to councillors who are informally gathered, so when you formally meet you can simply say you formally ratify the discussion that took place informally. But councillors are under no obligation to ratify.”

After 21 minutes had passed, councillors reached the first agenda item, which was a presentation from council officer Ned Johnson about air pollution. The panel later asked him about the potential impact of the Edmonton incinerator on air quality and Ned replied that it was “a very small point source of particulate matter in the borough in comparison to road vehicles” and that the incinerator’s chimney helped to disperse particles over a wide area “so concentrations are very small”. He added: “There is an upgrade due to take place which will make it one of the cleanest incinerators in Europe.”

The panel also quizzed Ned on the impact of the Bowes LTN on air pollution, and whether the effect of restricting motor traffic on residential roads had been to displace rather than reduce it. Ned said “there are negligible beneficial effects” but the aim over time was to encourage a “modal shift” from driving to walking, cycling and public transport, which would more substantially reduce pollution.

At the end of the meeting councillors agreed a number of action points; asking for the council to adopt its own position on the environmental impact of a new, larger Edmonton incinerator, rather than deferring to the position of North London Waste Authority, and asking for more air quality data at key locations in and around the council’s LTN schemes to be made public.

Tuesday night’s meeting can be viewed in full online at https://bit.ly/3n8qIb6.

This article has been amended to state that three councillors left the meeting, rather than two, which was not immediately clear during the original stream