Northern Ireland

Belfast City Council to consider new guidelines on secret sessions

Concern has been raised over restricted committee hearings

A special meeting of Belfast City Council will take place at Belfast City Hall on Wednesday.
Belfast City Hall

Belfast City Council is to look at introducing new guidelines on holding meetings behind closed doors.

At a recent committee meeting, an SDLP motion was passed calling for greater transparency and a new set of guidelines on so-called “restricted sessions”, which are called by council officers and not elected representatives.

In recent months, the council has overseen a host of major decisions in secret sessions, including a decision to drastically cut funding for a Belfast charity that supports children with complex needs in favour of what many criticised as Sinn Féin and DUP community “pet projects”.

Recently the council also approved two major city centre apartment development projects, both of which failed to meet council threshold targets for social and affordable housing of 20 percent. Both applications failed to deliver a single social and affordable apartment, yet both were given the green light in secret sessions during the council’s Planning Committee meeting.

The council states: “The Local Government Act 2014 introduced provisions aimed at ensuring local government is more accessible, transparent and accountable. It formalises the grounds upon which information can be restricted and the basis upon which press and public can be excluded during its consideration.

“There is always a public interest in transparency and accountability, to promote public understanding of certain Belfast City Council matters. However the public interest is not necessarily the same as what interests the public.

“Whilst the categories of information that may be restricted under the 2014 Act appear broad, an assessment of whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the reason for restricting the information may need to be made in individual cases.”

On the council website, there are a number of reasons given for holding secret sessions, including information relating to or likely to reveal any individual, information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person, and information in relation to which a claim to legal professional privilege could be maintained in legal proceedings.

Every month, the People and Communities Committees, and the City Growth and Regeneration Committees have on average an hour’s worth of secret sessions, while the monthly Strategic Policy and Resources Committee usually has a secret session of around two hours or more. The important Belfast Planning Committee, until recently the one committee unhindered by restricted access, recently saw a secret session of an hour and a half.

During a debate over the motion at the latest Strategic Policy and Resources meeting, the City Solicitor Nora Largey said: “I do accept there is probably some work that officers need to do in terms of whether or not a report should be restricted or unrestricted after a council decision, rather than identifying some time in the future. But that is currently what the position is.”

She added: “Generally the thrust of restricting reports is to protect the council in respect of its legal obligations, not just in relation to GDPR, but also in relation to the release of sensitive commercial information.”

SDLP Councillor Séamas de Faoite said: “It is my experience that we are seeing far too many documents coming to committees and working groups that are restricted, and we have sought very actively to challenge where we feel restrictions have been put in unnecessarily.

Alliance councillor Michael Long said: “Regarding the webcasting of council and committee meetings, it is frustrating that we spend three to six hours here, and at least three quarters of it is restricted a lot of the time. And it is frustrating for those who want to know what is going on.”

The motion by the SDLP’s Gary McKeown states officers will bring forward guidelines “to ensure maximum transparency while adhering to legislative requirements, ultimately making this organisation an exemplary public body in terms of transparency and openness”.