20 December 2001
NEW BIOTECH "INCUBATION" CENTRE AT THE JOHN INNES CENTRE
The following letter from Charlotte Philcox was sent to the Eastern Daily Press but, as far as we know, not published, which will only add to the sense of democratic denial.
As someone who has lately tried to engage with local government decision-making, I would like to offer my firm support to Councillors Barbara Hacker, Richard Carden and Ian Couzens ("Time to tackle voter apathy", EDP, Friday 7 December) when they say that such processes need to be made far "more accessible and transparent".
I was very concerned when, almost by chance, I heard recently about proposals by South Norfolk District Council and Norfolk County Council to spend a total of [pounds]100, 000 on meeting a shortfall in development costs of a new biotechnology "Incubation" centre at the John Innes Centre. Was this public money, I wondered. Had local people been consulted?
And in view of the Financial Timesā recent warning that "it is hard to see these (biotech) companies as a good investment, even in the long term", was the Council aware of the high level of risk involved a risk more than exemplified by the collapse of two biotech companies headed by a member of the Sainsbury Laboratory Council, which helps guide the JICís development.
As a result of my concerns, I decided to attend Norfolk County Councilís "meeting in public" at the John Innes Centre the following day. The Council admitted that this meeting had been poorly advertised, and I later discovered that not even the Agenda was available on their website.
But what I found more disturbing was the attitude of members of the Council towards the public. On arrival we were informed that any questions could only be taken in writing. We had at this point just five minutes to write anything down before the meeting began. When we came to the allocated question time, however, we were told that most of our questions could not be answered and we would have to wait for written responses in the post.
I was told I could address one of my questions directly to a representative of the JIC later in the session. When over two hours later I attempted to do this, I was ignored, before being told quite abruptly that I could only make my point outside the meeting!
I attended the meeting in good faith, but left feeling upset and bewildered, with my questions unanswered, lots of concerns, and still no clearer about what is going on as regards proposals to fund the Incubator centre. If this is normal council procedure, how on earth are ordinary members of the public supposed to understand or engage with a system that can best be described as hostile?
As your correspondents rightfully point out, and as I have seen to my cost, local government is still "a bureaucratic, secretive institution which colludes behind closed doors", making voter alientation inevitable.
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