Edinburgh councillor branded 'arrogant and undemocratic' after ordering webcast to be turned off

Watching public shut out as councillors rowed

A senior Edinburgh councillor has been called "arrogant and undemocratic” for ordering a committee’s live feed to be turned off mid-meeting after a row broke out.

The webcast of the transport and environment committee was briefly halted – effectively shutting out members of the public watching over the internet – amid an argument over whether two emergency motions tabled by Green and SNP councillors about traffic issues on Leith Walk could be heard.

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Labour convener Scott Arthur ordered the live feed to be cut and initially said he was “not going to turn it back on” for viewers to see members “going back and forward.” The webcast resumed shortly after however, and he apologised for the controversial move.

Opposition councillors branded the move “shameful” and accused him of trying to “shut down public scrutiny”.

The row came as Cllr Scott was caught up in a dispute with the Greens’ Claire Miller over whether her last-minute motion should be heard by committee. Cllr Miller argued two emergency motions tabled by the Green and SNP groups on the traffic issues on Leith Walk were “competent, relevant and urgent” – a view not shared by the convener, who has the final say on emergency business.

Cllr Arthur said: “I’m not convinced that these are urgent, I think these issues pre-existed, they’ve been known for some time.” He promised to raise the issues regarding drivers taking “prohibited turns into junctions” at a meeting next week. “That’s my ruling on that and what I would say is of course it can come to the next transport and environment committee, or councillors may wish to present the same motions to full council in November.”

In a bid to circumvent the refusal, Cllr Miller suggested including the motions as amendments to the committee’s business bulletin, a document which keeps members updated on projects and reports. She said it was “submitted in the time line and is competent, relevant and urgent”.

Labour's Scott Arthur (left) came under attack from the SNP's Adam McVey.

But Cllr Arthur said: “I think we should move onto the next agenda item. Maybe I’m not being clear, the answer is no, it doesn’t make any difference. I am the convener of the committee and I am ready to move on to the next agenda.” Cllr Miller replied: “And I’m a member of the committee and I’m looking to try to make the case under standing orders that the item is urgent.”

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At this point in the meeting Cllr ordered the live feed to be stopped, further escalating tensions in the room. “I’m really uncomfortable with the way this meeting has started,” Cllr Miller said. “All I’m asking is for clarity on what we’re doing with the items I submitted before the deadline. I’m very uncomfortable that part of the public meeting is being taken only in the room and not on the webcast. I would really like to get the webcast back on.”

Cllr Arthur said: “The standing orders make clear it is my decision to make, there’s no requirement for a vote from committee or for other councillors to come in on it – it’s my decision to make. I’m not going to turn it back on so people can watch us going back and forward like this, I find it deeply unhelpful.”

Lib Dem group leader Kevin Lang said: “I think that the fact the webcast has been turned off effectively means we’re sitting in a private session and I think that should be done on the basis of a decision by the committee.” The meeting’s then resumed for viewers watching online, as Cllr Arthur apologised to committee members for not asking for their permission to pause the live stream.

Opposition councillors reacted furiously on social media afterwards. SNP group leader Adam McVey wrote on Twitter: “Quite unbelievable scenes at today’s transport committee when Labour shut down public scrutiny of their actions. This has literally never happened before in our council. Labour setting a new low for Edinburgh. Arrogant. Undemocratic. Shameful.”

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And fellow SNP councillor Kate Campbell said: “This is really worrying. conveners literally read at the start of every meeting: ‘we broadcast meetings to fulfil our public task obligation to enable members of the public to observe the democratic process’.”

Following the row Cllr Arthur said: “I was concerned about the reputation of the council because I don’t think the public wants to see councillors arguing with each other and it felt like the meeting wasn’t progressing so the reason I stopped the webcast was to try to de-pressurise the situation so we could reach an amicable solution. But what I wasn’t aware was that I should have asked the permission of the committee to do that.”