MEMBERS of the public will soon be allowed to speak at Rushmoor Council meetings if surprising proposals from the ruling Conservative group are to go ahead.

In an extraordinary backtrack on previous statements, the Conservatives are busy drawing up plans for residents to be able to put their views across at council meetings.

A similar proposal was put forward by the Liberal Democrats in May and September of last year, but was rejected by the Conservative leader and Leader of the Council, John Marsh, as “merely paying lip service to the public”.

At the September meeting, Lib Dem councillor Linda Neal had asked for there to be a six month trial period to allow 30 minute representations from residents at the beginning of each committee panel and full council meetings, although this was rejected by a majority.

Cllr Marsh dismissed this as “an unworkable proposal” and insisted that the Conservatives had said they would look at how they could make public access to committee meetings a viable option.

He said: “We already have a record of open access and we are merely wanting to formalise the options that people have.

“Under the framework the public will know what they can and can’t do — it’s putting into a formal way what we already do.

“The biggest change will come with the development control committee, where it’s being proposed that an objector and applicant will be able to put their point of view directly to the committee.

“There is currently no public right of access and we are proposing that each speaker has around three minutes to have their say.”

Residents will still not be able to address full council meetings and must ask their ward councillor to put forward their views, although they can address committees directly.

Lib Dem leader Craig Card was pleased with the basis of the proposal but was concerned that councillors were not being given enough information before the cabinet reviews the proposal next Tuesday.

“The principle is wonderful,” he said. “At last the Conservatives are getting on board with the fact that the public should be able to ask questions at public meetings.

“We hope it will be a success, but it depends on the rules. In our question and answer session at the last meeting, the leader seemed unsure as to what rules there will be.

“It could be a complete shambles because at the moment we have no information to go with the proposal — it seems to be a secret between the Conservative groups.

“We would like to see the detail before it goes for carte blanche approval.”

The scheme has been in operation in other local councils and has been relatively successful, with little disruption to the meetings.

Cllr Marsh added: “We have heard some horrendous stories regarding the development control committees at other councils but we are working with the panel chairman to make it operate successfully.”