Barnet Council will spend more than £800,000 on communications this year – but says it can’t afford to spend a fraction of that on answering questions.

Limits to public questions at committee meetings, which currently cost around £42,000 per year to deal with, were approved by councillors on Tuesday (June 25).

The move was branded an attack on local democracy by blogger John Dix, who often grills the council on its finances – and he warned the changes would ultimately hit residents in their pockets.

But chairman of the constitution and general purposes committee Cllr Melvin Cohen claimed the new limits would stop meetings from being dominated by residents with a “political agenda” and allow others to take part.

Members of the committee decided against the most drastic option to limit questions to just one per person for each meeting.

But Conservative members agreed to limit questions to one per person for each agenda item, to combine questions and comments and to allow only 100 words for each enquiry.

Mr Dix, who blogs under the name Mr Reasonable, said: “This is an attack on local democracy.”

Mr Dix has 33 years’ experience as a management consultant and has asked questions on topics ranging from the cost of bin collection changes to a £2 million fraud against the council by an employee of outsourcing firm Capita.

He pointed out that in response to a question from Theresa Musgrove, the council revealed it will spend around £810,000 on communications and consultations in 2019-20.

Mr Dix said: “This is not about money – it is because people keep asking awkward questions.”

Labour leader Cllr Barry Rawlings – who, along with fellow Labour committee members, voted against the limits – said: “It could be time-consuming, and there could be a cost involved – but there always is in democracy. The alternative is you start preventing people from raising issues.”

Cllr Rawlings warned if people start to lodge freedom of information (FOI) requests because they can no longer ask questions, it could end up costing the council more money.

But Cllr Melvin Cohen, chairman of the constitution and general purposes committee, said: “We are currently in a situation whereby a small number of residents, some of whom have a political agenda, are costing the council an estimated tens of thousands of pounds.

“Over a quarter of all questions put to committees in just five months were asked by just one resident. This is not only a drain on resources, but puts other residents off participating in these meetings.”

Cllr Cohen said the changes would “promote and encourage public engagement from more of our residents – as they will no longer have to worry about their public participation time being hijacked”.

A Barnet Council spokesperson said: “We have always welcomed questions and scrutiny on council decision-making. It is only right that residents can speak to council members about matters of local importance.

“We need to ensure this approach is open to the entire community and is used proportionately as part of the decision-making process.

“The council goes above and beyond by enabling members of the public to ask questions at committee, which many other local authorities do not.”

The spokesperson pointed out nearly 600 questions have been submitted over the last five months and 400 came from just five residents.

They said the changes will introduce “a more efficient way of managing residents’ enquiries”.

The changes agreed by the committee will be voted on by the full council when it meets on July 30.

Members of the public can also request information on the council by submitting FOI requests and raising issues at residents’ forums.