I attended the Cambridge City Council North Area Committee on Thursday August 14th 2008. Prior to the meeting I had advertised it with flyers in the local area, and had written to my ward councillors. Below are my recollections and comments on proceedings:
The committee first met at 18.30 to deal with planing applications. Labour Councillor for Arbury, Mike Todd-Jones distributed a statement explaining why he was not prepared to participate in the planning process, he believes that the current guidance on conflicts of interest prevent him from both acting as a community representative and fulfilling the quasi-judicial role apparently now expected of councillors when voting on planning applications. I understand his dilemma. It is likely a good local representative would often be unable to impartially judge a planning application, they would reasonably be expected to have had had involvement with promotors and objectors and the wider community before the meeting at which the decision is to be made. I strongly oppose the suggestion in the guidance quoted by Mike Todd-Jones that councillors who make up their mind on a planning application before the planning meeting should not vote. In some cases the will of the people will be clear and elected representatives will want to make clear to their electorate in advance that they will be representing them, I see no problem with that. A councillor making their opinion and reasoning known before a planning meeting makes it possible for any constituents who disagree with their stance to enter a debate with them and lobby them. If I was in Mr Todd-Jones’ position I would ignore the guidance which I see as wrong and undermining local democracy. I would participate fully in planning process and associated debate both before and during the planning meeting. Planning decisions are not a judicial process, they are a democratic process.
Mr Todd-Jones’ statement was made available at the meeting, but not read into the minutes. Based on previous experience it is unlikely it will be minuted and made public by the council which is one reason why I have made it accessible via my website. I have suggested to the committee chair and committee manager that such handouts, which are quite common, be formally recorded and made public via the meeting’s papers.
The meeting reopened at 19.30. The committee failed to reconsider the minutes from its April meeting which it had rejected in June, it also failed to correct omissions in from the June minutes including Cllr Blair’s assurance that the public and a range of specific groups would be consulted following the drafting of a plan for work on the car park and adjacent hailingway and green space at Penny Ferry, Chesterton. Neither councillors Blair or Holmes were at the meeting, which meant there was significantly less inanity than usual.
Cllr Armstrong, the meeting’s chair, announced a new policy of “one question per person”, restricting the public’s ability to contribute to the meeting and requiring those present to decide between speaking on policing or other matters. I have written to her to oppose this decision and suggest it is reversed.
The policing agenda item was taken shortly after 19.30. It was introduced by some rambling by the council’s Strategy Officer (Community Safety) Mr Griffin, who asked the members of the public present how many had come only for the “Safer Neighborhoods” agenda item, and only one person raised their hand. This could be taken to indicate that most members of the public speaking during the policing agenda item had come to the meeting intending to contribute in other areas as well. Another interpretation of the response to Mr Griffin’s question could be that those who had come to comment on policing had no idea that this came under the cryptic heading of “Safer Neighbourhoods”.
Inspector Hutchinson then gave a presentation based on the Neighborhood Profile.
I used my opportunity to speak to say:
At the last meeting at which the police were present in April, the police announced a trial abolition of the stop and account form in the area. I have since found out this was a trial which started on the 1st of April and ran for three months. During this trial the police decided to ignore the requirements of PACE code A with respect to stop and account. There are three police forces in the country running a formal trial abolition of the stop and account form, Cambridgeshire is not one of them. I am quite frightened by my local police ignoring the PACE codes which ought to act as a safeguard to ensure they follow the law when they deal with the public. The PACE codes lay down the procedures which the police must follow during various interactions with the public, for example stop and account, stop and search, searching of premises, and when detaining and questioning people. Failure to follow these procedures will in my view damage the relationship between the police and the public which will reduce the police’s effectiveness in fighting crime as well as creating an unpleasant country in which to live where the police are not under democratic control.
Timely questions now include :
-Now the three month (unofficial) trial is over have the stop and account forms returned to use in Cambridge? If not, on what basis is the continued abolition of the form justified?
-When/how will the results of the trial be reported to the public, councillors, parliament etc.
Inspector Hutchinson accepted that the police had got it wrong when they unilaterally abandoned the stop and account form with out following the due process.
The Inspector said the decision to act in this way was taken by the Chief Constable.
The Inspector confirmed that even though the trial was over the form had not been reintroduced.
The Inspector stated that he felt the long term solution would involve an officer using a hand held computer connected to the Police network via their “Airwave” communications system to record stop and accounts using a simplified form. The Inspector outlined the current procedure involving radioing in a record of the stop and making a note in the officer’s notebook of the person stopped’s self defined ethnicity.
Cllr Ward shared anecdote about a group of youths in the area being stopped and asked to account for their actions, on asking for encounter receipts they were told by the officers who had stopped them that as there were 15 of them the forms would take about 2 hours to complete, dissuading them from insisting on a record of their stop which they had asked for.
I believe this anecdote shows:
i/ Many people are aware of their rights when they are stopped and asked to account for their actions by the police; consequently when a record is not made people reasonably wonder why.
ii/ While the Inspector stated the forms are not in use in the area; Sgt. Wragg’s statements to me during a ward based police consultative meeting, and Cllr Ward’s anecdote suggest that the forms are still being produced when a person asks for one.
iii/It also shows that any form of record keeping is made harder when a large group is stopped collectively – something I have suggested the police authority consider when they deliberate over what the future protocol in Cambridgeshire should be.
I was interested, and quite surprised, to see all the five or so councillors who spoke agree that some form of record keeping of stops is desirable, I hope their views will be included when the trial results are collated and a decision is being made on what to do.
Mr Wilkins, local county councillor and member of the police authority spoke and said that members of the police authority were kicking themselves for not spotting the abolition of the stop and account form earlier and failing to act on it. I view this as a clear indictment of the recruitment and selection procedures used by the Police Authority which has resulted in us lacking competent, critical, analytical individuals in this key role, though it is easy to see why central government likes the status quo. He promised to follow up the fact that the abolition of the form has continued beyond the trial period.
Other questions/comments from members of the public included:
- Complaints about the general lack of visibility of the police.
- Discussion about the recent use of the police helicopter and many police officers in Chesterton to catch two dogs on the loose, the inspector tried to defend this apparent disproportionate response by the police.
Discussion then moved on to setting the local police priorities for the next period (Until December 2008), the police presented their recommendations as:
- Arbury Court to be adopted as a hot spot. Particular focus on tackling anti-social behaviour connected with underage drinkers and older street drinkers
- Anti-social behaviour in East Chesterton, focussing on the High St and Green End Rd.
- Cycle crime across the Neighbourhood, which is expected to increase significantly in the forthcoming period.
Cllr Liddle spoke only to invite Mrs Speed to speak again on the East Chesterton Priority; she spoke but without substance. Councillors briefly discussed making the East Chesterton priority one focusing on a group of individuals rather than an area, to avoid the problem of displacement, but decided against this.
Cllr Upstone asked about how cycle crime was to be tackled, suggesting that the police should focus on organised and bulk cycle thefts. The police said they did not believe there was any organised/bulk element to cycle thefts in Cambridge: “there is no white van full of bikes leaving the city every week”. When asked how the police plan to tackle the problem the Police Inspector said he would be asking the council’s refuse collectors, who he said go into people’s back gardens to collect bins, to let them know if they see large numbers of bikes in back gardens. I think this only served to show how disconnected from the reality of life in this area the Inspector is, very few people get their bins collected from their back gardens. Perhaps the Inspector was suggesting the elderly and disabled are the kings of cycle crime in Cambridge? He also said “CID” would be used.
Cllr Pitt noted that Arbury Court was in Kings Hedges.
Cllr Todd-Jones asked about Hazlewood and Molewood closes being taken off the priorities, a point I had raised with him before the meeting, he received assurances from the Inspector that the situation there would not be allowed to deterioriate.
Councillors then voted to accept the recommendations without amendment. All those present voted in favor of this except Cllr Todd-Jones who abstained, saying he was not happy with the mechanism for setting police priorities as it is currently very unclear.
A question was asked about recyling and other rubbish being strewn across the streets on collection days.
Cllr Nimmo-Smith said the council was looking into nets for the recycling boxes.
Members of the public suggested the primary problem was council staff dropping material. This was followed by defence of the council staff by a number of councillors, with Cllr Pitt recounting how he thought he had been “missed” by the council’s refuse collectors, but on calling the council discovered he was being penalised for failing to obey some rule on rubbish separation, he reported to the meeting that he had been successfully reeducated by the council officers and was very impressed by the whole experience!
Tesco’s Area Manager for its Express stores attended the meeting. She reported how she had been able to bring techniques she had seen in use in London to minimise the number of delivery vehicles to Cambridge and reported some impressive reductions in the numbers and sizes of vehicles which will now be serving the stores in the area.
The Tesco representative made a powerful and persuasive speech extolling how environmentally friendly and community spirited Tescos were. She committed them to turning their lights off at night in their stores and explained how they make their recycling facilities available to other businesses in the area.
A number of Liberal Democrat councillors were concerned about the Tesco Express stores not stocking low energy light bulbs or rechargeable batteries. A commitment was made to look into this, councillors also asked if Tesco could provide recycling facilities for batteries.
An elderly couple questioned the Tesco Express area manager about the prices in the Express stores being higher than the larger stores, he noted that he could not easily travel to the larger store. On being told the smaller stores had higher overheads and therefore had to charge more to cover these they persisted and asked why the extra costs could not be absorbed centrally and prices increased over both stores to cover them. The Tesco manager was able to publicise a Tesco policy of charging the same for basic items: milk, bread, eggs at both Express and Supermarket stores.
South Cambridgeshire District Councillor Mason of Histon and Impington took the lady from Tesco’s contact details, she agreed to meet with him and others in Histon.
Environmental Improvement Grants
Cllr Mike Todd-Jones reminded the committee that it had decided in June not to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on private property by improving shop forecourts thoughout the area. Officers had apparently ignored this decision.
The committee voted to approve £45 500 of public money to be spent on the Penny Ferry car park and adjoining green area and hailing-way. No councillors had seen the current plan of the proposed work at the time they agreed the funds. I asked the question of if councillors had seen the plan, the chair looked up and down the assembled councillors and all shook their heads indicating they had not seen the plan. The council officer presenting the environmental improvements had told me, and councillors including the meeting’s chair, by email earlier in the week that she would bring the plan to the meeting. She did not bring the plan. At the meeting she explained this as being due to the Cam Conservators not yet having made comments, but later by email told me she simply forgot the plan. This is the second time councillors have considered the Penny Ferry improvements and officers have failed to provide a plan at the meeting, the last was in September 2007.
Mr Bond of the Old Chesterton Residents Association asked if his organisation could see the plans and have the opportunity to comment on any problems they could see and have them addressed before the work commenced, councillors agreed to this.
Councillors Levy and Pitt came up to me after the meeting asking me not to ridicule them for approving the money without seeing the plans saying that:
i/ If they had not approved the money then the project would have been delayed further, and its already been delayed for far too long.
ii/ They claimed it was only renovation, and not a fundamental change so didn’t require their in-depth scrutiny.
I believe that along with other issues an opportunity to improve the cycleway though this site is being missed here, and am appalled at the final veto over the scheme being given to the unelected, undemocratic and unrepresentative Old Chesterton Residents Association. My comments on the Penny Ferry Scheme are available on this site.
I was sent a copy of the Penny Ferry plan as a 4MB PDF following the meeting.
Actions I have taken following the meeting include:
- Distributing flyers at Penny Ferry and the surrounding area including the new plan for the area with my observations on it.
- Writing to the chair expressing my concern at the incompetence and deceitfulness of officers servicing the meeting.
- Making a freedom of information request to the council asking for guidance given to councillors on conflicts of interest with respect to planning matters be released and made public
- Writing to Cllr Wilkins in his capacity as a County Council member appointed to the Police Authority, asking him to follow up on his statement to the meeting to the effect of the Police’s continuing to not use a stop and account form and receipt now the trial period has ended is being done without the authority of the Police Authority
- Writing to the chair to make suggestions on improving the running of the meeting, and suggesting future agenda items
- I have written to Cllr Liddle and Mr Bond of the Old Chesterton Residents Association with suggestions relating to the Penny Ferry works
- I completed a questionnaire distributed at the meeting on the effectiveness of the policing agenda item at Area Committees and submitted it to the council