I observed, and took part in, a meeting of Cambridge City Council’s full council on Thursday the 21st of July 2011.
The front doors of the Guildhall were open when I arrived and it was possible to walk straight in. This is a marked contrast to recent meetings where the Guildhall has been a fortress, with the main doors closed a security team, and police, guarding the side entrance.
I arrived a few minutes early and was given a comprehensive set of meeting papers including the agenda, reports, written questions and answers, the oral question list, a seating plan for the councillors and, a new innovation, a pack of pre submitted amendments to the motions. The distribution, in advance, of amendments is a great improvement.
As the council meeting got underway there were two people on the press desk, three council officers, the directors of the council’s three departments on the officer’s desk. The Chief Executive and the legal officer were on the dais, with the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Chaplain. Others in the chamber included two Liberal Democrat guests of councillors, and ten or so guests of Labour Councillors. There were two public speakers, I was one of them, and four of the councils democratic services staff.
As the council meeting started there were 20 Liberal Democrats and 14 councillors from other parties present. More Liberal Democrats turned up later.
Proceedings got underway with the Sergeant at Mace (a taxpayer funded job!) in a bright red uniform carrying the golden, crown topped mace, shouting “Stand for the Mayor of Cambridge, the right worshipful Ian Nimmo-Smith”. Cllr Nimmo-Smith processed in, in half-fancy dress, he was wearing the mayoral chain and bib but not the hat.
Confusion, and division, reined earlier than usual in the meeting as the opposition benches then sat down, the Liberal Democrats remained standing – usually in Council meetings the councillors stand to pray. The Mayor introduced the stand-in for the council’s chaplain, a vicar, Dr Taylor, from a church in Chesterton who’d been ordained just three weeks previously and had a brand new scarf of office (that’s what she called it) to show off. Cllrs prayed on the subject of how to balance power and influence with service.
The next item on the Mayor’s list of things to do was to welcome a work experience student who’d been placed with the council to the meeting. The Mayor noted he was unable to welcome him as he hadn’t turned up.
The Mayor then made some further announcements, including the Open Cambridge event on Friday the 9th – Sunday the 11th of September which will see the “Civic Chamber” and “Mayoral Suite” open to the public, with two timed tours.
Apologies for absence from Cllr Cantrill were reported, but he gave no explanation for his failure to attend.
Councillors then declared interests; with many from all sides declaring their union memberships. Cllr Simon Knightley declared he had a daughter in the Royal Navy and had had a past professional association with the previous ice protection vessel and its crew. Cllr Rosenstiel said his daughter was a sea cadet.
A number of councillors made no significant oral contribution to the meeting:
- Cllr Simon Brierley, Liberal Democrat, Kings Hedges. (Silent throughout)
- Cllr Max Boyce, Liberal Democrat, West Chesterton. (Silent throughout)
- Cllr Damien Tunnacliffe, Liberal Democrat, West Chesterton. (Silent throughout)
- Cllr Roman Znajek, Liberal Democrat, East Chesterton. (Silent throughout)
- Cllr Susannah Kerr, Liberal Democrat, East Chesterton. (Silent throughout)
- Cllr George Pippas, Liberal Democrat, Queen Ediths’. (Silent throughout)
- Cllr Paul Saunders, Liberal Democrat, Romsey. (Silent throughout)
- Cllr Philip Tucker., Liberal Democrat, Castle. (Silent throughout)
- Cllr Andy Blackhurst, Liberal Democrat, Trumpington. (Silent throughout)
- Cllr Sheila Stuart, Liberal Democrat, Trumpington. (Spoke only to correct the minutes, noting she didn’t chair the whole of the last meeting)
- Cllr Councillor Salah Al Bander, Liberal Democrat, Trumpington. (Spoke only to mention a black sailer from 250 years ago with a link to Cambridge, a contribution which prompted a round of applause from Liberal Democrat leader Sian Reid).
- Cllr Andrea Reiner, Liberal Democrat, Market. (Said “Question 7″ when her tabled question was reached)
- Cllr Zoe Moghadas Labour, Romsey. (Spoke only to declare her membership of the NASUWT)
- Cllr Gerri Bird, Labour, East Chesterton. (Spoke only to declare her membership of Unite)
- Cllr Caroline Hart, Labour, Abbey. (Silent throughout, but acting as deputy Mayor)
Cllrs Cantrill and Hipkin were absent from the meeting entirely.
I think it is notable that none of the East Chesterton councillors made a substantive contribution to the meeting, I do wonder why East Chesterton electors consistently elect such poor people to represent them.
Public Speaking Slot
I have published what I said to the meeting during the public speaking slot, along with Cllr McGovern’s response. I sought to get more information into the public domain about the proposed “CBBid” extra tax levy on business rates in the city, and to draw councillors’ attention to what was happening.
Another public speaker, Toby Sykes, asked Cllr Ward what councillors were doing as community leaders to promote cycling by example. Cllr Ward rather missed the point of the question, and gave a dismissive answer saying “Transport is a matter for the County Council”, he then added the City Council has a dedicated cycling and walking officer. Cllr Ward said a few councillors did cycle, but said he’d driven to the meeting that day as he’d come from working a distance away. Toby Skyes suggested councillors should do more to personally lead and inspire a shift to sustainable means of transport.
Recommendations from the Executive and Committees
After the public speaking slot I and Mr Sykes had to leave the floor of the chamber and go to the public gallery.
By the time we reached the public gallery councillors had already rubber stamped the first recommendation from the executive, the appointment of a councillor to the Cam Conservators (though later on the Legal Officer made them do this again as they forgot to vote on it). The vote, when it was held, was 37:2 with the two greens voting against the appointment of Labour’s Cllr Price. (In committee Green Cllr Wright made clear she wanted to be a Conservator of the Cam).
Treasury management – the council’s investments was next up. Labour councillors asked the ruling Liberal Democrats to invest more of the council’s reserves in the city. Cllr Nimmo-Smith was reminded of his promise to eat is hat if the council didn’t get essentially all of the money it had had invested in Iceland when he was leader of the council, back.
Next up was how the council’s spending had compared to the budgets, this is something Phil Rodgers has visualised. A key point raised was that yet again the Liberal Democrats have struggled to spend their “climate change” budget.
A few other documents were passed by the council with little debate, including the Code of Corporate Governance and Contract Procedure Rules.
Despite being one of the key “stories” reported by the local press the extension of the “cumulative impact zone” to Hills Road was passed without much debate, Cllr Smith, the chair of the licensing committee made a brief speech to explain how it came about, and how the council couldn’t impose such things on their own but could only act after a request from the police.
Cherry Hinton Trees
Cherry Hinton Trees
Cllr Dryden wanted to ask Cllr Cantrill about tree felling in Cherry Hinton. There were heckles from the opposition asking where Cllr Cantrill was, but the Liberal Democrats didn’t say. Council leader Sian Reid responded on his behalf, but did not appear to be well briefed.
Cllr Dryden appeared to gain a few successes – he was promised a review of trees in his ward with a view to getting more trees covered by Tree Preservation Orders – something Cllr Dryden said he was already working on with officers. The council leader also promised to set up a new out of hours system so the public could call up the council when they saw people taking chainsaws to trees and the council would be able to act if the actions were illegal.
Cllr Carina O’Reilly asked Liberal Democrat Cllr Bick:
Do you agree, especially given recent events that the politicisation of local policing is a dangerous thing?
Cllr Bick replied:
Cllr O’Reilly sought to clarify that the Liberal Democrats were opposed to elected police commissioners and they all nodded.
Cllr O’Reilly said she’d heard the Liberal Democrats were seeking people to put their names forward to be the Liberal Democrat candidates for police commissioner by the end of the month, and asked Cllr Bick if he would be putting his name forward.
Cllr Bick waffled about democratic accountability and avoided the question. He noted the city council would have a role (as the legislation currently stands it would appoint members to the Police and Crime Panel) but Cllr Bick appeared unaware of the details. Cllr Bick’s response lacked clarity, but he called for “Police Boards” – perhaps a nod to the arrangements in Northern Ireland – which if that’s what he was referring to I’d agree is a good model. Cllr Bick appeared to try and make the point there needs to be a clear separation between operational policing, which needs to be left to the police, and strategy, oversight and holding to account, which is the role of elected representatives. While that’s presumably what he was trying to say, he didn’t get it out very clearly.
Commenting after the meeting on Twitter Cllr Sarah Brown said the reason Cllr Bick didn’t say if he was seeking the Liberal Democrat nomination to stand as commissioner was that he ran out of time. As early as June 2010 I have been asking questions about if Cllr Bick has been being groomed to become the Liberal Democrat candidate for police and crime commissioner; following his appointment as Executive Councillor with responsibility for policing.
The next question was also to the absent Cllr Cantrill. He was asked by one of his party colleagues about how strawberry fair had gone. This was an opportunity for the council leader to give a self-congratulary speech.
Cllr Brown asked if Cllr Ward agreed that the County Council Cabinet setting on street parking charges in Cambridge was contrary to the principles of devolution.
Cllr Ward said he agreed, but preferred the word “localism” to “devolution”.
Cllr Owers asked about the effect of cutting the number of housing officer posts by half.
Cllr Smart responding said that a reduction from eight to six wasn’t a reduction by half. She pointed to the new arrangements, saying that specialised assistance was now easier to obtain. Cllr Owers argued people didn’t want that, but would prefer personal face-to-face contact with people they knew who could then act as advocates for them within the council.
Cherry Hinton Village Centre
Cllr Ashton asked if the village centre could be run by local residents. Cllr Reid said this was an option which would be put to consultation.
Cllr Reiner had tabled a question to her party colleague Cllr Bick (who’s responsible for police related matters) asking for an update on the review of CCTV. Cllr Bick responded to say he had engaged an “ex police consultant”. (Leaving the question of who this person is notably unanswered) who he said would be asked to look into the options for the future. Cllr Bick, a typical Liberal Democrat, argued both for and against more CCTV.
Mayors for Peace
Cllr Wright asked about the City’s membership of the Mayors for Peace movement.
The council leader said the movement’s website wrongly listed the City Council has being a member. It had joined in 2005 following a full council motion, but had not continued to subscribe.
Cllr Taylor asked about the city council’s transactions and investments with News Corporation.
She was told Sky / BSB had a contract to broadcast the folk festival, and that the city’s pensions, managed by the County Council, invested in the company.
The Mayor then announced time was up for the councillor’s questions; the next on the list would have asked the leader about the political neutrality of the post of Mayor.
Cllr Pogonowski then raised a point of order, asking for answers to unanswered questions to be provided and published. The leader of the council said that this already happens, and the mayor said he would investigate and ensure it did. (This isn’t true, often the Mayor doesn’t even order the remaining questions get answered at all, never mind have the answers published). Having the answers to all councillor’s questions published even if they were not reached during the meeting will be a great improvement to the council’s procedures.
The meeting adjourned for a taxpayer funded “supper” including smoked salmon and cream cheese canapés, and others topped with sun-dried tomatoes.
I spoke to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Cllr Bourke, in the public gallery during the break, he observed much of the meeting and commented on how much less adversarial it was than the county council.
Motions passed were on the subjects of:
- Housing benefit cuts.
Councillors were united about wanting the best for Cambridge residents, and not wanting Cambrige residents to be unduly hit hard by Government policy, but the debate deterioriated into a party political blame game as for some reason many people in Cambridge elect political party members to represent them.
- The way council contractors treat their staff.
The pay of SLM duty managers (worse than Aldi checkout staff), and the fact few take up pensions was mentioned during debate; as was the dusty working conditions at the recycling plant at Waterbeach.
Cllr McGovern said that laws Margaret Thatcher passed meant the council couldn’t do anything. Cllr Swanson took a much more positive approach and committed to write to the recycling centre to see if things could be improved.
- Retail diversity
Much of the debate focused on an apparent U-Turn by Julian Huppert MP, who voted against enabling councils to protect retail diversity on the 17th of May but on the 19th of July spoke in favour of a law which would “give local communities such as Cambridge the freedom to decide whether a planning application will add to, or detract from, the vitality and diversity of the area”.
Labour members said the local plan currently had provisions within it. Some Liberal Democrats, including council leader, Sian Reid appeared to want a law which would specifically allow them to stop Tesco or another big Supermarket operating a business in certain premises.
- 20 MPH Zones
The motion councillors approved did not directly call for a city wide 20 MPH zone as widely reported, but did note the inconsistency of the current patchwork of limits.
Cllr Ward admitted to breaking the 20 MPH limits regularly because he forgot which limits applied to which roads (and implicitly couldn’t tell from the signs – Liberal Democrat policy has been to require low-key signage, they now appear to be considering a U-Turn).
- The Affiliation between Cambridge and the ice patrol ship HMS Protector
The mayor introduced this motion without relinquishing the chair. He spoke for a very long time, well over the 5 minutes the mayor allowed other councillors to introduce their motions, he was brought to order by a heckle from Cllr Blencowe telling him he had gone over time.
Cllr Knightley further entertained the chamber by relating his experience with the previous ice patrol ship, whose helicopter he had borrowed when working installing reindeer fences on South Georgia.
Greens Pogonowski and Wright said they had principled objections to the armed forces, and opposed the motion as one purpose of the link was to promote recruitment activity in Cambridge.
Each of these motions deserves expansion, either in the comments or via a separate article.
Liberal Democrat Cllr Tim Ward also had a motion on the agenda, he said it was his first motion in eleven years as a councillor, but he withdrew it before he finished his speech proposing it. It was on bus cut consultations.