On April Fools Day Cambridge City Council launched a Consultation on Consultation. As it was announced at a few minutes past midday it appears not to be a joke.
The proposed code of practice on consultation and community engagement contains the following statement prominently positioned at the start of the document:
The Code is not intended to create a commitment by the Council to consult or engage the community in anything, nor should it create the expectation that the City Council will consult or engage with the community on any particular issue.
I think this sets the wrong tone.
I would prefer the council to set out positively what it is trying to achieve through its consultations. I suggest something along the lines of:
The council will do all it can to ensure residents are made aware of, and have a chance to discuss and express their view on, matters which will affect them and their environment before the council takes decisions.
Council officers are currently afraid and unwilling to do more than strictly necessary to draw attention to licensing applications, tree works applications, planning applications and similar. Partially this appears to be because of a public sector culture where going above and beyond is not encouraged, and there is also a concern that the council’s impartiality may be affected by drawing resident’s attention to some applications in a manner it would not apply to all. I think these problems need to be tackled and the council should take a view on up-coming items it thinks will be of particular interest to those outside of the group the law and its current policies require it to consult. The council should be prepared to reach out the wider public, either across the city or in an appropriately targeted manner in relation to proposals with a wide impact.
I would like to suggest the following basic principles are adopted:
- Consultation should support, not replace, representative democracy.
- Responding once to a consultation on a particular matter ought be enough to get that view heard. It shouldn’t be necessary to repeatedly respond to calls for comments on a particular issue as, when for example, it is discussed at a series of different meetings or a new, but very similar application is sent into the council.
- Openness. Ideally all consultation materials and responses ought be made available online, in an accessible format.
- Consultations ought be turned into a conversation; those responding to a consultation ought be able to comment on other’s responses. Where appropriate councillors and officers should engage too.
- Where public bodies, such as the police, respond to a Cambridge City Council consultation they should be required (or at least encouraged) to do so early, and their response ought be published online, so the public have a chance to comment on it.
- Consultation and public engagement should be a core part of what the council does. The council shouldn’t have to contract consultations out to consultants at huge expense as it has done recently.
Examples of things which should never happen again:
- The £11 charge for access to the only event at which City and County councillors and officers appeared in Cambridge to discuss the Congestion Charge
- Delegation of important decisions about the public sphere decisions to community groups, residents associations, or selected individuals rather than the decision being made in public by elected councillors. (The final decisions on many aspects of the recent Midsummer Common tree planting work were taken in secret, in consultation only with a select group of local residents).
- Key meetings at which councillors and council officers meet to discuss proposals being held in secret. A recent example was the meeting at which parking restrictions on Church Street Chesterton were discussed.
- The council supporting things like the East Chesterton ward police consultative meeting – which council officers service – yet is privately run and not open to the public.
- The consultation which preceded the council’s introduction of its new planning public access system where only residents associations and not the wider public were consulted.
- Formal meetings between the council and city’s elected student representatives, and university representatives, not being publicised in advance or having their outcomes proactively published.
Often the council, and particularly council leader Sian Reid, appear to conflate consulting the public with listening to the views of residents associations.
Community engagement risks giving too much power and influence to “residents associations” which in many cases appear to be just one, or a small handful of people, often a very select group.
The council could do more to ensure that councillors have more information about consultation submissions from those claiming to be representative groups. Residents associations and others could be encouraged to operate in an open and transparent manner and to make clear in consultation responses how many members they have, and how the matter in question was discussed and debated internally.
Area committees are currently in my view a very expensive, frustrating, and hard to use route to expressing a view on local matters.
I would suggest focusing the area committees on allowing members of the public to ask questions and raise issues of concern with councillors. I was disappointed to see that at the first of the new-format area committees, the March 2011 North Area Committee only one question was taken during the open forum.
Once issues are raised at area committees they should be followed up, to their conclusions, without members of the public having to return time and time again as is currently the case. Members of the public raising matters at meetings should so far as possible have their points taken onboard there and then and not be asked to, as so often happens, write to the council, officers at the meeting should take the point and direct it to the right place.
Council officers responsible for administrating the committees appear to need to be given more power to push within the council for answers / actions / follow-ups based on the views of councillors expressed at the meeting.
The delay in action caused by the gap between area committee meetings could be ameliorated by officers, a week, or perhaps two, after the meeting publishing an update on actions following the meeting. (I think something along these lines, speeding up follow-up, is in-place and working in the East Area)
Further Area Committee Ideas
- The council advertising its area committees again.
- Including the phrase “police priorities” in the relevant agenda item titles (as I believe the full council has agreed but officers ignored)
- Setting a fixed start time for the policing item at area committees.
- Bringing the minutes of the discussion at which police priorities were set to the meeting at which the police are held to account for their performance against those priorities.
- Clearly identifying all council officers / other public servants present at area committee meetings in their official capacities.
Groups who need to be specifically contacted where appropriate in relation to planning/tree/licencing etc. applications
- Owners of properties, where possible, not just tenants.
- Businesses, and those working in, and using an area. ie. customers and employees too where appropriate.
- Those living in non-typical accommodation eg. staff living in hotels / colleges.
- Nearby schools (pupils and the school itsself) and other institutions.
I also think there needs to be much better, more open, engagement with all elected student representatives in the city. I think the city council could work with other public bodies including the police on this.
Additional General Consultation / Engagement Suggestions
- Anyone should be able to sign up for alerts on consultations (or other items of interest) in relation to a particular address (postcode), subject area eg. cycling, or say a particular green space.
- The council should engage with people online by going to where people are already. In Cambridge I’d suggest the council seeking to make more use of the websites of Cambridge’s local newspapers for example, as well as making greater, more interactive use of Twitter, Facebook etc.
- The council should openly publish its list of “formal consultees”, open up the policy for getting on that list. The list should include contact details (web addresses), and ideally a brief overview of the organisation in a sentence or two, which area in which it operates (subject/geographical), how it operates, how many members it has etc.. It is notable the consultation consultation mentions this list, but does not link to a copy of it.
- Where there are groups, for example travellers, who the council engages with via “community representatives” rather than via democratically elected councillors there should be a clear explanation of why the council thinks this is needed and an assurance that the democracy is not being side-lined or subverted given.
- The council’s communications, press releases, etc. appear to rarely relate to decisions councillors are taking. I think there ought be a greater focus on “democracy”.
- The council could do a lot more to support residents associations and community groups. By support I don’t mean money; as often money going round in circles is actually more hassle than providing help directly, such as publicity on the council website, or access to meeting rooms, would be. Making it easier to do things like integrate residents’ association websites with the council’s planning public access system would be another example of how the council could support the groups.
- The council should review its rules on recording, and videoing its meetings. By having draconian rules which for example ban panning and zooming a camera, it is missing out on coverage of its meetings which would otherwise be done by the media, local residents such as me, and campaign groups.
- The effectiveness of the residents’ representative on the city centre partnership “Love Cambridge” should be reviewed.
- The council should consider now how it intends to work with elected police and crime commissioners; I suggest they should be invited to appear in-front of the full council on a regular basis; perhaps after a special public question time for questions to the commissioner.
Encourage and Enable Debate of the Issues Facing Cambridge
Overall I think the council ought try and raise the profile of the key political debates, and questions which face the city. Currently councillors’ decisions on things like raising taxes on new homes to pay for dancing fountains and getting priorities wrong when it comes to putting public art before housing when we have professionals in the city living in sheds often go unpublicised.
We have reported cycle thefts running at an average of 8 a day, and up 30% over the last few years, yet councillors are dropping that, as well as robbery and burglary as a city wide police priority; many councillors, let alone the public, take little interest in the fantastic opportunity they have in Cambridge to set and hold the police to account for their local area priorities.
I have used these emotive terms, both to illustrate the kinds of things the council is doing, that I care about, and want to engage with councillors and the council on, and to contrast with the kind of ways these things are dealt with in council papers in dry, often incomprehensible, technical jargon which is a million miles away from the very real effect councillor’s decisions have on people’s lives. The council needs to do more to highlight the relevance of councillors’ decisions on individuals, families and businesses. Questions like who will be displaced by the introduction of a conservation area, or how much extra will a new home cost on the open market due to the council’s development taxes and requirements for provision of social housing don’t appear to be even addressed within the council never mind publicised [along with their answers].
I think if decisions taken by councillors were more clearly and accessibly publicised then more people would be enraged and thereby engaged. Clearly the council itsself has to remain non-partisan, but it should be in a position to provide the information people need to find about the issues and challenges facing the city and to make it easy to comment on them. Issuing decision notices, and separating out matters of obvious public interest from long meeting papers and presenting them in a blog / news article format would make the democratic operation of the council more accessible.