On Thursday 11th September 2008 I went to watch a Cambridge City Council meeting, I’m writing here to share what I observed.
Jesus Green “Exhibition”
I arrived at 17.00 to look at a presentation on the consultation responses received by the council prior to it submitting a bid to the lottery for about two million pounds worth of work on Jesus Green. I have made some suggestions to the City Council following that presentation. I did not think the presentation was sufficient to fulfill the function of briefing councillors on the results of the consultation.
- I felt the information would be hard for councillors, the public and the press to work with as it was only presented on a display board, no paper copies were available.
- I felt there were serious omissions; for example I know the Jesus Green Association, Save our Green Spaces and individuals including myself had expressed a concern that the proposed work would result in the loss of grassed areas to concrete/tarmac.
- No proposed changes to the plans as a result of the consultation were highlighted, though the officer with the display was able to tell me they were having second thoughts about the new cycle bridge and thinking of ruling it outside the scope of this project.
- The formal council meeting made no mention of the display, not even in the Mayor’s introductory remarks.
I am generally concerned councillors have not been involved enough in these proposals. Half a million pounds of Cambridge City Council’s money is to be spent here so they ought to be consulted, and it is not only about the money, It is about protecting, preserving, managing and modernising one of the City’s greatest assets – Jesus Green.
There had been a good response to the consultation process, around one hundred and fifty people had completed the online survey, and more had visited the events held on the green to talk to officers and complete comment cards. The officer told me he was surprised that relatively few people had commented on the proposed widening of the riverside path; making it twice as wide, leaving the trees which are currently by the sides of the path set into the the new wider promenade.
The proposed new path and avenue of trees, dissecting the largest open green space attracted significant amount of comment, with some concerned about the loss of the expanse of grass.
On the proposed new bridge the officer said the consultation had made them realise that much more, more specific, consultation would be required on the bridge and its effects on Chesterton Road if that was to go ahead.
While it was not mentioned in the summary of responses I discussed the pool with the officer and asked if there had been many comments suggesting solar heating to take the chill off the water. Unsurprisingly I was told the current swimmers didn’t want change, being the ones (the few I would suggest) who like the icy cold waters. As the current swimmers have been specifically consulted en-mass their views drown out any others. This is one of many examples we have in this project where representative democracy is needed to avoid the pitfalls of mob-rule; we need the proper involvement of councillors so those outside the current interest groups can be effectively represented. The open online consultation and exhibitions have been excellent from the point of view of opening the process up to all, but I am as yet unconvinced that the views of interest groups, residents groups and others have not been allowed to overwhelm contributions from others.
Opening the Meeting
At about 18.00 I made my way up to the public gallery above the council chamber. I received a fabulously warm welcome from Democratic Services Manager Gary Clift, he made sure I had all the meeting papers, explained who would be sitting where in the chamber and even offered one of the leaflets with the names and photos of all the councillors. The gallery is very high up and certainly wouldn’t be pleasant for anyone unhappy with heights and precipices. The ex. Mayor Jenny Bailey and a member of the public who was to address the meeting, along with the press and some council officers were sat at the same level as the councillors. One council officer appeared to be present all evening with the sole role of handing a microphone to the public speaker.
Next, following a cry of “Please stand for the Mayor”, the Mayor, who was to chair the meeting walked in along with the Mace. The Mace, having a crown like top, I assume is a symbol of the crown; I did not stand for its entry. I don’t see why the crown has any relevance to the running of the City of Cambridge.
Councillors remained standing while the Chaplain of the University of Cambridge, The Revd Christian Heycocks, gave a speech introducing the Chaplaincy service. He said that twelve thousand people study at the university who are not members of a college, and this makes the University wide Chaplaincy service more important than it has been in the past where everyone was a college member. I wonder if he was referring to PostDocs, and suggesting they “study”, I imagine most would be insulted by that insinuation, its bad enough calling those doing research intended to result in a PhD students! After his speech the reverend said a prayer, asking God to look favorably on the council meeting, help them make good decisions, he even said “our Council Meetings … in your Holy Name”.
I was quite shocked by this; I didn’t expect my local council to be quite such a Christian and Royalist institution. I would have preferred to see the prayers kept outside and the crown kept in its case.
Cllrs Rosenstiel had sent apologies, Other councillors including Cllr Upstone were absent.
The Mayor made a few announcements, including informing Councillors of the City’s Harvest Festival, and noting the date of Remembrance Sunday and encouraging councillors to attend.
The council chamber is, amusingly, quite literally a padded room. The walls are clad with leather panels, presumably for acoustic reasons. I thought this was quite amusing particularly later in the meeting when Cllr Herbert referred to the place as an asylum (mostly in jest). There is natural light from ceiling.
My final observation before the meeting proper got underway was that Cllr Howell, the sole Conservative on the Council had decided to wear a gown to the meeting. I have written to him asking why and letting him know that in my opinion it made him look like an official.
Medium Term Strategy
The Medium Term Strategy was the first proper item on the agenda. Having attended a strategy and resources scrutiny meeting just a few days before I had already seen this document presented there and watched essentially the same exchange which I had previously witnessed be played out again. One of the main items to be discussed within the document was bus fares, described as “Gordon Brown’s Cambridge Tax”. City residents have to pay for the return journeys of all those who visit the city, both on holiday or regularly from areas outside the city. This problem was to be discussed in an agenda item of its own so councillors refrained from getting into heated debate on the subject just yet.
Cllr Nimmo-Smith who was presenting the strategy noted that interest rates were rising, and said this was of benefit to the council’s finances saying that higher interest rates meant higher income for the council. The report he was presenting states:
Interest rate changes are a significant factor for the Council, as an increase or decrease of 1% in rates would have an estimated impact of around£610,000 on investment receipts in 2009/10.
So that indicates the council anticipates holding an average of £61 million of investments in 2009-10 which is of the right order of magnitude in line with its 2007 and 2008 balance sheets. As of 31 March 2008 the council’s balance sheet contained Loans and receivables £70,022,000. These are “Cash at bank & cash investments”, not property or other assets.
Cllr Howell (Con.) objected, as he had done in the strategy and resources meeting to the apparent setting of the council tax increase at a level just below what the council could get away with. Cllr Herbert also asked why we were seeing a 4.5% rise in council tax every year. Cllr Nimmo Smith (Lib.) defended the his party’s decision explaining that: “Unlike income tax, the council tax base doesn’t rise with inflation so we need a year on year increase”. The opposition councillors, led by Howell and Herbert challenged the Liberals asking them why they were not making better savings. Both noted that the savings that had been made in the last year had been achieved easily, with Herbert saying there had been “no real hurt” and Howell taking the tack of asking why they hadn’t been made before. Cllr Nimmo-Smith claimed to be making “hard but realistic economies while pursuing service developments”.
Climate Change Action Plan
As with the Medium Term Strategy the Climate Change Action Plan had been taken to the strategy and resources scrutiny meeting just a few days before so the I felt as if I was watching a play I had already seen in rehearsal.
Cllr Herbert complained about the lack of a digestible summary, and noted that the council had failed to engage the public and gain popular support for its Climate Change Action Plan. While fifteen detailed indepth responses from organisations had been received during a consultation process, there was no mass public involvement.
Cllr Howell started by recommending caution about assuming climate change was inevitable; he was careful to note though that he supported efforts to reduce carbon emissions and reduce waste going into landfill, but on other grounds than those stated in the report. Cllr Howell is motivated more by energy security considerations – making sure we keep the lights on – than environmental concerns when it comes to saving energy. Cllr Howell was concerned the council was getting above itsself in what it was trying to achieve with its action plan. He noted the City Council was only responsible directly for about 1% of Cambridge’s energy use, and suggested efforts would be better directed at promotion and advertising and working with major energy users in the City such as Addenbrookes and the Universities.
Council was asked to approve the Code of Corporate Governance and the Members’ Allowances Scheme which they did.
Cllr Hipkin spoke with passion on the subject of members’ allowances. He was asking for the chair of the Planning Committee, currently Cllr Baker, to have an increased allowance, suggesting the role was more time consuming and carried more responsibilities than that of some executive councillors.
Cllr Hipkin said he spent 40 hours a week on planning matters; listing some of what he does, attending monthly planning meetings, monthly development control forum meetings, meetings with officers, training and site visits.
Cllr Nimmo-Smith suggested that he present his argument to the next meeting of the “Independent Remuneration Panel” which he said was in three-four weeks time.
Next on the agenda was thirty minutes of Oral Questions. These questions are not published online, until the minutes of the meeting are produced, and even then not with the answers! Those which are not asked at the meeting get replied to in writing, so it ought be easy to publish them online too. Seven questions were asked in the allotted time and I’ll have a go at summarising them here:
1. From Cllr Walker to the Leader
The Accordia development on Brooklands Avenue … the playground is still not open for the children on the estate.
The leader nominated Cllr Blair to answer. She explained how an unsuitable species of plant, a yew with poisonous berries had been planted next to the play area and they had to be removed; this had delayed the adoption and opening of all the play areas as the council had wanted to adopt them all together to save “adoption costs”; there was also a delay as planning permission had to be varied to allow the yew hedge to be removed, which was judged acceptable because the play area was fenced as well as hedged (I assume the developer wasn’t prepared to replace the hedge it was being told to rip out with a new one). Cllr Walker stated she was shocked by the catalogue of excuses she had just heard and made clear she wasn’t happy at all; she demanded an assurance that this wouldn’t happen again with other new developments in the City. Cllr Blair was prompted by her leader to give her that assurance, which she did in just a few words; much to the relief of everyone who’d listened to her ramble though all the excuses. The Mayor thanked Cllr Blair “for being brief second time around”.
2. From Cllr Howell to the Executive Cllr for Housing
At the end of the current 5 year decent homes program, how many kitchens and bathrooms will have been replaced, and how many council tenants will still have i)a kitchen over 20 years old; ii)a bathroom over 30 years old?
Cllr Smart replied; introducing confusion claiming there is a decent homes standard which Cllr Howell refered to and also another standard with different ages of kitchens and bathrooms. Cllr Howell pointed out the rules didn’t appear clear. Cllr Howell, supported by others noted that it appeared that those who looked after their kitchens and bathrooms appeared not to get them replaced as often as those who didn’t. Cllr Smart agreed that there were inequalities, she also pointed out that some people refused the offered upgrades, and the council was happy to let them do that.
Cllr Ward left the meeting at this point, at 19.15 (The meeting didn’t finish until 23:45)
3. From Cllr Lynn to the Exec. Cllr for Climate Change and Growth.
When will the long promised statue to Snowy Farr be put up and where.
The reply was that a statue was looking unlikely due to objections from the County Council Highways, though there was a possibility of one somewhere on the ramp into the Lion Yard from Petty Cury. More likely now was a plaque, flat on the ground, in the pavement. The Exec. argued that this was in fact more appropriate in any case as it could be sited exactly where he stood.
4. From Cllr Herbert to the Executive Cllr for Environmental and Waste Services
What has been done to improve street cleaning since stating to residents across the city in April that it needed improving.
Cllr Rosenstiel was absent, so Cllr Nimmo-smith took the question and gave an answer which could have been straight out of a textbook as an example of meaningless statistics, he said: “Street cleaning has improved from sixty four per cent to ninety five percent and we have seen ten years of year on year improvement”. Cllr Nimmo-Smith went on to praise the council’s staff and suggested the Labour group try and deal with this problem operationally with officers, perhaps naming individual streets and areas which need attention. This was an invitation for councillors to start shouting out street names. Cllr Nimmo-Smith then remembered his pet trial of nets on the tops of recycling containers, which he said was now underway on certain streets in the city, though he didn’t tell the Council where.
5. From Cllr Pitt to the Executive Cllr for Arts and Recreation.
What is the current situation with respect to the “free swimming” initiative?
The responding councillor explained how this “free swimming” was a “Trojan horse” in the same way as the bus subsidies, as we in Cambridge would have to pay for those from the outlying areas who come into the city to swim. We couldn’t restrict the offer to our own residents. So while there was money available to cover Cambridge residents, we couldn’t use it because to offer free swimming would cost us more than the funding available.
6.Cllr Newbold asked the Deputy Leader
Why was Cllr Smart not able to be at the Post Office campaign meeting, given she kept telling people in the media it was essential that everyone attended?
Using a bizarre turn of phrase she said: She was “visiting her sole surviving sibling, on a pre-arranged trip”. She then clarified that she simply meant “her sister”. She claimed she had been against moving the meeting into the “holiday period”, getting herself into a hole again as she claimed the University staff weren’t present in the summer, and on being corrected on that count by other councillors went and repeated the idea saying how she saw the city as being populated by two different groups, the tourists in the summer and students at other times of the year and both should be able to have their say on the post offices. If she really wanted to consult the students she would have approached the students’ unions, something I’ve never seen the council do here.
7. Cllr Hipkin to the Exec. Cllr for Climate Change and Growth.
On the subject of the costs of infrastructure development estimated by Cambridgeshire horizons to be either four billion or two point four billion and asking how much has been guaranteed and from what sources.
Cllr Reid answered in a very relaxed fashion, she had kicked off her shoes and had one foot on her chair; she didn’t substantively answer the question but said she’d only count money as guaranteed once it had been spent.
At that point the Mayor called time on the Oral Questions.
The meeting moved on to consider the motions being brought to it by members.
The Chair took the public transport subsidy motion next as there was a member of the public waiting to speak.
Public Transport Subsidies
Mr Boorman of COPE – Cambridge Older People’s Enterprise took the microphone and addressed the council. He said he was speaking on behalf of about two thousand members of his organisation in and around Cambridge. I note Cllr Hipkin appears to be a member of COPE, but did not declare this link to councillors at the meeting (the Mayor had said that members over 60 didn’t have to declare an interest just out of virtue of being over 60).
Mr Robert Boorman began by extolling the benefits of the free bus passes, he didn’t waste too much time on that though before getting down to his main point. He noted that the real value of taxi card vouchers was dropping. He suggested that people were not using them as they cannot afford the rest of the fare. They are currently worth £2.40 and he drew attention to the fact that this is basically gone as soon as you open the door of a taxi. He suggested allowing people to use two vouchers at a time.
Cllr Reid, still without shoes, replied. She said that the council didn’t want more use of the vouchers, the council budgets for and realises that many/most vouchers go unused, allowing two vouchers to be used per journey would she said double the cost of the scheme.
Mr Boorman responded, saying that we were funding pensioners who were fit to get on a bus, but failing to help the group who needed it the most – those who needed to use Taxis.
The discussion then went on to busses and stagecoach and the subsidies which are unfairly costing Cambridge residents so much. Cllr Nimmo-Smith asked Cllr Howell what a Conservative Government would do to fix the situation, jokingly asking if he had the ear of David Cameron. Revealing something about the way the Conservative party is structured he said he couldn’t do anything. Cllr Herbert said he’d see what he and his colleagues could do, highlighting Cambridge’s problems with members of the Labour Government.
In introducing his motion, Cllr Nimmo-Smith described the algorithm which determines how much Stagecoach gets paid as “smoke and mirrors”.
Cllr Herbert, for some reason, was very strongly opposed to this description.
Cllr Howell said the aim needed to be to ensure this didn’t result in windfall profits for the bus companies.
Cllr Nimmo-Smith cited Scarborough as an example of where there could be unintended consequences of free bus travel and how it has knock on effects on the economics of running bus-services, leading to them becoming uneconomic and being withdrawn as they become unreliable or unavailable to fare paying passengers due to the strain put on the system by those on free bus passes.
The Labour group introduced an amendment suggested the council try and work with other subregional centres which have the same problem we have in Cambridge. This I thought was a great idea. But the Labour group were very on edge with this agenda item; all accepted it was an excellent government scheme, but one which had not been implemented very well. The rest of the Labour group’s amendments were party political, aimed not at getting the best for Cambridge residents, but at removing the criticism of the government in the Liberal motion which included:
The Council is very concerned at the gross underfunding of the scheme by government, with Cambridge council tax payers having to meet £1.3m shortfall in grant towards the projected £2.5m bill for 2008/09, equivalent to about 20% of the council tax, and that measures to fund this statutory service may force the Council to cut hundreds of thousands of pounds from services to meet this unfair bill;
After the Labour motion was defeated, there was a vote on the Liberal motion. This provided some entertainment as Labour and Green councillors didn’t appear to know which way to vote for a few seconds. With many turning to their leader Cllr Herbert for direction, they were confused, as most of the motion they agree with – they want the best deal for Cambridge, but Cllr Herbert has another agenda, he exasperatedly explained to his group that they couldn’t vote with it because it attacked the government. The look of panic and exasperation on Cllr Herbert’s face made me wonder what would have happened to him if he had put his constituents first ahead of his party. Would he have found an Alistair Campbell like figure on his doorstep the next morning wanting words with him?
During the first half of the meeting officers had been distributing notes to selected councillors asking them to update their entries in the register of members’ interests, Cllr McGovern had come up to the gallery to let me know this was going on, suggesting it might be a result of my prompting. Councillors split along party lines for a buffet meal; the Liberals went into one room and the Labour, Conservatives, Independents and Greens in to another. They emerged about 30 minutes later, some with their plates still loaded with tax-payer funded goodies as they returned to the chamber. Cllr Blair returned with a large bunch of grapes that would have cost me about £2 from the supermarket. If I ever sit though another one of these I might try and arrange for one of my a local councillors to smuggle me a cup of coffee! While the welcome at the start of the meeting was excellent, by this point the building was in darkness outside the public gallery.
Council Decision Making and Scrutiny
Labour councillors Herbert and Newbold asked the council to consider recommendations made in a July 2008 Community Empowerment White Paper and the Representing the Future’ report by the independent Councillors Commission.
The motion also asked Cambridge City Council to welcome statements by the national leader of Liberal Democrat and county Liberal Democrat Councillors supporting opposition councillors leading scrutiny committees and processes.
There followed a bit of an argument between the two sides, with the Liberals blaming the opposition councillors themselves for any failings in the scrutiny process. Liberal Cllr McGovern complained opposition councillors often didn’t vote at scrutiny committees; opposition councillors thought this suggestion was ridiculous as they didn’t see a connection between voting and scrutiny, seeing it more as a dialogue aimed at improving the decisions being made. The opposition argued that the scrutinieers were not at fault.
Cllr Nimmo-Smith said he thought the current system was working reasonably well, and claimed there was “open access to the scrutiny committee agendas”. Cllr Bick gave some historical context to the current arrangements, saying that the council had tried to retain its previous committee structure when the system of executive councillors and scrutiny was brought in. Kingston upon Thames was cited as a council where opposition councillors take a lead on scrutiny committees.
Cllr Herbert complained that the Liberal Democrat group made too many decisions in its private group meetings, rather than in consultation with other councillors. He also claimed that the “backbenchers” in the Liberal Democrat group were not free enough to express their own views, pointing to Cllr Hipkin as an example of what would happen if they stepped out of line. It was at this point that Cllr Herbert said: “Welcome to the political asylum” then, slightly shocked I think by the strength of his own words added: “well it is a bit like that”. It was then I made the connection to the fact we were actually sitting in a padded room.
Planning Law and Guidance
I have written about the Labour stance on planning matters before. This next item involved Cllr Boyce, the Chair of the Council’s Civic affairs committee trying to persuade councillors that it was part of their civic duty to take part in planning decisions, it is what the public expect he and Cllr Nimmo-Smith said. It was thought by opposition members that a key event prompting this motion was the vote on the planning permission for air conditioning units for Tesco on Mill Road, where only two councillors voted, though Boyce and Nimmo-Smith denied this. Green and Independent councillors appeared to think this decision was the subject of an appeal and should not be discussed at the council meeting, the Mayor and Leader of the council disagreed.
I was surprised to see Cllr Bradnack argue that only trained councillors should participate in planning decisions. I believe the only qualification a councillor needs to take part in planning decisions is to have been elected, Cllr Boyce also took this point of view and argued against Cllr Bradnack. Cllr Bradnack is one of those Labour councillors who doesn’t take part in planning decisions, and he claimed that all those who voted for him knew that and were happy with that. Cllr Bradnack said he would be unable to separate his political allegiances from his planning responsibilities; he didn’t think a “political” environment resulted in the best planning decisions as there was a genuine conflict of interest.
Cllr Todd-Jones spoke in favor of a central city wide planning committee, rather than making decisions at area committees. He said he would not have chosen to take part in planning decisions if he was given the choice and the current arrangement left him feeling compromised. I have made Cllr Todd-Jones’ statement on planning matters available online.
Cllr Dryden mentioned Councillor Rosenstiel has apparently written a letter to the Cambridge Evening News on the subject of planning, I assume Cllr Dryden wanted to challenge what was said in that letter, but couldn’t as Rosenstiel was absent.
Cllr Hipkin argued as I have that planning ought not be a judicial process, he said he saw councillors responsibility as not to be judges but to represent constituents, he was in favour of more councillors voting on planning matters.
Cllr Herbert described the whole idea of the liberal party trying to tell labour and other councillors what do do as a “bullying motion”.
Cllr Bick suggested that the council’s guidance to councillors on planning matters was not out of date as a result of a court of appeal case which determined a councillor was free to vote on a planning decision after having made his opinions known prior to the meeting.
Cllr Jeremy Benstead made his first contribution to the meeting with his proposal the planning committee should have all councillors as members.
Cllr Herbert asked the Liberals what kind of sanctions they proposed to take against Labour and other councillor. On being asked what they would respond with Cllr Nimmo-Smith responded simply: “Scorn”.
Cllr Herbert’s motion to get the city council involved in tackling the problems at Arbury Park / Orchard Park before it becomes part of the city were largely accepted by the Liberals. They put forward a more specific amended motion, requiring the Executive Councillor for Climate Change and Growth to bring a report to Environment Scrutiny in January 2009 or earlier looking at Arbury Park and identifying lessors learnt for future fringe developments. This is to be done in conjunction with South Cambs District Council.
Holy Trinity Church War Memorial
Cllr Dryden had brought this to the council. He succeeded in the council to unanimously agree an amended version of his proposals put forward by Cllr Bick :
The Council notes that the Holy Trinity Church War Memorial is in need of repair.
The Council’s officers are asked to investigate i) the ownership of and responsibility for the memorial and ii) ways to protect the memorial against vandalism and to safeguard its proper use as a place of rest and reflection for visitors to it.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Council does not itsself have a clear duty to maintain the memorial, the Council will endeavor though its officer to obtain grants from English Heritage, from Friends of War Memorials, from the Wolfson Foundation and from other appropriate charitable sources in order to have this important city-centre memorial repaired and properly maintained
Cllr Bick added, to groans from fellow councillors, that he hoped his would result in the memorial once again becoming a “dry den”. The mayor asked for a vote: “on the amended motion without that last sentence”. ie. without the silly pun.
Ward Boundary Changes
Labour councillors claimed they were having to deal with two different groups of officers due to services not being administered along ward boundaries. Liberal councillors denied there was a problem, and suggested that even if there was one, it ought be solved operationally by councillors writing to appropriate officers. Councillors questioned the premise of the motion that services such as rangers or housing work to ward boundries in any case. Neither Cllrs Newbold or Benstead who had brought this motion to the council really explained it so it was not adopted.
Lastly the council formally received, without any debate or voting, a range of decisions taken by Executive councillors.
One worthy of note is the establishment of a new joint “Urban design team for Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire District Council” intended to attract talented individuals into local government.
A recent job advert shows the concept:
Forget the image of traditional local authorities: join us, and you’ll be part of a dynamic and talented group of professionals focusing on cuttingedge projects in a studio-based environment. So if you share our passion for place-making and are keen to advance your career, it’s well worth heading our way.
Principal Urban Designer – £30,499 – £38,192 pa
This is something I support strongly, we need better quality people to be attracted to work in public service and we need to create competitive working environments to attract the best people.
The meeting closed at around 23:45.The one aspect of the meeting I have not covered here is the written questions and answers; I think the council needs to be encouraged to publish these online.