I observed Cambridge City Council’s Civic Affairs committee on Monday the 11th of May 2009 which discussed councillors’ roles for the upcoming year. The formal discussion at a public meeting occurred following a Liberal Democrat group meeting on the Saturday two days earlier, the real decisions had been made there.
The headline changes are:
- Cllr Mike Pitt takes over from Cllr Colin Rosenstiel as the executive councillor in charge of bins. The council has run surveys which show bin collection is consistently viewed by the public as the most important service the council provides so this is a critical job. The change to co-mingled recycling will be his major challenge, it will take the number of bins under Cllr Pitt’s management to 97,500. I hope he is able to ensure glass collections from homes continue.
- Cllr Clare Blair will take on “Community Development and Health”. This appears to me to be a bit of a non-job; the city council has few if any responsibilities with respect to health; it merely provides links to NHS and County Council resources. Cllr Blair will not be responsible for Cambridge’s response to Swine Flu. Quite what “Community Development” involves I can’t really tell.
The leader and other executive councillors remain unchanged. The appointments are to be formally approved at next week’s Full Council meeting. According to the members allowances for 2009/10 Cllrs Blair and Pitt will now be entitled to an executive councillors’ allowance of £8,043 for the year, in addition to their basic allowance of £3,243, making a total of £11,286. Cllr Blair will also pick up an additional £584 as a member of the planning committee. If she is made chair of the North Area Committee (she chaired it recently in the absence of the usual chair), she’ll collect a further £876. I think councillors ought be paid genuine expenses only (though I appreciate the administrative benefit of an allowance), their allowances certainly shouldn’t reach the point of being a councillor becoming a paid part time job.
What Does the Executive Councillor for Community Development and Health Do?
In the last year the incumbent appointed the council’s younger and older people’s champions; appointed councillors to children and young people’s groups, and approved a pavilion refurbishment. On the health side they approved health and safety and food service plans. That was all there was in terms of formal decisions, so the role doesn’t look like great value for money when compared with a member or chair of the planning committee for example.
Perhaps Cllr Blair will assume responsibility for the council’s reccy rangers, “neighborhood projects” and the attempts to build high wire playgrounds on Jesus Green? One of the few things googling reveals her predecessor did was promote now much ridiculed ladder awareness training.
My view is that much of this work is unnecessary and inefficient. On “Community Development” in terms of its natural language rather than jargon meaning I’d focus on ensuring new housing built in the city is pleasant to live in and conducive to creating a community. Other work ought be closely focused on:
- Making best use of the city council’s existing better quality facilities, eg. I live about 200m from St Luke’s Barn, a facility owned/managed/run in some way by the council yet I have never been in and have no idea what goes on there; other facilities local to me appear pretty pointless.
- Those under 18 ought be in full time education, employment or training. That’s where I’d focus the “youth work” aimed at reducing crime and as it’s now too often called “anti-social behavior”.
Employing people to help children play in the city’s parks and playgrounds is a council non-job too far in my view; it’s not something that I’m comfortable paying taxes to support.
I would have thought that Cllr Blair’s admission that she had not read the Jesus Green lottery bid document saying: “it is a large document and I cannot be expected to read every page” would have ruled her out from any promotion. We need executive councillors who are inquisitive and willing to get to grips with the detail. They cannot just set policies, they have to ensure they’re being acted upon.
In various areas such as swimming pools and green space / playgrounds there is potential for overlap between the “Community Development” role and the “Arts and Entertainments” portfolio allowing the potential for Cllr Blair to continue to be used to take the flack attracted to Cllr Julie Smith on some contentious issues.
As well as recommending the executive councillor positions the Civic Affairs committee on Monday was to decide which councillors sit on which committees and who the committee chairs are to be. Cllr Blair’s place as chair of the community services scrutiny committee is to be taken by Cllr Liddle. This is a shocking appointment given she has not uttered a word in Full Council meetings I have observed and has repeatedly failed to attend the North Area Committee even when a major project (Penny Ferry) which she was made responsible for was under discussion. I believe that as she has won an election she is entirely qualified for the role, but I do urge the electors of East Chesterton to look beyond the Liberal Democrat logo and consider the person they’re sending to represent them on the city council. I think there is a lot of misplaced trust in the Liberal Democrat’s internal party selection process.
The Labour group are putting up their own candidates for chairs and vice chairs of some scrutiny committees, so presumably these will be taken to a vote of the full council. The Liberal Democrats have recently indicated their willingness for an opposition member to chair the members’ committee of inquiry into the Folk Festival fiasco so perhaps the odds on Cllr Herbert becoming the chair of the Strategy and Resources committee and Cllr Blencowe chairing Community Services Scrutiny have recently risen slightly making them a little better than the chances of winning the lottery. According to some of Cllr Ward’s recent speeches when the council changed to an executive councillor and scrutiny committee model of working it tried to retain aspects of its previous committee based system; if it had true scrutiny committees then perhaps it would make more sense to have opposition chairs. It is possible, but unlikely, that Cllr Liddle has been put up as Community Services Scrutiny Chair with the intent that she be sacrificed to allow Cllr Blencowe to take that role at the full council meeting.
Cllr Hipkin (Independent)
Independent Councillor John Hipkin and Green Councillor Margaret Wright were invited to the meeting to explain which committee positions they wanted, they didn’t attend. Cllr Hipkin had made his wishes known to the chair. The majority party are reluctant to tell them which committees to sit on, preferring the opposition parties to share their allocation of seats among themselves. The chair reported that Cllr Hipkin had asked to stay on the planning committee, only.
In his latest newsletter Cllr Hipkin has stated:
In November 2008 a major petition, signed by over 300 Castle residents, called for Castle representation on the NIAB committee. It was turned down by the Lib-Dems. Sadly, the only Lib-Dem councillor who might have served was employed by NIAB and therefore disqualified and repeated requests by Cllr Hipkin for a place on the committee have been rejected.
Cllr Hipkin is talking about the joint planning committee formed by members of the City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and the County Council to consider outline applications for development of the Cambridge fringes. It appears that Cllr Hipkin, despite making this claim in his newsletter did not take up the invitation to push his point.
Personally I’m surprised that the joint planning committees are not made up of different groups for each area, for each application. It appears from the papers tabled at the civic affairs meeting that there were no places for members not members of the Liberal Democrat or Labour parties on the committees in any case. If the city is to expand, clearly the city boundaries ought to too; I see no reason this couldn’t happen now in advance of development; if this occurred then the city’s planning committee, which includes Cllr Hipkin, would make the decisions.
Cllr Wright (Green)
It was reported that Cllr Wright was not keen on staying on the licensing committee, but did want to stay on the Environment Scrutiny Committee.
Cllr Howell (Conservative)
Cllr Howell, who currently has a position on the Strategy and Resources committee, said he felt he, and his party, ought have some rotation in terms of the committees which they get involved in. He is the lone Conservative at the moment despite he said about 25% of the city’s votes going to the Conservative party. In my view Strategy and Resources is a good committee for Cllr Howell to punch above his weight on as it considers the council’s high level budgets, and so to a certain degree has an interest in all areas of the council. Cllr Howell also attends and takes part in other committees even though he is not a member. For example he attended and spoke on audit related items at the Civic Affairs committee at which this reshuffle was debated, he has also attended recent community services meetings to talk about the “great Cambridge chainsaw massacre” (tree fellings) and the green space policy.
The committee positions are being decided before the results of the by-election in East Chesterton. I believe this means that the councillor who is elected there will not have a place on any council committees. That appears wrong to me. Though if the by-election results in a change in the allocations of committee places to various parties it was acknowledged the allocation of roles would then have to be revisited.