I observed the latter part of Cambridge City Council’s Full Council meeting on the 26th of May 2011. This was the “annual meeting”, the first of the civic year, and the first for the newly elected councillors. I arrived well after the ceremonial fancy dress session and after the big lunch on the taxpayer had been eaten. Councillors were debating the priorities for the upcoming year as I walked in.
The new mayor, Cllr Ian Nimmo-Smith (Liberal Democrat, West Chesterton), had taken off the red gown, fur, and frilly doily he had worn earlier and was nominally in-charge of proceedings; his authority only indicated by the hefty gold chain around his neck, his seat in the big chair in the middle of the dais, and his mits being those operating the digital timer which he’d brought with him to assist him in keeping control of the council meeting. His predecessors as mayor, presumably for the last eight centuries or so, have brought rambling speeches to an end by politely asking the member in question to wrap things up and sit down. The new mayor however had introduced technology. Speakers even if they were already rounding up their contributions were interrupted with an insistent beeping of the sort you might expect from a cheap microwave oven when their time was up.
Shortly after I arrived confusion began to reign, as is par for the course at a council meeting. Two versions of the Labour amendment to the city’s annual priorities as put forward by the Liberal Democrats were in circulation. Council leader Sian Reid stood up to ask the mayor to rule on what was going on, an if an amendment to the amendment had been tabled. The mayor ruled that the matter under debate was “the amendment”, which while hilarious didn’t bring any clarity to the situation. The council’s chief legal officer took some initiative, climbed down from the dias and consulted the leader of the Labour group, who said he didn’t mind which version was considered. After the legal officer reported back to the mayor the mayor ruled that the motion under debate was the amendment as originally printed in the papers for the meeting, he ruled that “a word processor somewhere must have inserted the additional wording”.
The two key documents (PDFs) are the ruling Liberal Democrat group’s suggested annual priorities and policies and the Labour group’s amendment to them. Both parties have more in common than that separates them, both want the best for Cambridge residents, both profess to seek to ensure the most vulnerable are protected from the effect of public sector cuts and both are strong on localism and democracy; the differences come in how they would achieve their aims. As the party in power it is easy to pick off many examples of where the Liberal Democrat’s actions have not matched up to their aspirations.
On area committees labour complained about the way that planning decisions are often taken after midnight and called for reform of the very expensive system, intended to bring decision making closer to people, but that doesn’t really appear to do much to engage more people.
Cherry Hinton’s new Labour councillor, Mark Ashton, made an impressive speech for his first council meeting. He started off by expressing his support for the Liberal Democrat’s stated aim of consulting and involving people. He prompted raised eyebrows and a worried expression from Labour leader Lewis Herbert started his speech by saying he supported the Liberal Democrats, however he went on to quote from the council’s consultation consultation and picked out the same quote as I did when responding to the consultation in which the Liberal Democrats headed up their consultation document saying:
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.
As I did Cllr Ashton pointed out this sets the wrong tone. As another example of getting it wrong he cited the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s earlier speech to the council during the public speaking slot and asked why they had not been consulted before the council had made the decision to cut its full time cycling officers.
Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor for Arts, Sport and Public Spaces Rodrick Cantrill spoke to defend the council’s record on consultation, particularly in relation to trees. He gave a bizarre speech in which he highlighted two of the council’s more disastrous episodes as examples of good practice. He stated that the fact two public meetings on the council’s proposals to fell, and/or destructively prune 100 year old plane trees on Alexandra Gardens in Arbury had drawn more than a hundred people at each as an example of successful public engagement. He appeared not to have taken on board that most, if not all, of those present were there to protest against the tree felling and pruning proposals being put forward, and defended, by Cllr Cantrill. Turning to the new tree planting on Midsummer Common, where the final decisions were taken in secret by three councillors after consulting a strictly limited group of near-neighbours, again Cllr Cantrill proclaimed this as a success for the council simply on the basis of the number of people who had taken part at some point in the process. The council didn’t even publish the final version of its plans for the Midsummer Common planting until after all but one tree had been planted, and only then as a result of pressure from a number of members of the public, including me, at a public meeting.
The Labour amendment fell, as the Liberal Democrats voted against it. The Liberal Democrat’s priorities and policies were passed, with the Labour Group abstaining and only one councillor, presumably one of the greens, or the independent, voting against.
Thirty minutes of the council meetings are set aside for councillors to ask questions of those councillors who are members of the executive on the subject of their areas of executive responsibility. When I first observed a council meetings this section was considered “not part of the formal meeting” and was not minuted. One of the ways I’ve managed to get the council to operate more openly is by lobbying them to minute these exchanges. Questions are submitted in advance and randomly placed in order, they are then worked through with each councillor asking a question being given the opportunity for a follow-up.
I have lobbied past mayors to encourage them to ask executive councillors to answer the questions unreached in the public council meeting afterwards in writing. It was good to hear the new mayor Cllr Nimmo-Smith do this, but I would like to have seen him go further and order that the written answers be published on the council’s website rather than simply be sent to the councillor asking the question in private.
I have also lobbied the council generally, and Cllr Nimmo-Smith in his role as North Area Committee Chair, asking for papers distributed to councillors at meetings, but not included in the official papers, to be published online. During the question session the council leader referred to a letter from the county council on streetlights which she provided a copy of to all councillors; though it was not available to the public.
1. Cllr Tucker to the Executive Councillor for Art, Sport, and Public Places
The Folk Festival is an important event on Cambridge’s cultural calendar. Could the Executive Councillor for Art, Sport, and Public Places provide an update on the preparations for this year’s event.
Cllr Tucker, a new Liberal Democrat, who had apparently managed to get himself elected without ever observing a council meeting struggled with the way the question and answer session was run. Instead of saying “Number One Mr Mayor” he launched into a question
This clearly planted question allowed Cllr Cantrill to talk about the plans for the festival, focusing on how the ticketing arrangements had been improved following the problems of previous years. When Cllr Cantrill reached the end of his two minutes the mayor asked Cllr Tucker, if he had a follow up question. Cllr Cantrill, who had only got half way through is prepared answer urged him on saying “yes you do”, “go on”, “you do, you do”, but Cllr Tucker sat in silence and shook his head to indicate to the Mayor he had nothing more to say.
I reported this occurrence live on Twitter and the suggestion was made that Cllr Tucker might not go far in his party if he doesn’t get the hang of asking the planted questions and allowing the executive councillors to get their prepared answers out.
2. Cllr Boyce to the Leader of the Council
Will the Local Enterprise Partnership conduct its meetings transparently?
Astonishingly the answer given to this question was: “No.”
Despite pressure from the city council, on behalf of Cambridge residents the Local Enterprise Partnership is refusing to hold its meetings in public. The greatest concession Cllr Reid could report she had obtained from the LEP was that it might, on occasion, invite certain members of the public to some of its meetings. Cllr Reid promised to keep up her efforts to make the public body operate transparently.
3. Cllr Herbert to the Executive Councillor for Environment and Waste
Can she confirm that all parties on the council support door to door recycling, following, its staged expansion since Labour first implemented door to door recycling and green waste collections in the 1990s.
Cllr Swanson responded, her first contribution to the full council in her new role as executive councillor for bins. She said she was yet to fully get to grips with her new role, but that the answer was “yes”. Cllr Herbert followed up asking if she would therefore ensure the inaccurate claims on various Liberal Democrat websites in relation to the history of, and party political support for, recycling would be taken down. Cllr Swanson asked Cllr Herbert, the labour leader, to provide her with links to the statements, she committed to investigating and if necessary asking her colleagues to make any necessary changes.
4. Cllr Blencowe to the Leader
How do individual City Councillors make bids on behalf of their residents for monies from the city council’s climate change fund? What is the process to be followed?
Cllr Reid said there was an internal bidding process, and cited the meeting which had approved the method and criteria. Cllr Blencowe thanked her for the answer and noted he hadn’t been aware it was an internal scheme.
5. Cllr Bird to the Leader
Now that she has seen the categorical conclusions of the Equality Impact Assessment on Lion Yard ground floor toilets will she make a commitment today that the council will negotiate to retain the current toilets where they are.
Cllr Price asked the question on behalf of Cllr Bird who had left the meeting early to attend a doctor’s appointment. Cllr Reid responded to say no, she could not give such a commitment. She said though that she was aware that the current location suited many residents well. She noted a proposal to move the entrance to the toilets to the wall on Fisher Square when the current entrance to the Lion Yard was closed off – and that would have the effect of making the toilets, although they wouldn’t move, further away from the inside of the Lion Yard.
Cllr Reid said she had personally taken control of matters relating to the city’s public toilets having become aware of their importance to the city’s residents.
Cllr Price expressed astonishment that the assurance sought could not be given and asked if the council was using its influence as landlord. Cllr Reid said that the council had a duty to act responsibly, but it was now more aware of the views of residents and would ensure they were taken into account. Cllr Reid said she could “not give any categorical assurance that the toilets will stay where they are”.
6. Cllr Rosensteil to the Leader
To ask the leader what response she has received from the County Council to her letter following the council’s recent resolution on street lighting (minute 11/19d/CNL)
Cllr Reid replied to say she had distributed a copy of the letter to all councillors’ seats.
Cllr Rosensteil quoted from the letter, which was about the county council’s streetlight private finance initiative and said it claimed 80% of the city’s street lights were past their “design lives”. Rosensteil questioned if Victorian and pre-war engineers had any concept of a “design life”, he suggested they designed things to last and “for ever” was their design life. Rosensteil expressed his view that many of the street lamp poles in the city, especially cast iron ones, were perfectly good and all that needed changing was the light fitting on the top; he suggested his proposed approach would be much cheaper. Cllr Rosensteil urged for a distinction to be drawn between the light itsself and the way it is held up.
Cllr Reid replied to say Cllr Rosensteil probably knew more about the subject than she did so he ought be answering, and not asking the question. She reported she now had an appropriate contact at the County Council. As an aside she also reported that the “Robinson Candles” (the white vertical tube lights in the historic streets) had been listed.
7. Cllr Brown to the Executive Councillor for Planning and Sustainable Transport
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has introduced an amendment to the Localism Bill stating that the amount of New Homes Bonus generated by a proposed development must be regarded as a material consideration when determining a planning application. Can the executive councillor comment on the likely impact on Cambridge and its environs of this amendment?
Cllr Ward replied, reading from a prepared sheet on which he had prepared answers to both Cllr Brown’s initial question as tabled and her supposedly spontanous follow up. He said: “I don’t know, I hope none”. He said he didn’t want to see the council forced into accepting inappropriate development in return for cash. He said that he was worried that if the council did refuse a development where a developer was offering the council a hefty “bonus” then they might get challenged in court. Cllr Ward predicted that refusing planning permission might result in the council being sued and the taxpayer having to foot the bill for defending expensive legal actions.
Cllr Brown followed up by describing the “New Homes Bonus” system as “buying planning permission”.
Cllr Ward responded to say that Cambridge’s Liberal Democrat MP did not support it, and he at some point in the bill’s passage had gone so far as to rebel against his government and vote against provision [presumably before supporting the bill as a whole].
8. Cllr Owers to the Leader
What progress has been made in organising a public meeting in Cambridge on the National Health Service so that local coalition MPs can listen to the views of Cambridge residents and explain their support for the reforms?
Council leader Sian Reid responded to say she had (as she agreed to do at the last full council as a result of Cllr Owers’ motion) invited MPs Julian Huppert and Andrew Lansley to a debate. She reported that Julian Huppert would be “delighted” to take part and defend the Liberal Democrat position on the NHS. Cllr Reid reported that no reply had been received from health minister and Cambridge’s other MP Lansley. On chasing Lansley for a reply she had been offered a 1:1 meeting with Lansley – not what she had been seeking. Lansley’s office had been in-touch with her to say he would be happy to ensure that a “listening exercise” was arranged for the city.
Cllr Owers followed up by asking what the Liberal Democrat policy on the NHS was; noting that Cllr Tim Bick had been very supportive of the privatisation plans the government had been proposing at the time of the last council. Cllr Bick hurriedly exchanged words with Cllr Reid before she made her response. Cllr Reid said that Cllr Owers had mischaracterised Cllr Bick’s contribution to the previous council meeting; she then declared his follow up question “a travesty of use of oral questions” and sat down without answering it.