Cambridge City Council launched its consultation on a new Local Plan for the city on the 15th of June 2012.
The local plan is the policy document against which all planning applications made in forthcoming eight years or so will be assessed. It will shape the future of Cambridge.
On the morning of Saturday the 16th of June 2012, the first full day of public consultation, a secret, private, briefing by Cambridge City Council planners was held. The event was not open to the public. Only residents association representatives, councillors, and selected others were permitted to attend.
No similar public briefing event is currently planned for the general public or for other groups in the city. I have asked Cambridge City Council’s executive councillor for planning Cllr Ward (Liberal Democrat, Arbury) for such an event, but he has to-date declined.
I think this is wrong. The Liberal Democrats running Cambridge City Council often in my view give too much weight to the views of those running residents’ associations. Residents associations do not represent everyone in Cambridge. There are no requirements for a residents’ association to operate in an open, democratic, or inclusive manner; they don’t even have to be anything more than one man using a letter-head to try and make his planning objection carry extra weight.
I think that the briefing given by City and County officers accompanying the launch of the local plan consultation ought to have been made in public.
The Federation of Cambridge Residents Associations (FeCRA) controlled access to the briefing, Cambridge City Council led the presentations and Cambridgeshire County Council officers also took part.
Jane Singleton of the Federation of Cambridge Residents Associations, and chairman of the Residents’ Association of Little Newnham, defended the decision to hold the briefing in private claiming it would be impractical to hold a public meeting given the size of the population of Cambridge and stated that that I as a member of the public was very lucky to be able to find out anything at all about the current local plan consultation.
Cambridge Past Present and Future have recently been able to hold public meetings on aspects of the city’s planning policy, on Tall Buildings in Cambridge and Localism and Planning; they didn’t need to restrict access to those.
In my view there are parallels between the 16th June 2012 event and the briefing on Congestion Charge proposals for Cambridge held on the 17th of September 2007, the latter event was the only briefing on the proposals from County and City officers held in Cambridge. I observed that event through the windows, as I objected to, and didn’t feel I could afford, the £11 charge on the door to what had been promoted as an “open meeting”. City Council leader Ian Nimmo-Smith was one of those who addressed the September 2007 meeting; he since promised not to get involved in such exclusive events again, however he was found to be chairing the Q&A sessions at the event on the 16th of June.
The council is running a series of “exhibitions” but an exhibition is far from the briefing, and opportunity to ask questions of senior council officers provided to residents associations. The council has recently listed the dates and locations of these events on their consultations page the first is at the West Cambridge Sports Pavilion on the 19th of June 2012.
A number of councillors appeared to be making use of the officer briefing on the local plan consultation; these included the man who is one defection away from becoming leader of the council, leader of the Labour opposition group, Cllr Lewis Herbert. Cllr Herbert was joined by his party colleagues County Cllr Tariq Sadiq and City Cllr Gail Marchant-Daisley. I observed Liberal Democrat City Cllr Sian Reid entering, I asked her for her views about the fact the briefing was being held in private at a secret location, she responded politely but without addressing the question.
How I Found Out About the Event
The existence of the secret private briefing event was accidentally revealed by planning officers at a meeting of the Fen Road working group, which I attended. The only clue to the location which came out though was that it was “Wolfson” related, but not Wolfson College. When I left home to try and hunt down the meeting I didn’t know where it was, but a number of suggestions had been made, including the Wolfson Room at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Girton College’s Wolfson Court and rooms in Trinity College.
While existence of the meeting was mentioned on a number of websites, including latterly the council’s own official consultation website, its location was not given, the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations listed the location as merely: “Cambridge”. I was able to use the clues available, and my knowledge of Cambridge to successfully locate the meeting.
The council’s listing of the meeting gave the impression it was to be one of the major formal elements of the consultation process.
Outside The Event
I attended venue at which the event was held, I intended to ask if I would be allowed to observe the briefing and take part in the event. I had my video camera with me and would have, if permitted, have filmed the council’s presentations and made them available to all on YouTube.
As it was I was not allowed in.
I spoke to a number of those attending as they entered the event.
Andrew Roberts, the Company Secretary of the Trumpington Road Residents Association, was one of the first I spoke to, he said he was “very happy” that the briefing was a secret private event to which the public were not invited. Mr Roberts refused my invitation to speak to me on camera.
The chair of the Victoria Park Residents Association spoke to me, he said it was “probably OK I think” for him to have privileged access to Cambridge City Council planning officers at that morning’s event. We also discussed the private signs put up at Victoria Park to describe the traffic regulation order in force there. My view is that’s a very odd arrangement which ought be officially signed, and I am concerned that it isn’t clear to the public what restrictions apply.
Janet Bunker representing, but not a committee member of, the Richmond Road Residents’ Association spoke to me to say she would have liked the meeting to have been public, as then she could have invited members of the residents association, and others living in the Richmond Road, Wentworth Road and Nursery Walk area of Castle.
I spoke to a member of the public entering the event who said he was not associated with any residents association. He didn’t know why he had been invited, but said he assumed it was because he had commented on historic Cambridge Local Plan consultations and would therefore have his details held by the council. He told me he also had a professional interest in planning, but refused to give his name or speak on camera.
Another member of the public turned up having sought to gain an invitation as an individual but her emails had not been responded to. She was initially refused entry, but offered a place on a stand-by list, I too placed my name on this list. It turned out that many of those who had registered had not turned up so there was plenty of space, however I was told, by Janet Singleton, who was running the registration desk that the “residents associations only” rule was still being applied so I was not able to go in. The lady from Newnham however did get in; what I think happened was she simply walked in past the desk while I was trying to establish exactly what the criteria being applied were. If an active decision was made to let her in but not me I have genuinely been wondering on what basis that might have been made. The only obvious differences between me and this lady were age and the fact I’m male and she was female. I wonder if I was turned away because I don’t look like the majority of others who were attending (and controlling access) who were substantially older.
I spoke to Lynette Gilbert, chair of the Riverside Residents Association, on her way into the secret briefing; I first asked about the approach the association made to the council asking for public money to pay those of its members who are professional architects etc. “professional fees” for the “work” they do objecting to planning applications. Once I had raised this point Lynette Gilbert refused to speak to me any further and stormed off into the secret meeting. While I think it would be wrong for people receive public funding for this I was genuinely interested in the views of the association.
Frank Gawthrop of the Glisson Road and Tennison Road Residents Association spoke to me, he said it was “a shame” and “ridiculous” that I was not allowed into the event.
Member of the public Hugh Kellett had turned up despite having been told the event was over-subscribed. He told me he had been to the registration desk and read the list of invitees, he described it as: “the great and good of Cambridge”. He promised to live tweet the meeting should he gain access, which he did.
Mr Kellett’s Live Tweets
- On waiting list to attend Local Plan meeting. Number 1 in queue
- Access granted.75 people expected perhaps 60 here. I’ll tweet any thing interesting.
- Title is “Delivering a new Local Plan” looking towards 2031. Council officer introing: Housing, jobs, transport… Update of previous plan..
- …update of previous plan with “broad democratic engagement”. Will also be input encouraged from a wide range of other stakeholders
- This meet one of specific stakeholder group Res Assocs. Council keen to engage with others eg younger people. Ask for word to be spread
- Sara Saunders of Cam City Co presenting now on homes: poss new homes numbers: option 1 12700,opt 2 14000, opt 3 21000, opt 4 25000.
- New jobs. Opt 1 10000, opt 2 15000 opt 3 20000
- Location of new homes : 2060 available in urban area. Others need to come from green belt..
- .Assurance that CamCityCo and SCambs council working together. Repeating that housing consultation process is wide ranging and ongoing
- Ex mayor Ian Nimmo Smith now chairing questions
- Questionner asking why a playing field being considered for development
- Questioner asking why Waterbeach barracks not included in poss development plans
- Council officer saying that all potential sites need constant re-testing even if they appear counter intuitive.
- Questioner from Cambridge Past Present and Future saying that 3 local authorities plans not joined up… no bigger picture to base decisions
- Council officer defending view that plans are being joined up but CamCity needs to move faster than the outlying authorities
- Meeting is in Wolfson Court library. All books dreary and numbered…except one, sticking out prominently: Fanny Hill. Might peek when bored
- Questioner: what about new station in Chesterton. No plans for new homes stated?
- Questions about implications of traffic congestion
- “@PhilRodgers: @RTaylorUK Was it a FeCRA or @camcitco representative who denied you entry?”There are a few seats spare still
- Now on to “opportunity areas” 1 Mill Road 2 Eastern Gate 3 station to City centre and Hills Road 4 S of Collars Lane 5 Airport.
- Marshalls to stay until 2031.Then go back into green belt or develop?
- Now onto how to protect City Centre in view of massive increases in visitors/residents
- Mop says Marshalls should be pressed into development.Mop says we no longer in reign of Henry V1 who raized centre of Camb to build Kings!
- @PhilRodgers @RTaylorUK @camcitco @camcycle It’s a FeCRA hosted event with camcitco lead presenter. Camcitco to repeat among other groups
- Word count on “sustainable” about 25 and rising. “Vision” and “strategy” also high.
- Coffee break
- Mop bemoaning design of Chesterton station. Council officer agrees work to do. PS battery on last legs..will it see me out till 1230 finish
- Back on with “Long Term Transport Strategy” presentation from Cambridgeshire County Council.
- Actually it is stressed this is a Question/consultation session not an invitation to assess any strategic plan.
- Framework for consultation: 1 Business as Usual or 2 Doing More. Officer asking for all public to get involved. Consultation ends 27 Sep.
- Officer saying no formal plan for Chesterton station, what’s in public domain is just a marker. Extensive consultation to follow apparently.
- Battery going Tweeting off soon. Sorry.
- Cllr Tariq asking about vision council leadership for city centre given rise of population. Also saying Stagecoach can hold plans to ransom.
- I asked question as to how to get Stagecoach to comply with 20 mph and if poss intro slower vehicles with recalibrated engines and drivers
- Answers to all questions are : we will let you know after consultation in autumn. Not much on cycling , and no question among attendees
- If you have a transport issue I urge you to get involved now. Presumably details online
- Air quality in Cambs at apparently illegal level due to buses
- Mop: buses should be barred from city centre
- @gnomeicide Batts replaced. Speaker referred specifically to buses.Response from council presenter was bus engines were getting cleaner
- Few concluding points re Local Plan meeting :1 Camcitco on a reach out approach, want ideas and are keen to promote consultation.
- 2 Consult period end date July 27 not as I prevously tweeted. Camcitco stress they willing to engage in depth with interested groups
- 3 Then further consultation in autumn followed by draft New Plan in spring 2013.Again this draft will be open to scrutiny and consultation
Following the meeting I noted two further tweets related to it. Cllr Tariq Sadiq Tweeted:
Called for clear leadership & vision on Cambridge transport strategy from @CambsCC and to deal with bus monopoly; at FeCRA Local Plan event
A county councilor used the secret private event to call for action from his council.
Ed Cearns tweeted:
A useful event this morning for camb residents assoc on the Local Plan- just one part of a huge consultation programme http://pic.twitter.com/5a2jeXIh
Mr Cearns linked to the only photo I am aware of to have emerged from inside the secret briefing.
Mr Cearns’ LinkedIn profile reveals he is an ex Cambridgeshire County Council officer who has worked in “community engagement”. Mr Cearns has tweeted since the meeting to claim it was not secret as: “posters were sent to resident assoc and put in community centres”.
The consultation is open for six weeks. I intend to make responses to it. As I understand it responses will be automatically made public by the council, any submissions I make I will note on my website.
There is an online consultation, so it will be possible to see what others have written and respond to responses and carry out a debate online.
I doubt this will happen to a large extent though, as the online system is far from ideal for this purpose. For example to see if anyone has yet made a response I have to search by respondent name separately for each letter of the alphabet or read click through the entire document section by section looking for those with comments. As far as I can see there is no option to sign up to a feed of new comments, though depending on how badly broken the system is a “scraper” producing such alerts might not be too tricky to produce.
I would like to better understand the relationship between Cambridge City Council’s consultation exercise, and local plan, and the South Cambridgeshire District Council local plan. We’re being told the councils are working together, but what does this mean. As I understand it a join local plan process was decided against due to the fact this would slow things down, but with the areas where the city is expanding crossing boundaries, and some of the areas being consulted on being outside the city, I am not sure if part of what’s going on here is Cambridge City Council running a consultation on behalf of South Cambridgeshire District Council asking seeking Cambridge residents’ views on expanding the city. One thing which is certainly being done, is making yet another argument for a unitary authority for Greater Cambridge. What’s the difference between “join working” which we’ve got, and a “joint local plan” which we haven’t (and a joint local plan consultation process, which I’m not sure if we’ve really got or not).
- On the evening before the meeting Cambridge Conservative party agent tweeted a link to an image of an event flyer he had been sent.
- Riverside Area Residents’ Association webpage on the meeting. This gives the location merely as “Where: Cambridge”, nothing more specific. I think this is in-line with how FecRA themselves openly referred to the meeting. It states “Cambridge residents are welcome to come along” and that those interested should contact “Lynette” (the chair of the Riverside Residents association). I don’t know on what basis the Riverside Resident’s Association made their statement that Cambridge residents were welcome, but that does not appear to have been the case in practice.
- Cambridge City Council have posted an article about the meeting on the http://cambridgelocalplan.wordpress.com/ blog. This was posted the day before the meeting and omitted the entrance criteria, time and location.
Another Threat of Legal Action
On the morning of the event Jane Singleton, who was manning the reception desk for FeCRA, announced her intention to sue me in relation to my reporting of the event. I do not know if she is planning on taking action as an individual and/or if she was also speaking on behalf of FecRA at this point. I immediately sought clarification of the basis of the complaint, she responded: “breach of privacy”.
Ex Cllr Claire Blair has stated that she has previously contacted the Information Commissioner in relation to my website, and has reportedly been advised they have no jurisdiction as it is a personal site. I presume the basis for this position is the exemption in S.36 of the Data Protection Act covering domestic use, which I think probably applies to my personal website. In addition S.32 of the DPA provides a further exemption, for journalism.
My understanding of the domestic exemption is that it means I don’t have to pay the extra tax which goes along with notification as a data controller in relation to my running of my personal website. This doesn’t mean I don’t run this website in a responsible manner. I am highly identifiable and write under my real name. When Jane Singleton of FeCRA requested my name and address for the purpose of taking legal action against me I supplied it readily. If I receive any notice or the sort described by S10 of the DPA I will consider and reply in line with the requirements of the act. I will balance the public interest associated with continued publication against the harm or distress caused to the individual.
I cannot conceive of how it would be possible to breach the privacy of an organisation such as FeCRA, or what doing so would mean.