Cambridge City Council – Secret Private Local Plan Consultation Briefing


Sunday, June 17th, 2012. 11:13pm

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

Other Tweets

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

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).

Further Links

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.

See Also

20 comments/updates on “Cambridge City Council – Secret Private Local Plan Consultation Briefing

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have been sent a copy of the agenda:

    Registration will be from 9.00 to 9.25; coffee and biscuits will be served in the Sheila Gillies room from 8.45 there will also be an exhibition in the Sheila Gillies Room organised by the City Council Planning Department.

    prompt start at 9.30

    there will be a break at around 10.45 for further coffee, biscuits and comfort. Coffee will again be served in the Sheila Gillies Room.

    the meeting will take the form of a series of brief presentations by City Council Planners on some of the key aspects of the Issues & Options report; these will include, the vision, the overall growth options of houses, jobs and location, and some other policy issues which we think will be of particular interest to residents. There will not be the time to cover all aspects of the report.

    each presentation will be followed by a Q&A and discussion period Ian Nimmo-Smith has kindly agreed to manage these sessions

    immediately after the coffee break will be a brief presentation by a County Council Officer on the Transport Strategy which is being launched for consultation at the same time as the City¹s Issues and Options report

    we aim to finish at around 12.00 (12.15 latest)

    some delegates have kindly agreed to stay on to form a focus group on consultation improvements led by Chris Williams, City Council Strategy Officer; this meeting will be in the Sheila Gillies Room. For those staying on, I attach some background notes form Chris.

    In relation to the latter point I responded last year to Cambridge City Council’s Consultation Consultation.

    The council only consulted residents association members about its upgrade to its online planning system, the results of which have fallen well short of what could and should have been put in place; why doesn’t the council learn from its mistakes?

  2. Timothy Haire

    This would be funny if it were not so bonkers. If there were space at the meeting why were you not allowed in? Complete madness. When I was emailed a copy of the flyer I didn’t realise how exclusive the event was supposed to be. I find this all very very very strange.

  3. cobweb

    But it’s not just about Richard being unable to get in, as I see it. It’s about it not being open to the public (even if they did need to book in advance.) I find Jane Singleton’s comment on the size of room they could afford a bit odd as it turned out the event was sponsored by the city council.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’ve been sent a copy of a FeCRA document on the subject of the event which states:

    The City Council are kindly funding this event so it is free.

    This suggests I may have been lied to by Jane Singleton of FeCRA who told me the event was funded by FeCRA and that was the reason it was held in a small venue and not opened to the public.

    When I questioned why the event was not public Jane Singleton of FeCRA stated:

    We couldn’t afford it. We’re doing it from FeCRA which has no money.

    Jane Singleton’s statement is available on video

    I’ve also been told that those at the event were told it was in fact being funded by the city council.

  5. Phil Rodgers

    which does not of course imply that the City Council would have funded a larger venue for FeCRA’s meeting. While I agree that (i) FeCRA should have admitted you to their event and (ii) the City Council should hold a briefing format event open to the public in addition to their exhibitions, I hope you will find some time to write about the actual content of the local plan consultation, rather than focusing primarily on your exclusion from this event.

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    As I’ve said above I intend to comment on the options for the plan.

    There’s a lot of material to read, both in the issues and options report, the evidence behind it, and the comments others, including representatives of developers, have made in response to related consultations. While much of this was available before the launch and I’m familiar with it, making quality submissions takes time and thought.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    There’s another local plan briefing scandal emerging. This time in relation to South Cambridgeshire, who are responsible for the areas outside the city boundries, but inside what most people call “Cambridge”.

    South Cambridgeshire also ran a secret briefing, but they only invited journalists to theirs (I didn’t get an invite).

    The Cambridge News’ local government correspondent Chris Havergal has tweeted to note he is being gagged by the council and can’t share what they told him at the secret briefing as the material is: “strictly embargoed I’m afraid”.

  8. Rupert Moss-Eccardt

    Ask a councillor to ask what the press were told.
    They can then decide if the information is ‘exempt’ or ‘Confidential’. If the latter then giving it to the press is a criminal offence. If the former then the councillor can make his/her own judgement as to what can be done but must be mindful of any advice the Monitoring Office might give.
    Of course an FoI request might be worth a go.

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’m presuming the information is neither exempt or confidential and it’s simply embargoed and I and the elected representatives of the people of South Cambridgeshire, be able to read all about what Chris Havergal knows now in a few days time both via the Cambridge News and from South Cambridgeshire District Council.

  10. Rupert Moss-Eccardt

    There is no legal definition of ‘embargoed’.

    The information is held by SCDC on our behalf and is generally available. The exceptions to being available to the public is ‘exempt’ information. It is possible for the “exemption” to be time-limited. But exempt information is generally available to councillors. The exceptions to that are very limited.

  11. Richard Taylor Article author

    Another secret, private, meeting for residents association members only has been arranged to introduce the second stage of consultation. Again there is no such event advertised for the general public.

    The secret private meeting is to be held on the 14th of January 2013, at 19.30 in the Guildhall.

    Public information on the new consultation titled: Local Plan review: Issues and Options 2 is available at:

    http://www.cambridge.gov.uk/ccm/content/planning-and-building-control/planning-policy/local-plan-review/issues-and-options-2.en

  12. Richard Taylor Article author

    The chairman of the Cambridge Federation of Residents Associations has written to alert me to another secret, private, briefing meeting on the local plan, apparently, as before, only for residents association members, and again to be attended by very senior planning officers:

    • Patsy Dell, Head of Planning, Cambridge City Council – setting the Scene and City Draft Local Plan
    • Jonathan Dixon, Principal Planning Policy Officer, South Cambs District Council – South Cambs Draft
    • Dearbhla Lawson, Head of Transport and Infrastructure Policy and Funding, Cambridgeshire County Council
      The event is to be held from 9am on Saturday the Saturday 13th of July, in the Lucia Windsor Room at Newnham College.

      The event’s agenda states it has been funded by Cambridge City Council.

      The next stage of public consultation starts on 16th July 2013.

      I think it is wrong that the council give preferential access to senior officers to members of residents associations; I shared this view with the Cambridge City Councillor responsible for planning policy, Tim Ward:

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I’ve replied to Morcum Lunt:

      Morcum,

      Many thanks for letting me know about this event.

      I’m not sure what you expect me to do with this information; as you know I oppose the special access to planning officers the councils are giving residents associations.

      I’ve noted the existence of this latest meeting on my website at:

      http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/cambridge-secret-private-local-plan-briefing.html#comment-84080

      I think I made my point protesting outside at the last event and don’t think a repeat of that is necessary.

      I am disappointed Cambridge City Council have not learned from their experience of only consulting residents associations in relation to their online planning system:

      http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/publicaccess-planning.html

      > I attach the calling notice for the FeCRA organised meeting for this
      > Saturday morning in case you have not received advice of the meeting through
      > your local RA.

      While I have lived in five different places in Cambridge over the last twelve years or so I have never knowingly lived in an area covered by a residents association.

      Regards,

      Richard Taylor
      Cambridge
      http://www.rtaylor.co.uk

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      As I noted in the article many of the city’s residents associations are, I suspect, effectively one man operations. Some even appear to be one man, single issue, “organisations”.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      Looking at Mr Lawton’s own association, the Brunswick and North Kite residents association; which he often describes himself as a representative of in public meetings. It has a website, which is excellent, but that appears to show it has held no meetings for almost three years: http://www.brunk.org.uk/minutes.html

      As for single issue, one man bands, I recall viewing a paper planning file for the development of the Old Maltings in Prospect Row and one of the handwritten letters of objection claimed to be on behalf of a residents association but commendably, in the body of the message admitted that the “residents association” didn’t really exist and had only come into being briefly for the purposes of a previous planning application.

      I’ve also been told of another association; which despite describing itself as representative of a road / area in fact only comprised people who wanted to preserve the appearance of a particular stretch of terraced houses, and it focused, exclusively I understand, on opposing applications for extensions, and parking on front gardens along that terrace.

      I’ve been told of other residents associations selecting those they make aware of the organisation, eg. by excluding shared houses and student accommodation when they have sent newsletters and information through letter boxes along a street.

      I’ve previously questioned if the Residents’ Association of Little Newnham is more than a one man band, there are only two mentions of it found by a Google search today.

      It is very rare for a residents association to operate publicly; many are actively secretive. I’d like it to be easier to find out if an organisation is credible, representative, democratic and open. I think it would be in the interests of the well run residents associations to be more open about what they do, so their representations can be given appropriate weight by councilors.,

  13. John Lawton

    Hi Richard,
    oops, I can confirm that BruNK has definitely been been having regular meetings – admittedly we are behind on posting the minutes.
    I think that we should publish membership of the BruNK committee from which you will be able to see that BruNK is certainly not a one man band.
    To encourage transparency I will encourage FeCRA to publish details of their members.
    I am sure that councillors will be able to form their own opinion on RA’s that they are in contact with.
    Regards,
    John

  14. David Ganz

    Dear Richard,
    Please keep up your excellent work. It seems clear that Brookgates is in league with the council, is receiving huge payouts from the council, and is being allowed to deliver none of the benefits for which the money has changhed hands. And the Conucil is doing deals at secret meetings.

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