Cambridgeshire County Council – October 2010 Full Council


Wednesday, October 20th, 2010. 5:46pm


Menu for lunch at the Cambridgeshire County Council meeting on the 19th of October 2010.

Lunch menu from the Cambridgeshire County Council meeting on the 19th of October 2010. (I did not have permission to photograph the meeting itsself)

On the 19th of October 2010 my local County Councillor, Rupert Moss-Eccardt, invited me to observe a full meeting of Cambridgeshire County Council from the floor of the chamber and to join him for lunch; the local equivalent to a cup of tea on the commons terrace with your MP followed by watching a debate in Parliament.

Key Points

  • The council approved moving £1.2m from funding cycleways in Cambridge so it can be spent on main roads across the county. The ruling Conservatives’ reasoning is more lives are saved per pound by focusing on the main roads.
  • The council decided to consider proactively publishing their register of members’ interests online.
  • The Conservatives running the county council are making decisions and holding key discussions behind closed doors in secret “policy development groups” which the LibDems refuse to attend on principle, as they are not open to the public. This clearly results in the views of Cambridge residents not being heard in relation to many decisions which affect them.
  • Executive councillors could not confirm school bus routes in the county have been prioritised for gritting this winter. They said councillors wanting input on gritting should have attended one of the secret PDGs.
  • LibDems, many of whom represent the City of Cambridge, are often not called to speak by the Conservative county council chair. This is another way Cambridge residents are disenfranchised.
  • Voting is carried out electronically; which way each councillor voted is shown on screens at the meeting but is not routinely published or reported in the minutes.
  • Public speaking rules are not mentioned, or linked to, from the meeting agenda. Parish councillors who wanted to contribute didn’t manage to get permission. (Deep on the council’s website I found 5 working days notice is required, full details are in the constitution. )
  • Recording, filming, and photographing the meeting is forbidden without permission. I was reminded/asked to confirm I was not recording etc. four times during proceedings! They’re not too keen even on the public taking notes – I sat at an empty table at the back of the room and the chair had me thrown off.
  • A lot of time was spent discussing Government policy on Health, Education and Policing and not specifically on particular matters the council is directly responsible for.
  • I was very surprised there was no discussion at all about how the council plans to respond to cuts in Government funding, both to the council, and to other bodies it works closely with.

My Perspective on the Meeting

I turned up just before the meeting started at 10.20 and signed in with the council reception. Observing county council meetings anonymously is not permitted, though unlike the procedures for observing the police authority no proof of ID is demanded at Shire Hall. Cllr Moss-Eccardt met me and directed me to some of the spare seats on the outer ring of the three horseshoes of councillors’ seating, he told me that was where invited members of the public and those asking public questions etc. got to sit. I had a microphone in-front of me, presumably inactive, voting buttons marked “present”, “yes” and “no” and a desk area. Cllr Moss-Eccardt gave me a copy of the councillors’ seating plan and the meeting’s public papers (these are not provided to “uninvited” members of the public in the gallery). Notably the seating plan made no indication of which party the various councillors are from.

As the councillors sit in party groups it was clear where the LibDems and Conservatives were; but it wasn’t until I checked the internet afterwards that I found Cllr Reeve was a UKIP councillor and how many Labour members were present. The Conservatives were all in suits and with a couple of exceptions were largely older men. The LibDems were generally dressed more casually, though I didn’t spot any sandals.

At about 10.30 am a council officer, acting as an usher, announced that the Leader of the Council, Jill Tuck, had fallen over so there was going to be a delay. Five or ten minutes later the meeting started without Cllr Tuck (it was later reported to the council that she had gone to hospital but appeared to be OK as she had driven herself home).

A doorbell is rung by the usher to announce the fact the meeting is about to start and to summon members from the area outside the chamber. The usher asked those present to stand for the chair, Cllr Linda Oliver, and Vice-Chair Cllr John Powley. They entered the chamber and were joined by Rev Peyton Jones, Cambridgeshire Constabulary’s Chaplain and a council officer, who I believe was acting as a legal advisor, on the raised seating. There was no mace, crown, portrait of the Queen or other royalist symbolism present in the chamber that I noticed. I don’t think God or the Crown ought have any role in the democratic process.

The meeting began with a prayer. Initially I thought it was going to be rather pagan or non-religious as the chaplain gave thanks for the fact the sun had come up that morning. However the prayer moved on to mention “eternal God”, and called upon God to “direct the minds of those who are here to make decisions together”. The councillor’s chaplain also prayed for their “health and safety”.

Following the prayer; the chair noted that the public gallery was empty (giving a preview of things to come she ignored a number of councillors pointing to my presence), but said she would, and in fact did, read a statement explaining filming, photographing and recording the meeting was not permitted without permission and no-one had permission that day regardless. As Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News was present quite why the fact the public gallery was empty was relevant wasn’t clear. Despite the clear announcement banning recording during the rest of the meeting I was asked to confirm I was not recording/filming etc. by three council officers including the one acting as an usher and one I now know to be Michael Brown the Democratic Services Officer. I asked the usher why, but he didn’t speak in response to questions, and wouldn’t let me know the roles of the other officers who had challenged me.

The chair then announced the meeting’s agenda would be altered so as to allow the chair of the police authority to address the meeting straight after lunch, at 14.00. The chair then proceeded to slowly read out, word for word, five pages of chair’s announcements which had been distributed to councillors, and me, in advance. Notably neither the chair’s announcements or the other documents distributed at the meeting which included written questions and their responses have been placed online with the meeting’s papers. (There’s a Q&A about the unfinished white lining on Stretten Avenue, saying the contractors are finding it hard to get the problem cars to move and the police are too busy. )

There were far more councillors absent than those who gave apologies and/or explanations for their absence. 56 out of 69 councillors were present for the first vote ie. after latecomers had dribbled in and before people started drifting away. Cllrs Pellew and Heathcock were Cambridge councillors who I noted were absent for the whole meeting.

Declarations of interest came next, most were things like councillors serving on other bodies such as acting as governors, being members of the police authority etc. A number of councillors declared they were in receipt of council pensions or would be entitled to one in the future. Cllr Moss-Eccardt went to seek advice on an amendment circulated which would have required the publication on the council website of members’ Criminal Records Bureau status and determined he had no interest to declare. A couple of the Cambridge LibDems declared their membership of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Cllr Brown declared that his wife “owns two local newspapers”.

There was then a public questions slot. It was later revealed that some parish councillors had wanted to speak but had not managed to navigate the formalities. I have no idea what the rules are, though a notice period was referred to by the chair, there is no mention of the procedures or even a pointer to them on the agenda.

Highways

The first substantive matter debated was highways, and a revised network service plan was presented to the council. Part of the proposals include moving money from cycleways and pavements to main roads. Conservatives explained this was due to their focus on reducing fatalities and pointed to their success reducing injuries and deaths on the A1307. Some of the funds are to be re-directed to bridge strengthening.

Cllr Burke said funding for cycleways had dropped from £2m to £0.8m. Conservatives laughed at the LibDems when they said their alternative budget would have allocated £3m to cycleways saying that the LibDem budget was a joke on the grounds there had been no basis for any of the figures within it.

Cllr Brooks-Gordon complained about the reduction from £25,000 to £10,000 for a study into making bus traffic on Magdalene Street one way.

Cllr Kindersley, the Liberal Democrat representing Gamlingay, complained about the huge cost of all county council projects. He called for officers to present “less gold plated options”. He told the council he had grown up in a place where tractor wheels painted white were used as roundabouts; he said that while he wasn’t proposing going that far he didn’t see why new roundabouts were multi-million pound projects.

Oral Questions

After rather summarily accepting a number of reports, and the answers to written questions the council moved to oral questions. I have noted most of the questions asked below:

Councillors Making FOI requests

Conservative County Councillor Nick Clarke (http://www.clarke.eu.com/) complained that Cllr Pellew had asked for information on the county’s libraries via freedom of Information requests (such as this one).

Cllr Clarke said Cllr Pellew ought to have approached officers directly rather than asking for the information in public, and said this route would have been cheaper for the council. Cllr Clarke called for councillor training to be improved so that councillors know how to obtain information from the council without making FOI requests.

Cllr McGuire responded to say he would consider any requests to improve councillor training, but that he didn’t think there way any problems.

Parking Charges

Cllr Burke asked about a 36% rise in parking charges in Cambridge. Cllr McGuire appeared not to accept this rise was planned / had happened.

Cllr Burke had made an odd comparison with a freeze / cut in another area of council services and Cllr McGuire understandably suggested he was comparing two incomparable things.

Gritting

A councillor asked about way the county was seeking farmers to help clear rural roads. She related how a parish council had recruited farmers and arranged to pay for their services themselves; but had then found the main road through their village cut from the County Council’s gritting plans. It was these parish councillors who had wanted to speak in public. The councillor complained that she could not reach Cllr McGuire and officers had told her he was uncontactable and didn’t have a phone as he lived on a boat. Cllr McGuire brandished a mobile phone and said he had landline too; he said the officers had given the councillor the wrong information. He offered his mobile number to the councillor.

Costs of Executive Assistants

Cllr Moss-Eccardt asked for, and received, an assurance that the fact the Conservative group has made some of its members assistants to executive councillors would not result in any increased costs.

MadingleyHuntingdon Road Road

Cllr Brooks-Gordon asked about reducing the speed limit on MadingleyHuntingdon Road Road. She said there had been 127 incidents, 63 injuries and a death in the last year.

Cllr McGuire responded to say Cllr Brooks-Gordon couldn’t know the number of incidents as non-injury accidents were not recorded. Cllr Brooks-Gordon said she had obtained the figure from council officer Mr Preston. Cllr McGuire said there were meetings taking place to discuss options which included Cllr Renyolds, the councillor for Girton. Cllr McGuire offered to join in if it was felt his presence would be helpful.

Gritting School Bus Routes

Fiona Whelan, the Liberal Democrat, who represents Hardwick asked if school bus routes had been protected in the council’s review of which roads are to be gritted this winter. She pointed out that there are knock on effects if children can’t get to school, as then parents might not be able to get to work on time.

The Conservatives responded to say the decision had been taken at a policy development group meeting; and that Cllr Whelan ought to have made her argument there if she had wanted it to be considered. Conservatives accused the Lib Dems of : “standing on the moral high ground” by refusing to take part in the policy development group meetings on the because they are held in secret.

(Lib Dems in the City Council, where they’re in charge, hold or support a number of meetings to which the public are not generally permitted to attend including the East Chesterton ward based policing meeting, the secret meeting on Church Street Chesterton Parking as well as routine meetings of the city council executive and councillor briefings. The Ranger Steering group chair, Cllr Ward, has told me if I find his meeting I can observe but he won’t publish times, dates and locations.)

Spending on Public Relations

Cllr Nichola Harrison the Liberal Democrat who represents Petersfield in Cambridge had tabled a motion asking the council to halve its Press, Public Relations and Communications budget from ~£2m to £1m. Cllr Harrison was absent without apologies or explanation during the morning of the meeting so Cllr Whitebread presented the motion.

Conservatives opposed this on the grounds it was sidestepping more formal methods to try and find savings and was not a proposal based on any evidence. They said again that Lib Dems could have had their say at secret policy development group meetings and then in an astonishing step moved to prevent any further debate on PR spending. They moved a motion to proceed to a vote without debate. The chair refused to allow any debate on the motion to move straight to the vote despite Lib Dem members asking to speak. 31 councillors voted in favour of the silencing motion, and 18 voted against; the chair and vice chair abstained as they did on all votes that day.

Bizarrely after that motion on quashing the debate, before the vote, Cllr Whitebread was given the opportunity to sum up the debate, she used the opportunity to sarcastically note how worthwhile the debate was and how fully the questions raised had been discussed.

Publishing Members’ Interests

Amazingly the County Council does not publish councillors’ interests online.

The data is held in the council’s online system, but only council officers get to see it.

Cllr Moss-Eccdart submitted a motion calling for the council to publish the register online to the public.

Conservative Cllr Criswell submitted an amendment to add the publication of councillors Criminal Records Bureau status online. The amendment also meant the motion no-longer required the council to actually publish the register on the internet merely to “consider ways in which more information about elected members can be made available on the Internet. This should include access to the Register of members Interests…”

In his summing up Cllr Moss-Eccardt questioned if the council was permitted to publish the result of CRB check, and wondered what “CRB status” meant. (Cllr Moss-Eccardt, quite reasonably in my view, refuses to allow the council to carry out a CRB check on him).

Conservatives said they had to take legal advice to see if publishing the register of interests was compatible with the Data Protection Act.

Cllr Moss-Eccardt asked about a timescale for getting the register online, and urged the Conservatives to do it, despite the amendment meaning the motion was no longer calling for it to be done straight away.

Fire Authority Questions

In an attempt to fill the few minutes before lunch the chair took questions on Fire Authority matters.

Green Cllr Sedgwick-Jell asked if the fire control centre was a financial liability to the fire service or authority; he was told it was owned by central government so was not.

Minuting Commitments made by Councillors at Full Council

Cllr Moss-Eccardt proposed a motion requiring the council to record commitments councillors, particularly cabinet members, make at full council meetings.

Conservatives, including the meeting’s chair, objected saying it was extra bureaucracy, and the minutes would suffice; noting councillors can correct the minutes and fill in omissions at the next meeting if there are any problems.

Cllr Burke gave an example of an unminuted commitment; he said at the last meeting an executive member had promised to ensure the council issued a proper press release drawing attention to the open period to view the council’s accounts. Cllr Harrison explained that as officers had not recorded the commitment councillors had nothing to point to when trying to chase up the commitment.

There was a very long debate with lots of councillors seeking to speak; some Cambridge Lib Dems were not called by the chair, something which got worse through the rest of the meeting. I asked in the break why councillors don’t just stand up until they are called or something; they said they’d tried that. This is something which needs to be sorted out, I was shocked by how the LibDems appear to have got used to his, or in the case of the new ones like Cllr Whitebread, are just accepting it as the way things are. They could do things like get an officer, rather than a Conservative, to maintain the list of councillors seeking to speak; or all turn up with little flag poles they could stick on their desks and raise when they were seeking to speak.

Cllr Moss-Eccardt explained that the minutes were not ideal, as members of the public trying to follow what their councillors are achieving at meetings ought be able to see, soon after the meeting if a commitment had been obtained.

The Conservatives voted down the motion, the final vote was 20 in favour, 31 against and 3 abstentions.

Lunch

There was a three course lunch. I was told that councillors pay for their own and Cllr Moss-Eccardt had paid for mine. I had the soup, lamb hot pot, chocolate cake and a cup of coffee. The new East Chesterton councillor Ian Manning expressed surprise at amount and quality of what he was being offered.

Before the lunch break the meeting’s chair told me I couldn’t sit where I was sitting and that Cllr Moss-Eccardt had been “naughty” to direct me to sit there. Cllr Moss-Eccardt said it was where the public always sit and asked the chair to ensure her new ruling was applied consistently. After the break there were no professional press present; as 6-8 places on the tables at the back of the room were free so I sat there. There were no signs indicating the spaces were reserved for any particular purpose. Following discussion with the chair, the meeting’s vice-chair, John Powley, stepped down from his raised seat at the front of the chamber came across and and told me to move. I explained I was intending to report on the meeting and suggested he take that fact back to the chair, he refused, saying he was simply passing on a ruling by the chair and I had to move. I moved as directed to seats without desks or anywhere to make notes or hold papers. The council appears not to think that any observers other than the professional press might want to take notes, either that or it simply wants to make things as difficult as it can for those seeking to report on, or comment on, or in the case of public speakers (who might be campaign groups, or councillors from other tiers of government) participate in meetings.

In fact I think it is utterly petty that when there are spare seats or space in at the back of chamber that these cannot be used by any member of the public. The system where one has to obtain an invite from a councillor to sit at the back is bonkers. (At the Lib Dem run city council, they also on occasion enforce a similar petty rule, there only honorary councillors can observe from the floor level.)

The County Council’s head of communications Andy Allsopp spotted my tweet about being thrown off the unused press desks that I sent while at the meeting. He has responded to say:

Hi Richard – the press desks are there for “card carrying” professional reporters.

We could look at opening them up to citizen journalists with prior notice – need to agree this with me prior/chair to meeting.

Sound like a solution? Happy to pursue if so.

I responded to say:

Parish/District Cllrs, campaign groups &others observing meetings all might make use of a desk. If they’re empty why restrict?

I cannot find any mention on the County Council website, or in the meeting’s agenda about the use of the desks.

As the press desks were unused it was in my view very petty of the chair to deny my use of them. At city council committees the press desk has a power point, and when there has been no member of the press using it I have on couple of occasions used it unchallenged. At city council committees it is often possible to find a place to rest and agenda, notebook, and laptop and many of those observing meetings do make use of them.

I should note that when I visited the House of Commons, in the pre-internet streaming, and pre-plastic screen days, pens weren’t allowed to be taken out of pockets; this kind of behaviour appears deeply engrained in UK democracy.

Policing

After lunch Ruth Rogers the chair of the police authority presented a report from the authority and took questions. She reported that authority members have met seven of the eight MPs in the county (Julian Huppert has tweeted saying he wasn’t going to attend the meeting) in order to lobby for a fair deal for Cambridgeshire Police funding.

Councillors then asked a odd range of questions, some on strategic matters but others on quite localised operational matters which appeared to me to be inappropriate though there were general lessons to be learnt from many of them. For some reason the questions and answers were disjointed, with all the questions asked before Ruth Rogers was allowed to start answering them.

Cllr West complained about the waste of time and money involved in his local “neighbourhood panel”; with six police officers and PCSOs and many staff on the public pay role in attendance.

Cllr Palmer spoke in support of a “Youth Safe” zone in Soham – a place where youths know they’re safe, with regular monitoring from the police.

Cllr Nethsingha asked if the police had been consulted about the council’s gritting plans

UKIP’s Cllr Reeve asked if the police authority supported elected police commissioners. He said he hoped, and expected, the public would elect someone who would take a “zero tolerance” approach.

Cllr Brooks-Gordon also asked about elected police commissioners; she suggested there was no public demand for them. Referring to the report which stated: “… we are not resistant to change for the right reasons and will seek to influence the shape of the new structure so that improvements in the policing of Cambridgeshire continue” Cllr Brooks-Gordon asked “what are the right reasons for elected police commissioners”.

Cllr Shuter asked about youths driving cars on the Bottisham Village College site until 4am. He reported that while the neighbourhood police were good they were not available at night, and didn’t appear to communicate with the response officers dealing with calls in the evening and in any case the traffic police were needed to deal with youths in cars. He told the meeting residents calling to report problems had been told it would be four hours before the police had an appropriate car available.

Ruth Rogers responded; she said that neighbourhood meetings were valuable especially when members of the police authority attended them as then a report would be written on them which would be seen by the “ACPO team”. I didn’t rate that answer very highly as that ought not be a key mechanism for getting the matters raised addressed; and authority members, other than Cllr Wilkins who is regularly present as a councillor, in my experience of Cambridge’s area committee meetings only attend for local police priority setting (as opposed to discussing the police authority budget) about once every two years.

On directly elected commissioners Ruth Rogers said there was a government desire for democratic accountability. On gritting she said she didn’t know. She then returned to democratically elected police commissioners and said all parties had at one point been in favour of them. Cllr Brooks-Gordon interjected to deny the Lib Dems had supported a directly elected police commissioner but had supported directly elected police authorities.

Ruth Rogers said she agreed the reported disconnect and lack of communication between officers working during the day and in the evening was “unhelpful” and promised to report that back.

GP Fundholding

Labour Cllr Sadiq proposed a motion calling on the Cabinet to report to Council on the operation of the pilot GP consortia in Cambridgeshire and to consider how they and the wider NHS reforms might specifically affect the provision of healthcare in the County and the delivery of the priorities identified in the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment for Cambridgeshire.

Cllr Sadiq explained his concern that public money intended for health would end up in the pockets of shareholders in private companies which he expected would be set up to help GPs in their new procurement roles.

The Conservative opposition to this was on the basis that the council would be doing it anyway. They’d said this a lot, including in response to the motion on properly minuting full council meetings, but for some reason didn’t accept the argument that their stance indicated they should just vote for the motion anyway, and if it wasn’t going to have any new effect that didn’t matter.

Conservative Cllr Renyolds said the council had responded to a government white paper on the proposals for GP fundholding and its views could be found in that consultation response.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Wilikins proposed an amendment. He said the opportunity to point out the GP’s role as a patient’s best ally was under threat if the GP was deciding if “you or another patient gets that care”. He said he did want the council to monitor what happens.

Conservative Cllr Tierney said that the effect would not be to detract from GP’s role as a patient advocate.

Cllr Downes made a rather irrelevant point that it was important that health reforms didn’t result in disadvantaged young people getting left out.

Cllr Sedgwick-Jell suggested councillors think five years ahead and envisage every bigger GP consortia eventually producing something pretty much like a PCT. He suggested that we ought be taking bureaucracy off professionals, not loading more onto them. He said GPs didn’t mind managers, they wanted professionals to deal with procurement, but it was important the GPs were listened to.

Despite Cllr Sadiq urging Conservatives saying they were going to do what he asked anyway to vote for his proposal his motion was defeated, 21 in favour and 32 against with the chair and vice-chair abstaining.

Academy Schools

Liberal Democrat Cllr Downes introduced a motion asking the County Council make sure all schools considering converting to an academy were aware of:

  1. the extra risks and responsibilities they are taking on as an independent school; and
  2. the financial impact on the rest of the Local Authority provision in other schools for some children with behavioural, educational and physical difficulties.

Mr Downes urged councillors to debate his proposal and not the wider questions of academy Schools. Mr Downes said the information available to schools considering becoming academies was not good enough; as well as the matters referred to in his motion he said he was aware of a case where governors were told by a headteacher that the Department for Education would retain ownership of, and would maintain, the school buildings (they won’t) and that the decision to become an academy is reversible (reversal can only take place after a seven year process). He also complained about parent consultation, saying in one case 800 emails to parents had resulted in not one response, he said he thought this was due to a lack of information (it was suggested it could be due to flaws in the “Parent Mail” system used by schools).

Executive Cllr Curtis said he had already issued guidance on consultation, suggesting this made the motion redundant.

Cllr Harty said he wasn’t going to support the motion as it could damage the council’s relationship with the coalition government.

Cllr Tierney said he thought headteachers and governors ought focus on what’s best for their schools, and the council shouldn’t be asking them to consider wider matters; that was for government and the local authority.

Cllr Downs reacted badly to the suggestion he was seeking to influence headmasters; saying he strongly supported independent headmasters and told the council he had once been a headmaster who had taken opportunities for independence when they were offered.

Conservative Cllr Curtis amended Cllr Downs’ motion; adding a mention of the pupil premium, saying it will mitigate the loss of central funding for those with behavioural, educational and physical difficulties; and other minor tweaks reducing implicit criticism of the government and ruling conservatives at the County Council.

The amended motion was passed with 32 in favour and 18 against and the chair and vice chair abstaining.

Cabinet Minutes

The full council then proceeded to review the minutes of the cabinet meetings.
At the city council this kind of thing always goes through without any debate; as the opposition members are represented on the committees whose minutes the full council is accepting. At the county though, this is a core part of the meeting as it is an opportunity to question what the cabinet have been up to.

The chair ruled that while the guided bus was mentioned in both cabinet minutes to be discussed; only one guided bus debate would be permitted.

  • Cllr Moss-Eccardt asked about staff appraisal rates, which appeared low, he was assured this was due to the time in the year and more would be carried out in the autumn.
  • A councillor managed to find an opportunity to praise the Waterbeach open access youth club.
  • Councillors commended the way the Library service cuts were being handled and that the budget cuts were being done following consultation. Cllr Van der Ven said the issue had prompted the greatest response to a county council consultation in history. She complained though about proposals to charge over 60s for audio books.
  • Councillors said that local meetings held around the county had generated good ideas from interested residents.

  • Cllr Burke asked again about gritting school bus routes. Cllr McGuire refered him to the decision of the policy development group and said the Lib Dems ought to have had their say there. Cllr Burke was forced to explain yet again that the Lib Dem County Councillors were not prepared to participate in secret meetings.
  • Lib Dem Cllr Downes caught up with the criticism of neighbourhood panels saying he had been to one with 16 council employees, 6 police and 11 members of the public. He said it was not a good use of time and money.
  • Cambridge City Liberal Democrat Mr Wilkins spoke to say he supported the city council’s area committees, saying the North Area Committee works well; I suspect he did this to reduce the degree to which it was appearing the city and county Lib Dems were at odds with each other on the value of local meetings by stating the alternative position. Some councillors complained their panels were too police focused and didn’t discuss things like gritting and busses; other councillors rapidly told them theirs did, and they should put items they wanted discussed on the agendas. Rural councillors said the panels helped get neighbouring parish councils to work together. Cllr Moss-Eccardt summed up saying no one-size fits all template is appropriate and the variety was a good thing. He said the committees/panels were like sewers in that you get out what you put in. A councillor suggested expanding the traffic area joint committees to become broader meetings serving the functions of the neighbourhood panels
  • Cllr Burke asked if the highest possible total cost of the guided bus was now £180m, adding in the costs to both the Government and Council, the contract and additional costs. Cllr Pegram said £160m was budgeted at the moment; he claimed not to be able to understand Cllr Burke’s question in which he’d added two figures together to get the £180m, but said he would try to understand it if it was presented in writing.

Written Questions

As I have mentioned the written Q&A is not available online.

One notable response is to a question by Cllr Pellew, who asked how much the county council libraries paid for The Fry Chronicals (RRP £20) by Steven Fry, the Fall of the Giants, (RRP £20) by Ken Follwtt and I Shall Wear Midnight (RRP £18.99) by Terry Prachett.

He said these were randomly picked from the Amazon bestseller list. The response to this question was provided only to councillors on a confidential basis on the grounds it it “commercially sensitive information”. The chair asked for papers to be returned after the meeting or for councillors to destroy them securely themselves when they had finished with them.

As details of how this public money was spent is accessible to those visiting the council to inspect the accounts during the open period; the council is only making it harder to access the information by classifying the response to Cllr Pellew’s question as confidential.

Cllr Manning

New Liberal Democrat Councillor for East Chesterton, Ian Manning, did not speak at all during the meeting.

See Also

Corrections, comments or additional material is welcome either in the below or directly to me via email as appropriate.

35 comments/updates on “Cambridgeshire County Council – October 2010 Full Council

  1. Andy Allsopp

    Hi Richard,

    The offer of opening up the press desks to citizen journalists still stands, if you give us prior notice you are coming. It’s not our intention to restrict their use, and of course had you (or Cllr Moss-Eccardt) had let us know you were coming we could have accommodated you. Perhaps it slipped his mind.

    You forgot to mention the desks were in use for all of the morning session and part of the afternoon by reporters from the Cambridge News and Cambridge First newspapers.

    Incidentally, there are no protocols on the use of the desks, because we’ve never had citizen journalists wishing to use them before – my own view on this it’s a very positive development.

  2. Chris Rand

    Fantastic effort, Richard. Thank you. This stuff should be distributed much more widely – the public would be so much more interested in their council if they had any idea what went on. But that’s the point of the secrecy, I suppose.

    You should have an email list to distribute your blog. RSS and Twitter reach only a tiny proportion of the potential audience.

  3. Rupert Moss-Eccardt

    I shall address Mr Allsopp’s comment about prior notice once I have ascertained if he is speaking in a personal capacity or on behalf of Cambridgeshire County Council.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    Mr Allsopp yesterday claimed via Twitter that “the press desks are there for “card carrying” professional reporters.”; only after I made an FOI request for the details behind that did he admit there is in fact no policy and that he, as well as the meeting’s chair and vice chair are making up the rules on the spot.

    I think this isn’t a point worth pushing on its own; but it illustrates how the council are aren’t as accommodating as they could be to those observing or participating in their meetings.

  5. Andy Allsopp

    Hi Richard,

    Don’t think anyone was making rules up on the spot. The Chairman’s ruling is their ruling. You are quite right that there is no policy on citizen journalists using the press desk – because we’ve never needed one. Why create bureaucracy (or work for officers through FOIA requests) when all you have to do is drop me a line and let me know you want to come along and cover the meeting? That seems a much more sensible way. I am pleased you think we are accommodating – please carry on letting us know how you think we can do more or better. We do value the comments.

    PS Cllr Moss-Eccardt has confirmed to me he did indeed let our democratic services people know you would be along -happy to set the record straight on that one.

    Andy.

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    If, as was raised during the meeting, the council has an over-bureaucratic system for dealing with FOI requests then that’s something which needs to be addressed.

    A FOI request in public seeking the policy, and perhaps authoritatively confirming none is in place will provide a solid foundation on which to campaign for a less petty approach from the council chair. It may also help others in the future who may find themselves in the position that I did.

  7. Belinda B-G

    Richard,
    Just a few factual corrections: 1) I spoke on a speed reduction for Huntingdon Rd (we have already got Madingley Rd down to 30mph on the City stretch) and Cllr Netsingha and Whelan are working hard for better safety Madingley Rd.
    2)In relation to the accident data for Huntingdon Rd, I said ‘on this road’ rather than ‘this year’. The figures, which I will send you as they are useful for everyone to see, are for the decade. Like most recorded stats these will be an underestimate.
    3) Re: Library cuts, I said that the Council has IGNORED the recommendations of the SCRUTINY COMMITTEE. You are welcome to see the report of Scrutiny Committee or look at the minutes that went to Cabinet. Lib Dems object most strongly to Library cuts. I was cross that the County had time to consult about closures but is giving no time at all investigating ways of alternative funding and I gave examples.

  8. Cllr Andy Pellew

    Hi Richard,

    Just to clarify my request for the prices for the books(!). At a Friends of Milton Road Library meeting a resident stated the view (quite passionately) that the Library service is paying a lot more for books that you (or I) would pay if we just brought them from Tesco or Amazon.

    Given that Amazon show the RRP and then charge about 50% (or more) less than that for a single book it will be interesting to see what price the Library service is able to get for it’s bulk purchases.

    I agree with you regarding the “commercially sensitive information” agrument – this is the same excuse given to not provide the costs of Kentwood Associates consultancy (eventually revealed via a FOI). I’m sure this information will eventually be published as well.

    Andy Pellew

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have transparently corrected the name of the road.

    Some accident data is published by the County Council, this is for the last three years and does not include non-injury incidents.

    http://my.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/mycambridgeshire.aspx?&tab=2&StartZoom=5000&layers=Accidents&layers=Accident%20Clusters

    Cllr Brooks-Gordon has tried to send me a copy of the data she was relying on when asking her question. I personally can’t get at the attachment easily (mac quoted, base 64 encoded PDF which neither Gmail or OSX Mail will deal with). Had she requested the data via a FOI request she would have prompted its release via the council’s disclosure log; had she made her request via WhatDoTheyKnow the data would be accessible to all at the same time as she had it.

    My impression of the full council was not that the LibDems were particularly upset at the Library cuts; the impression I gained was that there was general support for the way the consultation had been run, and what had been saved. I know the LibDems have been campaigning on this in the past – if they’re still against it I’d say they appeared to have run out of steam.

    While the road name was a simple error; I think a problem might be arising as councillors have submitted written copies of some oral questions in advance; so when they’re standing up and asking them they’re basically reading into the record rather than making a clear speech.

  10. John Elworthy

    Reading your ‘blog’has absorbed me for the past 30 minutes or so, Richard. Cast aside your intuitive grasp of political structures and your own political inclinations, it was as good a summation of any council meeting I have attended.
    The issue I think offers scope for development is that of the role of the so called citizen journalist, and note the absence of inverted commas in that statement.
    I have attended more council meetings than most in a lengthy journalistic career but have always held to the believe that a journalist ought not to receive ANY special privileges in either attending or reporting on local government. I would go so far as to urge the removal of the press desk but to make a table/desk available to any member of the public who wishes to take notes, record debates or, heaven forbid, film proceedings.
    I recall once attending a meeting of Fenland Council and arrived to find the main door to Fenland Hall locked from the inside. It was 10 minutes or so before the meeting and I therefore went to the reception area to complain. I was welcomed, politely, and invited to use an internal corridor to get to the chamber. I refused and stormed off angrily back to the council chamber door and rattled it with such force that Cabinet members – and even the then leader- came rushing to open it. My point was that this was a public meeting, open to the public, and therefore the public should not simply be taken for granted but accorded a warm and proper welcome. And that means entering through the main door. No matter so few members of the public want to attend (no wonder if that’s the welcome they get!) but I emphasised the point journalists are no more and no less than members of the public whose newspapers have been set up a 100 or so years ago to ensure accountability in all local affairs.
    Resources have played a part in reducing numbers of journalists attending, and also limits on editorial space have played a part.
    But there remains a stoic principle of the public’s right to know, and citizen journalism or simply plain citizens have rights that need to be constantly championed.
    Your reporting has alerted me to a number of issues worthy of a follow up in our newspapers ( we only rarely attend Shire Hall meetings) and I’m grateful to you.
    I would say, in defence of any criticism of Andy Allsop, that he shares our values of accountability and is as good if not better than many of the senior press officers I’ve encountered. Outside of council meetings it is inevitable newspaper and radio journalists ‘enjoy’ assumed rights of access to councillors and council officials, and our communities are the better for the reports published in their respective media.
    But in the matter of public attendance at public meetings, I support you every step of the way in reenforcing your rights of access, your rights of being accorded facilities for taking notes, and your continued enthusiasm for reflecting upon the political agenda in Cambridgeshire.
    Your analysis of the county council meeting has, as I noted, been written from a perspective that would probably not accord with those of many traditional newspapers but it remains a lively piece of reporting and should be required reading for those who care how our money is spent and our county is administered.

  11. Sarah Whitebread

    Hi Richard,

    On oral questions – I’m pretty sure Cllr Bourke’s question was on the park and ride (I was sitting next to him). The issue is related to residents parking because one of the things the on street parking account funds is the park and ride. The County now subsidises the Park & Ride to the tune of almost £1 million per year.

    We argued in the AJC that it is odd that Cambridge residents who live in parking permit areas should bear the sole brunt of this cost.

    Kilian was making the point that whilst Stagecoach have increased fares and are making more and more money from park and ride, the Council’s departure charge has reduced 50% in real terms. That’s what is causing this £1 million shortfall.

    The reason for raising this now is that the contract with stagecoach is coming up for renewal and we are hoping the Council will push for a better deal.

    It’s a shame you didn’t get this from your notes because it’s a big issue that could do with publicity!

  12. Andrew Osborne

    Richard – when do you think the minutes will be published, i’d be keen to see them onine, i’ve kind of figured out the black arts of working out city council stuff but the county council is still a mystery to me

  13. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cllr Whitebread, thanks for explaining that, but I don’t think the problem in this case was my notes. Cllr McGuire genuinely didn’t appear to see the connection between the stagecoach subsidy and parking charges either, Cllr Burke didn’t make the connection in his question.

    If you or Cllr Burke had said what you’ve just written in your comment at the full council the Conservatives would have had to respond to it.

  14. Richard Taylor Article author

    Andrew,
    County Council minutes are produced shortly before the next meeting.

    The next full county council is due on the 7th of December, and the papers appear to get published about ten days before, so we can expect official draft minutes online in just over a month’s time.

  15. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cllr Moss-Eccardt has extracted the statistics on Huntingdon Road from the odd format in which Cllr Brooks-Gordon provided them.

    They show that from 2000 to 2009 plus provisionally to the end of June 2010 there were 65 incidents involving 139 individuals; 66 of those individuals were unhurt. In no incident recorded though were all those involved unhurt.

    It appears that Cllr McGuire was right to question Cllr Brooks-Gordon’s summary of the statistics (she claimed 127 incidents, 63 injuries and a death) and when asked to clarify suggested she had obtained statistics for non-injury accidents. Cllr Brooks Gordon exaggerated the number of incidents dramatically, almost doubling the number shown by the data officers provided her with; and did not in-fact have non-injury accidents. She said her figures were based on data she sent to me; I have made the files provided available at:
    http://rtaylor.co.uk/files/huntingdonrdstats/

    I suspect there was no intent to deceive here; just sloppiness and not expecting to anyone to check, or question, what was being said.

  16. Cllr Andy Pellew

    RE: County Libraries

    The County is currently doing a review, I have met with the Acting Head of Libraries (as part of the Friends of Arbury Library group), I have attended meetings of that group and the Friends of Milton Road Library. There are currently no concrete proposals from the ruling group so nothing we can oppose or modify and every attempt to do anything is met with “wait for the review”.

    We have gathered information (like the FOI requests you have mentioned) so that when the review is complete and the County proposes to actually *do* something we can put together a propperly thought-out (and costed) counter-proposal.

    Just because we’re not shouting and screaming about something doesn’t mean we’ve given up and certainly that we’re not bothered about the cuts.

  17. Cllr Martin Curtis

    For clarification. My amendment to the Academies motion was not made to take out implicit criticism of the County Council. It was to enforce the point that the actions Cllr Downes was asking officers to do, was already being done and further to take out a criticism in the opening paragraph of his motion that Head Teachers were not giving the full facts to Governors and parents. A claim that was incredibly disrespectful of our Head Teachers.

    Incidentally, Policy Development Groups do not make decisions. They discuss and develop policy which is then decided on at a future date. Yes they are held in private – there is not a single Council in the country that does not have meetings in private to hold internal debate. The Lib Dem leader claimed that Lib Dems don’t do these meetings. Not true – a number of them sit on other public bodies where such meetings are held and have other private meetings within the Council. At a National Level Nick Clegg held numerous private policy meetings prior to agreeing to join the coalition. Such meetings are a part of politics. The reason the Lib Dems don’t take part is because it is a good cheap headline for them. Actually they do disservice to the County by not taking part – especially when issues they could have discussed at PDGs are then subjected to lengthy, expensive debate at Full Council (the amount of officer time supporting Full Council is much greater and so they are much more expensive meetings).

  18. Belinda B-G

    Richard,

    Perhaps you misheard as you have this wrong.

    I said ‘my analysis shows that 127 people were involved in accidents on this road.’ I published the text of my question on my blog the week before.

    http://www.belindabrooksgordon.mycouncillor.org.u/

    I asked the question verbatim as posted on the blog minus the last sentence about the local LibDem team.

    You have confused ‘incidents’ with ‘people’ in your reporting but I made the distinction clear in my question.

    I made the distinction for a reason – it makes the data clearer and more human.

    For example, while incidents get an overall severity grading of Serious or Slight this doesn’t tell us much in human terms about the effect of the accident. Incident ref 0588602 is coded as 1 ‘serious’ incident in the records. This impersonal coding means that one person lost their life, and another was unhurt (ie 1 fatality, 1 unhurt).

    The County Council have repeatedly stalled on this issue which is a cheap one to put right but so important in terms of safety.

    Detailing the impact of this stalling in simple human terms makes the data clearer and more human, and I hope less easy for the County to ignore.

  19. Richard Taylor Article author

    Brooks-Gordon’s article containing her question is at:
    http://belindabrooksgordon.mycouncillor.org.uk/2010/10/13/huntingdon-road-speed-limit/

    As written there the numbers aren’t accurate, but are not far out.

    As the question was ready a week in advance, and full of statistics it appears it could have been usefully submitted in writing.

    On making data “more human”; it wasn’t only here Cllr Brooks-Gordon tried to do this. On looking into making Magdalene Street one way for busses she saw fit to stress that one of those who has been hit by a bus there was a pregnant woman.

    I don’t see at all how the grading of incidents and collection of data can be reasonably criticised as “impersonal”. Of course the data is impersonal, its just statistics.

    If someone was to compile information on the lives of all these people and how the accidents affected them, that would be quite a different set of data.

  20. Kelvin Fagan

    This account has been both useful and interesting!

    It does seem to me that both the council and county council, who have an obligation (?) to make meetings ‘open’ to the public, try their hardest to make visitors most unwelcome!

  21. Steve Tierney

    That was a very nice summary of events and I thought you managed to avoid obvious bias most of the time – impressive.

    The argument over PDGs and their “secrecy” is rather more complicated and nuanced than you suggest though. I suppose, given who invited you, it is to be expected that you would present it thus.

    I’d just like to add that every councillor I know of all political persuasions would LOVE more public attendance at full council meetings. If anybody would like to come, regardless of political persuasion, by all means contact me and I’ll bring you along and give you the tour – time permitting.

  22. Anon

    In relation to the accident figures provided by Cllr Brooks-Gordon, it looks as though she is still a little confused with the accident statistics. Incident ref 0588602 has been classed as a serious accident. Incident ref 0580305 refers to the fatal accident.

  23. Richard Taylor Article author

    Anon is correct. Cllr Belinda Brooks-Gordon has mis-read, mis-interpreted, or mis-presented the data in this respect too.

    The fatal incident is given a severity classification of “fatal”; not serious.

  24. Richard Taylor Article author

    I was just told the “Friends of Barnwell Road Library” was set up on the 28th of September 2010. All city libraries appear now appear to have friends groups. Many LibDem councillors at the recent City Council meeting declared their memberships of them.

    I’m wondering if all these groups have arisen recently as a result of threatened cuts or reorganisations of library services or if other friends groups are more established.

    Are these groups any more than cynical and opportunistic Lib Dem (&Green) rabble rousing and a devious campaigning technique.

  25. Phil Rodgers

    The Arbury Court library group has a blog at http://friendsofarburylibrary.blogspot.com/ which says it was formed in August this year in response to the library service review. I’m surprised that you suspect it of being a devious and cynical campaigning ploy, rather than simply a group of people who want to defend their library service. Its acting chair is John Marais, who is not exactly well-known for being a Lib Dem stooge.

  26. Richard Taylor Article author

    All I know about Mr Marais is that he was one of the tenant representatives on the Housing Management committee which voted, on the 29th of September 2009, to go out to tender to look at privatising council house maintainence; as no searching questions were asked he and his fellow reps appear pretty Lib Dem friendly.

  27. Edward

    Friends of Arbury Court certainly isn’t a Lib Dem front group. How do I know this?

    Because I know Mike Todd-Jones and a few other Arbury Labour stalwarts put a lot of effort into collecting names for the petition to save Arbury Court. I believe Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts was also heavily involved, which is closest to the Cambridge Socialists of any party, and after that probably Labour.

    I also know that whilst the Lib Dems made it look as if the Milton Road group was their project in their leaflets for East Chesterton, at least one member of its committee is a Labour member (and I suspect the majority are members of no party).

    For that matter, whilst I know nothing about Rock Road’s friends group, I can’t see why Lib Dems or Greens would bother setting it up, as neither of them is going to win Coleridge or Cherry Hinton.

    No, political parties are getting involved in the anti-library cuts campaigns because a) they’re good campaigns and it makes sense to back a winner; b) they fit with what I suppose you’d have to call their ‘brand image’; c) because a lot of their members are the sorts of people who’d be involved in these campaigns anyway and d) because if other parties are involved you don’t want to get left behind.

    But I doubt any of these groups were thought up solely as political vehicles. Cambridge’s libraries are popular, well-used and one of the few pieces of decent infrastructure located outside the city centre. They’re natural places for people to want to defend, whatever their politics or lack of.

  28. Richard Taylor Article author

    It’s good to hear these groups are not entirely party political creations but I think it is still mis-leading to suggest all these libraries have active friends groups when in-fact they’re all brand new groups formed just to try and keep the libraries open, with their existing service level. The decision to call them friends groups and not campaign groups must surely have been calculated to give a false impression?

  29. Phil Rodgers

    What a suspicious fellow you are, Richard. Who exactly are you accusing of misleading people by making these baseless suggestions? No doubt it is those wicked Lib Dems, fresh from vandalising your car.

  30. Cllr Amanda Taylor

    Richard

    They are not all brand new groups. The Friends of Rock Road Library has been going for a year. It was set up as a vehicle for the Rock Road Library Gardening Project, because the County Council required a group to deal with rather than a collection of individuals.

    You can inform yourself about it here: http://amandataylor.mycouncillor.org/2009/09/02/library-garden-big-dig-12th-september/

    Not surprisingly, the Friends are concerned about the cuts and are publicising the consultation — but that is not how they came into being.

    Rock Road Library is in Queen Edith’s, not Coleridge or Cherry Hinton — but the Friends are not run by the Lib Dems although I am a member.

    The chair is Professor Jane Elliott. She has never given me any indication that she is a Liberal Democrat.

  31. cobweb

    The one at Milton Road has been going for a number of years now iirc. The Central Library had one before the refurbishment/rebuilding, but why shouldn’t groups defend the library service? It’s worth hanging onto.

  32. Richard Taylor Article author

    So it appears some of these friends groups are well established and they are what they appear to be. Others though are new and appear to have been started as a response to the threatened cuts / reorganisation.

    Obviously there is no problem with groups, even new ones, defending the library service. I just think there needs to be some clarity and openness.

    Cllr Taylor didn’t declare her membership of the Friends of Rock Road Library in her latest register of members interests. That interest presumably became declarable once the friends group started lobbying and she did declare it at the full council meeting last week (those declarations are not yet online, and it is up to councillors to decide if they need to update their main register of interests).

    http://www.cambridge.gov.uk/democracy/mgDeclarationSubmission.aspx?UID=147&HID=306&FID=0&HPID=4271383

    I think asking when these groups were set up, and when councillors became involved with them are reasonable and good questions to be asking.

    The potential to mislead arises when someone defends a library, saying as part of their argument there’s a large and active friends group defending it, when in fact that friends group is a recent incarnation, and its members are being incited by councillors opposing cuts in public spending.

    Asking questions about if these groups have been hijacked by political purposes, or even created by them, is a legitimate question to be asking particularly given the weight given to the views of these kinds of groups by councillors focused on localism.

  33. Edward

    Richard, the large and active friends’ group exists to defend the library because they value it.

    If they weren’t under threat, that support would be much less needed and therefore there would be less call for the groups to exist. But that doesn’t make the support any less real.

    You can create a front group with just a few members. But, as you frequently point out, there just aren’t that many members of political parties. If it was only them, the petitions in support of the libraries would be a lot shorter and the committees a lot smaller.

    Even if we were to take the conspiracy theory option that these were groups entirely made up of “members are being incited by councillors opposing cuts in public spending”, that’s not an argument for ignoring them. You can’t brainwash a voter. If they can be incited by opposing a cut, it’s because they’d have opposed that cut when they found out about it anyway.

    If the groups were controlled by political groups, that would be a problem. But if they aren’t largely the creature of one party, the problem doesn’t arise – even if they were originally created by one party. They’ve got support now and there’s little the political parties can do to take that away.

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