Cambridge City Council Environment Scrutiny June 2011

TV Screens Reminded Those Attending Which Meeting They Were At

TV Screens Reminded Those Attending Which Meeting They Were At

I observed Cambridge City Council’s Environment Scrutiny committee on the 21st of June 2011.


This was the first scrutiny committee for Cllr Swanson in her new post as Executive Councillor for bins. The committee looked at how the budget for her area, formally titled, “Environmental and Waste Services” had been spent in the previous year (2010/11).

There had been an “underspend” on the revenue budget of £387,281 – on a total budget of £7m. This led Labour councillor George Owers to question the quality of the council’s budgeting and the accuracy of the information put before councillors on which they make decisions about the future. The biggest chunk of the savings / extra income were in the area of “trade waste”, the report to the committee states some of the savings arose from an “audit of tipping tonnage” which to me raises questions about if the council was being overcharged before the audit took place. The report also points to greater than expected take up of trade co-mingled recycling (like domestic blue bins) which has reduced the amount, and therefore cost, of material sent to landfill.


The county council is responsible for gritting the roads, pavements and cycleways in the city, but the city council actually does some of the work under the direction of the county council. The city also grits its own properties, including paths in council housing estates.

Last winter 15 community groups in Cambridge were issued with a total of 16 tonnes of grit. A further 7 groups asked for grit, but too late to get any before the weather warmed up.

Debate at the committee focused on how this scheme could be improved. The proposal before them was to use ‘builder’s bags’ which will be distributed to groups who request them. Cllrs elucidated that council staff will be able to deliver as much salt/grit as desired; and will be an improvement on people having a tonne of grit dumped on their drives as reportedly happened last year.

Labour councillors asked for the council to stockpile more grit, and to increase the amount to be distributed for use by residents groups ten fold to 160 tonnes. An amendment was circulated to councillors, but not the public, Cllr Swanson noted that the amendment as written didn’t specify the 160 tonnes – it presumably just called for a greater stockpile, and greater distribution to residents groups.

The reason for wanting a greater stockpile of grit in the city is that otherwise when it gets snowy and icy the county council won’t sell us as much as we want as it’ll prioritise other places.

The Labour proposal was endorsed by the committee and accepted by Cllr Swanson subject to council officers, and the meeting’s chair, considering its practicality.

My view on this is that generally gritting is something I expect to be done out of my taxes. This is something, especially in a densely populated city, that the state can do better than individuals, or community groups. I do think that having supplies of grit pre-positioned in bags around the city for people to use themselves when needed eg. on hills and known problem spots is useful too. I think those stocks should be publicly accessible though, and not distributed to, and controlled by, community groups and residents associations. In Cambridge residents’ associations tend to be comprised of more elderly people – not the group who I think it makes most sense to have gritting the roads / cycle ways.

It was noted that the county council had vetoed at least one grit delivery because they were not confident the grit would end up being used on the public highway.

Cllr Wright expressed a concern I share, which is that the grit will go to the pushy (generally the better off) and not be distributed based on need. Cllr Wright suggested the council should be more pro-active in determining where the grit bags go, and do more “outreach”, as winter approaches, to publicise the fact they will be available.

Romsey Conservation Area

A conservation area for Romsey was approved, without debate.

I think councillors failed to consider the balance between preserving the built environment and allowing people to make their homes suitable for modern life, including by making modifications to make them more energy efficient. Huge extra bureaucracy and costs will now be imposed on residents and the council but no assessment of the downsides to the designation was given. Already the council struggles with issuing timely decisions on things like minor tree works in its existing conservation areas, it also struggles to get across what does and what does not need permission.

I can see the need to give councillors extra powers to preserve the appearance of the historic core of the city; but when it gets to the residential areas of Romsey I think the focus, and the balance, ought be more towards practical places to live than harking back to some long gone history of an area of railwaymen’s cottages.

I’ve written more about this item in a separate article.

Charging for Pre-Application Planning Advice

Talking to a planning officer in some places in the country can cost you £40-50 / hour!

Executive councillor, Cllr Ward, made clear he wasn’t going to bring in such charges for Cambridge householders and the item was rapidly dispatched.

It wasn’t explained why a report proposing the charges had made the agenda at all given the executive councillor’s opposition to it. Perhaps his predecessor Cllr Blair had thought the charges would be a good idea?

Street Naming

The Council’s “Scheme of Charges for Street Naming” was put before the committee. I didn’t notice the committee deal with this item, though it was on the agenda!

I learnt another odd thing about the way we run the country from the report to the committee – that appeals against road name / number decisions are heard by magistrates! Any objections to names assigned to unnamed streets are also heard by magistrates – that’s something I think ought be determined democratically.

The council has some odd charges which it makes, mainly to the developers of new homes. They look hardly worth the administration of the fees though in general, being, for example, £100 for numbering 6-10 properties. For developments over 100 properties the charge is £500 for the first hundred properties plus £10 per plot, presumably that’s where much of the income comes from.

The council will charge you £25 to confirm your address; and £50 to issue a new address if you build a new property!

The council expects to make £2000-£3000 from the charges relating to street names and property numbers over the course of a year.

The policy adopted doesn’t deal at all with what I would have thought would be the key bit – how roads in new developments get assigned names and what criteria get used to choose them – it’s all about raising money.

Planning & Sustainable Transport Finances

The committee looked at the difference between what was budgeted and what actually happened in Cllr Ward’s Planning & Sustainable Transport area.

The main point of discussion was car parking income, which officers keep underestimating. They thought it would be about £0.5m less than it was in 2010/11. Councillors noted that it was better an error was in this direction than the other.

The possible impact of the guided bus (which executive councillor Ward referred to as the “mis-guided bus”) on car parking income was discussed, with councillors thinking it might encourage more people to get the bus into Cambridge and so reduce car park usage.

Appointment to Cam Conservators

The committee discussed who the council should appoint to the conservators of the river cam as ex-Cllr Walker is no longer a councillor.

The Labour Group put forward Cllr Kevin Price, saying he, as a porter at Clare College had been up the night before keeping order on the river (during the May Balls). Green Cllr Wright put her self forward saying she’d always wanted to be a conservator.

Cllr Ward said the Liberal Democrat group had decided to treat this position as if it was one of those which has to be given to someone who’s not on the ruling group, so the Liberal Democrats would abstain from voting. This left the three Labour members of the committee to vote for Cllr Price, and Cllr Wright to vote for herself.

Councillors discussed the need to agree what the council’s policy was towards the conservators and what its members were being sent there to achieve. Cllr Ward said he would ensure this was set down, along with a clearer policy on who the council appoints to the various places on the conservators it has the power of appointment over. Cllr Herbert noted the council’s current appointee of “Mr Clive Brown (resident living close to the river)” and queried why “resident living close to the river” was a suitable qualification.

See also: my account of a Cam Conservators meeting.

Surface Water Management Plan for Cambridge and Milton

The council’s sustainable drainage manager presented this report.

The council had commissioned a £100,000 study on drainage and flood risk from surface water flooding.

Key points include:

* Cambridge and Milton are in the top 2% of places at risk from surface water flooding.
* 3500 homes Cambridge and Milton are at risk
* The problems are not new developments; they’re generally better at dealing with surface water than what was there before; problems are in the existing parts of the city – especially following people paving over their front and back gardens.
* Surface water flooding results in water courses (streams, drainage ditches) being filled up; so while it’s not caused by them overflowing it is related to their state.

The areas of highest risk were identified as :

  1. King’s Hedges and Arbury
  2. Cherry Hinton (North and South)

Cllr Herbert referred to a zone running from Sainsbury’s on Coldhams Lane, across Coleridge to Cherry Hinton.

The position is that the £100,000 (which came from central government) had to be spent to do research which can now be used to support a bid to central government to help fund some works to reduce the surface water flood risk. Options include better maintenance of waterways, building ponds, requiring people to use permeable paving and making other regulatory / planning policy changes.

Cllr Mason, the South Cambridgeshire District Councillor for Histon and Impington, including Orchard Park attended during the surface water flooding item. He asked about the drain along Kings Hedges road, and if the 8,000 m3 of water holding capacity under Orchard Park had been taken into account. He was told work on the drain would take place in the next three years and that the storage area under the new estate was taken into account as it was not assumed that it would be overwhelmed like other more insubstantial drainage by a 1 in 200 year event.

The need to plan for a potential flood was also mentioned; councillors didn’t follow up on that, or ask questions as to what plans were in place and if they were still considered suitable given the greater understanding of the risk following the research.

Confidential Item

The committee agreed to allow South Cambridgeshire District Council to prosecute someone for a waste transfer offence which had occurred in Cambridge (the waste had been dumped in South Cambridgeshire). The reason was to allow the offences of the transfer and the dumping to be dealt with at the same time in court. Councillors were able to make the decision to allow this without debating the confidential papers so they didn’t have to read me the local government act and throw me out.

One response to “Cambridge City Council Environment Scrutiny June 2011”

  1. Thanks for the report Richard. However I disagree with your comments about grit for residents’ groups. I feel that you are making unhelpful political points.

    My view is that the city council should distribute grit to responsible groups of people, such as ourselves, who can then distribute the grit locally, so instead of being helpless in the face of bad weather, we can assist ourselves and our local communities.

    If we don’t do this, it appears no-one else will, so we are performing a useful function.

    The city Council has made it clear that they don’t have the resources to apply grit to pavements, and the county is only interested in roads, so at least we can make a difference to our lives locally if we are enabled to do so. BTW, it is pretty patronising to imply that RA and community groups are a load of old fuddy-duddies. Some of us may have grey hairs, but we aren’t done just yet.

    I am pleased to say that central government supports the policy of the council, and issued the snow code last year.

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