At the Monday the 10th of October 2011 meeting of Cambridge City Council’s Strategy and Resources Committee councillors considered a report on Interim Review of Area Working and the North Area Pilot. This was a report on the impact of changes to the way the North Area Committee was run.
I used the public speaking slot at the start of the meeting to say:
I think there’s a key omission from the report on the North Area Committee experiments.
The report doesn’t say that in the last two periods the police priorities for North Cambridge have not been set democratically by councillors.
The leader of the council, Liberal Democrat Cllr Sian Reid interrupted me at this point and asked me, what I was talking about.
For the last few years local police priorities in Cambridge have been set, by councillors, at area committees. Councillors have voted on the priorities. During the experiments with different ways of working at the North Area committee one of the big changes in my view was scrapping the democratic setting of the local police priorities.
In one case the chairman, Cllr Nimmo-Smnith simply set them himself – he picked them alone from a very long list of things which were raised by councillors and the public. In the next case all those in the room in favour of the priorities the chairman had again picked himself were asked to raise their hands – even this only happened because a couple of councillors objected to the way the chairman was acting unilaterally. [Cllr Nimmo-Smith was present and nodded indicating what I was saying was true]
I think having the police priorities set by councillors and having the police held to account for their performance against those priorities is one of the gems in the way Cambridge is run; I think this is something we should be continuing and improving. I feel that I’ve lost something I valued with this change.
I understand the police are very happy with the “mob-rule” way of working, they don’t want to be robustly held to account. It’s much harder for them to ignore a clear vote of elected representatives than a self-selecting group of members of the public.
I don’t think and Cambridge City Councillors, particularly the Liberal Democrats who are in the majority, can claim any mandate for ditching a key aspect of local democracy in this way.
While I’d like to see the committee clearly, now, state it supports representative democracy and wants the police priorities to remain set by councillors in the city, perhaps another alternative would be to refer the question to the city’s executive councillor for policing, Cllr Bick.
The leader of the council, Cllr Reid responded.
She said that the setting of police priorities was done differently outside the city. (It is; I’ve written about mob rule in Sawston)
Cllr Reid didn’t express a view on how local police priorities should be set; and was commendably open, honest and clear that she was, to that extent not actually providing a clear response to my comments.
Cllr Reid agreed that the police take a different view of the meetings to the council.
Cllr Reid said there were regular meetings held between her, Cllr Bick, and the area committee meeting chairs to discuss the police priorities, she said discussion of the point I had raised would contribute to the policy discussion, involving Cllr Bick, which would happen there.
Those are secret meetings, not published on the council’s meeting calendar, and never before in my experience referred to in public. I’ve made a freedom of information request to try and find out more about this previously unrevealed aspect of democratic influence over policing in Cambridge.
I was given the opportunity to ask a follow-up question; I simply urged councillors to consider the question of setting police priorities when they came to debate the item.
Andrew Limb, the council’s Head of Corporate Strategy introduced his report, noting and accepting the omission I had highlighted, and saying the process for setting police priorities was a subject that would need to be discussed as the council considers possible changes to the way area committees were run.
Cllr Mark Ashton (Labour, Cherry Hinton) suggested that I ought be asked exactly how I thought the policing aspect of the meeting ought be run and the council should do it as I say it should be done. Cllr Reid looked horrified at this proposal and no councillors seconded what Cllr Ashton had said.
Labour opposition leader Cllr Herbert started by saying his group supported area committees; despite of misleading flyers produced by the Liberal Democrats suggesting the opposite (Live Tweet). Cllr Herbert called for even greater localism and spoke about the “spirit of wards”, pointing out Cambridge’s wards generally relate to distinct communities. Cllr Herbert asked for more highways decisions to be delegated to area committees (Live Tweet). He also said it was currently not clear enough who took which decisions at area committees. On policing Cllr Herbert stressed the role of councillors was to “influence” and not to directly set priorities.
Cllr Brown made some impassioned partisan point about Labour wanting to centralise planning.
Cllr Benstead spoke to say the reasons people were attending area committees were changing, and more people were now coming for the open forum and policing items than they had in the past.
The chairman of the North Area Committee, Cllr Ian Nimmo-Smith asked the council to set out the principles under which local police priorities should be set by area committees. (Live Tweet).