City Council Propose Buying 11 and 12 Year Olds Local Secrets Discount Cards

Friday, March 12th, 2010. 2:49am

Cambridge Cards from Local Secrets

At Cambridge’s South Area Committee meeting on the 11th of March a proposal to spend a substantial amount of public money buying Local Secrets discount cards for all children in years 7 and 8 (11 and 12 year olds) was presented. Cllr Clare Blair, who made the proposal, explained that these cards would then give the holders discounts at swimming pools including Parkside and Abbey as well as The Corn Exchange, The Junction and Ice Skating.

Cllr Blackhurst who was chairing the meeting was allowing members of the public to ask questions. I used this opportunity to put a question to Cllr Blair. I asked:

Is Local Secrets a for profit company? If so why is there a proposal to put public money into this private company’s profits on the basis of them having negotiated discounts with organisations which the council has more direct routes of influence over? The council either owns, manages, or funds all these facilities and is surely in a position to arrange discounts with them directly without making a contribution to a private company’s profits.

Cllr Blair responded to say Local Secrets was a for profit private company. All she was able to say in explanation was that the council had a long standing arrangement with Local Secrets and said the city council’s leisure card had “turned into” the Local Secrets’ “Cambridge Card”. For some reason she also suggested I visit the Local Secrets and city council website to look for more information on the card and consider buying one myself.

Youth Summit

The proposal to spend public money buying these cards has come about following each area committee in Cambridge having allocated £5,000 to be spent on, and by, young people. The total amount available across the city is £20,000. A “summit” attended by 33 children from wards across the city was convened to decide how the money ought be spent; councillors from each area were invited to attend too. It has been reported now to successive area committees that what the children asked for was leisure discounts; particularly on ice skating.

It appears that Cllr Blair may have decided that simply spending the money with Local Secrets is an easy option; its one which doesn’t address some of the other points raised by the children such as requests for discounts on busses.

On interesting point arose during the discussion when an officer speaking at the South Area committee said the ice rink on Parkers’ Piece operates under a “service level agreement” negotiated with the City Council. It was a children’s and young people’s participation officer though so I don’t know how true it is.

Discussion in the East

Whereas the South Area committee did not have a written report on the children’s summit linked from its agenda the East Area did.

When the proposals were presented to the East Area committee on the 18th of February councillors asked what the difference was between a Leisure Card and a Local Secrets card. Then Cllr Blair said she didn’t know; so her knowledge has clearly progressed in the last three weeks; I hope that by the time she actually comes to spend the £20K of public money she has got a grip on exactly what it is she is buying with it. At the moment I’ve not got the sense that she’s spending my money as carefully as I would spend it myself.

Councillors at the East Area also asked if the cards would be distributed through schools and if children in school in the city but not resident in the city would be excluded. Cllr Blair said that cards would go to those attending schools in the city and not those living in the city. Cllr Blair said it was not easy to get the number of children in the city.

At the East Area Cllr Blair identified the question of “Are we willing to fund corporate activities?” eg. Ice Skating or the Cinema as one councillors had to answer.

Cllr Howell complained that Cllr Blair wasn’t bringing a concrete proposal at the East Area Committee. Cllr Bradnack expressed concern that the views of the children were being channelled through a single executive councillor with ulterior motives. From exchanges at the East Area committee it appeared that the idea of giving out Local Secrets discount cards to children had been floated with the children who had responded to say they felt that local secrets targeted adults; they said they’d like to see more things of interest to younger people covered.

Local Secrets

Local Secrets Ltd. runs the Local Secrets website and discount card. The company is largely owned by Mr Neal Robbins of Halifax Road in Cambridge with minority stakes in the company held by other members of the Robbins family and others.

A BBC interview with Mr Robbins is available via this link.

I cannot find details of the City Council’s relationship with Local Secrets. I don’t know if the council gets a cut every time someone buys an upgraded card; I don’t know if the pools and other facilities charge Local Secrets every time a discount is claimed.

The local secrets website states:

The City Council maintains the policy and direction of the scheme

The “Cambridge Card” is cited as an “area of uncertainty” in the City Council’s budgeting document the “Medium Term Strategy“. The note states:

The Council has recently introduced the Cambridge Card and is working in partnership with a number of organisations regarding this item. It is hoped that the scheme will be successful and financial implications minimised.

For 2009/10 a budget of £0 is given for the Cambridge Card but £2,160 is shown as spent *. From that I presume that perhaps the the deal is designed to mutually beneficial to the council and Local Secrets with little money passing between them; though that’s clearly the status prior to including this new potential £20,000 going to Local Secrets.

Council Discounts

I have been asking for almost a decade now why the City Council has such a crazy way of giving student discounts on things like swimming. University students have to have an NUS card first, then buy what used to be a Leisure Card and is now a Local Secrets Cambridge Card. Quite why the student ID cards issued by the city’s universities can’t be accepted is something I’ve asked a large number of people, including the current Executive Councillor responsible, Julie Smith, with no substantive or explanatory response.

Children Concerned about Dispersal

Interestingly another rather different outcome of the children’s summit is a proposed meeting between police and young people to explain the use of and implications of the Section 30 dispersal powers which Cambridge Liberal Democrats have allowed the police to use in the city. These powers are particularly strong when applied against under 16s; though some councillors thought they had an agreement with the police not to use them on children. Older children at the summit meetings reported getting moved on from leisure centres, parks, and shopping centres. I think Liberal Democrat councillors ought join the police when they meet young people and explain why they’re approving the use of these extreme powers.

22 comments/updates on “City Council Propose Buying 11 and 12 Year Olds Local Secrets Discount Cards

  1. Dan, Cambridge

    I don’t know about ARU, but students at the University of Cambridge aren’t enrolled with the NUS by default – you have to ‘opt in’. As the Cambridge University student card is remarkably similar to Cambridge University staff card it may be difficult for local amenities to differentiate between the two and provide appropriate discounts… However, funding a private venture to produce a ‘negotiated’ card allowing you discounts for public services seems completely backward and distinctly fishy.

  2. David Vincent

    I am not entirely clear why the City Council should be pressed to give discounts at facilities funded by Council Tax to an increasingly large number of students who don’t pay Council Tax. Is there a reciprocal arrangement whereby residents of Cambridge have privileged access to the facilities of the universities and colleges in exchange?

  3. Edward

    I hate to get all party political here, but if we’re going to encourage young people to use swimming pools, couldn’t we just do what the local Labour Party has been pushing and extend free swimming to under 17s?

    I’m all for giving discounts to the youth where affordable (especially if it’s the sort of thing that’s going to enthuse and occupy them for a significant period of time) but this does seem like a strange way to go about it.

  4. Doreen Plumb

    Thanks for such an informed report. How much officer time and councillor time at area committees has already been spent on this issue?

    Surely a card with ten ‘free’ tokens which could be punched in exchange for entry to the pool, a bus ride, etc can’t be that difficult to devise.

    I agree, deal directly with the provider. Why not connect to the Central Library card and encourage young children to register to use the library if they haven’t already.

    This would require some interaction between the City Council and the County Council (the library services provider and schools!) …

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    The problem with the central government scheme for free swimming for all under 16s is that neither the local Labour Party or the local Lib Dem MP (both of whom I’d expect to have the necessary influence) have been able to get the government to come up with a way of funding it which wouldn’t result in council taxpayers in Cambridge subsidising children from the surrounding region. Cambridge residents can’t afford that subsidy – not without putting council tax up even more – and that wouldn’t be justifiable.

    Many government schemes don’t properly account for their effect on “destination” authorities like Cambridge which cover areas which are the centres for their region.

    People come in to swim in the city from a wide area but the government’s mechanism for funding for the free swimming for under 16s does not account for that.

  6. David Vincent

    And how do the council taxpayers in Cambridge fund subsidies for students? Presumably one way of solving the problem of funding for the villagers is the reorganisation of local government, so that the City and its more immediate hinterland are covered by the same local authority.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    Students are exempt from council tax; but ought receive the same benefits as others who don’t pay or receive discounts for example those on benefits

    I agree a greater Cambridge unitary authority would help, though it is unlikely it would be drawn widely enough to really impact this kind of problem.

  8. David Vincent

    As you say, students are exempt from Council Tax. I’m not sure I appreciate the reason students should receive the same discounts as others (for example the elderly or the poor). From my experience, students are already offered a large number of discounts that are not available to others. At a time when local authorities are being faced with increasing cuts to services, why should students continue to receive subsidies simply because they are students (unless, perhaps, those facilities provided exclusively for students are made available to other residents of the City)?

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    Why do we have these discounts? Presumably to enable those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to, to use the city’s pools.

    I can see that discounts for those such as students and the elderly are to some extent badly targeted – in that some of the those in the city with the largest disposable incomes come into those groups but if we are going to offer discounts they’re easy groups to select and do cover some many of those who will benefit from discounts.

  10. Edward

    It’s because students couldn’t afford it otherwise.

    When you’re going to leave university with an average debt of 15 grand, three years council tax is likely to break the camel’s back.

    Especially since Cambridge University bans its undergraduates from working during term time and limits the allowable hours of postgrads.

    Obviously there are some who can afford it. But the reason it doesn’t make sense to charge students council tax is that they’re generally poor during their university years.

  11. David Vincent

    Sorry, Edward. I wasn’t suggesting students pay Council Tax, simply that perhaps they should pay full price for use of swimming and other public facilities. The colleges and universities provide them with a lot of (largely exclusive) leisure facilities, without the Cambridge public subsiding them further, at a time when all public services are faced with severe cuts. There is, of course, a separate argument about whether students should be allowed to vote in local elections (obviously in general elections they would always have the choice of voting here or in a “home” town).

  12. Dan, Cambridge

    David, I do see your point in reference to the University of Cambridge students – who have access to excellent facilities often at little or no cost. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that Cam Uni students would also make less use of the public facilities than Cambridge’s other university’s students at ARU who have significantly less access to world class pools and gyms. A general ‘one rule for everyone’ system would always fail in these circumstances.

    As for who can and can’t vote, surely removing someones right to elect their local representatives is a step backwards for democracy?

  13. Edward

    We’ve obviously got crossed wires David. I tend to agree with you that offering discounts for Cambridge University students to use council swimming pools and similar activities is not the best use of money. On the other hand, there might be a case for still extending it to ARU students, since their facilities are not as extensive.

    Regarding local democracy, however, I do think students should be able to vote in Cambridge if they so choose. If they consider Cambridge to be their primary residence, they should be able to vote there. Many students I’ve canvassed choose not to vote locally precisely because they don’t consider Cambridge their home.

    On the other hand, I think there’s a definite case to be made that at the next Boundary Commission review a new council ward should be drawn to take in as many students and as few normal residents of town as possible. Under the current boundaries and with the current voting intentions of students, permanent residents in Market and to a lesser extent in Newnham and Castle can be largely ignored by the Lib Dems, as the students will carry them over the finish line.

    Creating a student ward probably wouldn’t entail any great amount of political benefit for any one party – both the student and non-student areas of those wards tend to favour the Lib Dems – but it would simplify questions of constituent service and help to regularise the position of students as an interest group in Cambridge’s local government.

  14. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cambridge University doesn’t have its own swimming pool. Well – not one which can be used for regular exercise or competitive swimming.

    There are a couple of tiny pools in colleges (many of which are unheated/outside) – access to which is not given to all students.

    I think we need less, not more, division between students and other residents of this city. I can’t see any argument to treat University of Cambridge students differently from ARU students with respect to swimming discounts.

    I’d like to see elected representatives engage as enthusiastically with students’ unions as they do with residents associations. At the moment I think students’ have too little influence and engagement in local Government in Cambridge despite their key role in choosing who runs and represents the city.

  15. Richard Taylor Article author

    There has been a discussion on Twitter about the cryptic Jesus Green Pool price list which gives prices for non, lca, lcb and cstu/oap with no explanation as to what those letters mean.

    LC presumably refers to leisure cards. The prices for obtaining them are on the Parkside Pools price list. There is no mention of eligibility criteria for the “A” or “B” types of cards. The city council’s website only mentions everyone active cards; it’s not clear to me if these are one and the same as “Leisure Cards” or a different scheme.

    I previously commented on discounts for Swimming on an article on The Future Management of Cambridge’s Swimming Pools when the contractor’s contract was being renewed. The contract is now going to go to Greenwich Leisure. I wonder if councillors have used the new contract negotiations to demand that they run a and easier to understand and more clearly promoted discount scheme for regular users, the elderly, students and others?

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      Cllr Brown has written:

      A search for “discount”, “card” or “student” in the linked document yields no results. There’s nothing obviously related to the problem of confusing pricing and discount systems; though two of the criteria for assessing the tenders, which could encompass such improvements, were:

      • Proposals for programming, pricing and increasing access for people
        on low incomes
      • Community engagement, local responsiveness and marketing
    2. Richard Taylor Article author

      The pool is currently advertising “member” and “resident” prices with no explanation of those terms

      I suspect resident might mean resident of the Cambridge City Council area; as for “member” I have no idea; the only organisation I can think of is the Friends of Jesus Green, but they’re, as I understand it, an independent group so I wouldn’t expect membership to confer a discount.

      Memberships listed at:

      Are much more expensive than the season ticket.

      One thing apparently missing from the blackboard and website is any date at which the season ticket gets cheaper. I recall in the past it got really good value a bit later in the season when the pool had warmed up a little.

  16. Richard Taylor Article author

    Jesus Green pool has added some additional words to its price-list:

    I think that means you can buy a card for £10 to show you’re a resident, or £7.50 to show you’re a student, or £5 to show you’re eligible for a concession.

    I’m intrigued by the £10 resident’s card which also according to the board gives a discount at Parkside as there is no mention of this on the webpages for Parkside.

  17. Richard Taylor Article author

    Currently the price list shown at:

    shows a £399.95 annual season ticket price; which is presumably not the only option given the price for the most expensive annual ticket just a couple of years ago was just under £100

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