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.
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 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.
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.
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.