On Thursday the 24th of March 2011 I attended Cambridge City Council’s North Area committee, held in the Manner School on Arbury Road.
A new format for the meeting was being trialled. The public seating which is usually rows of chairs, had been replaced with tables with 4-6 seats placed around them. Free coffee was on offer and the arrangement was described as “cafe style”. For three discussion items (items on which councillors were not making decisions) councillors joined others sitting at the tables. The three discussion items were Community Libraries, Parkour, and Localism in Planning.
Free tea is not a novel idea, it has been offered on occasion at the East Area committee before. Providing tables is I think a good idea, as many of those attending area committee meetings take notes.
If this was an effort to increase public participation, and I think it was, it failed miserably. There was no additional publicity for the new meeting format so only a very small number of members of the public were present. For much of the meeting there were only four members of the public present including: Mr Bond of the Old Chesterton Residents Association, Arbury Labour Candidate Carina O’Reilly and me. A couple of others were present for the planning items an left shortly after those, and a couple of others including the chairman of one of the library friends groups came and were present for that item. I’d estimate a total of ten or so members of the public were present at various points over the course of the evening.
The public were outnumbered by public officials, mainly city council officers. A number of city councillors from other areas, including council leader Sian Reid, and Executive Councillor for Community Services and Policing Tim Bick were also present. The North Area’s County Councillors were not well represented, Cllr Wilkins was the only one out of the four to turn up.
Minutes and Matters Arising
Councillors unanimously approved the minutes of their previous meeting without any amendments.
The first matter arising was potholes. Cllr Wilkins reported the number of claims made against the county council arising from potholes:
The sums of money involved were also reported to be increasing.
Planning Public Access
Cllr Blair stated that a final full report on the implementation of the Planning Public Access system would be made available soon. (I have written previously about this. Councillors consulted only residents associations about their proposals prior to specifying a new system, and asked the public, via area committees, for their views once a poor and flawed system had been put in place. There are clearly still many problems, I would hope the report when it is produced will make interesting reading.
The “Open Form” section of the meeting was a complete flop. Elsewhere in the city, in the East and in the West Central areas where area committee meetings have, especially recently, been very public focused, and the open forum sessions have been at the core of the meetings. A wide array of items raised have been taken up by councillors and actions on them have been reported back.
The North Area Committee’s chair, Liberal Democrat, Ian Nimmo-Smith decided to take only one public question in the open forum section of the March 2011 North Area committee. He decided to only permit pre-submitted questions. Only Mr Bond had submitted any questions; all but one of which were ruled out of order by the chair without being read out. The one which was briefly read out asked about getting pubs recognised as community facilities in the local plan so the loss of the facility could be considered when planning applications to covert them are received. (I have previously written about councillors refusing permission for the demolition of the Queen Edith Pub and redevelopment on that site, there councillors reasoning during debate focused on retaining the pub, but the formal reasons given referred to the proposed new development).
At the very first area committee I attended I was not able to ask the question I attended to ask as I wasn’t aware of the system for submitting questions on slips of paper. In the last two years or so the North Area committee has always taken questions from the floor. I was surprised that the chair didn’t open the “open forum” to those present. A five minute break was held between the end of the planning items and the start of the main meeting, when calling that the chair could have announced his intention to restrict the open forum to pre-submitted questions and encouraged people to write them down, but he didn’t. Question slips were not among the papers distributed round the tables and the city council staff welcoming people to the meeting were not handing out or pointing people to the question slips.
The effect of Cllr Ian Nimmo-Smith’s ruling was to restrict public input to the subjects he had selected as discussion items.
@RTaylorUK @camcitco I spotted that about the removal of public questions. And there wasn’t an ‘open forum’ at all, was there?
I made clear my exasperation at the chair’s ruling; Cllr Reid heard and appeared supportive of Cllr Nimmo-Smith’s curtailing of the open forum after a single question. A couple of people appeared to walk out as the open forum was abruptly ended, it appeared they might have come with the intent of saying something. I considered leaving too, but thought I’d be better qualified to comment on the new area committee arrangements if I stayed.
What I had planned to say:
I had intended to make a contribution to the open forum.
At the previous meeting of the North Area committee I had asked councillors to consider prioritising burglary and robbery locally once they cease to be city wide police priorities from the end of March. In response to this Sgt. Wragg of Cambridgeshire Police had told councillors that burglary was a divisional priority suggesting to councillors there was no need to make it local one. Councillors appeared to agree with Sgt. Wragg and did not prioritise burglary or robbery (despite them being major problems in the North of the City).
I wanted to tell councillors what I had found out by asking a public question at the February 2011 Cambridge Community Safety Partnership meeting, that the police’s divisional priorities are fortnightly priorities and no public, democratically accountable body, holds the police to account for their performance against them.
I would have drawn councillors attention to the fact that their scrutiny committee had been assured by council officer Lis Bissett that burglary will remain a police priority; but she had refused to clarify what kind of priority, at what level when invited to do so by the meeting’s chair.
For councillors to be advised not to set a quarterly priority on the basis that a fortnightly one covers the same matter is clearly misleading. I wanted to make sure councillors were aware they had been misled.
While speaking on policing I wanted to make two comments on the minuting of the policing item from the previous (January) North Area committee meeting.
The minutes accurately note:
Mr Taylor asked if discussions from police surgeries and ward based meetings could be reported back to the North Area Committee.
This is something I have been lobbying for over many years now. Recently Cllr Neil McGovern joined me in calling for this obvious and common sense improvement to the information councillors are presented with prior to setting the local police priorities; however all other members of the North Area committee continue to oppose it though none have given comprehensible reasons.
I also pointed out that the East Chesterton ward based policing meeting is run by an individual, and is not open to the public (I am not able to attened; I was personally banned by Lil Speed for, as I understand it, proposing that the suggestions from the meeting be reported to the North Area committee where local priorities are set). The East Chesterton meeting, run by Lil Speed (a friend of Cllr Blair) has much greater city council support (city council officers attend and service the meeting) than the equivalent in Arbury.
My concerns about the East Chesterton meeting; and Cllr Blair’s subsequent defence of Lil Speed and the way she runs the meetings were not minuted.
The popular police.uk website only promotes ward based meetings, not the area committees, and police officers appear more likely to point people to the ward based meetings than the area committees so this is an important change.
The minutes of the January North Area committee, which have now been unanimously approved by the March committee, state:
Councillor Blair said that Neighbourhood Action Groups were open to all residents in a ward.
This is both not true, and not what was said. The Neighbourhood Action groups are secret meetings held by the police at which they decide if to accept what councillors have set as priorities or not. (I think councillors should hold the police to account for their performance against the priorities they set, regardless of the police’s attitude towards them, I have lobbied for simple changes such as brining the minutes of the meeting which set the police priorities to the meeting which is to hold the police to account for their performance, but again the Liberal Democrats are reluctant to make even such clearly obvious improvements to the way they work.)
The January North Area Committee minutes record almost nothing of the discussion on the priority areas. One specific point I would have liked to see recorded was Sgt. Wragg’s statement that those committing offences on the Evergreens were being given words of advice, and not tickets, because they were travellers and the police did not want to upset “community relations”. I want this minuted because I want to be able to lobby against it, I want to see everyone to be treated equally by the police. My view is that having one law for some and another for others is more, not less likely to damage community relations as it will create resentment.
The County Council’s head of libraries, a public servant, and the relevant Cabinet member (a Conservative who was addressed as “Sir”) attended.
The meeting was told the plan was for the county council to contract the local library services to a charitable community trust.
It was claimed that moving the libraries out of County Council control and handing them over to “trusts” would save £3.2m; the savings were to come from a reduction in bureaucracy and a saving in rates.
It was explained that the county council pays rates on its libraries; and that for the community libraries in Cambridge the bill is about £0.5m / year. A charitable community trust will only pay 80% of these rates.
The meeting was told that there would be no tendering for the library service provision as the county council would set up the community charitable trusts and transfer responsibilities to them.
I asked if the county council had lobbied central government asking for libraries to be exempted from rates, not least because it’s just money going round in circles. I was told no such lobbying had occurred. The public servant in charge of the libraries, Christine May, explained that in the bizarre world of the public sector having lots of money going round in circles is a good thing, and essentially said that for someone in her position the aim is to be in charge of as big a budget as possible and not to have any consideration whatsoever for the bigger picture. Arguing against a rate reduction for libraries Christine May said: “It would reduce the income into the County and into the library service”. I think that getting this kind of empire building and job creating idiocy out of the public sector is essential and is an easy way to help us get a more efficient public sector.
Christine May told us that the library service, despite the cuts, was planning to offer e-books for loan by the future. She couldn’t answer simple questions from me, councillors, or other members of the public on what was proposed. She didn’t know if it would be necessary to visit a library in person to obtain an e-book but thought you’d probably have to go in person to a library; she didn’t think, but wasn’t sure, there would be any opportunity for people to borrow e-book readers. Publishers have been under attack in the press in recent weeks for silly terms and conditions relating to e-books for libraries, no assurances the County County wouldn’t be getting into those kinds of contracts was given.
The county councillor and his officer disagreed on the length of time the contract for the new trusts to provide the library service would run for. Christine May said the initial contract length would be 25 years, but Sir Peter Brown said it would be 5-10 years. Concerns were raised about democratic influence and flexibility during a long contract period.
On our table we discussed the role of libraries as places where people can get free access to the internet; but appeared to agree that in the near future that would be best dealt with elsewhere and ensuring people had access to the internet at home is the important thing – internet access is not a luxury and is essential particularly for those who are in need of assistance from the state and/or who are jobless.
Christine May was unable to explain how the renewal of the council’s internet contract would affect libraries; other than to say there would be an ongoing maintenance charge for the network. She also noted that internet access was not one of the services libraries are statutorily required to provide for free, and that currently only 29% of the potential total usage of the “internet sessions” available was being used (a clearly bonkers statistic – what’s important are things like how often all computers are in-use and what waiting times are).
Other groups asked about how paid staff would work with volunteers; and complained that the consultation was only being held once the strategic decision had already been taken. Questions on ownership of the land and buildings, and what would happen if in the future closures were to occur went unanswered.
A number of written questions were circulated; all on my table, agreed the questions were leading; and pre-assmed support for the idea of getting volunteers to run libraries.
Christine May stated the “Do It All website” would be used to recruit volunteers. No one questioned why she had acquired the website of an ex. DIY store chain (or if she meant the UK Government supported Do-It website).
Photography openly took place during the discussion on Libraries. Despite the furore over filming at the North Area Committee last year it was permitted with no notices posted up and no announcement from the chair drawing attention to it. I believe it was carried out by a council officer; he appeared to be focusing on Cllr Levy who has kept a very low profile during his term of office, but in recent weeks has begun his re-election campaign.
Eugene Minogue Chief Executive of Parkour UK attended the meeting to give a presentation. He was accompanied by Cambridge City Council technical officer Declan O’Halloran.
He explained there were various types of Parkour facility:
- Lines painted on the ground
- Low level equipment
- Higher level, supervised facilities – the first being built in Paddington, London under the A40
- A mobile facility
While the meeting’s chair Ian Nimmo-Smith wasn’t keen on the idea, he took a vote of those present, and the clear majority wanted to be shown a video “Girls do Parkour” (YouTube).
By the end of the Parkour session there were just four members of the public present.
Localism and Planning
Cllr Blair and the council’s new head of planning, and another officer, the head of planning policy, all attended to talk about what might end up in the Localism Act.
All they were really able to report was uncertainty. The idea of some pro-active planning – giving pro-active detailed planning permission to developments not waiting for a developer to propose something was suggested.
When asked about roads, and pointing out getting roads right when making changes in the area was key, the officers had no answers about how that might be affected.
Cambridge Community Foundation take a cut of the grants the city council give groups in the city in return for advising councillors on who to give money to and administering the process. They sent a hapless officer called Jane to the North Area committee. She wasn’t aware that the Histon Road Cemetery and Histon Road recreation ground were different spaces. She brought a grant relating to the latter to the North Area committee despite it being in the West / Central area. Councillors referred it to the right place.
The friends of Histon Road cemetery asked for £1195 for their administration costs; and £450 for their share of funding of a cemeteries open day – which is to see three cemeteries apply to three area committees in the city for £450 each to hold the events. Cllr Tunnacliffe argued the amount for admin costs was large and suggested they ought do more fundraising themselves. Cllr Pitt, who is the executive councillor for rubbish, argued the council got good value for money from the group as it did work the city council would otherwise have to. Cllr Ian Nimmo-Smith said the funding would support “spiritual recreation” and that the cemeteries were a facility for “spiritual recovery”. Cllr Tunnacliffe pushed his point; irritating Cllr Nimmo-Smith who snapped: “Can we have an amendment and we’ll vote it down”. Other councillors though supported Cllr Tunnacliffe to a degree and a typical fence sitting decision emerged – they could have £700 now, and would have to come back with better justification if they wanted any more.
Request for Feedback on Webpage
The council circulated papers asking for feedback on the way the committee was run. These asked for comments on the website:
I noted I was unaware of such a site; when I got home I realised it must have been a trick question as there is only a 404 not found error at that URL!
I have made many suggestions for improving area committees including:
- Focusing on the public questions; the open forum; and getting action and feedback on matters raised.
- Getting the police to publicise the police priority setting role of the committee; improving how that works with:
- A fixed start time
- At least the word “police” in the item’s title
- Giving councillors better information including crime maps, costs of crimes, details of injuries, and feedback from local police officers, ward based meetings etc.
- Bringing the minutes of the meeting which set the priorities to the meeting which holds the police to account for their performance against them.
- Clarity consistency and simplification in relation to the procedures on public speaking, and recording meetings.