I attended Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 13th of November, primarily to comment on the proposed work on Jesus Green and to watch the council make the decision to allow, or not, Strawberry Fair to go ahead in 2009. I have written separate posts on these subjects:
The Community Services Scrutiny Committee has a very broad remit, decisions made by three executive councillors are scrutinised there and it also acts as a forum for Tenant/Leaseholder Reps to question officers and councillors. The full agenda and papers are available online, I would be happy to expand on other items discussed if requested.
- In relation to the Ten Year Housing Capital Investment Programme 2008/2009 to 2017/18 Cllr Blencowe asked if the council was in a position to bring more homes under public ownership. He pointed to suggestions from national government and in the national press that this might be an appropriate response to the current situation where many people are finding it hard to keep up repayments on mortgages. He suggested that the council ought to have a plan in case the opportunity arose to buy more homes. He received no support from any of the Liberal Democrat Councillors. I agree with Cllr Blencowe – the council should be looking at buying more homes as it is likely that it will make good sense to do so in period of time covered by the plan. As far as I can see the ten year “Capital plan”, is more a maintenance and improvement plan than one proposing true capital investment.
- There was a discussion of the council’s Older People’s Housing Strategy, tenant representatives commented that the council wasn’t very effective at running consultations aimed at older people, and those moving towards old age. Officers reported that they do try and use the media – the radio and newspapers to publicise their consultations. Councillors also cautioned that the quantity statistics provided in the report were not the same as, and should not be viewed as measures of success, essentially they were gently complaining about the quality of the report.
- Cllr Blair stated that she was over fifty and as such thought that the council’s definition of older people should start at sixty rather than fifty.
- Officers noted they were monitoring the Council’s “Home Link” housing allocation system to see if older people were disadvantaged by it, they were concerned they might be, but had no evidence yet.
- There was a discussion about plastic flowers in the City’s cemeteries. This is an area of controsvery which has been going round the country hitting Bristol in August and Bath and Wells earlier this month making me wonder who is the power behind the scenes setting the agendas.
Officers were proposing a ban on plastic flowers in Cambridge’s cemeteries suggesting a rule of:
Cambridge City Council reserves the right to remove any artificial wreaths or flowers, glass or pottery items, tins, fencing of any description or any other items of wood, metal, plastic or any other material. Any item so placed in contravention of these Regulations will be disposed of without notice.
Councillors Walker and Lynn managed to convince the Liberal Democrat councillors to adopt a sensible, common sense based policy in respect of plastic flowers. The problem being that it is obvious when dead real flowers can be removed, but the question of how long should plastic flowers, which also deteriorate be left is harder. There is also a question of should any judgement as to the tastefulness of the “flowers” be made. Plastic flowers are to be allowed, but just like real flowers staff will remove them when they feel they are past their best. The detailed wording was left to officers, the meeting’s chair, and the opposition spokesperson to agree.
- Cllr Blencowe (Labour) raised the question of why the council had not taken up central government’s funding for free swimming for older and younger people. Cllr Smith gave the now well rehearsed response relating to the fact that Cambridge attracts people from outside the city and there was no funding for those people, if we accepted the money and gave free swimming we could not restrict it to residents but would end up with Cambridge City residents subsidising those from outside the city. Cllr Blencowe drew attention to the fact that the council was not meeting its target for the number of casual swims, the target is 400000 for 2008/9 and the current projection is 360000. Council officer Debbie Kaye made a statement saying: “All children having swimming lessons in the city have free swimming at city pools”. This contradicts with my own recent experience at Parkside pools of seeing a newly instituted policy of forbidding older school age children from swimming before their lessons / clubs unless they pay for a casual swimming session. Previously they had been allowed in the pool for free before their lesson.
The meeting, chaired by Cllr Blair went on for over five hours, at a number of points Cllr Blencowe made suggestions which would have both speeded things up and improved the ability of the committee to effectively scrutinise the Executive Councillor. This meeting was certainly an example of where having an opposition member chair the scrutiny committee would have been an excellent decision. Presumably there are two reasons why they don’t. One is Cambridge’s attempt to keep elements of its previous committee based way of working despite the introduction of Executive Councillors, and the second being that chairs of these meetings get paid an extra allowance for their responsibilities, something the party in power presumably does not want to give up to the opposition.
As soon as the meeting ended Cllr Blair ran up to the Cambridge Evening News reporter present and urged him to spell her name right in any resultant articles. Clearly she felt she had made a newsworthy contribution at some point.