On the evening of Wednesday the 22nd of August 2012 I observed local policing priorities for the Cambourne area being set at a meeting held in the South Cambridgeshire District Council offices.
The Cambourne area covers Barton, Bourn, Caldecote, Cambourne, Caxton, Comberton, Coton, Croxton, Eltisley, Granchester, Hardwick, Kingston, Madingley and Toft.
- Road Safety, particularly speeding, across the area, was the sole priority set.
- At a previous meeting those present had expressed concern about speeding in Cambridge Road, Hardwick. In response the police had conducted a week long survey using traffic, and speed, monitoring equipment. They found 47% of the southbound traffic was exceeding the speed limit to the degree the police would prosecute (+10%+2mph). As a result of the concerns raised being confirmed by the evidence collected the police promised to regularly place their speed camera van on the road and carry out enforcement.
- Police Authority member, and Conservative County Councillor, Shona Johnstone (@ShonaFJ) attended to make a presentation on Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Astonishingly despite being a member of the police authority she said she had no clue how much she and her fellow members were spending on administrating the the authority. She may not have known, or may have been unwilling to admit in public that she and her colleagues spends around a million pounds a year on their committee’s secretariat, with around a hundred thousand pounds a year alone going to the clerk in salary. Cllr Johnstone said that she and the rest of the Police Authority had acted to try and tie the commissioner’s hands and keep the authority’s expensive secretariat staff on post-election, which makes it even more shocking she doesn’t know how much she and other authority members will be forcing the commissioner to spend on this excess.
- Police Inspector Chris Savage, who was chairing the meeting, protected Cllr Johnstone from questioning from the public on subjects beyond the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Immediately after giving her presentation Cllr Johnstone left the meeting, she didn’t stay to hear the views of the public, and elected representatives, on policing in the area. Had she stayed she would almost certainly have faced questioning on subjects such as her, and the Police Authority’s inaction on the police’s poor phone answering performance, and other matters such as the privatisation of the police’s “support functions” – as Cllr Johnstone would have been expected to have attended a closed “joint working group” meeting held earlier that day which decided to continue to work up a full business case for privatisation to G4S. I thought her failure to remain at the meeting was cowardly. Cllr Johnstone made no apology for leaving straight after her presentation and gave no explanation for doing so.
- Police Inspector Chris Savage said he hoped, and expected, that an incoming Police and Crime Commissioner would prompt the Chief Constable to sort out the police’s ongoing failure to answer their phones as soon as they are in-post.
Promoting the Meeting
My attention was drawn to the meeting by a small article in the Cambridge News the day before reporting it was to take place. The article billed the meeting as a public “discussion” of the local police priorities for the Comberton area, and correctly gave the time and location, which was 18.30 at South Cambridgeshire District Council’s headquarters in Cambourne.
The meeting was not listed on the popular Police.UK website, which before the meeting stated there were no upcoming events for the area. It was not even mentioned on the police’s own webpage for the Cambourne policing team.
South Cambridgeshire District Council listed the meeting on its meeting calendar, however it got the time wrong, saying 19.30 rather than 18.30, and gave no location. No meeting papers were available either. It failed to update this information even when I got in touch with them to draw attention to the area.
Cambridgeshire Police Authority tweeted an announcement for the meeting but they too got the time wrong and gave no location.
Police noticeboards in local supermarkets, including Morrisons in Cambourne, contained no information about the meeting (and they even promote non-functional old non-emergency phone numbers for the police!).
Tweeting Police Officer Sgt Rogerson responded to the confusion, and confirmed the time of the meeting.
Attendence and Mob rule
It was not made clear how the meeting was to be run, but it appeared to be following the mob-rule model where those who turn up, whoever they are, are those who get a say in what the local police priorities set are. Actually there was no “hands up” vote, and the priority was decided by Police Inspector Chris Savage who summarised the discussion, proposed the priority, and asked if there were any objections (which there were not).
Those present were Police Inspector Chris Savage and Sgt Capes and about ten others. County Councillor Fiona Whelan attended, and Inspector Savage said a South Cambridgeshire District Councillor was present, but they weren’t identified. No introductions took place, and those elected representatives present did not identify themselves. Cllr Whelan told me that those present were all parish councillors.
Two people arrived an hour or so late, one, or both of these may have been the South Cambridgeshire District Council officers who were expected, but absent, at the start. They may have made the mistake of believing the start time shown on their organisation’s meeting calendar.
The vast majority of District Councillors for the area were absent. I think the area covered is that covered by the Hardwick, and Bourne Cambridgeshire County Council wards (they like to call them “divisions”), but I wasn’t aware of County Cllr Lister Wilson (Bourne) being present (if he was there he was ineffective and essentially invisible even in a group of ten).
I would like to see representative democracy used and strengthened, with local County and District councillors setting the local police priorities and holding the police to account at meetings where the public have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion. I would rather see representative democracy than mob rule. I don’t know how strong or democratic the various parish councils in the area are, and would leave it up to the county and district councillors to decide if to give parish council representatives voting rights. I would also like to see other democratic representatives such as student union represenatives and school council spokespeople given the opportunity to have an appropriate level of involvement at the meetings.
Cllr Whelan noted the poor attendance of, and poor publicity for, the meeting and suggested the police do more to use elected representatives to promote the meetings.
I note even those attending the right place at the right time might not have found the meeting, there was a sign outside, but no other hint as to where in the South Cambridgeshire District Council HQ the meeting was being held, I was pointed in the right direction by Cllr Whelan who must have guessed what I was looking for.
Cllr Johnstone’s Presentation on Police and Crime Commissioners
Cllr Johnstone was expecting to speak to a PowerPoint presentation which had been produced by the Police Authority, the same presentation which has been shown at many local police priority setting meetings around the county. She said the technology had failed the night before at the Swavesey Neighbourhood Panel Meeting held the day before, and she had been assured it would be working in Cambourne. It wasn’t and there was a delay as Cllr Johnstone asked officers to print off a copy of her presentation for her to read from.
Cllr Johnstone gave a very flat, and dull, presentation, reading selected elements off her copy of the printed slides. Notably she described the role of Police and Crime Commissioner as being to “hold to account” the police; I would have stressed the setting of the strategic direction, but Cllr Johnstone didn’t describe the role in those terms.
Johnstone, as other members of the Police Authority have been, was cynical about the elections, suggesting there would be a low turnout given the selection of November as the time for the elections. Johnstone said she knew three people who she expected to stand as independent candidates, but did not name them.
Cllr Johnstone then took questions. The questions were almost all quite unusual. The parish councillors appeared not to be aware that we live in a democratic country, and elected representatives take the decisions on how we run our society, and that people stand for election on the basis of their proposed policies. The majority of questions were of the form: “Will the commissioner adopt X policy”, and Cllr Johnstone had to respond by saying: “that will be up to the commissioner”. A better response would of course have been “that’s up to you, and who you decide to elect as commissioner”. The questions included: “Will the commissioner put a greater budget towards mobile speed camera vans?”, “How much will the commissioner spend running their office?”, and “Will a police commissioner keep these local meetings, and local priority setting?”.
Cllr Johnstone revealed the existence of another secret, private, meeting, one between County and District Councillors in South Cambridgeshire. She said that group of people thought the local meetings worked well in the area and should be retained.
One of those present asked about how the independent members of the Police and Crime Panel would be selected. Cllr Johnstone said she didn’t know (despite being a member of the County Council’s Police and Crime Scrutiny Committee responsible for overseeing this area!). Asked if they will be “mates of councillors” she said she thought perhaps a system similar to that taken for independent members of the police authority would be used, where people apply following open adverts. A number of people present questioned where the Police Authority advertised such positions, as they’d never been aware of them.
A number of those present expressed concern about how they would find out about the candidates. One asked if candidates would be given public funds to promote their candidatures. Cllr Johnstone responded to say: “candidates will have a budget” as there was for all elections. As she had misled the questioner I interjected to clarify the difference between a cap on election spending (which Cllr Johnstone’s answer had related to) and public money being used for a campaign which the questioner was asking about. Cllr Johnstone corrected herself and thanked me, in a tone which suggested her thanks was not genuine, for my assistance.
Cllr Johnstone was asked if the county council, or other councils were considering putting funds towards promoting the elections, or even helping independent candidates. Cllr Johnstone said that spending public money to promote candidates would be entirely inappropriate; pushed to explain why public money could not be allocated by councillors to help promote the elections locally, in a way which did not give an advantage to any particular candidate Cllr Johnstone could not provide any rationale for her position, she simply re-iterated her position that it would be an inappropriate use of public money.
Cllr Johnstone was asked if the commissioner would receive bonuses “as councillors do”. Cllr Johnstone denied councillors receive bonuses, the questioner insisted he had read that they do – perhaps he was thinking of councillors taking posts on bodies such as the Local Government Association, Police Authority and Fire Authority which result in councillors trousered hefty extra expenses and allowances on top of what they get for being a councillor; the questioner could also have been thinking of those who pick up extra cash as a result of being appointed to roles such as as executive / cabinet members, or by serving on more than one council.
Speeding in Hardwick and Madingley
Having heard about the 47% of vehicles exceeding the speed limit, to a degree which would result in a prosecution, on Cambridge Road in Hardwick those present, led by Cllr Fiona Whelan, asked the police to provide more data, particularly on accident rates.
I suggested that as well as the numbers of accidents, data on injuries, and the severity of injuries, could also be requested and considered by the group in the future. Inspector Savage explained accident injury data was patchy, and held by different bodies. He said deaths and serious injuries were recorded comprehensively by the County Council, but that data on more minor injuries was much less reliable, not least as they are not reported and recorded as consistently. Cllr Whelan said that was true, and there was significant under-reporting of minor injuries. This is something I know from my own experience; if an accident is not reported; one answer might be to try and encourage the reporting of more incidents, I know various cycling organisations try and encourage cyclists to report incidents, which are often too minor for reporting to be required.
Inspector Savage agreed to investigate what accident and injury data was available and bring it to the next meeting. I thought this was excellent.
Having seen that residents concerns were borne out by the evidence collected the police promised to send their mobile camera van to the site on a regular basis. I would have liked to see other actions considered as well as enforcement; it would be have been good to see the group asked the County Council to send a highway engineer to take a look at the area and make any recommendations on changing the signage and road environment to improve safety and reduce speeds (or even check the speed limits are appropriate, and cover the appropriate stretches of road).
Madingley was another area where a speed survey had been carried out. It was notable that the residents of the villages where the surveys had taken place had not noticed them. Sgt Capes reported they had been carried out using sensor strips placed across the road (the police also have streetlight mountable RADAR devices, which are even more unobtrusive). These methods mean the survey is not likely to impact speeds (whereas a survey carried out by people in yellow jackets with speed guns would be expected to impact speeds, resulting in observations not reflecting the usual situation).
A resident from Madingley asked for the data to be released. Routine publication of speed survey data is something I, through my local councillors in Cambridge, have been lobbying for over the last few years, and I thought it had been achieved, and was disappointed to hear the calls, however the police’s “Speed Survey Results” webpage does link to the data for the August 2012 survey conducted in Madingley. The resident present said the parish council in Madingley was interested in commissioning its own survey, so would like to know what data the police have. Asked about the detail available, Sgt Capes said the police’s system was able to give hour by hour data and separate cars and heavy goods vehicles, this is available in the spreadsheet on the police website, though daily graphs had not been produced on the Madingley data.
Inspector Savage said in Madingley 7% of the traffic is exceeding the speed at which the police will prosecute. The data (xlsx) shows 7% northbound and 9% southbound exceeding the prosecution speed, a total of around a hundred vehicles a day. The police said this rate of offending was not sufficient to warrant attendance by the speed camera van.
I produced a graph of an example day, the 8th of August, which did not show a particular time of day where speeding is a problem. In the early hours Madingley is very quiet, with just no or one vehicles sometimes passing through in an hour in the early hours of the morning.
What the data does show though is that there are periods where the volume of traffic going through the village is much higher than others. During these high traffic periods the average speeds actually decrease, but from the reports from the resident at the panel meeting it may be these peaks of traffic volume are actually what is causing the village to feel unsafe at times, and disturbing the sleep of residents.
Residents, and Cllr Whelan, talked about diversions of traffic through the village. The police said that they were responsible only for unplanned diversions, and otherwise it was down to the County Council or Highways Agency, and noted that when there are problems drivers often make up their own diversions.
Even at the peak traffic flows during the monitored period (a week starting on the 7th of August) the maximum rates reached were 120 vehicles an hour, that’s one every thirty seconds on average. What’s notable is this peak was reached at 23:00 on the 10th of August, and rates remained relatively high (for the village) into the night. This appears to correlate with the overnight resurfacing work being carried out on the A14, and indeed stopped once the work finished on the 10th of August. Only around 2% of this unusual traffic was travailing in excess of the speed at which the police would prosecute.
During the week no one was speeding at over 58 mph, and very few (just an average of around 1 a day, exceeding 47 mph), so the speeding above the prosecution speed mentioned is almost entirely in the band 35-47mph.
My conclusion is there are two, separate, problems here. One is the disturbance to the village caused by diverted traffic when there are problems on the surrounding main roads, and the other is the unrelated speeding.
Perhaps the suitability of the road for diverting HGVs needs to be considered, and the degree of disturbance to residents assessed so that those planning diversions can be aware of the implications of their actions?
The Madingley resident questioned if Sat Navs directing people through the village when there was a problem on the main roads could be a contributory factor. The same resident said she had contacted the police on one of the evenings when there was a lot of traffic going through the village at night.
Inspector Savage noted that he has a problem in that many of his staff are PCSOs, not PCs, so lack the power to deal with speeding drivers. (This is something I want to see changed, I want patrols by PCs, not PCSOs, precisely so those patrolling the area can take action when they observe offences).
I learned that in the Cambourne area swimming in a lake is considered “antisocial” by Cambridgeshire police, and something they are prepared to act on. Generally though they said the rain had resulted in very little antisocial behaviour related reports or problems. The police also lumped a case of possession of cannabis into the “antisocial behaviour” section, illustrating how useless antisocial behaviour is a term. I would rather it wasn’t used and people simply described the actual problems being experienced.
At the start of the meeting Inspector Savage had conducted a “register” to see if anyone representing, or living in, each village in the area was present. Most, if not all were covered, helped by the presence of County Councillor Whelan.
Later in the meeting Inspector Savage listed the villages, asking if there were any matters to raise. There were no issues raised from Barton, Bourn, Cambourne, Caxton, Comberton, Coton, Croxton, Eltisley, Granchester, Hardwick, Kingston, and Toft. I suspect this relates more to the lack of awareness of the meeting, and a lack of people feeding things in to it, than there actually being no police and crime related current problems in all these places.
In Madingley the only issue raised was speeding again.
Someone from Caldecote though spoke about speeding – which they said was mums rushing to deliver children to school then get to work, and again in the evening. The Caldecote resident also spoke about burglary; saying there were cases of attempted burglary, minor non-dwelling burglaries, or people behaving suspiciously, going unreported formally to the police, but being discussed on the village facebook page.
Inspector Savage and Sgt Capes said Facebook was potentially very useful, and they would take a look and consider making a comment, perhaps urging people to make formal reports.
The Caldecote village facebook group is a restricted group it will be interesting to hear at the next meeting if they let the police join!
Cllr Whelan suggested that to reach more people the police should consider responding on the village’s new website, rather than Facebook. Cllr Whelan didn’t give a URL, but she may have meant the Caldecote Parish Council website? Cllr Whelan said a small proportion of the population of Caldecote was on Facebook. (Cllr Whelan has a blog on which she last posted almost two years ago in September 2010 so she appears not to think it important to communicate with her constituents online.)
The last point raised relating to Caldecote, was a request for the Police not to just drive around when the Youth Bus was present but to drop in. It was reported the “youth leader” would like this. The police said different youth leaders took different views on police presence, some not wanting the police to be present at activities as it impacted the atmosphere, but said now they knew they would be welcome they would drop in to the sessions mentioned.
Police Answering Phones
One of those present said they had read in the paper that the police had taken almost four minutes to answer a 999 call; he asked if the story is true and where the information came from.
Inspector Savage said he was aware of the phone answering problems, but didn’t know about the specific figures quoted. I noted the information had been released following a freedom of information request I had made, and the report did reflect the information released. Asked about what the information released said about the non-emergency number I said it appeared to show the problems which started last summer were still ongoing, and the worst cases were a wait of almost an hour for the police to first answer the phone, and then a further twenty five minutes waiting to get put through to the right person to take information from you.
Inspector Savage said he hoped, and expected, an incoming Police and Crime Commissioner would stress the importance of phone answering and get the problem addressed as soon as they took up office (that’s exactly my view too!).
Inspector Savage summarised the meeting, and proposed a road safety / speeding priority, this was accepted. Sgt Capes queried if specific areas should be identified, other than Hardwick, but the view expressed was it ought be a general priority across the area. The meeting was then closed
Meeting papers were not published online in advance of the meeting. They should in my view be placed on the police and/or South Cambridgeshire District Council webpages, and linked from Police.UK and other places including the County Council website. There was a report prepared by the police prior to the meeting; a few copies were eventually made available at the meeting after Sgt Capes had obtained access to a photo copied, I didn’t get to see one though, and neither did any of those sitting near me. Producing a report is wasted effort if it is not shared.