On the evening of the 16th of July 2012 I attended Cambridge’s South Area committee where councillors held the police to account and set new local police priorities for the area.
About fifty people were in the public seating; many were council officers, some had come for the planning item, others for a discussion on parking controls in the area.
The policing agenda item was first up after the open forum, and formalities of the minutes and electing a chair. When it was reached Cambridge City Council officer Kilkelly told the committee the police were not present, and were expecting their item to come up later. This was however inaccurate, an officer was lurking in the public seating, wearing a non-uniform jacket over his police uniform shirt. Mr Poppet stood up, removed the jacket, and introduced himself as Inspector Poppet.
Inspector Poppet said the area’s police sergeant, Jim Stevenson, was on leave so could not be present. Mr Poppet distanced himself from the report to the committee, saying it was Sgt. Stevenson’s work (though he later contradicted this and said he’d written it himself). Inspector Poppet refused to use a microphone, saying he could speak loudly, however he had little presence, and mumbled into his report as he read large chunks of it out, adding nothing to the report as written and as had been made available to the councillors, and the public, a week in advance, and copies of which were available in the room. I and others struggled to hear the Inspector. I thought Inspector Poppet may have been filibustering, seeking to take up time which councillors and the public would otherwise be using to hold him to account for his, and his colleagues’, performance.
Congregating on Cherry Hinton High Street
Referring to undefined “antisocial behaviour” on the High Street in Cherry Hinton, Inspector Poppet said this was “inevitable on any high street”. The police report states:
Some congregation has been witnessed and close liaison maintained with Tesco stores as the main focal point of the groups
I attended the meeting at which the priority was set, and do not think groups gathering was something the police were asked to act on, they came up with this themselves. I would like the police to leave those not engaged in criminal behaviour alone. I think it is a misuse of police resources to be monitoring groups of youths “congregating”. That the police are doing this is seen by the report noting eight incidences of “congregating” in the March-July period covered. The police report there have been no drug or alcohol related offences discovered as a result of their actions against the groups congregating; yet it is drug and alcohol related criminality and serious nuisance caused by people drinking, taking drugs, and leaving dangerous detritus outside people’s homes near the High Street which I think the police were asked to tackle. The police monitoring, stopping and searching groups of youths doing nothing wrong is something which I think risks damaging the reputation of the police with those people and ultimately will make the area harder to police.
I think Inspector Poppet sounded defeatist when he said anti-social behaviour was “inevitable on any high street”, however if he was talking about youths gathering, I’d agree with him. What isn’t acceptable, and shouldn’t be viewed as inevitable, is illegal behaviour such as drug use. The police have a role in making sure the High Street feels safe for all who use it, but it may be that if people are complaining about youths congregating (and not otherwise doing anything wrong) the police need to simply say that isn’t a matter for them.
Those attending the South Area Committee are largely quite elderly; I would like to see councillors invite and encourage younger people to attend. If the local schools have democratic school councils, perhaps they could be invited to send a representative for example.
One area where Inspector Poppet did expand slightly on the written report, was in relation to violent crime; which had gone up (from 77 to 104 crimes in three months) in the area. Inspector Poppet said this was mostly down to common assault arising following disputes between neighbours. I was shocked to see Inspector Poppet describe these as “minor”. Inspector Poppet didn’t explain what kinds of things were causing these disputes – if for example parking arrangements are to blame then councillors need to know so they can take action.
My Suggestions – PCs not PCSOs
The report, as written and as read out by Inspector Poppet, noted that PCSOs lacked the powers to take action against speeding vehicles. I suggested councillors ought prioritise patrols by police constables, who did have the powers required to take action not only in relation to speeding, but also dangerous and careless driving, allowing them to act against those actually causing the most serious danger.
Labour’s Cllr McPherson supported this in a way, though he called for giving more powers to PCSOs. Cllr McPherson didn’t explain why he prefers that to making those PCSOs who are up to it into PCs and giving them all the powers of a constable; perhaps it is due to his party allegiance and he feels he cannot be seen to criticise Labour’s policy of having the streets patrolled by people dressed up like police officers but lacking powers to act.
I said I viewed PCs as more cost-effective than PCSOs. (More on my views on PCSOs)
My Suggestions – Better Statistics Especially for Violent Crime and Driving
I noted the committee had been asking for years for statistics on motoring offences, including speeding, so they could make an informed decision on prioritising them or not. They had also called for a better breakdown of the violent crime statistics, to separate for example domestic violence, and random violence against strangers on streets and open spaces. I suggested that it would be useful to have injury data along with the violent crime statistics, so councillors could assess the severity of problems by looking at how badly people were getting hurt in relation to the area’s violent crime. I noted that if they set, and achieved, a quantitative target in that area they could really solidly see they were having an impact on people’s lives.
Inspector Poppet rejected my suggestions out of hand. He said he wrote the report before the committee and he had better things to do than work even harder on it. Inspector Poppet said he wanted councillors to point him to geographical areas where there are problems, as dealing with those was relatively easy whereas he and his team wouldn’t know where to start with a target such as reducing injuries from violent crime in the area as it was, he said, “complex”.
A number of councillors though in succession said they agreed with me, prompting Chris Rand to tweet:
Lone Conservative Cllr Meftah didn’t say anything during the police priority setting section of the meeting (so much for the party of law and order) though he did nod vigorously in agreement as I was speaking.
Cllr Stuart suggested to Inspector Poppet that he should be producing the information councillors were requesting, so they could make evidence based decisions, she along with others urged the Inspector to tailor the report to what was being requested.
Cllr Heathcock joined me in calling for a breakdown of the violent crime statistics; he suggested that even a note to the statistics explaining the range would help. Inspector Poppet said everything from minor scuffles, up to murder was included in the violent crime figure.
Anthony Carpen, who was present with Puffles2010 asked about police use of social media to engage with young people. He urged the police to get better at using social media, and talked about a possible visit to Cambridge by an ACPO chief officer with responsibility for the area, something he hoped might prompt things to improve. The Inspector offered to discuss this further with Mr Carpen outside the meeting.
Cllr McPherson said in his experience the police and fire service were good at face to face work within schools and colleges.
Parking Enforcement Outside Schools
Cllr Swanson sought an assurance that parking enforcement was taking place outside schools.
Previously the South Area Committee has been at the spearhead of pushing changes to Cambridgeshire Police’s policy in relation to this, which last year saw those delivering children to school seen as sensitive, and instead of tackling dangerous parking and driving at this key time for safety, they were stepping back for fear of upsetting people. This was a stance I, and many councillors, campaigned against.
Inspector Poppet gave assurances that the police were now getting the balance better; with periods of education at the start of terms, and moving rapidly onto enforcement where needed and justified. He slightly asked councillors to keep this as a priority even though he said he wouldn’t be doing anything in relation to it until schools returned, I think that’s reasonable, and to some extent explains why the larger than usual number of priorities set was acceptable.
One member of the public complained PCSOs monitoring parking outside schools just chat to the women and don’t actually do anything.
Councillors rejected police recommendations to remove the priorities on Antisocial Behaviour on the High Street, Moped misuse. The final priorities set were : Antisocial Behaviour, Mopeds, Parking, Speeding and Burglary.
I think it would have been useful if councillors had provided some more guidance as to what they meant by Anti-Social Behaviour.
The Chair ran the vote by asking councillors if they would support, or not, each item remaining a priority. I, and others present, thought it would have been better if a system was used so that they could have ranked the items in terms of importance.
One way I’ve seen this done in East Cambridge is giving each councillor three votes to spend over the, say five, shortlisted priorities. Once the top items of concern have been identified, then there can be voted on including or not items as priorities.
What Does Setting A Priority Mean
I think it would be useful if at each priority setting meeting there was a very quick re-cap of what a set priority means. In my view the key things setting a priority does is it:
- Helps Sergeants “bid” for more resources from the wider police to tackle a problem in their area. Eg. if all councillors in an area unanimously want speed monitoring on a specific street, its hard to argue against that. Or Firearms/dog/traffic units not otherwise engaged can be requested to drive around and monitor areas where there are problems.
- Improves the quality of reporting, and openness and transparency related to an issue. Setting something as a priority means that the police, and if relevant others, will report on progress on the matter to the next meeting.
The major other item discussed at the meeting was parking. The problem is Addenbrookes staff parking on residential streets, making them effectively single track one way streets, making it hard for residents to park, or get their cars in and out of their properties.
The cost of parking on the Addenbrookes site for low paid staff was identified as a key problem.
Addenbrookes have, according to the County Council, promised to provide more on-site parking, and to be self-sufficient in terms of parking, however members of the public noted it was the cost of parking, not simply provision which matters.
Residents of a number of streets expressed concern about emergency vehicle access. The Fire Service representative said they need just over 3m (about 3.1m to get a Fire Engine through) and they can fight fires from 45m away, with a single appliance. He suggested people parking over hydrants (which is legal in the UK but not in other countries) was more of an issue than obstruction.
A special public meeting was proposed; however councillors didn’t discuss who would be invited. It’s no good residents and councillors getting together on their own again, they need the staff unions, and management from Addenbrookes there too.
There is an as yet unpublished proposal for more parking restrictions (yellow lines) for the area. Bizzarely and unusually the County Council (represented at the meeting by Officer Mr Lowe) are encouraging residents and councillors to participate in the formal statutory following the publication of the draft traffic regulation order in the back pages of the Cambridge News. Only select groups, such as residents associations, have been consulted during the development of the proposals. At this late state it the options will be yes, no, or an expensive and slow option of back to the drawing board, and back through another statutory consultation.
Mr Lowe suggested charging those parking at the park and ride for parking would help matters; I didn’t detect any logic justifying that conclusion.
I thought it was astonishing that councillors and the public were not involved earlier in the process.
A timeline of consultation in the Autumn, followed by line painting in January 2013 was suggested, though if there are objections to County Council Officers’ as yet secret (or unformed) plans the democratic process of the Traffic Area Joint Committee could delay things further.
A Godwin Way resident asked about double yellow lines at the junctions of her road, and was promised they are part of the proposals to be consulted on. (I am unclear myself on the law relating to parking next to junctions, clearly the police can act against obstruction anywhere, but in many places around the UK, and in Cambridge, parking right up to junctions is common place).
Conversion of barns at Netherhall Farm into four homes was approved unanimously.
Conservative Cllr Meftah made his only contribution to the meeting, asking: “What about the bats?”. He was told this issue would be dealt with separately, and an application for the appropriate permission/licence to disturb bats would need to be made.
The planning officer called bats “small birds” but no one bothered to educate him.
Election of Chair
Cllr Dryden was elected chair, uncontested, at the start of the meeting. The election of Vice Chair was contested, with Conservative Cllr Meftah winning with 4 votes, his own and the Labour members’. Cllr Meftah had to be encouraged to put his own hand up to vote for himself by heckles from members of the public present.