At Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 25th of March 2010 I asked a public question about the recently cancelled Strawberry Fair. I explained that I was using the public question to try and prompt a statement from the council and councillors with the aim of getting more information into the public domain.
Why was the Strawberry Fair not allowed to use the council’s licence for this year’s event? Was this as a result of pressure from the police and if so what form did that pressure take? What political direction was given by councillors to the city council officers who decided not to allow Strawberry Fair to use the council’s licence for this year’s event?
How is the council responding to the possibility of a disorganised gathering on Midsummer Common on the date of the fair? For example will it still be providing additional toilets? Will the council be focusing on deterring people from turning up to the common on the date of the fair, or will it focus trying to reduce problems caused by those who attend?
Will the council be vigorously defending the licensing committee’s decision at the appeal in front of the Magistrates?
Liz Bisset, the council’s director Community Services responded first. She said the licence was held individually by three officers, herself, Debbie Kaye the Head of Active Communities and Alistair Wilson the council’s Green Space Manager. She said the police had written to the individual officers, as licensees, to say that they would be requesting a review of the licence. She said that as Strawberry Fair is run and managed by the Strawberry Fair committee the individual licence holders would not be in a position to ensure that any conditions put in place as a result a review prompted by the police would be acted on. She re-iterated the fact that the licence was held by individual officers and that said that those individuals would be subject to prosecution themselves if the licence terms were not adhered to. This point was reiterated as she stated the licence was not held corporately.
On the question of “to deter or mitigate” she said that “it was not an either / or”; she referred to a meeting to be held with the Strawberry Fair committee, councillors, and officers where what to do would be discussed. She said the council was “aware of what might happen”.
On defending the licensing committee decision Liz Bisset said she could not answer that on behalf of the licensing committee; but said that a “corporate statement” was being drawn up, which she said would be published later that day, explaining the position.
I asked for a clarification of the role of councillors; I asked if the executive councillor had been involved in making the decision of if the first she heard of it was then the officers told her what they had done.
Lis Bisset said: “The matter was discussed with the Executive Councillor, but it is a delegated responsibility”; for background she stated that the decision was discussed with the Strawberry Fair committee and they understood the council’s position.
The Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation (which includes green spaces), Liberal Democrat Julie Smith responded too. She said that she made the decision to allow the fair to use the common in public, at a committee meting, in October 2009.
She said the licensing decision was a matter for the licensees and “not in the gift of the Executive Councillor”. While I understand the special circumstances of this case what she said next appeared to encapsulate her, and many of her Liberal Democrat colleagues’, approach to their role she said:
It would be wholly improper of me to exert influence over officers.
Cllr Smith reported that in the past licences had to be granted to individuals; but that this “may no longer be the case”; she suggested the council was looking into alternative arrangements for the future.
Cllr Blencowe sought to speak; at first the chair told him there was no discussion from councillors on matters raised by public questions, but he insisted that he wanted a clarification and to seek an answer to a question I’d asked. He asked if the question of if the licensing committee’s decision would be defended at appeal could be answered – noting that he had been a member of the licensing panel. He suggested that question ought be addressed in the “corporate statement” mentioned. Cllr Smith said it would be defended; and that would be included in the statement.
Question From Richard Brown
Richard Brown asked a question on behalf of the Strawberry Fair committee. He first asked what plans the council had for supporting an event in 2011; and then asked what the council can do in response to “internet chatter” indicating people’s intent to turn up anyway despite the event being cancelled. He asked what the council can do to deal with that and get the message out loud and clear that the event has been cancelled. He asked what the council could do to minimise disruption on the day of the fair.
Cllr Smith responded to say the council doesn’t yet have any particular plans for 2011. On the 5th of June issue she said that this was something which had come up in the past when the fair had been cancelled and had then been dealt with by the police. She spoke rather vaguely about “ensuring measures were in place”, engaging with other agencies.
Mr Brown responded suggesting the council could try and do more to get the message out; particularly to those who might not read the media. He suggested using the parking and traffic advice signs on the entrances to the city as one way of getting the message out.
Corporate Statement / Press Release
The corporate statement mentioned was eventually published the following day. It is available at:
Use of Public Questions
An odd quirk of way the Lib Dems run the City Council is they appear to rely on members of the public to raise timely matters like this at committee meetings. As was seen by Cllr Blencowe’s intervention councillors are not able to put such questions to executive councillors and council officers in public in this way.
While it is important items for decision are published on agendas well in advance so councillors can research them and consult their constituents about them I think it would be useful if councillors could also ask oral questions (submitted say the day before) on items not on the agenda at committees. This would be analogous to the “oral questions” section of full council meetings. Until the last full council meeting that section of the meeting was, according to my correspondence with the mayor, “not formally considered part of the meeting” and hence unminuted. That Q&A section is a key part of how councillors hold the executive to account, and following my lobbying (and pro-active reporting/minuting for couple of of the Q&A sessions) it is now formally minuted by the council. I’ve seen councillors try and ask “public questions” themselves on a couple of occasions; they tend to get away with it at area committees but not the central scrutiny committees.
I think councillors ought, briefly, be allowed to comment on and seek clarification of points raised in responses by public questions. They ought also be allowed to debate what action is going to be taken next eg. put it on their agenda for next time; set up a meeting between the relevant people to discuss it, issue a press release to clarify matters etc.
I submitted my question, as required, a day or so in advance of the meeting. I also published it via the cam.misc newsgroup, where my local Liberal Democrat councillor Tim Ward had written to say that he expected details to emerge as a result of a public question at the Community Services Scrutiny Committee – that meant someone had to ask the question and I decided to take up my councillor’s implied suggestion. “A question” in city council terms is a three minute opportunity to speak to the committee, so its generally possible to get about 6-7 related questions on a matter into that. Mr Brown asked his question before mine; I adapted what I was going to say slightly in response to the reply he obtained. The council’s reply to him appeared unclear on if they were actually going to get behind his calls to deter people from attending on the day (perhaps the council wants / doesn’t mind a protest?) so I sought clarification. I didn’t have time to ask what had happened in recent meetings between the council and the police over planning for the day; though the council had this part of my question in writing and could have addressed it if they had anything to say.
The Liberal Democrats ban videoing or recording of council meetings without express permission. Where permission is granted it is generally only for “establishing shots” at the beginning of a meeting, or for a presentation of an award or something along those lines. The meeting’s chair reiterated the ban strongly before the start of the meeting; the above represents my best effort to report on what happened and is based on my notes