Questions to the Cambridge City Council Executive – February 2009


Friday, February 27th, 2009. 5:08am

I missed this BBC Question Time as I was watching Cambridge City Council's live.
At full Cambridge City Council meetings councillors are able to ask questions to executive councillors; these have to be submitted in writing the day before the meeting. A ballot is held to determine the order of questions and as many as can be dealt with in thirty minutes are answered. Any questions remaining beyond that time are answered in writing. The councillor asking a question gets an opportunity to ask a follow-up question or make a comment on the answer received.

I attended the February 26th 2009 Full Council; below are all the oral questions asked, along with the answers given.

Highlights:

  • Q5: The Council Leader, Ian Nimmo-Smith, was rattled by a question on the loss of £618K from online ticket sales for the 2008 folk festival. He called Cllr Herbert’s question on the progress of a promised external review a : “Vague, ignorant, question”.
  • Q3: Cllr Bradnack asked Cllr Nimmo-Smith how he will be answering his Liberal Democrat party colleague Nicola Harrison who has described the County Council’s Council tax increase as “daylight robbery”. The City Council are proposing a larger percentage increase.
  • Q6: Cllr Julie Smith astonished everyone by saying that there had been no issues at Abbey Pools which had required her attendance as the Executive Councillor responsible. She showed she is clearly massively out of touch with the complaints of users and staff and yet again isn’t engaging with and taking an interest in the items within her portfolio.

February 2009 Questions

1. From Cllr Pitt (Liberal Democrat) to the Leader: How does the City Council compare with other authorities in Cambridgeshire in the recent independent statutory Place Survey assessment of residents’ involvement in local decision making?

Cllr Nimmo-Smith noted the question referred to the council’s performance against NI 4 which measures the percentage of people who feel that they can influence decisions in their locality. The survey result in Cambridge was 41.2%, which Cllr Nimmo-Smith said was higher than the county average. He said he was not smug or complacent and would like to see the number improve to 50-60%. He appeared to suggest that a new measure would be coming out in the next week or so.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith noted that, contrary to the previous discussion in the meeting, the council’s engagement with local people goes far beyond area committees. He cited consultations run by the council, and development control forums as other examples.

Cllr Pitt responded asking what Cllr Nimmo-Smith was proposing to do to get from the current position up to where he would like to see the number. Cllr Nimmo-Smith pointed to motion b to the council meeting (tabled by Labour’s Cllr Walker) which was on the subject of empowering local people. Cllr Nimmo Smith pointed to a report on the subject made to the a November Scrutiny Committee and a workshop on the sustainable communities act held earlier in the week.

Members from all sides had been invited to the workshop, though Cllr Walker had not been able to attend. I note the event was not listed on the council’s meeting list, even the fact it was happening was not made public never mind who attended and what was discussed.

2. From Cllr Howell (Conservative) to the Executive Councillor for Housing: Did City Homes grit the paths it is responsible for during the recent cold snap, and if not, why not?

Cllr Smart said that areas such as sheltered accommodation properties and where there were ramps were gritted. She said that the council does not, as a rule, grit pavements and said most pavements were not the council’s responsibility (This was met with cries of “why not” from the opposition). Cllr Smart then repeated herself, saying again that paths outside sheltered accommodation were gritted, and added that those where older people lived were also gritted.

Cllr Howell noted there had been lots of complaints from city residents about the lack of gritting and then asked about specific properties. Cllr Smart committed to investigate in relation to the specific places he mentioned. Cllr Smart also tried to claim that despite being the Executive Councillor responsible she wasn’t really responsible because these were “management matters”, she was making a pathetic attempt to pass responsibility to officers. Her answer also showed a lack of awareness of what had actually happened, in many areas council staff – rangers and street cleaners for example had taken it upon themselves to grit some pavements, though many key areas were left ungritted – especially the key cycle routes, some of which, for example across green spaces, are the responsibility of the City Council. Many of the particularly treacherous areas for cyclists such as riverside and bridge street need better drainage and a good road surface, it is standing water which leads to bad ice in places, it is not just about gritting. (I realise the question related to city homes, not the city more broadly)

3. From Cllr Bradnack (Labour) to the Leader: Does the Leader of the Council agree that the Liberal Democrat-proposed increase of 4.5% in the City Council Tax is significantly higher than the current inflation rate?

Cllr Nimmo-Smith started with a simple “No”.

He said there was no single measure of inflation, and said that in October the Consumer Price Index was at 4.5%. He also pointed to the Retail Price Index being 0.1% at the moment and the RPIX (X=excluding mortgage interest) being 0.4%. He said that the RPI did not reflect the costs being experienced by the council for example in relation to staff costs.

He then returned to the question, and decided to answer it with a simple “Yes”.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith then took the opportunity to take a party political swipe at Labour, saying it was the Government’s 0.5% increase in central government revenue support grant being well below inflation which was causing the need for Council Tax increase to arise.

Cllr Bradnack said that the city’s residents were victims of “Daylight robbery by the council”, he was quoting from Liberal Democrat County Councillor Nichola Harrison’s recent letter to the Cambridge News. (Which I have replied to).

He continued quoting: “So beware – the Sheriff of Nottingham is alive and well … Anyone fancy a trip to the forest?”, he asked Cllr Nimmo-Smith what he was going to say to Cllr Harrison in answer to what she had said.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith said that the county council was in a very different position to the city. He said that as they have debts they have had a windfall as interest rates have dropped. He also tried to say that the 4.5% increase wasn’t really important, as it was only £7/year on a band D council tax bill (That’s the City Council’s component, clearly if every element is increasing by that amount, or more, then the total absolute amount will be much greater).

Cllr Nimmo-Smith commented, missing the point, to say what was being talked about in terms of absolute differences between the parties in the City Council is a 14 pence a week increase proposed by the Liberal Democrats, compared to 10p by Labour and 0p by Conservative Cllr Howell. He suggested these were small figures and small differences.

4. From Cllr Hart (Labour) to the Leader: The City Council expects new developments to mitigate the impact they will have on infrastructure and community facilities in the city and can be addressed either through the provision of facilities on site as part of new development, for example public open space, or through the provision of a financial contribution to the City Council which will be used to improve appropriate infrastructure in the city. The budget papers show that the interest gained from the unspent financial contributions is being deducted, this year and in future years. Is the Leader of the Council intending to leave the financial contribution underspent in order to secure the income on the interest?

Cllr Nimmo-Smith started his answer with a simple “No”.

He said no money was being removed from accounts, it just wasn’t being added. He clarified there was no plan to remove underspent money, but did accept there was a need to get on and spend some of this money.

There was no follow up to the answer given, though apparantly Cllr Hart was present. It appeared to me that Cllr Herbert as Labour group leader appeared to be given the opportunity (via a glance from the Mayor who was chairing the meeting) to make a come-back but he declined.

5. From Cllr Herbert (Labour) to the Leader: What progress has been made in recovering the Council’s £618,000 loss on 2008 folk festival tickets, and what progress has been made on the independent external inquiry he announced on 7th January would be investigating the issue.

Ian Nimmo-Smith took a bizzare approach to answering this question, starting by saying that he thought the Labour Party had a communication problem (pointing to an apparent failure of Cllr Newbold to report to his colleagues what had happened in a recent meeting about trying to locate a traveller’s site in the city).
He then accused Cllr Herbert of asking a : “Vague, ignorant, question”.

I think it was an excellent question, and given the answer that eventually emerged, a very well informed one.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith said Cllr Herbert had had a briefing that afternoon. Criticising him for asking this question despite this briefing misses the point that the council meeting is held in the presence of the public and the press, as well as almost all councillors. The briefing was presumably a meeting behind closed doors with only selected individuals in attendance. Cllr Nimmo-Smith said work to produce an external assurance report which would report in late march was underway.

Cllr Herbert said that Ian Nimmo-Smith had known about the losses since the 20th of October 2008 and asked what had he had done between then and Christmas to try and get speed up the return of the money. He returned to his original question of the inquiry he announced on the 7th January. He noted that two months had passed. Cllr Herbert complained about the lack of an open update on progress to the public. He accused Ian Nimmo-Smith of managing the loss for PR purposes and there was a lack of action on his part.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith said that the council had pursued the money with speed and energy, he said he was depressed by the suggestion of heel dragging and PR management. He said he was as determined as anyone to get to the heart of the matter, but then said that external assurance would be sought: “if it is affordable”. This suggests the Liberal Democrats are considering backtracking on their promise of an independent review, on the grounds they are worried about the costs of an investigation by an external auditor. Informed readers have suggested what he meant by “external assurance” was an review carried out internally, but reviewed by an external organisation / individual. I can’t imagine any reputable auditor putting their name to a report and investigation they have not carried out themselves.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith said that Cllr Herbert has been aware of the situation since mid-November and has his opportunity to have input into the process [of chasing the money and justice] since then. Cllr Nimmo-Smith ended by saying he was happy for his role to be assessed by the investigation.

It wasn’t really clear if an external review is in progress or not. Cllr Nimmo-Smith appeared very rattled by the question, and didn’t clearly answer it. I feel if a review was in progress he would have clearly stated who the council had appointed, what their terms of reference were, and when they had been asked to report by.

6. From Cllr Walker (Labour) to the Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation: When, prior to her decision to extend the SLM contract, did she last visit Abbey Pool?

Cllr Walker had asked this question at the Community Services Scrutiny Committee just a few weeks earlier. Cllr Julie Smith said her answer was still the same as it was there. Cllr Julie Smith said that she doesn’t swim, and that she had visited Abbey Pool just once, shortly after taking on her Executive Councillor role. She said that there had been no issues since which had called for her to make another visit (this statement was met with expressions of astonishment from around the chamber). She said there had been two health and safety issues with the city’s pools. Citing first the Abbey pool’s boiler problems which she said actually wasn’t a health and safety issue and had been rapidly fixed (She can’t have been thinking with any clarity). Cllr Smith then turned to the flume at Parkside. She said that one “pin” holding the flume up had broken some time ago, but it wasn’t a major cause for concern and any need for action until the second pin broke. She said the company who supplied the cable system for suspending the flume was no longer in business so finding a replacement was not straightforward but work was now underway replacing the cables and pins.

I wondered if the council or SLM had alerted others using similar flumes installed by the same company around the same time? Will Cllr Smith be first down the flume to demonstrate it is safe after the repairs, or does she not slide as well as not swim?

(At the recent West/Central Area Committee Cllr Smith revealed she was unaware of the proposed tree felling programme on the common, she really doesn’t appear to be well informed about the activities of the area she is responsible for)

7. From Councillor Newbold (Labour) to the Leader: What is the adopted City Council policy which is being used to take interest from s106 monies. What is the legislation that allows Cambridge City Council to do this, and do any other Cambridgeshire councils have, or intend to adopt, a similar policy?

Cllr Nimmo-Smith said that it didn’t require legislation, and said that only Huntington were doing what Cambridge were and adding interest to s106 accounts.
Cllr Nimmo-Smith listed a number of Labour councils which do not add interest.

Cllr Newbold commented that as the council takes so long to spend this money it was getting devalued as the council was holding onto it if interest was not added, so there was a real loss.

8. From Cllr Howell (Conservative) to the Executive Councillor for Housing: How long has Tiverton house been partially or fully empty, and what costs have been incurred relating to Tiverton House since then?

Cllr Smart said that it closed in December 2007, this was earlier than expected as the last residents had taken an opportunity to move together to another location. She said that meeting had been held to review sheltered accommodation on Monday (another unlisted secret meeting?). She said there had been no expenditure since December 2007.

Cllr Howell expressed astonishment at the zero expenditure since December 2007 as he had often seen the lights on in the building (Perhaps someone ought make an FOI request for the electricity bill?). Cllr Howell said he was trying to persuade a private landlord to bring another property in the area back into use for residential purposes, he said it was hard to make an argument for this while the council has property which could be returned to residential use standing empty. He asked what progress had been made in attempts to sell the property, or if alternative options for bringing it back into use had been considered.

Cllr Smart hid behind commercial secrecy, saying that the last she heard there were negotiations going on but she was not going to comment on them. Her words “the last I heard” did not give me much confidence, I would have been more reassured if she had said she had been briefed by officers that week, the last she heard might well have been years ago.

9. From Councillor Newbold (Labour) tothe Leader: Given budget approval, what will the 2008/9 s106 interest removed from this budget be used for?

Cllr Nimmo-Smith said the money was not ringfenced. He said it was just money. He said that when savings were made it was not usual for them to be specifically allocated to spending. There were some exceptions, but generally “it is just money”.

Cllr Newbold summerised this as: “In practice – anything”.

10. From Councillor Bradnack (Labour) to the Executive Councillor for Customer Services and Resources: What steps will the City Council take to enable City Life to vacate the Howard Mallett site and occupy its preferred site in Kings Hedges?

Cllr Cantrill reported that he and officers had participated in unsuccessful discussions on this matter. He said that short of a compulsory purchase order the council could not force the hand of a private landowner. He said that there were negotiations in progress with Cambridge Regional College. He said it depends what they chose to do, but he hoped that City Life would work with the regional college.

A Better Question Time

This process could be a fantastic way to hold the executive to account but there are a number of flaws with its current implementation in Cambridge. One is that the questions, while distributed on paper at the meeting, are not published on the city council’s website with the meeting papers (other late papers sometimes are). The public don’t know what is being asked in a timely manner. Bizarrely only the questions, and not their answers, are included in the minutes, and councillors of all parties repeatedly accept minutes carrying questions, but no answers, as a full and correct record of the meeting. Another flaw is that written answers to questions not answered orally are sent only to the councillor who asked the question, they are not made generally publicly available. It would be quite easy to fix all these flaws and strengthen the process of holding the executive councillors to account.

I think that a common web based system for administering such questions and their answers could be devised and used throughout Government in the UK. A system where members of the public could suggest questions for members to ask (and work collaboratively with others to refine the question) would I believe be a rational extension to any such system. At a number of other points in the meeting the council were discussing how to improve public involvement, improvements relating to questions to the Executive could assist that. The council have a substantial in-house web-team so it ought to be possible at no additional cost, it could also be shared with other councils, assemblies, parliaments etc.

Another element required is for councillors to be bothered to use the opportunities open to them and actually ask questions of the Executive. At the February 26th 2009 Full Council meeting only ten questions were tabled, all of which were answered in under the thirty minutes allocated. The majority of councillors, including some opposition councillors, clearly appear to have no issues on which they would like to see the Executive Councillors explain themselves. There was only one question from a Liberal Democrat, Cllrs Boyce, Blair, Liddle, McGovern and perhaps others did not submit any questions, or speak at any point during the meeting. Perhaps more surprisingly some opposition councillors including independent Cllr Hipkin, Green Cllr Wright and Labour’s Mike Todd-Jones didn’t submit any questions either. The green and independents though did fully participate in the budget debate held at the same meeting.

It is possible to watch Boris Johnston answer questions from the London Assembly via the web, this can be done live or on-demand. Parliament along with the Scottish and Welsh assemblies are also televised. Technology is getting cheaper and more widespread and I think ought come to Cambridge. There is no automatic permission given to film or photograph Cambridge City Council meetings, perhaps if there was we would soon see more debates or speeches of interest appear on Youtube or sites like mine and the connection between residents and councillors would be improved.

Previous Question Sessions

I recorded all oral questions and answers dealt with at the September 2008 full council meeting, making them available on this site. I also wrote articles on questions asked at the December 2008 meeting (on the Closure of the Cowley Road car boot sale and the Accordia Playground.

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