On the 9th of February 2009 I attended the residents’ briefing for the new Cambridge City Centre Partnership, “Love Cambridge”. The meeting was organised primarily as a director of the new organisation to act as a representative/advocate for Cambridge residents is being sought. A Job description and Person Specification for the residents’ representative was distributed, the role has been advertised in the local press, and on the city council’s website. A meeting was held the previous week for independent retailers, who will also have a director on the board acting as an advocate / champion for them.
The objective of the organisation, apparently designed to include as many currently trendy local government buzzwords as possible, was given as:
To develop a vision and action plan for the city centre through working in partnership with a diverse range of key stakeholders to ensure the city’s ongoing accessibility, vitality, vibrancy, safety and sustainability.
The panel consisted of the Executive Councillor whose portfolio includes responsibility for the city centre, Rod Cantrill, two city council officers, Emma Thornton (Head of City Centre Management and Tourism) and Helen Green, along with the prospective chair of the new organisation, Ian Sandison. The meeting was told that Helen Green will become an employee of the new organisation.
Around thirty five members of the public attended, including City Cllrs Lucy Walker, Lewis Herbert and Colin Rosensteil and County Councillor for Petersfield Nichola Harrison.
- The organisation will have no fixed boundaries for its area of influence. This was not made clear the week before, and originally only the “historic core” was to be included.
- Residents were in favour of green space / sustainability to be considered by the new partnership.
- Engagement with existing groups, not just residents associations, was considered important, groups mentioned included students’ unions and churches.
- It was reported that the hoteliers’ representative, and the representative of the shopping centers have both been appointed following consultation with those groups and them putting someone forward who has then been confirmed by the city council officer and chair of the new board.
- There are to be a maximum of fifteen members of the new board, of which twelve, plus the chair have been identified. This this suggests that there are two more potential positions which could be created.
- Cllr Cantrill said that one of the principles of the board was that each “stakeholder group” had only one position on the board. He said that even the city council had only one member on the board. This is quite a change from his position of November 2008, when he said ten positions on the board would be held by retailers.
- We still did not get given a complete list of currently appointed directors, and of the vacant positions.
Apparent Proposed Make up of the Board
- A residents’ representative, appointed by Cllr Cantrill and the chairman of the new board following an open advertisement.
- An independent retailers’ representative, to be appointed by a similar mechanism to the residents’ representative.
- Ian Sandison, chair of the new organisation’s board.
- Representative of the service sector, John Dix of Hewitsons, who was given the position as a reward for his company’s work on drawing up the memorandum and articles for the new organisation, with no reference made to those he will be expected to represent.
- The City Council’s representative, the Executive Councillor with responsibility for the City Centre and Tourism, currently Cllr Cantrill.
- A hoteliers’ representative, Shara Ross, Manager of the Hotel Felix, apparently selected by the city’s hoteliers and confirmed by the chair of the new board, Cllr Cantrill and Emma Thornton.
- A representative of Cambridgeshire County Council, an officer at director level.
- A Cambridge City Council Officer
- A representative of the University(ies?)
- A representative of the University of Cambridge colleges
- A representative of the City’s Shopping Centres
- Two representatives of non-independent retailers.
Introductions and Background
Emma Thornton gave a brief history of city centre management, saying towns and cities started such enterprises a couple of decades ago to make them selves attractive destinations in the face of competition from out of town shopping centres. She said that there are now about five hundred and fifty city centre management organisations in the country, around sixty percent of which are independent from their local councils. Emma Thornton said that the current organisation, which she runs, within the city council was “running on empty” and it was being limited by the fact that its governance and leadership was based within the city council. The meeting was told that the “growth agenda”, by which she means the proposed at least doubling, if not tripling, of the number of people living in the Cambridge region was a major reason change was necessary. We were also told that there was declining footfall in city centres, she didn’t mention Cambridge specifically, but it is the case here too.
Rod Cantrill started by saying that he was the person who was determined to ensure that a wide spectrum of stakeholders were represented on the board. Cllr Lewis Herbert, who had been the one pushing for residents to be represented appeared surprised that Cllr Cantrill was taking the credit. Cllr Cantril said that the new structure would enable access to third party funding which the current arrangements precluded. He stated that it was not intended that directors had a mandate from their stakeholder groups. He went on to say this was not a legally possible arrangement, as directors would have to have a primary allegiance to the new company and act in the best interests of the company. Clearly directors representing specific interest groups, (commonly shareholders) is quite normal. For example the government has appointed directors of the nationalised banks, universities appoint directors of spin out companies, and major shareholders often appoint individuals to the boards of companies to protect their interests.
Cllr Cantrill said that he expected the membership of the organisation to drive the strategy, and he expected members to get involved in subgroups, he went as far as saying that if a significant membership isn’t obtained and engaged he will view the venture as a failure.
Ian Sandison spoke briefly, showing some photographs of the city centre, he said that the independent retailers were the heart of the city. He also told the meeting that over 50% of Cambridge’s employment was in education, health and other public sector organisations including the city and county councils; he didn’t say why he thought this was relevant, perhaps he was highlighting the fact that the city is not retail centred. He spoke about how passionate he was about Cambridge (he told us all he had been out taking photos in the snow), and referred to his own qualifications for the role: a resident of the Mill Road area, his wife running shop on King Street; and his chairing of the King Street retailers organisation.
There was then a question and answer session, one of the first questions was on the proposed budget for the organisation, which had been quoted at just £100K, one of the members of the public suggested that this wouldn’t go very far. He asked about how much influence the new organisation would have on areas such as transport. Cllr Cantrill responded saying that there would be influence, and he expected the voice of the new partnership to be listened to by transport planners and others (working with the police has been one area in which the current organisation has done some work). In terms of the ~£100K he pointed to the support given to the partnership by the City Council and the prospects for third party funding.
The Residents’ Representative
I asked why the decision had been taken to appoint representatives of various groups; questioning where any strengths arose from that approach and suggesting that it would be better to seek representatives appointed by those they will be expected to represent. Mr Cantrill replied saying that: “it was difficult because in the case of Residents’ Associations they are not closed groups”. He also pointed to the independent retailers, saying they were not “one voice”, claiming that was something which had been apparent at the previous week’s presentation to them. He said that neither group had the ability, in his opinion, to come back with one nominee. He reiterated what he had said earlier about not looking for someone with a mandate to be the residents’ representative, but looking for someone who would act as a advocate / champion on the board. He claimed that company law prevented individuals with a mandate from a particular group being appointed, though Emma Thornton suggested that this had been what happened in the case of the hotellier’s director, the hotelliers had put one nomination forward and this had been accepted by the city council. In the case of the independent retailers she said they didn’t have a representative body, and she thought that one thing the new partnership could achieve would be helping them to connect better.
Cllr Lewis Herbert introduced himself as the Labour group leader, he said he welcomed the position of residents representative on the board, and said it was something he had pushed for. He said that it would add diversity to the board of directors. He said that, as with the independent retailers’ representative, he would like to see a person who will network and act as an advocate / representative. He said that he hoped that both the residents’ and independent retailers’ representatives would get some support from the partnership’s staff. He also sad that he expected ideas to arise in this new group and then be taken from there to the city council.
Cllr Colin Rosenstiel spoke to say there were no residents associations where he lived in the Kite area, he said that this was an area where people lived “cheek by jowl” with the retail activity in the city. He said that residents associations didn’t have blanket coverage of the city. Cllr Cantrill agreed, but said that having a ward councillor, (or a back bench councillor as he also put it) on the board would dilute the one director per stakeholder group principle. Cllr Rosensteil exploded at the suggestion Ian Sandison, as a city resident, did to a degree provide extra residents’ representation on the board, as Cllr Rosensteil said that he didn’t really live in the City Centre, living as the meeting was told – off Mill road. Cllr Rosensteil said he doesn’t get cars parking on his street to go shopping living that far out of the city, a comment met by disagreement from many of those present.
Cllr Cantrill said that he felt the residents’ representative would need to be robust, and prepared to stand up to the dominant stakeholders, with some hesitation he included the city council as one of those stakeholders the residents would have to stand up to, as well as the large retailers.
Saying more on the residents’ representative, Cllr Cantrill said that it was not where the person lived that mattered. He thought the person should be prepared to act as an advocate for residents and to be prepared to be critical.
A member of the public said that she was relieved to see the job description circulated; and was worried about Cllr Cantrill and other’s talk of someone prepared to stand up to the other members of the board and be critical. She said that she did not want to see “someone with an axe to grind” appointed to the residents’ position on the board. She was in favour of consensus building, working together. I think it would be all to easy for Emma Thornton and Ian Sandison to appoint such a person, like presumably the questioner, who opposes conflict to the role, but I feel they would not be the best to serve the interests of the city and its residents. There is a need for someone who is happy to be in a minority on the board and to realise that will inevitably place them at odds with other members.
Cllr Cantril said he wanted to see an individual focused on advocacy, in the case of the residents’ director, in both directions as all directors would be expected to be advocates for the board.
The time commitment required by the residents’ director was discussed, Emma Thornton initially quoted 2-3 hours for quarterly meetings, those present argued that there wouldn’t be much opportunity for networking and communication with that level of commitment. Cllr Cantril said that 1-2 days a month was the guidence he had given independent retailers, and suggested something similar in the case of the residents’ representative, though anything above that would be a bonus.
The timetable for applications for the position of residents’ director was set out, and in response to Cllr Rosensteil who was clearly hinting that the job description ought be made widely available via the city council’s website, Emma Thornton insisted that it would only be available to those not at the meeting by those emailing her or her fellow council officer Helen Green.
The next speaker asked for clarification on who was / could become a member, and noted we had not heard much from the prospective chair of the new organisation, who had not said anything since his introduction. He also asked how the new organisation would resolve conflicts.
The fact any representative organisation, or individual could become a member was made clear, with Cllr Cantril reading out the formally defined classes of members.
Ian Sandison said that he expected there to be a members meeting in April which would take a number of themes and prioritise them and decide what the organisation ought do in its first year. He said that conflicts would be resolved with votes, and he would hold the casting vote.
More questions about the “membership” were raised, with the panel saying that he expected the membership to be the driving force, and there was not a shortage of institutions wanting to get involved. The acknowledged not doing this very well in the previous city centre management group, noting it had been in existance for thirteen years and had not involved students for example.
Emma Thornton appeared to suggested one incentive to become a member would be that members would be able to access a members only section of the website on which minutes of meetings etc. would be available. I have said before that I think the activities of the new organisation should be open to all, I can’t see why papers should not be freely available.
Connections with other Groups
A member of the public questioned if the City Churches had been involved, individually or as a group, and also asked about the conservators of the Cam. Emma Thornton said both had been informally approached and worked with the existing structure. She said she hoped they would become members. Cllr Cantrill said that the churches were specifically mentioned in the new organisation’s memorandum and articles of association.
Another member of the public having commented on the excessive use of buzzwords by the council officer asked if the new organisation was to have any statuary role, with respect to the development plan; he also commented that students were significant residents and ought be included.
Emma Thornton replied that there was no statutory role for the organisation and everything it did was to be over and above what was statutorily required. On students, Emma Thornton said it was difficult to engage with thirty one individual colleges.
Someone suggested that many residents of the city don’t see the city centre as theirs; he suggested that there was evidence that when a town got to the point of about 100,000 residents the connection people had with their city was lost. He asked if the new organisation would be reaching out to those residents of the city who are indifferent. Another person commented specifically on Orchard Park residents as a group who might not feel part of the city.
A representative of Brooklands Avenue residents’ association asked if the Cambridge Conservation Society, a group which he said had around a thousand paid up members was to be involved.
Sustainability and Green Spaces
The next question / suggestion was from a woman asking about sustainability, and suggesting long term planning looking forward to 2050 or 2100. She said how Cambridge was unique in the UK with cows on Kings’ college meadow and the large amount of green space. She wanted to challenge the “shopping is a god” mentality and said that for a sustainable future we had to get away from that. She was also in favor of improving the biodiversity of the river.
Emma Thornton replied talking about climate change cities, and how Cambridge could become one of the first. She also mentioned the “close the door” campaign.
The person sitting next to the woman who had asked about sustainability asked about green spaces, asking if the new group would oppose getting rid of green spaces for housing. She also asked if there would be a membership fee. She was told there were no plans to introduce a membership fee, and if one was introduced it would be minimal, just to cover administration costs. On green space Cllr Cantrill said:
“The interaction of green space with the built form is one of the unique and important features of the city centre”.
The lady who had raised the environmental issues and asked about long term planning to 2050 or 2100 suggested that the new group should spend some time discussing vision, not just retail. Cllr Cantrill said the group would be re-testing what the vision for the partnership ought to be, while speaking he mentioned long term delivery aims over a period of say five years, this didn’t go down well with those present who were looking for a more forward thinking.
Ensuring the city’s green spaces and trees are given due weight by the new partnership will be an important role for the residents’ director.
I had contacted three of the students’ unions in Cambridge before the meeting and met the ARU president to discuss the formation of the new partnership.
A representative from the Cambridge University Students’ Union spoke; (he was obviously from Cambridge University as he described himself as being merely from “The Students’ Union”. He said that contrary to comments made by council officers the students were well represented and their representatives were easier to find and speak to than they may think. He commented on the fact that the group within Cambridge University who were currently being consulted by the City Council, the Bursars Committee was the one that was least open to student influence. He also questioned how the competing requirements of different groups would be balanced, and noted there had been a lot of discussion about coming to agreements and consensus, but worried that would result in the organisation only tackling easy projects – “low hanging fruit”, he asked if it would be able to tackle tough issues.
A Functioning Organisation
Adrian Brink, of Park Street residents association and the residents representative on the previous city centre management group for the last eight years spoke to say that with his role he had never felt he had a proper constituency. He was hopeful that the new structure would be more effective than it had been in the past. He was concerned that it was difficult to get across the concerns of residents in a group like “Love Cambridge”. He said the wishes of the residents and the retailers were at odds, almost always, as the retailers want to pull people in, and he said you only have to walk down the streets at the weekend to see the city is actually full. He illustrated his concerns with an anecdote about Cambridge shopping – he said you could queue for twenty minutes in Sainsbury’s and come out and get knocked over by a bike going the wrong way up Sidney Street.
The question of how the success or failure of the new organisation will be measured was raised. Emma Thornton said that that would depend what aims it set itself, but one measure could be surveys of public opinion, another would be counts of footfall, and distribution of footfall.
Cllr Lucy Walker questioned how the new group was going to agree an agenda, she questioned how we could be sure what the group does is what residents want. Clearly if she had wanted residents to retain control, then the group ought to have stayed within the city council, or been constituted with the city council having the majority stake.
Involving Young People
County Councillor Nicola Harrison commented on the high average age of those in the room, describing the group in general as “no spring chickens”. She asked Emma Thornton what plans there were to engage young people, and get a sense of fun into the city and capture their optimism. She asked how the city’s schools, as a group, had been included.
Emma Thornton said that elsewhere in the country there were youth town councils, but there wasn’t anything of that kind she was aware of in Cambridge. She said that there had been some excellent working with schools at christmas time, particularly with the Christmas light switch on event, and there had been lots of enthusiasm from schools wanting to get involved. Cllr Cantrill agreed with this saying he thought the parade and switch on were excellent.
Buses and Clutter
Finally one attendee decided to list three things he thought the new partnership ought do:
- Ensure the buses are clean, so people can see out of the windows, and because they look awful, and they are everywhere in the city.
- Improve the design of the bus shelters; he said the current roofs were too short and resulted in water being dumped on the seats.
- Exercise stricter controls on deliveries; he said the streets were too often cluttered with delivery vehicles.