Cambridge South Area Committee Farce – February 2015

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015. 4:54am

I observed Cambridge’s South Area Committee on the evening of Monday the 2nd of February 2015.

The meeting was the most farce-ridden disheartening display of attempted democracy I’ve observed.

Almost every element of the meeting was either a farce itself or highlighted a farce elsewhere in one of Cambridge’s local councils.

  • Cllr Amanda Taylor claimed that officers sought the money for Cambridge’s segregated cycle schemes, and pushed ahead with them, alone and it was the officers, not councillors, who were responsible for them. Cllr Taylor’s statement was utterly astonishing as it is clearly elected councillors, not their officers, who are responsible and accountable. (This will be one to watch if the cycle lanes are successful and councillors clamour to take the credit).
  • Following the attempt to put all responsibility on officers councillors inappropriately called for Cambridgeshire County Council cycling officer Mike Davies to be hauled before the committee to face the public wrath.
  • Councillors voted to introduce a 20 MPH speed limit on a road they couldn’t name. All they were sure of was that road they were thinking of wasn’t called Teversham Drift. [Having looked at a map I think it probably was part of Teversham Drift and part of Cherry Hinton High Street]. I think there was genuine confusion over if it was the estate road, or the through road, element of Teversham Drift which was being referred to.
  • Proposals to re-design the major roundabout in-front of Addenbrookes were raised by a member of the public. The vast majority of councillors had not heard of them, and one who was aware of the plans said he couldn’t understand what the plans represented.
  • One local councillor, Cllr Dryden, who is also a member of the Addenbrookes’ board, said he’d not heard of the plans for the new roundabout via either of his roles.
  • One confused councillor voted both to give a road a 20 MPH speed limit, and not to.
    • Members of the public talked about cyclists being stopped for exceeding 20 MPH in the new 20 MPH zones. Even after cycling campaigner Al Storer had helpfully explained the law [speeding laws apply only to motorised vehicles] councillors were left unsure of the position and suggested they’d need police advice to clarify matters.
    • Members of the public expressed concerns about trees being felled for the segregated cycle scheme on Hills Road. Despite no proposals to fell any trees existing no councillors had the confidence in their understanding of the proposals to explain this and allay the fears.
    • Members of the public complained about the quality of a number of consultations with one saying the impact on the verges of segregated cycleways on Hills Road was not made clear.
    • The meeting was rushed through with a number of people wanting to participate in the police priority setting discussion, including me, not being able to do so.
    • A number of members of the public, upset at not being invited to participate, ignored the chair and heckled and spoke anyway.
    • It was noted that while councillors were considering 20 MPH zones they were permitting 30 MPH to be the speed-limit in the newly built residential areas in South Cambridge. [This was actually one thing they resolved to suggest gets looked at]

    • Councillors failed to ask for a breakdown in violent crime figures despite a member of the public urging them to do so. The figures on violent crime are useless when domestic violence and violence between strangers on public spaces are lumped together. Councillors accepted the police’s intransigent insistence: “these are standard reports”.
    • Councillors rejected a call from a member of the public to prioritise violent crime.
    • Councillors didn’t challenge the police sergeant who claimed both a drop in reported violent crime was a good thing and a rise in reported violent crime was a good thing. (The report showed a small decrease in reported violent crime over the preceding period but a 1.5 times increase over that period the previous year). [There is an argument that more reporting of certain crimes, eg. domestic violence is good as it is thought to go under-reported]
    • Councillors considered 20 MPH zones, and the area’s police priorities, with no statistics on road injuries or road traffic offences.
    • The police sergeant repeatedly talked about the importance of the eCops system but no one questioned his report which stated the system is “in the early stages of being embedded”, things are clearly going backwards which is a great shame as eCops use in South Cambridge has at times been exemplary with great information on burglary times, locations and methods of the sort which really lets people act to protect themselves.

    • South Cambridgeshire Tory MP Candidate Heidi Allen addressed the committee saying “I’m not really that political when it comes to local issues”. For someone likely to become an MP as a result of her party membership I thought it astonishingly cynical she was trying distance herself from party politics. Despite being just a member of the public she arrogantly appeared to assume her anointment by the Conservative party as their candidate gave her the power to summon someone more senior to a meeting. She said: “Mike Davies has done the best he can but clearly Mike Davies is a little bit limited maybe we need to take this off line and and get a meeting with the executive director for this portfolio” .. “we need to get I think more senior people to account and sit down with residents and explain what’s being done”. I was concerned that “off-line” means out of the public eye and into secret meetings.
    • Consultation quality was questioned; with one member of the public pointing out consultation documents on 20 MPH didn’t specify the stretches of particular roads being considered for 20 MPH limits. eg. Cherry Hinton Road
    • Cllr Avery announced that the South Area Committee was the right forum to raise concerns but not to solve them, to the puzzlement of the public present.

    I left very unimpressed; and I initially felt as if I’d wasted my evening.

    However then I considered it and thought no; it’s not a waste, it just means this is one meeting I really need to get the film of uploaded and an an article written on.

    Surely anyone reading, or watching, what went on could only conclude we need to elect better representatives.

    I actually think there were two or three councillors on the committee who can, when they’re having a good day, be excellent councillors – Rob Dryden, Amanda Taylor and Russ McPherson but they weren’t on top form. In fact no councillor present appeared to be on form at all. One or two, mostly sat in silence throughout and just raised their hands when it came to voting time.

    My view of the meeting was shared by others:

    See Also

    20 comments/updates on “Cambridge South Area Committee Farce – February 2015

    1. Al Storer

      Glad you were filming it- it was quite incredible. It wasn’t just cllrs who were confused/ confusing though, the lady who raising cycleway issues on Hills Road was also in the same sentence talking about trees on Queen Edith’s Way and lighting on Hills Road- only those with prior knowledge could work out those are three different projects at very different stages.

    2. stephen ginns [cambridge]

      “we need to elect better representatives” – yes but how? We can only elect those who stand – those who stand are political pawns of the various parties. Standing as an Independent one would lack the supporting machinery. What we have is a lack of democracy and a complete shambles!

      1. Richard Taylor Article author

        I suggest we need to open up and promote the nomination process; we need to think about who we want on the ballot paper. I want to see the process of nomination be made more accessible and better publicised. We could have online systems for collecting nominations; we could allow nomination papers with enough valid subscribers to be accepted even if one turned out not to be valid for example.

        What supporting machinery are you talking about? To get elected or to fulfil the role?

        Once elected we give councillors allowances in lieu of expenses which can be used to fund newsletters, websites and the like; and MPs are paid themselves and they are funded to set up offices with a large staff on public funds.

        Many people who have not publicly appeared, engaged, or expressed views end up on ballot papers next to political party logos.

        A wiki page to publicly debate issues would be a much more substantive ‘supporting infrastructure’ than that which supports party councillors in their roles in Cambridge. I think anyone running a campaign can get the “nationbuilder” service Labour and the Liberal Democrats use locally; and there’s plenty of other online tools which can be used to communicate, deliberate and organise, like WordPress, Facebook and Twitter.

      2. Marie-Louise Holland

        Castle ward, Cambridge has two elected Independent councillors, myself and John Hipkin. We have formed a group. Stand as an Independent to safeguard local democracy. Don’t just sit on the sidelines moaning and criticising. Get into gear and put yourself forward. Contact us at the Guildhall Tel: 01223 457308 if you want to talk about what is involved. All the best, Marie-Louise

      3. Richard Taylor Article author

        Why would an independent councillor join a group? Surely that defies the point of being independent.

        I suspect the reason they have formed a “group” is so that Cllr Hipkin, as it’s leader, can trouser a £1,108 group leader’s extra “allowance”.

    3. Richard Taylor Article author

      I didn’t report on the demands of disruptive mob in my initial article in part as I thought those who turn up and heckle a council meeting and ignore the elected chair don’t deserve publicity for their cause.

      I thought about turning down the sound on the video when I prepared my video of all the footage I took from the meeting however their antics have prompted interest there is an apparent public demand to know who they were and what they were calling for to provide context for the antics at the meeting.

      They were are group, apparently to some extent an organised group, from Porson Road. Homes on Porson road sell for over a million pounds; it is a road of detached mansions.

      One of those heckling the committee complained that she’d been told Porson Road is an amenity for the citizens of Cambridge. She was apparently upset to learn that upset to learn the road doesn’t belong to those who live on it and is a public space operated for the benefit of all.

      I would have liked to see councillors robustly answer the point and explain the highways really don’t belong to those who live next to them but there is a disappointing trend for councillors just to ignore public speakers and to give a blank response if they agree or disagree with what’s being said. I asked my own local councillor about this and he said it was polite not to challenge public speakers’ misconceptions.

      One of the complaints made was that people park on the road, take their bikes out of their cars, and drive into the city; another was that students at the nearby sixth form college park there. I thought there was a tone of cyclists and students being complained about by older, established, organised, groups of residents, something which is a recurring theme in discussions about how Cambridge is run.

      Interestingly on this road it is not residents themselves who want to park on the road (they’ve got off-road parking); though they would probably like their visitors and delivery vehicles to be able to park.

      They claim their motivation is road safety though no explanation of how uncontrolled parking creates a safety problem was offered.

      One proposal was made to stop commuter (and sixth form student) parking – to permit parking on one side of the road in the morning, and on the other in the afternoon.

      There was a suggestion that charges for parking at the park and ride site had prompted more people to park on the road in the area.

      I’ve personally been thrown out of a meeting for simply politely asking for a copy of the papers. In this case the chair gave in to the mob and the police didn’t take any action either. I wonder if they would have acted in the same way if the disruptive mob had been made up of younger people.

    4. Chris Rand

      I think the problem here is that several, er, problems, have come to a head.

      Let’s not have a go at the residents of Porson Road for turning up to a public meeting to see if they could make a difference through democratic channels, rather than sitting at home and grumbling or taking matters into their own hands. I haven’t been there for a couple of years, but I know that in the past, just one car parked in the wrong place at the Trumpington Road end (and there usually was one) would create gridlock at the end of the school day, causing traffic to back up down Trumpington Road with appalling knock-on effects, especially on buses. Just 25m of yellow lines would have solved this, but it was never going to happen while parking restrictions are under the control of a county council obsessed with ensuring that the streets of Cambridge are “an amenity” for the residents of Wisbech and Chatteris when they come here to work or play.

      I don’t believe the residents of Porson Road came to the South Area Committee meeting expecting to cause any trouble. However, like almost every group or individual with an issue who comes to these meetings for the first time, they assumed – wrongly – that it is a forum for problems to be aired in a civil manner and solutions discussed. In reality, it’s nothing of the sort – the Area Committee meeting is just a meeting of councillors at which the public is invited to observe. Unfortunately, the public speaking slot tacked awkwardly on the front gives the public the idea that they’re being invited to get involved with local decision making, and understandably they get annoyed when they discover that’s not the case. Some will be brave enough to stand up and express their irritation; I don’t think this makes them a “mob”. Others, like the children who have been brought along to South Area Committee meetings to make points twice in the past year, will just troop off home thinking: “that seemed like a waste of time”. (It was.)

      The problem with Area Committee meetings, and indeed many of the problems of local government, could be solved simply with better communication. The public doesn’t know what Area Committee meetings are, how they work, and the limits of public involvement. The public doesn’t understand the difference between the city council and the county council, and what each one does. If they did, they might want to change the system. It wouldn’t be expensive to educate the public, but the self-interest of the political parties means that retaining the mystique is essential.

      1. anadapter

        I have to say Chris, that may well be correct for the South Area Committee but West/Central is entirely open to contributions from the public and these are taken up by councillors. That they are mostly Lib Dem councillors may, or may not, have something to do with that. The council/a.n. other needs to work at making them more accessible in terms of information about meetings and perhaps the style of them too.

        But I would have thought that if a public speaker has got things totally wrong (ie misunderstood or wrongly assumed something) then it is in everyone’s interests for that to be corrected. A minor point is not worth bothering with (we can all make minor errors after all) but something more weighty is.

      2. Richard Taylor Article author

        Sometimes an area committee can be open to public contributions; other times they are not. It appears to be to be down to chance. Often public speaking rules are made up by chairs on the spot.

        Sometimes public speakers are taken on agenda items other than the public forum; sometimes they are not.

      3. Edward

        I don’t think the idea that anybody benefits from the confusion really makes sense.

        If people don’t know the difference between the city and county councils, they’re going to blame city councillors when the county council screws up (and vice versa, though for reasons of political balance the former will be more common). If people don’t understand what area committees are, come along and get annoyed by them, nobody really gains from that feeling of alienation. And if you spend your time on casework for the things you can fix, you don’t really want to be damned for things you have no control over.

        I think there probably are things you can do to clarify the role of area committees, such as getting the chair to explain their function at the start of every meeting and making an effort to welcome new attendees individually. But four decades of trying still hasn’t made most of the public understand the difference between district and county councils and if you read the responses to any consultation, you’ll see that a non-zero number of respondents who really don’t understand what they’re being asked to respond to, because they haven’t read the supporting documentation properly. The basic problem is that people are not interested enough in local government to invest the time to want to learn how the system works. You won’t get real understanding of how the system works until people truly think learning about it is worth their time. That’s not a problem with a single, simple answer.

      4. anadapter

        (I’m assuming that by replying to Chris’ post, this will come under Edward’s.)

        Good points and true. It should however, make a.n. other or the council work at resolving those problems, not throwing it’s hands up and saying we can’t do this any more let’s abandon the idea of any kind of area committee. As Chris say, better communication (and _maybe_ a bit of re-branding so people have an idea from the names of the meetings what it’s about) would help a lot.

    5. Joe

      When officers at County Council compile a list of proposed schemes they do so with knowledge of general cost benefit and greatest need. This requirement has been previously expressed by either inspection from officers, views of elected councillors & occasionally pressure groups or from a tabulated priority list. At this point, elected councillors are able to lobby for their favourite scheme provided that an election is not imminent. The information is always freely available on the County Intranet site.

      For Cllr Amanda Taylor and a prospective parliamentry candidate to suggest that Cycling officer Mike Davies has exceeded his brief is duplicitous and mendacious. Furthermore, it is the head of department at the County who has the final say, depending on the value of the scheme.

    6. Richard Taylor Article author

      There is more commentary on Chris Rand’s website, including in the comments there:

      Commenter David Blake has written:

      I came away from the meeting thinking are The Councils and the Councillors really as incompetent as they came across at the meeting? I will attend the next meeting if only to see if it is also a shambles. I hope that putting more of a spotlight on the probably well meaning but amateurish Councillors, will get them to raise their game.

      Chris Rand has written:

      the Liberal Democrat councillors looked quite out of their depth at times. I’m not blaming either side – these are good people doing their best – but the whole system needs a thorough shakeup. Sadly, it’s not going to happen while local government remains the plaything of political parties and excludes the vast amount of talent out there which would love to help run the city, but doesn’t have any interest in political tribalism.

    7. Chris Howell

      Richard – As you know I am a Conservative Party supporter, but having just watched Heidi Allen’s contribution to the meeting (thanks for the recording!), for what its worth I think your comments about Heidi are ludicrous. This is a candidate for a parliamentary seat that currently has a huge Conservative majority, who has turned up to a local meeting affecting 3 wards, only one of which is in South Cambs parliamentary constituency, who says ‘I’ve come here to listen and learn’, ‘I’m not that political when it comes to local issues’ and then proceeds to demonstrate how she is prepared to show community leadership and work with others to try contributing to solving a local issue that many in her position would think is beneath them. I don’t have a track record of defending Conservatives who don’t deserve it, but personally I think it is fantastically encouraging that Heidi is engaged at this level – would you really prefer she only engaged in national politics, and treated everything like a party political issue where her only role is to defend the party line and not engage in the issue? – goodness knows we have enough MPs that act like that already.

      1. Richard Taylor Article author

        I thought it was excellent the Conservative candidate turned up. “I’ve come here to listen and learn” is obviously a positive thing for the candidate to have said.

        As I’ve indicated however I thought it arrogant of a mere candidate to presume to summon county council directors to a meeting and to effectively start giving directions to our elected local councillors.

        The candidate’s statement suggested support for a role for party politics nationally. My impression that an attempt was made to say ~”I don’t do party politics”; which is very cynical and misleading for a party member expecting to become an MP and who if elected will become a Conservative MP.

      2. Chris Rand

        From somebody who isn’t a supporter of the Conservative (or indeed any!) party, I would like to echo the comments above. It was both surprising and hugely welcome to see Ms Allen at the meeting. At odds of 1/33, we all know she is going to be the next MP for the constituency in which Queen Edith’s finds itself, so there’s no political need for her to get involved in our local affairs at this stage. It was instantly clear to her (as it is to anyone who observes our local decision-making) that people need to start communicating, and all she did was to offer her services in facilitating that, as someone who might be listened to. I don’t see this as in any way presumptuous or arrogant. Her comment about “not doing party politics” in local matters appeared to me to be saying: “it shouldn’t matter which little gang made which decision, let’s just sort out the best way forward”. And amen to that.

      3. Richard Taylor Article author

        That anyone would consider a candidate someone who ought be listened to (not only listened to but given access at the highest level) is something which concerns me.

        We had something similar with the establishment presuming the conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner was going to win the election and arranging media interviews for after the count – something they did not do for all candidates. I think it’s really important that we don’t second guess the outcomes of elections. Anyone can win in South Cambs, and everywhere else.

        Perhaps if there had been an explanation as to why the candidate thinks the little gangs matter on a national basis that would have helped interpret her comments.

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