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.
- 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.
- Councillors were heckled by the public who called them jokers and called the committee’s operation a joke. One man exclaimed “bloody twerps”.
- One councillor appeared to equate those who cycle on pavements with terrorists. (Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration – he said older youths cycling on pavements terrorise younger children cycling on pavements)
- Councillors decided to discount county councillor’s votes on the 20 MPH zones, despite the county councillors being those elected to deal with highways matters.
- Councillors treated the results of consultations on the 20 MPH zones as mini-referendums without having announced their intention to do that in advance.
- The area committee supported a 20MPH limit for Queen Edith’s Road on the back of just two votes; with all other councillors abstaining – shying away from coming to a view.
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:
Unfortunately many people here don't realise that public are merely tolerated, and are usually ignored, at Area Committee meetings.
— Chris Rand (@ChrisRandWrites) February 2, 2015
— Sam Davies (@Sam_in_Cam) February 2, 2015