On the 24th of September 2010 I observed, and filmed, a meeting of the Cambridge City Council Executive.
- Some councillors are very uncomfortable with having their meetings filmed.
- There is massive uncertainty about how much money the City Council will have in the future.
- Cambridge City Council wants to raise a hyperlocal tax to fund improvements to Regent Street and Hills Road if the government allows it.
- The council’s climate change fund has been a massive success, the ~£250,000 invested (and that word can genuinely be used here) is to be repaid to the council finances from savings made from energy efficiency etc. within 2.7 years.
- The council plans to “deal with pressures early” and start cutting spending by 6% in 2011/12.
- City Council officers (Rangers?) are to get powers to deal with verge parking.
- The council’s Environmental Improvements Programme and refurbishments of public toilets are as yet unfunded from 2011 onwards.
- Despite the tight budgets, the city council is looking to spend more money on trees.
Meetings of the Executive
Only two meetings of the executive are formally held, in public and minuted, every year however the existence of regular secret meetings of the Executive, with senior council officers in attendance, has been revealed in public by ex-council leader Ian Nimmo-Smith and confirmed by a, refused, FOI request I made for details of those meetings.
Under the city council’s protocol on media relations and filming, recording and photography at council meetings. On the 18th of September I submitted a request to film all city council meetings. Prior to the executive meeting, I advised the council’s Chief Executive, who appeared to be acting as the committee manager at that point, of where I had set up my camera and the fact I had made an application to film, but had not yet had a response from the chair. I noted that I expected, according to the protocol, to be given either permission or a reason for refusal.
It is up to the chairs of individual meetings to decide if they are going to allow their meetings to be filmed. This was the third Cambridge City Council meeting to be filmed. At the planning committee the previous week the chair, Cllr Dixon, gave permission in advance. At the West / Central area committee, permission was also granted in advance but filming was not permitted until after the committee itself agreed to allow it. The chair of the Executive, council leader Sian Reid, claimed to have been unaware of my request to film prior to the meeting.
I believe that a huddle comprising Cllr Reid, Cllr Cantrill and the City Council’s Chief Executive Antoinette Jackson held just before the meeting started was debating if I should be permitted to film. While I cannot be sure of the context, I heard Cllr Cantrill address that discussion stating: “this is getting out of hand”. Cllr Cantrill, along with other Liberal Democrats appear to be uneasy about the recording of city council meetings, despite the protocol permitting filming having been approved by the full council. As the councillors decided to hold their discussion at the side of the committee room, and not at the committee table using their microphones it is hard to be sure what they were talking about, at one point Cllr Reid said: “we’re not going to allow this”, I got the impression she was referring to my request to film all council meetings.
The 24th September meeting of the executive started with Cllr Reid giving permission for filming. Cllr Reid reported to the executive that concerns had been raised at a meeting the previous day about the camera being panned. (This was something I had discussed the day before the meeting with the committee manager, and was something the chair appeared happy with).
The meeting proper was about to get underway when Cllr Cantrill asked me to confirm that I had not filmed anything prior to the meeting. I suspect he may have been worried that I would have recorded both his contribution to the huddle, and a bizarre outburst he made just before the meeting where he aggressively told me to stop looking at is laptop. I was doing no such thing, I was many metres away and merely making a note of which council officers were due to attend and where they were going to be sitting – as indicated by their name plates which are placed perpendicular to the public seating area so can only be viewed by the public by venturing into the committee room.
Cllr Cantrill also asked me to confirm that I was not live-streaming the video feed. He noted that the previous evening one of his fellow councillors (Liberal Democrat Belinda Brooks-Gordon) had raised a concern about this (she claimed live broadcasting would give burglars an opportunity to target the homes of those shown to be at the meeting). The previous evening I had thought Brooks-Gordon was a lone loon; I was surprised to see Cllr Cantrill follow up on the same tack.
The Medium Term Strategy
The City Council’s Director of Finance David Horspool introduced the council’s proposed Medium Term Financial Strategy 2010.
The council is currently planning based on an assumption its central government funding will be cut by 30% over the next four years. There is a great deal of uncertainty though, and a variety of possible projections were presented to councillors in what Mr Horspool described as a “fan diagram”:
The details of any central government cut affecting the City Council’s funding are expected to be announced on the 20 October 2010 in a report of a Comprehensive Spending Review the Government is conducting. This will affect the funding the council gets for the financial year 2011-2012. At the moment council is making an educated guess based what was said in the coalition’s emergency budget and the levels of cuts central Government departments appear to be contemplating as well as other sources of hints as to what might happen to local government grants eg. the content of consultations.
As well as amount of the main central government grant called the “Formula Grant”; funding for the concessionary fares scheme is also a large cause of uncertainty. This is the grant which pays for free travel for those over sixty and some disabled people. The problem is that the authority charged is the authority where journeys start so Cambridge, as a regional centre and tourist centre, ends up paying for a lot of visitors to return home. Cambridge’s MP David Howarth and representatives of residents from other places similarly affected succeeded in eventually getting the Government to cover some this cost to the council (The Government covered £1.31m of a cost to the city of around £1.9m), but the settlement was for one year only and not promised into the future.
The new Government is expected to make concessionary fares a County Council, responsibility, though no decision has yet been made. The City Council are planning for the future based on an assumption that they only have to continue to make a contribution of £600,000 per year to support this scheme, but this is a major source of uncertainty.
Hopefully the LibDems running the city council are talking to the city’s LibDem MP Julian Huppert to ensure Cambridge City Council is treated fairly by this, and other changes in the upcoming months.
City Fringes Growth
Other points which the director of finance drew attention to included the £1m a year which the city was spending to support the growth of the city fringes, this is spent on extra planning and development staff in the council as well as external consultants. The strategy report recommends to councillors that the extra staff posts be kept for a further 12-month period.
Dealing With Pressures Early
Mr Horspool’s proposed strategy was to “try and deal with the pressures early on”, he referred councillors to a graph showing proposed savings on a year by year basis:
This graph shows a ~£2m (~6%) cut to spending from the General Fund in 2011/12; followed by a cut of ~3% the following year, ~4% the next and a cut of about 5.5% in 2014/15. (Overall this amounts to of 17.3% over the four years). The General Fund is in effect everything which isn’t either related to council housing or capital. From 2015 onwards the council plans to continue to cut costs at almost 3% per year.
The current proposals include a “Priority Policy Fund” of £500,000 per year; which councillors can direct the spending in relation to; as I understand it, it was suggested this could be not spent if required to achieve a balanced budget. I think that the point may be that the fund can be considered to some extent a buffer, and given it doesn’t have to be spent, and can be disregarded to a degree when it comes to assessing if the budget is balanced or not.
Housing Revenue Account
There is also great uncertainty in the “Housing Revenue Account” due to the awaited national review of council housing finance. The government is expected scrap the current inter-council subsidy system which sees money taken from Cambridge to fund housing elsewhere in the country but it is not yet known what it will be replaced with.
Use of Reserves
The strategy presented to councillors involves continuing spending some of the council’s reserves on projects which were expected to create long term savings such as the customer service centre.
Mr Horspool explained the drop in the General fund reserve below the target level was planned, and was a result of this strategy.
Review of Capital Programmes
The only hint in the verbal report of where cuts might fall came on p.127 with a list of approved capital programmes. This showed that no funding for new cycleways and bus shelters had been approved for after 2012; and the following programmes had not yet been allocated any funding from the 2011/12 financial year onwards:
- City Centre Management Programme
- Safer City Programme
- Environmental Improvements Programme
- Environmental Safety Fund
- Public Conveniences
- Local Nature Conservation
This doesn’t mean spending in these areas will be cut, but that the spending has not yet been approved. With respect to Environmental Improvements officer reports to area committees have been clear that there is no guarantee this scheme will continue.
Later in the report the council shows it is aware that some of the public toilets it runs, such as those on Jesus Green, require investment as they are not currently of an acceptable standard. I note that the report states capital investment is needed to tackle public urination in the city centre in the evenings. Personally I cannot see how opening the city council’s toilets later (despite being unmanned and electronically operated they currently close at 20.00), requires capital investment.
Tax Investment Financing
“Tax Investment Financing” was the way Mr Horspool introduced the Tax Increment Financing scheme, which involves an extra tax on those running businesses in a particular area in order to fund improvements. Councillors were told that a scheme was in place and ready to go should the Government allow such projects. I believe this is the proposal relating to the approach to the city from the station, involving widening the pavements on Regent Street and Hills Road and putting trees and cycle parking in the middle of Hills Road. The proposal appears to be remove the bus lanes and have the busses and other traffic together; something I am concerned will seriously increase bus journey times.
I observed the detailed proposals when they were presented to the Environment Scrutiny Committee on the 6th of October 2009. The presentation given to that committee is available on the City Council website.
I think hyper-localised taxation for improvements to the this approach to the city is manifestly unfair as it is something the whole city will benefit from.
I have previously noted my concern that Love Cambridge is seeking a role in spending the money raised from any business rate supplement. This is an unelected and unaccountable body; this would be a step far too far for the empire building of the council officer Emma Thornton who is charged with running it. No taxation without representation is a pretty sound mantra here. The fact its being considered as part of the city council’s future financial planning, and not its arms-length spin-out is a good thing.
The council’s strategy involves allocating another £250,000 to its “Climate Change Fund”. While the Lib Dem’s spending of their previously allocated pot was initially very slow, they have now identified more projects than they can fund with the existing £250,000 they have for schemes which “contribute towards energy and fuel efficiency, sustainable transport, waste minimisation or management of climate change risks.” The £218,672 spent so far is producing savings of £79,678 per year; so if the council’s figures are reliable and honest this shows the scheme to have been a fantastic success; and as long as all the low hanging fruit hasn’t already been taken and the future schemes are expected to be as good as what has gone before putting more money towards this fund looks like a very sensible economic (as well as political) move. Again the principle here is to spend from the council’s reserves in a hope of making that money work for the council and more than paying for itself over quite a short time period.
There are over 30,000 trees within the City and a routine inspection and maintenance programme has been identified which will require additional funding and will be the subject of a budget bid during the 2011/12 budget process.
This backs up the statement made by Cllr Cantrill the day before at the West/Central area committee to seek more funds for the city’s trees. Cllr Reid asked if the 30,000 was all the trees in the city or just those the city owns. Cllr Cantrill reported the city owns about 17K trees, and if the highways trees which the county owns but are managed by the city are added in that takes the number to around 30,000.
There is no projected no rise for 2011/2012 and 2% rises for the following three years. This is in response to the Government announcement in the budget that it will work with local councils to freeze council tax. This will cost Cambridge City Council £239,270; and they don’t yet know if the Government will cover this.
Rangers to Get New Powers?
A pilot scheme is proposed to ensure compliance with the legislation by a fixed term additional enforcement officer to the team. The funding is available through a combination of the carry forward of verge parking, additional income through Fixed Penalty Notices and contribution from strategy budgets. As a result of the Council’s ‘Excellent’ status the use of the receipts is under the direction of the Executive Councillor for Environmental Services.
The budget for 2010/11 reflects the financial support to retain one Ranger. This support will be reviewed for the 2011/12 budget process.
While I support the enforcement of verge parking; this does appear at a my first glance to be an admission by the City that the transfer of Local Authority Parking Enforcement to the County Council has not worked; as we’ve lost local democratic influence within the city over how it operates and what it does.
Cambridge City Council has to-date avoided giving any of its rangers powers to give fines and other policing powers. It also avoided doing what other councils did elsewhere and didn’t give the rangers police like powers. I’m concerned that this might be the thin end of the wedge in reversing this and we could in the near future see City Council rangers given all sorts of policing powers.
The last sentence of that section may indicate that the city council’s ranger force is to be reduced to one. If that is to be the case I think that is understandable given the way the council has been under-utilising the existing staff to-date but is disappointing as the potential for the rangers to rapidly respond to local concerns and ensure councillors have a route to getting action on a wide range of small matters quickly addressed.
No councillors asked any questions on this section of the report; and I am merely raising questions on the council’s proposals here myself; I have no further details than the two paragraphs quoted above and they could relate to a wide range of possible intentions.
No opposition councillors at all attended this very key strategy meeting.
I suspect there may be two reasons for this; one being the level of uncertainty meaning engagement at this point in the process is unlikely to achieve anything; it will be much better to wait a few months and see what position the council is actually in. The other reason is that some opposition councillors appear believe there not much point the opposition having their say at an Executive meeting; much greater impact is achieved by raising their criticisms, and suggestions for alternatives, at Full Council.
Liberal Democrats Pitt, Bick and Blair made no contribution at all to the meeting other than to vote.
For some reason Cllr Smart requested separate votes on each section of the report; but the Executive councillors all unanimously approved the entire strategy.
The video at the top of this article is the entire meeting, minus only the officer introduction of the strategy.
At the end of the meeting Council Leader Cllr Reid approached Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News and thanked him for attending.