Someone posted on my Twitter account this week: “Thank you for going (to all these meetings) so we don’t have to”.
No problem, but I would still encourage you all to get involved in the nuts and bolts of local democracy, wherever you can. There are some complex trade-offs involved in shaping the future of our neighbourhood. I hope that by consistently reporting what goes on, I can not only give you the useful, concrete information that comes out of these meetings, but also a sense of how they work and how we can influence the debate.
Is it a climate emergency, or not?
The first meeting was an online public event about the various changes being made along our end of the A1307, from Addenbrooke’s roundabout out to the A11. It was good to see that Babraham Road residents were well represented on the call.
Factual information included confirmation that the Granhams roadworks will be completed in early June; and that the 30mph speed limit sign will be relocated further south of the Granhams junction to slow traffic down as it approaches the city. The plans to relocate the Nightingale Ave/Hills Road pedestrian crossing have been ditched and the existing crossing will be refurbished.
Beyond this, some familiar themes were revisited. If the ambition is to encourage more people to walk/cycle to the Campus, is enough priority being given to creating properly attractive infrastructure? Or are we going to get months of disruption for a series of half-baked compromises?
I asked questions about the demand forecasting that’s been done. Will a 3m, unsegregated, shared-use path really be sufficient to cope with possible usage? Apparently it will. But I remain unconvinced.
I also asked why, given that all of our Councils have declared a climate emergency, the tree planting on the revised Granham’s junction is only being done on a like-for-like basis, rather than using this opportunity to add more tree cover which would be good for the environment – and for the residents of Ninewells, who have reported a big increase in noise since the original hedges and trees were removed. I was told this was down to reluctance on the part of the County Council to take on responsibility for more tree management.
Matt Danish from CamCycle asked some valid questions about whether there is going to be a bike detection loop to help cyclists cross the junction quickly at Wort’s Causeway (“no”) and why the crossing at Nightingale Avenue isn’t being moved to minimise conflict with pedestrians (“too difficult …”).
This all brings me back to ‘Joined Up Thinking’. Either we are responding to a climate emergency – or we’re not. Either we are building future-proof infrastructure to attract people out of their cars – or we’re not.
If we’re not, then the constant disruption of roadworks around our neighbourhood is nothing more than expensive theatre, and that doesn’t sit very comfortably with me, particularly when set alongside the reality of the Campus’s and the city’s growth.
East West Rail: fundamental questions unanswered
The second online meeting was a presentation by East West Rail to councillors across the likely southern route, as part of their ‘consultation’ process which closes on 9th June. This is becoming an increasingly contentious project because of the local environmental and social impacts, including lengths of 10m high embankment through the southern villages which will sever road access.
In our area, there are implications for land take (‘four-tracking’ the existing line, with implications for Nine Wells nature reserve and Hobson’s Park); the necessary scale of Cambridge South station; and the small matter of the demolition and reconstruction of the bridge over the railway on Long Road.
However, what I find most worrying is that this consultation is going ahead without East West Rail being able to answer some fundamental questions about the project, including why there can’t be a guarantee that the line won’t carry diesel traffic, and what the projections are for freight usage.
Several councillors commented on a lack of trust in the consultation process. Without this detail, we are effectively being ‘consulted’ about the colour of the lipstick on the pig. There are legal guidelines about how consultation should be managed – the Gunning Principles – and we need to keep the pressure up on all the various bodies ‘consulting’ with us on projects. to make sure that what they are offering us complies with those.
Predictable party lines
The third meeting was my first full City Council meeting on Thursday. This takes place at least five times a year. The meeting was convened at the Corn Exchange (see photo) to allow for social distancing. It included ceremonial aspects (congratulations to Mayor Russ McPherson and Deputy Mayor Mark Ashton, both from Cherry Hinton) and also some welcome opening comments by both Labour Party and Liberal Democrat leaders about listening to new voices and working in partnership. So far, so good.
When we delved into the business of the meeting, there were many questions, both from members of the public and from councillors. These covered the future of the market and the Market Square, including the legitimacy of the current consultation; and aspects of environmental best practice, including herbicide use and mowing regimes. It was hard to see how the question-and-answer format really advanced understanding of the issues, as it ran on very predictable party lines.
There were also two ‘Motions’, or formal proposals to Council for adoption. The Green Party councillors proposed that the Council should explicitly support the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill being presented to Parliament, as this would be consistent with its declarations of a climate emergency (February 2019) and biodiversity emergency (May 2019). The ruling Labour group responded with its own significantly amended motion, which was passed with Labour councillors in support, and Green, Lib Dem and Independent (i.e. me) councillors voting against.
Normally, the minutes of the meeting would only record the total numbers for and against. However, the Green councillors invoked an infrequently-used protocol which required a ‘roll call’ record of the way in which every individual councillor voted. This seemed to cause some disquiet among the Labour group, but I can’t see any reason why this shouldn’t be done as a matter of routine (as it is in Parliament) to enhance transparency and accountability.
This links in with the other motion, by Labour, which was to keep the most local level of democracy in Cambridge, the Area Committees, operating online till the end of 2021. This format has allowed more people to participate over the last year. The Queen Edith’s Community Forum in particular has encouraged people to get involved with the South Area Committee meetings which cover Queen Edith’s, Trumpington and Cherry Hinton.
However, the price of continuing to operate online is that, due to a recent central government policy change, such meetings cannot be decision-making meetings. This means that South Area Committee will now be stripped of the already limited decision-making powers which it had, relating to environmental, policing and local grant-funding priorities. Bear in mind that the meeting’s remit is also limited by geography; for example, it is not possible for South Area Committee to have a presentation on the market or the city centre, as these places fall within the geography of the West-Central Area Committee. It doesn’t matter that developments in those areas may be highly relevant to many people in the south of the city.
So to my mind we are now left with a gap when it comes to building participation and involvement. If we are in a world where consultations are meaningless tick-box exercises; where discussion in Council is dictated by party and protocol; and where local democratic channels are circumscribed and toothless, then how do we make sure that the voices of local residents are heard in the big discussions about the future of our neighbourhood and our city? Let me know what would work for you.
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Thanks Sam – the outcomes of the meetings are both interesting and unsurprising in equal measure. The lack of joined up thinking should be a cause for despair but has somehow become the norm, to the point where we’re almost desensitised to its ludicrousness and inefficiency. In the vision for the expansion of the Biomedical Campus, there’s a proposal to turn the very road that the’re spending thousands on redeveloping the junction for (and causing substantial disruption to facilitate) into a cycle/pedestrian route.
Like you, I despair for the future of the Ninewells nature reserve – squeezed by Campus expansion, railway stations and potential line upgrades. Even if the physical space somehow remains, I can’t believe it’ll manage to keep the wildlife that it was intended to protect.
I think ensuring that voting records are public should be an absolute minimum requirement for transparency. I believe that the Planning Committe voting records are equally unrecorded, which exposes it to risk of vested interests, bias and potential abuse.
I echo the message from the earlier Tweet of thanks for your diligence in attending these meetings. I am also grateful that I don’t have to sit through them!
Such a clear summary Sam – thank you. I was so encouraged by those climate and biodiversity declarations but have seen them crumble under the forward momentum of infrastructure plans. Grateful for anything you can do to have climate and biodiversity properly considered up front as the first screens in local planning not reduced to token ‘mitigation’ add-ons. Truly green infrastructure and a local nature network for starters
Thank you also for the ‘lipstick on a pig’ analogy; having followed several ‘consultations’ closely I can’t shake the feeling that we are often being asked which shade of lipstick we mind least.
I’m glad you liked the analogy Ros – though I do wish I’d had no cause to come up with it
Thank you Sam for adopting this form of information. Most helpful.
Thank you to much for sharing the workings of our council and making the info easily accessible. I think the recording of individual councillors votes are essential. This is fundamental to open government and will increase accountability.
As to your question. I am thinking about it and will respond.
I am also very grateful to you.
Thank you very much for the information you have presented – appreciated!
Thank you Sam, this very informative summary is most welcome and I do so agree with the opinions you have expressed. Anything you can do to enforce recording of individual Councillor’s votes would be more than welcome. Congratulations and best wishes.
Your format for keeping us all properly, appropriately and very regularly informed on the nuances of council policy, the often idiotic processes and decisions, or non decisions, of council policy (often implicating the Cnty Cncl too) and the very many important questions that are raised, but too often not answered, is so hugely welcome.
For the first time in years and years and years of following local newspapers, reading and listening as widely as I can to a range of local information sources and trying to understand just what is going on at a local government level, I at last have a much clearer picture because of your clear and thoughtful analysis, based on participation, observation, evidence and questioning of the status quo together with your huge practical experience of what community really means.
Thank you very much for what I know is really hard and time consuming work on behalf of all of us. It is greatly appreciated.
Thank you Margaret for those very generous comments.
Thank you. Really appreciated that report and its clarity. Look forward to further help in understanding what is going on.
Thank you to much for sharing the workings of our council. Snd making the info easily accessible
I think the recording of individual councillors votes are essential. This is fundamental to open government. And will increase accountability.
As to your question. I am thinking about it and will respond.
I am also very grateful to you.
Just to add my 2d …. and thanks for the blog post, it’s a huge commitment but immensely valuable – thank you.
Transparency of decision making should be a “given” – echoing Jeremy’s point – I’m surprised it’s a “infrequently used protocol”, naively expecting the opposite to be the case! This would go a long way to encouraging participation and involvement.
Thank goodness we’ve at last got a councillor who tells us what’s going on – and so clearly and articulately. I agree with others that the roll-call recording of councillors’ votes should be routine.