The big ‘set piece’ meetings in the civic year are not my natural territory. In last year’s blog about the meeting of the City Council which sets the annual budget, I wrote: “Good people, who could and should be working together for the benefit of residents, instead spend time and effort knocking verbal lumps off each other to demonstrate how much better they are than the other side and to generate fodder for election material.”
Having sat through that meeting last year, at least I was better prepared for how events would unfold this time.
The meeting is actually held over two evenings, a week apart:
- 23 February: Public questions to Executive Councillors and four finance-related items (Housing Revenue Account Budget, Capital Strategy, Treasury Management Strategy, General Fund Budget). Started at 6pm; finished at 11.30pm.
- 2 March: More public questions; staff-related items including the review of the Senior Management structure; oral questions from councillors to the Executive; and the five motions raised by councillors for debate. Started at 6pm; finished at 10pm.
All such meetings are live streamed on the City Council’s YouTube channel. You might like to try it once, just to get a flavour of these events, although it is definitely a minority interest. I checked midway through Thursday’s session and 9 people were watching.
Obviously it would be a challenge to condense 9 ½ hours’ discussion into this one blog post, so instead I will pick out a few key points for reflection.
I’d be interested to know whether those members of the public posing questions feel the process delivers a worthwhile outcome. Of course there is value in getting a response ‘on the record’ but it’s definitely the case that the same individuals return and the same topics are raised time and again.
I admire the dedication of the questioners to their respective causes, but the rigid pre-defined structure makes it feel more like a game of cat-and-mouse than an opportunity for genuinely furthering understanding. I was pleased to hear Cllr Mark Ashton, who was chairing the meeting, encouraging questioners to engage with Executive Councillors outside of these formal set piece meetings. If you are interested in asking a question at a future meeting, you can do so virtually via Microsoft Teams, or by attending to speak in person, though you need to register at least two days in advance.
Oral questions from councillors
Here, councillors can question the Executive Councillors (starting on page 8). The outcome is not quite as manufactured as Prime Minister’s Questions (“Does the Honourable Member agree that the government is doing a fantastic/deplorable job on x subject?”) but let’s just say it doesn’t tend to shed much new light.
The Budget debate
The format for this item is that the ruling party presents a recommended budget, to which other parties/groups can propose amendments. The very detailed draft budget has been in the public domain since early December, so there’s been plenty of time to go through it and propose amendments. However, given the current numerical dominance of Labour Party councillors, it was shrinkingly unlikely from the outset that any such changes would ever be adopted.
That said, it still seemed like an opportunity to present some new thinking, and that’s what we tried to do with our Green and Independent Group amendment. As a bit of scene-setting, there are a couple of important points to remember:
- The Green Party’s councillors and I are an unwhipped administrative group, not a political group.
- We regard ourselves as an ‘independent group’, not an opposition group.
So our amendment was a reflection of our shared interests rather than an attempt to challenge the whole budget, and focused on two elements which we felt were of particular significance:
- The future of the city’s Market.
- Alternative ways of delivering effective and cost-efficient local democratic engagement.
I’m willing to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that I don’t think we got this quite right. Certainly my pitch for more funding for the market was insufficiently developed; and I can see now that trying to use the budget debate to prompt a discussion about problems with our democratic structures was never likely to work.
However, I’m then left with the problem of trying to see how suggestions from outside the ruling group can ever be incorporated into the Council’s thinking. Moreover, there was a recurrent theme this year of “You could do X” being met with “We’re already doing it”. But if that’s not being communicated beyond the ruling group of councillors, how would anyone know? Maybe it will all make more sense by the time we go round this loop again next year.
Motions and amendments
Motions can be a really important way of signalling solidarity across all parties, and three of the five motions presented to this Council meeting fell into that category, being unanimously supported across the chamber:
- A Labour party motion (9a) on protecting workers’ right to strike.
- A Liberal Democrat party motion (9d), seconded by Labour, offering support following the earthquakes which has struck Turkey and Syria.
- A Labour motion (9e), seconded by the Lib Dems, criticising the new requirements for voter photo ID being brought in for the May 2023 elections.
However, the other two motions stirred up a hornet’s nest.
Motion 9c came from Green Councillors Howard and Bennett. It proposed that the City Council should write to the GCP, pointing out that the City Council has declared a Cost of Living Emergency and hence asking that whatever comes out of the Sustainable Travel Zone consultation should pay “particular consideration to the economic impact on city residents, city businesses and city commuters”. This was met with a joint Labour/Lib Dem amendment which struck through every single word of the Green motion and replaced it with something which was very similar in intent, but more explicit in support of improved public transport and in its belief in the robustness of the GCP’s equality assessments. There was then the predictable grandstanding but also more valuable and nuanced discussion around social justice and environmental justice and how possible it will be to keep these concerns balanced.
I took the opportunity to raise a specific point about the impact of the uneven distribution of facilities of all sorts around the city, and how that then influences transport decisions. For example, the 2021 Census data shows that in central areas of the city, nearly 60% of households assessed as being ‘deprived in three dimensions’ don’t own cars; but in areas of Queen Edith’s with the same or higher level of deprivation, only 20% of households don’t own cars.
I would like to see some detailed work done on the reasons for that discrepancy, but I’d expect that, at least in part, it’s because there are far fewer retail, leisure and community facilities available in the outlying suburbs – it might be difficult for councillors in central wards to understand the implications of there being only one pub in the whole of Queen Edith’s ward for example! I’ve emphasised before how reducing car journeys in the city requires reconsideration of not only transport options but also planning and land use to deliver liveable neighbourhoods. But there’s nothing in the current STZ proposals which addresses this point.
As we all know, the STZ proposals have provoked very strong feelings, both for and against, and all the political parties are going to step very carefully around this topic as we go into May’s local elections, to manage their internal divisions as much as to avoid inflaming the electorate. The amendment was passed by the Labour/Lib Dem majority, but I don’t think it was coincidental that some members left the chamber just before the vote was taken.
Motion 9d came from Lib Dem Councillors Payne and Bick. It asked for a commitment that marketing of properties built by the Cambridge Investment Partnership (a joint venture between the Council and Hill) would not be targeted at ‘overseas property investors’. It represented a continuation of an ongoing dispute between the Lib Dems and Labour which was originally triggered by reports last year that properties on CIP’s Ironworks and Millworks sites were being marketed in the Far East. This was met with a Labour amendment which sought to emphasise that the market focus for CIP properties is already, and will be continue to be, on “purchasers planning to live or work in Greater Cambridge, whether they be from the UK or elsewhere”.
I found it a very uncomfortable debate to observe. Labour councillors were clearly frustrated by the continued suggestion that CIP properties are being sold to investment purchasers, and explained again the safeguards put in place which they are confident will manage that risk. Several individuals also spoke passionately about fears that the Lib Dem narrative is likely to promote hostility and xenophobia within the city. In response, the Lib Dems protested that the motion had no measure of racism, but was an appropriate and necessary questioning of the use of council funds. Again, numbers meant that it was inevitable from the outset that the Labour amendment would be carried – I just wish the debate could have been conducted in a less rancorous way.
The timing of these meetings, barely a month before the official council election campaign season opens, means that the parties are already scenting blood. There were plenty of scathing comments about “generating leaflet fodder” in response to accusations of “shameless” behaviour. I continue to believe very strongly in encouraging public engagement with local democracy, but sadly these meetings just don’t seem like a productive route to achieving that.