Sam Davies

This week has not been good for my blood pressure! (Your Councillor, week 8)

News this week of King’s College’s sudden restrictions on the use of Grantchester Meadows, and the rubber-stamping of the continued development of the busway through the Green Belt to the south of Queen Edith’s. But first, let’s venture to the Corn Exchange on a Tuesday night for a committee meeting…

Having participated in four hours of training provided by the Local Government Association about how Overview and Scrutiny committees are supposed to operate, it was eye-opening to attend my first Planning and Transport Scrutiny Committee session on Tuesday.  You can see the agenda here – it comprised a mixture of summaries of past activity; proposals for future policy; and records of decisions taken by the Executive Councillor, Katie Thornburrow, outside the committee cycle.

Note that seats on Scrutiny Committees are allocated in proportion to overall council seats held, so on ‘P&T Scrutiny’ there are five Labour councillors, three Lib Dems and one Independent/Green (me). The other scrutiny committees, which follow the same composition, are Housing (where the Ind/Green group representative is Cllr Bennett) and Environment and Communities (Cllr Copley).

Some aspects of the conduct of the meeting left me pondering how this is all supposed to work.

  • Given that all public questions have to be submitted in advance, why is the text of them not made available to committee members? With the awful acoustics in the Corn Exchange, I struggled to hear some of the questions and the responses.
  • Only some of the pre-submitted public questions got asked if the questioner didn’t attend in person. I couldn’t discern the process used to decide which got read by the committee manager, and which were ignored. I assume there is one?
  • Do all public questioners understand the scope and powers of the committee? For example, Cllr Thornburrow was unable to respond to one question because it was tied too closely to a specific current planning application.
  • How can we make these processes more accessible to a wider population? It was noticeable that the vast majority of questions came from seasoned campaigners and activists.
  • To what extent is it reasonable to expect committee members from a majority party to scrutinise the material placed in front of the committee? The LGA training clearly stated that the scrutiny function should sit outside party loyalties, but it took 80 minutes for a Labour committee member (as opposed to Cllr Thornburrow or Chair Cllr Baigent) to comment on the proceedings. Were Labour members totally content with everything presented to them up to that point?

The last point really bothers me, because the scrutiny function is obviously intended to shed light on the council’s operations in a constructive way, bringing fresh eyes to its activities. However, for this to be achieved, it has to be done conscientiously and thoroughly, and that is more likely to happen with active participation of nine committee members, not four. Much food here for further thought.

Kings College & Grantchester Meadows

There’s been a lot of coverage this week of the sudden and unilateral decision by King’s College to institute restrictions on use of its land at Grantchester Meadows, most controversially the outlawing of public swimming in the river.  Nearly 16,000 people have now signed the petition opposing this.

The college maintains the decision is partly based on a concern that young people congregating there may get into difficulty if they enter the water after drinking excessively or taking drugs. Fair enough, you might say; but for me, there is an equal concern that, despite the fact that Cambridge is an abnormally ‘young’ city, provision for their needs is woeful and totally failing to keep pace with the growth of the city. Council papers confirm the requirement first identified in 2006 for additional large-scale sporting and recreational facilities to serve the city and South Cambs, including a 50m swimming pool, but the only facility delivered since has been the ice rink.

There are virtually no youth workers or youth clubs left in the city. If landowners now seek to limit still further the places where our young people can congregate while there’s no provision of any positive alternatives, we can likely expect a self-reinforcing spiral of more alienation and more anti-social behaviour. I would urge King’s to work constructively to restore full access to the Meadows so that young people (and older ones too!) can freely enjoy that recreational space as they have for centuries past.

CSET update

You will probably have seen the outcome of Thursday’s GCP Executive Board meeting, which rubber-stamped the next step towards approval of the Park & Ride site at Babraham, connected via a busway through the Green Belt to the Biomedical Campus. I made my views on the project clear a few weeks ago and nothing I heard at Thursday’s discussion changed my mind.

However, one particularly striking contribution came from Claire Ruskin, Executive Director of Cambridge Network and (non-voting) representative of the business community. It was Claire’s final meeting in the role, which perhaps encouraged her to speak more directly than we are used to about the expectation that business interests should pull all the strings in Greater Cambridge.

Despite the fact that a letter of opposition to the busways had been submitted, signed by a cross-party alliance of local councillors, MP Anthony Browne and several environmental and transport groups; and that the petition organised by Smarter Cambridge Transport had accrued almost 2000 signatures, Ms Ruskin commented:

 “I appreciate politicians want to be popular, but I am really unimpressed by politicians who get photographed with every placard. They write letters to us claiming that everyone is against this scheme, or other schemes. There’s little back-up to these stated facts. It just comes across as anti-business, which I obviously find quite offensive.” 

What I find offensive is the assertion that elected councillors have less right to speak for the interests of their residents than the unelected representative of a business lobby group – a ‘temporary’ appointee to the Exec Board after the Local Enterprise Partnership was wound up in disgrace in 2018. And that the City, South Cambs and County Council representatives who sit on the GCP Board don’t defend the councillors’ right to do so.

I add to this blog weekly if there’s something important to report. Get these posts by email by adding your name to the list, using the form on this page.

Don’t forget a regularly updated list of local planning applications can be found on this page here.

Sam Davies

5 comments

  • No wonder your BP is through the roof: what you reveal is scandalous. Your making us all aware of what is going on is at least a first step towards improving the situation on so many fronts. Albeit it’s going to be a long road.

  • Hi Sam

    Thanks for the illuminating updates on your work. What on earth can we do to stop these grandiose plans to concrete over our green belt?

  • I have to say I am not at all surprised by your reaction as carefully explained in your “report of the failings” of various issues and the mannerisms of personel involved. Without knowing you, but having had the benefit of reading numerous articles written by you, I think I can safely say that your capabilities far exceed the contributors to what you refer. In my judgment Local Government would work better if all Councillors were independent and survived on their ability rather than hiding under a political party. I have in recent times, and still, been in correspondence with both City and County Council staff and their failings stand out as their best attribute. I wish you well in what you are doing and sadly a city like Cambridge seems to be devoid of people who want to do their best for the City, rather than up their status for personal reward.

  • Had a think about the first issue here. I wonder if the following would be better.
    Scrap the current system of scrutiny committees and replace them with a mix of people who have experience of local government (but who aren’t councillors or officers in the city or county). Include some residents who have relevant experience (financial or whatever.)
    There may be flaws here that I can’t spot of course.

Sam Davies

Sam Davies was elected to Cambridge City Council in May 2021 as a representative for the Queen Edith's ward, and is the city's only independent councillor.
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