Tabled questions to Cambridge City Council’s new Labour council

Summary

Some questions (and my thinking behind them) that I will be asking the new council executive team on Thursday 12 June

I’ve written to Cambridge City Council’s democratic services team giving notice of questions I’m going to ask them. (You can do this too – see here). It might sound strange to give notice to councillors of questions that you are going to ask them. The reason is that I want councillors to have time to consider what I’ve asked them and give substantive responses. It also allows them to get any briefing and advice they need in any follow-ups I then come back with.

The Questions

Q to Cllr Herbert (Leader-elect of Cambridge City Council)

Throughout 2014 I have been disappointed to find that local public sector institutions are not just ignoring correspondence from local residents trying to hold them to account, but repeated from local councillors and council area committees too. When I stood as a candidate, my correspondence was also ignored. I would be grateful if, at the outset of your new council you could make it crystal clear to the heads of all local institutions spending taxpayers money to deliver public services that:

a) such behaviour is absolutely unacceptable and is a contempt of the council
b) such behaviour is a barrier towards Cambridge becoming a city greater than the sum of its parts
c) for the Council Executive to consider implementing a new, simple process where the Leader of the Council will write to ministers responsible for those institutions asking for their assistance following repeated refusals to engage with the council – with the knowledge that any correspondence from the leaders of councils in that capacity has to be responded to by ministers of the Crown
d) To report back to the next meeting of the full council on the outcome of their considerations in c)

Q) to Cllr Herbert

Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communications Service inside Cabinet Office confirmed that people in Comms roles would not be eligible for promotions or sideways moves if they did not learn digital skills. (See http://www.prweek.com/article/1294275/government-comms-chief-recruit-100-digital-natives-enforce-skills-take-up ). You’ll recall in my manifesto that I called for all local public sector jobs in Cambridge that have a management function should have basic data analysis and social media skills as a mandatory competency. Please can you and the chief executive of the council consider this specific proposal, mindful of the direction of travel coming from central government and report back to the full council on your decision, with reasons.

Q) to Cllr Johnson (designated executive councillor for arts & community)

In April 2012 you’ll recall promising Puffles in a tweet, to deliver a Cambridge Societies’ Fair on the condition that you were elected.

Hence it was good to see the fair in your manifesto and to see you now in the role of executive councillor responsible for delivering this.

Please can ask officials working for you to:
a) begin the scoping and planning necessary to deliver this – in particular how to work best with students in further education
b) give very serious consideration to a ‘community mapping exercise’ – something I called for in my manifesto and repeatedly called for at council meetings, to ensure we don’t miss out on any community groups
c) ask officials if they can work with me and colleagues working on a ‘community action summit’ this September at Anglia Ruskin University – I’ve booked the venue and will be publishing a draft brochure later this month
d) confirm you will report back with a progress update on items a) and b) to councillors at the next full council

My thinking behind this style of questioning

You will notice that each of the three questions/comments I’m going to put to the council contain a clause asking the responsible executive councillor to report back to the full council at subsequent meetings. It’s a simple but effective tactic in that it forces the hand of council officials to act upon whatever it is I’m asking about. Why? Because they have a clear deadline to work towards. At the same time, rather than demanding an instant response, councillors and officials will have weeks to consider their response – hence whatever they come back with has to be much more substantive than an off-the-cuff response.

“Why do you think this style of questioning will have a greater impact?”

Much of what I’m going to be asking councillors over the rest of 2014 will be around items and themes in my manifesto. Recall too that Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Daniel Zeichner has gone on public record supporting many of the ideas in it.

This isn’t a demand of ‘implement my manifesto, not your one’. As I stated here, Cambridge Labour comprehensively won the local elections in Cambridge and have a mandate to deliver their manifesto. Mine was never meant to be that sort of party-political manifesto. Rather it covered things around local public administration and public policy that don’t really get debated on the doorstep, giving ideas for whoever runs the council some things to consider. Mine is also a manifesto for a very long-term cultural change across Cambridge – one that goes far beyond traditional electoral and political cycles.

Solving Cambridge’s housing crisis

Earlier, Cambridge Labour announced a new council committee on housing – see here. This has a lot of potential, and I hope this could become a future forum where residents (irrespective of the type of housing they live in) can come together with landlords and developers to deal with some of the worst aspects of housing in Cambridge. In particular I think there’s potential around improving how residents can report substandard housing & landlords, engaging with developers at design stage and putting pressure on universities and colleges to be responsible institutions when it comes to student housing. I’ll be interested to see what their terms of reference will be, and how they can also get input from specialist groups, whether the Chartered Institute for Housing, homelessness charities and civil engineering experts at the local universities.

Executive councillors setting expectations

Cambridge Labour’s executive councillors have a massive opportunity to change the way the council is treated by local institutions. It isn’t just the change in political control (after over a decade out of local office) or the size of the majority that matters, but that they’ve got a critical mass of younger councillors with lots of energy and determination. This for me is why Cllr Lewis Herbert’s response to my first question is ever so important. If he as council leader can make it crystal clear to other local institutions that being ignored or brushed aside will not be tolerated (and that this will be followed up – all the way to Whitehall and ministers if necessary) could make the latter think twice.

Now, it could work or it could go badly wrong. From the executive councillors I know, most of them won’t tolerate being ignored or brushed aside. At the same time, an overly aggressive approach could shut some people off. This is why having a clear process of escalation is vital. Far better to have a clear and substantial threat (ie ‘We will be raising your institution’s conduct with ministers as you’ve clearly not complied with our clearly-stated process as approved by the council’) rather than engaging in a shouting match across a table. Furthermore, in 2015 there’s a general election. Irrespective of who wins Cambridge (I still think it’s too close to call between Julian and Daniel), Daniel Zeichner has more connections than on a circuit board inside the national Labour Party. Should Labour get into national government in 2015, expect Labour ministers to be sympathetic to a Labour-run council being ignored by local taxpayer-funded institutions.

If Cllr Herbert proposes a motion to a future full council meeting on the back of my first question, local institutions would be ill-advised to ignore Cambridge City Council and local councillors on the back of it. Because post-2015 they could find themselves caught in a pincer movement.

UPDATED TO ADD:

Alex Aiken of Cabinet Office tweeted confirmation of the new policy of the Government Communications Service:

Digital comms skills are now mandatory from the most junior officer to the very top.

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2 Responses to Tabled questions to Cambridge City Council’s new Labour council

  1. Councillor Richard Johnson emailed me a transcript of his response that he read out at the full council meeting on 12 June at the Guildhall:

    “a) The Cambridge Community Fair is planned for 2015. Officers will start discussing and developing options, with partners, early in the new year. At the moment much officer time is spent on the Grants Review which, I hope you appreciate, is a very important and complex piece of work.

    In respect to any preliminary planning work with students: I will want officers to discuss ideas with the Volunteer Centre and universities first to build upon the work they did together in 2013 following a Labour Motion to Council by Cllr Roberts on the 18th July 2013 which called for closer links between town and gown. Organisations such as the Volunteer Centre, Cambridge Hub, Cambridge Student Community Action and Anglia Ruskin Student’s Union Volunteering Service already do lots of work matching up students and other volunteers with voluntary groups. We need to make sure we are all working together, complementing what they are doing and not duplicating or overlapping work.

    b) The Council works closely with voluntary sector organisations such as Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services, Cambridge Ethnic Community Forum, the Volunteer Centre, Disability Cambridgeshire and Living Sport (to name a few), so that we can access their member groups to disseminate information or seek opinions. In addition, Cambridgeshire.net provides a fantastic database of groups, clubs and organisations in the city as well as opportunities for volunteering. Again, I see little point in my officers spending time duplicating what is already there. Instead, I want my officers to focus their time on delivering issues set out in Labour’s manifesto around tackling poverty and social exclusion.

    c) I have asked the Head of Community Development, Trevor Woollams, if he or a senior member of his staff could assist you on the day of your summit, if they are available and if the subject matter is appropriate, either as a speaker or facilitator. However, as mentioned, my officers have a very challenging work programme to deliver and do not have capacity to become involved in the planning and organisation of your event. I suggest you contact Trevor Woollams when you brochure is available so he can confirm his attendance.

    d) Given my response, reporting back to the next Council meeting will not be necessary.”

    • Cllr Lewis Herbert kindly emailed me the following notes taken by council officials of our exchanges. They are as follows:

      Mr Carpen addressed the Council and made the following points:

      i. Throughout 2014 he had been disappointed to find that local public sector institutions were ignoring correspondence from local residents trying to hold them to account, and repeated correspondence from local Councillors and Area Committees.

      ii. When standing as a candidate he had also found that his correspondence was ignored.

      iii. Asked if the Council could make it clear to the heads of all local institutions spending taxpayers money to deliver public services that:

      - such behaviour was unacceptable and is a contempt of the council
      - such behaviour was a barrier towards Cambridge becoming a city greater than the sum of its parts

      iv. Suggested that the Council’s Executive consider implementing a new, simple process where the Leader of the Council writes to ministers responsible for those institutions asking for their assistance following repeated refusals to engage with the Council – with the knowledge that any correspondence from the Leaders of Councils in that capacity has to be responded to by Ministers of the Crown.

      v. Asked that outcomes from this be reported back to the next meeting of the Council.

      The Leader of the Council responded:

      i. Thanked Mr Carpen for the question and the information that he regularly provides on his blog.

      ii. The City Council has set service standards relating to responding to correspondence (i.e. responding to Facebook/Twitter posts with 4 hours and letters/emails within 7 days) it could not directly influence others.

      iii. Whilst the City Council had to focus on its own standards any particular issues that have been identified by the public could be raised through the relevant Area Committee.

      Mr Carpen made the following supplementary points:

      i. He was concerned that Councillors and Area Committees had contacted external bodies such as schools and bus companies and received no response. The Council needed to follow this up and ensure that responses were received.

      ii. With a new administration in place it was an ideal time to make clear that this would not be tolerated.

      The Leader of the Council responded:

      i. Discussions with Coleridge Community College and Long Road College regarding engagement with the democratic process were progressing well.

      ii. Councillor Ashton would be following up with the other schools in the south area to discuss engagement ideas.

      iii. The Committee Services Team would be asked to chase Netherhall, Hills Road and Long Road following the commitment at South Area Committee to follow this up, but the Council’s main focus needed to be on responses on matters that are directly its responsibility.

      Mr Carpen addressed the Council and made the following points:

      i. Alex Aiken, Executive Director of the Government Communications Service inside Cabinet Office had confirmed that people in Communication roles would not be eligible for promotions or sideways moves if they did not learn digital skills.

      ii. All local public sector jobs in Cambridge that have a management function should have basic data analysis and social media skills as a mandatory competency.

      iii. Could the Leader and Chief Executive of the Council consider this specific proposal and report back to the next Council meeting.

      The Leader of the Council responded:

      i. Specific competencies are based on the individual posts, and digital skills form part of these where appropriate.

      ii. The Council has corporate Twitter and Facebook pages and other parts of the Council operate social media accounts to disseminate information.

      iii. Further improvements to the Council’s communication processes are also being investigated.

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