What happens when you put a dragon fairy on a council chamber’s media desk
Rain, buses and The Queen’s visit playing havoc with things meant I missed the workshop I was hoping to go to at the Centre for Research in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. So I took Puffles along to the ceremonials at The Guildhall in Cambridge.
Where coffee with a councillor can make a difference.
I first mentioned the local youth charity Centre 33 in my first blogpost on mental health back in 2011 – Going beyond a pill. Not long after, I bumped into Romsey Councillor Paul Saunders in one of Mill Road’s many coffee places. I had no idea he was a councillor at the time and he had no idea of my civil service background, but we got talking anyway. It was the first of many random conversations that happen when you have a councillor that is visible in your community. In one of these, I mentioned Centre 33, which is not far from his ward. Fast forward to today, and Cllr Saunders has been elected Mayor of Cambridge and adopted Centre 33 as one of his two charities for the term of his office – citing the conversation we had in his acceptance speech.
Politics vs ceremonials
I’ve written much of this blogpost from the press desk in the council chamber – sharing it with Puffles & Chris Havergal of the Cambridge Evening News. Richard Taylor opted to report from the public gallery – which for the ceremonials was packed out. Once the ceremonials were over, the chamber emptied of non-councillors, leaving very few non-party-political types watching over the substantial debates and votes on council policies.
And yet what was being debated was actually very important
The big issue was about the plight of local kinship carers – something I knew nothing about. These are extended family members who take on formal responsibilities for children who are not theirs, but are family members. The point members of the public speaking to the chamber made was that they were making big sacrifices but were getting next to no support.
Although outside of the city council’s remit (the joys of a two tier area), the motion to do something to ease the plight of Cambridge’s kinship carers was passed with unanimous support. What this will mean in the county council – which has statutory responsibilities in this area – remains to be seen. Independent councillor & former mayor of Cambridge John Hipkin who has been elected to both city and county councils said he would raise this in the county chamber.
Isn’t everyone at work or at college? It is exam time too
Fair point for those that the above applies to. The public gallery presence was notably a White and elderly persons by their makeup – with the exception of the group of children from their local primary school here.
But then what sort of person would want to come along to a long, potentially all-day meeting of their local council? In particular one where for the big picture things they have relatively little flexibility? As Professor Colin Talbot said earlier this year, if political parties were serious about localism, Whitehall would devolve much greater proportions of both taxation and spending powers down to local levels.
At the same time, does the quantity and calibre of people standing for public office along with the quantity and calibre of people doing the scrutiny mean that those greater powers and amounts of money can be safeguarded? One could ask the same question of Westminster too. One of the things that strikes me about the wider public policy communities I’ve been bouncing around in is how a number of them would make fantastic independently-minded holders of public office. Passionate, intelligent, polite, great listeners as well as strong public speakers, principled and not easily corrupted by powerful interests. (By the way, you can be all of these and not have a university degree/ have gone to oxbridge).
So why is there this gap between the likes of those with the attributes above, and what happens in local government? This is something that I want to unpick and do something about over the next year, with both turning up to face-to-face gatherings and using social media being my tools & methods.
The culture of the chamber
I guess I’m still something of an outsider in all of this. Being relatively new to watching what happens inside the council, and not aligned to any political party means I can judge things without fear of a party whip. In particular this goes for speeches made by individual councillors. In that regard, there are a number of similarities with Westminster. Councillors can make stupendously powerful speeches which, when it comes to votes count for nothing. This was the case with Labour’s Cllr Carina O’Reilly’s nomination for Cllr Gerri Bird for deputy mayor. Had councillors had to make their voting decisions based on quality of nominators’ speeches along, Cllr Bird would have won. But as it was whipped, her Lib Dem opponent, Cllr George Pippas won with the mayor’s casting vote.
One of the things that is noticeable is the number of councillors who maintained a very quiet presence in the chamber. What are people’s expectations of their local councillors in this? Should they be expected to make speeches? Can councillors be more effective in other ways, in which case how? How too can they make their non-public-speaking-work more…public? This for me is where social media can come into play – but at the same time has its own risks. Exchanges can be far more abusive online than face-to-face in the council chamber. As an aside, should council standing orders apply to social media accounts when councillors on the same council are communicating with each other?
It’s also interesting to see the the interaction between some of the longer-standing councillors and some of the newer, younger councillors. It’s also noticeable the difference between the more politically partisan councillors versus those less partisan. In the grand scheme of things, there are a number of similarities with Westminster – both good and bad. The good being that on issues that deal with people in real need (such as today), there was a debate on how to tackle a problem. The bad being some of the conventions that, to outsiders not familiar with local councils would find as time-wastingly bizarre.
Open policy, transparent culture, co-creation rather than consultancy
This for me is one of the biggest challenges for local public bodies in Cambridge. There’s something that ‘feels’ very insular about structures and systems – one that doesn’t make reaching out to wider communities as easy as it could be. I’m thinking in particular those that could improve and enrich our city & surrounding areas. The two I’m most familiar with are the hordes of commuters that travel from Cambridge to London, and the growing public policy community. One that I’m becoming more familiar with as a result of being a school governor and also a volunteer for Cambridge Online’s social media surgeries are those hyperlocal-community groups, perhaps those whose day-to-day world is the one that exists within their neighbourhood. There is a wealth of knowledge within those small community groups just as there is within the rail commuting community and the academic community. How can we unlock this knowledge and bring what can sometimes feel like disparate communities together? (In particular, bringing them together on equal terms).
Food for thought.