How do you get your council backing for your local project?


Why the systems and processes for Cambridge’s area committees leaves me deeply dissatisfied. 

Me and Puffles rocked up to the Dion Dublin Suite at Cambridge United Football Club – a room totally unsuitable for this sort of council meeting. A long, narrow room with a width that can only cope with two columns of chairs, 4 chairs wide each. Cambridge is currently split into four areas as far as planning and community funding is concerned – see here. The problem I have with these administrative boundaries is that my day-to-day life here straddles across at least two, if not three of those area boundaries.

“So, who got what then?”

It wasn’t so much who got what – see here for the agenda and papers – but rather dissatisfaction with the systems and processes informing decision-making. My basic point is that councillors simply do not have enough robust information (in particular ‘big picture’ information, but also the systematic and consistent data sets) in order to make the judgement calls we ask of them.

“Such as?”

Today, there was discussion around improving the street scene throughout the various wards, along with funding for a number of community centres.

For those of you not familiar with Section 106 funding, this stems from a piece of legislation called the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. It’s this bit – Section 106. With all these developments going up in Cambridge, the council gets to set conditions on the developers – in particular money for community facilities or the construction of such facilities at the developer’s expense. The idea is that you make developments and the communities within them more sustainable. The question then is what to spend the money on.

“What’s the problem?”

The council has a very limited picture (made worse by the fragmentation of the area committee system) of the community assets that are out there. Furthermore, the councillors did not mention any of the schools as being community assets. We don’t have a clear picture about the capacities of each facility, its location, who owns and uses it and for what purposes. We also don’t have a clear picture of the demographics of the users, nor which parts of the city they are from. Thus you could have a community facility where the funding comes from a pot allocated for one part of the city where the users are from another. Thus making a mockery of the artificial administrative boundaries. My local school and library are classic examples. They are on the border of one area, thus they serve at least two different areas of the city as far as the administrative boundaries are concerned.

“What does this lead to funding-wise?”

Another thing we don’t know is the long-term viability of some of these community assets, let alone what local people want from them. There were only a handful of people at the gathering this evening who were members of the public. Certainly not a cross-section of the wards represented. But then hey, if you don’t ask you don’t get. As far as community buildings are concerned, my question is whether we’re cutting the cake too thin. Would a smaller number of more well-publicised and accessible community centres, or the opening up of things like local schools, be better than some of the micro-facilities?

“What about the groups that use them?”

Again, we have no picture or evidence-base to show what might be good value for money, and what might not. It might be that a small but well-organised community group is seen to be doing great things at a specific location, but with little incentive or reason to expand. On the other hand, a different community group – one perhaps that is one completely off the radar because they use social media to organise, has huge potential but because they are not ‘connected’ with local councillors, get neglected. There may be many reasons for a latter’s lack of connection – not just lack of knowledge of political processes. We just don’t know.

Repeated consultation

One of the things that disturbed me was the consultation processes – not helped by Cambridge being a two-tier local authority area. The county council pays for the roads, the city council pays for the grass verges. That sort of thing. What struck me was when one of the council officers spoke of of needing to go out to further consultation with a couple of the schemes. What was not clear to me (or a couple of people in the audience I spoke to after leaving) was whether there was any planning on consulting with the community, or whether it was ‘ad hoc.’ Does the term ‘consultation fatigue’ sound familiar? Remember it’s not just local government that’s consulting you – it’s national government too. Have a look at this lot.

“Are you saying consultation is bad?”

Not at all. The challenge is planning and delivering it in a manner that allows citizens to form an informed opinion on whatever it is you are consulting on, and feed that back in a manner that can influence policy and/or outcome. I’m not convinced organisations across the piece (public, private, voluntary etc) are anywhere near getting to a stage where they are getting those informed views back – even though new communications technologies such as social media potentially make this far easier and far cheaper than in the past.

“So…how should we do consultation and community engagement?”

That brings us back to a community development strategy. But producing a genuinely grass-roots-led one is not easy. It requires a lot of hard work and taking a lot of emotional hits before making a success of it. Hence the importance of planning and evidence-gathering at the start. That also means working out where your gaps are. Anecdotally you might be aware of things – a couple of councillors described some areas as having no community feel to them. Funnily enough, my neck of the woods was one of them.

Community engagement needs to be part of that community development strategy – obviously. But more to the point, it has to look at things such as where the people are, what approaches are likely to work and with which audiences, and when and how they like to interact with their community – if at all. Again, I found schools and colleges conspicuous by their absence in the discussions this evening. It’s as if community development was silo’d into a handful of named community centres, halls or roads. I didn’t get any sense that anyone had a vision of the sort of community that we want to become over the next few years, let alone how we’re going to get there. I didn’t get a sense from the councillors as to which community groups and institutions are the pillars of local civic society, and how local people interact with them.

“Are you saying councillors are lazy?”

Definitely not – they’ll probably be there till midnight discussing local planning issues. Say what you like about councillor expenses, but I can’t think staying up till midnight dealing with the minutiae of planning applications is done for expenses money alone. You’ve got to be genuinely passionate about your community to do this sort of stuff. My issue is more with the structures and the processes of the institution.

But what I do want – and this is something for the 2014 local elections, is for the candidates to present us residents with a really compelling vision for communities in Cambridge. What’s Cambridge going to look like in say 2020, what are the steps to achieving that vision, what are the barriers and how are you – we – going to overcome them?

Is that asking for too much?

Puffles with Labour councillors just before the East Area Committee in September 2013
Puffles with Labour councillors just before the East Area Committee in September 2013

5 thoughts on “How do you get your council backing for your local project?

  1. I appreciate what you’re saying Antony. However, for our purposes, we come to an area committee meeting to take decisions on the basis of the existing structures, which are not in our power to change (certainly not in the short term and certainly not as opposition councillors), on the basis of our local knowledge of our wards, which is often considerable. Engaging the whole community, not just a few groups and individuals who always turn up, is difficult. Unsurprisingly, teenagers are not keen on turning up to boring council meetings, and the kind of outreach work that would be required to fully engage them is something not currently within the capability of the small, stretched team of S106 and EIP officers. I’m not saying that the council couldn’t do more, but it’s not straightforward. We, as councillors, do have an idea of the needs of the areas we represent and do our best to faithfully represent and advance those needs. What we need is a return to the old form of community engagement – neighbourhood community planning, advanced by the past Labour administration in the 1990s – wherein officers go out more actively into the community, make assessments of needs, and allow residents ultimately to vote on their community’s priorities, rather than or in addition to the rather artificial forum of area committees. Your contribution to EAC tonight was interesting, but we cannot institute a citywide community development strategy as one area committee. I suggest that you make a contribution to Community Services scrutiny committee with specific suggestions as to how we can constructively alter current structures and procedures on this score.

    1. [For info, Cllr Owers is one of the councillors on the East Area Committee, and is a Labour councillor for the Coleridge ward of Cambridge City Council.]

      On S106 & EIP [Environmental Improvement Programme] funding, the general point I wanted to make was that the discussion didn’t give me a picture of the Council (as an institution) having a wider vision for what it wanted our part of Cambridge to become. On EIP funding, perhaps it’s in the nature of the funding – reactive to the needs that spring up rather than proactively allocated in advance.

      My view at the moment is that too much feels ‘unco-ordinated’ on community-related things, with different institutions working separately rather than together. Imposing a top-down strategy won’t work. Hence the importance of doing that evidence-gathering work (which, as you mentioned requires a few more people inside the Guildhall, Shirehall & Mandela House getting out and about).

      One question I have for councillors generally regarding their duties on decision-making is this:
      “What are the data sets & evidence bases you feel you need, but currently don’t have, in order to improve the projects presented to you, & the funding decisions you make?”

  2. I just want to respond to Richard Taylor’s tweet, saying that my response was ‘pathetic’.

    The point I was making is that I and my fellow Labour councillors are IN OPPOSITION. Therefore, obviously we cannot change the structures. We can only work within the structures set up by the ruling group, and do the best we can according to what we have. It is easy to be a hypercritical gadfly who just criticises, and usely misquotes, takes out of context and grossly misrepresents, councillors trying to do their best in imperfect circumstances. That is what is truly pathetic.

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