Having 20-30 members of the public in attendance was good, but the fact that half of them were under voting age made it even better. Maybe it was just be a one-off, but we should credit those who have been spreading the word – to parents as much as young people – that we can all have a say in how our community is run.
The young people at the South Area Committee meeting were in two groups. The first was a group from the 27th Cambridge Scouts, in uniform, who had come along to ask if councillors would introduce safer road crossing near their headquarters in Cherry Hinton. One of the Scouts stood up and explained how they’d assessed different possibilities, and concluded that a zebra crossing would be the best approach. It was a lesson to some of the adults who present to council in how to say:
“We’ve looked at the options, found the solution, and now all you have to do is to make it happen”.
The second group of young people included under-10s, who’d come with their parents, to appeal for a scooter park to be built on the Accordia development. The money and plans for this have been knocking around for several years, and a whole generation of children have probably missed out while council officers and local government procrastinated in the way which those not driven by the urgency of youth tend to do.
At this point, huge credit should be given to the new South Area Committee chair, Cllr Andy Blackhurst, for doing an exemplary job. Cllr Blackhurst superbly juggled around the agenda to balance the need to hear late arrivals with the desire to ensure that younger children weren’t kept waiting until past the time they had to leave. This was an identical problem to one which this committee had handled badly in the past, and it was great to see a lesson having been learned. Cllr Blackhurst was also wonderfully patient with a couple of the very youngest members of the public, who were understandably shy to speak, but eventually did so (and how well!).
What could have be done better?
Well, the last thing we need is for events like this to seem boring to young people, so perhaps the Scouts (who were heard early on) could have been told that they could leave if they wished. Instead, they had to sit through another hour of unrelated discussion (which they did with impeccable behaviour). More important, however, was the age-old problem with these committees, that they can’t always make decisions, and that they don’t explain that to the public. The Scouts, for example, asked if the council could consider a zebra crossing. They were given the brief – and quite correct – answer by the County Councillors that it might be possible, and that it would be raised in next year’s plans. That was all they got.
The Scouts would have gone home and been asked: “How did it go? Are we going to get a crossing?”, to which they could only have replied: “I think so. Maybe. Eventually. To be honest, we’re not quite sure”. Similarly, the children who’d appealed so eloquently for their scooter park would have asked their parents afterwards:
“So are we going to get it?”
To which the reply would have been:
“Well, the councillors all voted for it – again – but the officer from the council mumbled something about another planning meeting next year, and wouldn’t give any commitments or timescales, so we’ve no idea really”.
Members of the Area Committees, and veteran watchers, all know that these discussions and votes are normally just a tiny part of the epic process involved in getting something done in local government. There are too many people involved whose very jobs seem to require things to move as slowly as possible. When members of the public – especially young people – take the trouble to turn up and make their views heard, they don’t realise this. They deserve to have the real situation explained to them very clearly, while at the same time getting an acknowledgement that their representation really has made a significant contribution.