Cambridge’s city deal systems (including meetings) need to allow multiple conversations

Summary

The failure to facilitate multiple conversations could be storing up problems for the future – and it is completely avoidable

I won’t embed the public questions from November’s City Deal board meeting because it took over an hour, click here if you want to see who said what. I had one of nine questions, which I not only gave more than a week’s notice of, but published on my blog in advance as well. Click here for the text. See also the report by Jon Vale of the Cambridge News here.

Only one member of the board had read my question in advance of the meeting.

Sentiment such as the above is becoming more and more noticeable in local democracy on both officials and elected representatives. The record of our current Police and Crime Commissioner (who is standing down at this election) is one that has not come in for widespread praise. Dare I say it, many people in Cambridge either had no idea we had a PCC or didn’t notice any difference at all from the creation of that Office by the Coalition.

The reason why I published my question on my blog in advance was that I wanted the text of my question to be taken as read by the board so that we could go straight into discussion. This is how they do departmental questions in Parliament. Tabled questions are listed, printed and distributed so that the MP asking the question simply has to say “Question Number X please Mr Speaker”. The problem is that the systems & processes of the City Deal Board don’t allow for this – Cllr Herbert pulled me up saying I could only ask the question that was submitted. Ie I was restricted to reading out a pre-prepared question and he was restricted to reading out his pre-prepared answer. I shrugged my shoulders & got on with it, but one of the subsequent public questioners got into a heated exchange with Cllr Herbert over this principle.

Raised tensions with members of the public and local campaign groups

A number of community action groups were at the meeting asking questions, including

My point to Cllr Herbert at #HackCambridge at The Junction in Cambridge at the weekend was that we did not have the events or spaces where individuals and groups can get together to solve the problems that the City Deal is charged with dealing with. As a result, only a fraction of the talent in the city is able to bring their powers to bear on the problems our city faces. So instead of putting the time, money and effort into solving the traffic problems of West Cambridge, thousands of petition signatories and dozens of residents are putting their time into opposing schemes as published. Instead, they could be invited to take part in a process that sets out the challenge of our traffic problems, and in the context of the resources available and the existing map of the city, be challenged to come up with solutions to the problems.

‘It’s not for us to set these up – though we take part whenever invited’

This was a summary of Cllr Herbert’s position as far as the City Deal Board is concerned. My problem with this is that community groups simply do not have the legitimacy that local authorities have. Also, access to people, resources, money and venues is not equal. A well-resourced and well-connected community group can get a decent venue, have their event live-reported on social media and even live-streamed or videoed. A less-well resourced/connected group (that may have the same level of local support) may not be able to afford the venues or have the connections that enable the live-reporting/videoing of their events.

“Does filming meetings make any difference to what happens?”

It’s difficult to say at this stage. At the moment, Richard Taylor (at https://www.youtube.com/user/RTaylorUK/videos on Youtube) is the most prolific community reporter using video to film meetings, followed by myself. Looking at the data, number of views of videos of local council meetings is generally in the dozens unless embedded in a Cambridge News article, in which case it reaches the low hundreds. Not huge, but anecdotally it means that a handful of people who are interested but who otherwise cannot attend are becoming more informed. In particular, some people are comparing the minutes with the video footage and are noticing the two don’t always match up.

“Why don’t you film the whole of meetings?”

  1. Spoons. #MentalHealth.
  2. No one pays me to film or covers any expenses, so I have no obligation to stick around for meetings that can run into the small hours
  3. By the time something has reached a meeting calling on councillors to vote on something, it’s rare that councillors will vote against it – therefore I take it as a given that councillors will vote for it.
  4. Editing that length of footage takes ***ages*** – again no one pays me for it (much as I’d like someone to!)

Therefore I stick to the bits that I think will be the most interesting & engaging for local people: questions from the public.

‘We can’t change the system because of the contract we signed with Central Government’

This was what Cllr Herbert said to me about systems and processes. He’s right in terms of the restrictions of the agreement. However, I think it’s worth exploring which bits of the systems & processes are not working as well as they could do, and making the case to Whitehall for relaxing some of the ones around meetings. The constraints around public questions – where you have ‘one shot’ and only one or two members of the board respond, is one that needs reviewing. Otherwise, what is the point of other board members being there? It’s even more frustrating when they may have something to say on specific public questions. It seems it’s only when you direct a question to a board member that you get a response. Such as below with Cambridge University

Yes – on this forum ***you can hold Cambridge University accountable*** for its decisions where they relate to city deal issues.

As things stand, I believe the City Deal structures & processes could improve significantly – in particular when looking at who seems conspicuous by their absence in all of this.

  • Staff unions representing big employers such as Cambridge Assessment (who might have something to say no transport to/from work
  • Six-form and further education students – especially those who have to travel either across the city or from outside
  • School children – we say from Cyclestreets how technology could be used to get anonymised data to map the cycle routes they take to/from school to help inform the city’s planning processes. i.e. the data could show which streets could have car access restricted in order to become main cycle routes, reducing accidents with motorised road traffic.
  • Applied academia – where the city’s researchers are encouraged to use the city deal as case studies for their work – from school projects to A-level geography coursework, to undergraduate extended projects to postgraduate research proposals.

How can we respond to all of these? Something I might put to the next City Deal Board. The question for them is: Who will be reading this?

One thought on “Cambridge’s city deal systems (including meetings) need to allow multiple conversations

  1. All good points Antony. The level and quality of public engagement with the City Deal, which I have described as the biggest show in town, is deeply concerning. Even recommendations from the Joint Assembly regarding the Cambourne-Cambridge consultation were ignored, so what hope has the public in having influence?

    There is a general problem in local politics of overload: councillors and officers are being expected to do far more than they can reasonably be expected to. Even reading agenda papers before meetings is a chore that many (possibly most) committee members simply don’t have (or make) time for – much to the chagrin of officers that spent hours writing them. Too often it seems that questions from the public are an irritating distraction that must be endured, but (with rare exceptions) ultimately ignored.

    A group of us are aiming to kick start a public debate about transport in the region with a public meeting about alternatives to the Cambourne-Cambridge City Deal options. It will be at 6.30pm on 12 November at the Cambridge RUFC on Grantchester Road. More details here: http://www.bettercitydeal.com/event/meeting-cambourne-cambridge/

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