Every couple of months, there’s a meeting of the elected councillors for the three wards in the south side of Cambridge (Queen Edith’s, Trumpington and Cherry Hinton). This “area committee meeting” is where planning, development, environmental and safety issues for the area are discussed and policy decisions made, and it all takes place at a local venue, open to the public to attend. In my experience, very few members of the public know that these meetings exist – and that we can come along and address our councillors – which is a shame. But enough people usually turn up to give the councillors at least some idea of what we all want.
Last night I attended the first “South Area Committee” meeting of the year, which took place in Cherry Hinton Village Centre (the next one is closer to home, in Queen Edith’s, by the way). There were 20 or 30 members of the public there, with interests in a range of the subjects being covered. However, many of them came away distinctly unimpressed, I felt.
One lady made an impassioned plea for something to be done about pedestrians and cyclists having to share a really narrow pavement in Queen Edith’s Way. Councillors listened attentively, but the response which came from the chair didn’t seem to provide any suggestions as what might be done. We were quickly moved on to the next matter, and told that the agenda had been reordered, which would turn out to be the biggest snub to the public of all.
But before that, some questions from the floor, including an eloquent enquiry asking if the councillors might consider promoting their activities, and in particular these meetings, in our local schools and colleges, to try to encourage more engagement from young people. While all the elected officials nodded in agreement, the answer came back that it was up to the schools to ask for that, and perhaps the member of the public asking the question might like to do something about it himself. Then, also on the theme of improving engagement, the councillors were asked what involvement they had with social media. The response was quite depressing – a couple said they had Twitter accounts but didn’t really use them, the rest gave the impression they thought that this sort of thing was a waste of time, as was the question. Only a County Councillor also present, Amanda Taylor, stuck her hand up and said she was active on social media and found it useful.
We then moved on to a report from a lady from the council about crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour across the city, asking for input about future priorities. Halfway through, a member of the public interrupted the item – which had been moved up the agenda – to say that, as the committee was aware, she had brought along with her a young person who wanted to make a representation about a development issue. However, because of the reordering of the agenda, the meeting hadn’t got to that part, and as it was a school night, she now had to get the young person home.
The chair of the meeting mumbled something about letting them know what had happened by email or something, and with that, one young person – who’d summoned the courage to come along and address a council meeting – left, probably thinking that the council doesn’t care in the slightest what anyone of her age thinks. Combined with the response to the social media question that made most of the councillors sound like they really were from another generation, she might be right. The only other councillor to come out of the evening with any credit in the eyes of the public present was Trumpington’s Sheila Stuart, who expressed her disappointment to the chair (and perhaps ironically, on Twitter, in her 4th tweet of the past year).
Not a great night for our local councillors. And I’m not the only one to say so.