South Area Committee reaches a genuine low point

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Well, I’m sure that the pre-publicity here only played a small part, but the public attendance at the city council’s South Area Committee meeting this week was the largest I’ve ever known it …and sadly, they witnessed what’s been described in many places as a shambles. Fellow local blogger Richard Taylor has the full story, and I’d thoroughly recommend you read his report, but the goings on were even picked up by the Cambridge News. Local resident Sam Davies described the meeting on Twitter from the hall as a “saga of ineffective consultation, absent officers, disgruntled residents and apologetic councillors”. She was spot on.

The noisiest part of the meeting was rather unfortunate, and overshadowed the real story. This was the forceful request from residents of Porson Road in Trumpington that the council do something about the street parking in their road. I describe it as unfortunate, because the Porson Road delegation did not seem to understand that the public speaking spot at these meetings does not lead to an instant council debate, and they did not seem to understand that parking is not a city council issue anyway. So the meeting’s chair just acknowledged their complaints and politely moved on, which irritated some of the residents considerably.

I’ve commented before about how unsatisfactory the arrangements are at South Area Committee, but as things stand, it’s a meeting for councillors to hear reports and make certain local decisions, which the public are invited to observe. That is all.

The meeting also has a public speaking slot at the start, but this seems merely to be an opportunity for councillors to be informed of issues, no differently to if they were raised in private. Issues do not get discussed at the time (other than a brief acknowledgement), and nor are they added to the evening’s agenda. I don’t agree with this lack of public discussion, but that’s the way it is.

Sadly, only seasoned committee-watchers seem to know this. Most members of the public believe, quite understandably, that if they turn up to one of these meetings, they can make points to councillors and have them debated. I think that the constraints under which South Area Committee is run should be made quite clear at the start of every meeting (as should the responsibilities of the city council, which few people seem to know).

However, the Porson Road residents were not the real story. What was far more distressing to me were the other issues which came up. The first was the complete redevelopment of the Addenbrookes and Fendon Road roundabouts, which was brought up by a member of the public and a campaigning local councillor, Tim Moore. This is quite an incredible story. The county council (UPDATE: the Medipark developers – thanks Mike Davies for that) seem to have plans to totally redevelop the Addenbrookes roundabout, which must be one of the biggest and busiest roundabouts in the county, yet they appear to have seen fit to inform just a handful of local residents, and what’s more, the “consultation period” seems to have been and gone with hardly anyone knowing.

It’s a bit like the scene in The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy where Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council says: “Your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you. There’s no point in acting surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for 50 of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now. What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? Oh, for heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light years away, you know.”

Well, it turns out to be not just the public who have been kept in the dark. Even most of the councillors present said they knew nothing about the scheme. It was quite astonishing. Councillor Moore, to his credit, has been trying to draw attention to some of what he sees as the deficiencies of the plan, but news didn’t seem to have spread. I have located the plans on the Council website, but they’re just the technical drawings, and the implications won’t be clear to most members of the public (including me, and I’m an engineer). In 2015, we really ought to have 3D CAD visualisations of any major public works. What’s more, I couldn’t find any explanation of the aims of the development. The council’s Cycling and Walking Officer doesn’t seem happy. I did, however, find an application to extend the consultation period, but that date has passed too now.

That was just one of the low points. Another was the Hills Road cycleway, an item raised by a resident who is extremely worried that this is being steamrollered through without regard to the road’s greenery, or respecting the boundaries of the residents’ land. What was surprising here to observers was to hear councillors saying “it’s been nothing to do with us”, and pinning it all on a council department, or even an individual. This is not a criticism; it really hasn’t been anything to do with them. How this can be allowed to happen is what baffles me.

Then there was the discussion on 20mph zones in the south of the city. This too was farcical, as councillors started going through roads and voting on whether they should recommend they be made 20mph or not, while in some cases not even appearing to know what roads they were talking about. And on a massive vote, that they recommend Queen Edith’s Way be made a 20mph zone, at great expense, the vote from the councillors was 2 in favour and 7 abstaining. That’s right, Queen Edith’s Way might be made into a 20mph zone, not because there is overwhelming support from our elected councillors, but because just two of them thought it’s a good idea, while 7 want to be able to say: “don’t look at me, I didn’t support it”. Watch this vote on one of Richard Taylor’s videos here:

Last year I wrote of one South Area Committee meeting that this was not a great night for our local councillors. I was perhaps fairly criticised for this, but one year on, there’s no such defence. This meeting was appalling, exposing the sheer awfulness of the whole system, from the way different parts of local government don’t talk to each other, to the exclusion of the public from decision-making. The area’s Labour councillors sat to one side, looking extremely glad that they’re no longer in the majority on the Committee, while the Liberal Democrat councillors looked quite out of their depth at times. I’m not blaming either side – these are good people doing their best – but the whole system needs a thorough shakeup. Sadly, it’s not going to happen while local government remains the plaything of political parties and excludes the vast amount of talent out there which would love to help run the city, but doesn’t have any interest in political tribalism.

Watch more of Richard Taylor’s videos, and read the discussion on his site here.

9 Replies to “South Area Committee reaches a genuine low point”

  1. Thanks to you and Richard for giving us some insight into the depressing process of local govt. Are there any meetings where the public can go to discuss things like 20mph zones, transport provision, planning changes and parking? It does seem like there ought to be some way to do this.

    I did at least get a comment in on the Fendon Rd changes, which like anything developer-led rather than council-led, get almost no public scrutiny. I did send my comments in to bidwells, and got a ‘receipt of your comments is acknowledged’. Who knows if it’ll do any good. (I was not complimentary on changes which make minor improvements for peds at the expense of cyclists, with no effort to look at the wider issues and promote active modes generally), or alternative routes (such as Red Cross Lane/Nightingale Ave which should be a cycle/pedestrian thoroughfare to the hospital bypassing the horrible rbouts entirely. )

  2. Regarding the discussion on 20mph zones, I made a similar point to the Queen Edith councillors asking why they voted (or abstained) for 20 mph in Queen Edith’s Way, despite a public consultation vote to keep the 30 mph limit.

    Councillor Taylor kindly pointed out that the councillors’ vote at the South Area meeting on 02/02/2015 was advisory only, and the final decision will be taken by the Executive Councillor Cllr Kevin Blencowe.

  3. “I describe it as unfortunate, because the Porson Road delegation did not seem to understand that the public speaking spot at these meetings does not lead to an instant council debate,”

    Nor do I think it necessarily should do. Even assuming that councillors had the power to make an immediate decision on it, which of course they don’t, I don’t think debating something without having first examined the situation and gathered some information is responsible. Submitting questions in advance might help here, but that requires an even greater engagement with the public.

    “Another was the Hills Road cycleway, an item raised by a resident who is extremely worried that this is being steamrollered through without regard to the road’s greenery, or respecting the boundaries of the residents’ land.”

    ‘Steamrollered’ through with letter drops to residents’ house, several public exhibitions including at area committee, multiple local newspaper articles, individual engagement with schools, Stagecoach, ambulances and other stakeholders during a 2-month consultation window, resulting in unprecedented numbers of responses for a cycling scheme, and overall support, including amongst residents. And despite overall support they still changed the plans to try to meet objections post-consultation.

    The timeframe of the scheme has been short due to DfT limits on the funding, but accusations that this has somehow been secretly forced onto people are very wide of the mark. And certainly the time to raise any further concerns is not nearly 6 months after committee has approved it and construction vehicles are on site.

    I’m afraid in this instance it is less a failure of consultation, and more a case of not liking the answer.

  4. “Steamrollered” was possibly not the best description on my part, Hester, as I do agree that the consultation on the Hills Road cycleway was good, and I’m certainly not suggesting that it was secretly forced onto people, certainly in comparison to the council’s normal dreadful levels of communication. I think that the project is a good thing, and I’m really looking forward to it.

    Councillor Pippas has been in touch to remind us of the consultation, saying: “Regarding the Hills Road Cycleway development we need to be fair to the County and City Councils. The officers and the local Councillors followed the democratic process by trying to get all the people concerned to express an opinion to ensure that the project it is accepted by the majority of the residents. Apart from the literature we distributed to inform the residents, a meeting was organized at the Rock Road Library on the 20th of November 2014 from 3 – 7.30pm where officers and Councillors were available to answer any questions. All the proposed plans were on show but people were mostly concerned about the floating bus stop at the time. I don’t recall the issue of the grass verges if it was raised by any residents.”

    However, I believe that the problem which some people are encountering seems to be that the scheme may be using land to which it’s not entitled, and this has only become apparent since work has started. It’s also feared that some of the Hills Road greenery also seems to be at risk, something which wasn’t apparent on the plans. It’s not the consultation which is the problem; there is a degree of apprehension and helplessness being felt by some residents that there will be unwanted and irreversible side effects to the scheme which may not have been detailed in advance. This is the impression that I was trying to convey.

  5. Why did I vote for 20 mph limit on Queen Edith’s Way?

    1 It is a residential street with young children and many older impaired residents living along its length [Safety – reduce collision numbers and severity]
    2 Drivers regularly exceed the current speed limit (many residents have complained to me). Many older people are sufficiently concerned about the speed of traffic that they are put off walking and cycling [Health – just 5 minutes walking a day improves mental and physical health]
    3 Most houses have a drive. Getting in and out of the drive is not easy when the traffic is flowing.
    4 During busy periods there will be no practical difference in travel time [most time is spent queueing]
    5 At low traffic flow times, assuming travel at 20 mph or 30 mph between stops, an average of 3 halts during the length of QEW (because of cars entering drives, 2 sets of pedestrian lights, a roundabout, overtaking cycles or delivery vans, and many bus stops), allowing for deceleration and acceleration, the true difference in average speed is only 4 or 5 mph or 80 seconds extra time.
    6 Slower traffic makes it safer to walk of cycle to school [reduces obesity, improves child health]

    Is it such an imposition that a driver might take an extra minute to travel the full length of QEW for all these benefits? I think not. If it were your street and children, or your parents you would slow down.

    1. Tim – Glad to hear someone speak up for QEW residents, 20mph is the right limit on a residential road with several schools and old people’s homes nearby. Matt

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