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.