Too much secrecy

CottsignIt’s not my patch of course anymore but as a member of a committee at the County Council I still carry some sort of collective responsibility for Cottenham and on Friday it was on the agenda at the Commercial & Investments Committee.

The matter relating to Cottenham was County’s project to build houses on a plot of County Farm land out on Rampton Road. It’s one of several proposed developments which the Parish Council is currently battling. It’s not anti-development per se but these are in the wrong place and furthermore might materially damage the fabric of the village. They are not popular in the community.

Rather surprisingly the County Council has not reached any sort of agreement with Cottenham Parish Council and is just steam rolling on without regard to local wishes. It’s not supposed to act that way. It’s a council!

Actually it’s not obvious that it was on the agenda because the ‘programme highlight report’ was item 13 on the agenda after item 12 ‘exclusion of the press and public’.

It’s reasonable that the Council does not discuss sensitive commercial strategy in public but there is in fact little of that and I’ve been asking since May 17 that this exclusion be selective but no progress so far. At this meeting I asked that we discuss the Cottenham project, its recent planning application was turned down by South Cambs, be discussed before the exclusion. The Chair of the Committee refused my request.

What I was going to say, in public, was that perhaps County should pause and reconsider its approach, that it should re-engage with the Parish Council and that simply continuing in defiance of local opinion risked bringing the County Council into disrepute. I would have argued the need for patience, other developers wait for the right time to press ahead with their plans, and reminded the Committee of the adage about being in a hole and stopping digging. I would have further reminded them that the previous Chair had promised a meeting whatever the outcome of the recent planning application and warned them that South Cambs was unlikely to take a positive view of any future planning application which continued to ignore local wishes.

But because the only time I could speak about the Cottenham project was in private session I cannot tell you whether or not I spoke about it and, if I did, what I said. More to the point I cannot tell you the result of any intervention which I might or might not have made.

This is so wrong on at least two counts:

  • secrecy is bad generally but especially when it shields councillors and officers from public scrutiny; and
  • ignoring local opinion is not the way to make friends and the best way to get successful developments implemented is to go for win-win solutions.

I will continue to fight against unnecessary secrecy at the Council. And I will continue champion the need for the Council to be smart and to work with other public sector bodies and not to ignore them just because it’s bigger and thinks its agenda is such that it can do what it likes. Bully boy tactics have no place when you’re trying to ‘develop the local economy for the benefit of all’ as one of the Council’s three over-arching priorities says.

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