Full Council, Tue 17 Oct 17

DSC03905 cropIt’s going to be a fun day today if the agenda is anything to go by. There’s been a developing issue regarding proposals to shut down most of the County’s children’s centres and there have been sufficient signatures on a petition which has resulted in it being an item on today’s agenda. The TV’s here, we have a demo outside and there are lots of public questions. And now we’re told we’re starting a tad late because it’s taking time for all the attending members of the public to find seats. Furthermore it seems that council leader Steve Count isn’t going to be here at the start, he’s said to be at an emergency meeting of the LEP. Now it seems we’re all set and there’s a banner unfurled in the public gallery.

Prayers today are led by a lady vicar with purple hair.

We have 12 public questions and the rule of a limit of 4 is being waived but supplementaries will not be allowed.

First up is Anthony Carpen (Puffles) who’s a regular questioner. He’s a history buff and takes an interest in the Council’s archives and Cambridge’s history. He asks that the Council considers some form of museum being built when the Council’s site is redeveloped.

Now Colin McGurty and a first question about the children’s centres issue. It will be the first of several on the same theme and there’s a remarkable, wooden response which the chair of the Children’s Committee reads. Click here for a full list of all the public questions.

Now we break because the A/V system isn’t working. There are lots of people in the KV room and they can’t hear what’s going on. It seems that can’t be fixed so they’re all coming into the Council Chamber. It’s now rather full and there are several small children also present.

There are then several more children’s centre related questions and finally, when Steve Count turns up, Dan Greef asks him how he can support cuts to children’s centres whilst councillors are taking a substantial increase in allowances.

That’s it but it’s just the hors d’oeuvres. We’ve now got a petition, the one that has led to the debate, on the children’s centre issue. Nicky Shepherd made a very emotional speech talking from personal experience about the value of a local children’s centre. Would have had most audiences in tears but my bet is it won’t affect the Tory whip.

We’ve got to 1055 and it’s time for the debate. Item 6: proposals to restructure the children’s centre provision. This is the main course.

A quick interruption though because my speaking/voting machine doesn’t work. Not a good day for technology. Quickly sorted and I’ve registered to speak.

In the debate itself there’s the usual more heat than light. It boils down to those who think cuts are better than increases in council tax and those who will benefit on the one hand and those who think that this is a false economy on the other. I am in the latter group; I speak and highlight the irrational nature of the proposal:

  • There’s no talk of output measures. How much better will the proposal be than the status quo?
  • The consultation has been superficial. It was largely about principles which are largely sound. Officers insisted to me that final decisions had yet to be made.
  • There is a choice. Pursuing cuts like this ignores other options which might not make the same savings but would deliver a better result.

Vote 31 in favour, 22 against.

In hindsight it’s a matter of the wrong question being asked. Officers were told to find ways to reduce costs and they did. They should have been asked to improve the service. In Industry the quality improvment maxim is if you improve processes you reduce costs, if you simply aim to reduce costs then processes get worse.

It’s 1415 and we break until 1500. The Lib Dem group is smart and orders pizza. The others have to fight over the last remaining sandwiches in the vending machine.

After this morning’s excitement: item 7 is reports from the Constitution & Ethics Committee. We rattle on until we get to constitutional changes where there is a proposal to limit questions on Combined Authority business. There’s also a proposal to reduce the number of people needed to support decision call-in. At present it’s waited in favour of a majority party. That’s two changes in the same amendment makes it tricky. Amendment lost 30 to 16. Substantive motion (unamended) carried 29 to 11 with 7 abstentions (Labour).

Then it’s the Audit & Accounts Committee Annual Report. The chair highlights the problem which the Council will have as the transformation program results in the loss of people with experience.

Continuing a theme: the Pension Committee Annual Report and the Local Pension Fund Board report.

Then two more administrative items (committee memberships and appointments to outside organisations) before we have an item on unitary governance. This is about how we approach a move to unitary governance following a motion to Council earlier in the year. The debate is not about what form or reorganisation but about but how we decide on it.

Option 3 (leave it to the Combined Authority) carried 30 to 17. I voted against. I would have voted for option 4 which was in favour of a broader ‘constitutional assembly’.

This is going on forever. We now have four motions.

First one is a very confused and, I think, inappropriate motion calling on the Chief Exec to write a letter asking the police to take action whenever there is aggressively negative public behaviour against politicians. Mover says he wants to make the Council more attractive to voters and potential candidates and new councillors.

There’s an amendment to propose something which the council might do instead of simply asking for the Chief Exec to write a letter. The debate gets surprisingly heated. I speak in favour of the amendment which calls for action. Amendment lost 17 to 27.

The motion itself also gets lots of debate and I make the point that councillor actions (vote to increase allowances, voting with the whip) influence the opinions of others and we need to be mindful of that. The debate evolves into one of opposition to anti-political behaviour. Hardly the stuff of a motion. Motion carried 40 to 0 with 3 abstentions (including me).

It’s 1635 and motion number 2 is from Labour and calls on Council not to reduce expenditure on children’s services in next year’s budget. Basically this calls for children’s budget to be protected. Labour and Lib Dem support because the service is creaking. Vote lost 15 to 25.

The third motion, also from Labour, is about fire sprinklers and would require the Council to review all its buildings, not just the ones above a certain height as required by current regulations, with respect to fire safety. Tories indicate that they do not support because it would mean fitting sprinklers in all buildings. Vote lost 15 to 26.

And finally: a Lib Dem motion requiring that the Council ensures that its housing development projects meet local (district) council affordable housing quotas.This is a difficult one. I support the principle but the wording of the motion is difficult to implement in practice. Unfortunately Tories seem to believe motion relates to all development and not just development on Council land. Lost 15 to 26.

It’s worth noting that the Tories could have amended the last two motions, without neutering them, so that they could support them. They didn’t bother.

It’s 1735! Is this never going to end?

Agenda item 15: questions for the Combined Authority ‘who is responsible for the factual accuracy of statement made by the mayor?. Answer refused because it’s not a question about a decision. Then a question for the Combined Authority’s scrutiny committee on the same subject.

And now for the Fire Authority: no questions.

Written questions: there are two one related to county farms, future of (holding answer) and the other about ‘area champions’.

And finally: we finish at 1745. That’s six and a half hours. Some meeting.

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