Today’s Full Council meeting of Cambridgeshire County Council was the first of the new council year, so started with the election of the Chair (Mandy Smith) and Vice Chair (Mac McGuire).
The Chair noted the death of Nigel Bell, who represented Ely North & East as a Liberal Democrat county councillor from 2005 to 2013. Lib Dem group leader Lucy Nethsingha paid tribute to Nigel’s contribution to the council.
There was a question from a member of the public about the redundancy and immediate reappointment as an LGSS* contractor of the former LGSS Director of People, Transformation and Transactions – the answer given by the Leader of the Council was so long and convoluted that the Chair cut it off half way through so we never did hear the full story.
[*LGSS is the partnership of Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Milton Keynes councils for the provision of ‘back office’ services.]
A petition was received asking the council to fund The Fields children’s centre nursery in Cambridge.
County council to move to Alconbury
The major debate of the day was about the proposal to move the county council’s HQ out of Shire Hall to a new purpose-built building at Alconbury. Many councillors including me made the point that the public transport links there were poor, and also that there was a surplus of office space in a variety of local government buildings all round Cambridgeshire. Cambridgeshire’s partner in LGSS, Northamptonshire recently went basically bankrupt and has now been taken over by Government commissioners – and one of the first things to happen was the sale of their brand new HQ. And of course there is every prospect of some sort of reorganisation of local government sooner rather than later, leading to at least one tier of local government disappearing and even more surplus office space. The Alconbury proposal was voted through by Conservative councillors, however, with other groups opposing. For all the talk of this decision saving the taxpayer millions of pounds, I can’t help feeling that this will return to bite the council, and Cambridgeshire residents, on the bottom.
It’s not yet clear whether the council will sell the existing Shire Hall HQ, or just lease it out. At present, the council’s Commercial & Investment Committee has the power to make that decision without bringing it back to the Full Council. I asked the committee chair for an assurance that the committee wouldn’t take such a significant decision but would bring it back to the whole council. Such an assurance was not only not given, but was pointedly refused.
Until today, committee meetings could make decisions if only a quarter of their members were present. For a committee of eight, that could result in just two councillors making decisions, including Planning decisions. That felt wrong, so I asked the Constitution & Ethics Committee to consider the question. The committee did this, and recommended that the council should increase this requirement from a quarter to a half, and to one-third for the Full Council. The council today agreed – result.
The council appointed councillors to committees, and to outside organisations on which the council is represented; and appointed committee chairs. As a result of other changes on the council, I’m now no longer on the Health Committee, which is a sadness as that is something I’ve very much enjoyed.
Motions from councillors
A motion from one of the independent councillors, Tom Sanderson, called for councillors to be allowed to attend the quarterly Highways Authority & Utility coordination meetings, which take place for council officers and utility companies to plan ahead together for roadworks. My colleague Henry Batchelor seconded this, and I and my group voted for it, but the Conservative group opposed it so it was defeated.
A motion from Conservative councillor Anna Bailey proposed that the council should mount a ‘purge on plastics’. I moved an amendment, put jointly by my group and the Labour group, to try to widen out what was a rather narrow and restrictive motion, but again this was defeated. It was a decidedly surreal debate (why was it right to include plastic straws in the motion, but not plastic cups? why was it so wrong to ask for a committee meeting to discuss an action plan so that everyone could bring their ideas and discuss this properly? should we ban balloons?), and we ended up with everyone voting in favour of a motion that could just have been so very much better and more inclusive of other people’s contributions.
There were a couple of written questions put by a couple of my Lib Dem colleagues, about the growing menace of potholes, which received written answers.