A full county council meeting at Shire Hall today, in stifling temperatures.
Two public questions: one asking for a regular car-free day, which met with a not exactly ‘can do’ response from the Conservative council leader, and the other about the Civil War earthworks at Shire Hall. The response from the council to the second question was rather more positive: as the council was proposing to lease the Shire Hall site rather than sell it, it would remain in public ownership and therefore subject to a requirement of public access.
Plastics strategy: this was recommended from the General Purposes Committee where we’d had a reasonable discussion and suggested some changes. There was a similar outbreak of unanimity again. I made four points:
- We need to do this properly: no more unresearched virtue signalling, like buying ‘compostable’ cups which can’t be composted within the seven-week cycle at the waste plant and end up going to landfill (the council has now decided to dispense with providing cups altogether and we’ll just have to bring our own, which is sensible).
- We need to resource it sufficiently: if we need to put in drinking water refill points throughout our public buildings, that needs a budget.
- We need to encourage communities who are keen to do this stuff: there are Eco groups springing up all over the place, enthused predominantly by TV coverage of single-use plastics, and we need to support them.
- We need to face up to the difficult stuff as well as the easy stuff: ten years ago we could feel good about putting the right item in the right wheelie-bin and think that was enough. Things have got significantly more serious since then, and we need to start thinking about more challenging actions like reducing car use to cut the amount of tyre dust washing into our watercourses and into the oceans – the second largest source of marine plastic.
A Treasury Management report went through on the nod, then we were onto a series of reports from the Constitution & Ethics Committee. Most were uncontentious, but there was disquiet on both sides of the council chamber about the committee’s new Social Media Code for councillors – in my view, impractical to implement but also indefensible under human rights and freedom of speech legislation, and a block on opposition councillors doing their opposition duty. It was decided not to cross-reference the new code into the council’s constitution as the committee recommended, so we now have a breathing space in which we can consider what to do.
Next up, four motions. The first, from Labour, calling for the retention of a police station in the centre of Cambridge with 24/7 staffing, was a bit of a dog’s dinner. My group did our best to amend it into something more sensible by more accurately describing the role of the proposed new southern divisional police hub at Milton, addressing the potential benefits of co-locating the police with council community safety officers and enforcement staff, expressing more succinctly the particular policing challenges of Cambridge, and emphasising the importance of keeping police stations open in the rest of Cambridgeshire not just Cambridge. In the event, the Conservative majority group voted against it all anyway.
The second motion, also from Labour, was on the Real Living Wage. It underwent a last-minute rewrite when Labour councillors realised that all staff at the county council already receive at least the Real Living Wage. It also sought to get the council to sign up to only use contractors who also pay the Real Living Wage. My group again tried to amend it, pointing out that while the aims were laudable, the council was currently in a financial crisis and our first priority was to keep services running, and commitments to spending lots of money on raising the sums paid to social care companies and highways contractors would have to wait. Again, the majority Conservative group voted it all down.
After a half-hour lunch break, the third motion, from Liberal Democrat councillor David Jenkins, sought to find out what Mayor Palmer’s Combined Authority was doing about the review of local government which the county council had handed over to the Combined Authority to do about a year ago. The motion also sought confirmation that all the current combining of jobs, computer systems and everything else between Cambridgeshire and Peterborough wouldn’t prevent the Combined Authority suggesting local government boundaries on different lines. The Conservatives removed the request for that confirmation, and also removed the request for a timetable for the Combined Authority to complete its recommendations on a way forward. Very odd that having handed over this piece of work to the Mayor’s Combined Authority, Conservatives on the county council seem so totally uninterested in when it will be done. Meanwhile local residents are increasingly confused by the multiple layers of local government, and frustrated by the cost and duplication of it all.
The fourth motion, from Liberal Democrat councillor Graham Wilson, was withdrawn. It had raised some serious issues about the huge shortfall in funding for adult social care (£3.6 billion across England and Wales by 2025), and called for a comprehensive lobbying campaign to persuade the Government to address the matter. Instead, Conservative councillors chose to make a complete circus of the motion, amending it to cut out references to staff being constrained by lack of funds, with the Conservative leader of the council adding congratulations to himself (for achieving what, precisely?) and even suggesting it was all the fault of other parties for ‘thwarting attempts to deliver Brexit’! (Remind me which party is in Government with a majority of MPs at the moment?). We decided it was better to withdraw the motion altogether than have it turned into such a farrago of nonsense.
There were no questions for our representatives on the Combined Authority, at which point the meeting closed. It probably achieved something, but not very much.