Thursday evening saw the fullest public gallery at East Cambs council for a long time, as climate change campaigners attended to see what happened to their petition calling on the council to declare a climate emergency. The meeting also saw what may probably be one of the longest East Cambs council meetings ever, at a staggering six hours and twenty-five minutes.
We heard some passionate and articulate statements from the public in support of the petition. Because there were two motions on climate change on the council agenda, debate on the content of the petition was reserved to those items.
The Liberal Democrat group voted against the council’s proposed corporate plan, which nevertheless passed by 15 votes to 12. This deeply disappointing and repetitious document of course contained a few items we could support, but gave excessive weight to cars and insufficient priority to pedestrians and cyclists, and promoted East Cambs Conservatives’ distorted Community Land Trust model with its conflicts of interest and failure of governance.
The following is a list of the 22 positive proposals put to the meeting by the Liberal Democrat group – every single one of which was voted down by the massed ranks of the 15 Conservative councillors running the authority.
- An excellent motion on inclusivity submitted by Cllrs Alison and Christine Whelan was butchered so badly by a Conservative amendment that they had to withdraw it. The motion sought to make the council and the wider district more inclusive of people from all different walks of life. We had suspected the Conservatives might seek to delete the proposal for unconscious bias training, on grounds of cost. We never in our worst nightmares imagined that they would burn the motion to the ground and then burn the ashes, turning the motion from one which promoted everybody’s right to be fully included into society into a statement whose main theme was: there isn’t really that much actual hate crime here so that’s good.
- An ambitious climate change motion proposed by Sutton’s Cllr Mark Inskip declared a climate emergency, set a ‘zero carbon’ deadline date of 2030, and proposed to involve the community in some radical steps to reach carbon zero. It was defeated.
- Our first amendment to the Conservatives’ competing, and much less effective, climate change motion didn’t need to be debated, as the Conservatives amended their own motion to include it – the declaration of a climate emergency. Unfortunately, our second amendment, proposed by Cllr Victoria Charlesworth from Soham, to change the zero carbon deadline from 2050 to a more ambitious 2030 was voted down.
- An amendment from Bottisham’s Cllr Charlotte Cane to form a climate change partnership to work with the community on the threat of climate change was also lost.
- Cllr Victoria Charlesworth drew attention to the award-winning Passivhaus council house development in Norwich, and proposed that East Cambridgeshire aspire to build to those standards. Defeated again – why don’t we deserve what Norwich has got?
- Ely North’s Cllr Simon Harries moved to delete the glowing references to development at Kennett from the Conservative motion – a prudent move as the controversial scheme there is under threat of potential judicial review. This was also lost.
- Cllr Charlotte Cane proposed to require the business plans of the council’s two trading companies to address the climate emergency, and again was defeated on both counts.
- A Liberal Democrat proposal to defer consideration of the trading company’s business plan was voted down – rather rashly, really, considering that the accounts and governance of the trading company have been referred to the auditors and we are awaiting their response.
- We thanked the council’s Independent Remuneration Panel for its work but voted against their recommendations to increase councillors’ allowances, on the grounds that we don’t think the council can afford this or that it’s the priority right now. The Conservatives disagreed and voted through the rises.
- We proposed that the council should set up a separate Strategic Planning Committee to consider issues relating to the local plan and planning policy. This is after all one of the most important issues facing East Cambridgeshire at the moment. Instead, Conservative councillors voted to add this work to the council’s Finance & Assets Committee, not only increasing the scope of work of a busy committee, but also adding further to the conflicts of interest at East Cambs council. How will a committee responsible for the council’s finances, land ownership and trading company deal impartially with planning policy which could increase its income?
- We proposed that council officers should circulate amendments to council motions before the meeting. This was defeated, somewhat bizarrely as Conservative councillors had been complaining earlier in the evening about Liberal Democrat amendments not being circulated earlier!
- We proposed that when councillors ask questions at council meetings they should be answered by the people to whom they are addressed. Too often council officers, who are meant to be impartial, get dragged into answering questions, or even into the detail of debates, when it should be the councillors running the authority who should be held accountable. Defeated again.
- Cllr Alec Jones proposed that the council should delete the requirement for councillors to have to seek permission from the chairman not to stand when speaking. A number of councillors find this difficult for personal reasons, and it’s not inclusive to require them to request special permission to participate properly in the business of the council. But then we had already seen East Cambs’ Conservatives’ understanding (or not) of inclusivity earlier in the evening. Another defeat.
- Cllr Charlotte Cane proposed an amendment expressing concern that the council trading company’s accounts had not been circulated to councillors despite being expected at committee almost a month earlier. For the only time in the evening, one Conservative councillor broke ranks to abstain on this – but it was voted down by the rest of his group, who are apparently quite relaxed about this.
- Cllr Cane also proposed an amendment to change the title of the ‘director commercial’ of East Cambs Trading Company. This seems a small matter, but it’s the same title the officer holds in the council, and a different title would have helped remove some of the permanent confusion about which role people are acting in when there are already so many conflicts of interest between the council, its trading company, and the company’s primary lender. Voted down again.
- Cllr Cane further opposed the appointment of the recently resigned councillor directors of the trading company as ‘observers‘ with speaking rights at trading company board meetings. These appointments would continue to muddy the waters between the council and the trading company, giving these councillors influence but no accountability. Another defeat.
- Cllr Cane then proposed to delete a proposal that the council authorise the company secretary to update the company’s articles of association, on the grounds that this was a further blurring of the distinction between the council and the company. Voted down again.
- We then had the same proposals (15, 16 and 17) and the same defeats with respect to the other council company (East Cambs Street Scene)’s director titles …
- … and councillor observers …
- … and authorisation of the company secretary.
- We proposed that the council defer a decision on whether or not to begin drawing up a new Local Plan. The officer’s report indicated that the arguments for and against this were finely balanced. We felt strongly that as parish councils were bearing the burden of not having a current Local Plan that could stand up to scrutiny, both by having to respond to huge volumes of planning applications and by having to draw up neighbourhood plans as their only means to protect their villages, parish councils should be consulted before the district council decided to kick the can down the road for another year or more. Defeated.
- We also proposed to withdraw discussions of how the council would distribute the Community Infrastructure Levy income from developers, so that we could assess whether the plans helped the council’s new climate change proposals before bringing them back to a future meeting for reconsideration. But this was also voted down.
Defeated on this occasion but not deterred, Liberal Democrats on East Cambridgeshire District Council will continue to stand up for the interests of local residents and our district. The next meeting of the full council isn’t until January. Perhaps more frequent council meetings might mean shorter ones?