A disagreement has arisen on Peterborough City Council over just how effective the new Neighbourhood Councils are, whether they achieve what they claim to do, and whether the money is wasted. The debate begins with two interviews with Councillors broadcast at 07:09 and 08:10 respectively on Thursday June 3rd in the Peterborough Breakfast Show hosted by Andy Gall on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. The first interview for the prosecution is with Cllr Steven Goldspink from the English Democrat Party. The second interview for the defence is with Cllr Peter Hiller Cabinet Member for Neighbourhood, Housing and Community Development.
This is followed by two more interviews broadcast on the next day, Friday 4th June at 07:35, with Doreen Murray a former councillor from the Ortons and an opponent of the current Councils and Chris York the unsuccesful Labour PPC for N.W.Cambridgeshire, who believes they offer some value.
GALL: Nine minutes past seven now, and a Peterborough councillor has reacted angrily to remarks made by the City Council after the authority praised the impact of Neighbourhood Councils. Peterborough City Council are claiming that Neighbourhood Councils have given residents greater say, and are becoming well established in the city. However, the Leader of the English Democrats Councillor Steve Goldspink disputes the claims, saying the agendas aren’t specific enough, and very few members of the public attend the meetings. Here to talk about it is Councillor Steven Goldspink. Good morning Councillor.
GOLDSPINK: Morning Andy.
GALL: So you were reacting to a press release advertising the fourth round of Neighbourhood meetings. And what did the Council say about Neighbourhood Councils?
GOLDSPINK: Well they were implying that residents had a say in how money is spent which simply isn’t true. They have no say in how money is spent. It’s all decided at the top. They were implying the agenda would be relevant to the area, and the agenda wasn’t relevant to the area. It was a couple of general things, one about anti-social behaviour this time, and one about the format of Neighbourhood Council meetings.
GALL: Councillor you’re saying that it’s just a smokescreen. that this perceived empowerment of the people to be able to have a say in what happens is just not true?
GOLDSPINK: It’s not true. And trying to say they’re gaining acceptance when only thireen members of the public from three wards of the city turned up to the last three meetings is crazy.
GALL: Can that be the councillors’ fault, or is that just general apathy amongst the people?
GOLDSPINK: Well I think one of the problems is they were ill-conceived. I think the idea is Ok, ie putting power closer to the people. But none of the infrastructure was put in place. It’s been said to me several times that they were created simply to increase the number of extra payments available to Conservative councillors when Cereste came to power. In fact last year ..
GALL: Well what is the extra payments though?
GOLDSPINK: Well they’ve made .. last year the payments to the Conservative councillors went up from a hundred and ninety four thousand to two hundred and fifty three thousand, which was an increase of thirty per cent. They were actually paying twenty seven allowances in the Council instead of only twenty one. And these councillors, whilst I’m sure they’re trying their best, are not actually doing anything, or making any difference, or doing anything extra for the city.
GALL: Do you not think it was a genuine attempt by the PCC to get the public interested, and more involved in politics?
GOLDSPINK: It may well be. But unfortunately the nature of the meetings is not good. A member of the public sitting next to me on Tuesday night said to me “could you patronise me a little more please.” Basically he was disgusted at the standard of the meeting, and said it was very puerile and there was nothing really of substance. So people who do go there get very disappointed.
GALL: So what would you do differently then? Because it seems as though it was a laudable effort to try and get people to engage in local issues and come along to these meetings, but it just hasn’t worked in your eyes.
GOLDSPINK: Well one of the best things they could do is to actually do some proper feedback from meeting to meeting. The previous meeting an issue was raised about an out-of-date map, about closure of toilets, about parking on verges, accidents at junctions, problems in the park, flooding in Bishops Road, and none of these issues were fed back on. The comments were taken, and when the residents got there they weren’t even on the agenda as actions of last meeting. There was nothing on the board there for what had happened. So people go along, they throw in their ideas, they get told we very much welcome your ideas, and they never hear anything about them again.
GALL: Do people have to go along to these meetings? Because obviously everywhere you hear how people are living busier lives, that it’s quite a luxury to wander down to the Neighbourhood Council meetings. Can’t you do it sort of online, Facebooks or anything like that? Isn’t there an easier or a more contemporary way of doing this?
GOLDSPINK: Well my view is if ward councillors are doing their jobs this sort of thing should be unnecessary. However, if you’re going to do it, you need to put items on the agenda that interest people, and you need to actually feed back to them when they put forward ideas. So I think there are ways of making it better. But it will require quite a lot more effort than what’s been put in at the moment.
GALL: Ok Councillor, there’s quite a bit of background noise. Where are you, by the way?
GOLDSPINK: Where am I? Hah. Outside Kings Cross Station. I tried to find somewhere quiet and it turned out like going into a builders yard, so I’ve gone out into the street instead.
GALL: There is quite a hubbub there. So in essence, your view is that to change it you just want to .. what .. in the shell of a nut? Because people are saying the frustrating thing is you’re hearing that some of the Neighbourhood Chairpersons are getting an extra allowance of around seven thousand pounds?
GOLDSPINK: That’s right. And not very much is happening for it. I think you’ve got to do one of two things. You’ve either got to delegate them some money quick, and tell the officers who look after these meetings that they must give us a better quality of meeting, or you abolish them, and you actually get people going to their ward councillors to raise the issues instead, which personally I think is the best solution, because it actually doesn’t cost as much as the Neighbourhood Councils idea.
GALL: Ok Councillor Steven Goldspink Leader of Peterborough English Democrats, thank you for joining us this morning.
GALL: It’s ten minutes past eight. A Peterborough councillor has described Peterborough City Council’s Neighbourhood Council scheme as crazy. The Leader of the English Democrats Councillor Steven Goldspink was reacting to claims by the Council that the Neighbourhood meetings are tailored to the needs of the specific areas, and gave residents a greater say in how money is spent. He says that there isn’t any evidence to back up the Council’s claim. (TAPE)
GOLDSPINK: Well they were implying that residents had a say in how money is spent which simply isn’t true. They have no say in how money is spent. It’s all decided at the top. They were implying the agenda would be relevant to the area, and the agenda wasn’t relevant to the area. It was a couple of general things, one about anti-social behaviour this time, and one about the format of Neighbourhood Council meetings.(LIVE)
GALL: Councillor Goldspink went on to say that the public weren’t attending the meetings, and were often outnumbered by council officials.(TAPE)
GOLDSPINK: And trying to say they’re gaining acceptance when only thireen members of the public from three wards of the city turned up to the last three meetings is crazy. (LIVE)
GALL: Councillor Peter Hiller is the Cabinet Member for Neighbourhood, Housing and Community Development at Peterborough City Council. Good morning Peter.
HILLER: Yes good morning Andy.
GALL: So, right to reply, what do you make of Goldspink’s criticisms?
HILLER: Well look I think most of your listeners will appreciate that it’s terribly easy to be negative about decisions taken for local democracy when it’s unlikely he’ll ever be in a position to have to make those decisions.
GALL: But Peter there’s a lot there .. but Peter, not to be editorial, but there is a lot there that some people might argue you could be critical of. Small turnouts ..
HILLER: Well, Andy, if I could finish. I have to say that where the English Democrats do have influence, as they do in the city of Doncaster, their elected Mayor has the city’s administration falling down around his ears. I mean that’s a spectacular failure in democracy. You don’t hear much about Doncaster from Councillor Goldspink any more.
GALL: But you can’t move .. we’re not talking about Doncaster, we’re talking about the very local issues to us. Not enough public attendance? It’s hard to defend that isn’t it?
HILLER: Well when Marco became Leader a year ago one of his main manifesto policies was the creation of Neighbourhood Councils. And it is a move away, as Councillor Goldspink did say it is a move away from central anonymous and remote decision making. I think that’s a concept to be called a mainstream Conservative policy. Our Prime Minister David Cameron, I mean he’s very keen to encourage within other local authorities, and cites Peterborough as a best practice model.
GALL: I understand the interpretation of modern politics whereby people feel that they can access it wherever and whenever they want, and they can go to these meetings and feel empowered that they’re being heard, but there’s no evidence that they’ve made a difference to the residents at all, these meetings. No evidence at all.
HILLER: I disagree Andy. I think there’s plenty of evidence. I mean the attendance figures rather depend on people’s inclinations, whether they want to take an active interest in where they live, and their attitude, of course, their attitude to the Council’s future potential. And I guess some folks just don’t want to come out in the evenings. But my own rural north Council had a very good attendance, every meeting, a great deal has been discussed, agreed and actioned.
GALL: So can you give us some examples of positive impact on the local community?
HILLER: Yes of course I can. I mean we’ve agreed that the Councils will have a big say in what happens locally regarding planning applications, local infrastructure improvements, local spending, despite what you’ve been told. Crime issues and anti-social behaviour also figures highly in residents’ concerns and are discussed at length in the Neighbourhood Councils, and decisions are taken. Don’t forget the usual sceptics said the same things about Neighbourhood Policing Panels, and they’re now hugely effective within local communities, and the source of real community engagement.
GALL: Is there any physical examples, though, Peter, because you can trot off statistics like that talking about the day-to-day workings of politics, but any sort of physical examples of these meetings actually bearing fruit?
HILLER: Yes. I mean Neighbourhood Councils won’t change the status quo overnight, Andy. We never said they would. I mean we’re three meetings down the road, and I guess like any new concept you know the Neighbourhood Councils will evolve and change as I’m sure people will find better ways to communicate and involve people. Physical examples are where we listen to people talking about specific planning applications, and whilst they don’t want to go into particular detail, because it’s still an application pending, there is very much in my own rural ward an application which has been discussed at length by our Neighbourhood Council.
GALL: So is there an example of a project that it’s inception was at one of these meetings, and it’s now been acted upon?
HILLER: I can’t give you any particular instances of that, no.
GALL: What about this? Because this could smart with some people as well. All three Neighbourhood Councils, the Chairs of these Councils receive over seven thousand pounds on top of their basic allowance. Do you consider that good value for money?
HILLER: Well there are seven Neighbourhood Councils Andy, and we’ve allocated twenty five thousand pounds or thereabouts for each Neighbourhood Council for this budget year. That money is going to be decided on how to be spent by each individual Neighbourhood Council.
GALL: Is it good value for money?
HILLER: Yes. It’s very good value for money. And it’s local democracy comiong down to local people. It’s one of our tenets of the Conservative administration. I mean yes it is very good value for money.
GALL: Ok Peter, thank you very much for talking to us. What do you make of that? That’s Councillor Peter Hiller Cabinet member for Neighbourhood, Housing and Community Development at Peterborough City Council.
GALL: Seven thiry five now, and on yesterday’s show we were discussing the effectiveness of Peterborough’s Neighbourhood Councils after the Peterborough councillor labelled them ” a craze”. Leader of Peterborough’s English Democrats Steven Goldspink says there is no evidence the Councils were having a positive effect on local neighbourhoods. (TAPE)
GOLDSPINK: Well they were implying that residents had a say in how money is spent which simply isn’t true. They have no say in how money is spent. It’s all decided at the top. They were implying the agenda would be relevant to the area, and the agenda wasn’t relevant to the area. It was a couple of general things, one about anti-social behaviour this time, and one about the format of Neighbourhood Council meetings. (LIVE)
GALL: Councillor Peter Hiller Cabinet member for Neighbourhood, Housing and Community Development at Peterborough City Council rejected Councillor Goldspink’s views. (TAPE)
HILLER: I disagree Andy. I think there’s plenty of evidence. I mean the attendance figures rather depend on people’s inclinations, whether they want to take an active interest in where they live, and their attitude, of course, their attitude to the Council’s future potential. And I guess some folks just don’t want to come out in the evenings. But my own rural north Council had a very good attendance, every meeting, a great deal has been discussed, agreed and actioned. (LIVE)
GALL: .. Now Doreen Murray is from the Ortons, and has served as a Parish and City Councillor in the past, and she joins us now. Good morning Doreen.
MURRAY: Good morning to you. Good morning to everyone.
GALL: So what do you think of the Neighbourhood Councils then?
MURRAY: I think that this is another way of spending the ratepayers’ money foolishly. Because we have Parish Councils. There have always been Parish Councils, and Parish Councils have always dealt with the sort of things now that they’re paying consultants to come in and advise people about. You’ve got these people on the Neighbourhood Councils, but you’ve also got consultants employed to tell them how to behave and what’s happening.
GALL: So is a Neighbourhood Council a Parish Council but under another name then?
MURRAY: Well they may be trying to take over, but it has never cost the ratepayers a lot of money to run the Parish Council, and the Parish Council was accessible all the time to the ratepayers of this city. Having sat on the Parish Council, and having chaired it, I know exactly how it works.
GALL: Did you get much footfall for the Parish Council meetings? Because that’s the problem here with the Neighbourhood Councils. We’re told that there’s very few people who attend them.
MURRAY: The thing with Parish Council meetings was that the councillors were always visible in the area. And this is what I find very very bad now. There are very few councillors who are visible to the people in the area who elect them. They see them at certain times, but only if something drastic happens. But councillors should always be available. And when it came to Parish Council meetings, you didn’t always get people in the evening, quite rightly, because some people go to work. They don’t want to be out in the evenings as well.
GALL: Ok. Doreen, can you just stay there for a second, because we’ve got Chris York who also called us yesterday. He was the Labour Parliamentary Candidate for North West Cambridgeshire, and he’s also on the line. So good morning Chris.
YORK: Yes. Hi. Good morning.
GALL: So what are your views on these Neighbourhood Councils?
YORK: I was very sceptical at first, when they were first announced. A couple of years ago I set up a public meeting to urge our City Council to sign up to the Sustainable Communities, which would have given people a voice in the city, and some more democracy. However the administration at the time didn’t sign up to that Act. I was quite pleased that Marco Cereste the City Council Leader did agree to sign up to that Act. Unfortunately the second submission didn’t take place through the LGA. So the Neighbourhood Councils are another vehicle that we have where we can actually put through ideas and take part in shaping the future of our city, and its policies.
GALL: It’s interesting to hear Labour and the Tories pulling on the same oar on this.
YORK: Well it’s not a case of Labour and the Tories pulling in the same direction, it’s simply a case of each area and each Council is entirely different. We have different issues. In Stanground South, for example. we’ve got warehouse development, we’ve got sixteen hundred new homes, we’ve got a by-pass.
GALL: But Chris isn’t the issue here with these Neighbourhood Councils that they’re simply not engaging with people that they’re trying to attract.
YORK: Well you know I have to disagree. I haven’t been to all of the Neighbourhood Councils, each one is individual on its own merits. Now my personal experience is that my Neighbourhood Council for my area is actually working. We get a large attendance from people. We get some very irate people attending those meetings. However their concerns are addressed, they are taken on board. As people know me from the past I’ve been very critical of the Council, very severely critical, and if I think that the Neighbourhood Council is actually improving the quality of people’s lives and giving us a vehicle to have a democratic voice then I’ll have to accept that these things, it’s our best option that we have at the moment.
GALL: Ok Chris. We’ll just let Doreen come back on that. Doreen, what do you make of what Chris has said?
MURRAY: A load of rubbish to be honest, because at the end of the day, I will repeat again, there are Parish Councils and this money could be generated into them. They do a better job. I have before me here, I’m not going to read them out, but copies of meetings of our Parish Council when I was on it years ago. And some of it was going to be reported to the (…?…) Committee for the Peterborough Southern Township. And looking at it, the landowner and the developer we agreed that they should be made responsible for the safety of the structures, especially ..
GALL: Well Doreen we can’t really get into specifics but we are just ..
MURRAY: We went into the whole thing. And my argument is we now have career councillors, we now have city councillors who are getting a wage. OK?
GALL: Well that is the issue isn’t it? Because you get an extra seven thousand pounds in allowances for chairing these. Is that something we should be getting a bit angry about.
MURRAY: We should be. Because at the end of the day when I was a city councillor I didn’t take any money. I took very very little expenses, very little, only if I had to, and then I gave them to a charity that needed it. But at the end of the day we have now got councillors who are being paid. We’ve now got councillors where it’s their full-time job. I did a full-time job at British Sugar, and I know that large companies were happy if they had a councillor within their midst. They allowed them the time off to the meetings. So you can still hold a job and be a councillor. You do not have to get a wage as a councillor. And very quickly I have to say that this money that’s going to these Neighbourhood Councils is another waste of ratepayers money. That money should be ploughed into the Parish Councils. They’ve always been effective.
GALL: Time’s pressing Doreen. I appreciate what you’re saying but Chris, can you just come back quickly?
YORK: Well there’s a couple of things really. First of all I think councillors’ expense accounts are a separate issue from Neighbourhood Councils, because Doreen and myself we could agree on that all day and we could discuss it for hours. However, like I said, we don’t have a Parish Council in Stanground. We have nothing at all. So we have to have a vehicle which is our Neighbourhood Council. And it’s working for us. It may not be working throughout the rest of the city, but in my particular area, our Neighbourhood Council is actually working, and I stand by my word.
GALL: Ok. Chris, Doreen, thank you very much for talking to us this morning. There they go. They’re still chatting away, and no doubt they’ll be carrying on when we next meet them in about a month’s time.