There’s a time in your life when you record lots of firsts: first day at school, first paid job, first air flight etc etc. I’m passed that, although I did record my first 10K run a few years ago, and now it’s more about recording lasts. This week I’ve got two: my last meeting of Full Council on Tuesday and my last meeting of the Commercial & Investment Committee( C&I) yesterday. And next week it will be my last meeting of the General Purposes Committee which will also be my last county council meeting.
The fact that I am not standing for re-election is public knowledge and there’s a pleasantly sympathetic interview with me on that subject on HI Hub. Click here to read that article.
I’ve been on C&I since its beginning and have experienced three different chairs. I won’t embarrass the current one by comparing him to the others but I will say that I’ve enjoyed the meetings more with him as chair than I have since the early days when it was simply ‘assets and investments’. He prides himself on steering the committee in the direction of consensus decisions and I’ll give him credit for that.
But on Friday consensus fell apart when we got to agenda item 6: Infrastructure Fund(s) Selection.
The County Council gets to borrow money from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at low interest rates. These are typically round about 2%/year at the moment compared to commercial rates which range from 4% for mortgages up to 6%. This is the spread that the County Council exploits in its deal with This Land.
The County Council can also make money investing this money in funds which deal in equities which can also return around 5% year and it has a strategy to do just that to the tune of about £20 million. This agenda item was to approve the selection of a number of funds which would be used.
The Council’s officers have done their homework and working with 3rd party advisors has come up with a short list of four funds which they believe would offer good potential and recommends three of them. Problem is one of them invests in natural gas and such investments need consideration alongside the Council’s Climate Emergency position.
My position, and it’s one shared with my Lib Dem and Labour colleagues on the committee, is that our approach to the emergency should be one of no compromise because every compromise which you make simply makes reaching your goal of zero carbon more difficult.
I attended an event in which Mark Carney was interviewed last Wednesday. He was very clear about the need to be single minded in one’s approach to addressing the climate emergency. He is optimistic but says we still need to regard it as an existential threat and do nothing to prejudice our ability to address it. He also holds the ‘no compromise’ position.
Not so our Tory friends. Fair does their position was not uniform. One was close to being on the fence and another did not speak but for the others the talk was of balance. It was suggested that we must balance the Council’s need to maximise its earnings with its climate change commitments. So it’s OK to save the world but only after we’ve earned another million by exploiting our PWLB borrowing privilege. It’s not on is it? Click here to watch the debate.
A vote was taken and inevitably the Tories had enough votes and the recommendation was carried 5 to 3. The chair voted as one of the 5.
There was better news later on. Agenda item 10 was about the Cambridge Biomedical Campus but it was taken in secret (I abstained from the vote to do that). That means I can’t tell you what it was all about but I will risk telling you that an additional recommendation was made requiring the Council to act in a manner consistent with due consideration of the wider social and environmental interests of the County and its residents ie not just its own financial interests. Given that previous committees and their chairs have taken the position that C&I should only think about money that really is good news.
Item 11, the strangely entitled Spokes – Cambridge Registry Office and Huntingdon Youth Centre was also taken in secret. This was unnecessary and the result of a poorly written paper. I protested strongly because financial decisions, which I supported, were taken in secret which was wrong. There was a time that this committee always went into secret session because it was easier and I saw this as a return to bad practices which I had hoped it had grown out of.