Sir David Amess murder sparks council probe amid safety concerns

Cambridgeshire county councillors meet to discuss New Shire Hall

Councillors met to discuss whether a probe into the usefulness of Cambridgeshire County Council's New Shire Hall should be launched after concerns were raised over councillor safety. - Credit: Cambridgeshire County Council

A probe into the usefulness of Cambridgeshire County Council’s new £18 million headquarters will be launched after concerns were raised about councillor safety following the murder of MP Sir David Amess. 

A council report revealed that councillor safety from threatening members of the public could not be ensured at full council meetings in New Shire Hall. 

Council officers told the authority’s strategy and resources committee on March 29 there is concern about the safety of councillors as the room’s new design allows members of the public to sit within close proximity to them. 

Issues over accessibility and the space required for social distancing were also raised in the report. 

The county council spent £18m on its new building in Alconbury, moving from its former home in Shire Hall in Cambridge. 

The new multi-function room where meetings take place, was not designed to be a direct replacement of the dedicated council chamber in Shire Hall, but was aimed to be used for other uses as well. 

Committee meetings have been held in the new site since summer 2021, but full council meetings have so far been held at other larger venues, such as Burgess Hall in St Ives. 

View of Cambridgeshire County Council meeting

Recent meeting at New Shire Hall of a county council committee. - Credit: Twitter/Lucy Nethsingha

Councillors agreed at a meeting for council officers to prepare a detailed report looking into the potential issues with using the room, and whether there are any options to address these. 

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A report published ahead of the meeting identified that there are three main potential issues relating to the practicality of using the room for a full council meeting. 

The first related to use of the room whilst social distancing measures are being observed, as the report said the multi-function-room does not provide enough space for this at a full council meeting. 

It did add that similar issues may have been faced in the former council chamber in Shire Hall, and that without social distancing the room could accommodate a full council meeting. 

However, other concerns were highlighted in the report, including the safety of councillors, with the close proximity members of the public would be sitting from them during a meeting being raised as a concern. 

Seating arrangement at New Shire Hall, Alconbury Weald

An idea of the distance between councillors at New Shire Hall. - Credit: CCC

Speaking to councillors at the committee meeting, a council officer referenced the murder of Essex MP Sir David last year. 

The third issue related to the size of the room and the impact this had restricting accessibility for people who need to use a wheelchair, and the impact on councillor comfort during long meetings. 

All committee councillors supported for a more detailed report to be put together, but there was division over the points raised. 

Conservative councillor Chris Boden said he did not believe the county council should make long term decisions based on the issues raised relating to Covid.  

He also suggested that the tables and chairs could be placed in a different way than proposed in the report to better use the space. 

In relation to the safety of councillors, he said they needed to be “very careful” about isolating councillors from the public as they needed to be “open and visible”. 

Councillor Lorna Dupré, Liberal Democrat, said she had sympathy for the concerns raised by those in the opposition in relation to the security aspect. 

She said she felt it was “dangerous” for councillors to treat themselves as being people who must be protected from the public. 

Cllr Dupré recognised that “horrible” things had happened to people in public roles.  

She said: “There are risks, but there are risks in a whole lot of things in life and you don’t put up huge steel fences.” 

Councillor Steve Count, leader of the Conservative opposition, argued that if councillors had concerns, they should have raised them during the building of New Shire Hall. 

He said all members had been invited to visit the site and see the room.  

“Do you know how many people said this is not fit for purpose?” said Cllr Count. 

“How many people said they had concerns about disability access? Zero, not one, every single comment was a positive one.” 

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha said no final decision had been made and that the suggestion was for a report to be put together looking at the issues raised. 

She said: “I do have concerns about the safety and the disability access in this room, but I will say I am in no way an expert on safety and disability access, which is why I want a report.” 

Cllr Nethsingha added that the report could find that no changes were needed, or could suggest some changes, but said councillors would not know without a report. 

A detailed report on the issues raised relating to the room is due to be presented to councillors in September this year.