All change at Cambridgeshire County Council

Summary

Some observations following today’s first full council following the 2013 local government elections

By sheer twist of fate, I managed to feature across three different media platforms in one day today – TV, radio and print. Well…online print if you count the third. Interesting to note that all three were a result of my social media presence. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

***Me on teh tellybox!*** On BBC Look East, commenting on the 2013 Cambridgeshire County Council elections. (Their typo on my surname)

***Me on teh tellybox!*** On BBC Look East, commenting on the 2013 Cambridgeshire County Council elections. (Their typo on my surname)

I was on BBC Look East this evening (See here, 2m.25s in – available till 6pm 22/5) as well as being on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire at a frightfully early hour this morning. The transcript of which is here. Finally, I had a very short comment piece on civil service apprenticeships posted in The Guardian, for which Sir Bob Kerslake is due to respond to all of us later on.

Puffles with Elodie Harper of Anglia Television

Puffles with Elodie Harper of Anglia Television

The media presence

There was also a large media presence in Shire Hall today – I counted over 10 of us there, representing TV (both ITV and BBC), Radio (BBC & Heart), print (Cambridge Evening News and the Cambridgeshire Times) and social media (myself and Richard Taylor) along with campaign groups such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign.

We even got to meet longtime Twitterfriend Elodie Harper of Anglia Television too!

 

“Thanks for the advertorial Pooffles, but can we get to the substance now please?”

If we must

I rocked up at Shire Hall in Cambridge – the HQ of Cambridgeshire County Council – for the first full council since the Conservative group lost their majority and leader in the elections a few weeks ago. As I repeated on the radio, I did not foresee either, hence turning up to Shire Hall to see what the new political dynamic would look like. As far as all things local government are concerned, the votes that were passed today were significant as far as long term political culture in the county is concerned. It’s just too early to feel the effects of it.

How so?

We have very much moved on from the previous model of ‘strong leader with big whip’ to one of consensus. All of the other parties joined together to pass motions limiting the power of the council’s executive, as well as moving from a cabinet system to a committee system, the latter being where committees are due to be made up of members from all parties.

Why is this significant? Because it means that the Conservatives – who are going to be running a minority administration – will have to co-operate with at least one other group to get their policies voted through.

“Well that makes for a nice cosy right-wing Tory-UKIP stitch-up, doesn’t it?”

Not at all. The mood coming from UKIP Cambridgeshire group leader Peter Reeve was that he saw Cambridgeshire Conservatives as a dying force in the region – one where his party can take rich pickings as far as future votes are concerned. Accordingly, the Labour and Liberal Democrats groups were more than happy to team up with UKIP today to pass motions significantly reducing the ability of new council leader Cllr Martin Curtis to force through policies in the way his predecessor was able to.

What we don’t have in Cambridgeshire though is a coalition. Was there any possibility of a LibDem-Tory coalition for Cambridgeshire? Given that the former have been the official opposition for quite some time against the latter, the personality dynamics made this less likely. It wasn’t as if it was two opposition parties coming together to replace a third incumbent as in Westminster in 2010. The noises from both the Labour and Lib Dem groups is that they will approach each issue on a case-by-case basis. It will be interesting to see who co-operates with who on which issues over the next few years, because it’s not as clear cut as it might look from a distance.

“How so?”

There are a number of ‘game changing’ factors here, such as:

  • Both the Conservatives and the next largest party, the Liberal Democrats have new leaders of their groups in the council, and both are leading significantly smaller groups on the council
  • UKIP and Labour have significantly increased their presence at the expense of the above-two
  • The Council is now under no overall control, with a minority Conservative administration that will have to govern through consensus rather than through strength of council votes
  • Further significant cuts being forced on the Council by cuts in the grant from Central Government.

The Great Wall of Cambridge – will the City see this as an opportunity to break away from the rural north?

It’s what most councillors at the district level Cambridge City Council want. The reason being that they feel (and not without good reason) that transport policy in previous years has been decided by councillors that do not live in Cambridge. Therefore attempts to deal with congestion – such as congestion charging – have fallen by the wayside. I don’t have a problem with congestion charging of vehicles in principle, but it’s not a standalone solution. It would need to be co-ordinated with capital investment (light rail, new bus stops/interchanges and bypasses) along with significantly improved transport services to rural areas and other key market towns. The other challenge is how to make congestion charging not have too detrimental impact on local businesses while at the same time alleviating the pressure that comes from organised day trippers – particularly in the summer.

Switching from the existing two-tier set up to a unitary model would require primary legislation in Parliament. Given the Coalition’s previous moves with Norwich and Exeter, it is unlikely that Cambridge will become a unitary authority before the next general election.

The other risk with Cambridge becoming a unitary authority is the polarisation of the county north and south. How would both central and local government avoid the risk of the north of the county becoming even more cut off from the more economically prosperous south than it already is? Hence why for me over the next few years, transport infrastructure will be one of the key issues – one that goes far beyond the trials and tribulations of the much-maligned A14.

 

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