Conservative councillors voted for cuts to children’s centres in Cambridge City, voted against council tax rises and have now voted down an arts and music programme that the Arts Council had already said it was willing to put £1million towards in Arbury ward, Cambridge. The Conservatives have ***zero councillors*** in Cambridge City and have imposed their will in the face of opposition from their political opponents who make up all of the council seats in Cambridge City. This is unsustainable.
On 17 October the majority Conservative County Councillors on Cambridgeshire County Council voted through cuts of £900,000 to the county’s children’s services. Despite all of the councillors representing Cambridge City voting against these cuts, there are more councillors representing rural wards than those in Cambridge City. Thus by 31 votes to 22, the cuts passed.
Neil Perry, Chief Executive of the Romsey Mill in Cambridge speaking out against the cuts
I’m going to try and not make this blogpost personal as I’m not directly affected by the Conservatives’ votes to cut services to children’s services in Cambridge or block the proposals that would have attracted a £1m Arts Council grant. I’ll leave that to the politicians and the campaigners who are directly affected. What I want to focus on is how the current set up of local government ill-serves a politically and economically divided county.
Cambridge City as a lost aristocratic inheritance for the Conservatives
In the 20th Century, Cambridge only ever had four non-Conservative MPs:
- Stanley Buckmaster KC (Liberal – 1906-10)
- Major Arthur Symonds (Labour – 1945-50- noting a number of MPs were elected while still in wartime uniform)
- Robert Davies (Labour – 1966-67)
- Anne Campbell (Labour – 1992-2005)
Otherwise, Cambridge town only ever returned Conservative MPs. One of the things that I’d like to see a young career researcher look at is why the party declined and is now just a shadow of itself inside the city.
Even the local newspaper the Cambridge Chronicle was openly partisan for the Conservatives.
“Yeah, so why to the young-people-hating, tuition-fee-rising, health-service-cutting evil Tories hate Cambridge so much?”
Interestingly when you listen to elected Conservative politicians – ministers or MPs whose constituencies border or contain small parts of the city within it, they sing its praises. The city is an economic powerhouse and is a net contributor of tax receipts to The Treasury. You just won’t hear them mentioning that as far as democracy is concerned, the good people of Cambridge have no time for Conservative politics. Given the apparent wealth of the city, this is somewhat surprising. Roads where the average house price is measured in seven figures are often seen with far more Labour or Liberal Democrats’ boards at local/general election time than blue boards.
But then forty miles north you will find Fenland District Council where there is not a single Labour councillor – the Corbyn and Momentum machine having had zero impact in what has one of the most economically deprived towns in the UK, Wisbech. My point being that the same issues would apply if say a Labour-controlled county council imposed for example massive increases in council taxes on a district council area that had the makeup that Fenland currently has.
“So…what kicked off today’s call to scrap Cambridgeshire County Council?”
I met up with Cllr Nethsingha this afternoon to find out more about what this was all about.
It relates to item 6 at today’s Commercial and Investment Committee. The members of that committee are listed as:
- Councillor Josh Schumann (Chairman) (Cons – Burwell)
- Councillor Anne Hay (Vice-Chairwoman) (Cons – Chatteris)
- Councillor Ian Bates (Cons – The Hemingfords & Fenstanton)
- Councillor David Jenkins (Lib Dems – Histon & Impington)
- Councillor Linda Jones (Labour – Petersfield)
- Councillor Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham)
- Councillor Paul Raynes (Cons – Soham North and Isleham)
- Councillor Terence Rogers (Cons – Warboys and Stukeleys
- Councillor Mike Shellens (Lib Dems – Huntingdon North and Hartford)
- Councillor Tim Wotherspoon (Cons – Cottenham and Willingham)
The minutes when published will indicate who voted for the scheme and who voted against. You can find out the details of who represents which divisions/wards here. For those of you who want to lobby individual politicians, note Puffles’ house rules on this blog. You’re not bound by them, but me and the dragon are – and we recommend the ‘don’t be violent and evil’ theme to all.
“So…what did the Conservative councillors vote down according to Cllr Nethsingha?”
According to the papers, this:
“[A] project to convert a Council-owned community arts building in North Cambridge into a state-of-the-art National Centre for Research and Engagement in Arts, Technology and Education (CREATE) facility from which to develop and promote innovation in arts education, arts therapy, talent development, research and community participation.”
As set out in Agenda item 6 of this, councillors had the choice of going ahead with the scheme above in italics, for which the Arts Council had allocated £1million, or to designate the site as surplus to requirements.
The site is “St Luke’s Barn” for which the county council commissioned this access study.
What intrigues me with these screenshots from Google is that the barn – a WW2-era Nissen Hut, is branded as Cambridge City Council (which council owns it vs which council operates it?), and also its location which similar to my neighbourhood on the opposite side of town, is one close to the apex of three parliamentary constituencies. The barn is in Cambridge City on the edge of Arbury, one of the most economically deprived wards in the county. To the north west is Girton, in South Cambridgeshire. To the north/north east is Impington – in South East Cambridgeshire. Thus as the dragon/crow flies, it’s within easy access for people living in three different constituencies.
“So why would county councillors vote down the scheme?”
That’s for them to account for – but it sounds like they split on party lines. I’m assuming it would have been a 6-4 vote on the committee, six Conservatives defeating the three Liberal Democrats and one Labour councillor – the facility being in Cllr Dr Jocelyn Scutt’s Arbury ward.
Following the vote, Cllr Nethsingha sent out this press release:
“Lucy Nethsingha, Lib Dem leader at Cambridgeshire County Council has expressed her disgust at a decision by the Conservatives on the County Council’s Assets and Investment Committee to turn their backs on £1 million of funding from Arts Council England. The funding had been allocated towards the CREATE project, a proposal for a state of the art facility in north Cambridge, which would allow pupils across Cambridgeshire access to educational opportunities usually only available to those in the city centre.
Many musicians, scientists, and world leaders in all fields visit the city every year. They are often willing to give a small amount of their time for masterclasses or lectures, but are not able to fit a visit to the more distant parts of the County into a busy schedule. The new digital facility would have created a space where masterclasses or performances could be streamed out to schools around the County, enabling far wider access to pupils in far flung areas.
However the Conservative have instead decided to put the building to which the grant was linked up for sale, despite the fact that there is no clear view on the value of the site.
“I am horrified that the Conservatives have made this decision in the same week that they have voted to close a huge number of the counties children’s centres.” said Councillor Nethsingha
“Time and again the Conservatives seem to put the needs of children and young people at the bottom of the list. The value of this site to the county council in terms of a capital receipt is minimal, and there is no guarantee they will be able to sell it at all, given the constraints of the site. The value to educational opportunity in Cambridgeshire could have been huge. The committee was told of the support of the Arts Council, and head teachers from across the County had written to the Chair of the Committee expressing support for the project, and still the Conservatives choose to sell. They are selling off our children’s educational opportunities for a short term gain. I am disgusted!”
“How much economic activity would have been generated by the conversion of the site?”
According to the meeting papers, the following:
- Public Income (CCC) £500k – approved in principle
- Loan Finance: £500k – approved in principle from CCC or potentially an alternative arts development loan provider.
- Contributions from Cambridgeshire Music year-end Reserves during the build period not used toward activity delivery. £80K – reserve build up approved per year for 5 years.
- Public Income (ACE) £1 million – awarded June 2017
- Public Income (Cambridge City Council) £100k – under discussion
- Corporate Sponsorship: £700k – under discussion
- Grants and Donations: £350k – under preparation
- Founder Partners’ Investment (from arts organisation stakeholders): £200k – under discussion
- Individual donations: £200K “
“What is the alternative?”
Selling off the site – which, given the repeated council tax freezes that have been passed by the combination Conservative, UKIP and Independent councillors in the 2013-2017 council, and the current Conservative-led one, means that the county council is under huge pressure to balance the books.
“But councillors for places like Wisbech have said that their constituents on low incomes cannot afford council tax rises”
Wisbech and Cambridge have very different political cultures. It’ll be interesting to see what impact the proposed Wisbech rail link will have in the longer term given the otherwise very poor transport links between the two places.
The problem with the existing model of local government – set up in the mid-1970s with the local government taxation regime set up in the aftermath of the poll tax riots of 1990, is that it has not kept pace with the changing face of the county or country. You’d like to think that with the technological advances we have, we could have come up with a more effective and socially just system of funding local services – one that also reflects the political persuasions of constituents.
“Isn’t this also letting off Labour and the Liberal Democrats for their past campaigning strategies in elections?”
The structures of their local political parties means that the city branches of both parties expend a huge amount of resource and effort fighting each other in Cambridge to little effect at county council elections while allocating much less in comparison in the county. Having spoken to activists in both parties in South Cambridgeshire, it’s a source of irritation that the much better resourced and connected city parties have not been co-operating nearly as effectively as they could be.
“What do you mean by that?”
There are a small number of hubs where tens of thousands of commuters and young people travel into Cambridge to during the day: Addenbrooke’s, Cambridge Railway Station, the sixth form colleges, Drummer Street, Cambridge Regional College and the Science Park. All of these are in Cambridge City but many people from South Cambridgeshire and beyond travel in almost every day into the city. Why the city parties won’t help out their sister parties in surrounding areas by regularly targeting these places is beyond me. I’ve suggested it every year for the past few elections but I’ve not seen any action. Given how small some of the majorities were in rural areas, could some transport-hub campaigning have swayed the results? At some stage, activists inside the Cambridge City bubble are going to have to do something different and break out if they want something different to the long-term domination by their Conservative opponents.
“Finally, you called for the county council to be scrapped”
I’ve been consistent in my call for a unitary council for Cambridge and district/Greater Cambridge for want of another term. All of the MP candidates for the city also called for this in the 2015 general election. Comments by the winner of the county mayor election, James Palmer that he would not work with county council transport officers on new infrastructure projects indicate just how little confidence some politicians have in the institution. Schools have been hived off under the academies system – a reflection that ministers didn’t rate local councils in their previous roles with schools. Personally I think this actually reflects ministers bottling the more difficult task of improving local government generally, and making the time-old mistake of centralising everything. The fragmentation of public services doesn’t suit anyone interested in improving public services.
The question that Mayor James Palmer will have to answer with his review of local governance arrangements in the county is where to draw the lines for any new councils.