Ministers want to close Cambridge Magistrates Courts. No. Just. No.
“We would welcome responses to the following questions set out in this consultation paper.” (Scroll down to the two papers & click on the consultation doc). “This consultation ends on 29 March 2018”
“1. Cambridge Magistrates’ Court:
- Do you agree with our proposals to close Cambridge Magistrates’ Court?
- If we close Cambridge Magistrates’ Court what are your views on the proposed options for re-allocating the work?
- What other options do you think might work?
- Would these closure and re-allocation proposals have any particular impacts for you or any group you represent?
2. Do you think our proposals could be extended to include other courts?
3. Do you have any further suggestions for improving the efficiency of the criminal court estate in Cambridgeshire?
4. Do you think we have correctly identified the range and extent of the equality impacts?
Do you have any other evidence or information concerning equalities that you think we should consider?”
“Um…why do ministers want to shut down the magistrates courts?”
Actually, I get the sense this is a proposal from officials implementing an overall strategy set by an earlier set of ministers who signed off those principles. Using the various formula and criteria in that policy, Cambridge Magistrates Courts came top of the list as ripe for closure. The new ministerial appointees – including South East Cambridgeshire MP Lucy Frazer QC – who has got policy responsibility for this decision, would have had little if any input into this. But because they are now ministers responsible, the buck stops with them.
‘Efficiency and value for money’
Those seem to be the top two drivers for the Ministry of Justice. Access to Justice and Cambridgeshire’s Criminal Estate Capacity are listed as the other two. Given the form the past two administrations have, this is all about cost-cutting. The biggest indicator missing in the assessment by officials in their consultation document is probably the most basic: population growth.
“Why is there absolutely no reference to the huge population growth that the county is currently increasing?”
This is what happens when you have London-centric government departments. I used to work in one. Many of the London-based/living civil servants (I was one of them once) will be completely oblivious to the concept of two and three tier local councils – the governance of London being different to the rest of the country.
“By 2031, the county’s total population is projected to be around 770,000, up from about 640,000 today” Phil Rogers in 2014.
The excruciatingly long local planning process is, we hope coming to an end. As soon as it does, local council officials will have to start planning for the next round of housing growth. Of all of the people who should know about this current and future population growth is the Member of Parliament for South East Cambridgeshire, Ms Lucy Frazer QC, because a large amount of this population growth is planned for her constituency.
“Does that mean she has a conflict of interest?”
Kind of – it wouldn’t surprise me if another minister was asked to take the final call on this consultation.
“What have others said?”
See the Cambridge News
Local MP Daniel Zeichner has branded the scheme a disgrace.
The prospect of having no magistrates courts in a rapidly growing city with a global profile has provoked comment across the legal sector too.
The Conservatives have a very strange way of treating the City of Cambridge
You get headlines such as:
“Cambridge to lead UK economic growth in 2018” – The Telegraph
Conservative-controlled Cambridgeshire County Council imposing cuts on Cambridge’s children’s centres even though they have not a single councillor representing any of the wards or divisions inside Cambridge City. It would be just as unfair if it were the city imposing say big tax rises on rural county areas that en masse did not return candidates calling for such rises. The structure of local government in Cambridgeshire is broken. It needs a massive overhaul – the last one of which we had in the mid-1970s. i.e. we are long over due one.
We then have the news that Parkside Police Station is to close. Thus we risk Cambridge not having a permanent police station inside the city. Now we have the news that at least some of the more serious magistrates courts functions could well move out of the city.
“Closing nurseries, closing police stations & magistrates courts…why are ministers happy for this city that they speak so highly of to lose all of its civic infrastructure that is essential for any city to function?”
All of these decisions seem to be being taken at a level above the norm that you might find in other countries. Given the projections of economic and population growth for Cambridge and county, the pattern feels like it is from one of spite because too many politicians don’t like the fact that the people of Cambridge stopped returning Conservatives to elected public office in the city in half-decent numbers from the 1990s onwards. I’m old enough to remember when our local MP was Conservative historian Robert Rhodes James. In his final election he vanquished Shirley Williams of the Alliance – today the Liberal Democrats.
From a democratic pluralism perspective, I don’t think it is good for Cambridge to have zero Conservative councillors on Cambridge City Council given that over 8,000 people inside the city voted Conservative at last year’s general election. Also, the political culture of the city Conservatives is not the same as that say of those in North Cambridgeshire. Dare I say it, the same goes for the constituency Labour Parties in the same places. Just as the Conservatives have to work out why they have zero presence in Cambridge, the same goes for Corbyn’s Labour in Wisbech which, given the demographics of the place, you’d expect the party to have representation on Fenland District Council (which they used to control in the early 1990s!)
“What is the alternative to the cuts? The consultation did ask for one”
My preference is the model from the 1950s/60s: A new legal quarter for Cambridge.
After all, the property value of the current estate is significant. (Not sure who actually owns which bits though, or whether it is just long term leases – as is likely to be the case with the current magistrates courts.
Both of these sets of pictures from the Cambridgeshire Collection in Cambridge’s Central Library (that service also being attacked by cuts from the county council) were ultimately never realised. The top pair were designed by Holford-Wright. His concept of a 15 storey tower at the top of Castle Hill got laughed/shouted out if I recall correctly. But for me the concept of having all of the courts services (County, Crown and Magistrates) together with a custodial police station in walking distance is for me a concept worth exploring. We’ve been told that the existing Parkside Police Station no longer meets the standards for custody suites required by the Home Office. Hence plans to close it.
Let’s not forget the history either
In the writing of the huge historical county histories project, the splendid chaps of Cambridge divided up between them the writing up of the histories of Cambridge’s colleges. The only person who took responsibility for the history of Cambridge the town was one of the greatest women who ever lived here – Professor Helen Cam of Girton, later the first woman professor to be appointed to the University of Harvard.
Civic legend: Professor Helen Cam.
Professor Cam tells us that it was in 1572 that we got our first proper court house on Castle Hill – Shire House. So that’s nearly 450 years we’ve had some sort of a court presence dealing with criminal and civil matters. If we lose however much of the magistrates courts services under the plans of ministers, this will be ***the first time in nearly half a f—ing millennium*** that we won’t have the full set of legal services in town. Cambridge, a global city that isn’t allowed to have a full set of courts, might not have its own custodial police station and having its children’s centres and libraries cut left, right and centre? Really?
“Cambridge used to have its own jails – but they got demolished. Why so precious about the courts and legal services?”
And we used to have an oil-fuelled power station at quayside.
We just found better ways of doing things – plus legal changes such as the various clean air acts put restrictions on burning such fuels. Ditto the case of prisons and the conditions prisoners were kept in.
Ministers and officials have not made the case that their proposals represent a better way of delivering courts services to a rapidly growing part of the country. They have not made the case demonstrating that the proposed transport infrastructure will be in place by the time the changes are made. They have not demonstrated the case that they will have robust and resilient IT infrastructure in place.
As former local councillor Mr Rosenstiel tweeted, the public transport journey from Ely to one of the proposed sites, Huntingdon, will take a very long time. Possibly looking at a 3 hour round trip by bus/coach.
The piecemeal reform of public services – fragmented, uncoordinated and responding to events rather than shaping the future
What ever happened to the concept of devolution and ‘whole place community budgets’?
The above was from 2013. Given what’s happening with police and the proposals for the courts services – and with the county council’s proposals to move out of Shire Hall, there is a ***huge opportunity*** to co-ordinate the activities of all. This means come up with a solution that is not piecemeal but one that not only saves money but also takes advantage of having related/complementary services all within walking distance of each other. Again this is where I like the concept of a ‘legal quarter.’ But the consultations as they stand don’t allow scope for this.
Another missed opportunity.