The elephant in the room remains untouched by the report despite welcome measures such as calls for public transport investment, long term market town strategies, and a powerful voice for Fenland, one of the most economically deprived areas despite close geographical proximity to Cambridge.
You can read the report here – click on one of the tiny orange arrows to the bottom right.
The dragon wasn’t impressed by the lack of a clear demand for a streamlined system of governance following years of tinkering with structures on the back of political envelopes.
The above map (dating from 1945) from the history of local government in and around Cambridge from 1959 (which I’ve digitised here – have a look at ***all of the wonderful maps!***) is one of my favourite as it gives an example of what a series of unitary councils might look like. The table below in Annex 1 is actually a very important table as it summarises who has what powers in Cambridgeshire.
“The review had a huge remit – there was only so much they could have said about governance”
Overall there are 27 recommendations – 14 main ones, 13 subsidiary ones, which for any official report is a huge number. Interestingly it’s the last one – the last of the subsidiary recommendations that may catch the attention of regular bus users in Cambridge (of which I am one – and a founding member of this new group) is that they have called for Mayor James Palmer to use his powers of bus franchising. Many have been calling for him to do this for quite some time – despite the main bus operator, Stagecoach, having big reservations with it. In the grand scheme of things it’ll hit their profits. Andy Campbell of Stagecoach has always been clear at public meetings that he will not run bus routes that are run at a loss unless someone subsidises them.
Above – dragon goes several stages further. And given the current political climate, renationalisation is being discussed not just at national but in local political circles. This from last year at the general election hustings in Great Shelford.
Dan Greef (Labour – South Cambs) responding to a question on nationalisation at the General Election 2017 hustings at Gt Shelford Hall. 17 May 2017.
“Why is governance such a big issue?”
One of the reasons why ‘the business community’ is reported in political circles to favour executive mayors is because there is a direct point of contact to lobby to get what they want or need. The problem is that England has a very long history of having civic mayors. Cambridge has had a mayor (with fluctuating degrees of powers) for the best part of 800 years. Not something to be thrown away lightly. Peterborough too has a civic mayor. Thus there has been confusion with some dignitaries from other countries unfamiliar with the civic leader they are dealing with – assuming that our civic mayors have executive powers (they don’t) and/or mistaking the executive county mayor (currently Mr Palmer) for being the mayor of the cities of Cambridge and Peterborough respectively. (He isn’t). That’s not Mr Palmer’s fault, that’s the fault of ministers who rushed the policy development of executive mayors.
The current set up of local government causes far too much confusion for citizens and businesses – this review could have taken the opportunity to call for structures to be simplified.
Ask any of the business representatives who have been to local government meetings in Cambridge and more than a few will tell you that some, such as the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly can make you lose the will to live – especially as they trundle on into their third or fourth hour.
I put it in the context of the nominal hourly rate the individuals around the Assembly table get paid, or would have gotten paid if it were at a consultancy rate. And then asked the question whether politicians and officials had gotten value for money out of all of the people who were around the very large set of tables. Which in part is why I’m not a fan of big meetings that last for ages with lots of people where only one person gets to speak at a time. In my civil service days, 90 minutes was the maximum my teams would aim for, knowing that if they went above 2 hours, people would lose concentration. Given the importance of the issues at stake, not something you want to have happening.
There’s far too much of it in the current structure – and as a result it costs time and money, not just for the organisations, but for the media who report from said meetings and for the public who want to keep up with who is saying what. The problem is that the Review has taken the existing structures as a given rather than asking some essential questions as to whether the geographical area for a single county-wide mayoralty is the right one, and whether the current arrangements for scrutiny and accountability with the Combined Authority as is, are suitable in order to safeguard public money.
Separating the party political from the propriety and governance issues
The ballot box thumping the residents of South Cambridgeshire gave the Conservatives at the local elections this year made things a little bit more complicated for the Conservative majority on the Combined Authority – and completely removed the Conservative working majority on the Greater Cambridge Partnership. The latter, for which Cllr Lewis Herbert, Labour’s leader of Cambridge City Council, is the only member of the Board who has been there from the first meeting. Yet he had no say in the creation of the Partnership/City Deal as it was put together when the Liberal Democrats controlled Cambridge City Council.
The Conservatives have chopped and changed their board members, with only former Cllr Francis Burkitt taking a very proactive stance as both a member and a chairman compared with his party colleagues. While I didn’t agree with Cllr Burkitt, nor his party’s policies, he always struck me as a competent chairman, prepared to ask difficult questions, overturn officer advice when it was warranted, and face the media on controversial issues. I got the sense that people knew where they stood with him. In the early days of 2014/15, I felt that Cllr Herbert was carrying along the entire project alone.
The election of the Liberal Democrats with such a big majority on South Cambridgeshire District Council (one that will be there for up to the next four years give or take a boundary change) means that Liberal Democrat Cllr Aidan Van De Weyer, the representative for South Cambs, faces a huge test trying to make the Partnership work with the manifesto that he and his party colleagues were elected on earlier this year.
Finally, recent personnel changes in the Combined Authority by Mayor Palmer have been in the headlines of late, with both Cllr Herbert and the new leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith, calling for an independent review into the departure of the Combined Authority’s chief executive. The question is whether the other leaders of the county’s district councils – all Conservatives, will support such a call. Given what I’ve seen of past meetings, I doubt this will happen. Again, the fault is in the design – the Combined Authority Board being one aimed at getting the leaders of different political parties representing different areas to work together.
Politically polarised district councils
Cambridge City Council has zero Conservative councillors – a constitutional outrage in some traditionalist circles
East Cambridgeshire District Council has zero Labour councillors, and only three Liberal Democrat Councillors – and one independent. The other 35 councillors are all Conservative.
Fenland District Council has zero Labour councillors – despite it having once been a Labour-controlled council in the 1990s. How and why that party imploded remains a mystery.
With the above in mind, is there something about the electoral system that means large numbers of people are not being adequately represented? Whether that’s the 10,000 or so Conservative voters in the general election inside Cambridge City, to the 17,000 voters who voted for Labour in South East Cambridge (covering much of East Cambs DC).
What about retraining of workers?
One of the best articles I’ve read on this issue is by the finance and economics writer Frances Coppola – The Bifurcation of the Labour Market.
“Business re-engagement with the growing “shanty town” of low-skilled, poorly paid and insecure workers is essential for economic recovery. And it seems to me that fostering this re-engagement is the role of government. “
Essentially there is an incentive for firms to poach the skilled workers of their rivals rather than to invest in their own workforces. The growth of the zero hours/gig economy has also resulted in too many people being deprived of hard won workers’ rights such as the right to paid holiday and sick pay.
One of the things I’ve not seen is a comprehensive approach to the retraining of workers – in particular career switchers. In 1996 during my final year at school in Cambridge, our head teacher told us our future was one where there would not be jobs for life, and that we would have to retrain and switch careers. What followed clobbered Generation Y and the Millennials, where grants for further study were scrapped for all but the poorest – who had to go through various hoops and means testing (which are barriers in themselves), and hit them/us with eye-wateringly high debts. Seeing one of my Twitter followers informed that she owed the Student Loans Co over £50,000 was sobering. Knowing that the loan book has been sold off to the private sector isn’t going to help graduates get out of debt. And we’ve not even looked at housing. Yet if the under-40s are supposed to be retraining let’s say every decade or so, how can they possibly afford to incur the costs of it? More loans? It’s unsustainable. At some stage employers are going to have to take on much more of the costs of training and retraining – whether through taxation or other means.
It’s a cliche to say young people are our future, but they are. Yet we don’t seem to have a mechanism to tap into what their hopes and fear for the future are. The reason why this matters is because Millennials are the first generation to grow up knowing more and/or having access to far more knowledge than the adults that are teaching them. What are the things that they can teach the adults? What knowledge of public services do they have that adults and decision makers are not aware of? For example the impact of poor public transport services on school/college attendance and future career choices. And we have been here before. Mary Chamberlain’s book on Fenwomen first published in the 1970s has heartbreaking testimony of young women being told they could not go onto study what they wanted to study because the government of the day had cut the bus services from their village. Do we have a picture of how the career and life choices of our children and young adults are being affected by the worsening transport situation?
There’s more I could write, but I’ll finish here for now.