A long term vision for local government in England

Summary:

Asking where politicians and political parties stand at a time where the structure of local government is long overdue an overhaul

For those of you who have been following my historical research on Cambridge the town, the structure of local government comes up time and again. Modern local government as a provider of public services first came about with the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, with the creation of modern day county councils under the Local Government Act 1888 – following which the citizens of Cambridge have remained under the thumb of their rural compatriots, holding back the development and progress within the town following centuries of oppression from Cambridge University authorities. Or so we would believe. Actually it’s a lot more complicated than that as institutions and individuals within them have on many an occasion defied the stereotype.

When Cambridge Borough made its first bid for freedom from the county in the run up to the First World War, it was Conservative MP for Cambridge, and later fascist sympathiser Almeric Paget (later Lord Queenborough) who made the case for Cambridge to become a ‘county borough’ or a unitary council. It was the Liberal MP for what is now South Cambridgeshire (but back then Cambridge County) Edwin Montague, then Undersecretary at the India Office (a major department of state in the day) who – speaking on the private members bill concerned, made the case against. See my blogpost here.

Fast forward to the mid-1970s and Conservative politicians in Cambridge made the case against their rural party colleagues for Cambridge to become a unitary council. Instead, through the deft move of pen and paper, schools and libraries transferred permanently away from the city council to the county council, and the Liberal and Labour councillors in the former have been complaining about the sell off of city public services to fund Tory tax cuts ever since.

The current broken structure of Cambridgeshire

Several of you may have seen this or various versions of, by Smarter Cambridge Transport.

Local-authorities-2b

Governance of Cambridgeshire following the signing of the Greater Cambridge City Deal.

Now the county’s Local Enterprise Partnership has since been wound up after National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee investigated financial issues raised by North East Cambridgeshire MP Steve Barclay. Never a good idea to get on the wrong side of an MP who happens to be a Treasury Minister at the same time.

The current structure of local governance and government in Cambridgeshire has not been the result of extensive research, but rather party political expediency. 

My personal take is that institutionally, the Conservative hierarchy sees Cambridge as an aristocratic inheritance and the current situation where not a single elected Conservative councillor holds a local council seat inside Cambridge City represents something of a constitutional outrage that His Majesty The King should do something about.

But it’s not just the Tories that are capable of doing stuff like this. Back in 2009, Labour made a botched attempt to take the cities of Exeter and Norwich out of the orbit of their county councils. Botched because the civil service at the time (and I was in the department concerned) refused to sign off the plans because of value for money concerns. The Permanent Secretary at the time had to ask for a ministerial direction in order to absolve himself and his civil servants from responsibility over the policy’s value for money. When a Permanent Secretary does this, this is a big red button that alerts Parliament to start investigating and scrutinising the policy in a very big way. You can see why Labour wanted to proceed – the 2010 general election was only a few months away. In the end, Eric Pickles took over and stomped on the plans. And started a huge program of cuts that we still have the legacy of.

We are over eight years down the line from that general election, and today local councils are making the news over their risk assessments and contingency plans over Brexit. At the same time we are living in a world where local councils are expected by ministers to deliver what they deliver with a lot less – and also to cut back on as many activities as possible. Ultimately this has led to the sorts of problems that Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council now faces, where it is struggling to deliver on public services and is effectively a failing council. Years of voting through minimal council tax rises have come home to bite. As things stand, all new expenditure by the council has been banned with the exception of spending on statutory services – where the council is required by law to provide a service. The reason why it matters to Cambridge is because Cambridgeshire County Council has a shared services agreement through this LGSS vehicle. Could problems in Northants hit Cambridgeshire?

“Where next for local councils?”

Cllr Stephen Canning asked this in his blogpost here. The paragraphs below make for interesting reading.

“The very definition of a council service also needs to be reviewed to ensure that in the 21st century it meets up to both the expectations its future consumers will have on it and the changing way they’ll wish to access it.

In a hypermobile world a static council with its obscure functions and processes, its opaque structure and its endless forms is not an organisation that ‘Generation Z’ will want to transact with. Services will need to be redesigned and redefined from the front end to the back end.”

The first thing to be clear about when any politician talks about a state institution and policies for it, are what their political principles are for that institution. The reason being is that it is from those principles that the policies flow. At the most extreme ends of the political spectrum of public service delivery are minimal state at one end, to the monopoly provider of cradle-to-grave public services at the other. As a Conservative councillor, it’s fairly safe to say that Cllr Canning doesn’t subscribe to big state municipal socialism! As he makes clear in his blogpost, the challenge he sets out for local councils is primarily as a service provider for those in most need.

The bit where Cllr Canning is very much a pioneer is with how local councils can use new communications and computing technologies to inform decisions made on service delivery. For example using social media in civil emergencies (eg snow storms closing schools) to using big and live data (for example with live bus times sent straight to mobile phones via apps).

Why I have issues both with big state and also with minimal state mindsets

In part, I’ve found out the hard way and have seen close hand how both models of public service delivery are struggling in this tech-rich age we’re living in. That’s also not to say that *Oooh! There is a third way and it’s over here with the Liberal Democrats!* is the answer.

The overarching problem with the big state model is that the incentive creates a culture of dependency on whoever is the provider of the money – in this case The Treasury. Until there is some sort of devolution of tax and revenue raising powers set out in law that don’t require the continual sign off from The Treasury, local councils will forever be looking over their shoulder or hesitating to commit to interesting projects because they want to cover themselves financially if anything goes wrong. Furthermore, too many decisions end up tied up in a tier of management where staff at a lower tier in the hierarchy are waiting forever and a day for a senior manager to sign something off when in reality said senior manager should have either delegated the decision or not have gone on an empire-building mission in the first place – thus tasked with too many responsibilities.

As for the problems with minimal state, you only have to follow the news feeds from charities and/or campaigning groups working on the front line – such as food banks – to see the state that too many people find themselves in. You also run the risk of creating ‘sinks’ where people who need the most help are effectively put, and thus those areas not surprisingly find themselves struggling to cope with issues of multiple deprivation. Eglantyne Jebb spent her Cambridge years dealing with these issues before going on to found Save The Children. Personally I have issues with us going backwards in the opposite direction to which Eglantyne, Florence Ada Keynes, Clara Rackham and the women heroes who made modern Cambridge were taking our town in.

The evolution of Eglantyne’s political principles also make for interesting reading – she arrived in Cambridge as a soft Conservative, became a pro-suffragist Liberal and left Cambridge as a co-operator at a time when the Co-operative Party were not in alliance with the Labour Party. (The party still exists – with a number of MPs standing as Labour and Co-operative MPs – one of whom, Meg Hillier, chairs the Public Accounts Committee).

“What about this vision of local government?”

I was at a meeting at Shire Hall today with some interested parties sorting out all things buses in and around Cambridge. (I’m a founder member of the new Cambridge Area Bus Users’ Group as I use buses almost daily, so it kinda makes sense). The one thing that was clear to me at the end of the meeting was how laws passed by Parliament to change the way local councils did things, were actually making things worse for bus users rather than better. Stagecoach Group is the main bus provider in and around Cambridge and being a private company won’t provide bus services on routes it sees as, and says are unprofitable, unless subsidised. But we have no way of interrogating their claims as they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (and even if they were, would be able to claim such data as being commercially sensitive). Hence the feeling in the room was for campaigning to persuade Mayor James Palmer to use his powers to franchise the bus network. (He’s still considering it last we heard – hence the formation of the bus campaign group).

Cambridge – the country’s most unequal city

It’s not a title we’re proud of, but the cutting of public services and the inability of local councils to tap into all of this wealth being supposedly generated are really not helping things. What’s the point of having this reputation of being this jewel in the economic crown if we can’t use nearly enough of the wealth to clean our streets properly, build decent recycling facilities (An incinerator? Really??!?), or deal with our century-long problem of traffic on roads?

What sort of support to civic life should local government be providing?

Again for me this comes back to what your individual principles are. The sense I get with Cambridgeshire Conservatives is that local councils have a minimal role in this, and instead local councillors can support whichever named charities they choose at traditional fund-raising nights. At the other end of the scale, you’ll find politicians in other parties who may well say that some charities should not need to exist – for example food banks – because the properly resourced welfare state should be ensuring that everyone has enough to eat.

Should local councils be supporting things like ‘the arts’?

A very easy target – the arts world luvvies, scourge of the tabloid press for being privately-educated liberal-leaning champagne socialists! And yes, the media and the arts have more than a few issues as well when it comes to inequalities and access.

One of the first people to try and deal with this in modern times was someone in Florence Ada Keynes’ circle – the poet Rupert Brooke, who was best friends with her younger son Geoffrey – later Sir Geoffrey Keynes the surgeon.

***Oh Rupert! The romantic war poet who was so tragically taken away from us!***

Yes – The Archers commissioned a statue in their garden in Granchester where Brooke wrote poetry – and invited Mrs Thatcher to unveil it in the company of Andrew Lansley.

***Oh, how splendid!***

Rupert Brooke hated the Tories.

***No he didn’t!***

Yes he did – he campaigned against them in the 1910 general elections – finishing one diary entry with the phrase “I hate the upper classes!”

***Rooopert you traitor!!!!***

According to Etonian Hugh Dalton, another close friend of Rupert Brooke, had he lived he may well have joined the Labour Party after the war – as Dalton did, later becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer after unsuccessfully standing for election to Parliament in Cambridge.

***I can’t believe Roo B. was a red-flag-waving, rich-man-taxing, big-state building socialist!!!***

Heartbreakin’, innit?

“What’s this got to do with local government again?”

Rupert Brooke wrote something about the arts and local government that everyone has forgotten about. Or never knew about. Until now.

“What did he write?”

This: Note who wrote the preface

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Essentially Rupert Brooke makes the case that the arts should be much more accessible to the people, should be funded by local councils (he gave this lecture in 1910 – in the days before really big modern centralised departments of state, although the transcript wasn’t published until 1946 by Sir G.)

So, Rupert Brooke’s vision for local government had a big place for rate-payer-subsidised arts.

Exactly.

And recall it was the older brother of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, the economist Lord Maynard Keynes, who set up The Arts Council while he was in The Treasury. Two years after Sir Geoffrey published Rupert Brooke’s lecture on Democracy and The Arts, Treasury gave powers to local councils to spend money on the arts. This took place shortly after Keynes had overseen the construction of The Arts Theatre in Cambridge, which was happening at the same time as his mother, Florence Ada Keynes was overseeing the construction of The Guildhall in Cambridge on the opposite side of the road. One of the most controversial public building projects in Cambridge’s history.

Now, Florence Ada Keynes had a vision for local government in the face of the big problems of her day, and was incredibly influential in making huge, if sometimes painfully slow progress in achieving it.

The challenge for political parties – in particular Labour – is to come up with a clear vision for the future of local government *and* how to achieve it. Otherwise they risk making the same mistakes Tony Blair made in the late 1990s, bypassing local government and instead trying to control things from the centre by forming a new generation of non-departmental public bodies. Such institutions are just as easy to get rid of as they are to create. What is much harder to do (politically at least) is to take away the freedoms from local councils that have previously been granted. Can you imagine a future government getting rid of the Mayor of London as an institution? It would take a huge political crisis to agitate a minister to do that.

 

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What do local councillors and politicians want to be remembered for?

Summary:

Going through archives for Lost Cambridge, I’m stumbling across a huge number of names. But who are the ones that stand out, and why? For those of you currently holding elected office, what do you want historians of the future to recognise you by?

The three most prominent names of long-gone former councillors in Cambridge until very recently, are:

  • Kelsey Kerridge
  • Alex Wood
  • Howard Mallett

“What do they all have in common?”

They all have community centres named after them. Actually, the old Howard Mallett centre has had a chequered history and has since been taken over by a private arts and dance school.

180726 CambridgeCommunityCentresMap

But as venues go, we’re not very good at naming them after civic figures. And even if when we do, the stories behind the people named all too often get lost to the sands of time. (On Storey’s Field, Edward Storey is who that is named after).

The multi-talented Dr Alex Wood of Cambridge Labour Party was given the honour of having Cambridge Labour’s HQ renamed after him. It’s a name many will be familiar with who spot the election imprints on Labour’s election leaflets in Cambridge, but in the grand scheme of things most won’t know much about someone who in his time was one of the most high profile politicians in town during the first half of the 20th Century.

The civic titan that is Alderman Kelsey Kerridge features in this blogpost.

720703 Ald Kelsey Kerridge

Nails. Hard. As. Alderman Kelsey Kerridge, who we named a big sports centre after – because he raised much of the money for it. A county-standard sportsman in a number of disciplines before he took over the family building firm.

The women who made Modern Cambridge

I’ve written about this growing list of women heroes here. (With a host of links embedded). The slogan I ran with when I first stumbled across their stories was this:

“Learn their names

Recognise their faces

Be inspired by their actions, and…

Match their impact”

(See this from a few years ago)

It’s to our city’s shame – especially one that sells itself on its history – that we’ve left so much of it untouched. How many of us knew that Gandhi visited in 1931, going on a morning walk along Coe Fen at 5.30am? Or that his adversary Winston Churchill packed out the Cambridge Corn Exchange several years later in a call for conscription? Or where between them all a certain Major Clement Attlee drove through the snow in an open-top motor from London to Cambridge to verbally thwack the fascist leader Oswald Mosley out of the Cambridge Union?

It’s all in Citizen Clem.

The thing is, if we’ve forgotten some of these really big visits from three of the most prominent men of the 20th Century, what hope is there for remembering local councillors and other civic activists? In part, it’s in the councillors’ own hands, but Cambridgeshire County Councillors – or rather the ruling party (in this case the Conservatives) have chosen to run the archives service at its statutory minimum – as they confirmed in response to this public question from myself. I was in the Cambridgeshire Collection today and they have a wealth of documents and items in there that are like civic gold dust. But they need more funding and they need more of us to take the time to go through what they have.

“What do today’s councillors and politicians want to be remembered for?”

This is something I’ve started asking given the huge changes that are happening to Cambridge at the moment. Unless we all perish in a future inferno the warning signs of which we’ve been given over the past few rainless weeks.

One of the things that I’m trying to get my head around at a local level is remembering to read, write, and comment as if from beyond the grave in a time many decades, if not centuries from now. As I go through the old archives, I’m always reminded that a fellow human or three, being from a completely different time, made the effort to ensure that I could stumble across the various documents fortuitously. How do I ensure I do the same for people who I will never know? This is one of the reasons why I find conduct like this, and also conduct like this, to be crimes against history. And for what?

In terms of local councillors, below is the councillor history for Coleridge – the ward that me and Puffles stood in back in 2014. It’s from the late Colin Rosenstiel’s website, now being kindly maintained by Keith Edkins.

180726 Coleridge councillors 1945-69180726 Coleridge councillors 1976-2004

Click here to see a better view.

Note three men from prominent business families were all Conservative councillors – Kelsey Kerridge as mentioned above, Donald Mackay (Mackay’s on East Road), and Harold Ridgeon of Ridgeon’s. Then something happened in the 1980s that led to the collapse of the once mighty Coleridge Conservatives in Cambridge. The late Colin Rosenstiel gave this explanation back in 2001.

“Isn’t trying to be ‘remembered’ all a bit ‘grandstanding’ and all that? It’s just not the done thing.”

I seem to recall Tony Blair talking about the need to cement Labour’s legacy just before he got involved in Iraq – but it’s only a vague recollection.

One of the things that I’ve learnt from the civic figures of the past is this sense of ‘civic duty’ that seemed to flow in the veins of all of them irrespective of political party. For some reason we don’t see nearly as much talk of the importance of civic duty as perhaps I read in newspapers of old. I dare say that the trend of publicising and marketing around ‘corporate social responsibility’ (all too often tarred with the label of ‘greenwashing’ or other) has perhaps taken some of the shine off of those who didn’t seek the limelight but just got on with working hard in their communities and in return were remembered and commemorated by them. In Cambridge for centuries it was plaques in churches that were often a means of doing this.

The other thing is that most people don’t choose to become local councillors. Given the amount of work it involves and the amount of abuse you get back, it’s not hard to understand why. It’s one of the consistent themes over the decades and centuries.

At the same time, for those who occupy public office – in particular those that have had to fight for their seat, the electorate tends to have a way of dealing with those who continually grandstand while doing little locally. It’s very hard work just trying to stay still, let alone trying to deliver grand schemes. Hence one of the reasons why you don’t see the local press full of stories of councillors and candidates coming up with deeply-thought-through big schemes. And in any case, where’s the money going to come from? Because my idea for a Mayor’s Civic Fund (See my last blogpost) was dismissed at the last council meeting.

Cambridge City Council full council of 19 July 2018 – Public Qs

“Is the responsibility on local communities to push for who they think should be commemorated?”

It’s one of the reasons behind the local blue plaques scheme that now covers Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire. I declare an interest in that I’m on the committee that scrutinises nominations. Because successful ones are celebrated in civic ceremonies, as we did when Cambridge’s first woman MP, Anne Campbell, unveiled the plaque for Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

It might be worth rephrasing the question and asking existing local councillors to suggest which former councillors in their area were/are inspirations to them. That way more of us might learn more about the work that more recent former councillors did.

A Permanent Cambridge Mayoral Fund

Summary:

How successive Mayors of Cambridge could potentially raise large sums of money for large individual civic projects alongside the two named charities chosen by each new councillor elevated to the mayoralty each year.

Some of you will have seen this photograph of Mayor Gawthrope holding court as part of the Memorial Remembrance Ride for ex-service personnel.

I hope someone in the council is saving these photos for the county archive as they will be civic gold dust for local historians in 100 years time! When someone writes a school play on Cambridge’s civic history, who will get to play the part of our motorcycling mayor?

Cambridge City Council put together the guide here with brief summaries of past Cambridge Mayors since 1835. For those of you familiar with my historical research on Cambridge the town, I have written about the first two women mayors – Eva Hartree (1924-25) and Florence Ada Keynes (1932-33).

It was the latter of the two, Florence Ada Keynes, who founded an unemployed workers fund at the height of the depression. She made it clear in her inaugural speech at The Guildhall that something was going to be done about it.

“We in Cambridge are fortunate in having a smaller proportion of unemployed than most other places. But something like 1,300 men and women standing idle in this town constitute a serious situation, bringing grievous loss to the workers and waste of the resources of the community. I hope and trust that during my year of office we shall adopt every sane and reasonable method we can devise to mitigate this situation.” [From ‘Mrs Keynes elected Mayor‘ in 1932]

The snapshot below from the Cambridgeshire Collection is from February 1933

330203 Florence Ada Keynes Unemployment Fund Mayoralty

Given the large number of unemployed labourers at the time, the council used the money to employ men directly on council projects to improve local infrastructure – this article mentioned improving paths across Coldham’s Common, and carrying out remedial works and levelling sites in preparation for public building works.

85 years later and Cambridge has a shortage of workers in the construction sector

The nature of local government – in particular its relation with central government – has also changed. It’s very unlikely you would get a fund of a similar nature off of the ground. We also have the Cambridge Community Foundation in place which has a number of funds that cover what the Mayor’s former fund used to cover regarding unemployment. We also have organisations such as Form the Future that looks for volunteers to stop forward for specific half-day and one-day events to help young people in their career choices. At a general level, there is the Cambridge CVS, who have recently opened their new premises in Arbury.

“So…why do we need a new fund?”

This is not so much about needs but about going beyond the basics. And it’s not easy to make the case for a long term fund for large civic projects like museums and concert halls when walking through Cambridge today you see so many homeless people by Cambridge’s shop fronts. This video by Cambridge University students Joe Cook and Abdullah Shah that interviews people from across town and gown is an excellent introduction to inequalities in Cambridge.

“A choice to look”

The issue certainly isn’t under control by any means – dare I say it, it is now beyond the powers, finances and the competency of Cambridge City Council due to restrictions on their competencies from successive legislation from Parliament. Homelessness is political, and the solution requires movement from Whitehall – which means lobbying your local Member of Parliament. (Yet another reshuffle in the post of Housing Minister doesn’t bode well in what has been a shambles of a day for the Government with so many ministers resigning over Brexit).

“You didn’t answer the question – why do we need a new fund?”

For me, this is about financing the under-funded civic buildings that help our city function. It is also about generating the finances to pay for things that Cambridge either currently does not have, or has but doesn’t serve the city as well as it could.

Furthermore, the fund is also paying for things that go beyond the basics – that might be described as luxuries in some cases. That’s not to say community projects and pieces of art funded through developer contributions to local councils could not be better used or better spent. (See the Cambridge football monument here, shortly after its unveiling). Given the money being spent on new housing, it may also give extra funding for where new sites are acquired, and/or help in the acquisition of land needed for new community buildings.

Would the site of the old Ridgeon’s depot be one that could benefit from a permanent mayoral fund?

“You just want a big fund to get lots of money from wealthy people making lots of money in Cambridge to pay for your massive concert hall and civic museum!”

Yeah.

“No really – you do!”

I know. (See my concert hall proposals here, and here, and on creating a large civic museum of the city here) But what such a fund could do is provide a very visible alternative to donors giving money to Cambridge University.

Sam Davies above made the point in response to an article I found about one of Cambridge’s greatest modern day philanthropists, Sir David Robinson.

180112 Sir David Robinson Obituary CEN.jpeg

Robinson is a very distant relative by marriage of mine – one of his nephews married my mother’s late sister just before I was born. A Freemason according to this article, it mentions just how generous he was with his wealth – in particular in Cambridge. At the same time, he never sought publicity – preferring to make his donations anonymously.

Having a Mayor’s Permanent Fund provides a single central point for people who want to donate to large projects that benefit the city as a whole. And there are more than a few things that Cambridge is either not making the most potential of, or needs an expanded version of an existing facility given the planned large increases in its population.

A civic museum of the city

When you see that Oxford’s civic museum is incorporated into its magnificent town hall (see here), while Cambridge’s is the re-branded Cambridge and County Folk Museum housed in a disused pub (a very magnificent and ancient disused pub, but still), you can see the difference between the two.

Oxford has a castle – a proper castle with battlements and turrets – but ours was dismantled by the colleges for re-use in college buildings

OxfordCastleGeographSP5006

Oxford Castle and Prison: No nonsense imposing edifice that looks like a castle and prison (Photo by Geograph)

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Cambridge Castle: A muddy mound with a crumbling gatehouse – by the 1700s.

Oxford Castle Map

The site of Oxford Castle – which like Cambridge has a castle mound. It has two trees on the top and so may be bigger than Cambridge’s one

Cambridge did have a proper castle-shaped castle – once.

CambridgeCastleOldEcastles

Cambridge Castle, above from a bygone era

But then the early colleges ‘acquired’ the stone from the castle for use on their own buildings – or so the legend goes. As a result, by the 1700s, we were left with a crumbling gatehouse which was demolished to make way for a prison.

Cambridge County Jail

Cambridge County Gaol – from the Cambridgeshire Collection

…and The old Assizes Courthouse

Shire Hall Court House 28543 Photo

…which the old County Council demolished despite objections from Cambridge City Council. A car park replaced it.

My proposal is to rebuild and enhance the old courthouse and castle site for a civic museum that tells the story of the city. But I cannot see it happening without some sort of long term fund with the backing of successive Mayors, High Stewards and Lords Lieutentant. For those of you on Twitter, the three civic figures all have corporate Twitterfeeds at:

Essentially my plan brings together the restoration of parts of the castle, the expansion of a civic museum to tell the story of the city, and the creation of a few more cafes and restaurants to help meet an anticipated growth in numbers. (Note the plan also includes a possible underground light rail stop as a means of extending the King’s Parade tourist trail over the road from King’s Parade, the Round Church, over the Great Bridge/Magdalene Bridge, over the junction to and passed Kettles Yard.

A revamped Guildhall

When you look at how small and pokey the old Guildhall used to be, and the fact that 80 years had passed before Florence Ada Keynes was able to get building work going, you can understand why she wanted to get cracking on the thing. (Also, she was in her 70s so had good reason to). Yet the townsfolk were horrified by the design that we got – on the outside at least. Read the metaphorical kicking her committee got in the 1930s. The problems her opponents had is that they had no alternative that they could all unite behind. She got it built just in time for the outbreak of war in 1939.

The guildhall we didn’t get because Mayor Horace Darwin (son of Charles, the botanist) didn’t win support from councillors and a referendum of local rate payers.

IMG_E6821

A very rare find in the Cambridgeshire Collection – a photo of John Belcher’s painting of his planned guildhall in colour. We’re still trying to find the original which we believe is in the vaults somewhere…unless a very skilled artist wants to repaint it?

All of the above requires big money – far more than can be raised through local taxation and developer contributions. But as things stand, the town does not have the institutional structures to solicit donations to pay for such things. Can the Mayor of Cambridge change this? Over to you!

 

What are the ‘easy wins’ for improving bus transport in and around Cambridge?

Summary

Because bringing in bus franchising or going full #CommissarPuffles and nationalising the buses is not something that is going to happen overnight.

This follows on from my previous post about being dependent on public transport. By ‘Easy win’ I don’t mean that the implementation itself is necessarily easy in the current context, but that the difference the passengers will notice could be significant when considered in proportion to the amount of additional money thrown at the problem.

Separate entrances and exits on new buses like London has

I cannot understand why Cambridge buses don’t have separate entrances and exits to buses like they do in London. The additional seconds in delays caused by waiting for everyone to get off one by one adds up to delays in bus journeys, putting the timing of the bus journeys out of sync. Given that buses are replaced in the course of business, is this something the county mayor James Palmer could request, if not require for new buses?

Buses that auto-switch-off while stationary. 

Because Cambridge has air quality issues and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tweeted to local bus companies to tell their drivers to stop spewing out diesel fumes unnecessarily. (Future electric buses will hopefully get rid of this).

Improving ‘real time’ information – and being clear on their apps when they are showing real time vs a paper timetable in electronic form

The basic principle here is managing expectations. What I’ve noticed at my local bus stop where I catch buses to the station and into town is that far fewer people are seen waiting around for ages for a bus when the realtime bus timetable is working. A few minutes before a bus arrives and people will show up.

Improved bus shelters – including ones with important and/or community information

The more busier bus stops could easily be adopted by local community groups to maintain notice boards. The problem with current designs of toughened glass stops is that bar the two large advertising boards on one side, there’s nowhere for bus timetables to be posted. Furthermore, ones stuck up on nearby lamp posts are in such a small font that those who have sight problems may not be able to read them. Important for those communities where people may not be smartphone natives too.

The principle of such community notice boards is to put such things up where people are waiting for something. Health centres are another. Interestingly, the director of Stagecoach bus services in Cambridge, Andy Campbell, has said he’d welcome the formation of a bus users campaign group (now formed with the Cambridge Area Bus Users Group) has nowhere to put posters up where their most interested potential members are guaranteed to be: at bus stops.

Asking the bus drivers where the problem points are, how to improve routes and where road surfaces need repairing

I’m not aware that there is systematic communication between the bus drivers and the county council on identifying where repairs need to be made, even though tools such as https://www.fixmystreet.com/ exist.

Asking on an annual basis where service demand exceeds supply in areas of high bus demand.

The first speaker, Lizzie Ford, is now at university, but a couple of years ago she was at college in my neighbourhood. This is her experience of buses from rural areas into Cambridge, and how it impacts her.

Stagecoach and the county council should be interviewing school children that use buses, and in particular, further education students dependent on increasingly infrequent buses from their towns and villages.

The Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough should set up a bus users’ forum

Even one for young people who are disproportionately more likely to be users and affected by issues with buses. If the Mayor agrees in principle to set up such a forum where colleges themselves elect student representatives, the Mayor should agree to convene that forum once a year – early on in the academic year, to meet everyone from across the county. Further gatherings should be hosted by the transport lead on the combined authority and relevant councillors and officials from Cambridgeshire County Council until the county has sorted out a better structure of local government. County councillors should also be put on notice that they will be expected to support young people and bus users in resolving issues raised by the forum.

Smart ticketing that works across different providers, and for multiple journeys.

They seem to have it in London and other parts of the country, why not Cambridgeshire?

Co-ordinating bus services with other transport services (eg trains) and  organisers/providers of major events – such as football matches. And having additional empty buses ready to join services when delays are easily predictable.

It almost goes without saying for example when there is an expectation that there will be service delays. The Citi3 always gets delayed when there is a home game for Cambridge United. Yet the overall service level need not be too disrupted if a couple of empty buses were waiting along Newmarket Road in one of the many car parks there to step in as the crowds gather.

Furthermore, there has to be a better way of publicising and integrating one-off bus services for day-long events at places such as Wimpole Hall Farm or Milton Country Park so that fewer people need to drive to such places, as well as opening them up to those of us that don’t or cannot afford to run a car.

 

 

 

What is it like being dependent on public transport?

Summary

Because buses are in the news following Prime Minister’s Questions today

…even though some say Mr Corbyn should have demanded the resignation of the Work and Pensions Secretary following a damning letter from the Comptroller General and head of the National Audit Office. But it was buses that led the way. And the figures don’t make good reading.

Cambridge and South Cambs have formed a new local bus users group for anyone who uses buses that travel in and around Cambridge.

Led by Richard Wood, anyone interested in getting involved can contact the group at https://cbgbususers.wordpress.com/contact/ as just over half a dozen people are now forming an executive committee. They are also affiliating to the national Bus Users campaign – see their back catalogue here. For those of you who are regular bus users, now would be a very good time to get involved and shape the organisation – one which politicians of all parties have said they hope becomes as influential as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. And the reason why this matters is demographics – regular bus users tend to be economically less well off. (Otherwise they’d drive…wouldn’t they?).

Since my mental health crisis in 2012 I’ve stopped cycling regularly, and as a result go pretty much everywhere by bus. I use them almost daily unless I don’t want to/don’t have a reason to go into town – whether for meetings, rehearsals, visiting archives or just running errands.

When you become dependent on something like buses, you end up shaping huge parts of your life around them. For example it might be which choice of supermarket to go to. Only one of the large supermarkets is reasonably served by the bus route on my road. i.e. the bus stops inside the supermarket premises fairly close to the entrance and exit. All of the others are ruled out.

Choice of evening classes

Before my mental health crisis I completed a basic certificate in teaching for adults at Cambridge Regional College.  It’s something I’d recommend to anyone looking to go into consultancy where you are delivering workshops. The problem I had was getting there and back in the days before the Guided Bus. I’d lose two hours in the day simply getting to college and back from South Cambridge. It was exhausting given that it was such a short distance. Cycling wasn’t realistic either because of the huge number of junctions and the road traffic in general. Again, this was before the completion of the Chisholm Trail. As a result, courses ‘north of the bridge’ for me have been out of bounds due to my limited mobility.

Getting to council meetings

I’ve been able to film and report from council meetings across the south of the county due to the generous support of fellow community activists with cars who have driven me out to places like Cambourne (which for whatever reason built all of the houses before building in a decent transport system and infrastructure to serve the town). In extremis I have caught the bus to Cambourne and back, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The service is infrequent and does not stop outside of South Cambridgeshire Hall. Whoever planned the place stuck the hall at the end of an anonymous business park at the back end of nowhere – perhaps awaiting the next phase of development. But as things stand, I can’t see the local council’s headquarters (South Cambridgeshire District Council) as being that buzzing civic centre of a building that local residents are proud of. I have a longer moan here.

A night on the town?

When you’re on a low income, you simply don’t have the luxury of catching taxis. Instead you’re looking nervously at the clock for the time of the last bus close to your house, followed by the last bus to not so close to your house but walkable if you’re not too nervous being out and about alone that late at night. (I have an anxiety disorder). So sticking around for a drink or three after a film or show is simply not an option.

Going to that community event hosted in a place that’s not near any of the bus routes

It’s why I stopped going to some of the city council meetings that cover part of my neighbourhood – councillors insist on holding East Area Committee meetings at venues where there are no bus links. A few years ago I’d be cycling to those meetings, but because of my health I can’t really do this anymore.

Costs are not cheap if you are on a low income

I’ve lost count of the times the machine has told me my top up card has run out and I have to put more money on it. It’s all the more frustrating when you see more affluent pensioners from other parts of the country using local bus services for free while locals have had to face ever-rising fares. Before reminding myself that this is a political decision designed to divide the masses and that under #CommissarPuffles the buses would be nationalised and free for everyone, paid for by the magic money tree that bailed out the banks.

“What’s the difference between using and not using a bus route?”

For me, 20 mins between each bus is about the maximum that I would tolerate for a daytime service. Anything more than that and anecdotally I can see why such bus routes are empty.

Part of the problem seems to be the lack of discussions between bus operators and communities about what the services should be. It’s all very well asking those of us who do use the buses, but given that we want to get more people onto buses rather than on individual motor transport, aka cars, asking people what puts them off (and what would encourage them to change their habits) is something that needs doing, and doing continually.

How buses can make or break not just a business, but an entire shopping centre

In my anecdotal view, it was Stagecoach wot broke the Grafton Centre. I don’t have statistical evidence to prove this claim, but if you look at the buses that served the purpose-built bus station off East Road in the mid-1990s, lots of bus routes stopped there. Today, not a single frequent ‘Citi’ route uses that bus station. The Citi 3 passes along Newmarket Road to the north of the shopping centre, but there are no clearly marked paths linking the bus stops to the centre. One of the bus stops has a huge tree growing by it, whose roots are winning the war against the pavement. If you are going shopping, the last thing you want to do is to cross a busy road in order to get to the shopping centre. There is no traffic calming on what is one of Cambridge’s historical major roads.

In mid-1995, The Grafton opened a large extension to a big fanfare – the big attraction being the new WBros Cinema complex which made the one where The Regal is look very run down. In those days, The Grafton was the place to be. We’d used to hang out there as teenagers did in those days. There was nothing for us in what is now the Grand Arcade. But they took away the buses and ever since then, the range and standard of the shops has adjusted accordingly. For example there used to be a branch of Heffers, along with at least one record shop (remember those?), and a handful of higher end high street fashion stores. Today, the centre has lost its main anchor, BHS, and has too many empty shop units – which has resulted in the makeover it is currently going through. But unless it sorts out the buses issue, I think it will struggle.

Strangely enough, I can’t help but think that they should have replaced the old BHS with a very large bookshop that could have served Anglia Ruskin University over the road, as well as the communities that continue to use the Grafton Centre. Could that have encouraged the diversity of shoppers while at the same time providing access to families on lower incomes with access to affordable children’s books?

All those diesel fumes

Sitting by bus stops while too many drivers leave their engines idle – especially in this heat – is doing my throat and lungs no good. A problem as I’m singing in a concert on Saturday. The sooner we get electric buses for Cambridge (and elsewhere) the better. But basically I’ve got bored of tweeting to Stagecoach about drivers leaving their engines on while not moving for minutes at a time – especially on roads that have big air quality issues.

“I don’t like sitting next to strangers on the bus”

Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about that a few decades ago.

You may recognise the riff from somewhere.

The point is a sound one from a personal safety perspective. Although I can’t recall having been targeted by anyone hostile on a bus, testimony from women posting their experiences on social media shows that harassment both on buses and at bus stops is a major barrier to them using buses. And if it’s not safe enough for women, it’s not safe enough for any of us. What could a community response look like to make public transport safer?

“Are things going to get better for buses?”

Not in the short term. Local councils are primarily responsible for local transport policy, and they have no money to subsidise bus routes.

As the Public Accounts Committee reported earlier, local government is in crisis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing with maps – an alternative cycle route for Mill Road

Summary

This is why I like community events that play with maps and encourage locals to come up with their own solutions for local traffic issues on their doorstep. 

You may have seen the headlines of the Mill Road Sink Hole. It turned out that this tiny little thing was hiding a huge hole underneath that went up to the shoulders of one of the workmen working on it.

It ended up blocking the road in the middle of a heatwave, and as a result, cars were temporarily banned, making Mill Road something of a haven for pedestrians.

Playing with Mill Road as a case study

Given how unlikely it is for Mill Road to become pedestrianised this side of an underground light rail, I’ve played with the idea of a segregated cycleroute parallel to Mill Road – which looks something like below.Slide1

You can click on G-Maps to see the original.

Now, such pieces of infrastructure are not without controversy and will be very strongly opposed by those most affected negatively. In this case, the largest opposition may come from those living on/around St Phillip’s Road who might become concerned about fast-moving cyclists cycling at great speed in a pedestrian area.

slide2.jpg

From the eastern end by the Cambridge which Cllr Dr Dave Baigent and friends are working on opening up the lakes to the public (see their report here), the ecisting cycle path (“The Tins”) links up the old village of Cherry Hinton, and a number of employers (including a large gym) along Coldhams Lane. A cyclepath could be built from Brookes Road and cut through the dentist’s car park at the back, before heading onto the Brookfields healthcare site – and provide extra footfall for the Edge Cafe charity cafe.

Slide1

The challenge once we get to St Phillip’s Road is getting cyclists to keep their speed down as it is a straight road. But it is do-able.

Slide3

The biggest piece of new infrastructure needed is a foot and cyclebridge over the railway line. But this would take a huge amount of cycle traffic off of Mill Road – which is not the nicest of bridges to cycle over, and is also a bridge that in my opinion needs widening anyway. The bridge on the western side would skim the edge of the new Mill Road Depot development, reducing dependency on the car to get out and about.

slide4.jpg

From the northern edge of the Mill Road depot site that the bottom-right of the picture above, the path heads along Hooper Street, past a couple of pubs and eateries before linking up with the existing cycle route down Gwydir Street, through to Norfolk Street and then onto East Road and Burleigh St. It is possible to link the path to Anglia Ruskin’s entrance by the Mill Road Cemetery, but this would require the purchasing of part of some people’s back gardens, which is not so straight forward.

This gives an idea of the sort of exercises that the Greater Cambridge Partnership should have done in detail, bringing transport planners together with residents across the city and beyond, asking them where they needed to get to, and what their ideas were for building new non-car routes. At the same time, it also enables specialists to discuss with residents what the likely problems and barriers are likely to be – in particular those that residents might not be aware of. (For example contaminated land from industries long gone – as is the case with the Mill Road Depot which is having part of the site decontaminated before homes are built on them).

On the Oxford-Cambridge Arc – a gathering with the CFCI in Cambridge.

Summary

Some thoughts on the challenge set out by Prof Sadie Morgan of the National Infrastructure Commission in an event hosted by the Cambridge Forum for the Construction Industry.

You can watch Prof Morgan’s speech below:

You can watch Tom Holbrook’s talk below:

Both were guest speakers at a meeting of the Cambridge Forum for the Construction Industry, who provided me with a grant to upgrade my filming equipment to film events such as these that improve people’s knowledge of all things planning, development and construction. Have a look at their grant programme to see if you/your group are eligible for a grant.

You can follow them on Twitter at @CFCICambridge.

Dealing with the politics.

We’re living in a time when our political institutions are much more unstable than in times gone by – ironically Prof Morgan stated in her speech that for huge long term projects like East West Rail (which will re-link Oxford and Cambridge) to succeed, they need the sort of political commitment that goes beyond a single term of political office. This is one of the reasons why projects like The Olympics require sign-off by both ruling and opposition political parties before they can be considered. (The Lib Dems had to sign up to London 2012 all the way back in the mid-2000s as part of the official bid!)

Remember the Northern Powerhouse announced to a huge fanfare by George Osborne? One by one, the funding for the various projects got cut, and cut, and cut. One of the problems with the polarisation of political parties (and in this case, within a political party) is the risk that big expensive programmes get their funding pulled unexpectedly – which then makes organisations outside of government less willing to get involved. During my Whitehall days I saw this happen with a change of ministers where funding for some programmes were pulled because the new minister (despite being in the same political party) had different views on how policies should be delivered. At a massive scale, the story of the Steel industry in the UK post war era is one extreme example. Attlee nationalised the industry, Churchill then privatised it, Wilson then renationalised it, and Thatcher re-privatised it. (This is why studying the history of a given policy area is ever so important!)

When speakers outside of political parties talk about ‘taking the politics’ out of things, what they mean is ‘taking the worst aspects of party political behaviour‘ out of things. The reality is that having a major piece of infrastructure built in/near a neighbourhood suddenly becomes incredibly political. Or more generally, perhaps the threatened closure of a school or a hospital.

Why interested professionals in the construction industry need to get involved with party politics. 

We have a qualified architect as one of our councillors on Cambridge City Council.

Cllr Katie Thornburrow MRIBA (Lab – Trumpington) got elected a few months ago at the Cambridge City Council elections, representing Trumpington ward which has experienced a huge level of house building in recent years. Given the huge interest in what’s happening in Cambridge, local communities need people who are experts in the field to represent them. We can’t live in a world where the only elected politicians and political advisers that matter are the ones who did PPE at Oxford. Furthermore, there also needs to be a willingness to learn about the pressures politicians face from those within industry – because all too often politicians get a kicking over their failure to stop large developers behaving in a manner that enrages local communities. This case study is one regularly cited by politicians and campaign groups in and around Cambridge. It was also featured in an extensive article in a national newspaper that generated 1,400 comments. This is in comparison to what was talked about early on – a project similar to the widely-praised King’s Cross development.

The role of professionals in educating and informing local communities

Mr Holbrook’s talk covered some very important analysis on the types of development that we might see built across the arc – have a watch here. One of the things Cambridge organises every so often are events for the great and the good that discuss things like this – for example Keeping Cambridge Special here. The next step for me is going beyond the networking between the professionals and ‘the connected’ to bringing these things out to residents who might be positively disposed to getting involved. By that I mean people who serve as tenant representatives in social housing developments/housing associations, through to young students studying A-level geography or sociology. Or at a vocational level, those who are training to work in the construction industry.

Re-learning our history

In the Q&A session I picked out the following historical reports and studies:

  • Eglantyne Jebb’s study on social questions in Cambridge (digitised here). Written in 1906 and followed up in 1908, the Founder of Save the Children had a number of policy recommendations on new housing and communities – ones which are reflected in the low densities of interwar and post-war housing estates. This matters given comments by both Mr Holbrook and Prof Morgan on the need to increase densities. They and we need to know what the reasons were for reducing density in the first place.
  • WR Davidge’s regional planning report for Cambridgeshire – published in 1934.
  • The Holford Wright Report – the Cambridge Development Plan of 1950. Some of you may be able to access the maps I have digitised here.

The Cambridgeshire Collection contains all of the above and also the post-war development plans throughout the rest of the 20th Century. Go into the Central Library in Lion Yard and head to the third floor – staff will show you the section with all of the plans of the future from years long past. Because it certainly gets the mind thinking – especially when you look at maps and diagrams. Here are a few examples from previous blogposts that got me thinking

Cambridgeshire 1945

Should Cambridgeshire be split into four unitary authorities similar to this map from 1944?

Local-authorities-2b

Is this the best structure of local government ministers can come up with to deliver the infrastructure projects Cambridgeshire needs?

CambridgeProposedRailwayStations

If we build new infrastructure, how long will it last for? Above – the choices of railway stations 1834-64. Nearly 2 centuries later we are still shaped by decisions taken in almost pre-industrial times.

cambridgeconnect_newtonline_extensiona_v5-0

What current plans are on the table that could be developed? This from Dr Colin Harris and Cambridge Connect.

CommunityMappingCambridge

Do we know which facilities are where, and which sites have the greatest potential to benefit from new transport infrastructure? For example public transport stops at country parks, sports stadia, hospitals and schools as well as shopping centres and places of employment?

Can we have buildings that demonstrate both civic pride and that the architects and designers looked like they had some fun with, rather than bland grey things designed on an etch-a-sketch? (The Tivoli on the left is being restored after local community groups rose up to oppose plans to turn a community facility into student flats, and the old Playhouse on Mill Road inexplicably lost its wonderful front to become first a supermarket, and today, Sally Anne’s). 

Can we make better use of existing historical buildings – even where they get burned down in suspicious circumstances rather than doing what happened at the railway station?

Why were previous plans thrown out? (Gordon Logie’s underground tunnels on left, Holford’s trunk roads over Jesus Green and Christ’s Pieces on the right).

img_6691

Why didn’t we get this segregated cycle network planned in the 1960s that imagined completion in 2011?

What ideas did we have in the past for better, wider streetscapes and can these be re-visited? On the left, Hobson Street, on the right, Emmanuel Street.

ppreservationists

What motivated Cambridge’s first civic society to deal with with the risk of urban sprawl and the sort of growth that Oxford saw in the interwar years? (Today’s Cambridge PPF)

slide1

What opportunities are there to spread the wealth of Cambridge far beyond the city? This being my proposal for a rail link to RAF Mildenhall (where the base is due to close), through to Norwich to link up with both the University of East Anglia and Norwich Airport, before terminating at the seaside, Great Yarmouth, one of the most economically deprived towns in the whole of East Anglia. 

How do you diversify a male-dominated industry?

I first impression was how male-dominated the room was when I first arrived – ditto in terms of diversity generally. (I stood out like a sore thumb not just because I wasn’t wearing a suit (it was very hot outside! That plus suits and filming kit are not a good mix)). This was something I picked up also in this article tweeted by Puffles.

This got me thinking about how to get people who live in social housing involved in the design processes – and even to consider careers in the field of the built environment.

The CFCI replied positively. My take is that for events such as the one I filmed at, there is a role for local councillors to promote them to their communities – even suggesting individuals go along and perhaps putting them in touch with organisers before hand so that when they arrive, they are enthusiastically welcomed and are not made to feel awkward in what can feel like a hostile corporate environment to people unused to it.

One thing I’d be interested to find out from such a gathering is where there is shared common ground between the professionals and ordinary residents. Prof Morgan mentioned the impact of consultation fatigue. While consultants may get paid handsomely for repeated consultations, in the grand scheme of things I think most professionals would rather see exciting and inspiring plans coming to fruition – ones that benefit local residents and where they get praised, rather than slammed for selling out to those with the deepest pockets.

Personally I’d like to see a roadshow of events to start things off, followed up perhaps with some evening classes or a group-based online course organised by one of the local colleges or universities. Basically something that gets local communities interacting with professionals in the field, and the latter getting more of a sense of what might work better with local communities in future projects so that they can advise developers and investors accordingly.

Housing Secretary threatens to pull funding for the Cambridge City Deal

Summary

Ministers have picked up on the disagreements between the Greater Cambridge Partnership (which they set up) and the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (which they also set up). They are not blameless – quite the opposite.

It’s all over the (local) news.

with more here. The state of governance for Cambridge and Cambridgeshire is shown in the diagram from Edward Leigh below.

The above model of local government is a mess. A big mess. And ministers cannot say they were not warned. I wrote this back in 2016. I also did a number of media interviews at the time the policy was being rushed through.

It wasn’t clear then how this new county mayoral office was going to work with the already-signed-off Cambridge City Deal, (negotiated during the Coalition era when the Liberal Democrats controlled Cambridge City Council and held the Cambridge parliamentary seat).

In 2016, the media was full of talk of how the unpopular former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was being lined up as a mayor for the whole of East Anglia – see this news report on the odds. People put money on this man! I commented that the last Englishman to hold any sort of executive power over East Anglia was St Edmund. When the idea of Mayor Lansley was dropped, along with a mayoralty of East Anglia, it was not clear who the Conservatives were going to select – at least not to the general public.

Problems with the Cambridge City Deal

The City Deal was rebranded the Greater Cambridge Partnership a couple of years ago, and faced a whole series of problems in its early days – largely of its own making. It was one that ultimately cost the Conservatives its political control of South Cambridgeshire District Council in the 2018 local elections when they were swept away in a Liberal landslide that gave the Lib Dems two thirds of the seats on that council for the next four years.

Cllr Lewis Herbert found himself in the chair of an organisation that he had no say in the creation of, so in that regard he’s always been at a disadvantage. It was made worse by the lack of interested, engaged and competent fellow board members from South Cambridgeshire and Cambridgeshire County Councils – noting that out of all three councils represented, only Cllr Herbert has been the ever-present board member. Yet until the 2018 local elections, he has always been a position to be outvoted by his Conservative colleagues. At the same time, the only Conservative politician who showed anything like the leadership necessary on the board of that organisation was former councillor Francis Burkitt – irrespective of whether you agreed or disagreed with him.

Internal political differences hidden away from the general public

One of the things we are not party to are the internal meetings that happen within the Cambridgeshire Conservative Party. As far as the public was concerned, the then leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr James Palmer, appeared as a candidate relatively late in the day. By that I mean he didn’t have the extensive media trailing that a number of MPs – including Heidi Allen of South Cambridgeshire, had had. For whatever reason, Heidi wasn’t selected to be on the shortlist as the Conservative candidate, even though she was – and still is – highly rated in some parts of Cambridge & Districts non-political-party civic circles.

One of the things Mr Palmer made clear in his election campaign was his hostility towards Cambridgeshire County Council’s team of transport officers. This raised some eyebrows with some in the audience, but his opponents at the ballot box did not push this point about having to work with other organisations given the initial limited budget made available by ministers. Talking of budgets, some activists have been scrutinising the personnel being recruited by the Mayor and Combined Authority.

Again for me the fault is with ministers for not having instructed civil servants to draw up much more sound systems of overview and scrutiny – which themselves have been in the media due to the no-show by a number of Conservative councillors at one meeting that journalists Josh Thomas, Hannah Olssen and a couple of others showed up for. Thus we had the farce of an inquorate meeting.

Again, ministers only have themselves to blame for signing off a policy that was ever so rushed.

Problems with the LEP

The system of “local economic partnerships” was set up by the Coalition as a means of replacing the former Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). Eric Pickles, then Secretary of State, took his axe to all things regional government and got rid of an entire tier of government, which in the grand scheme of things had probably become too grandiose. And I say that as someone who worked inside of it. That said, scrapping that infrastructure didn’t get rid of all of the problems. I noted that the LEPs were like RDAs but without the budget or the oversight. It was this lack of oversight that got it into trouble with Wisbech MP Steve Barclay (who was on the Public Accounts Committee before becoming a minister himself), and thus the National Audit Office. The LEP was later shut down, as explained here.

“Isn’t all this just one big power grab by Mr Palmer?”

It probably is, but then if I was in his position I probably would be doing something similar. The report that is of particular interest to me is the one he commissioned on the governance of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. This is because I’ve gone back through the history and have found out that the institutions we take for granted today are not nearly as long-standing as we think they are. (See Lost Cambridge here). Essentially there was a restructure of local government every couple of decades. The financing of local council budgets until the end of the First World War was almost entirely through a system of local property taxes – the rates. Acts of Parliament would enable local councils to ‘add a penny to the rates’ to pay for a new service or responsibility. It was only following the First World War that we started to see systematic block grants from central government to local councils to pay for what was to become the Welfare State.

“So…we’re overdue a restructure of local councils in Cambridgeshire?”

Going by historic precedent, we should have had one in the 1990s, and be going through the next one about now. Funnily enough, this time 105 years ago there was a huge debate as to whether Cambridge should become a ‘county borough’ – the equivalent of a unitary council. This was thrown out because, amongst other things there was concern that this would leave impoverished and economically unviable rural districts.

“Will the Housing Secretary pull the funding?”

That depends on whether the local politicians and senior executives of the concerned institutions can thrash things out. With the amount of money that stands to be lost, and the huge loss of political face that the Conservatives will face if the money is pulled, I think ministers will direct civil servants to pull out all of the stops behind the scenes. This is because no other members of other political parties were in a position to veto anything before the 2018 local council elections. Even then, the likes of Cllr Herbert and the new representative on the Greater Cambridge Partnership Board, Cllr Aidan van de Meyer of the Liberal Democrats are pragmatists who would not want to lose the £400m tranche of funding. We find out on 04 July 2018 what the new look board is like at their meeting at Cambridge Guildhall. See the papers here.

What I don’t think is a sustainable solution is simply rolling in the Greater Cambridge Partnership into the Combined Authority as they did with the former LEP. For a start there will be a huge incentive for the local councils to have such a decision judicially reviewed. There’s also no appetite for Parliament to pass the necessary legislation (let alone Whitehall to do the necessary policy work) because they are clogged up by Brexit. Note the presence of the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University on the board and assembly of the Greater Cambridge Partnership respectively. It’s not as straight forward as it looks.

“So….what is the long term solution?”

My view for a very long time is that ministers fudged the very difficult decision of nationwide local government reform – one that should have broken up Cambridge into three unitary authorities:

  • Greater Cambridge
  • Greater Peterborough
  • Huntingdonshire

If ministers are serious about devolution and unleashing the potential of our towns and cities, they need to force The Treasury to relinquish its grip on taxation and spending. Hence the Parliamentary Inquiry on Land Value Capture is of significant interest given that this is one of the methods Mr Palmer has cited as being a means of raising revenues to pay for transport infrastructure. Hence asking for his initial observations into the evidence that had been submitted to that inquiry.

My simple reason for asking about this is that I want a new light rail underground system for Cambridge & District along the lines of http://www.cambridge-connect.uk/ and we’re not going to be in a position for The Treasury to gift it to us in the near future. Hence other means need to be explored. This is one such opportunity.

 

 

Cambridge Area Bus Users’ Group launches with cross-party support

Summary

On the formation of a new citizens’ pressure group in support of better bus services.

Over 40 people took time out from the Strawberry Fair / a warm & sunny Saturday to go along to this gathering. (The group is also on FB at https://www.facebook.com/cbgareabususers/) Queries to wood.in.mill.road@gmail.com

I was one of them as I am a regular – almost daily bus user. In times gone by I was a regular cyclist, and had I been more aware, would probably have signed up to membership of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign in my teens & 20s.

Young people conspicuous by their absence. Again.

Primarily because of exams and the Strawberry Fair – and inevitable limitations of trying to organise a meeting at short notice. Having raised this at the meeting, one of the autumn actions is to run a series of stalls and publicity events outside the larger further education colleges, and ideally make these stalls annual events to cover the new cohort of students that might be taking long distance bus routes to college and back for the first time in their lives.

Learning from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign

Who are already setting a good example to campaign groups in Cambridge generally.

Active at local festivals

…and influencing opinion in the local media (or raising levels of anger if you are a motorist who doesn’t like cyclists in principle and refuses to be swayed).

For me, it’s the annual recruitment of college students that will make or break the campaign – simply on the grounds that they are the ones who form one of the largest group of users, and at the same time could be the people who, at the start of every academic year could bring their pressure to bear not just on the transport providers but also on local political parties too. Furthermore, there is an incentive on local political parties to be receptive should the campaign group be successful in recruiting, as some of these could be future party members.

‘My issue with Mayor James Palmer is…’

Buses and Park & Ride came up at Public Questions to the Mayor last week.

At the Combined Authority, Fenland District Council HQ, March, Cambs. 30 May 2018.

One of the major concerns from some people was The Mayor not being seen to prioritise bus franchising and bus transport. Part of that was due to the first piece of correspondence being sent by the campaign was before it had been formally constituted. As things stand, over 30 people (myself included) put their money into signing up to the campaign (suggested membership donation being £5 for those that can afford it, but free to those who genuinely cannot).

We dealt with some of the complexities of how broad the campaign should be. For example one or two people were against the proposed Cambridge Metro/underground light rail, in favour of buses, while at the other end is me & Puffles wanting both a light rail underground *and* a fleet of environmentally friendly electric buses serving Cambridge, alongside a decent network of segregated cycleways and footpaths. I said that dragons live for a lot longer than humans, therefore our timeframe is of the order of 100 years+ rather than the 10-30 years spoken by the institutions. After all, if our predecessors had extended, then electrified the Cambridge Tram Network of the late 1800s, what would Cambridge look like today? Thus we agreed to keep things focussed just on buses – acknowledging the need for buses to be part of a wider sustainable transport system for Cambridge.

A strong start

Having that many people rocking up (And not just the ‘usual suspects’) on a sunny Saturday afternoon with such a big local fair on that day shows that there are a core of people who want to take action on improving buses. For all the concern there was over Stagecoach – and their article at http://www.cambridgeindependent.co.uk/news/cambridge/franchise-the-buses-you-need-money-in-the-tank-1-5543557 on bus franchising, Andy Campbell of Stagecoach East has been on public record saying that Cambridge needs a local bus users’ campaign to support his efforts to improve bus services through increased subsidies from local councils amongst other things. Personally I think it was a huge error not to have him on the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly at the start – and his absence (& that of Whippet coaches) remains a problem. This doesn’t change my personal view that the privatisation of buses by Thatcher was a huge error, and that the buses should be renationalised, properly subsidised and properly co-ordinated across council boundaries.

Risks

There is a risk that in the process of campaigning, some may see it as open season against whichever political party or political figure they happen to dislike at the time. With Labour running Cambridge City Council, The Lib Dems running South Cambridgeshire, the Conservatives running Cambridgeshire County Council (the highways authority) and Mayor James Palmer although being a Conservative candidate is very much being ‘his own man’ rather than a ‘placeman’ of the county council, means that party politics (internal and external) may not be far from the surface.

To be fair, some councillors from all parties indicated that though they supported the launch, they said due to conflicts of interest they would not be joining the organisation at the start as they saw the campaign group as one for the public by the public, and that they were there to listen to concerns brought up. Other councillors however chose to join. One of the things that the campaign may need to consider in its constitution is protocols on how to manage the inevitable local party interest, and act in a manner that at least tries to maintain the confidence of all of the local parties. This is because at some stage the campaign group is likely to find itself opposing, or at least having concerns with certain policies from each of the political parties in control of the various councils across the county.

Any questions about the campaign should be directed to Richard Wood at wood.in.mill.road@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dis-Connected

But why?

So I tabled a public question to Cambridgeshire County Council snapping at their heels on the future of Shire Hall very recently.

…because I still have this crazy idea of expanding the Museum of Cambridge onto the Shire Hall site as the county council move off of it. For the record I’m grateful to councillors for clarifying that they are looking at a long term lease that will provide an income stream rather than selling off the site in its entirety.

But what you didn’t see was the amount of spoons used to get up early and be out and about in time to table that public question. And the inevitable aftermath.

That was the day after the election of the new mayor of Cambridge – Cllr Nigel Gawthrope (Lab – King’s Hedges) at The Guildhall.

I was planning on sticking around for the ‘political debate’ on the various party groups’ plans and policies, but with no one wanting to keep the tradition of ‘cross party drinks’ at the Cambridge Beer Festival going, I went home and crashed out.

The crisis of the Mill Road Library Building

At first glance I thought “Oh no – the Tories want to sell off yet another historical asset!” (See the papers here). Looking closer at it, the problem is that the current tenants have not been maintaining this wonderful grade 2 listed building as their lease requires them to. What astonished me is that hardly anyone seemed to be aware of these problems. Hence when it came to the County Council for debate (see the video here), I was astonished that this had come as a surprise to so many.

Above- the Petersfield Area Community Trust (local residents’ association) commenting as I live-tweeted.

Stuck inside a dragon-shaped political box

I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s as if I don’t really get to do much with other people outside of the worlds of history and politics – even less so with people around my own age (mid-late 30s). Again this week I had people telling me how wonderful the work I do for Cambridge is, and how essential it is.

The problem is in our current economic system, it does not enable me (or anyone) to make a living. Therefore as far as the system is concerned, it is not essential. If it was, it would pay. But it doesn’t. That’s not a criticism of individuals – this is a big picture thing – it’s structural.

Furthermore, I was also asked to film a large political event outside of the county – being told that the organisers were desperate but unable to pay me. This would have involved a fair amount of expense on my part just getting to the venue. Sorry ladies and gentlemen but I’m no longer prepared to pay my own way for an unpaid filming session, no matter how important you think it is.

“D’ya want to meet up for a coffee to talk things over?”

This came up in a previous blogpost here. In the grand scheme of things, I’d rather do something different – more active, more exciting and something that collectively we can talk about long after the event.

And that’s part of the disconnect.

The fallout from my mental health problems and lack of proper treatment over the past couple of decades (again as discussed here) has been that people who I would have liked to have stayed in my life have moved on. Accordingly – and this is really upsetting for someone with a strong interest in local history – there isn’t a single person in my day-to-day life who shared any of those experiences in the different phases of my adult life:

  • Year out,
  • university on the south coast,
  • post-graduate years,
  • civil service and dancing years,
  • London, and
  • my post-civil service years.

The thing is, much of what I’ve said above, I’ve already written in previous blogposts – like this one last month. Or perhaps this one from last November.

Is this how it’s going to be?

Because that’s kind of what I’m reconciled to. Again, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts, the problem is structural. Funnily enough, this came up on RTE Radio in Ireland today when they were discussing the results of the Repeal the 8th Referendum. Just listening to who was saying what was an education in itself. Though those on the side of the church establishment were coming out with increasingly bizarre explanations as to why their side performed so badly. eg. longer commutes meaning people are living more individualistic lifestyles and thus are moving away from the church therefore they didn’t vote according with the church’s wishes.

The Irish vote and how it resonated with me

I was watching Ed Byrne on The Road to Santiago not so long ago. Like me, he had to go to church as a child. His comment on how he felt all of that time was wasted every Sunday morning when he says he could have been doing something constructive like playing a sport, learning a musical instrument, or learning a new language, was one that really touched my heart. He had something to say about the referendum too.

Breaking away from that sort of institutionalisation is never easy – not least because it also meant breaking away from people who you’ve known since childhood. Yet as I said to myself at the time, I could no longer live a lie. The more I read about the institution at university – the first time in my life I had access to a large library and also, the internet (this was late 1999), the less I wanted to have anything to do with an institution that discriminated against so many.

Which is why the above really struck a chord with me – a new generation had struck back and crushed an oppressive institution and an oppressive mindset and had made history.

The above by @Stavvers also explains why I felt ever so disconnected to the Remain campaign. The two options (Leave or ‘Call me Dave’s deal’) did not reflect my views at all. Also, there is one person in this photograph who I could not bear having the dragon in the same photo.

Both campaigns were largely driven by men. The footage from the Irish referendum campaign is strikingly different.

We never got the sense from Remain of “What is going to improve if we vote for you?”. I get the sense that the #RepealThe8th campaigners have torn up the old rule book. Good.

It doesn’t solve the disconnection problem though.