Will Mayor James Palmer’s independent review of local government in Cambridgeshire report before the elections?

I hope so, as it should provide a sound evidence base for politicians, candidates, and voters to debate the future of our county at a time when (in Cambridge at least) we have an unprecedented number of elections and votes to take part in and cast.

With the various local elections in England due to take place, now is the time to look at https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ and get an idea of who are the candidates that have already declared themselves as standing for election/re-election. It’s also a reminder for candidates to input/update their details of websites/videos/publicity materials to enable potential voters to find out about policies, manifestos and candidates’ backgrounds. For those of you interested in helping more voters cast informed votes (based on having read about all the candidates standing for election in their area, and having had the chance to ask all candidates specific questions to do with their local issues), see the Democracy Club which runs this and other things. https://democracyclub.org.uk/about/.

Mayor Palmer’s independent review of Local Government in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – chaired by Andy Wood.

Board minutes from September 2018 of the Combined Authority cover the review.

I remember this because an overhaul of local government in Cambridgeshire has been something I’ve been calling for, for ages. Back in October 2017 I called for the abolition of Cambridgeshire County Council. I stand by that today. There are those that say it would simply entrench the ‘north south’ divide in the county. I disagree. The current set up does this by failing to enable the spread of economic wealth supposedly being created by Cambridge City & South Cambridgeshire because ministers have chosen not to create the taxation and funding mechanisms that enable some of that wealth to be spent in towns that really need it – such as Wisbech. With the current structures, local government does not have the power to spend the sorts of sums required to improve public services and infrastructure in north Cambridgeshire. Instead they are dependent on grants from Central Government which have been lacking in the face of a decade of austerity.

“So, when is Mr Wood going to report back?”

That’s for Mr Palmer to tell us – but I hope it is in good enough time for everyone to debate the proposals on merit. I think there’s a big public interest given things like the Centre for Cities Report which had quite frankly a bizarre proposal for separating Cambridgeshire and Peterborough in a way that did not make economic or historical sense.

In November 2020 Mr Palmer appeared before the House of Commons Select Committee on Housing & Local Government. He said that the structure of local government in the county is massively muddled. I agree. In the 2015 general election, all of the candidates standing in Cambridge City agreed that Cambridge needed to be a unitary authority – the challenge was where to redraw the boundaries that satisfied all parties.

Reviewing boundaries, legal powers, and financial powers of local councils is not new. It’s just not happened at a comprehensive level for nearly half a century.

Everything since then has been tweaking the structure here and there – even the decision to make Peterborough City Council a unitary authority based not least on its rapidly-growing population on the back of its second generation ‘Newtown’ designation under Harold Wilson’s Government. This is why Peterborough has a population of over 200,000 while Cambridge’s is around 130,000. Before the 1960s their population numbers were much closer.

Breaking up Cambridge Constituency

This is what Chris Rand of the Queen Edith’s Community Forum has suggested.

This makes sense to me but it would not get agreement from the Conservative Party because from their perspective there are not enough safe Conservative wards to give the party a chance of winning the seats. In the same way many residents in Queen Edith’s feel abandoned by the Conservatives because the local MP is seldom seen in the neighbourhood which on paper (a large settled elderly population, lots of houses valued at over £500,000, expensive private school in the area) should be a safe-as-castles Conservative fiefdom (as it once was decades ago). At the last election in the ward in 2019 the party came fifth and last.

Ideally any new boundaries would, as much as possible align with whatever the proposed new council boundaries would be. Which is easier said than done. What we do know is that Cambridge’s population and electorate is now too big for one MP to the extent it now breaches the Government’s guidelines on constituency sizes. Given the huge demand on the services of whoever is the MP – especially from individuals who are experts in their field but also from influential institutions, it is exhausting not just for the MP but their back office too. Again, this is something that Parliament should look into as part of its reforms on providing support and protection for those that work for MPs.

Cambridge’s municipal boundaries – unchanged since 1934

This and the following maps are from the History of Local Government in Cambridge 1835-1958 which was published by the old Cambridge County Council and which I have digitised and uploaded here. This is from my own paper copy.

Above – in pink is what Cambridge got, and in blue is what Cambridge asked for.

Yet the boundaries that preceded these were only set in 1911.

Above – pink is the old Cambridge borough – notably *without* Chesterton, while the bits in blue added incorporated Chesterton, Mill Road’s railway communities, and ‘New Cherry Hinton’ – the area of Victorian housing east of Homerton College and thus part of my childhood neighbourhood. (We covered it in primary school local history projects in the late 1980s – I still have the drawings!)

The data from Cambridgeshire Insight here shows how Cambridge’s population has changed and grown.

Note the above table reflects the separation of the borough from Cherry Hinton, Chesterton, and Trumpington, all of which were separate villages until the city’s expansion engulfed them.

We’ll find out what Cambridge’s population is in 2021 in this year’s census. Expect a big increase. Note the statistical quirk in 1981 which I think relates to the census that year being taken outside of Cambridge University’s term time.

If we assume that Cambridge’s population is going to be not far off 140,000 by 2022 – and still due to expand further, then the population will have doubled since the existing municipal boundaries were drawn up. Furthermore, since the last reform of local government in the mid-1970s, the population of the city will have expanded by a town the size of Haverhill – just without the transport, civic, and leisure infrastructure that towns need. For example my view is that Cambridge needs an additional municipal swimming pool for the south of the city – the University of Cambridge is long overdue building one in the north.

And if Cambridgeshire was to become a series of unitary authorities, where would the new boundaries be?

My starting point/baseline for negotiations would be the proposals from 1945.

Note the thick red line is the historical boundary for Cambridgeshire. The shire level councils are all in different colours – hence “Cambridge County Council” for which County Hall was built and opened in 1913.

Above – the old County Hall, now part of Christ’s College.

What should the remit of any new unitary councils be?

This is an issue that as a matter of principle and history splits the Labour Party from the Liberal Democrats. And with good reason.

Making sense of Labour policy announcements in recent years.

The National Health Service quite rightly is seen by Labour activists as one of their party’s greatest achievements. You only have to look at the cases in the USA of people having to pay insurance and medical fees – far too often at extortionate rates, to see why. Accordingly, in recent years the party has taken that top-down model and tried to apply it to other policy areas such as schools – a National Education Service. And social care – a National Care Service. One big advantage with this is that in principle it means that everyone should get the same basic guaranteed level of service, with national government stepping in to provide greater funding for local areas that need it – in particular those council areas suffering from economic deprivation that, through their own resources could never hope to raise the necessary revenue from their own localities.

Where would this leave local councils? The Liberal Democrats’ case for doing this through local councils

That top-down world view doesn’t sit well with the Liberal world view of having specific functions resting at what it sees as the most appropriate level of service delivery. Public services generally are seen as a local government responsibility. Large scale national infrastructure, and national foreign policy are things for Westminster. Dealing with issues that cut across national boundaries such as pollution and climate change – and more recently the regulation of multinational social media and tech firms, are better dealt with in a European sphere. Which is one of the reasons why they opposed Brexit – leaving the EU shatters this world view. At the same time the Liberal Democrats have a much stronger presence in local government than in Westminster, so it makes more sense party-politically to call for more devolution to local councils.

We also have the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections

Though if any of you can actually name your current PCC – and any specific and substantial achievements from your PCC, I’ll be very impressed. Former Labour councillor in these parts Pete Roberts posted recently that one tier of public office holders who had been conspicuous by their absence in the response to the Covid19 pandemic were the Police and Crime Commissioners. I agree. Given the huge number of very significant powers that police officers now have – along with the huge demands that go with them, their silence has been deafening.

And yet how are the police scrutinised?

At a very local level we have updates from over-stretched and under-resourced neighbourhood officers such as PC Collier Harris here in Cherry Hinton a few years ago.

Above – Cambridge South Area Committee 08 April 2019 at Cherry Hinton Village Centre.

I don’t blame the frontline officers – I was horrified to hear how large an area PC Collier Harris had to cover on her own (Trumpington, Queen Edith’s, and Cherry Hinton) with no real prospect of an increase in resources that would enable more residents to become familiar with their local neighbourhood officers. Yet in times gone by the senior police officers were directly accountable to local councillors through a council committee called “The Watch Committee”. Those early police officers had badges that bore the arms of the town that they represented rather than that of the Crown. But the balance of local vs regional vs national has always been up for debate – Cambridge Police at one stage in the 1960s being incorporated into a regional structure of Mid-Anglia.

Who pays? The proposed national property tax.

This isn’t going to go away even though ministers for the past 30 years have put local council funding in the ‘too difficult’ pile.

Hence Jessica Studdert picking up on this proposal yesterday.

And the idea of having local services funded by a tax based on 1991 house prices is quite frankly a nonsense. It was back then, it is so today.

At the moment local council finances are in a dire position – even more so given ministers have reneged on promises to fund local council expenditure responding to the pandemic.

One of the reasons we haven’t had a local income tax or a wealth tax is because Margaret Thatcher in her battles with Labour councils in the 1980s refused to countenance the idea of having a socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer in every other town hall up and down the country. Hence the concept of ‘capping’. Under the guise of removing capping, the coalition said that any council wanting to increase council taxes above a limit set by ministers would have to go out to a local referendum. And we know all about those. Having a referendum to raise the level of a regressive tax is never going to fly. But again successive ministers have demonstrated their unwillingness to let local councils set their own taxation rates using alternative systems of taxation – such as a land value tax. This is despite all of their rhetoric of empowering communities, devolution, and localism.

It’d be nice to think that someone out there in party-political land has a positive vision for local government – and can implement it. And perhaps go down in history for the right reasons for it. I’m thinking how Joe Chamberlain is remembered in Birmingham. I’ve just not seen many contemporary examples yet.

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