But if that’s what the majority Conservative-run County Council thinks the people of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire deserve, that’s their call to defend at the ballot box this year – something that the pandemic has brought along its own set of unique challenges.
Residents of Cambridgeshire (and anywhere else across the country for that matter) can find out who is standing for election in their area in the near future by typing their postcode into the box at https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ – which also enables you to get into contact with, & put your questions to those standing for election & campaigning for your vote.
You can read Ben Hatton’s report in full here in the Cambridge News.
Personally I think bogs have higher standards than what has been proposed by, and voted through by the majority Conservative councillors on the planning committee of Cambridgeshire County Council. You can read the minutes of the meeting that made the decision here along with accompanying papers and drawings.
Above – you can see the ceremony room is the extension to the listed bit, the most basic of flat-roofed buildings they could build. But then it wasn’t designed for a specialist purpose – not by looking at the outside anyway.
“Did the Tories really have a search for the worst building in Cambridge and decide that it would be the best one for people who couldn’t afford something better than the registry office for their big day?”
But I can understand why someone might think that given the behaviour of ministers and the Prime Minister in national government – and simply assume the worst with the party in Government at the moment. Which in itself is dangerous for democracy.
“Doesn’t this discriminate against people who either cannot afford a different venue or have no other choice but a registry office?”
The headline does not read well for the governing party on the county council. I can hear the exchanges already – Labour councillors accusing their Conservative opponents of discriminating against working class voters and those on low incomes, while rich Tory voters are able to afford much more glamorous venues for their families’ nuptials. (While the Tories accuse their Labour opponents of wanting to put up council taxes for poor voters in rural areas who don’t have access to any public services that places like Cambridge has. It’s been like this in Shire Hall council meetings for years).
I am the least qualified person to ask about venue hire for big days, but I can imagine that the costs quoted for registry office hire in some places as being under £100 versus a private hire venue (or even a religious building), the council-run registry office will come in at the cheapest or at one of.
It’s also worth remembering that it’s not just for weddings that such offices are used for. The registration of births and deaths are also made there as well.
“So, what decision were councillors actually being asked to vote on, and how did they get to this position?”
Essentially the vote covered 2 issues:
- Change of use of the Roger Ascham building from a library storage depot to registry office,
- Permission to carry out the alterations to the building that will make it function properly as a registry office.
All that voting against would have done (had such a vote passed) is that it would have kept the building as a library storage depot, even though it is not needed as a storage depot – while stopping the use of the building as a registry office in principle even though there is now the need for a registry office to be established on new premises. There was no option to vote for trying to find better premises for a registry office.
“Is that why we can’t have Hobson Street Cinema as a new registry office?”
It’s privately owned – and the latest Government policy doesn’t do much to move things along.
“Could they rebuild the old Assizes Courthouse?”
It would make for a nice combination with an expanded Museum of Cambridge, and that would cost money.
“How did county councillors get to here?”
It stems from a party-political decision by the Cambridgeshire Conservatives to move the headquarters of Cambridgeshire County Council out of Shire Hall to a new site in Alconbury, just outside Huntingdon, and far away from the hordes of Labour and Liberal activists in and around affluent Cambridge. With no decent public transport from Cambridge to Huntingdon and Alconbury, the decision to go to a county council meeting is not something you can make on the day.
Above from G-Maps. Alconbury – “nice and close to the Blue fortress of Huntingdon – John Major’s old constituency, and sufficiently far away from the Remoaners and Champagne Socialists in Cambridge who won’t drive to Alconbury in big numbers because of climate change.” I read it on the internet so it *must* be true.
As you can imagine, this decision was strongly resisted by the opposition parties amongst others, but they didn’t get enough votes or win enough seats in the county council elections in 2016. That decision created two more controversies – the first about the protection of the Castle Mound historic monument, the man-made hill created when the invading Normans enslaved the people of Cambridge to build their fortification on the site of the Roman Castle. The second was signing a preferred bidder deal with the controversial Cambridge Station Developer Brookgate to turn Shire Hall into a hotel under a short-medium term lease.
That decision particularly angered those that had been following the Cambridge Station development since the early 2000s – in particular some in the local history community given the promises made to have a state-of-the-art county archive and local history centre as part of the Cambridge Station redevelopment.
This was picked up by Olly Wainwright in The Guardian noted in his article of June 2017 above, which featured many interviews including with the late historian Allan Brigham. In the end the county archives – which incorporates the official archives of Cambridge City Council and a host of other town institutions, was moved to Ely.
“Why should moving from Shire Hall mean moving the registry office to the back end of a storage unit?”
Because the existing registry office – which was originally built as a medical clinic when the current Shire Hall building of 1930 was built, is on that site, the county council would have to vacate it.
In the face of austerity and big cuts from national government to local government, combined with successive Conservative-led rate/council tax freezes being voted through, there are not the funds available to build an ornate, new registry office. The point being that this decision isn’t one that can be looked in isolation, but was one that inevitably had to be taken because of, or as a result of previous bigger and more significant decisions that the Conservatives running Cambridgeshire County Council had taken over previous years.
“What have the opposition parties got to say for this?”
The pattern that a number of opposition politicians have highlighted in recent years – in particular Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Newnham, Liberal Democrats, and former MEP for East Anglia) is one of Conservative county councillors asset-stripping Cambridge of its facilities because the electorate in Cambridge does not vote for Conservative candidates, while the opposite seems to be the case in the north of the county (where in Fenland 75% of the electorate voted to leave the EU in 2016) – and it’s those rural seats that outnumber the urban seats. It’s worth recalling that Cambridge used to be a safe-as-castles Conservative stronghold until the 1980s. The screenshot of the chart below by the late Colin Rosenstiel and maintained by Keith Edkins, starting in 1976 on the left and ending in 2004 on the right, shows how the Conservatives declined and collapsed over that 30 year period.
That’s not to let opposition parties off the hook when it comes to their strategic campaigning decisions. If both Labour and the Liberal Democrats spent more time and resources fighting the Conservatives outside of Cambridge, rather than fighting each other inside Cambridge, they might have a greater chance of overturning the Conservative majority on the County Council. This up-and-coming election for Cambridgeshire County Council might have been an ideal time for them to do this. But then the Corona Virus outbreak has put paid to much political campaigning over the past year.
Restrictions on street campaigning and door-to-door leafletting and accusations of gerrymandering and poll-fixing.
Early leafletting in 2021 led to calls for it to be stopped due to the record high infection, hospitalisation and death rates due to the pandemic. Ministers also intervened – see here, as well as being called upon to respond to an Urgent Question by Kerry McCarthy MP. You can read the transcript here. The confirmation that political parties could not have volunteers leafleting but could pay for private firms to do the leafletting caused significant concerns with opposition parties. The Lib Dems discussed it here. They said that they have stronger activist bases to do leafletting than the Conservatives, but not the finances to pay for paid leafletting. Thus such a move would only benefit incumbents rather than opposition candidates.
Concerns about the local elections from the Constitution Society
Although Ministers insist they (and local councils) are ready for the local elections in England in early May 2021, the Constitution Society (founded in 2010 ‘to advance the education of the British public on the subject of the British Constitution’) published an article by Toby James, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of East Anglia and Alistair Clark, Reader in Politics, Newcastle University.
That England is not in a position to hold elections due to the pandemic – even after what the country has been through, is astonishing. Note the Housing & Local Government Secretary said “local government would have the resources they need to meet this challenge“ so he must deliver on it. Has he left it too late? Will there need to be a short delay? If so, will it be in the order of a few weeks, or a delay until after the summer?
The problem is that councillor vacancies can arise for a variety of reasons. Death in office is not that uncommon given the age cohort of many councils. Others stand down for a variety of reasons. Some have work commitments that become too great. Others move away. Some have to stand down for health reasons. If there’s a reason for the elections to go through this year, and not be postponed until next year, it’s because the growing vacancies mean greater burdens during the pandemic fall on fewer councillors. And that’s not good for anyone.