The Joint Agreement – Cambridgeshire County Council in a new political age

Seated: Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (LD), & standing L-R, Cllrs Tom Sanderson (Ind), Lorna Dupre (LD), Richard Howitt (Lab), & Elisa Meschini (Lab). Photo via Ben Hatton

County councillors representing the Liberal Democrats (20 cllrs), Labour (9 councillors) and the Independent Group (4 councillors) today have signed an agreement to run Cambridgeshire County Council – which will be lead by Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham), deputied by Cllr Elisa Meschini (Lab – King’s Hedges), and to be Chaired by one of the Independent Councillors for the first two years.

You can read the agreement here.

The first meeting of the new county council’s full council will be on 18 May 2021 at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. Which given the Covid-19 Restrictions makes me wonder about the merits of the Tories spending all that money on a move to Alconbury where Cambridge-based protesters cannot get to. Will future full council meetings have to be held at Duxford as one of the few places large enough given the Covid Restrictions?

Mayor Nik Johnson’s first week in office.

It has been a busy week for the new Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

You can read about Mayor Nik Johnson’s thoughts in his first blogpost here.

“What do the county Tories have to say?”

This from the previous Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Steve Count for the Conservatives.

The barb at the end picked up by more than a few of you.

Meanwhile inside Cambridge City – where we have a civic mayor…

The first meeting of the full council there will be at The Guildhall on 27 May 2021 from 11am when the new Mayor for the civic year will be elected by councillors. This role, unlike the Metro Mayor for the County, is purely a ceremonial one. It’s also when we find out who the new executive councillors are to replace former councillors Johnson & Massey who were edged out of their seats by The Cambridge Green Party. Cllrs Bennett and Dr Copley (Greens – Abbey) may have an even more significant role to play as opposition councillors – along with Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s) with city Liberal Democrats having to have half an eye on their colleagues as the largest party in the collective running the county council with their county Labour colleagues. That does not mean they won’t ask difficult questions – they will and should. The challenge for them is how to frame the questions in a way that does not provide party political ammunition for the Conservatives on the county council.

Will the Conservatives implode or regroup and counter?

One of the more collegiate-minded Conservatives who lost both his Cottenham seats on South Cambridgeshire District, & Cambridgeshire County Councils, Tim Wotherspoon, hit out at his party’s toxic brand in the south of the county.

Photo Credit: Buzz Associates Limited

You can read Mr Wotherspoon’s remarks in this Cambs Times article by John Elworthy – and for those of you wanting to keep abreast of county news from the north of the county, this is the publication to subscribe to.

In reality though, the election results map still shows the Conservatives absolutely dominant in the north and west of the county, with their opponents barely on the political radar – as you can see from Chris Rand’s ‘Blockbusters-style’ graphic to Mr Hatton.

Above – you can almost draw a straight line separating the north-western side from the south eastern side of the county. Note the gap at the top which is where Peterborough once was until it became a Unitary council in the late 1990s. Any future changes to the local government structure coming from Whitehall will need to account for Peterborough.

On The Agreement

It’s hard to do a like-for-like comparison with 1993’s Labour-LibDem-run council because Peterborough City Council was part of the county council, and was only separated into a unitary council in 1997 – which happened to be on the same day as the general election that year and against trend, returned a Conservative-run council.

The writers of The Agreement have built in enough flexibility to enable councillors to go their own way if they are not able to agree on specific policies.

You could say that this is not a full Coalition Agreement as was negotiated in central government back in 2010, but rather a Confidence and Supply agreement with additional clauses added. Furthermore, the council is not being run by a leader and executive councillors (as is the case with Cambridge City Council), but rather via committee chairs. (Annex B on p6 of The Agreement). It is *normally* best practice to have a senior councillor from the main opposition party to chair the Audit and Accounts Committee. But because Conservative councillors on the previous council failed to vote for the release of the FarmGate Report,

This led to the resignation of the Chair of the previous audit committee Cllr Shellens (LibDems)

Above – Mr Elworthy says the above video has had more than 7,000 views – unheard of for a local council meeting in this part of the world.

So it appears that the Liberal Democrats are chairing that committee to ensure that this very important audit report gets released.

And you can hardly blame them given the issues of propriety and integrity that the Conservatives in Central Government are wrestling with.

Shared responsibility

There will be some new working habits to get used to for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They won’t be able to say “Well if it wasn’t for that ‘oribble lot over there! …” because the agreement covers both letter and spirit. This will be very important especially when it comes to social media comments – in particular if a very vocal community group normally in support disagrees strongly with a new council policy.

Campaign groups also need to remember that the county councillors supporting the Joint Administration may not be inclined to put that Administration at risk, having spent a quarter of a century in opposition and now finding themselves in political control of the county. That does not mean they should not give councillors a hard time when they deserve it – rather they may want to review their campaigning tactics in the face of the party political changes that have happened in recent years at a local level. One of the biggest cultural changes we are already seeing is a move away from the politics of conflict where the winner takes all, to a politics of consensus, trying to bring as many people along as possible irrespective of their party political viewpoint. Because Covid19 and the Climate Emergency don’t discriminate by party labels.

More place-based committees – an olive branch to the Conservatives?

Given the tabloid headlines under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party (he still remains suspended from the Parliamentary Party), you might forgive the fear of future compulsory Marxism classes in some parts of the county. What the joint agreement offers the Conservatives is the opportunity to run their own affairs in the areas of the county where they occupy the most council seats.

For somewhere like Fenland District Council which is sort of a one-party-state at the moment, they could get a working model that has district and county councillors deciding on county council services that only affect their part of the county. Thus avoiding situations in the past where councillors from UKIP in North West Cambridgeshire were voting on neighbourhood parking issues in central Cambridge.

While the Conservatives can be expected to kick up a storm over council tax rates (recalling that they have already built in successive council tax rises via their Police and Crime Commissioner precept for the next few years), the extra revenue raised is something they are less likely to complain about if the powers of spending it are devolved to district and parish levels of government, which in the north of the county they dominate. So no risk of compulsory Marxism classes then.

Don’t expect things to be easy following over a decade of austerity – and expect more bad news in the face of that underfunding.

The funding crisis for local councils, for magistrates courts, our criminal justice system and more have not gone away. Expect the county council to be an easy target. Expect some difficult newspaper headlines. This will be a big learning experience for councillors few of whom have been in charge of council services. There will be mistakes along the way – and some big ones too.

Train and prepare for when those bad things happen – because they will

If anything, the county council should appoint a trusted-by-all-parties independent mediator on a retainer for when this happens – because it will. Furthermore, it is essential that new councillors especially undertake the necessary training that is made available – including crisis management. That includes Digital Crisis Management (See the Helpful Digital Team who pioneered this for the public sector many moons ago). Furthermore, social media for elected members by Dan Slee is worth looking at. (I went to one of his mobile video-making courses before the pandemic – it was excellent. It might be an idea to bring him up to Cambridgeshire to run some courses closer to home if restrictions allow).

Institutionally, it might be worth doing a proper skills audit to find out who has what skills, and where your skills gaps are. This could be done in partnership with the district, town, and parish councils. Having identified where your shared skills gaps are, you can then approach further and higher education establishments to design some courses and qualifications for council officers and elected councillors – including longer term day release, evening classes, and distance learning. Courses now available that were not available in the 1990s include vocational qualifications in Public Services.

Food for thought.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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