As the political mood lifts in Greater Cambridge, so the hard work for councillors begins – with reading. *Lots* of it

Why councillors should commission a literature review of the past 20 years of reports commissioned and delivered, and have an audit of what was delivered/completed and what was not.

If I carry on blogging at this rate, I may have to send in a speculative application as a part-time policy adviser to one of the public bodies. (Long-term chronic illnesses prevent me from working full-time, something the medical experts are still examining test results to figure out what’s causing and sustaining it for so long). Thank you to all of you who have provided such kind feedback.

With the new political colours now flying from Shire Hall, and with reviews of a host of transport and other projects being launched by Mayor Dr Nik Johnson (now tweeting at, now is a good time for all of the other local authorities within his geographical remit to do similar in policy areas that overlap with the Combined Authority.

If you’ve missed the news, the Conservatives have lost political control of the County Council, and for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century will not have the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council as one of their councillors. At the end of my previous blogpost I urged councillors to ensure they had a trained, professional, independent and trusted mediator on a retainer so that they could call on their services so that any difficulties could be smoothed over. Because those difficulties will arise – and it’s best to start preparing for them now, perhaps with a high-level policy risk assessment exercise. (The county council should have internal staff trained to run one of these. If not, there’s a training gap that needs filling!)

I also urged newly-elected councillors – especially those new to the role and to local government to undertake as much training as they can before things get very busy in the autumn. Because they will, and you will be glad to have done the essentials when the tough decisions arrive. Because they will. As will Comms crises. One of the best training tools I’ve seen is HelpfulDigital’s social simulator.. Similarly, Helen Reynolds’ Comms Creatives tailors such courses for public sector organisations. Given how blurred some of the lines are between our local councils – eg shared services on things like town planning, and refuse & recycling, this is something that councils can procure jointly and have teams taking part in a single session together. (Those are a couple of providers I’m aware of – others are available, and it may be something your cost limits require you to go through a formal procurement exercise).

The loss of corporate memory, and the re-energising of an institution

One of the inevitable things that happens with a change of political party leading an organisation is the inevitable loss of corporate memory off the back of the changes in elected members. At the same time, the new elected members can bring in fresh new thinking and ideas. And with both Cllrs Hilary Cox Condron, (Lab – Arbury), Dr Alexandra Bulat (Lab – Abbey), & Prof Catherine Rae (Lab – Castle) all joining Cambridgeshire County Council for the first time, I don’t think the council will know what has hit it once that trio get going! And that’s just the city-based councillors. The Liberal Democrats added even more to their number, making them the largest group of the Joint Administration as it is now known – The Conservatives still the largest group on the County Council but who form the Opposition for the first time since the mid-1990s. When I was at school.

One of the skills and competencies of working in public policy is the ability to be able to absorb very large amounts of information in a very short space of time, and then re-communicate it out to a waiting audience giving the impression you are an expert on the subject and know what you are talking about. You can tell when a politician is winging it because either they just read out pre-prepared lines to take, or they hesitate, stumble, and tie themselves up in knots. Personally I think it better if they say ‘I don’t know – I’ll get back to you’ – with an official in the background making a suitable note.

Decision-making processes – how the Mayor might go about deciding which projects to keep and which to scrap

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson said:

“This is going to be a time of fresh thinking and starting the vital cooperation with the councils”


“New Labour regional mayor Dr Nik Johnson will start work this week with an in-depth review of which projects will go ahead and which will be axed following his stunning surprise election victory on Saturday.”

All of this will require the local councils to respond accordingly. Especially those that were relying on projects commissioned by Mr Palmer that are now on hold and/or likely to be scrapped. In the case of the doomed CAM Metro, Mayor Dr Nik Johnson is taking the view that he does not want to throw good money after bad. At the same time, there’s a fair amount of intellectual property that the Combined Authority may have gathered in the commissioning process – that process not coming cheap. Therefore it’s essential that this material is made available to other organisations willing to take the project further in their areas. It is taxpayer-funded after all.

The next thing is deciding on what criteria to assess all of the existing projects against. This is something that at a national level a minister would commission officials to come up with – and I’d expect Mayor Dr Nik Johnson to do the same: i.e. state what his priorities and desired outcomes are – eg. all school and further education students being able to get to/from school/college on time either on foot, by cycle, or on public transport. It will then be up to his staff to come up with a set of criteria to recommend to the Mayor, and for the Mayor either to make any changes he desires, and/or sign off as approved the criteria.

The next task for officials is to assess the projects against the criteria – using a scoring mechanism if necessary, and once complete (don’t underestimate how long and arduous this task might be), submit the recommendations to the Mayor who then assesses their recommendations and changes or signs off accordingly. It is then for The Mayor to defend his decisions to the Leaders of the local councils on the Combined Authority, and to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee of the Combined Authority which will look both at processes and of the recommendations that the Mayor has signed off.

It never works as smoothly as that in reality, but that is a textbook summary of how ‘advisers advise, ministers (or mayors) decide’.

Going back over past publications – especially the ones commissioned at great expense

One of the first things that county councillors in particular need to familiarise themselves with are the local plans for each district council.

What are the things in these dense and heavy planning documents that will have an impact on county council and mayoral policies? How will future planning schemes be affected by county council and mayoral policies? Again, these are things that officials can be commissioned to investigate – and report back using a ranking system based on impact crossed with say geographical spread. Some might have a high impact over a small area, others may have a small impact but hit the whole district.

The same goes for policy risk assessments – how could each policy go badly wrong and what would the impact be? Similar assessments can be made for interested parties – i.e. “Stakeholders” – who has what influence and what interest? Someone who might be very influential might not be interested. Someone who is very interested might not be very influential. How do you deal with each one?

Show me your arts, heritage and leisure strategies

While it feels like we are in the dying days of advanced consumer-capitalism (They said that in the run up to the First World War I’m sure!), we’ll always have arts, heritage, and leisure. A bit like ‘death and taxes’. Even before that Great War that took the life of upper-class-hating radical poet, Granchester’s Rupert Brooke, the former Kingsman delivered a speech in Cambridge in 1910 about Democracy and The Arts to the Cambridge Fabians. You can read a transcript by Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Florence’s younger son) here.

Above – Upper-class-hating liberal campaigner Roo. Who would probably count as being one of them as a Cambridge Graduate and a published poet pre-WWI. From his letters edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes, one of his close friends and literary trustees. Hence the interesting decision to invite Lady Thatcher to unveil his statue in Granchester in 2006.

The above is one of many things that reflect the contested history of Cambridge town and gown. The problem is that local history is one of the areas of history that is generally underfunded and seen as less glamorous compared with Military history, and the histories of political leaders. Social history is another area that gets too little prominence compared with military history. I wrote about making Cambridgeshire’s Local History an election issue before the 2021 elections. With the County Council under new management, I will be asking the new Joint Administration what plans they have to work with local heritage organisations to provide support that can enable them to get more people involved, increase their financial turnover and ultimately sustain them in the longer term. So if anyone wants to join the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History, (£8 p/a) now’s the time!

Linking Leisure and Arts with cycleways and public transport

One campaign group likely to become more prominent in the next few years is the Cambridge Area Bus Users Group. (£5 p/a. Free to people on low incomes, more if you can afford & are willing to help subsidise the former). So look at those arts, sports and leisure strategies! e.g

For the top three, one of the first things to ask is whether they have been delivered. The County Council and Mayor Dr Nik Johnson then may want to ask the district councils what sort of transport improvements might make those sporting facilities more popular and accessible – especially by cycle and public transport. This is something that councils should involve the general public at design stage rather than throwing a standard consultation at. For example working with schools (parents and children/young people alike) on what the best routes might be for building new segregated cycle paths to/from venues.

If The Arts are to be at the centre of rebuilding societies and economies post-lockdown, then there’s a strong case for building new arts centres and improving on existing ones. The Junction in Cambridge has already started planning. I think there’s a very strong economic and social case for building a sister Arts Centre near Cambridge North Station as it would effectively serve the villages along the Cambridge Guided Busway. (I also think a new footbridge over the railway line from The Junction to the student flats by the railway station would open up The Junction to people from Trumpington – though with further population growth expected they might reasonably expect their own swimming pool, arts & leisure centres in the not-too-distant future. Especially if the Cambridge Biomedical Campus gets the go-ahead for even more expansion.

But before anyone builds anything new…

…someone in authority has got to provide comprehensive answers to where the additional required water supplies are going to come from. Because the Greater Cambridge Planning Service has already stated that it cannot come from the already over-stretched Cambridge Aquifer.

“There is no environmental capacity for additional development in the new Local Plan [2030 ono] to be supplied by with water by increased abstraction from the Chalk Aquifer. Even the current level of abstraction is widely believed to be unsustainable”.p17 here.

And if we’re talking an overhaul of local council boundaries…

Cambridgeshire’s local council boundaries have shifted and changed over the decades. This map below from this post-war history of local government boundaries in Cambridgeshire shows the historical boundary of Cambridge with four shire-level councils (Soke of Peterborough, Isle of Ely, Huntingdonshire, Cambridge County) and a number of much smaller borough/district level councils within each.

Which reminds me…

The Independent Review of Local Government in Cambridgeshire

I asked if this was going to be published before the 2021 local elections. Mayor Dr Nik Johnson will need to review if it needs to continue, or should be scrapped. If enough substantial work on it has been done, I hope that it could be completed and if anything published ‘for information’ as a commission from his predecessor Mr Palmer. Then let the county discuss and debate any future case to put to ministers for an overhaul of local government.

Food for thought? Just a little.

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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