Following Cllr Dr Alexandra Bulat’s example of going that extra mile to meet residents

One of the weak spots that Cambridge-based county councillors regularly came under fire from their Conservative opponents on was their lack of awareness of communities in Fenland and north of the county. The north-west vs south-east polarisation is now even more pronounced following the recent elections. Furthermore, the seven gains on the southern and western edges of Cambridge that the Liberal Democrats made – at the expense of losing three in Cambridge City, make for a very interesting general election contest in a few years time – mindful that the party in principle should be holding onto these seats for the next four years.

The risk having low awareness of life in the north of the county is even more pronounced for the Labour county councillors who represent nine of the twelve Cambridge divisions. There may only be 40 miles between Cambridge and Wisbech, but the differences between the two settlements are stark. So the challenge for both sets of councillors is how to ensure they keep themselves informed of what’s going on in the parts of the county where their parties have little presence.

“Go there on a visit?”

It’s too easy for bloggers like me – even with my now very restricted mobility to tell people to go out and do stuff. Because going to places when you’ve got a full time job, constituency responsibilities and campaigning to do – along with perhaps caring responsibilities, family commitments, and your own hobbies and interests hardly leaves time for much else.

Seven years ago I ended up going on an unscheduled tour of The Fens when I got dates mixed up for a conference in Birmingham. You can read about it here. Having stopped at Peterborough for the morning I made my way to Wisbech to get a feel for the place, jumping on one of the buses and finding out for myself the hard way why people in this part of the world continually complain about the A47 in the way we often hear about the A14 in the south of the county. I found out why.

A few years later I went to film a PCC hustings with Cllr Dave Baigent (Lab – Romsey) & Nick Clarke – former leader of the County Council who switched to UKIP at the time, has since switched back, left the county, and recently got himself elected in West Suffolk.

Nick gave me a lift up, Dave gave me a lift back. And it was a very tough hustings for all, the audience giving none of the candidates much chance – with Labour coming in for huge stick, and poor old Rupert Moss-Ecchardt conceding to the audience at the start that Wisbech was hardly solid liberal country and unlikely to convince anyone there, but was happy to meet them all the same.

At the same time, I also joined Dave for a campaign rally in a village called Warboys, somewhere I’ve only been familiar with in childhood as one of the teams my younger brother once played against. If there’s one thing competitive sports can teach, it’s learning the geography of your town beyond the suburban borders.

You can watch Dave Baigent’s speech here when in 2016 he was the PCC Candidate for Labour. He got next-to-no support from his party HQ, and came just over five percentage points behind his Conservative opponent, who along with his deputy were forced to resign following newspaper allegations. Had Labour HQ put more resources into the PCC elections, they could have won this time around.

The responsibility of county councillors to represent the whole county

Halfway down this previous blogpost I wrote a list of how the county council under Conservative leadership had carried out policies that were to the detriment of Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire. Hence why the pleas from their group leader on the formation of a new administration fell grey paving slabs. Having spent the past few years stripping away so many things from Cambridge, why would Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to work with the Conservatives in running the council?

That’s not the same thing as deciding what to so with council services, and the leadership that is being provided already by Mayor Dr Nik Johnson is already influencing the culture and direction of policies. His predecessor Mr Palmer stated in his first election campaign that he would not work with County Council transport officers as a Mayor. This was despite being a backbench county councillor himself. Which then made those of us observing how the various institutions in the county would function. The electorate gave its answer last week. I need not add more.

The way the county council will be functioning is on a committee system. Each major policy area will have a committee chair, and a vice-chair, with the whole committee made up proportionate to the number of councillors on the full council. Ideally you want councillors who are knowledgeable and passionate in their subject area on the committee. There is a moral responsibility for for the chairs and vice-chairs of those committees to get out and about across the county to meet residents and community groups. Not that this will be a problem for someone like Cllr Hilary Cox Condron, (Lab – Arbury) for whom getting out and about is part of who she is. Ditto Cllr Dr Alexandra Bulat (Lab – Abbey)

Watching those community noticeboards – and sifting through the inevitable abusive posts to find out what the underlying issues are.

Let’s take Wisbech again – where you can find a handful of discussion forums on FB. The threads on the local elections are particularly interesting because comments about the lack of publicity from candidates is consistent with elsewhere in the county.

“I’ve lived here for 11 years and in that time the only party that has either knocked on my door or dropped a leaflet are the Tories. No labour, Lib dem, or Independent. Yet what I do see is adults from certain parties behaving no better than little children at school.”

Wisbech Discussion Forum posted 30th April 2021

Which might help explain the catastrophically low turnout at the county council elections for the town divisions – something that ended up costing Mr Palmer the mayoralty.

“I have yet to see anybody worth voting for in the local elections. We have a town district and county council to run various services. So why do residents have to plead ask or demand for basic jobs to be done? Does the council not inspect our roads and see the same as everyone who lives there.”

Wisbech Discussion Forum (No rules board], posted 25 April 2021

Which furthermore indicates that residents have been let down before on previous promises. So rather than starting from a blank sheet of paper, the new Joint Administration is starting with a very dirty sheet of paper covered with all of the mistakes and shortcomings of previous administrations and also of almost no political campaigning at election time by their own parties.

There are others dotted across the towns in Cambridgeshire, such as Huntingdon, where again local government does not come out well. The polarisation between Cambridge and Fenland could not be more stark than looking at the political party membership of the two councils.

Cambridge City Council

  • Labour – 27 councillors
  • Liberal Democrats – 12 councillors
  • Green Party – 2 councillors
  • Independent – 1 councillor
  • Conservative 0 councillors

Fenland District Council

  • Conservative – 25 councillors
  • Independent – 10 councillors
  • Liberal Democrats – 2 councillors
  • Green Party – 1 councillor
  • Labour – 0 councillors

Given the poor transport links amongst many other challenges, where do you start?

It’s another two years before the next Fenland District Council elections – the same for East Cambridgeshire, which covers Ely and is more closely contested between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Huntingdonshire and South Cambridgeshire are up for election next year (2022).

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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