“Renewed investment in youth services”, says Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council

The new Joint Administration of the county Liberal Democrat, Labour, and Independent Groups on the county council hit the ground running after nearly a quarter of a century of domination by the Conservatives. (Photo – Hannah Olsson)

The first full council of Cambridgeshire County Council met for the first time at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford – one of the few places in the county big enough to hold them all in one hall and enable social distancing. You can read the meeting papers here. It was one where Ben Hatton, Hannah Olsson and John Elworthy were also at. Me, still being semi-house-bound still struggles to get to the end of the road. (So no Puffles either!)

It was interesting to hear several of the Conservatives conceding that the Joint Administration had the democratic mandate to take political control of Cambridgeshire County Council. And let’s face it: the contrast between the Conservative benches back in 2015 vs their political opponents today could hardly be greater:

Above – Shire Hall’s council chamber – the ruling Conservative benches from 15 December 2015. Several of the councillors in that photograph have since stood down.

Contrast the new look councillors from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats of 2021, where a number of their candidates stood for the first time and were elected, including for the Labour Party: Cllrs Hilary Cox Condron (Arbury), Dr Alexandra Bullat (Abbey), Prof Catherine Rae (Castle), and Bryony Goodliffe (Cherry Hinton).

Confirmation of the new Leader and Deputy Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council

“At today’s AGM, held at Duxford to ensure COVID security, Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (LibDems – Newnham) became Leader of the Council, having been confirmed as chair of a new Strategy and Resources Committee (SRC) responsible for the overarching co-ordination of the council’s corporate services, with Cllr Elisa Meschini (Lab – King’s Hedges) appointed as vice chair of Strategy and Resources, and Deputy Leader of the Council.”

Cambridgeshire County Council Press Release 18 May 2021

What also matters is the Committee composition and chairs/vice chairs. See Agenda Item 10 here, which I’ve screen-grabbed below.

There’s a good mix of experienced politicians with councillors new to the role, and city and non-city-based pairings as well – noting Cllr Bryony Goodliffe (Lab – Cherry Hinton) taking on the Chair of Children’s and Young People. While she may be a first time candidate and thus a first time councillor, she brings a wealth of frontline experience in that policy area. It is therefore essential that county councillors in these roles top up their experience with the necessary training. We found out why earlier today at the Grenfell Inquiry.

Above – play the video from 55s in. *Please* don’t let that be you up in front of a public inquiry being grilled by a QC over your failures to undertake basic training while being held to account over a massive failure by the council you have been elected to.

And it’s not just the training. It is also ensuring you are properly discharging the duties that you have been elected by the people of the county to take responsibility of.

Again, please don’t let that be you having to explain to a public inquiry why you failed to discharge the basic duties of the posts you hold.

Which is also a timely reminder to have your contingency plans for tough times and inevitable policy disagreements read to go – including any independent mediators in place, and even public policy support from your own political parties.

“Does that mean the Tories want them to fail?”

No one would wish a catastrophic failure of public services on anyone – least of all ordinary residents. Furthermore, it is the job of of the Conservatives on the county council now to hold the Joint Administration to account on the policy decisions that they take. How they do so is entirely up to them. But it is in the interests of all of us that they provide an effective opposition for the means of improving council policies and service delivery. Sound and competent politicians and political leaders of all parties recognise the importance of having a competent opposition.

For me, providing that opposition isn’t about tub-thumping wannabe Churchillian-style speeches. It’s actually far less glamorous and far more mundane than that. It involves a mix of questioning the assumptions that the policy-makers are working on, through to the minute detail of checking that the sums add up correctly, or that the algorithm doesn’t have an error in its formula. During my final civil service posting a decade ago where I managed an audit function closing a massive government programme started under the last Labour government, I had an excellent admin officer next to me who checked my assumptions and formulas in the most complex set of spreadsheets I had ever put together. But that approach meant we saved a huge amount of time otherwise searching for needles in haystacks, and were able to focus our team’s attention on the more serious cases that the spreadsheet had exposed.

Will Whitehall do the county council any favours now that the Conservatives no longer control it? Ditto the Mayoralty?

Given the consensus-based approach Mayor Dr Nik Johnson has already brought in, that will depend on the calibre of the ministers concerned. That said, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay MP (Cons – NE Cambs) has the towns of Wisbech and March in his constituency, so it is not in his interest to kick sand in the face of the Mayor or the Joint Administration. Furthermore, when he was a backbench MP on the high profile Public Accounts Committee he demonstrated he had the ability to give his own ministers a hard time, and could work collaboratively with MPs from other parties on that committee. In which case he could play a restraining figure toning down the worst of the party political attacks that could be thrown the way of the Joint Administration.

Will the Joint Administration stick to the Conservative’s business plan 2020-25?

***I didn’t know they had a business plan to 2025!***

Well you do now – it’s here and was voted through in February 2020.

In a nutshell, the Joint Administration have a political mandate to tear that plan up and start all over again – mindful that the Lockdown did not come in for another month or so. Which means many of the old assumptions will have been thrown out of the window. So chances are they will have to come up with a new business plan for the next four years anyway.

How will the new administration affect the City of Cambridge?

If we look at the press release today, Cllr Nethsingha and her team have identified a handful of key priorities:

  • children and families
  • local businesses, and working people (esp in the context of CV19)
  • climate emergency

There’s also a note about some of the things outside their control, including:

  • Social care – we are still awaiting the long-delayed Government proposals
  • Health inequalities
  • The impact of CV19 on working patterns and transport

Some of the budgets are held elsewhere – eg the NHS. Some responsibilities have also been moved to other organisations – such as the Mayoralty in the case of buses.

The Joint Administration has also re-stated the importance of partnership working, echoing what Mayor Dr Nick Johnson has repeatedly said about Compassion, Co-operation, Community. His three Cs.

The proposals I’m particularly interested in being seen developed are how transport policy can be used not just as a driver for the economy, but also making it easier for people to get to places of leisure, learning, and care outside of the rush hour. That for me means inviting arts, leisure, and heritage venues to submit their proposals and ideas for improved transport infrastructure between where they are and where potential visitors and service users are. That might involve building high quality footpaths and cycle paths linking villages, or maybe building some bridges or tunnels across major roads and railway lines, or re-prioritising junctions so that cars have to stop for cyclists and pedestrians with a raised ramp so that it is the car journey that is broken up rather than the footpath and cycleway. Simple design changes like that.

Finally, I hope that children and young people can be involved systematically in a way that schools can incorporate such activities into citizenship education.

It is their future after all.

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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