Committee allocations reveal how unnecessarily complicated local government in Cambridge is. Can we simplify it?

I think Avril Lavigne got it spot on back in 2002.

“Why d’ya have to go and make things so complicated?!?!?”

You can see them in the nominations for the various committees at Cambridge City Council which they will be voting through on 26 May.

So, let’s list them:

Actually, let’s not. You can see the list for Cambridge City Council here.

It’s not just the city council either. Cambridgeshire County Council has committees too. You can see the list here.

For those of you who live in the areas surrounding the city outside of Cambridge, the list of committees for South Cambridgeshire is here.

There are a number of bodies, organisations, partnerships, collectives, crews, cliques, and massivz interspersed in all of that lot which in my view makes scrutinising local government that much harder – and must make being in the middle of that maching utterly soul-destroying. We have:

We also have arrangements for:

But the problem with these institutions is they seem to be completely separate from the functioning of other – even linked public services.

The transport providers for all we care may as well be existing on a different planet. As the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Jim McMahon (Lab – Oldham) said in response to the Transport Secretary’s statement on the future of rail, our transport providers don’t talk to each other, so all too often passengers miss connections and timetables are not aligned. We still have more to hear from Whitehall over their plans for buses, despite their big announcement last month.

Finally, the move by the Department for Education to centralise schools provision and bring in outside providers / ‘Academy Sponsors’ – in particular faith groups, has resulted in public health messages being undermined by the doctrines of the religious groups running such schools. This is not a new struggle – it goes all the way back to 1870 & before, on whether local councils should be required to set up new schools outside of the remit of The Church.

This also has implications for adult and lifelong learning – ostensibly under the control of the county council in Cambridgeshire, but inevitably delivered in buildings designed for children and young people. The Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee Robert Halfon MP has called on The Government to fund a new generation of lifelong learning centres.

Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats offer the prospect of locally-driven reform of local government.

“The local government landscape in Cambridgeshire has become complex following the introduction of the Combined Authority. We will work with partner councils to establish whether a move to two or more unitary councils might improve accountability and transparency across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.”

Cambs Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2021 p13.

This is something that the County Council could initially invite the Cambridge University Science & Policy Exchange (CUSPE) to get to grips with in their existing partnership. Not to solve the problem/come up with a structure themselves, but get them to design an innovative and engaging process that asks the public: “How should our county be governed? And it must be one that accounts for past reforms – successful and abandoned.

The history is essential – especially if international students unfamiliar with or used to different forms of governance are working on it. Mainly because the illogical nature of our system will look completely crazy to them – and with good reason. The development of local government in England has not been on the back of a single constitution following violent war, as it has in say Germany or France. England’s approach has been piecemeal, as the Centenary of Municipal Government series of essays recorded in 1935. At the end it has a fascinating table of every single Act of Parliament from 1835 that had an impact on local councils – in particular new statutory duties requiring councils to take responsibility for an increased range of functions.

Such a review also needs a process that puts town, gown, and village together. One that puts big business, small business, and not-for-profit/Community-Interest-Company together. And it also needs to be one that incorporates the role of essential service providers that are not part of the state. Whether the privatised utilities, the contractors & sub-contractors (in the olden days, the prominent building contractors were family firms who had family members elected to local councils). The same goes for how we do the postal deliveries of goods in an internet-shopping age. Should the large vehicle deliveries be required to deposit their hand-sized packages at out-of-town package exchanges for cycle-based couriers to cover the last few miles? If so, what are the municipal structures and legal powers that need to be in place to make it work?

Finally it must deal with the issue of local government finance: How should the sector be funded? This is a question all governments since John Major’s have put off. It’s in the *too difficult* box. Hence the present piecemeal approach to Metro Mayors – ministers unsure of how much power to give them because there is no firm set of principles underpinning their policy. Rhetoric on devolution and ‘taking back control’ might sound good out loud, but delivering it is a damn sight more complex. The Liberal-Tory think tank Bright Blue had a go at this very recently with their publication on property taxes. Yet as they stated themselves, there’s only so far they can go with their proposals without getting into discussing legal powers for local government, and new structures. Without that financial independence from The Treasury, councils will forever be looking to Whitehall for more grant funding. Note that Cambridge (and thus Cambridgeshire) is a net contributor to Whitehall.

Above – from the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Economic Review 2018

“Is this why good ideas all too often fall down at their early stages?”

It’s one of them. Part of it is a cultural thing with elections. One candidate promises nik-naks, another candidate promises cabbages, and the voters pick their choice. But – as is inevitable with manifestos is that there is little detail on the ‘how’. So it’s all very well for me to call for a new concert hall to be built, but unless I have some suggestions on how the money is to be raised, it’s a fantasy. (Actually, I’ve covered the funding of it).

It’s all very well calling for bus and train services to co-ordinate with each other. But if the local political, administrative, and transport governance structures don’t incentivise, let alone enable this, it won’t happen. The same for general practitioners treating patients in surgeries who suffer from breathing difficulties caused from living in substandard housing if they are unable to make the referrals to local councils to deal with the housing issues. (Whether through new accommodation, direct repairs, or enforcement action against the landlords responsible). The same goes for deliveries of small packages – it won’t work unless councils have the legal powers to bar such deliveries and enforce them, while providing the facilities for out-of-town package exchanges. For a Cambridge-specific case, barring tourist coaches from the town centre and requiring them to transfer passengers onto a new Cambridge Light Rail Metro such as Cambridge Connect. The £millions raised from the tourist revenue as and when they return (hopefully in lower, more environmentally sustainable numbers) could then subsidise that system which would also benefit commuters living out of town.

Given how tight the majorities are on the county council, the last thing they will want to do is to commence a huge piece of work that will last for a very long time and could become very distracting politically. Furthermore, as Mayor Dr Nik Johnson alluded to, he only has four years. Therefore more shorter term priorities will take precedence. Hence having it as a lower-profile longer term project that provides an outlet for interested parties to talk about it and, as and when the political & public health environment is more favourable, then may be its profile can be raised. But it’s something the CUSPE can put their minds to and be outward-looking towards town and surrounding villages to get the ball rolling.

Because as I wrote before the elections: Local democracy is too important to leave to the politicians.

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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