How do you turn a city/county wish list into successful campaigns, and completed civic buildings & facilities?

Especially when the relevant documents require a post-graduate level of understanding (and an extended amount of time to commit to the research) just to extract the essentials? Image above from New Local

With my chronic fatigue not getting much better, it’s easy to forget that the good health of activists and campaigners must also be factored in. This post follows on/links back to a host of previous ones. Such as this one on the county failing our young people.

The Cambridge Local Plan 2018. A dense piece of reading.

The plan alone is over 500 pages. This is the framework that developers are supposed to work within – it contains the standards that their consultants and architects are supposed to meet with their proposals. That also requires planning officers to do their jobs properly, local councils to provide sufficient resources to staff their planning teams, and sufficient training for them and their councillors on planning committees…and finally for Central Government to oversee a sound planning system and ensure local councils have sufficient resources, either with powers to raise funds themselves or through direct grants.

“Oh if only it were that simple!”

Exactly. And as one local planning series ends, so another begins – the one for 2031-40. There are thousands of pages of documents to read from the mass of consultants’ reports published in November 2020. Now, do you want to go through them in detail or shall someone else?

“So….who needs what?”

One of the things I’ve constantly complained about is that Cambridge City Council, a lower-tier district/borough level council has neither the legal powers or the financial resources to manage the city properly. Therefore, demands are placed upon it that it has no powers to refuse. It simply has to accommodate them. Take the expansion of education establishments.

Above – from p16/table 2.1. An additional “need” or an ambition? There’s no option for the city council to tell both Universities that they need to scale back their activities because the city does not have the capacity to accommodate such ambitions. And if there are no governance mechanisms to put limits to growth, Mother Nature will simply do it for them by running out of water – something already identified in one of the early environmental assessments for the next round of local planning.

I had to look up what Sui Generis meant.

“‘Sui generis’ is a Latin term that, in this context, means ‘in a class of its own’.”

The “…of which [most of the floorspace]” bit means pubs, restaurants, and takeaways… before getting to things like theatres and nightclubs. So in reality the balance matters very much, and the commercial and financial incentive for the large property owners is for high turnover fast food that is more likely to generate higher revenues. In their mindset. We’ve already seen this with Land Securities and their ownership of Cambridge Leisure Park – that whole area representing a huge missed opportunity for the city. Not only that, the poor urban design has created longer term policing issues.

Waiting for some updated documents.

“The Open Space and Recreation Strategy will be updated in 2020, subject to Covid-19 movement restrictions.” p7 here. <<– This is from a working paper buried in the North East Cambridge Area Action Plan. The information in here is very important because of the consultation reports – which couldn’t have been cheap to commission, and provide some very useful analyses of the existing provision of accessible green spaces and leisure facilities.

“So…how do I get Florence Ada Keynes’ grand concert hall? And the expanded Museum of Cambridge?”

Okay, we’re talking ‘wish lists’ here. Hit me.

  • “Florence Hall” – a new, large concert hall for Cambridge, named after the Mother of Modern Cambridge.
  • An expanded Museum of Cambridgeto tell the story of our city
  • Connect Cambridge Light Rail with an underground under the town centre.
  • A lifelong learning college designed for over-18s – and one that does not resemble a school
  • A revamped Guildhall front based on John Belcher’s design that was sunk by ratepayer’s revolts in 1898 7 1913, one that would create a new lecture theatre, raise the council chamber two levels up, and create a new rooftop cafe.
  • A town athletics track (on the opposite side of town to where the Cambridge University one is)
  • A large leisure centre with Olympic-sized swimming pool (or two half-sized ones to make it easier to manage different groups – I’m not fussed).
  • A new stadium for Cambridge United Football Club – with massively improved transport connections by public transport and cycleway. (and a light-rail link to Cambridge City Football Club’s new stadium at Sawston).
  • A new evening / nightclub/ night life quarter, possibly at The Grafton or between Cambridge United and The Beehive Centre – with a standalone levy to fund the inevitable extra policing costs associated with such quarters. Because let’s get real.
  • A new arts centre for North East Cambridge by North Cambridge Station.
  • Cambridge Great Park in the South – and an equivalent in the North.
  • National rail links to
    • Wisbech (a town with huge potential that could do with some of the excess wealth Cambridge seems to have, redirected there)
    • Haverhill (ditto)
    • Hunstanton (direct rail to the seaside)
    • Great Yarmouth (ditto as Hunstanton, plus it potentially creates a proper rail-based Tech Corridor that ministers/consultants only talk of, making the coastal resort a place to live in and invest in). Also, the rail route can circle Norwich going underground at and serving the University of East Anglia, and Norwich Airport)
    • Chelmsford via Haverhill & Colchester – creating a direct rail link between Anglia Ruskin Universities three campuses. Such a route could be extended up the North East to improve transport links with Lincoln and terminate at either Hull or York.
    • East-West Rail extending to Bristol and Wales in the west, and to Ipswich & Norwich/Gt Yarmouth in the east – which would take some of the road traffic that otherwise heads to the M25 off the roads.
“That’s a wish-list and a half!”

I don’t get out much.

“So who pays, and who says ‘Start construction!’“?

This is the bit that needs unpicking – not least because successive governments in their attempt to streamline things while leaving local government reform in the ‘too difficult’ pile have ended up making things even more complicated.

For railways, it’s the Transport Secretary. But the hurdles you have to go through to get any of that done means that by the time something like Great Yarmouth – Cambridge rail is complete, I will be plant food. Which in one sense makes it easier from my perspective because I get less emotionally attached to it. Essentially the main stages you have to go through are summarised by Rail Engineer here.

Avril Lavigne. Complicated. Singing about the current structure of local government in Cambridgeshire. Complicated means unnecessarily so. Complex is different. Something is complex because of its inherent nature. Like the functioning of the human body.

“Who has what powers to deliver which things?”

This is what makes it ever so difficult for the general public to figure out who to lobby and direct campaigns towards. Maybe that suits the present administration/political party in power. Especially one that historically does not like taxing the wealthy and undertaking large public works. But what’s the point of Cambridge-based companies making lots of profits if there is no mechanism for the councils to extract even a fraction of that wealth to invest in the common good?

Part of that is a hangover from Thatcher’s Government. She resented the idea of having a socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer in every other town hall in the country. Hence the controversial Rates Act 1984. The political fights over the next eight years would put off successive generations from undertaking the necessary in-depth overhaul of local government to this day. See also Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke’s The Too Difficult Box. There is absolutely no sensible long term reason why local government services should be funded by a tax rate based on the value of properties index-linked to house prices in 1991. At least the liberal-tory think tank Bright Blue decided to have a go recently in this document.

In terms of who has which responsibilities locally, this is Cambridge City Council from their dropdown menu on their home page.

For Cambridgeshire County Council it’s this with their tabs at the top:

So the county council has arranged theirs differently – business-focused on one tab, resident-focussed on the other. Personally I’d sit the comms teams of the county council down with those of the district councils and get them to figure out a way of getting their websites not only to be consistent with each others, but also make them much more user-friendly.

Then there is:

Note in my previous blogpost there’s also:

Finally, there are democratic legitimacy issues with private sector/profit-making firms being involved in decision-making processes. Lobbying and making the case is one thing. Being one of the decision-makers – as proposed for the Ox-Cam Arc, is quite another.

At least under the developing structures under the previous Labour Government, the old Local Strategic Partnerships imposed a legal duty to co-operate with each other on the targets they negotiated with central government – which in principle meant they’d co-operate with each other on a lot more things too. (LGPIH Act 2007 Part 5 – though much has been either repealed or discontinued with). That’s not a call to bring such a system back – social and technological changes mean there are much more efficient and effective ways of collecting the data, analysing it and feeding that analysis into decision-making processes. But the principle of institutions (& individuals within them co-operating – and having means of escalation when they don’t) is a sound one.

“No – really. Who pays?”

The world we live in at the moment isn’t one where a city council can simply foot the bill of a new concert hall. The sort of comprehensive redevelopment that was once possible in the post-war era will become even less familiar-a-sight (and site) in future years due to the climate emergency. Comprehensive redevelopment is very carbon-intensive.

So for a big concert hall, it would have to be a joint-effort. Hence my call for a Mayor’s Permanent Fund to raise large donations and legacies for big civic projects of the scale that Cambridge University and its colleges seem to be able to.

Then you’ve got things like Heritage Lottery, and Sport England, along with the Arts Council. At the same time, I can understand why people in more economically deprived parts of the country might ask why wealthy Cambridge would deserve any funding. Again, we come back to the inability of councils to extract much of the wealth from the businesses that supposedly make the profits – and the decisions of successive ministers to do nothing about it.

“What can councillors and campaigners do now?”

For me, they can commission officers to undertake a review of all of the strategies and plans currently in place that says Cambridge/Cambridgeshire need X/Y/Z, and do a progress update. Such as the Indoor Sports Facility Strategy 2015-31. We’re six years into it, another ten to go. What has been built? What plans/projects have been confirmed and signed off?

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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