The Mill Road Bridge vote reveals why Labour and opposition parties must plan to overhaul local government in England

Pictured: Mill Road Bridge under construction in the late 1800s – Mill Road History Society – and getting to that stage was a journey-and-a-half! Read the Society’s detailed historical account of Mill Road Bridge here.

The current system provides little flexibility for local councils to respond to local climate change issues, and forces councillors to take decisions on neighbourhood issues far, far away from their constituencies – and remember councillors are part-time.

It was front page news.

You can read all about it here. You can also read the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s thread here. (They supported maintaining the closure of the bridge to motor traffic – the motion which did not pass. *I am also a member of said cycling campaign).

In any case, the councillors have to come back in six months time to vote on new, more substantive and possibly permanent proposals from council officers. All the councillors voted on was whether in that six month period the Mill Road Bridge should remain open or closed to motor traffic give or take a few exemptions.

Which raised the above-issue with the Vice-chair’s casting vote: Which one is the status quo? The permanent state pre-CV19, or the close bridge as under the old guidance brought in at the height of the first lockdown?

“…we are today publishing fast-tracked statutory guidance, effective immediately, requiring councils in England to cater for significantly-increased numbers of cyclists and pedestrians, and making it easier for them to create safer streets.”

Transport Secretary Shapps at the Downing Street Press Conference of 09 May 2020.
Note that guidance was withdrawn on 04 May 2021.

Cllr Richard Howitt (Lab – Petersfield) stated that the conditions under which the changes to Mill Road, including the Bridge closure, no longer applied. His fellow ward councillor also noted that their ward was split on whether the bridge should remain closed or re-open. You can watch & listen to the whole Mill Road Bridge Closure debate, including statements from members of the public, here.

How central government actions and inaction shaped the vote

One of the problems the whole of the local government sector still faces is the compulsion to meet face-to-face while there is still a global pandemic on. Robert Jenrick, the Conservative Housing & Local Government Secretary chose not to renew the legislation enabling councillors to contribute to meetings remotely. Such was the furore that the Local Government Association took the Government to Court to try and overturn its decision, but failed. As I’ve mentioned before, I think he should have been sacked over the Westferry property scandal, but the Prime Minister chose to keep him on. This has resulted in many local councillors unable to participate because they are either shielding with vulnerable relatives, and/or have been pinged by the app showing they may have been in contact with someone who had a positive test result for Covid-19, most of which now are of the more contagious Delta Variant.

Above – Cllrs Anna Smith (Lab – Coleridge, Deputy Leader of Cambridge City Council, and Lucy Nethsingha, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council whose local council work has been disrupted by the stupidity and incompetence of the Secretary of State.

Had the chairman been able to have taken part, the casting vote would have gone the other way in maintaining the closure. Sometimes huge local decisions can rest on the judgement call of a single councillor – especially on planning applications, and these can have impacts that can last for decades and longer.

How do you solve a problem like traffic on Mill Road, Cambridge?

Not by having half the committee making the judgement call representing a political party with zero seats inside the City of Cambridge. And the same would be the case if it were the other way around involving say a main road through Wisbech, where the Labour and Liberal Democrat vote is almost non-existent in what is solid Tory Brexitland.

Above – what the electorate decided in May 2021. And it shook the county of Cambridgeshire to its political core.

Highways and Transport Committee Membership

First of all you can see which Cambridgeshire councillors are on which committees here. For Transport, it’s as below. Note these were not all of the councillors that voted on Mill Road Bridge – there were a handful of substitute members for absentees. The Chair, Peter McDonald was unable to attend the meeting.

  • Douglas Dew (Cons – The Hemingfords & Fenstanton)
  • Janet French (Cons – March North and Waldersey)
  • Ryan Fuller (Cons – St Ives North and Wyton)
  • Mark Howell (Cons – Cambourne)
  • Simon King (Cons – Roman Bank and Peckover)
  • Alan Sharp (Cons – Woodditton)
  • Mandy Smith (Cons – Papworth and Swavesey)
  • Alex Beckett (Lib Dems – Queen Ediths)
  • Piers Coutts (Lib Dems – Ely South)
  • Peter McDonald (Lib Dems – Duxford) (Chair)
  • Brian Milnes (Lib Dems – Sawston and Shelford)
  • Edna Murphy (Lib Dems – Bar Hill)
  • Geri Bird (Labour – Chesterton) (Vice-Chair)
  • Neil Shailer (Labour – Romsey)
  • Derek Giles (Independent – St Neots The Eatons)

How many of the local councillors – noting their role is part-time – get to experience either being stuck in the traffic jams (as a driver), or the air pollution (as a pedestrian), or both (as a cyclist) on Mill Road on a regular basis? This is one of the major criticisms of having large unitary councils such as the one proposed by the Centre for Cities, which would impose a Conservative majority on the city of Cambridge again due to the large rural hinterland.

Above – from the Centre for Cities Report. The publication by the Centre for Cities is here. It relates to my earlier blogpost on the reorganisation of local government in England, which is a Government policy. In principle I have no problem with it – actually I think it’s long overdue. 

Local government boundaries, powers, and structures may seem fixed and permanent, but they are not. When Mr Davidge was drawing up his proposals in 1934 (you can read the digitised copy here) for the Cambridgeshire Regional Plan under the watchful eye of Dr Alex Wood and Committees, the county council area that he was dealing with was much smaller than today.

Above – the boundaries of the old Cambridge County Council – which today would be Cambridge City, South Cambridgeshire District, and the southern portion of East Cambridgeshire District Councils. Under these boundaries, only about half of the present county council highways and transport committee would have constituencies within the old county council.

You can also see the various road proposals and protected green spaces. Much of the eastern ring road got built until it hit Stourbridge Common in the north, and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in the South. Also we’re still waiting for the proposed A10 bridge over the railway line at Foxton to be built!

Thus decisions like the approval of this plan was taken by county councillors from a much smaller geographical area. The same goes for the acquisition of the Shire Hall site in the 1930s – bought off of the Home Office when the site housed the county gaol that was no longer needed. Hence the move to Alconbury and the threatened loss of the Castle Hill site was seen in some quarters (i.e. me, Puffles, and a few sympathisers) as a potential piece of asset stripping from the non-Tory-voting city to Tory-voting Alconbury).

Cambridge Connect might resolve some of the long term traffic issues, but it won’t resolve the broken democratic structures

My previous blogpost covered how an amendment to the second line of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail Project could significantly reduce road traffic coming into Cambridge from the east – something that the Greater Cambridge’s Cambridge Eastern Access Project is now wrestling with – in part because few expected anyone other than Mr Palmer to win this year’s Mayoral election and thus continue with the now abandoned CAM Metro system that might have provided a mass transit underground link from somewhere around Cambridge Airport to Mill Road and the Railway Station. They have the whole of the summer to come up with something new. My case for Cambridge Connect not only deals with the Mill Road issue, it also deals with the West Cambridge protests in support of protecting the Westfields, and the South East Cambridge protests in support of protecting The Gog Magog Hills.

None of this changes the broken structures that regular readers will be familiar with. Jenrick has demonstrated how he lacks in so many of the required competencies to be an excellent and visionary secretary of state *for* local government that it’s hard to see the present administration coming up with anything suitable and substantial that deals with the climate emergency that is now here, one that needs to end the time-wasting processes of councils repeatedly going cap-in-hand to Conservative minsters acting, as Eglantyne Jebb described pejoratively as Lady Bountiful handing out charitable gifts on the understanding that the recipients could not criticise the system under which such gifts were handed out, and such unequal relationships between charity givers and charity recipients existed. It was observing and realising this that turned Eglantyne into a liberal. (And then observing the First World War’s early casualty lists that turned her from a liberal into a co-operator, and then the starving children of continental Europe turning her from a co-operator into a law-breaking radical!)

Above – Lost Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb, co-founder of Save the Children with her sister Dorothy Buxton. From the Cambridgeshire Collection (Palmer Clark glass plate negatives) which you can go and visit for free in the Cambridge Central Library on the 3rd floor. Where they also have *lots* of old maps you can also look at.

Cambridge has always had its radicals. Eglantyne was one of them. That’s the sort of thinking we are going to need if we’re going to cope with the climate emergency that is now here. I’m yet to be convinced that The Government and their advisers quite get the seriousness of the situation though.

Which is why…to conclude, at a national level both Labour and the other opposition parties need to come up with a comprehensive alternative for local government. Because the current set up with:

  • limited powers for revenue raising,
  • limited powers and resources to fund enforcement to stop environmentally harmful activities and business practices,
  • obsolete structures and geographical boundaries

…is clearly not working.

And local people risk losing what little faith they have in local government as it is.

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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