Cllr Lewis Herbert steps down as Leader of Cambridge City Council after seven years

John Elworthy of the Cambs Times broke the story here. (Although he has not named the four candidates who will contest the vacant leadership post).

Above – Cllr Lewis Herbert (Labour – Coleridge) with the only candidate to contest one of the Coleridge seats on a public platform at the Cambridge City Council ElectionsPuffles the dragon fairy (my old Twitter persona from 2010-20) after the Cambridge Cycling Campaign hustings in 2014.

A seemingly permanent presence in front line local politics in Cambridge, the councillor who had this new Greater Cambridge City Deal landing on him soon after becoming Leader of Cambridge City Council will leave a longer-lasting legacy in Cambridge.

Chances are that it will be one felt for much longer than those of many of his recent predecessors. What that legacy will be won’t be for my generation of local historians to decide, but for future ones – for such are the size of the infrastructure projects that he oversaw.

Stepping into the vacancy left by a much-admired young councillor who died long before her time

It can’t have been easy in the early 2000s when Cllr Herbert succeeded the last Labour leader of Cambridge City Council, the late Cllr Ruth Bagnall as a Coleridge Ward Councillor, who sadly passed away at the age of only 38. Cllr Bagnall has a lovely memorial folder in the Cambridgeshire Collection in Cambridge Central Library (Ask for Cambridgeshire Politics C33.33 Box 73). It’s only reading the tributes to her that you get a sense of the civic titan (in more ways than one – she was over 6ft tall) that we lost at such a young age.

It was also a time when Cambridge Labour’s political opponents, the Liberal Democrats were riding high in the elections. In 2004, Labour had only 13 councillors – previous strongholds such as Arbury and Romsey regularly returning Liberal Democrat councillors. Yet from that low point – and in particular following the latter’s national party decision to go into Coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, so the Liberal Democrat wall started to crumble.

In successive annual city council elections, Labour started to regain lost seats and wards until finally in 2014 they held a majority of seats in the Guildhall Chamber. The election charts maintained by Keith Edkins only hint at what has actually been a very eventful past decade in local democracy in Cambridge. The new chart starting from 2021 shows an all-powerful Labour Group facing a much-diminished Liberal Democrat opposition numerically, but refreshed in terms of the new faces with five new councillors out of the 12 they now have. There is also the presence of the Green/Independent group ensuring that every full council meeting has a motion on the environment up for debate, along with the popular Independent councillor Sam Davies MBE who polled the highest number of votes of any candidate at the 2021 city council elections.

Cambridge City Council, The Greater Cambridge City Deal, the Combined Authority – who is driving this flying umbrella?

The Greater Cambridge City Deal – now Partnership – was something that was negotiated with central government by three local councils – Cambridge City, South Cambridgeshire District, and Cambridgeshire County Councils. At the time, Cllr Tim Bick (Lib Dems – Market) was the Leader of the City Council, and the local MP for Cambridge was Dr Julian Huppert. By 2015, Cllr Herbert had been in post for a year, and Dr Huppert had lost by the narrowest of margins to Labour’s Daniel Zeichner – less than 600 votes between them in the tightest contest for decades.

Much will be written about the decisions and judgement calls made by Cllr Herbert both inside the Guildhall Chamber, as well as those where he was the decision-making representative on other partnerships – as one would expect in an imperfect democracy such as ours. I’m one of the few people who has followed the processes through reasonably closely from the start – filming more than a few of them. Here’s the then recently-elected Mr Zeichner MP highlighting some of the weaknesses of the then City Deal in 2015.

Above – At Cambridge RUFC in Newnham.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership

The persistent challenge Cllr Herbert faced throughout his time on the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) Board was the various changes of the Conservative representatives on the board. The only time I ever really felt the Conservatives were in any sense pushing for the partnership to succeed was when former Cllr Francis Burkitt (Cons – Grantchester) held the South Cambridgeshire seat until he stood down at the 2018 elections. All too often that meant Cllr Herbert was seen as the figurehead of a partnership that has regularly been the target of various local protest movements against some of its schemes. As a result, in the crucial early years of the GCP, it felt (to me at least) all too often that the strategy was being set by senior officers rather than by the elected councillors. Throughout that time I’ve been one of the GCP’s biggest critics as far as its mere existence is concerned – stating that both it and the Combined Authority were central government fudges to avoid creating a new unitary authority for Greater Cambridge that on recent trends would not return a Conservative-controlled administration.

The Combined Authority for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough

I was opposed to the establishment of this from the start – as I explained to Dotty McLeod of BBC Cambridgeshire in 2016

Above – at Newmarket Racecourse Conference Centre, filmed by Anne Bailey

At the same time – and I remember discussing this with Cllr Dave Baigent (Labour – Romsey), stating that I could not criticise councillors for signing up to the agreement if they secured the desperately-needed funding for hundreds of much-needed council-housing. Two of the highest-profile housing-building projects – the Mill Road Depot / Ironworks (it was once one), and the old Ridgeons site on Cromwell Road will provide 236 new council houses for rent between them, along with more for private sale. I said I could not look into the eyes of people on council housing waiting lists and tell them they couldn’t have new homes because of the strings ministers attached. My point here is that it is easy to speak out in opposition to something as a private citizen, but when you are representing an entire ward or constituency, you have the needs and views of so many other people to consider as well. Which counts for more? My principled opposition to what ministers were doing, or dozens of families with young children who would be moved from insecure temporary accommodation to a suitable, stable home of their own?

“The busways. Why?”

I think out of all of the policies that he had a responsibility over, this is the one that I think he got wrong. But then that’s the nature of going into executive public office where you are charged with solving a big problem. You are never going to get everything right. For me, Florence Ada Keynes got it badly wrong with her support for the then New Guildhall. I also like to think that when he was mayor, and even when it came back around again in 1913, Horace Darwin could have launched a big fund raiser to cover some of the expenses for John Belcher’s Guildhall design of 1898. We had two bites at it, we missed them both – mainly due to the opposition of both Conservatives and ‘ratepayers’ alliances’ which back then were a feature of local democracy.

Above – John Belcher’s Guildhall – from a small photo in the Cambridgeshire Collection

I think we should have got it, we didn’t get it – maybe Cambourne could have a go?

I remain of the view that Connect Cambridge Light Rail is the scheme the GCP should have at least investigated formally, paying for the initial feasibility studies. Instead, what feels like a large sum of money has been paid over to consultants for continued assessments following feedback from local community forums – ones where it remains clear that the affected residents are opposed to the principle of the scheme, not just the route options.

It was only in more recent times that Cllr Herbert started speaking out in favour of the busways as a concept – in particular at the GCP Board Meetings when faced with intense public questioning following the local elections earlier this year where arguably the electorate returned an anti-busways verdict.

I’m now of the view that the only realistic prospect of stopping the busways proposals is ministerial intervention – either by rolling the GCP into the Combined Authority, or by formally directing the partnership (or strongly influencing it) to undertake an alternative mass transit scheme.

Sailing a steady ship in very stormy seas

These have been turbulent times – they still are. During his time as leader of the City Council, Cllr Herbert has faced three major shocks from leftfield that no leader of any council should have to face. A council leader is unlucky if they have to face just one of these in their terms of office. He had three.

The first is the eye-watering austerity that the entire sector faced – along with the contempt from senior ministers that came with it. Although he had a front row seat criticising the Liberal Democrats who controlled the council for the first three/four years following the 2010 general election, the cuts to local council budgets have continued.

The second was the EU Referendum – the result of which has done untold damage to lives, livelihoods, and our civic institutions too. He was at numerous demonstrations, gatherings, and rallies, standing up to be counted and providing as much of a reassuring presence as a local council leader could in the face of such a seismic geo-political calamity, the impact of which will be felt for decades.

Finally there was the Covid-19 pandemic – a local council leader’s nightmare. This should have been something that ministers had long prepared for. That’s why we have a National Risk Register. The immediate county response is described by Joel Lamy for the Peterborough Telegraph from April 2020. A couple of months earlier when it became clear the UK was going to be hit by what was happening in Italy, I posted via Puffles as to whether Cambridgeshire had established a Gold Command – reflecting that many years before I had been trained up as a civil service civil contingencies volunteer, and was one of the people called up to respond to Buncefield when was set ablaze. Part of my training involved a major simulation exercise some 15 or so years ago. This was for a flu pandemic. Without going into detail, there were a whole host of things that I expected to see central government activate that ministers chose (For whatever reason) not to activate. Until it was far too late. If the future public inquiry does its job, this should come out in the public hearings. To have to face a pandemic where central government is displaying such gross incompetence, and furthermore reneging on early commitments to fund the costs of the pandemic response, must have been utterly soul-destroying. And we still don’t know what the overall outcome will be in terms of who pays for what.

“So…how will be be remembered?”

It’s too early to tell. It may not be for many years that we find out – as and when the major projects he launched or that commenced during his term of office come to completion. Furthermore, such is the fate of local councillors that all too often the ones that commence big projects are seldom the ones who are still in office upon completion for the opening ceremonies.

The reason for writing this is in part having spent much of this afternoon wading through a decade’s worth of newspaper cuttings on Cambridge’s town planning and transport issues throughout the 1960s. In a nutshell, the City Council, County Council and the University all had different ideas and spent the decade arguing with each other and the Minister for Local Government – whoever he was at the time, over what should be done. The problem – as a number of people pointed out at the time is the same as now: The fragmentation of functions and powers involved in managing a city.

Cllr Herbert had to make the best of an appallingly bad structure of local government – one that limited his ability (and those of his predecessors) to do anything substantial or radical for our city. It still does – with very limited options on revenue raising, and very limited legal powers beyond statutory duties (which cover most of the budget anyway), and many essential functions from transport planning to regulating the utilities being in the hands of other organisations. One Labour council leader in London told me during my civil service days that being a local government leader was having all the responsibilities but with no power. The opposite of being a newspaper baron of the 20th Century. In such circumstances we’d all find that testing, but he did better than many.

If over the next few decades collectively we survive the climate emergency and end up with a new form of local mass transit that requires stations, maybe future generations will name one of them after Cllr Herbert. A sort of “Herbert Hill Station” – which he could share with that other great figure of interwar Cambridge, Herbert Robinson, the local motoring magnate.

We must get better at recording our local histories

In the grand scheme of things, Cambridge does not have a good record of commemorating its civic heroes. The top three that most long-time residents will be familiar with are:

Many have been reduced to having a side road on a housing estate named after them, if not forgotten completely, such can be the brutality of local democracy and party politics.

Lewis says he’s going to stick around – he’s got a big research project ahead of him on the Cambridgeshire Regiment during the Second World War, something he cares passionately about because he got to know several of the families who lost loved ones in what was the most catastrophic military defeat for British and Empire forces in history with the Fall of Singapore. Nearly 800 men from Cambridge and Cambridgeshire never returned.

Yesterday he unveiled a new plaque outside the recently-built Beth Shalom Reform Synagogue which was built on the site of the old Yasume Club for the Far East Prisoners of War and their families on Auckland Road.

It was touching to hear Sheila Levy speak movingly about how the sacrifices the soldiers were prepared to make by standing up to the nazis and fascists when many of them enlisted as volunteers in the run-up to the UK’s entry into that War, and how future generations of children would learn about them. You can hear Cllr Herbert speak in the bits of his speech I managed to record without the wind interrupting.

Left – An advert for the Cambridgeshire Regiment. From the Cambridge Daily News 29 September 1938

This was during the Munich Crisis, and the Army was advertising heavily for new volunteer recruits. Conscription was only re-introduced in the Spring 1939 when it was clear the Treaty signed by Chamberlain would not hold.

Cambridgeshire Collection.

There comes a time he said when we have to make way for others. It seems strange that it’s more than a decade ago that he first stumbled across this strange-looking figure with a big cuddly toy who seemed to know a lot about central government but not enough about local politics. But he made a good show of having a Twitter persona as a constituent – and even on the ballot paper in his ward back in 2014. When he became council leader he had one dragon in his council ward. Today there are two – the other one being this slide for the children at Coleridge Rec, installed in 2015.

No one actually knows who was responsible for choosing the dragon – or if they do they kept it to themselves! So Thank you Lewis for the years of public service (& for putting up with Puffles) – and remember to deposit your papers and diaries at the county archives (put an embargo on them if you need to) as this will help future generations understand the huge pressures you faced in a decade that has been like no other.

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