We have a new leader at the Guildhall

Just over six years ago, newly-elected Cllr Anna Smith (Lab – Coleridge, previously Romsey) made her first speech in the council chamber following the 2015 City Council elections. Last night her fellow councillors elected her to lead the Labour group – and thus the city council in succession to Cllr Lewis Herbert (also Lab – Coleridge).

*Context note. I’ve known Anna for a number of years and have filmed and photographed for her during that time. I’m delighted for her on her election as council leader. This post should be seen in that context.

Her term of office will begin in November, with Cllr Lewis Herbert’s last meeting as leader taking place next week. You can read this piece on both in the Cambridge Independent here. Below is a video I filmed of her first speech at The Guildhall as a councillor.

“Being the leader of a local council is having all of the responsibilities but without the powers”

A quotation from the then leader of the London Borough of Waltham Forest when I went on a civil service visit in 2007. This is the role that Cllr Anna Smith put herself forward for and won, ahead of a tough field.

“Congratulations on your victory, now, what are you going to do about my niche complaint?”

And suddenly you become everyone’s social worker / campaigning champion / individual political representative …the joys of public office!

Then there are the calls to save various things in the city, such as:

And then there’s Puffles’ original list of civic jewels to create including:

  • The new large concert hall to be named after Florence Ada Keynes
  • Revamping the facade of The Guildhall improving on what John Belcher had planned
  • Rebuilding the old Assizes courthouse on Castle Hill to house an expanded Museum of Cambridge…
  • …and the old castle around it by charging the colleges that ran off with the original castle stone in the first place (the colleges kept a written record in their archives, which were published by the Cambridge Antiquarian Society so we know who owes what!)
  • Cambridge Light Rail Underground

“I’m a councillor, not a magician!”

I’ve not heard anyone use that line. Yet.

“Any advice for the new council leader?”



None. What do I know about leading a council? Absolutely nothing!

Also, and as others have mentioned, the current council executive and the body of councillors in and around Cambridge generally is one of the highest calibre in decades. Ironically the legal and financial powers that Cambridge City Council has, has hardly been lower. Over a decade of austerity by successive Conservative Chancellors, combined with Local Government Secretaries of State of such limited vision and calibre has left the entire local government sector enfeebled and utterly lacking in the face of the challenges they face and the responsibilities they have. Who would put themselves up for something like that? And the new chief of the local government in Whitehall? It’s Gove.


…who was spotted dancing in a disco in Aberdeen recently. There’s no evidence that he was dancing to this early 80s classic by Toni-B.

And Gove has shown the political world how much he rates local government by removing the phrase from the title of his ministry to something that sounds ridiculous. It remains to be seen what policy detail he will come up with – in particular on the OxCamArc, and the future of local government generally.

Previous public speeches by Cllr Smith

Pre-pandemic I managed to film a few, such as this at a pro-EU rally outside The Guildhall…

…and below, this one on homelessness at Great St Mary’s following a speech by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, now Master at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

“So…what can we expect from Cllr Smith?”

I think Cllr Dr Carina O’Reilly (Lab – Arbury) summarised it well.

“She is confident, articulate, and collegiate, and is admirably strong and professional in dealing with the public as well as politicians”

Cllr Dr Carina O’Reilly on Cllr Anna Smith, both of Cambridge Labour Party and Cambridge City Council.
“Will we see any policy changes?”

Have a watch of the Cambridge Labour manifesto video from earlier this year.

…and have a refresh of their manifesto.

At the moment I can’t see any reason why there should be any major diversion from a city manifesto she was heavily involved in composing. So for institutions at least, the promise of no big changes/nasty surprises (that can sometimes happen with changes of leaders) is likely to be reassuring.

“Does that mean no concert hall?”

Given that the city council has to find £7.5m of cuts over the next five years because Conservative ministers broke their promises about funding in full the costs of Covid to local councils (according to Michael Gove’s shadow minister, the Croydon Labour MP Steve Reed), the concert hall fund might have to wait.

“Will we find out what she thinks about the Cambridge Connect Light Rail?”

She may have a personal take on it, but ultimately the policy responsibility for that falls to the Metro Mayor Dr Nik Johnson – who stood as Labour’s candidate and unexpectedly won. So from that perspective don’t be surprised if she says it’s his policy competency and that as a Labour council leader on the Combined Authority, she supports him as strongly as Cllr Lewis Herbert did. Note Mayor Nik Johnson ran his campaign prioritising improving bus services – something that the current shortage of of HGV-qualified drivers is affecting. (Although he has been one of the few political leaders to have responded with practical, funded action).

At the same time, the dynamics in the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) also change with Cllr Dr Dave Baigent (quite a few doctors – mainly academic/Ph.Ds but Nik’s is in medicine, in this post!) now the post-holder for the city council on the GCP Board. It’s another two months before that board meets, but there are a number of significant publications due out before then that will occupy much discussion time – including the proposals for Cambridge Eastern Access which will be of interest to both Cllrs Smith & Baigent as it will affect both Coleridge and Romsey wards directly.

One of the things the public has never been clear about with the GCP is how policy is decided. Who decides what the policy position of Cambridge City Council should be? Is it something that the representative on the Board decides alone? Or do they consult with their fellow GCP assembly members (three for each local council, in proportion to seats on their councils), or is it something that the entire political group or the full council has to approve via a formal vote? With both Smarter Cambridge Transport, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign and other campaigning groups continuing to lobby the GCP, at some stage Cllr Smith will be asked to set out her views and policies as Leader of the City Council.

Influencing national policy

For those of you who’ve followed Cllr Smith’s work within Labour, she now becomes one of the most prominent local government figures in her party, even though Cambridge City Council is still nominally a district-level council. Part of the reason is more than a few people in the Labour Party studied at the University of Cambridge (such as former Health Secretary, and now Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who was back in Cambridge a few months ago) and thus have some familiarity with the city, however partial it might be.

Furthermore, Cllr Smith was in the first cohort of women selected by her party to take part in the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme, named after the late MP who also spent three years at Cambridge at Pembroke College. So one of my questions about her longer term vision will be about her vision for local government in and around Cambridge in the future. As a qualified history teacher (she used to teach at Hills Road when I was a student there in the late 1990s) she’s been keeping tabs on some of my discoveries in local archives – in particular the Women that made modern Cambridge. What I’m interested in is whether Labour will make the case for a comprehensive overhaul of local government in England and Wales, last proposed by a Labour government under Harold Wilson, which resulted in the unexecuted Royal Commission Report of 1969 that proposed creating a Greater Cambridge unitary council that incorporated the towns of Royston, Saffron Walden, Haverhill, Huntingdon, and the Cathedral City of Ely.

Council boundaries may feel permanent to our generation, but to older generations they changed with the times.

Above – Historical Cambridgeshire circa 1945 made up of its component shire-level county councils, and the even smaller district councils surrounding it.

Above – from the Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-69, where the Commissioners decided to build a new model of local government influenced more by economic patterns than historical tradition. This was scrapped by Edward Heath’s Government, his reorganisation producing the model for most of the councils in existence today.

I’m not looking for an immediate response – she’s got more important & urgent things to consider. This is something to ponder over in the longer term. The way our elections work (by thirds normally in Cambridge) she will be council leader for several years. At some stage the issue of overhauling our structures, systems and processes will need to be addressed.

In the meantime…

She’s got a strong team of executive councillors covering the city, and a lot of goodwill behind her. She tamed the only significant political figure outside of Labour in the ward back in 2015. (None of the councillors in Coleridge have had to face an election hustings with opposing candidates since Cllr Lewis Herbert had to face Puffles at the Cambridge Cycling Campaign elections in 2014).

Above – Cllr Anna Smith on Mill Road during the Mill Road Winter Fair 2015 with former Independent candidate for Coleridge, Puffles the Dragon Fairy who beat UKIP in the ward at the City Council elections the previous year.

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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