Mayor Nik Johnson takes on long-time further education cold spots

…but some new risks have arisen on his bus expansion proposals – ones which will need the assistance of local councils to help resolve. Once again it’s housing-related.

It was a jam-packed agenda for the Combined Authority Board Meeting yesterday (24 Nov 2021) – one where the Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith (Lib Dems – Gamlingay) criticised her counterparts from Fenland District Council and Huntingdonshire District Council – both safe-as-military-fortresses Tory-run councils.

All three district councils have all-out elections in 2022, so in just over six months time. It will be interesting to see what Cambridge-based political activists choose to do given the much-greater impact these elections will have for those councils than the annual ones in Cambridge, which are done by thirds rather than of the full council – last year being an exception with boundary changes. This time the Liberal Democrats have a record to defend, and town planning has inevitably been a difficult local issue which the Conservatives will be looking to recover significant lost ground from their collapse in 2018 in the face of a Liberal Democrat landslide. Given the selection of a new MP-candidate, Cllr Pippa Heylings who is one of the most prominent local councillors for the party nationally following her representation at the Glasgow climate summit, I imagine there will be party support from activists beyond the county. With Mayor Dr Nik Johnson now very visibly raising the profile of Labour far beyond its Cambridge fortress, it will be interesting to see if the party can snatch some more seats from the Conservatives in Huntingdonshire, where he was based.

Further education cold spots

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the over-provision of further education places and establishments in South Cambridge. (See here – where I suggest moving The Perse and Hills Road Sixth Form College to sites out of the city as part of the wider transport and leisure facilities improvements). The history dates back to the 1990s when the only way further education colleges could get extra funding from central government was by increasing places. Which is what both Hills Road Sixth For College and Long Road Sixth Form Colleges did – resulting in a large section of the county’s older teenagers being crammed into a very small part of the county. So the proposals from The Mayor will be very welcome to those students who have to take the very long bus commutes into and out of the city every day.

The outline is at Appendix 4 of item 2.2 in the meeting papers here. The proposals involve building new institutions in St Neots and Ely. In the case of St Neots, there would be a very strong case to extend any Cambourne-Cambridge busway out from Cambourne to St Neots to serve such an institution. Furthermore, if such an institution could host adult education courses then there would also be a business case for running regular bus services to late in the evening, also linking up with the railway station at St Neots in the Great Northern Line.

Problems on the buses

Some of you will have seen the headlines about possible strike action by Cambridge drivers. Such things are rare these days but not without historical precedent – Cambridge’s bus drivers have a militant distant past as newspapers from the 1930s reveal.

The drivers are represented by that mega-union Unite – which incorporates the Transport and General Workers Union, the legendary union that had the mighty Ernest Bevin as its general secretary. So influential was Bevin that upon taking power in 1940 following Chamberlain’s downfall, Winston Churchill made Bevin the Minister for Labour and National Service – and with it the legal powers that no minister had held before or has held since. And with good reason. In war time the Minister had the legal power to direct any person or persons into any job or occupation as he saw fit for the purposes of the prosecution of the war effort. With the force of law behind him. Think of the civil liberties issues that raises.

The reason why this is a sensitive issue for the Mayor is that Unite are one of the major trade union backers of the Labour Party. This means that out of the subscriptions that their 1.4 million members pay, a proportion of that is collected and donated to the Labour Party for the purposes of supporting Labour MPs in Parliament who might otherwise not have access to the support that their wealthier opponents in the Conservative Party have traditionally had access to, such as income from investments, businesses, and landed estates. Of those 1.4million members, nearly 100,000 of them work in the transport sector – public transport in particular. So you can imagine that more than a few of those members will be living and working in the county, and for Stagecoach.

Low pay for drivers on the buses in the face of high fares (and high profits for Stagecoach)

I’m one of the founding members of the Cambridge Area Bus Users Group (Do join us here!) as I am and have been a regular bus passenger for decades. Shortly after the group was founded a few years ago (which reminds me – we are due a first post-Covid EGM) I got talking to a number of the regular bus drivers who said that while the induction and training Stagecoach provides is very good, their wages are very poor – especially in somewhere like Cambridge. Combine that with the impact of Brexit and so many key workers leaving, Dr Johnson has a problem on his hands given the prominence improving bus services has in his transport plans.

With the election of the first woman to the post of General Secretary – Sharon Graham, who won on a platform of refocussing the Unite away from internal party politics and towards workplace issues, the Union has already won a series of improvements in pay and conditions across a number of sectors. With shortages in so many key industries, for the first time in decades the trade unions have finally got some leverage in the face of years of falling pay and conditions in real terms (i.e. accounting for inflation). With Stagecoach running so many bus services across the country, General Secretary Graham will be more than familiar with the issues her members face, and as she has shown is more than prepared to bring her union’s considerable specialist resources to bear on this dispute. Which is exactly what a trade union should be doing. (*Declaration of interest – I am a former trade union member and former Branch Organiser for the PCS Union representing civil servants – and also of the FDA Union during my Fast Stream Days).

“Low pay is the scourge of the bus industry right across this country. Stagecoach made profits touching £60m last year and has £875m in the bank. Yet it cannot make a decent offer to its staff. “

Unite the Union – threatening similar action in Yorkshire, 24 Nov 2021

So if you are in a low paid job – or even if you are not, get yourself covered and join a trade union. Especially young adults – not least because the additional training and development opportunities that come with your membership are things that your employers may not otherwise provide or make available for you.

Low pay for key workers is not something that will go away quickly

Furthermore, the office of the Metro Mayors does not have the legal or financial powers to compel a pay rise to the level where salaries will match house prices and living costs – especially in somewhere like Cambridge. The situation therefore remains a significant high likelihood, high impact risk to the Mayor’s policies for significantly improving the bus services across the county.

“How should he respond to it?”

His officers should have undertaken policy risk assessments against each of the Mayor’s key priorities, asking and assessing what the risks are, their likelihood and their impact on successful policy delivery. In the case of buses, having an insufficient number of drivers for that increase in services is both a high likelihood, high impact risk. In fact I would go so far as to say that this is a risk that has materialised and is now an ongoing issue. This is because last month Stagecoach announced it was reducing bus services due to driver shortages.

It is also not going to go away anytime soon. Mayor Dr Johnson has already started work on addressing the driver shortage with the limited powers and funding he has, having commissioned the provision of new driver training courses based in Peterborough, which has higher unemployment rates than in the south of the county. The longer term solution may involve working with local district councils to identify potential sites for new bus depots – in particular electric bus depots with charging points around Cambridge that have key worker housing for some of the new bus drivers to live in. I think it’s reasonable to look at some of the existing Park and Ride sites on the edge of Cambridge as being potential sites so as to reduce the lead in time to get them up and running.

On electric buses generally, there is more in this month’s Buses Magazine – something I think the Combined Authority’s Transport Committee should be encouraging more of the public to read in order to contribute to more informed questions and discussions – not least on what other cities and countries are doing with electric buses.

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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