Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, & County Council Leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha criticise Tory devolution model live on telly

You can watch their exchanges on Politics East from 22mins in here, which includes comments from the minister responsible, Neil O’Brien MP for the Conservatives.

Part of me wanted to pretend that both had been reading this blog regularly in the run up to appearing on BBC Politics East on Sunday 05 Dec 2021 (see link above that expires on 04 Jan 2022) but the reality is both parties have long been discussing how to improve governance for Cambridge & Cambridgeshire. The current system is not working. Accordingly, in their 2021 Local Government Manifesto the Liberal Democrats committed to exploring other models of governance.

“The local government landscape in Cambridgeshire has become complex following the introduction of the Combined Authority. We will work with partner councils to establish whether a move to two or more unitary councils might improve accountability and transparency across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

Cambs Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2021 p13.

While praising Dr Nik Johnson, our current county mayor, both stated that the structures he has to work within do not deliver actual devolution. Instead, as Andrew Sinclair of BBC Politics East pointed out, the Tory model for Mayors is to have them lobbying and applying for competitive pots of money made available by different Whitehall departments. Thus the control of money and power rests with ministers as they are the ones who set the terms on how the money should be spent, rather than having a new Act of Parliament giving local powers much greater revenue-raising powers – one not based on an index of house prices dated from the early 1990s, which is what council tax is. Under the existing system, Cambridge, and Cambridgeshire are net contributors to The Treasury.

Imagine the impact on county finances if those funds were able to me retained by the local councils, with central government providing support grants to those many local council areas unable to raise what they need for essential local public services – including public transport.

The other problem that was not covered on Politics East is whether the existing responsibilities for local government should be changed – and expanded. I think they should be expanded because at present the public sector silos make things difficult for public service providers to do the essential ‘preventative work to stop bad stuff from happening’. From a public policy perspective, it’s difficult to measure the impact of prevention. It’s less difficult to say “We’ve spent £Xmillion on our response to Crisis Y.”

Going back to council funding, are business rates as a concept obsolete in the face of multinational corporations and digital giants? Is there a better way of taxing businesses to pay for local services? Hence why I think a Royal Commission on Local Government similar to that which reported in 1969 here is long overdue – it could cover all of these issues in detail.

“Reform of governance in England has been touted for decades only to see proposals gunned down or diluted amidst fierce opposition, or only implemented partially. “

PACAC Committee – preamble to evidence from Mayor Tracy Brabin of West Yorkshire.

I blogged about positive visions for local government following a report by the Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee on the Evolution of Devolution. There was also the New Economics Foundation’s report on levelling up from the grass roots.

On magistrates courts, probation, NHS primary care services, schools that are part of multi-academy trusts, and more being outside of the remit of local councils

This came up in an online exchange on the Cherry Hinton Community News FB Group, where quite understandably local residents who have been struggling to get registered with the GP surgery closest to them asked whether new premises that are part of a recently-approved 48-unit development of council houses would have a new surgery.

We rarely see this many comments on local political issues but this has struck a chord with many people about the various tensions and competing needs in rapidly-growing East Cambridge. These included:

  • Comments about car parking – noting local Labour councillor Rob Dryden (a former Mayor of Cambridge) made representations to the Planning Committee that the spaces were what residents said they needed, vs the need to deal with the climate emergency;
  • The lack of gardens for children to play in – though several acknowledged that with a council house waiting list of over 2,000 people, they could understand why councillors went for a higher density development;
  • Comments on the bland architecture – with comments far more outspoken than mine!

“How big is the council’s waiting list?”

This big.

From the Housing Scrutiny Committee’s Agenda Pack from Sept 2021. With over 2,000 households on the waiting list, the 48 new council houses will make a huge difference to those people moving into them. It may feel like only 2% but combined with the other developments, the aggregate total will hopefully make an impact on that waiting list.

The problem is that the City Council has no powers to establish a surgery or general practice there – or anywhere. These are decided by the County Care Commissioning Group – part of the unpopular reforms from Andrew Lansley – the continued underfunding & privatisation of NHS services remaining an issue that the Tories are continuing with, hence the protests.

What the Cherry Hinton showed was how confusing the organisation of public services in our towns & cities is. What is the local line of accountability? As far as I’m aware it is through MPs to health ministers, though the latter are trying to break the link between their responsibilities to make provision for free healthcare through successive pieces of legislation. Would it make more sense for the most routine frontline services such as GPs and dentists to be somehow co-ordinated with, if not incorporated into the functions of local government. That way GP surgery managers could feedback anonymised data that might highlight local public health issues. Such as people from a given area/housing estate coming in with respiratory complaints – which may indicate poorly constructed/maintained housing, or the presence of a highly-polluting road breaching pollution limits, or an industrial activity.

A similar case could be made with things like the Job Centre – why does it need to be centralised? Or probation services & magistrates courts. What difference would it make if these were co-ordinated with local council meetings that deal with crime & anti-social behaviour?

“New Local is exploring how community power can protect the future of the NHS.”

This is being explored by the New Local think tank. Which reminds me, a new think tank on disability policy has been established by some Conservative activists.

As with any new institution established by party political activists (Labour and Trade Union activists created The Centre for Labour And Social Studies which has its office in Transport House in London (known by many as the HQ of the mighty Transport & General Workers Union) and is thus hosed by Unite The Union. If you don’t know what Unite do, or much about their history, it’s worth reading up because trade unions have shaped our history – their campaigns winning many things we take for granted today.

…which also reminded me of this video from the Electoral Commission

“You’re getting distracted again…What is the way forward? What should we do next?”

Actually, those two videos highlight some of the challenges on what to do next. We’ve got more elections coming up in 2022 – big ones for several of the district councils which have ‘all out’ elections, including South Cambridgeshire District Council where in 2018 the Liberal Democrats caused a local political earthquake in winning control of a safe-as-castles Tory Council with a landslide victory. I think the Conservatives will recover more than a few of those seats, but I don’t think it will be enough to win back control of the council if the national headlines on Boris Johnson’s corruption and lying continue into the New Year. Campaigning selfies on Twitter can only hide the public’s mood for so long.

“Should campaigners stay within the constraints of what powers the district councils have, or should they open up to wider issues?”

That’s a tricky one as we hit the 2 year anniversary of the last general election – the next one has to be within the next three years. Hence Labour’s refreshed Shadow Cabinet that sees Yvette Cooper MP moving from Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee to Shadow Home Secretary. As a former Home Office Minister her exchanges with the Home Secretary might get more news coverage outside of the political and current affairs media. Daniel Zeichner remains as Shadow Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries. Which may indicate a future Labour government might have him as a minister.

I expect there will be a range of campaigners active in the run up to the local elections for 2022, such as the campaign for a new electoral system.

Personally I prefer the Additional Member system as practiced by the London Assembly. This would have the effect of ensuring a constituent-councillor link while ensuring extremities in voting results that give mega-majorities are significantly reduced. The Conservatives don’t like this system – preferring the existing First Past The Post, even though at previous elections it might have given them councillors on Cambridge City Council, and more councillors on South Cambridgeshire District Council. As this article from Bristol highlights, it’s not just a Cambridgeshire issue.

Councils can only do so much with so few powers and so little in terms of resources

As Cllr Jayne Kirkham explains in this interview. The next few years will be tough. We’re at a stage where it seems to be whoever wins local elections has to decide which services to cut due to ongoing restrictions to local councils – in the face of a cash bonanza to PPE cronies. Something the Good Law Project is taking legal action on.

It’s one thing stating that the voting public should restrict their questions to issues within the remit of local councils. How many council motions debated – especially on international issues are little more than virtue signalling? (i.e. not having a substantive impact on local public policy). It’s quite another to state that the existing structures and systems of local government are broken and are stopping people from both getting involved and contributing towards local solutions on local issues. I hope opposition parties come up with substantial proposals on how do change this in the run up to the next election.

In the meantime…

Now is the time to start organising local election debates and hustings

I wrote about this in the run up to the 2021 local elections. Can local and city-based campaign groups ensure that events are spread out across the city and district to ensure (assuming the latest CV19 outbreak is contained) far more people get to meet and/or hear from the candidates in their own voices campaigning for their votes?

Don’t know how to organise one?

Here’s a pre-CV19 guide Chris Rand wrote for Queen Edith’s. It can apply to your neighbourhood too.

Start planning!

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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