The Greater Cambridge Improvement Commissioners – revamping local government

The ones from Victorian times only dealt with things like street paving and lamp posts. But at least people knew what they were there to do.

I mentioned the old Improvement Commissioners in my previous blogpost – who were initially empowered by Acts of Parliament to improve the streets in a given town.

A 21st Century revamp given our fragmented public services would provide for two major things that we do not currently have:

  1. A forum or board that contains all of the essential service providers needed to run a city;
  2. A means for the heads of those essential service providers to be held accountable and subject to cross-examination/public hearings by democratically-elected representatives (i.e. councillors) – a full (in a unitary case) or joint (in a two-tier area) council.

I listed some of the areas that would fall under their remit, including but not limited to the provision of:

  • water,
  • gas,
  • electricity,
  • sewage,
  • telecommunications,
  • waste disposal,
  • police,
  • fire,
  • ambulance,
  • primary healthcare (doctors’ surgeries, dentists),
  • magistrates courts,
  • probation,
  • public health,
  • pollution control,
  • trading standards,
  • buses/public transport
  • further education (with primary and secondary brought back under local council control)

In the grand scheme of things, local councils – in particular district level councils such as Cambridge City Council, have very little influence over the above public services. They remain underfunded because the model of local government that dates from the early 1970s is one that prevents local councils from raising revenue through fairer and more diverse tax bases. Council tax – a temporary stop-gap from the early 1990s after the Poll Tax Riots, is still a highly regressive form of local taxation when you compare the wealth & income of the super-rich vs those in the lowest deciles of income – say the bottom 30%. Some of you may recall the Lib Dems’ proposal for a mansion tax – something vetoed by George Osborne & the Conservatives. It vanished as a policy proposals with the near electoral wipeout of the Lib Dems in 2015. The policy tinkers at the edges of an already unfair system of funding for local councils – it does not change the broken system.

Housing and transport planning – the two areas where Addenbrooke’s and Royal Papworth need to make their requirements known.

Some of you may have responded to the first consultation of the Greater Cambridge Local Plan. I took part in some of the online Zoom meetings, but can’t recall if I submitted anything in writing other than “Where’s my concert hall?!?”

In the grand scheme of things, this is sort of what the next local plan (2030-41) is likely to look like unless ministers fail to ensure there is a decent water supply for the proposed new homes. In their submission to the above consultation, the Cambridge Green Party has called for a pause on development in part because of water stress. I hope other political parties will publish their submissions too.

Supporting two regional hospitals with the resources of two district councils – an arrangement that does not work

I’ve already written about how many staff travel in from beyond Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire. Yet the structural and strategic weaknesses of the Greater Cambridge Partnership means that their transport schemes end where the South Cambridgeshire boundary ends. For whatever reasons, senior officers – rubber stamped by successive Assembly and Board Members chose not to engage their neighbouring transport authorities in serious discussions of joint schemes such as ones linking Haverhill or Saffron Walden to a wider mass transit network. Or even the small towns north of the South Cambridgeshire border such as Ramsay and Chatteris. With the proposals from the 1969 Royal Commission on Local Government in England, the boundaries of a new Greater Cambridge Unitary would have incorporated Chatteris, Huntingdon, St Neots, Royston, Saffron Walden, Haverhill, Newmarket and Ely into Cambridge’s administrative structures – which makes more sense given they are in the city’s economic hinterland.

Above – from the 1969 Royal Commission on Local Government in England

Had there been a unitary council, would we have ended up with a mass transit link connecting the towns to Cambridge? Would they have radiated out from the centre with multiple A-to-B links, or would it have been more like a spiral, starting at Cambridge, then heading to Royston, Saffron Walden, Haverhill, Newmarket and so on? We can only speculate.

On the busways – can land be allocated for keyworker housing?

Back in 2003 the Cambridge Futures organisation published their proposals for what turned out to be busways. (I covered it in Lost Cambridge here)

This is where I believe the senior county council officers in the early days of the Greater Cambridge City Deal got their proposals from for building more busways. Again, I think both officers and councillors should have been far more clear that it was more busways they wanted rather than using the vague terminology such as Rapid Mass Transit. Again, officers and councillors chose not to do historical studies despite me asking back in 2016, and again in 2021 when I asked the Director of Transport for the GCP whether he had studied the Cambridgeshire Regional Plan 1934 – which made a strong recommendation for building a bridge over the railway line at Foxton on the A10. They are still waiting.

Either way, councillors and officers have made the choice to go with busways in the medium term. If they are to work for places like Addenbrooke’s and Royal Papworth, the next question is whether enough land can be allocated to enable the two hospitals to build new accommodation so desperately needed for their staff – in particular the low paid junior grades. The critical sites for me are along the south eastern route as proposed by the GCP here. The question is whether land speculators already own the sites and whether the councils have both the funding and the courage to compulsorily purchase the sites or simply mandate the land around the proposed stops as keyworker housing only and call the bluff of the developers/speculators.

“How many properties will the hospitals need?”

This is why hospital executives and planners need to sit down with housing and transport planners in the local councils to work this out. What are the future projections for the hospitals? What are the future projections for other developments on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus? Will the private sector organisations be looking to buy their own housing developments for employees?

There is an opportunity for local councils to put some of their long term financial investments into such properties as well – not least because there is a guaranteed income so long as the hospitals are there. Addenbrooke’s has been around for the last quarter-of-a-millennium so is not going anywhere, and the amount of money spent on the Royal Papworth means that it too is around for the very long term. Lose the hospitals and Cambridge ceases to be.

The same future planning goes for the universities and colleges supplying apprentices to the hospitals. Would it also make more sense for the CBC to build its own suite of lecture theatres that training institutions could use? For some of the apprentices and students (Oi! Pay the student nurses for their shifts!) on healthcare courses it might make more sense for their lectures to be on the site of the hospitals they are working in, rather than having to travel into the city centre. At the same time there needs to be the facilities you’d expect to see of a student centre.

“Can’t the hospitals do all of this within existing structures?”

They could if they really wanted to, but the nature of public sector lines of reporting is that without formal structures or legal requirements, local councils are relying on the goodwill of individual managers and executives in partner organisations. We already know this has been an issue in the past because the last Labour Government had to legislate to require local councils and their partner organisations to co-operate with each other when deciding on local public service targets. (This framework was abolished by the Coalition in 2010). Placing duties to co-operate on the private utilities with regards to ‘improving a city’ could be fun – especially as the inevitable court cases arise and judges have to decide whether individual executives are co-operating or not!)

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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