Tory ministers cut ***how much???*** from local council budgets?

How might these affect the South Cambridgeshire District Council elections in 2022?

I had a look at some of the data in the House of Commons Library following the outcry at Stoke-on-Trent Council (Unitary – Cons) announcing it is gutting a core part of its heritage function. It currently has a minority-led Conservative administration, with all three of its Members of Parliament all being Conservative as well – in seats that have changed parties over recent years.

Why would a city vote for candidates whose party has delivered big cuts to its grants from central government?”

Above – from the House of Commons Library. The result of policies reducing general central government grants to local councils – resulting in amongst other things, rising council taxes – a regressive form of taxation based on estimated property values on 01 April 1991. (!!!)

It’s easy to say “They got what they voted for” but given our electoral system, you can see how the larger parties in England benefit at the expense of the smaller parties.

It was particularly tough for the Liberal Democrats in 2019, over a million extra votes converting into *fewer seats* than they won in 2017 and fewer than they went into the 2019 general election with.

Above – from the House of Commons Library – Turning Votes into Seats.

Interestingly, it is this system in local government (First Past The Post) that also keeps out the Conservatives in Cambridge. With over 11% of the vote and over 12,000 votes, the Tories did not win any seats, being unable to concentrate their voting power in any single ward – in part due to standing a slate of paper candidates and publishing no city manifesto.

“Something is seriously wrong with the Conservative Party if it cannot even gain a foothold in a city like Cambridge.”

Tim Wotherspoon, a former Chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly, who lost his Cottenham and Willingham seat on Cambridgeshire County Council in 2021.

In terms of voting histories in local elections, the voters of Cambridge generally punish the political party that is in power in Westminster as it has done for the past thirty years. (See the 1980s-1990s here, and the 2000s-2010s here)

So if a party nationally is involved in major budget cuts to public services, or military adventures of questionable international legality in far away places, there’s generally little that local parties can do about it – as former MPs Anne Campbell (Lab – 1992-2005) and Dr Julian Huppert (2010-15) found to their cost.

How has Cambridge done? And Cambridgeshire?

Above – the settlement from central government to Cambridge City Council. Accounting for inflation ( “Real Terms” ), the figures look even worse. (Always be sceptical when ministers and politicians talk about ‘cash terms’ when dealing with financial figures over time). As mentioned, one of the ways councils can try to make up the difference is with raising council tax. Another is raising service charges – like for car parks. Retailers and people who live outside the city generally do not like this, but given the volumes of tourist traffic as well as being a regional retail centre, there is no incentive for Cambridge City Council to reduce parking charges (Covid aside) so long as they get so little funding from central government. Similar is true for other cities.

Note Central Government bans councils from raising revenue through taxation of most other things – even though it’s still trying to figure out what to replace the Business Rates with – in the face of an unequal market between high street stores vs online retailers (esp the giants incorporated/headquartered abroad).

“How does it look for South Cambridgeshire? Only they have all-out elections in less than six months time.”

Not good.

Again, massive cuts to the grant from Central Government. (For some reason there is no data for the past couple of years in the net current spending – which may be due to the longstanding auditor issues that cut across both administrations).

“And Cambridgeshire County Council?”

…which covers the whole county and is responsible for a different range of services…

That’s quite a collapse in real terms – settlement funding almost halved since 2015.

The fall from nearly £690m to £660m is a painful one given how overstretched things like social care services have been for years. Cambridgeshire Councillors argue (with good reason) that our county is underfunded – see their arguments here. It gets below-national-average funding per pupil in education, and a lower per capita amount in the general settlement. As with Cambridge City Council there is no mechanism to tax the wealth we are told that Cambridge makes and that is supposedly so vital to the economy. Ministers could if they wanted to, but they have chosen not to. This is a political decision.

Which makes the South Cambridgeshire District Council elections all the more interesting later this year in May. Four months to go!

With town planning and busway planning being particularly controversial issues, all three of the main parties face difficult conversations with the affected wards and villages.

Oxford-Cambridge Arc

The OxCam Arc is particularly controversial. The problem for the opposition Conservatives on South Cambridgeshire District Council is that this is all being driven by Conservative Ministers.

The above-declaration from March 2019 (p7) was signed off by the then Conservative Mayor for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, and the Conservative-majority Combined Authority.

Cambourne – Cambridge Guided Busway

I don’t think it has ever been clear to the general public who is the person/which is the public office responsible for coming up with the concept, commissioning, developing, and signing off this major project.

One of the most recent pieces of ministerial correspondence from July 2020 to the former Mayor Mr Palmer makes clear that Minister Simon Clarke, now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, expected both the Bourn Airfield site and the Cambourne-Cambridge Busway projects to be delivered.

“In particular, it has been suggested to me that the withdrawal of GCP’s Cambridge to Cambourne scheme will impact negatively on the Bourn Airfield development and, in turn, could prevent South Cambridgeshire District meeting its five-year land supply.

“If so, this goes against the clear expectation previous ministers set out in February and June 2018 that discussions around governance should not impact negatively on delivery.”

Minister Simon Clarke to Mayor James Palmer, July 2020 via John Elworthy, Ely Standard.

Given the squabbles, protests, and complications ever since the City Deal was signed off by both Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister for the Liberal Democrats, and Greg Clark, the Cities Minister for the Conservatives back in 2014 – along with the then Conservative Leaders of South Cambs District Council (Cllr Ray Manning), & Cambridgeshire County Council (Cllr Steve Count) along with the newly-appointed Leader of Cambridge of Cambridge City Council (Cllr Lewis Herbert), all three political parties bear some responsibility.

“What did they sign off?”

This document. Which says:

“The backbone of the proposed strategy is a transport network to link areas of population and employment within the City Deal area. There will be new orbital bus routes around Cambridge and new high quality public transport links into Cambridge on key corridors, connecting with major employment centres.”

Greater Cambridge City Deal 2014

But politicians and officials have always been vague about ‘new high quality public transport links’ meant in reality. Hence the new nursery rhyme children might be singing in ten years time. Some of us wanted this to mean a sub-regional light rail such as Cambridge Connect, and not buses on a road that cars & general traffic were stopped from traveling down – i.e. a glorified bus lane. Again, both groups (politicians and officials) needed to make clear where the blueprints originated from – i.e. the Cambridge Futures 2 document from 2003. The time between this map and the signing of the City Deal in 2014 is just over a decade. Mindful of the Banking Crisis and the 2010 General Election you can almost account for some of the delay in getting from this publication to agreeing in principle the delivery structures & mechanisms. Fast forward to today – 2022 and the fact that the routes have not been agreed, the Environmental Impact Assessments have not been done, along with Brexit, Covid, and the Climate Emergency you can see why the whole set up now feels obsolete.

Above – from the Cambridge Futures 2 document in 2003

“So…what choice does the electorate of South Cambridgeshire have?”

They’ll have to wait and see who is on the ballot paper. But *none* of the three main parties can avoid responsibility for where we are with the Greater Cambridge Partnership at a local level. At various points, councillors from each of the three main parties discussed, debated, responded to public Qs on, and signed off the various steps and actions that have let to where we are today.

That does not automatically mean ‘don’t vote for any of them’. Even where you only have candidates from the three parties standing.

Unless you are a candidate yourself, you will never be in 100% agreement with any of the candidates campaigning for your vote. Ultimately voters will have to decide what criteria they will judge candidates and parties on, and with what weight/priority to give each criterion. (Democracy Club will have a list of candidates and their websites/video pages / contact details ready in early April – but they will need volunteers). Some of the candidates will, irrespective of political party be of such a high calibre that voters might be prepared to overlook any policy / party political shortcomings & disagreements & vote for them. At the same time, some might be so woeful that on this occasion they might vote for a different party or not turn out at all. (The latter often happens esp in by-elections).

There is likely to be a spread of candidates from smaller parties – whether The Green Party on the liberal-left to what’s left of the anti-EU movement outside of Conservative circles. There may well be independent candidates standing on single issue/theme manifestos – for example villages with strong anti-road/busway/large housing development campaigns going. (See Flatpack Democracy if you are thinking about standing as an Independent candidate). Council officials in South Cambridgeshire are already making preparations.

Above – 05 May 2022 is the date for both District Council & Parish Council elections in South Cambridgeshire (bar the named parish exceptions).

Nominations open on 28 March 2022

Potential candidates – start practicing video making now!

Back in the middle of the last decade I went after local candidates to get them to make introduction videos irrespective of political allegiance. See my playlist of 17 videos from the County Council elections in 2017 with candidates from Conservatives, Greens, Labour, and Liberal Democrats. The format is very simple:

  • Name
  • Party you are standing for
  • Ward you are standing in
  • Election you are contesting
  • Date of that election
    • Why are you standing for election? Reason 1
    • Why are you standing for election? Reason 2
    • Why are you standing for election? Reason 3
  • Exhortation for the voter to vote for you, your party, and the named election *and on the date specified*

And that’s it! (You can see some more from local elections in 2016 here, including some of the hustings).

If you want to help strengthen local democracy but don’t want to align with a party or candidate, you can follow the example in Queen Edith’s Ward, Cambridge, or in Sawston, and organise a local debate/hustings with your local election candidates. See the guide here by Chris Rand – you’ll need to start organising now, in time for your events to take place in April – in the month leading up to polling day.

Over the past decade I’ve often seen such events hosted by local churches and chapels, and well-chaired by vicars and ministers (of religion rather than of government!) – such as the events the Minister at Sawston Free Church the Rev Bruce Waldron chaired in 2016 & 2017. So if you’re struggling for a venue and a debate chairperson, start with someone familiar with public speaking!

Above – note the time limits Minister Waldron gives to the candidates, and also his advice to everyone on microphone technique!

Health & transport providing, I’m happy to help film & publish debates/hustings, but I can no longer do them for free these days. (UC requirements amongst other things).

And finally…

On all things cycling infrastructure. Note the difference the bollards/wands make.

As Mr Holbrooke states: “Paint is not infrastructure!”

Food for thought?

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