Will any local political parties talk about extending Cambridge City Council’s boundary &/or making it a unitary council?

All of the 2015 General Election candidates representing political parties in Cambridge agreed that Cambridge needed to become a unitary council. Where they disagreed was where the boundaries should be drawn.

I’m posting a few more things about the local elections in May 2022 because what the electorate in South Cambridgeshire decide could have a big impact locally on the future of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire. Therefore I think it’s worth raising some reminders now so that those of you interested, and involved in community and campaign groups can start preparing now (eg organising local public debates) while it’s too cold to go outside unless you’re hardcore.

Above – Hardcore – Harriet Gould, (front – holding the board on the ground) one of the local Conservative candidates who I met when she was supporting then Conservative MP Heidi Allen.

Why Gamlingay, South Cambridgeshire, is the seat to watch.

There were only 230 votes between Cllr Seb Kindersley (LibDems) and Harriet Gould (Cons) – both highly competent candidates for the single seat at the Cambridgeshire County Council elections in 2021.

Above – from Cambridgeshire County Council.

Ms Gould is going for the seat again. Recently I posted that I thought she would get elected into I thought was one of the 2 or 3 district council seats. Turns out there is only one seat to contest in Gamlingay – and that is held by the Leader of South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats, the formidable Cllr Bridget Smith. Given the headlines that the Prime Minister has been attracting over recent weeks, and even more particularly, in recent days, fortune has swung back towards Cllr Smith.

This was Ant & Dec before Christmas 2021.

…and this was Gary Neville & Jamie Carragher just over a month later.

Above – once political scandals break out of the Westminster bubble, they risk having an impact on local elections that are far beyond the control and influence of local candidates – however competent they may be.

And this one does not look like it is going away.

Personally I think local democracy in South Cambridgeshire needs both women to be on the local council – local government needs all of the high calibre candidates it can get given its current state.

House building, lack of local essential public services, and poor transport remain core issues

Not only that, as Sue Keogh of the Digital Marketing Agency Sookio explains below, collectively we lack the essential understanding of which bits of local government do what.

Above – a thread that came off the back of my recent visit to my dentist who has dropped all of his NHS patients meaning we either have to find another clinic that takes NHS patients (no one can find any) or go private (which is what I’ve had to do – and what Conservative ministers want – otherwise they’d have made provision for enough NHS places locally. And they have not).

I listened to staff and fellow patients caught up in this. They all told me about how they are seeing the new housing going up but they are not seeing the public services being provided. I mentioned in my previous post about the fragmentation of public service providers. Things like:

  • Bins are the responsibility of Cambridge City Council
  • Local roads are the responsibility of Cambridgeshire County Council
  • Buses are the responsibility of the Combined Authority and the Mayor
  • Primary Care (GP surgeries) are the responsibility of local Clinical Commissioning Groups
  • The Police are the responsibility of the Police & Crime Commissioner
  • Secondary schools are the responsibility of the academy chain and the Department for Education after Michael Gove centralised everything

Even if Cambridge were to become a single council combining even just city and county council functions, it would be far too small geographically to represent the people who make the city function.

Above – this is Cambridge by ward following the recent redrawing of the internal boundaries

You can already see the bits that have spilt over the border into South Cambridgeshire District Council. Yet the municipal/city boundaries dates from before WWII.

Pre-1934 you can see how much smaller municipal Cambridge was – and that was *after* the expansion of 1911. The borough council as was applied for more villages to be incorporated but ministers rejected this. (You can read the history and see the maps of how the borough/city expanded here.)

Cambridge has attempted to become a unitary council in previous times – such as in 1913, only to be rejected. What strikes me is that there has been no high profile bid to extend the municipal boundaries in recent years despite the huge housing growth.

“Where would you extend the boundaries up to?”

Good question – one that is loaded party-politically.

History has a number of insights. The Cambridgeshire Regional Plan of 1934 written by William R Davidge (and whose committees were chaired by Cllr Dr Alex Wood of Cambridge Labour, St Columbas Presbyterian Church, and Emmanuel College) dealt with a Cambridge County Council that had a road and green spaces network as below.

Above – the read line on the map was the proposed ‘ring road’ around Cambridge, of which only part of the eastern and norther sections were built. Some of you may even spot the recommended road bridge at Foxton over the railway line – which was never built and was ruled out by the Director of Transport at the Greater Cambridge Partnership, Peter Blake a few weeks ago. You can read Davidge’s report here.

In the context of Cambridge County’s sister shire councils you can see them on this map.

Above – the shire councils of historical Cambridgeshire just after WWII. Note how much smaller the surrounding rural districts are.

One option would be to go with a Cambridge unitary council based on the old Cambridge County Council – the area shaded in pale red. But that then leaves out the surrounding towns where many commuters who work in Cambridge live. Royston, Saffron Walden, Haverhill, Newmarket, Ely, St Ives’, Huntingdon, & St Neots are all just over the border – and would be left out of transport planning. We’ve seen the impact this has had with the decisions taken on the proposed busways by the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

The 1969 Royal Commission provided the option of incorporating the surrounding towns.

You can read the summary and see the nationwide redrawn boundaries here. The map below shows what the full report would have done with the then two shire councils of Cambridgeshire & the Isle of Ely, and with Huntingdon & Peterborough.

Above – imagine the Greater Cambridge Partnership covering the geographical area of a new Greater Cambridge Unitary Council.

It would have forced officers and councillors to come up with transport solutions (and for ministers to provide funding for) links to surrounding market towns.

There is the option of going with the sub-region as per Prof John Parry Lewis’s report of 1973/4

Prof Parry Lewis (whose report for Cambridge City is here) looked at a similar geographical area, but based on the economic sub-region rather than just geographical. But conceptually he was of a similar mind: the existing boundaries and structures were too small. Parry Lewis also had big housing plans – ones that were ultimately rejected.

Above – Parry Lewis’s proposals for building a new urban centre for Cambridge – involving doubling its then population from just under 100,000 to 200,000 people.

Appointed by a Quango established by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government, Parry Lewis was not popular with Conservative councillors. But such were the decades-long squabbles about Cambridge’s future that the Cambridge Evening News considered the city Shackled.

The recently-established county-level structures were the idea of former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne.

Cynics amongst you could be forgiven for thinking that his initial proposals were a means to enable Conservative control of Cambridge without having to win any seats, let alone control, of Cambridge City Council – formerly a safe-as-castles Conservative city and parliamentary seat until the 1980s. A safe county council, a safe mayoralty, it should have been so easy. But the ‘super-election’ of 2021 changed all of that.

Above – Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham) signs the Joint Agreement with  L-R, Cllrs Tom Sanderson (Ind), Lorna Dupre (LD), Richard Howitt (Lab), & Elisa Meschini (Lab). Photo – Ben Hatton.

The ruling Conservatives lost a swathe of seats enabling the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and Independent councillors to group together and take political control of Cambridgeshire County Council – while Labour’s mayoral candidate benefitted from Liberal Democrat transferred votes in the Mayoral elections to win the Mayoral election – bringing in a new political age for Cambridgeshire.

Thus a more crude and brutal take would be to draw a line North-East to South-West, dividing the county into a pro-Brexit/Tory Peterborough/Fenland/North Hunts, and a more pro-Remain/Progressive Cambridge and surrounding districts.

Above – a geographical representation of which parties won what seats – the dark grey indicating independent councillors elected. From Cambridgeshire County Council.

What we’ve not yet seen from the political parties of the joint administration is any discussions on overhauling the existing structures. Understandable perhaps given we are still in the middle of a global pandemic that is being appallingly managed by incompetent ministers of whom the Prime Minister has been shown to break the very laws that he and his Government has brought in.

“Why talk about boundaries, borders, structures, finances and powers in a district council election?”

By the time the local elections of 2022 take place, we will be at least halfway through the term of office of the present Government. The next general election must take place by December 2024. Parties are already selecting prospective parliamentary / MP candidates in seats they don’t already hold. Raising these issues now gives national parties the time to think about what their policies might be, given how frustrated people in and around Cambridge have become about the existing structures – ones that don’t seem to work for anyone.

Furthermore, we end up with too many local meetings leaving residents unable to raise local issues because they are beyond the legal competence of the city councillors present. Car parking on residential streets near Addenbrooke’s by commuters, to rat-running in Cherry Hinton – all issues that come up regularly at South Area Committee, but are beyond the powers of the elected councillors because the previous Conservative-controlled council was either not interested in prioritising problems in non-Conservative-voting parts of the county, or simply did not have the powers and budgets from Central Government to take radical action to resolve problems that have been around for decades. It remains to be seen whether the present Joint Administration can make a difference, but my current view is that with the existing Government and Pandemic, it’s hard to see local councils anywhere doing anything other than fire-fighting within the existing system.

Hence why for me a new Royal Commission on Local Government in England (or something with a similar remit to the 1966-69 one) is ever so important. You can read their full report here. The more people interested in local democracy that can familiarise themselves with that report, the better because it shows those involved were compelled to answer the difficult questions including:

  • Where should the council boundaries be?
  • What tiers of councils should there be? (Districts and boroughs (and a few cities) for lower tier, county/shire for upper tier councils, and single unitary councils for cities, and then unitary urban boroughs in large built up areas covered by very large City Regions eg Greater London, Greater Manchester etc).
  • What public services should each tier provide directly? (e.g. Electoral Services)
  • What public services should each tier commission other orgs to provide? (e.g. Social Care).
  • What regulatory public services should each tier be responsible for? (E.g. Trading Standards)
  • What public services and functions that are currently *outside* of local government be brought into local government? (eg local police, magistrates, primary care services such as doctors’ surgeries)
  • How should local government be funded? While ensuring
    • Those on the lowest incomes do not pay proportionally more than the wealthiest
    • Local businesses esp those on the high streets do not lose out to those that are online only – esp online retailers who do not have ‘business rates’ to pay

There are wider questions for another time – perhaps in the run up to a general election that could also be looked at, such as:

  • What services are currently provided for by central government that could be provided for better by local government? (eg Job Centre)
  • What services are currently provided for by central government that should remain in central government? (eg Armed Forces)
  • What services are currently provided for by the private/voluntary/charity sectors that are being under-provided for by the market and should be brought into state provision
  • What functions are currently provided for by the state but could be provided for better by the private or voluntary sectors? (Likely to be few left given previous decades of privatisation and outsourcing, but the question still remains)
  • In this post-Brexit world, what should the UK’s relationship be with the EU in the short-medium term (because rejoining would take years of renegotiation anyway) in the face of shared issues such as:
    • Regulating multinational corporations
    • Online governance
    • The Climate Emergency Response
    • Global trading rules
    • Global taxation rules (along with taking on tax evasion & avoidance)
    • International security
    • Organised Crime

That last set may seem random but you can’t expect an under-funded trading standards function of your local council to deal with a dispute you have with a retailer you bought something off if that seller is on the other side of the world.

So working out which of our day-to-day week-to-week functions are ones that are best dealt with at a local level is an important and ongoing discussion to have.

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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