As the FenPowderPlot misfires, Huntingdonshire frees itself from Tory control for the first time since 1970s

This creates a huge opportunity for Huntingdon town (whose royal charter is older than Cambridge’s), and its surrounding towns and villages to make some radical improvements.

It’s a shame the meeting was not live-streamed because this could become one of the most significant events in the history of the town and district. We were left following the tweets of the Chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Stephen Ferguson instead.

This was when we got the first inclination that the smaller parties had managed to combine together to overtake the Conservative group in exactly the same way as on Cambridgeshire County Council a year ago – ejecting the Conservatives from power for the first time since the 1970s.

Above – me being impatient until the announcement of the new leader of Huntingdonshire District Council was made – Cllr Sarah Conboy of the Liberal Democrats (see here and scroll down), with her deputy Cllr Tom Sanderson for the Independent Group as her deputy. Cllr Sanderson also chairs the Communities, Social Mobility and Inclusion Committee on Cambridgeshire County Council with Arbury’s Cllr Hilary Cox (Lab) as her deputy.

Two further points of note: Labour’s Cllr Sam Wakeford, who leads the small group of Labour councillors in Huntingdonshire, has been appointed as Executive Councillor for Regeneration and Growth, Economy and Jobs. Also a member of the Co-operative Party (according to his declared interests in the council’s register), he works for the GMB Union as an accredited representative. In the face of the costs-of-living crisis, his expertise could be crucial to people working in low-income jobs, especially if he can persuade senior decision-makers within the trades union movement to do some outreach events in parts of the county that are economically deprived and where people are all-too-easily exploited by unscrupulous employers.

Finally there is a further achievement for the first Green Party councillor in the history of Huntingdonshire District Council – Cllr Lara Davenport-Ray, who has been appointed to the Climate and Environment Portfolio.

You can read the above-statement here.

“So that’s Labour in charge of jobs and regeneration, the Greens in charge of Climate and Environment, what happens now?”

The first thing to acknowledge is that the voters of Huntingdonshire elected a council where the Independent Group are the largest group in the new joint administration. As the new leader of the council, Cllr Sarah Conboy of the Liberal Democrats explained:

“Huntingdonshire voted for a large number of independent councillors who clearly spoke to residents’ desire for hardworking representatives with no political affiliation.

By working together as a newly formed Independent group, and in partnership with the other political groups in the new Administration, we can achieve the individual commitments they made to voters.

In producing our Joint Agreement setting our direction of travel, we are all clear about our shared priorities. We can achieve more together than by standing alone.”

Cllr Sarah Conboy, 18 May 2022

And note the above quotation was taken from the Huntingdonshire Green Party’s website.

Huntingdonshire will also have a supportive county council behind them, alongside an allied South Cambridgeshire District Council, and Cambridge City Council to their east.

This is where collectively they can work up proposals for much-improved active and public transport connections from Cambridge to Huntingdon. FenPowderPlot aside, one of the things they might want to do is to ask the Combined Authority to work up some options on extending some of the Greater-Cambridge-Partnership-funded projects to extend deep into Huntingdonshire, in particular the Greenways cycleways. One of the straightforward reasons is that these could be very deliverable improvements that are visible to the people, and that councillors can point to as achievements.

From G-Maps here, I’d make the case for the Combined Authority to co-fund an outline study for a segregated off-road wide cycleway and footpath between Cambourne and St Neots/Wyboston, – one via Eltisley and Croxton, and the other via Caxton, Great Gransden, and Abbotsley.

Given where the Greater Cambridge Partnership boundaries end, there’s scope for a joint project between the GCP And Combined Authority to fund the two – with further contributions from local councils, local businesses that would benefit, and even central government.

From G-Maps above, the Greater Cambridge Partnership covers the areas of Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire’s lower tier councils, with one of the western boundaries extending just beyond Croxton, which is not far from St Neots. From a jobs and growth perspective, both Labour and The Greens could make the case for a small contribution to the costs of an independent outline study – one that by the autumn could be put to their district’s local residents and get them talking about a very visible action.

All infrastructure projects come with risks – and opponents. This would be an early and useful test for Huntingdonshire’s new Joint Administration.

Assuming they can commission an outline study and it can report back in the early autumn, it gives all of the councillors:

  1. something substantial to make the case for, and defend collectively. I.e. it won’t be something that individuals get to say “well I was forced into supporting this by that ‘orrible lot over there!” (Convention of collective responsibility of the Joint Administration)
  2. something that will help reduce transport emissions by providing alternatives for people to get to/from different destinations – in particular those children who might currently have to be driven into secondary school at Cambourne Village College from surrounding villages.
  3. something that will have health and leisure benefits both in terms of cycling for leisure as well as those cycling to commute – and providing potential new links for new customers from surrounding villages and neighbourhoods – whether people in towns going to country restaurants to village residents going to larger leisure venues in the towns. Note the development of e-bikes makes such journeys far more accessible to far more people than just the fittest and fastest cyclists. (The law currently limits e-bikes to 15 mph, which makes an uninterrupted cycle-ride of a few miles do-able in 15-20 minutes.)
  4. it engages people in local democracy beyond voting, and gets people thinking about the practicalities of, and new options for, segregated cycle routes rather than being stuck on debating whether the concept is a good one or not.
  5. party-politically, in the case of the political parties it provides a clear separation from the pro-motoring policies of their Conservative opponents of the past however-many decades (in particular under Thatcher in the 1980s) that they can all unite behind and take credit from. For the independent candidates, if they can make the case for their wards being served by the network, they will also get the credit for that too – mindful that the radical behavioural changes we need to make on transport are ones that will have to go beyond a limited number of segregated cycleways alongside main transport arteries.
“Where does this leave the Conservatives?”

Good question.

Given that their group has a new leader (Cllr Gray) following his predecessor the former Cllr Fuller losing his seat to Independent Councillor Julie Kerr, much will depend on what sort of working culture he intends to bring in.

With Huntingdonshire having council elections once every four years, they don’t have to be in campaigning mode as Cambridge’s councillors do with annual elections. At the same time, these councillors in principle will be in place during the next general election. With the likelihood of a boundary review and an additional new constituency being added in the southern half of Cambridgeshire, it will be interesting to see how this affects local democracy. Furthermore, given the various national and international costs of living crises that are now being felt by constituents, and given the cross-party working between two of our county’s councils (Huntingdonshire, and Cambridgeshire County Council itself), will it smooth the way at a grass roots level for tactical voting and campaigning in an attempt to oust sitting Tory MPs? Mindful of the lesson that 2019 in South Cambridgeshire provided for all involved?

Only time will tell.

In the meantime, it also means that the FenPowderPlot is almost certain to fail when the Combined Authority Board meets on Friday 20 May 2022 at 2pm (see the papers here). In the meantime:


…with several of Cllr Fitzgerald’s opponents recalling the furore last October over Universal Credit recipients. It remains to be seen who will chair the meeting on Friday, but given the new political balance of the Combined Authority Board (Mayor Dr Nik Johnson, Cllr Lewis Herbert (Labour – Cambridge), Cllr Bridget Smith (LibDems – South Cambs), Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (LibDems – Cambridgeshire County), and now Cllr Sarah Conboy (Lib Dems – Huntingdonshire) vs the three Conservative-led councils, East Cambs, Fenland, and Peterborough as a minority-led Conservative council, the political balance is very much in favour of the Mayor.

At the same time, the recently-resigned Chief Executive of the Combined Authority, Eileen Milner (of whom I thought much was hoped from), has just been announced in a couple of new roles in Bradford, one of the being as the Chair of the Council at the University of Bradford. Which comes as a surprise. Whether more emerges about the circumstances of her departure from the Combined Authority remains to be seen.

With the media excluded from Friday’s meeting, I’m not expecting much news-wise until next week. Either way, there will have to be some rebuilding on trust and working relationships in the short term. At the same time, those involved can get back into the Local Transport & Connectivity Plan which is now out for public consultation. The first public event in Cambridge is on 25 May at the Lion Yard Shopping Centre.

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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