“Cambridge Town Owl saves Guildhall!”

…might have been the headline if the guildhall was at risk of being sold off, but the recommendation to councillors was to keep hold of it while relinquishing other buildings in the face of further central government cuts

For those of you wondering where the Cambridge Town Owl actually came from, have a look at the Guildhall Clock next time you are in Market Square. The late Allan Brigham explained the story to me a few years ago and it seemed to make sense, even though at the time even the owl caused controversy when it was first unveiled. The Town Owl was the least controversial aspect of what was a very unpopular guildhall design – one that for me was the only major decision Florence Ada Keynes got wrong (and 2,000 people let her know about it at the time!) in a lifetime of public service to our city.

The future of the guildhall

You may have seen the reports in the local newspapers, and the reason this became an issue was the ongoing cuts to local government funding on top of the continued ban on local government raising revenue through a greater range of tax bases.

“Cambridge City Council has warned “tough decisions are necessary” amid a looming threat to Guildhall’s future. The authority needs to cut around 30 per cent of its spending in the next five years, which equals around £11.5m per year in order to balance the books.”

Hannah Brown LDR in Cambridge News, 11 Oct 2022

There is an alternative to the cuts – and that is The Chancellor removing the ban on local councils from raising revenue through other means – such as a land value tax. Caroline Lucas MP for The Green Party commissioned Andy Wightman to produce a policy document for such a tax back in 2013. You can read it here.

Above: A land value tax for England, by Andy Wightman, 2013

The Conservative Party has no positive vision for local government

…and their vision for central government and the country is pure fantasy. Which reminds me of this cover of the Earth, Wind and Fire classic by Black Box.

I quite like the Big Band remix from 1991 too.

And what did we get from The Chancellor today? Have a look at his responses to Sarah Olney MP (LibDems – Richmond Park), and Chris Bryant (Rhondda). And this in response to the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves MP.

Journalist Laurie Penny wrote a devastating critique of what the Conservative Party Conference was like earlier this month.

“Most of the panel events are half-empty and almost none of the big political players have bothered to show up, which throws the absolute lack of anything approaching vision or strategy into unsparing relief.”

Laurie Penny in GQ, 10 Oct 2022

There was also that grim reminder of the misogyny and sexism that still poisons Westminster.

“It’s all a game to them. Sex, power, politics – all of it is about the hustle, about conning the people around you out of whatever they’ve got to offer. There’s no shame about it.”

Some of you may recall The Rise and Fall of New Labour from 2010. My experience of that during my civil service days is one of the reasons I would never make for a loyal political party member. What’s happening now is infinitely worse. At least Gordon Brown had a purpose and a vision of what he wanted to achieve, even though he didn’t have the necessary leadership skills (in particular delegating) to deliver on them. This lot? Like I said, a fantasy that is repeatedly hitting the brick wall of reality.

Cambridge City Council does not have the administrative or policy capacity at officer level to govern our city – and responsibility for that lies entirely with central government.

There are more than a few things I can criticise the Labour administration for in how it has governed Cambridge since 2014. Any political administration in office for the past eight years will have made mistakes and errors. It goes with the territory. The fact remains that the city council – and the borough council before it, never had the full set of legal and financial powers they needed to govern our city.

I’ve written many times about Cambridge’s broken governance structures – including calling for the abolition of Cambridgeshire County Council in 2017, and how they could be overhauled. Yet such was the significance of the future of The Guildhall that I threw a public question to the Strategy & Resources Committee of the City Council last night.

“The recommendation is that we do keep the Guildhall, invest in it, and take steps accordingly”

Cllr Mike Davy (Lab – Petersfield) – Strategy & Resources Committee, Cambridge City Council 10 Oct 2022

My proposal was for the City Council to employ a fundraising officer to raise money for the improvement of The Guildhall and Cambridge’s civic buildings that are starved of funds – mindful that sitting within our city is the University of Cambridge which raises £billions. The principle behind it is explained in my 2018 blogpost for a Permanent Mayoral Fund which could accumulate large donations that could be invested in things like a large concert hall or an expanded Museum of Cambridge – the latter of which I wrote about in 2019. Have a listen to the response from Cllr Mike Davy.

“Dave and Fiona have very big jobs already…”

Cllr Mike Davy, 10 Oct 2022

Cllr Davy commenting on the huge burden Dave Princep [head of property services] and Fiona Bryant [director of enterprise & sustainable development] have at Cambridge City Council

That comment tells me the City Council’s officer base has been hollowed out to such an extent that it does not have the capacity or resources to deliver what residents expect a city council to deliver. News of that lack of capacity to deliver is not new to those following local councils closely.

“We then walked up Nightingale Avenue and I explained the history of Nightingale Garden and also the frustrations about the non-delivery of the pavilion in the park. We discussed how it important it is that promises about infrastructure designed to mitigate the impacts of new development are actually met, and within a reasonable timeframe.”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s) 01 Aug 2021

Above – Cllr Sam Davies on the long-awaited work on the pavilion at Nightingale Avenue Rec. Last time I cycled past the old pavilion had been demolished but the new one had yet to be constructed.

What makes things even worse is the fallout from Brexit with the collapse in the supply of labour to the construction industry. In the face of Cambridge’s continued building boom, the knock on impact on the industry to carry out repairs and maintenance of Cambridge’s existing residential properties. Which is also one of the reasons why I think our lifelong learning strategy (which is at Combined Authority level) needs to incorporate the retraining of adults into fields where we know there are shortages – and provide both the facilities and the maintenance funding while they are learning, to do so.

It’s not just Cambridge – but local government across England (& the UK ) generally

Unlock Democracy commissioned a report on the decline of local government over my lifetime.

Above – Via Robin Bennett

The report’s main findings as to the reasons for this decline sound depressingly familiar:

  • Outsourcingas discussed in its early days by Kate Ascher in 1987 (always worth looking back at what the anticipated impacts were at the time the policies were made)
  • The Quango State – central government agencies set up by Ministers using new legislation enacted by Parliament creating new organisations headed by a chief executive who is appointed by and directly accountable to ministers
  • Ringfenced grants – money used only for a very specific purpose. Lots of small ringfenced grants are a nightmare to administer
  • Reduction in central grant funding from The Treasury – while maintaining statutory/legal requirements to provide services

As a result, many in local government have become cautious about taking risks knowing the potentially catastrophic financial consequences for their communities. Perhaps this explains why so many consultants’ reports have been commissioned by the Greater Cambridge Partnership – because of a sense that all bases need to be covered.

Philanthropy is not a sustainable long term solution to local government underfunding

Nor is ‘Victorian-style philanthropy’. That was tried in Victorian times and was found wanting in the face of huge social problems associated with industrialisation and the lack of human rights that went with them. Which is also why the history of trade unions is ever so important – because they were the ones that fought long and bitter battles for the rights that we take for granted today. Such as weekends.

Above – a history of The National Union of Public Employees – today Unison the Union

…with. the history of NALGO to come! Unison was formed from the merger of three trade unions in the 1990s, and is currently the largest trade union in the country. But there’s only so much they can do in the face of central government austerity.

Combined with the policy uncertainty coming from Westminster, it is very difficult for any local councils to plan ahead. Whether it is funding uncertainties through to trying to manage large building projects in the face of the highest inflation rates since 1990, who’d be an executive councillor or senior local government officer in that environment.

Responsibility without power?

You can find many a book title on having power without responsibility regarding the print press and how proprietors did not have to hold any responsibility for the impact of their headlines. One former council leader in 2007 told me that being the leader of a local council was the opposite: all of the responsibilities but few of the powers needed to discharge them effectively. All things Greater Cambridge Partnership aside, this feels like where we are now with the future of Cambridge.

Which is why I think it is essential that opposition party manifestos address that imbalance with clear commitments about what needs to change with powers and funding of local government in England. (It’s a devolved matter for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland).

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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