UK Cities will never achieve their potential while Central Government forces poor service providers onto them

A very bad day at the depot for Stagecoach as dozens of services are cancelled at short notice – to the rage and fury of passengers and local councillors alike. But will a future government remove the outdated, archaic and ideologically-driven restrictions on how councils provide public services?

It was a rubbish day to be on the buses in and around Cambridge.

Where did the mess come from?

I was yesterday years old when I read that there were over 1,800 amendments thrown at the Local Government Bill in 1972 that when it cleared the stages in the House of Commons, there was such little Parliamentary time for the Lords to clean up the Bill that it was a complete mess of an Act, and multiple corrections had to be issued to the final printed version. This is the underpinning piece of legislation that sets the structures and functions of local councils today. So if you wonder why local councils and local democracy can feel frustrating, this is one of the reasons why. Bryan Keith Lucas for the Historical Association in 1974 explains.

Above – B Keith Lucas, 1974

That’s not to say all was well in local government before then. It wasn’t William Robson described local government as being “in crisis” – the title of his 1966 book digitised here.

The proposed new council areas were published in 1971 (digitised here) and the functions were published in 1974 (digitised here). Compared to the Royal Commission 1966-69 AKA the Redcliffe-Maud Report, it was a rushed job. The main documents of the latter included:

  1. The Summary Report
  2. Volume 1 – Main Report
  3. Maps for Vol 1
  4. Vol III Research Appendices
  5. Maps for Vol 3

The second volume was a minority report from Derek Senior, which I haven’t digitised because he was the only dissenting member of the commission.

“So…this is a symptom of a much longer term crisis in local government?”

In my opinion, yes.

By 1991 it became clear that the councillors were in crisis too – as Barron, Crawley and Wood wrote over 30 years ago. Has much changed since then?

The privatisation years.

We’re still living with the inertia of the widespread privatisations of the late 20th Century.

Above: Who was right? Take your pick. The LRD (left), or The CPC (right)

From the former:

It was the compulsion of going out to tender that was particularly controversial – i.e. the prevention of councils deciding they could keep services in-house. This was something that even some Conservative-run councils had issues with. It is up to Labour’s ministers at the time to explain why they did not make significant changes to that regime when they were in power 1997-2010.

Books are hard to find on bus deregulation from a policy perspective.

The ones that are out there on the second hand market are mainly for bus history and local history enthusiasts – wonderfully illustrated but politics/policy-lite. In one sense it reflects the priorities of the worlds of academia, public policy, and publishing, that a major component of the lives of those of us on lower incomes has received a disproportionately smaller level of scrutiny and attention.

A list of further reading dating from 1997 is here, and Fiona Poole’s 1995 piece for the House of Commons Library, Deregulation of the Buses, is here. There is also their 2010 report from Louise Butcher on the same subject here. Furthermore there is a 30 year lookback from CLondoner92 here, with numerous video clips.

One of the more political reports was by the IPPR from Mark Rowney and Will Straw – the latter being the son of the former Labour Cabinet Minister Jack Straw. They published their report in 2014 which you can read here.

Above – by the IPPR

Straw Junior was a fairly high profile figure in political circles until the catastrophe of the EU Referendum where he was a central organising figure for the Remain campaign. He seems to have kept a low political profile since then.

“Renationalise the lot!!!”

As far as buses are concerned, and especially after today’s experience, it’s hard to feel anything other than that. Bring local public transport back under municipal control, have it democratically accountable to the people and have it run as a public service in the public interest for the general public, and not for private profit. Instead, the bus company with monopoly power in and around Cambridge was sold off to a German company, DWS Infrastructure, earlier in 2022.

Replacing democratic accountability with contractual accountability

If we take the cases of both Stagecoach (buses) and Anglian Water (maintaining sanitation, the processing and disposal of waste water) in and around Cambridge, we find that both firms do not have any means of democratic accountability. At a basic level that means having the main decision-making executives appearing on a routine basis to take questions from democratically-elected councillors. Therefore there’s no forum that the public can go to, or put questions to where the people responsible for those essential services needed for a city to function, can be tabled. Has anyone seen any regular/routine public forums at a local level that senior executives of water companies have appeared at? (i.e. ones that members of the public can also table public questions at like at council meetings?)

The Conservative Party nationally has no positive vision for local government or local public services.

The challenge for opposition parties is not only to demonstrate that they have the vision, but that they also have both the plan on how to make it happen, and the competent high calibre politicians capable of of making it happen in ministerial office. Because at the moment all the local headlines on local public services read like today’s front pages locally.

Above – the newspaper rack earlier this evening (29 Oct 2022).

More than a few people are getting sick of ministers talking about ‘delivery’ – isn’t that something posties do when not on strike against bosses of a badly-managed privatised former public service?

UK Cities will never reach their potential if large proportions of their residents are barred from participating in local democracy

Conservative ministers made the call to disenfranchise our fellow EU Citizens as a result of their botched Brexit plans – which also deprived UK citizens of previously acquired rights as well. Hence the campaign groups:

All of the above are examples of grassroots organisations that have formed to represent and fight for the rights of those who are (in my opinion) structurally disenfranchised and disempowered both by what successive governments have put in place and maintained in my lifetime, and also by the failures of existing institutions (such as the Trades Union Congress) to improve their systems to represent the most vulnerable workers in our society. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken to recently – mainly in a healthcare setting, who have said “I’m not English so I can’t take part/vote” when asking about local democracy and local issues. In my view, The Conservatives have no positive answer. In Government they have taken active steps in legislation to disenfranchise people. It’s up to opposition parties to explain what they will do, if anything, to reverse at least some of those policies should they get into government at the next election. Hence some of you may want to start contacting your MPs or councillors now ( just in case we have a snap election sooner rather than later.

Making sure professional consultants working on projects in Cambridge familiarise themselves with our city.

This came up at the sadly sparsely-attended first day of the People City Planet Festival at the Shirley Primary School on Nuffield Way, Cambridge. Not helped by broken buses, and also not helped by the lack of publicity on how to actually get there! There was ***lots of free food and cake so go there on Sunday if you can!***

Above: Free pizza.

…as well as debating the issues on the North East Cambridge site that I want a new swimming pool built on. Because I have high demands for my city.

‘What do you know about Cambridge?’ I asked them

There were more than a few London-based consultancy representatives there, which a few fellow locals commented on. Having been one of those London-based people who have visited/been sent to places far away from the office only to be scrutinised by a sometimes sceptical if not hostile crowd, I sort of sympathised with them having to face the intense and fatigued and annoying ball of anger and angst that I can be at the best of times. (I am my own harshest critic). But I encouraged them to ‘let rip’ on what Cambridge’s shortcomings were from both a professional, and a personal basis. This included asking a transport professional what he thought of the headlines about the congestion charging – to which he did a superb job dodging my repeated follow-ups trying to pin him down!

Actually, having the perspective from people from outside of our city and county can be really useful – if you ask them the right questions. One particular issue was about trying to get them to comment on things outside of the core site they were commissioned to work on.

Transport expert: “I don’t feel comfortable commenting on things that are outside the core area or my field.

Me: “That’s fine – as that is exactly what I am asking you to do!”

My point being that there will be decisions that will have to be made by politicians – and rightly so. That means the professionals will have to allow for some flexibility to account for what might or might not be politically feasible. This is something the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s senior officers will find out the hard way with their congestion charging proposals when they discover that Cambridgeshire County Council as of this moment will not provide the approval of the powers that they need for their scheme to go ahead in 2027.

We had people from Brazil, Portugal, The Netherlands, and Central Europe all there across various professional fields, all with something to contribute. The same with recently-arrived residents. Their constructive criticism were sound and enlightening, and forced me to consider issues – for example on water sustainability – that I had never previously considered before.

The problem is that the City of Cambridge has no mechanisms to integrate new residents, nor programmes to educate existing long term residents, about how our city already functions, let alone how it could function much better.

All three main political parties bear some responsibility for this in national government. None of them have developed a comprehensive policy for citizenship and lifelong learning. Furthermore, we still seem to be light years away from a point where democracy education and media literacy are integral parts of schooling. I’m old enough to remember comments about how teaching young people their democratic and legal rights – especially with welfare – would only encourage young people to go and rinse the taxpayer to get free housing. It’s like they had no positive vision for active citizenship.

Even in my early forties, having spent most of that time living in Cambridge, I’m still learning new things about how our city functions.

After a decade of tests and appointments, I finally got a diagnosis for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at Addenbrooke’s yesterday. The problem is that there’s nowhere in Cambridgeshire that treats the symptoms of the condition, which at the time of writing has no cure.

The nearest centres are in Bedford, Norwich, and Hampshire. But hey, at least I’ve got the diagnosis which should help things when facing the DWP in future. Because living with CFS combined with recovering from an unexpected heart attack less than a year ago will be hard enough as it is. Something for a future blogpost where I’ll be writing about how working on local history and commentating on local democracy is my attempt to try and remain relevant in a rapidly-changing city where the population has grown by 50% from when I started secondary school in the early 1990s, to today. Which sounds like a really strange concept: trying to be ‘relevant’ in a place that you grew up in but where you have no shared history. After all, I tried to leave Cambridge permanently – not once, but twice. Once in 1999 (university), and again in 2006 (civil service). But on both occasions poor health meant I had to return and rely on the support of family.

So from my perspective, the City of Cambridge made me, broke me, and is now stuck with me. Hence applying what little I have left towards a deeply divided city that is failing far too many of us – and has been for far too long. We are a city that could be greater than the sum of our parts. But there’s a big ‘blob’ in the way of achieving that. When he was Education Secretary, Michael Gove tried to convince everyone that ‘the blob’ was the educational establishment. From what I’ve been observing over the past decade-and-a-bit, he and his ministerial colleagues need to look in the mirror together. They might find ‘the blob’ that’s holding back our towns and cities from meeting their potential is staring right back at them.

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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