Parliament calls for major overhaul of local government in England

…and not only that, the governance of England and its place in the United Kingdom mindful of the existence of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Parliament, and Northern Ireland Assembly (which were not around last time around)

You can read the following:

The Redcliffe-Maud Report – the Royal Commission of 1966-69

The main documents of what was one of the biggest inquiries into local government in England 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.

Below – the familiar map of the abandoned proposals for Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough Unitary Councils, from 1969

A Royal Commission on Local Government is the first step towards the possible creation of a Greater Cambridge Unitary Council.

…which is what I call for in this blogpost. So therefore I welcome the report from the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in their call for a cross-party-supported policy and legislation to establish a new Royal Commission. Furthermore, all concerned need to start their preparatory work now, so that they are ready to send in their representations should a commission be established. Given the huge structural problems we have with the governance of England – in particular the risk of insolvency of a growing number of local councils, it’s only a matter of time before this happens. Party-political expediency will force the hand of the Conservatives between now and the general election – assuming they hang on to 2024.

“Will the Tories hang on?”

Never say never, but it looks like they are trying to stabilise under new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. The acid test will be the Autumn Statement in just over two weeks time. How much of a hit will local councils be expected to take?

Two different visions for the future of Cambridge in two days

And interestingly the University of Cambridge had a role in both – even though it might not have realised it such is the size of the institution! The first was a repeat of the Imaginarium from the Cambridge Festival in April 2022

The event at The Grafton Centre last Sunday was supported by the University of Cambridge’s Public Engagement Department – have a listen to the item on Cambridge 105 here.

The second was a joint event by Cambridge Ahead (of which the University of Cambridge and a number of colleges and institutions are members) and the Centre for Cities – which has views on Cambridge here. We heard from

One of the panellists was Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham), the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council. She spoke of the challenges local councils face and of the responses from residents to the fast economic growth Cambridge and surrounding villages have experienced.

Above – Cllr Lucy Nethsingha

I agree with her and I hope the private sector firms took note. Because one of the things we have seen in recent years is the issue of democratic legitimacy – or the lack of, in decisions that have been taken on the future of our city. This ranges to planning appeals by large developers through to the unnecessarily complicated decision-making structures of the Greater Cambridge Partnership and Combined authority imposed on top of the existing two tier and three tier councils in Cambridge, and outside Cambridge in the rest of Cambridgeshire respectively.

One of the other issues that came up in my poorly-phrased question about ‘when are we going to get a light rail? (it wasn’t my finest public question but chronic fatigue is a beast at the best of times) was what contributions some of the wealthy institutions represented there were prepared to contribute. And the point was made on the panel that as things stood it wasn’t going to be forthcoming from any one of them alone as a ‘charitable contribution’. In my opinion nor should it be – it should be something that local government should have the legal powers to impose on firms to pay for the local infrastructure that is so essential to their business activities. As I put it to one of the representatives in the networking after, what’s the point on having expensive science laboratories if all the roads around them are potholed because the county council cannot afford to repair them? At which point I heard just how poor the road conditions are in some parts of the county. (Noting I seldom get the chance to leave the city these days).

The lack of community representation – in particular from those who live in social housing & council housing, and those who work in minimum-wage-level jobs, is a continuing feature at corporate events badged as being about the future of our city

This came up earlier this year at another event I was at – which like this one I found out almost by accident.

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson reminded the audience repeatedly of inequalities in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire. If you’ve not seen this video by Joe Cook featuring some very well known faces. (And mine too), do watch it.

Levelling up will fail if it is built on broken structures & fractured relationships‘ 20 Jan 2022.

That’s not to say people from Cambridge’s business sectors are indifferent to our inequalities. There are many who are just as frustrated as the rest of us at the Government’s inability either to deal with them directly, or to provide local councils with the powers (including revenue-raising powers) to deal with the problems themselves without recourse to Whitehall for ministerial approval.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that ‘business’ seldom speaks with one voice – which should not be surprising because what might suit one business sector may not suit another. The economics textbook example is the steelworks and the fishing industry. Does the steel industry have the right to pollute and not pay for the clean up costs, or does the fishing industry have the right to clean river water in order to sustain its economic activity? You could say the modern day equivalent is replacing the steel industry with water companies. For this event, and not for the first time there was concern that some industries were over-represented and others were conspicuous by their absence.

Above – Architect Tom Holbrook, whose industry has a huge impact on the future of our city.

If we think about the professions and occupations that are needed to sustain our city, where were the medics, the teachers, the social workers, the bus drivers, the refuse collectors, the supermarket staff, the catering workers, the cleaners, the community workers, the builders, the repair workers, the administrators, and more? We also seldom see trade unions represented. In times gone by it would have been their representatives who would have ensured the voice of working people would have been not just heard but incorporated into future plans.

The reason why this matters is because if Cambridge is to reach anywhere near its potential, it has to stop functioning in social and industry cliques. It has to think of itself as a city – a city made up of people and its environment. Otherwise it’s a ghost town. And not just the people who live within its 1935-era town boundaries, but the people who work in it, who commute in, who study, who visit regularly, and those that want to see our city being of a benefit for the many, not the affluent and well-connected few.

That for me is also why (and coming back to the Select Committee’s report on the Governing England), political parties will need to think long and hard about whether the private ownership of public services and utilities such as our bus companies, and water companies, is compatible with highly-functioning cities with excellent governance structures. Having no means of public scrutiny of both Stagecoach and Anglian Water (both in private ownership with no public annual general meetings) means that outside of Parliament, there is no public scrutiny. There is no routine cross-examination of executives in public by elected representatives at a local level. This cannot be right.

These and many other issues must be addressed in a future Royal Commission. It’s essential that MPs demand ministers table the necessary legislation to establish it. And soon. In the meantime, the rest of us need to consider what representations to make to it. Because it will be a substantial piece of work that will result from it – one that if taken on by a future government could change the way we are governed for the next half century at least.

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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