Cambridge is malfunctioning while the county is broken down

The Autumn Statement by the Chancellor will only increase the risk that we end up with gleaming science labs connected by poorly-maintained pot-holed roads as local history repeats itself with numerous local bodies fighting each other in a woefully inadequate governance structure for a city that ministers claim is the jewel in the economic crown of the country.

The headlines do not make for good reading for the Chancellor.

A package of tax rises and spending cuts which local politicians reflected on means that, alongside the energy crisis and the cost of living crisis – alongside the aftermath of lockdowns (Covid having not gone away – you can track the data here) the Conservatives have overseen a series of utterly avoidable economic and social shocks to the UK economy that leaves us collectively face down and in the gutter. The normally competent former MEP for this side of town, the Chelmsford MP Vicky Ford found herself either badly briefed or tripped up on the BBC’s Daily Politics.

What do you do if you are a politician and the briefing you’ve been handed from your party’s HQ/Whips’ Office turns out to be incorrect and you get skewed live on telly?

“Isn’t the confirmation of East West Rail funding good news?”

There has been so much policy uncertainty of late that it’s very difficult to know who or what to trust. Furthermore, there are a host of outstanding issues with the project including the lack of a business case, the diesel-first proposal, and the disagreement of a northern or southern entrance into Cambridge remain points of friction.

This despite me being strongly in favour not just of having Oxford and Cambridge linked up by rail, but wanting it to go further and have both light rail lines and a cycleway alongside what would become a ‘transport corridor’. The map below from CamBedRailRoad in the Cambridge Independent on 27 April 2021 below gives a rough indication of a northern route. For me, a light rail loosely following it and stopping at Bar Hill, Northstowe, Cottenham, and Milton would work in principle for me – compensating the northern villages for the disruption caused by the East West Rail line.

Above – from the Cambridge Independent 27 April 2021

But again the controversy is all completely avoidable. Furthermore, what of the OxCamArc that was supposed to underpin all of this?

Malfunctioning Cambridge

You’ll have seen Cllr Sam Davies’ post from the Centre for Cities event (it’s here if you missed it). See also her speech to the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations on Cambridge’ s Democratic Deficit.

Earlier this week I stumbled across one of the founding fathers of Cambridge’s English language school industry – Dr James Day of EuroCentres Cambridge who got that institution and its predecessor, Davies College of English, up and running during the 1960s. He also campaigned for a new concert hall for our city in 1970, writing successive letters appealing to councillors and developers alike but to no avail.

The building he oversaw the construction of in that era on Bat_man Street was bought out by Sancton Wood – a private school that itself was bought out by an even wealthier firm that owns and runs a number of private schools in London. The former slum area of Newtown following its patchwork of comprehensive redevelopment and gentrification has become something of a hotspot for private schools – with St Mary’s and The Perse Girls being the longer-standing institutions, and some of the more recent prep schools and cram colleges occupying the early Victorian-era town houses that from the outside don’t really seem fit for purpose.

Polarised Cambridge – are our state school children getting the same opportunities as their privately-educated counterparts? And if not, what can we as a city do to break down those barriers?

One of the things that I’m finding emotionally tough going through the British Newspaper Archives containing Cambridge Newspapers of the 1980s & 1990s is reading about how big the cuts to public service budgets were, and how institutions that previous generations took for granted, such as youth clubs, had long-since closed by the time my cohort were old enough to use them.

One of the reasons why I’m somewhat outspoken about local democracy today is because I lived through those failures as a child, and I really don’t want present and future generations to have to live through similar failures because our politicians and influential institutions have failed another generation of children yet again, like previous generations failed mine. (See my previous post on becoming irrelevant in a rapidly-changing city).

For the past few decades it has become more apparent that teenagers from affluent backgrounds from all over the world are coming to Cambridge for their courses, making friends and contacts that will see them well into their adult years, while the children of Cambridge who live here are shut out. Austerity imposed by central government on top of very restrictive controls on what local councils can do means local children – especially from less affluent backgrounds, miss out – unless charitable-minded individuals and organisations step in. But we should not be dependent on the unstable funding of handouts. These activities should be the children’s by right.

“How do we overcome this?”

Under the present structure, the only possible option I see at the moment is a Cambridge BID-style organisation created and funded by contributions from the private schools, alongside nominal contributions from say the PTAs of the state schools. That can provide the longer term funding for community interest companies to form and put on regular scheduled activities and ensure that parental incomes and transport are not barriers to participation. But while our city and county have to fire-fight just to keep essential services (including those required by law) going, who has the capacity to make this happen?

Hence my conclusion for youth services and young people is that Cambridge is malfunctioning, and Cambridgeshire is broken.

The malfunctioning processes of the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s Making Connections / Cambridge Access consultation.

See here for the consultation. Much as GCP officers and councillors are trying to make the case for thew hole package, the public is inevitably unpicking it. We’ll see the first protest against the road user charge on 27 November 2022 – under ten days time, while bus services continue to make the headlines for the wrong reasons. And yet back in 2016, congestion charging was specifically ruled out in place of a workplace parking levy.

This was questioned at the time:

“Barbara Taylor referred to the vast sum of £40 million to £44 million that could potentially be gained from congestion charging and be used to subsidise public buses, including Park and Ride facilities, by extending the hours and frequency of bus services.  She therefore asked why a congestion charge was being dismissed without going to public consultation.”

Greater Cambridge Partnership Board 09 June 2016

Note the party political balance on the GCP Board at the time was 2x Conservative and 1x Labour. With the former being against congestion charging in principle, it’s not surprising that this was dropped from the consultation.

“Why did the parking levy get dropped?”

Edward Leigh from the now retired Smarter Cambridge Transport in 2019:

“Edward Leigh, of SCT, said: “In the official Call for Evidence in that year, several organisations, including Campaign for Better Transport, Sustrans, Cambridge Ahead and the University of Cambridge called for WPL to be considered seriously.

“It seems that, since then, large employers in Cambridge have lobbied against its introduction. Politicians are also convinced that the potential revenue is too small to go after, and that it won’t do enough to reduce congestion.”

Cambridge Independent, 01 Nov 2019

In the meantime, we have a county council facing some excruciating judgement calls to make because ministers didn’t have the courage to take the really difficult decisions on local government funding – something that the House of Commons Select Committee for Levelling Up and Housing (& Communities (& local govenment)) warned them about in their report of June 2021: Local Government Finances are Unsustainable without major reform. Note that Commons select committees have built-in Conservative majorities in the current electoral term/parliament. The Chancellor had the chance to do something about it, and he blew it.

“Today’s budget – for that is what it is – does little to alleviate the issues that we and other councils across the UK are already facing.

“Despite promises of increased support for both education and social care, with no certainty of sufficient new money, it is clear that the Government’s intention is that we use their suggestion of raising council tax by five per cent to tackle some of the costs of the growing demand for our services.

“We remain concerned that this too falls on the shoulders of residents at a time when they are also struggling to afford to keep up with the cost of living.”

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham) – Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council

Again, we are left with the risk of having gleaming science labs being built all over the place where the only way to get to them is over poorly-maintained roads, and when you get to them and turn on the taps there is no water coming out of them because the Water Companies have not built sufficient capacity, and regulators and ministers have not brought in the policies to compel them to do what both rural and urban areas need them to do.

“So… a bit like 1971 then?”

It’s not like people didn’t have ideas on how to overhaul broken systems and processes. Here’s the late Peter Soar, a local solicitor.

Above – Cambridge Evening News 26 March 1970 from the British Newspaper Archive

It looks like the trust was short-lived, but the concept of bringing the groups together to thrash things out in public is one that half a century later was adopted by the Greater Cambridge Partnership and facilitated by InvolveUK in the form of a Citizens’ Assembly. It’s debatable whether it actually functioned as and met the standards of what is required for a citizens’ assembly, but at least it shows he was ahead of his time. Peter Soar also took a series of photographs of the old Lion Yard and Petty Cury before the whole area was demolished.

Calls for a referendum on road user charging

There is a thread here where I state why I disagree with the calls for a referendum. Cllr Nethsingha followed this up stating that referenda are a poor method of trying to solve complex political problems [think EURef] – and is then taken to task by former city councillor Clare King from here onwards.

Criticisms of individuals aside, the structures were broken at the start because none of the councillors on the GCP assembly or board are required to seek a formal mandate from their full councils (or even committees of their councils) in the form of a formal vote – where councillors with concerns can speak up. That is why there has been so much ‘radio silence’ from so many councillors past and present from all three of the political parties that have been and are represented on the GCP forums. Simply hand it over to the councillors most interested in, most passionate about, or who are the ones who can be persuaded to take up the challenge of becoming a potentially high profile unpopular politician.

“What would be a better alternative?”

A unitary council covering an economic and geographically cohesive area with significantly more legal and financial powers (including much wider revenue-raising powers) that can take into account the needs of far more people and communities than happens with the present model based on the boundaries of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire – which excludes all of these market towns (shaded in colour by Lichfield in 1965). That way, decisions by executive councillors would have to be scrutinised and voted upon by full councils.

Above – from Lichfield’s Cost Benefit Analysis on Town Planning Ft Cambridge, 1965

What might the result of the above have been? Possibly a Light Rail system funded by a combination of funding sources including:

  • long term bond issues against future fare income,
  • a levy against firms located in the geographical area based on their profits and/or turnover
  • negotiated contributions from the wealthier firms similar to the City of London’s contribution towards Crossrail
  • a tax on the land value uplift in the areas around new light rail stations and transport hubs where the value of land rises significantly (as originally proposed by the previous Mayor James Palmer for his now abandoned CAM Metro).

I just don’t expect to see any of the above happening under this rotten Conservative administration. The challenge for Labour (and their fellow opposition parties) is to come up with a compelling and inspiring alternative. The risk for them is that they are too cautious in their manifesto commitments and miss the chance to radically restructure the institutions of state, of commerce, of [private] education, and of civic society generally. (Something Tony Blair’s first government could be accused of).

Can they learn from history and avoid similar mistakes?

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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