11,000 responses and counting to the Greater Cambridge consultation on city access

…and there’s still four weeks to go. You can watch the full presentation and the Q&A responses here.

Highlights include:

Both the current and former Mayor have spoken out against the proposed road user/congestion charging, and lined up a series of Qs and points for Mr Blake to deal with.

The figure of 11,000 figure appears around here.

Make what you will of the proposals and the consultation. The next part of Cambridge that gets to put their Qs to a representative from the Greater Cambridge Partnership (likely Mr Blake again) is East Area – Petersfield, Romsey, Coleridge, and Abbey wards on Thurs 01 Dec 2022 from 6.30pm

“If members of the public wish to participate in the meeting please contact Democratic Services by 12 noon two working days before the meeting. Questions can also be submitted throughout the meeting to Democratic.Services [@] cambridge.gov.uk and we will endeavour to respond to questions during the discussion on the relevant agenda item.”

Cambridge City Council

Please don’t leave it to me to be the only member of the public who throws Qs at these meetings!

Actually, there’s a wider issue of council-run community meetings. The fragmentation of local public services, an issue mentioned in the recent report Governing England by the Commons Committee for Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs, reflects in part the low participation rates. For example there’s no opportunity to ask questions about local healthcare services or about education provision as those have been hived off to other parts of the public sector or contracted out completely to private providers – such as academy chains.

We do not have a system of democratic accountability – rather it is one of contractual accountability

It is one decided by how talented and lucky the contract negotiators are on each side – as well as how big a budget the state-side doing the procuring/tendering has. (This is different to the debate on what percentage of national income should be taken up by state functions – see this paper on the LSE’s blog). How much control the state should have depends on your ideological disposition. This piece from the Institute for Government summarises the spectrum through the lens of how much control the government wants to have on the provision of public services.

Above – Outsourcing & privatisation, Institute for Gov’t

Now is probably the worst time possible to go out to consultation for anything

And that’s not just because of national government and the behaviour of successive ministers over recent years. The cost of living crisis is now causing problems that institutions such as the Citizens’ Advice Bureaus cannot solve. People’s relationship with the state – after over a decade of austerity and the continued pandemic (it hasn’t gone away – see the figures are still running) has inevitably become tense – not least because of the punitive measures brought in by successive ministers combined with social security payments not even covering the costs of living for those even in work.

On public transport where in Cambridge we effectively have a monopoly provider, Stagecoach’s behaviour has destroyed what little trust there was over the provision of bus services.

This has been compounded by the actions of the GCP since the start as described in the retiring post of Smarter Cambridge Transport. And as regular readers of this blog will know, the unnecessarily complicated structure of transport provision in and around Cambridge means it is almost impossible to identify who is responsible for dealing with the failure of services.

Above – the Greater Cambridge Partnership do not provide bus services. Yet given how complicated ministers have made local governance structures for Cambridge & Cambridgeshire, it’s hard to fault the general public for making such mistakes.

The arrangements for Cambridgeshire in the 2010s tabled by ministers were signed off by Conservative-run South Cambridgeshire District and Cambridgeshire County Councils, (along with Cambridge City Council transitioning from a Liberal Democrat-run council to a Labour-run council in 2014). Collectively they only have themselves to blame when residents and campaigners come out with materials like this against their proposals. Hence half of the GCP’s battle is one of ensuring the information going out is factually correct. It did not have to be like this. Today has been full of exchanges between various councillors past and present, along with residents and campaigners about the protests at the weekend.

It’s also worth remembering the influence that the senior transport officers have had over the years, both in the early days in the mid-2010s when it was senior county council officers, and in recent years too.

Above – former councillor Clare King referring to former Labour councillor Kevin Price, who was at one time the Cambridge City Council representative on the Greater Cambridge Assembly. Note that having a powerful or influential senior full time official in a key local council post is not a new phenomenon. Take Gordon Logie, Cambridge City Council’s Architect and Chief Town Planner in the 1960s – I’ve written a number of articles about him here. Or Henry Morris of Cambridgeshire County Council a generation before him who founded the necklace of village colleges around Cambridge. He made this defence of local government in 1955. Both men were not elected councillors, but employed officials whose decisions and recommendations were cross-examined by local council committees.

“What is there a way forward?”

That in part depends on the outcome of the consultation. With over 11,000 responses so far – and another four weeks to go, it will take months to process all of the information, so don’t expect anything substantial until late spring 2023. This is likely to mean that the results of the consultation will not be published until after the local elections 2023.

Of the local councils in the GCP, only Cambridge City Council has elections – only a third of its councillors. East Cambridgeshire and Fenland District Councils have full council elections. If the Prime Minister does not call a general election before then, this will be the first electoral test for the Government after the chaos of summer/autumn 2022. The question for both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats is what their manifestos will make of the present arrangements. Will they leave it to the local parties to thrash out, or will they look to overhaul things from the top?

I can only speculate.

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