The fate of Cambridge’s Tourist Information Centre reflects the mess of our city’s governance structures

The Communities, Social Mobility and Inclusion Committee of Cambridgeshire County Council is considering hosting tourist information offices within their library functions – which were formerly a function of Cambridge City Council and sister district councils in previous generations.

You can read the papers for their meeting on 08 Dec 2022 here. It’s item 9.

Above – from Appendix 2 of Item 9 – options for the county library service.

From a City of Cambridge perspective, does this make sense? The floor space of the Central Library has been up for debate for years as successive council administrations.

Above – a photo from 2015 was a protest against a new ‘business space’ being proposed by the Conservative-led minority council (with UKIP votes to pass budgets – freezes on council tax increases)

Note Cambridge’s Central Library is not the most suitable place for a tourist information office – not least because it does not have a ground floor presence. Even in the olden days in the 1990s I remember having to walk up a flight of stairs to get to the central library when a friend from my school days took me into the central library to use the new internet-enabled computers for the first time to look up university websites.

“Doesn’t Cambridge already have a tourist information office?”

No – the old tourist information office was closed by Cambridge City Council and it never re-opened. That one was inside The Guildhall next to the Arts Theatre and St Edward’s Church – which dates back to the 1400s. It also had a nice coffee bar too.

***How the f–k can a great global city and tourist hotspot like Cambridge not have a physical tourist information centre?!?***

It’s like I said – ministers in London maintain the extreme restrictions on local councils that prevent them from raising money from wider tax bases. Combined with the decade-plus-long austerity programme that hit local councils hard, trying to balance the books is becoming an impossible task. And MPs told Ministers this in July 2021. The results of government policies since then? This is what Cambridge City Council have said in their latest set of budget papers released very recently:

“The City Council needs to reduce its net spending by around £3.8 million in the next financial year (2023/24) – the proposals in the draft budget seek to contribute to that.”

Appendix B of item 5 – Cambridge City Council Executive meeting papers 08 Dec 2022

Don’t expect Cambridge City Council to be raising much to pay for a new tourist information centre this side of a general election.

Cambridge’s road user/congestion charging proposals – are ministers requiring such proposals before making more money available for buses?

This is getting very heated, and half of the problem is trying to sift out the fact from fiction, and the promises versus the speculation.

The House of Commons Transport Select Committee (made up of backbench MPs who nominally set aside their party-political affiliations to scrutinise whoever is in front of them on behalf of Parliament and The People) held an inquiry on road pricing. Their report pulled few punches on the financial impact of doing nothing.

“Road pricing: Act now to avoid £35 billion fiscal black hole, urge MPs”

Road Pricing, Transport Select Committee – 04 Feb 2022

It’s recommendations include bringing forward policies that:

  • entirely replaces fuel duty and vehicle excise duty rather than being added;
  • is revenue neutral with most motorists paying the same or less than they do currently;
  • considers the impact on vulnerable groups and those in the most rural areas;
  • does not undermine progress towards targets on increased active travel and public transport modal shift; and
  • ensures that any data capture is subject to rigorous governance and oversight and protects privacy.  

This was followed by an inquiry by the Local Government Association which surveyed its member councils to find out what their view on road user charging is. You can read their report here.

Local councils with highways responsibilities have legal powers to bring in congestion charging schemes – but having the legal powers does not equate to having the political will locally to use them. This is why the previous attempt to bring in congestion charging for Cambridge made by the Conservatives in control of Cambridgeshire County Council, in the late 2000s fell – and this was despite efforts from Central Government to provide financial incentives for large cities, unitary councils, and county councils – see here from Oct 2009. In fact, the proposals were put together in part due to the financial incentives. “

“In some of the areas awarded “pump-priming” funding to study congestion charging schemes, local political leaders have downplayed the prospects due to strong opposition from residents and businesses. Many see CTIF [Congestion Transport Innovation Fund] as a thinly-disguised bribe”

Lena Tochtermann, Centre for Cities, Oct 2008

“Front-loading the funding”

You’ll find numerous examples of academic and public policy reports saying that alternatives to the motor car have to be in place *before* any congestion charge is brought in.

“In places where there is no reliable alternative to travel by car the impacts of congestion charging are likely to be less.”

Congestion Charging – review of evidence – Feb 2020

In that regard, the Greater Cambridge Partnership is proposing what the studies, papers, reports and reviews are recommending. Yet of the several reasons why we’re seeing the protests against the GCP’s proposals, ones that stand out include:

  1. Legitimacy – “Who invented you? I didn’t vote for you! How do we get rid of you?
  2. Processes – the number of consultations that have been done over the years – and the repeated references back to them when other options were available but congestion charging was not, in a part of the country that has a fairly high population turnover and growth, means that surveys can become obsolete very quickly.
  3. Trust – previous consultations were carried out in a manner that destroyed trust (as Smarter Cambridge Transport said here), and gave the impression that the GCP was simply going to deliver a list of schemes (mainly busways) that had been pre-decided in 2014 within a fixed boundary of funding and policy parameters.
Stuck inside the GCP Box

The failure of GCP Board members and officers to undertake serious negotiations with the wealthy Cambridge-based firms that we are told generate huge wealth for the economy reflected in stuck-in-the-box thinking. Greater Cambridge cannot be ‘a jewel in the crown of the UK economy’ on one hand, and then not be able to use some of the value of that ‘economic bling’ to pay for a transport system that in the minds of the people is little better than glorified bus lanes.

Above – p66 of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Economic Review 2018

Former Mayor James Palmer mentioned capturing the land value uplift as a means of financing his now abandoned CAM Metro system.

“We are working on a system of agricultural land at 10 times agricultural rate. If we buy that, we can use the uplift in value of that over the course of building out new towns to help pay for the metro system. The other way is tax incremental funding, which you will probably be aware from the Northern line extension, of course, but it is used extensively across the United States in particular.

Tax incremental funding and ring‑fencing the business rates over the growth of a 30-year to 40-year period would allow us to raise billions of pounds in finance in the Cambridge area alone. At the moment, we cannot do either of those things because there is no fiscal devolution.”

Mayor James Palmer to the Housing, Communities & Local Gov’t Select Committee, Q171, on 30 Nov 2020.

As the former Mayor said, there is no fiscal devolution. If there was, we might be further ahead with proposals either for his abandoned CAM Metro, or an alternative light rail. I think it was the absence of those land value capture powers (and significant other devolved revenue-raising powers) that inhibited the mayoral candidates in the last mayoral election from debating light rail in a serious manner. Because as I’ve posted in previous articles, light rail should not simply be the two larger cities (Ely being a very small city) linked to a handful of villages, but should be a proper network that can reach deep into the otherwise cut-off market towns.

Note the HCLG committee published their conclusions on land value uplift in 2018

“We acknowledge that land values increase for several reasons, but have focused our work on the significant increases that arise from the granting of planning permission by local planning authorities and from public investment in infrastructure. Such increases can be substantial and, given that these are significantly created by the powers of the state, it is fair that a significant proportion of this uplift be available to the state with the potential to invest in new infrastructure and public services.”

Principles of land value capture – HCLG Select Committee para 22 – 13 Sept 2018

“So…where does this leave us?”

In a mess. A big mess.

Our local councils and local public bodies no longer have the administrative capacities to make partnership working function in the way its proponents think it should. Years of successive cuts to grant funding has also shaved off the administrative capacity of the voluntary and community sector who provide huge amounts of ‘free work’ for local areas that really should be paid for. This for me is reflected by the lack of inspiring bids to local councils for community projects: it takes time and effort – and resources to put together excellent proposals. Few have the capacity to do this for free, let alone commission the consultancy support to assist with the process.

“Have county council officers talked to district council officers about sharing tourist information functions?”

I have no idea – but with everyone fire-fighting and facing more budget cuts courtesy of Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, I wouldn’t be surprised if this came as something of a surprise to them. Hence I come back to the point made by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last month (Oct 2022)the governance of England, including and in particular local councils, is long overdue major reform.

And it’s not like Cambridge doesn’t need a tourist information office. These are the figures for ‘staying in’ visits – that’s not the day-trippers who arrive by rail or coach.

Above – figures from Visit Britain in the years up to the CV19 outbreak and lockdowns.

Because if one of the top ten cities for tourist visitors in the UK has a local council so starved of funding by central government to the extent that it cannot maintain a tourist information office, what does it say about those ministers and the political party that has been in government for the past 12 years?

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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