Evaluating half a century’s worth of public services – county by county

2024 will be the 50th anniversary of the last major restructure of local government and public services in England. So who is keeping count of how things have gone?

This stems from responses to a report published 20 years ago covering Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

Ye olde structure planne

They don’t make them like they used to! The Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Structure Plan 2003 – from South Cambridgeshire District Council. This is what councils used to have to produce.

Above – the title page of the old county structure plan of 2003

“Why did we need a structure plan?”

Central government said so in their guidance from the Year 2000.

Nearly four years later, GO-East, as it then became known, decided it would be a good idea to employ Me! Thus I began my civil service career. In those days it seemed like we had documents and strategies coming out of our ears – but it wasn’t quite so clear as to what was happening with them, or what the driver was.

“This Regional Planning Guidance (RPG) for East Anglia is provided by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It is based on the Regional Strategy for East Anglia 1995–2016 prepared by the Standing Conference of East Anglian Local Authorities (SCEALA) and submitted to the Secretary of State in February 1998”

RPG06 Para 1.1 Nov 2000

The Secretary of State for what was a monster department at the time was the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. In the run up to the 1997 general election, the now Lord Prescott promised the country that we would have an integrated transport system within a decade of a Labour Government coming into office. By year number seven it was clear that this wasn’t going to happen, and…

“The transport secretary, Alistair Darling, abandoned targets set at the high point of New Labour’s optimism of achieving carefully measured increases in travel by rail, bus and bicycle by 2010”

Andrew Clark in The Guardian, Wed 21 Jul 2004

It was a shame really, because with a competent team of ministers they might have achieved something.

2000: John Prescott’s 10-year transport plan

  • Reduce road congestion by 5%
  • Increase rail use by 50%
  • Raise bus patronage by 10%
  • Double the use of light rail
  • Triple the number of cycle trips
  • Road congestion targets scrapped
  • Work towards national road pricing as early as 2014
  • Use the proceeds of urban congestion charges to pay for more buses
  • Light rail projects shelved – too expensive
  • Encourage more walking and cycling over the next 20 to 30 years

There’s a little part of me that wonders whether the light rail projects would have gone ahead had it not been for Tony Blair’s controversial adventure in Iraq with George W Bush – a war that still has ramifications today. An FoI request in 2015 showed the Government estimated the military cost at just over £8billion. Feels like petty cash now when we look at how much the banks were bailed out by, and how much was lost to fraud and dodgy procurement to firms with links to the Conservative Party during the early part of the Covid Pandemic – which has still not gone away.

The regional plans were abolished by Eric Pickles in 2010

“The primary purpose of this guidance is to set the regional framework for development plans in East Anglia in the period to 2016.”

RPG06 Para 1.5 Nov 2000

Important to remember that with long term documents, a new government can come in and rip the whole thing up – which is what the Coalition did with the old structures of regional government…only to sort-of-reinvent them in the form of combined authorities.

Above – East Anglia defined in 2000 – note the Green Belt, the Cambridge Sub-Region, and road-based transport corridors.

It was from the Year 2000 document that the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Structure Plan emerged.

Feel free to zoom into the chapter that most interests you in the plan

  • Chapter 1 Providing for Today and the Future – 1
  • Chapter 2 Places for Work – 17
  • Chapter 3 City, Town and Rural Centres – 31
  • Chapter 4 Tourism, Recreation and Leisure – 39
  • Chapter 5 Where We Live – 47
  • Chapter 6 Supporting Development – 55
  • Chapter 7 Resources, Environment and Heritage – 63
  • Chapter 8 Movement and Access – 79
  • Chapter 9 Strategy for the Cambridge Sub-Region – 97
  • Chapter 10 Strategy for Peterborough and North Cambridgeshire – 125
  • Chapter 11 Keeping Track of Progress 137
“So, how did we do over the past 20 years?”

Badly – if you ask Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s, Cambridge City Council)

Let’s have a look at Water Resources in more detail – para 7.26

“Policy P1/2 safeguards the quality of water resources including aquifers which form an important part of the local water supply. This resource also needs to be managed very carefully, as the Structure Plan Area is part of the driest region in country. Problems of water supply could be further compounded by the predicted climate changes which would affect both demand for water and its availability, as well as having an impact on water-dependent habitats.”

“This Structure Plan is consistent with the Environment Agency’s Water Resources Strategy, published in March 2001, which looks some 25 years ahead and considers the water needs of both the environment and of society.”

Cambs & Pboro Structure Plan 2003, para 7.26

This is the important bit that follows:

Yes, you read that correctly.

“This Structure Plan is consistent with the Environment Agency’s Water Resources Strategy, published in march 2001, which looks some 25 years ahead and considers the water needs of both the environment and society through ensuring: i) development is not permitted ahead of secured water supplies”

Cambs & Pboro Structure Plan 2003, para 7.27

The closest I can find to the water resources strategy is the abstraction management strategy process from April 2001.

“So how did we get to a situation where development was not permitted ahead of secured water supplies, to one where we face a catastrophe twenty years later?”

Several things to look at – and this is where public policy detective work can be 1) fun and 2) mind-numbingly frustrating where you burn the midnight oil accompanied by your choice of beverage like on the telly.

  • What was the status of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Structure Plan 2003 after the Coalition came to power in 2010? (Note this plan was supposed to have been completed in 2016)*
  • What was Anglian Water and Cambridge Water Company’s investment plans to meet the requirements of this plan? What was their financial performance like as privately-owned corporations? What do their annual reports say? (That means going through 20 years of annual reports for each company, pulling out the tables, and analysing their progress over that time period).
  • What conversations were happening between land owners, developers, and local council town planners regarding future developments and water resources? Who was making what representations to whom about the impact of infrastructure investment (or the lack of) on their business activities?

Above – from p10 of the PDF Cambs & Pboro Structure Plan 2003

Amongst other things, this enables opposition parties – particularly Labour, to say to the Tories that if they hadn’t scrapped the entire administrative structures of regional government, we might not be in the mess we currently are with water resources.

“So what happens now?”

Don’t ask me – I’m just a glorified sign post who points at where things are stored. It’s up to you (individually and collectively) to decide what to do next.

For me, this example shows why it is ever so important that public policy documents – particularly long term, forward planning ones are continually and proactively monitored – and repeatedly referred back to in the policy-making process.

There are multiple academic theses waiting to be researched and written across a host of public policy areas. If any university public policy department wants to do something ground-breaking, they could start with co-ordinating some of the research proposals from their students – undergraduate and postgraduate – to examine the promises, plans, and proposals from the past, and evaluate how much progress was actually made, and what the reasons were for their success/failures.

The strength of those documents and grand-sounding statements is when the pressure is the greatest to relax the safeguards built into them – such as the prohibition on development until new water resources are secured. Don’t think that both the water industry and the volume house building industry won’t have lobbied the living daylights out of this even after the publication of the structure plan. The latter in particular proved how influential they could be in the long term by persuading ministers to abandon zero carbon housing plans for 2016 only a year before they were due to come in. Now think how much residents in new homes might have saved in fuel bills had ministers chosen to stand firm. But then cash, cheques, and all major credit cards? Corruption is seldom as blatant as that, but the size of large corporate donations creates a party policy-making incentive to bring in policies that wealthy donors approve of. Until we come up with a better way of funding our democracy, big money donations will remain an issue.

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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