Why Cambridge and East Cambridgeshire election candidates must talk to residents about our broken system of local government

Above – next month the candidate lists will be released – you can find them on https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ (hence the big tick logo above, which is theirs)

You only have to look at the proposals for development sites in the emerging local plan 2031-40 for Greater Cambridge (combined with the chronic water shortage, the sewage scandal and the ecological crisis to see this. And that’s before we look at traffic!)

Back in October 2022 I wrote about the cumulative impact of science park speculation on sites in and around Cambridge.

“The ones that have been reported in the media are:

There are also a host of more speculative proposals also on the table (here’s my guide on how to scrutinise them), the most prominent being the extension of Trinity College’s Science Park –Cambridge Science Park North.”

The time it will take for the water companies to build Chatteris Reservoir which I wrote about here, will be too long before the science park taps and hospital water supplies potentially run dry. No cafes open, and punting in the ‘sewage cam’ anyone? And yet in 1994, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine made the case for privatisation in this 1994 publication – a clip of which is below.

Above – Anglian Water does not have wider share ownership – there is no method for people to hold it accountable.

“Anglian Water is owned by a consortium of international investment funds. These include Colonial First State Global Asset Management (Australia) IFM Investors (Australia) and 3i (UK). Over 30% of the company is owned by the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, a pension fund owned by the Canadian state.”

We Own It – Anglian Water page

This means ministers created, and MPs voted for creating a system that disempowers people from influencing policies on one of the biggest environmental issues affecting their lives. Furthermore, successive ministers and MPs/Parliaments have kept the privatised system in place. In the case of the Cambridge Water Company, it is owned by Staffordshire Water, which itself is owned by institutional investors managed by an asset management firm.

How this contrasts with the opening of Cambridge’s first proper waterworks.

“How much building is being proposed?”

If we had something close to a “let the markets rip” policy, Cambridge would look something like this by the middle of this century.

Above – from the Call for Sites results (Scroll to the bottom) from the Greater Cambridge Planning Service, 14 June 2022.

“That basically turns what’s left of the green bits of Cambridge into bland mixed-use suburbia, doesn’t it?”

Similar to what the Commercial Estates Group have been repeatedly proposing for south east Cambridge on the edge of Queen Edith’s Ward en route to Wandlebury? You be the judge.

Above – from the CEG to the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan 2030-41. They’ve submitted this site to previous local plans – institutional investors have much longer time horizons so can either buy & own, or retain an interest in a site should it become available for development – and spend a fortune on property professionals and expensive barristers to make the case for them at public hearings. a sizeable chunk of the profit is not made in the innovation of the final product (The buildings and urban design) but rather in the very artificial paper-based re-designation of land being newly available for development through lawful means. The owner of a site can ‘bank’ the uplift similar to what happened when the owner of the old Flying Pig / Botanic Place site won his appeal and then sold his site to RAILPen, banking the land value uplift and leaving Cambridge City Council with the appeal costs. But ministers commissioned and approved of the system that allowed this. They own it.

“No wonder residents in Cambridge are permanently furious about the planning system”

Welcome to my world!

Now let’s look at some details

This is a detail of the southern part of Cambridge with Addenbrooke’s top-centre, from the document Map of Sites Submitted – Cambridge City. (Again, scroll to the bottom).

The purple bits indicate proposals for ‘mixed use’ developments. Top right is the location of the CEG bland array of boxes and rabbit hutch-type developments, with the golf courses just below it. To the south is where the Cambridge Biomedical Campus wants to expand into – and where the local councils want to block them because of the risk of science park sprawl and the lack of wide, open, and publicly accessible green space. And that’s before we look at water demand.

Have a read of the CBC’s 2050 vision here. Is it an inclusive vision regarding the residents living around it? Or is it an *exclusive* vision that inevitably *excludes* local residents (especially those on low incomes) in its rush to create a ‘life sciences quarter’.

Above – the CBC Vision 2050. Exclusive or inclusive? How does it compare with the Addenbrooke’s 2020 vision?

Above – the 2020 Vision at Addenbrooke’s (from 2004)

How does the above document (in the link) read almost 20 years later?

East Cambridge – lost of building work to come, with developers and landowners anticipating more post-2040?

Even if the Greater Cambridge Planning Service manages to restrict major house building to Cambourne, Waterbeach, and Cambridge Airport (along with the existing sites), we can already see which areas are up next. Although by that year there’s a raised chance I will be plant food by then (I think the Cambridge Great Park proposals from Neil Ruffle from three years ago in Feb 2020 should be taken on board and incorporate a new woodland/forest cemetery similar to what they have in Epping Forest. Instead of an ornate tombstone Victorian style, you can have a woodland glade!

Above – your own woodland glade – not sure I’d want such things to be off-limits/out of bounds in perpetuity. For me these things work better when they are accessible. (And in this case the fees ensure the grounds are maintained.)

Swinging around from Cambridge Great Park – which is effectively a massive extension of country parkland encompassing Wandlebury Woods and the Gog Magog Hills are the proposals for eastern Cambridge – and again we see the submitted sits indicating that developers want to incorporate large areas around the Netherhall School playing fields and Lime Kiln Hill.

Above – I wonder if we could rename Lime Kiln Hill after Florence Ada Keynes’ daughter Margaret Hill CBE, and her husband the Nobel Prize Winner Archibald Hill, the target practice instructor for the Cambridgeshire Regiment at the start of the First World War. We could call it Margaret Hill Hill, sort of similar to former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall.

More submissions located on Cambridge’s Eastern Edge

You can see that large area shaded in purple dots (indicating a mixed use settlement proposal) – of which I covered just over two years ago in early 2021 – this is the Six Mile Bottom proposal that keeps on coming back. It was thrown out by Cambridgeshire County Council twenty years ago when the proposal was to build it with a linked light rail – see my Lost Cambridge article on it here.

Above – you can see why a site like the one on the right would appeal to some in the property sector in the face of the sci-tech bubble and the housing crisis. But as Cllr Sam Davies MBE has mentioned repeatedly, this will never be enough to satiate an international property bubble that we have in the current economic system. Furthermore, the environmental footprint for such a development would be huge – along with the costs of piping in water and generating electricity. Wouldn’t a national industrial strategy make better use of existing sites in the North of England along with Treasury policies that deflate the bubble and use any revenues to build much-needed transport, urban, housing, and civic infrastructure (along with much-needed climate-retrofitting) here elsewhere?

The plans look familiar – didn’t someone propose them before 2003?

They should do – here’s Prof John Parry Lewis in the early 1970s proposing the doubling of Cambridge’s population to 200,000 people by the Millennium. Commissioned in the late 1960s by Harold Wilson’s Government via a Labour-created Quango, Sir Edward Health’s Government and local Conservative Councillors wanted nothing to do with it in the early 1970s. But the Professor had been contracted to deliver his proposals for the Cambridge Economic Sub-region and it all got very messy.

Above – from Prof John Parry Lewis – his option for the eastern expansion in Cambridge – which you can read about here.

“What’s all of this got to do with the local elections?”

For a start, our institutions and the structures they work within are broken. Horribly so. So much so that Cllr Davies wrote earlier this evening, the same people are coming back with the same issues over and over again – but with what impact?

“So…asking public questions at meeting is a waste of time?”

Not quite – see it as testing a broken system to destruction to such an extent that even the councillors get so bored/frustrated/angry with it that they tell their colleagues higher up in party ranks that their national party needs to change policy – as the MPs on the House of Commons Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee concluded in October 2022. All that needs to happen now is for ministers to table a short bill in Parliament to authorise the establishment of a new Royal Commission on the Governance of England (including local and regional government) and things can get going before the next general election – thus providing a new government of whatever political hue lots of substantial research reports to work with when developing new policies.

No more strategies. Let’s have substantive proposals about what is going to go where

I dragged myself out to a local consultation in Coleridge Ward at the old scout hut I had last been inside way back in…1990. Back then it was an old asbestos hut. They held a consultation on proposals for overhauling a site where some council houses are on, just off Fanshawe Road. It also included proposals about overhauling the part of Coleridge Rec near the bowling green where the Coleridge Lawn Bowling Club play. (I already feel partly responsible for the Coleridge Dragon Slide so don’t want to have a big say on this one!)

Talking to several people there, they noted:

  1. How so much public money had been wasted on strategies with nice words, but little had come of them. The Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Combined Authority both came in for criticism. For me the buck stopping with ministers who authorised the creation of both institutions, rather than taking the more difficult decision of a radical overhaul of local government. That’s why I’m against combined authorities and ‘metro mayors’ in principle: there’s no directly-elected legislature to scrutinise that tier of administration, and what there is to scrutinise is barely worth the bother because it’s all competitive funding bids made available at the whims of junior ministers and The Chancellor
  2. How much of a barrier to private sector economic activity the deliberate underfunding of local council planning departments is – something that Eric Pickles and successors own, along with the Chancellors of the Exchequer. Having over-worked, underpaid, understaffed planning teams unable to recruit the best planners in the sector means that planning decisions are made that might suit an individual developer handsomely, but screw over an entire district, town, or city. You can decide for yourselves which examples in Cambridge to pick. I had some ideas back in September 2016. What may make a developer of executive apartments a lot of money may also screw over lots of local employers who desperately need more affordable housing for their employees to live in – homes that are close to their workplaces. Think of the productivity hits, the lifestyle hits, the loss of time for people to take part in community activities, the loss of time that could have been spent with children and families, and finally the hits to their health. But hey – look at those GDP figures coming in from the property sector and you’d think everything is alright. That’s what I mean by an utterly broken system.
  3. Civic, sporting, and leisure facilities – I keep on coming back to this one time and again, only this time I would love to see candidates making a real effort to engage with young people – even those too young to vote, to ask for their opinions on what needs improving and where. I made a similar call in 2021 – and actually to my surprise the electorate delivered a crushing blow to the Conservatives that year, ejecting them from control of the County Council and the Mayoralty. It’s a blow they are still recovering from.

But the problem remains with central government who control the substantive powers. And until there is a significant policy change (which I’m not expecting with The Budget – but you never know), we’re stuck with the current system until at least the general election. And if we want to change that system, residents and voters need to make that case to those campaigning for votes. Which reminds me: Cambridge City Council’s dates for the 2023 local elections (I think these apply nationally too)

  • Notice of Election – 27 March 2023
  • Statement of Persons Nominated – 5 April 2023
  • Notice of Poll and Situation of Polling Stations – 25 April 2023
  • Declaration of Results – 5 May 2023

And if you want to become a candidate – see the City Council here

Once candidates have been announced, their details should be on the https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ website (which tells you who your candidates are from just your postcode, and gives you their social media pages and contact details to ask Qs.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogpost, my preference is for a Greater Cambridge Unitary Council that covers the villages and towns most affected by Cambridge’s economy.

Above left – Nathaniel Lichfield’s map of Cambridge’s economic sub-region of 1965, and the smaller reaches of the market towns surrounding Cambridge. Above-right, from Redcliffe-Maud’s Royal Commission on Local Government 1966-69, his recommendation that incorporates those market towns into a single unitary authority, but not getting rid of the parish and town councils (of which Cambridge would have re-formed one for the borough).

Again, one of the reasons why I like both of those maps is because visually they make the case for a suburban or light rail network (that I wrote about here), one that isn’t just a set of A-to-B home-to-workplace lines, but looped lines that interconnect and link up to retail, leisure, sporting, and countryside amenities. At present though, we do not have the legal or administrative structures to create this. Nor do we have the calibre of MPs or Ministers to make the necessary changes for this. Hence why if we want improvements to happen, we must start making the case to politicians now – because they are already consulting on their manifestos.

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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