How might a “Great Cambridge” Unitary Council simplify lines of accountability for city, towns, & villages?

Taking on a challenge from John Elworthy of the Cambs News

Three-tier councils – parishes, district/boroughs, and county/shires

Cambridge nominally falls within borough level councils along with many small cities and large towns of a similar size – successive governments deciding either they are too small to stand alone as unitary councils or that the surrounding rural areas would become unviable without the extra revenues provided by the urban areas. Hence following the decline of the once-mighty Cambridge Conservatives in the 1980s-2000, Cambridgeshire Conservatives have on one hand often spoken ill of the councillors representing Cambridge City divisions on Cambridgeshire County Council, while at the same time tying the same city to themselves in opposing Cambridge going it alone. The problem as always is tied up in central government – and in the broken funding systems along with boundaries that do not match how people live their lives.

“What’s St Neots got to do with it? It’s ***ages away***, isn’t it?”

Depends on the length of the traffic jam – only the inexplicable decision of the deconstruction of the old Varsity Line between Oxford and Cambridge in the 1960s along with the old Cambridge-Huntingdon railway resulted in rush hour traffic jams in the decades that followed, despite heavy spending on new motorways and dual carriageways.

Cambridge, as many of you know is the lower tier of a two-tier system within our 1935-era boundaries. Peterborough became its own unitary council in the mid-1990s and was detached from Cambridgeshire by ministers following a boundary review. Outside of Cambridge and Peterborough there are three tiers: parish and town councils, district councils, and Cambridgeshire County Council as our shire-level council. And that was before the then Chancellor George Osborne got out his crayons and decided to add a Greater Cambridge Partnership and a Metro Mayoralty on top of it all.

“You mean it gets ***more complicated*** than the map below?!?”


Cambridgeshire 1945

Some of you will be familiar with the evolution of Cambridgeshire’s history through maps. (If not, browse through this and you soon will be). Up until the 1960s, the shire-level councils were generally much smaller than today. Within them were even smaller borough and district level councils. Ones that had royal charters were boroughs (such as Huntingdon and Cambridge), urbanised areas that didn’t have royal charters were urban districts, and rural areas were rural districts. Within those rural districts were even smaller parish councils for each village. So you can see in the old Chesterton R.D. (Rural District) below, all of the villages within it would have had parish councils that broadly corresponded with church parishes.

Above – from the History of Local Government for Cambridge in maps 1835-1958

Note at the foot of the green bit of Huntingdonshire (or “Huntingdon County” as it was sometimes called) you can see “St Neots U.D (Urban District). You can also see Huntingdon B (Borough) and similar for Godmanchester, St Ives, and also Cambridge – which in 1945 was not a city. We had to wait until 1951 before King George VI did the honours.

It was only in the early 1970s under Sir Edward Heath’s Government that St Neots Urban District effectively became St Neots Town Council in 1973 following the creation of Huntingdonshire District Council within an enlarged Cambridgeshire County Council.

“So…what’s the problem?”

Let’s say you wanted to build a controversial busway from Cambourne to Cambridge. Transport planners normally would have to get the consent of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council, and Huntingdonshire District Council. Furthermore, they would have to go out to consultation to every parish and town council affected. On top of this, George Osborne thought it would be a good idea to add the GCP and Combined Authority. So the GCP have this big chunk of money from ministers (instead of raising at least some of it via taxes against the property bubbles, speculators, private schools, and big tech making their fortunes from brand Cambridge and diverting some central funds on transport infrastructure in Fenland)

“That sounds like ***A lot of consultation***

That’s one of the reasons why the Greater Cambridge Partnership has built nothing on busways (the biggest element of the funding) but spent lots and lots over the past eight years on consultants and meetings.

The problem is that ministers rushed everything and created a mess of a system that has made everyone angry. But hey, I warned them all in 2016 and they didn’t listen. The result is today.s fun and games.

“So Cambridgeshire County Council have approved the decision to enable the GCP to go ahead with the busway through the orchard?”

***Not Quite***

They have consented to supporting the GCP’s application to the Transport Secretary to build the busway through central government transport planning processes. This means that instead of a county council planning committee hearing the evidence and deciding, it will be a national planning inspector, with the final decision being taken by the Transport Secretary or a transport minister under the former’s delegated authority. ***Either way it will be a Conservative Transport Minister taking the decision***


Unless the Prime Minister calls a general election between now and when the Planning Inspector reports back.

Now let’s look at the GCP’s timetable.

Have a look at the project timetable here and below

Above – going by this timetable the public inquiry may well be over by March 2024, with a decision being taken by ministers a few weeks after.

“Which means….?”

Construction will begin within six months of an autumn general election – just in time for the electorate to give the Tories a hammering just as the electorate gave Cambridge Labour a fright and shocked East Cambridgeshire Lib Dems into missing out on taking control of East Cambridgeshire District Council.

“Crikey on a sticklebrick!”

Quite. Note the above on the timings ***is pure speculation by me***. I have no proof guv. It’s all circumstantial and would not stand up in court. But it leaves a very p*ssed off county electorate.

“Did it need to be like this?”

Nope. Let’s go back to our example from 1969 – Redcliffe-Maud’s rejected proposal.

Above – recommendations for a Cambridgeshire & Isle of Ely revamped unitary council.

Under such a system, you could have:

  1. Paid full time unitary councillors whose remit covers all local public services irrespective of who delivers them. Think of them as county parliaments with powers to summon public service providers (whether state, private, or non-profit/charity sector) to appear before them on behalf of constituents
  2. The powers to reconstitute parish and town councils where unitary councillors once elected, automatically become members of those parish or town councils as well. Those smaller councils are constituted to deal with issues that are mainly or purely of a local level within their village/town boundaries. For example the funding and maintenance of community centres.
  3. The powers to fund and support part-time parish and town councillors (or in the case of Cambridge, city councillors) enabling those smaller council chambers to act both as places for locals to raise issues that can be dealt with locally, or to formally table them for the unitary councillors to speak up on at unitary council meetings. Thus you have a direct connection between unitary councils and the smaller town/parish councils. It also enables Cambridge to create urban parishes to facilitate the sort of neighbourhood level meetings and activities using existing legal powers to acquire funding that rural areas have but urban ones don’t. (Area committees are not legally constituted, where as parish councils are).
  4. Much wider tax bases enabling strengthened unitary councils to tax businesses and unearned wealth’ to pay for much-needed infrastructure (transport, housing, leisure, arts, sports, and so on) without having to go cap-in-hand to ministers. That would enable (in principle) ministers to us national funds to target those areas that need the additional funding without having to interfere with other parts of the country. Hence a much easier case could be made for a light rail network underpinning a new Great Cambridge Unitary Council.

Which all sits very nicely within Thomas Sharp’s model from 1931 (below left) giving us a system that has a city protected by green belt but properly linked by road and rail transport systems – only in Sharp’s case he’s missed out the loops/orbitals that I would put in.

Above-right – the Cambridge Connect proposal

Once the hardest part of the Connect proposal – the tunnelling under Cambridge – has been completed, the rest is a case of deciding the order in which to prioritise your light rail or suburban rail links. The Cambridge Biomedical Campus would want the Cambourne-Cambridge-Haverhill line completed because it brings far more of its employees there via more reliable light rail than buses. Brookgate and Cambridge Science Park would want the Darwin Line completed as it would link their property developments up. Then as I mentioned in my previous post, the Wellcome Genome Campus would want its east-of-Hinxton campus linked up.

Above – a separate spur from Sawston on the first phase of Cambridge Connect to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, followed by an extension to the Wellcome campus – and options to extend the line round to Saffron Walden and Haverhill (and creating a rail/light rail interchange at Great Chesterford) would be a later phase option. This would enable both a Cambourne-Cambridge-Haverhill service alongside a Cambridge-Haverhill-Saffon Walden – Wellcome – IWM Duxford – Cambridge service. Both services would stop at Cambridge South, serving the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Addenbrooke’s, Long Road Sixth Form College, and the Cambridge Academy for Science & Technology.

“What’s in it for other towns such as Chatteris and Ramsey?”

And St Neots and Cambourne?

This is why I’m against the busways. There is no need to build a road ploughing through an orchard and raising local opposition when you could tunnel under a route away from sensitive areas, which is what Cambridge Connect propose. (You’ll need to scrutinise them over the details here, but if you are in favour of the principle and want to support it, please join Rail Future East – as their plans for improving rail infrastructure go beyond Cambridgeshire).

Above – a Cambridge – Cambourne – St Neots – Wyboston Lakes – Biggleswade – Wimpole Hall – Shepreth Wildlife Park link

Looking at the two maps above, you can see how easy it is (in principle) to create an additional loop of services from Cambridge – St Ives – Huntingdon – St Neots – Cambourne – Cambridge.

The advantage of the interlinked unitary and town councils is that there is an incentive on political parties to select their highest calibre candidates for unitary elections because of the demands of the role. It’s a positive, high profile alternative to becoming an MP and a minister. Furthermore, I’d suggest the London Assembly system of the supplementary vote, where voters have one vote for a constituency representative, and one council-wide vote indicating a party preference, so the chances of ‘super-majorities’ (as on Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire, and Fenland District Councils as present) are minimised.

“Could it be done?”

Only if ministers agree to what The Commons Public Administration Committee (PACAC) called for last October. Which means…

….please sign this petition!

All it asks for is for ministers to do as Parliament has recommended.

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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