Friday, May 23, 2008

City Council Annual Meeting

Yesterday was the City Council's annual meeting - and at this point of the year the group leaders make their annual statements, including the Liberal Democrats statement and the Labour statement about their priorities for the year ahead.

As I am not technically a group leader, I was only allowed to speak more briefly during the debate, and set out the areas Conservatives in the City would like to see some changes - see below.

Interestingly, the Green and independent have decided to form a group - and they made it very clear I wasn't welcome to join! Forming a group gives them various benefits, such as better access to briefings from officials, and the right to make an annual statement - in other words, for single Councillors such as myself and the Green Councillor from parties who field candidates across the City, being in a group could help me promote a City wide vision from our respective parties - not unreasonable when Conservatives secured 25% of the votes across Cambridge City this May. I had proposed a completely non-political grouping of the 3 individual Councillors, purely to secure the administrative benefits. By rejecting this, the Independent and Green have decided to form a political grouping, united by at least the policy of being anti-Conservative. I can think of many Conservatives in Castle work who will be surprised to discover the independent they voted for has actually made a point of being anti-Conservative from the start. But for the annual meeting, this grouping gave the Green party Councillor the opportunity to make an annual statement, but apart from attempted justification of why she had joined a group with an independent, there was nothing mentioned about the Green Party vision for Cambridge, or what they would like to do, given the opportunity. I have to say this was slightly surprising - it will be interesting to see how this confusingly named Green-Independent political group on the Council will develop.

Anyway, here is the Conservative Annual Statement Response - focussing on the key two themes I was elected on, namely putting the Council tax payer first, and insisting on high quality and transport infrastructure in new developments.

"Its good to be back, but I know I have a huge sense of responsibility, both to the residents of Coleridge who have elected me to be here, and to the 25% of voters in Cambridge City who voted Conservative and are desperate for a Conservative voice on the Council.

As such, I would like to respond to the Leaders annual statement by highlighting the changes Conservatives would like to see to the City Council’s priorities.

My first comment is about a major omission. People are finally realising that they are paying more and more in tax, and have not received anything like commensurate improvements in public services. As the 10p tax row has shown, particularly those on low incomes are now really suffering from the tax and squander policies of the government.

Nothing in either the Liberal Democrat or Labour Annual Statements will give any comfort to hard pressed Council tax payers that the City Council will be providing relief any time soon from the hugely increased tax burdens they face at a difficult time.

Successful Conservative administrations such as at Hammersmith and Fulham have proved that Conservatives can make a real difference to the tax burden, actually lowering Council tax by 3% for the second year running, and now is the time for this Council to play its part and try to stop future City Council tax rises above the rate of inflation.

Conservatives would like to see a bottom up revue of all Council spending, to reduce costs, consider alternative forms of service provision, and make sure outcomes justify the money spent. As David Cameron said this week ‘politicians are just shockingly casual about public money and how it's spent.’

It is difficult in the short period of time to identify savings, but here are a few suggestions.

This Council could do worse than to start by looking at scrapping the poorly attended Area Committees, with unwilling and inexperienced Councillors being asked to consider planning applications late into the night – or at the very least remove planning decisions from these meetings and reduce their frequency.

When I was last a Councillor, I was suggesting that we should prioritise using information technology and our website to reduce the costs of communicating with residents and all other stakeholders, a plea turned down at the time. So it is good to see that 6 years later this has now made it into the ruling group’s priorities – there must be other ways of using technology to improve efficiency.

Climate change has suddenly appeared high on the Council’s priorities. As convinced as I am of the need for action, I am convinced that the real progress can only be made at a national or international level. Whilst there may be some value in considering about how climate change might affect us in Cambridge, spending locally to try actually reducing climate change must be subject to serious scrutiny to measure the outcomes compared to the cost to local taxpayers.

Through these measures and more, we need to remember who is paying the bills and put the Council Tax payer first.

The biggest issue facing Cambridge today is planning for the growth agenda. I find it difficult to avoid using the word Stalinist to describe our planning system. Central government dictates to local authorities how many houses must be built and where, along with all manner of other social engineering through planning policy guidance. Local Councils chip in with their own set of demands, not least the rush to grab as many allocation rights to property as they can, subsidised by those who can least afford it – hard working families in lower paid private sector jobs. The result is all too often hideous new development, with insufficient transport, fought tooth and nail by current residents, like those in Coleridge faced with the East Cambridge development who just see loss of green space and transport chaos on Perne Road, Cherry Hinton Road and Newmarket Road, with no upsides whatsoever. People want their local representatives to stand up to this system.

I have high hopes that the change of government, now less than 2 years away will give more power to local residents to genuinely control how new development is planned, so that developers and the local Councils must start appealing to what people actually want. In the meantime, this Council must do all it can to ensure planning policies result in high quality developments, with distinctive design, green open spaces and highest environmental standards. An above all, we must ensure sufficient transport infrastructure is in place.

And on this issue, we have seen a complete lack of leadership from the Liberal Democrat administration. They failed to oppose Guided Bus, and this Council told the audit commission it was working well with the County Council to deliver a mass transport system in the County. Yet they have sought to undermine the scheme at a local level, to the detriment of a constructive working relationship with the County Council. Stop sitting on the fence, you should either have opposed the Guided Bus and offered an alternative, or publicly support it now to help make it work.

There is a similar lack of leadership shown on the issue of congestion charging. If, as appears likely, you are in favour in principle of congestion charging, then have the courage of your convictions and tell people what you really think.

A Conservative Council would put quality of developments and sufficient transport infrastructure at the heart of its planning policies.

On other issues, I look with dismay at this Council’s performance on recycling since I was last a member – as neighbouring Conservative controlled Huntingtonshire and Peterborough have moved ahead. Residents are demanding more user friendly and efficient recycling system for the City, and we should be delivering on this.

At a very local level, residents see litter on the streets, and cars parked on the verges – the Council’s performance needs to improve on these issues.

Problems with anti-social behaviour blight many parts of the City. CCTV and bans on new licenced premises can help, but there must be limits to the use of such draconian measures affecting everyone. We need to be much better at recording specific incidents and responding to them, with zero tolerance of people causing problems, and reminding people of their personal and social responsibilities.

In summary, Conservatives will be scrutinising spending at this Council, looking for cost savings and putting the taxpayer first. We want to see the Council spend less time writing strategies, meeting targets for targets sake, and jumping on the latest bandwagons. We should concentrate on delivering basic services well and at the lowest possible cost for Cambridge residents of today, and for Cambridge residents of the future, we must get growth and development right."

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