Wednesday, September 29, 2010

City Council Tax U-Turn Welcome

We tentatively welcome the news that the city council seems to be coming round to our way of thinking and is planning a council tax freeze for 2011/12.

Local Conservatives were delighted when George Osborne announced in Autumn 2008 that a Conservative government would provide for two years the funding to enable a council tax freeze for councils that keep their rises to just 2.5%. This good news was consistently rubbished by local Liberal Democrats despite Chris repeatedly calling for the city council to plan to take advantage of the offer. The county council, however, very sensibly signed up to the deal.

Unfortunately, not winning the general election outright, this pledge had to be watered down to one year only (with a second year as an aspiration), but the good news is that now the Liberal Democrats are part of the coalition they no longer feel the need to oppose it for the sake of it.

The council's medium term strategy currently in force plans for a 3.5% tax rise this year. Executive councillors agreed at a meeting on Friday to recommend a new strategy which plans for a council tax freeze this year followed by 2% increases. This is certainly an improvement and to be welcomed. The final decision on the strategy will be made by full council on 8th November and the budget and council tax levels for next year at meetings in 2011.

The new MTS slightly pessimistically assumes that the central government funding for the freeze will not be forthcoming. I was previously calling for a cut in councillor allowances to trigger this funding. If the council is looking to make the saving in other ways then I call on them also to reduce the councillor allowances by 33%. This would then enable a council tax cut of 1.25% - welcome relief to hard-pressed residents.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Everything that's wrong with Cambridge planning

Everything that is wrong with planning in Cambridge is encapsulated in Richard Taylor's excellent article on redevelopment of Cambridge Fire Station.

Well not quite: there are other things too, like the Lib Dems' ridiculous and ideological maximum parking restriction which adds to parking chaos across the city. But the adverse impact of so-called affordable housing is a point well made.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Commuter cycling in Cambridge

The Cambridge Cycling Campaign does an excellent job at raising awareness of the needs of everyday cyclists in Cambridge and promoting safe cycling. One of the problems they face in a place like this is that a lot is said and done on behalf of cyclists by people who may have the best intentions at heart but don't themselves make a daily cycle commute.

As someone who often used to do a 14-mile cycle commute and now mostly cycles to work but over a shorter distance, I take a different view of what is helpful than council officials often do.

If a bicycle is to replace a car then it needs to enable good, direct, progress without excessive stopping.

Some of the solutions that get proposed, however, I believe actually harm cycling. In many people's minds the obvious cycling measure to be deployed is a cycle lane. I think these can have a place, particularly if they are wide, but they rarely are (or can be) and are often relegated to second class lanes, disappearing or moving onto the pavement. They can be worse than useless, putting cyclists into more danger.

Shared-use cycle paths are another love of well-meaning bureaucrats, but a look at Milton Road should scotch that. Cyclists on that path should stop at each junction, which horribly detracts from progress and the temptation is just to go for it. Knowing someone whose teeth were broken in a resulting collision I don't think this is something that should be encouraged and I know that pedestrians feel intimidated by cyclists on the pavement. Progress is much better on the road itself but users who do that often suffer the ire of drivers who think the cyclists should be on their 'facility' (or 'psychle farcility' as some cam.transport posters rather endearingly call them). I can't help thinking Milton Road would be better for cyclists if widened (possibly by removing the bus lane if it turned out not to be that effective but I am not that familiar with bus progress rates on Milton Road to be able to comment competently on that at the moment.)

A good use of cycle lanes, in my view, is contraflow lanes, such as in Downing Street. These add genuine value to the cycling network and should be encouraged. It does help if delivery vehicles aren't parked in them, though!

There's a lot to be said for the shared space concept - in town or village centres - with large vehicles giving way to smaller ones in turn up to pedestrians. The centre of town could be cited as an example. Unobservant pedestrians make cycle progress slow, but that should be expected and accepted - the only problem is inconsiderate (and going-the-wrong-way) cyclists, who can make life unpleasant; motor vehicles can sometimes also be a menace in the evenings but that is partly a cultural problem.

I do value investment in cycling infrastructure. Their merit should be judged on whether they add value for cyclists - opening up new routes, speeding travel or genuinely improving safety (and not just the illusion of such). Schemes such as the Shelford DNA cycle path, which is really nice, and Coleridge Conservatives' proposed cycle route between Ashbury Close and Golding Road are, in my view, really valuable. But I am very sceptical of plans to entrench cycling on the pavement on Cherry Hinton Road (although if the shared-use footpath is to remain that then the proposed plans could be beneficial for safety), 'cycling town' money which could perhaps be better spent on other cycling infrastructure.

An alternative view is taken by Lib Dem Market Councillor Colin Rosenstiel who has argued in favour of narrow cycle lanes, even in the 'dooring zones' to the right of parked cars. Colin says that some people are not so confident on the roads and really value these facilities. I don't agree with Colin but perhaps my views are skewed by being a confident and experienced commuter cyclist. Has Colin got a point? What do you think?

[Picture from after this year's London to Cambridge cycle ride]

UPDATE: The original version of this article may have given the impression that the cycling campaign promotes pavement cycleways - that was not the intention as I know this is not the case.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Why we should cut councillor allowances by 33%

At the forthcoming city council by-election I will be standing on the Conservative manifesto for the recent city council election in May, where we argued for a 10% cut in councillors' basic and special responsibility allowances.

Since then the new government has opened the books and concluded that departments need to identify between 20% and 40% savings. It is only right that councillors should lead by example - we are all in this together - so we are now proposing a 33% cut in those allowances.

Councillor allowances are not a salary, honorarium or stipend but are intended to cover out-of-pocket costs. The distinction is important because if seen as a salary then a culture of rights and a sense of entitlement could accrue, as if it were paid employment. It is also not intended to be a backdoor mechanism for the state funding of political parties [search for received by 'Cambridge' and donor 'group'].

The saving of 33% in those allowances could fund a 1.25% reduction in the planned council tax rise. That would take the 3.5% increase which the Lib Dems are planning in their medium term strategy to 2.25%, triggering George Osborne's council tax freeze and allowing a net reduction in council tax from the city council of 0.25%. Good leverage, eh?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Selected for Coleridge by-election

Local Conservatives have selected me to defend the Coleridge by-election on 4 November. I have stood in Coleridge at the last two local elections, coming a close second on both occasions. I will be putting the case for a Conservative voice on the city council.

When Chris Howell was elected to represent Coleridge in 2008 he took the number of Conservative councillors from nil to one and the beneficial results were immediately clear. At council meetings the debates were better for the presence of a Conservative voice (all the other councillors are from left-of-centre parties) and local ward councillors were not able to take the seat for granted.

I am in a good position to campaign for Coleridge residents having already been a key player working closely with Chris on campaigns such as against congestion charging, against the development of Marshall airport, for safe cycling, pointing out the problems of the 'Speedwatch' vigilante scheme, reporting many minor local issues to the local authorities, getting involved with the meetings aimed at mitigating problems around Tiverton Way and requesting resurfacing work on Mill Road and Cherry Hinton Road.

If you are a Coleridge resident please do get in touch with your priorities for the ward and the city council or if you could help our campaign then please give me a ring on Cambridge 750002 or e-mail me at andrew@bower.org.uk. Thank you.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

More evidence that the A14 needs upgrading

Four crashes on the A14 this weekend provide yet more evidence of the urgent need to upgrade the A14. The need for this road to be widened has been known for years but first it was cancelled by John Prescott and then the Lib Dems got their way with a public enquiry this February. Thanks to these needless delays the cost has rocketed to $1.3bn but that doesn't make it any less essential.

The new government's review of various projects was inevitable given the constraints on public finance (largely thanks to Labour's chronic overspending in earlier years) but I hope that this project gets through. Given the importance of the A14 for the local area as well as nationally and internationally it is no surprise that Conservative MPs and council leaders in the area are backing the project and lobbying the government for it.

It is somewhat disappointing that the local Lib Dems are letting their 'isolationist city' mentality guide their frantic attempts to stop this crucial work, with the MP even going so far as to call a Westminster Hall debate on the subject.

I agree that we can do more with getting freight onto rail but there's something slightly loopy about the Lib Dems' obsession with stopping the 'superhighway' into Cambridge - I hope they will think again and join local Conservatives in standing up for this crucial piece of infrastructure during the government's review. Coalition speaking unto coalition?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

County Conservatives lead way on opening the books

I am pleased to see that the county council has not dragged its feet over the government's call to publish online all items of expenditure over £500 and will start on 20 September. David Cameron had already opened the national books for spending over £25,000.

It is to be hoped that the city council will follow the Conservative lead and publish their expenditure ahead of the goverment-imposed deadline of January, as we had already some time ago been campaigning to get them to do, but the local Lib Dems do not have a good track record on openness.

This is very welcome news although we will have to wait to see how well the information is represented and in what detail.

Opening the books will help council taxpayers to get better value for money and help local firms to compete for council contracts.

County Councillor John Reynolds shows that the spirit here is not just to tick the box:
We are committed to being as transparent and accountable as possible. We were one of the first authorities to publish details about our senior management pay and I am pleased that we are in the first group of councils to put this information about spending over £500 on line. We have a good national record for managing finances and we are eager not only to publish this long before the Government’s deadline of January but to eventually exceed Government expectations by publishing spending below £500 as well.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Good news for Kelvin Close

A rare item of good news has come to my attention in the form of the planning inspector's rejection of the developers' appeal on Kelvin Close.

Well done to local residents for securing this result through their representations.

The main issues considered by the inspector were:
Firstly, the effect of the proposal on the character and appearance of the area.

Secondly, effect of the proposal on the living conditions of the occupiers of 24 Kelvin Close with regard to noise and overlooking and 21A Kelvin Close in relation to natural light and visual impact. Thirdly, the effect of the proposal on the provision of public open space, community development facilities, education and transport.
For once it is clear that someone in the planning system 'gets' it:
Clearly, the rhythm of development created by the symmetrical layout of semi-detached houses on the Close is an important feature of its character and appearance.
It seems that the government's removal of a "national indicative minimum density of 30 dwellings per hectare" was helpful here and will be helpful in the future when this perceived requirement may have tipped some applications towards acceptance despite other reservations.

It is a shame that area committee amateurs gave permission for the care home to be expanded - their case was clearly weak - as there is no appeal for successful applications, only failed ones.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

By Election to be held in Coleridge

With great reluctance, I have taken the decision to stand down from the Council, and have today resigned with immediate effect. It is expected that a by election will be called in Coleridge to be held in approx 6 weeks time.

Being a councillor should not have to be a full-time job - the last thing we want is a tier of relatively highly paid local politicians living off the taxpayer. But the time it takes to do it can come close. I always tried to be the type of Councillor who is accessible, keeps in touch with residents and is active in trying to solve local issues. As the only elected Conservative in Cambridge (let alone the only Conservative out of 4 Coleridge Councillors), I also tried taking on a remit including moving forward the case for a Conservative alternative for the future development of the City, as well as trying to scrutinise decisions across the City Council. This remit is always going to be a challenge, but over the last few months, for various reasons, it has been impossibly difficult to make any progress, and the commensurate 'job-satisfaction' in being a Councillor all but vanished.

My professional career has effectively been on hold since I was re-elected and for that reason I decided some time ago that I wouldn't stand for re-election at the end of my term in 2012, to focus on career development. Without the prospect of being able to make significant progress politically before this time, I came to the conclusion that I needed to bring forward that decision, step down now and let the baton be taken up by someone who can make progress in the longer term.

It has genuinely been an immense privelege and honour to serve residents in Coleridge over the last two and a half years as a City Councillor (as it was in Cherry Hinton from 2000 to 2004), and to be part of the democratic process scrutinising how decisions are taken affecting Cambridge now and in the future. I remain deeply interested in many of the key issues facing us in Cambridge - how we develop the local economy in a way that helps all local residents and supports the national economy, and how we can bring new and better housing and transport to the area with the support of local residents and without damaging the things that makes Cambridge special. Whilst I may continue to engage with the issues, I am retiring from party politics for the forseeable future.

Much of the our local campaigning in Coleridge has very much been a team effort - I thank those in the ward team who have given me unstinting help and support, and would urge residents to support the Conservative candidate at the forthcoming by-election - Coleridge and Cambridge desperately needs a Conservative voice!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

£¼ million council grants allocated to Coleridge

City councillors at last month's East Area Committee allocated more than £250,000 of council grants to Coleridge Ward.

First up was a one-off allocation of some accrued 'section 106' bribes funds, some of which the city council needs to spend soon to make sure that it doesn't have to be returned to developers.

Two very worthy voluntary projects in Coleridge were given a share of £400,000 along with three other projects:
  • Improvements to the Flamsteed Road scout hut.
  • Community facilities at the Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cherry Hinton Road.
A further £115,000 was allocated for future community facilities projects in the ward.

The second allocation was of the Environmental Improvements grants. This is from a pot of money that the city council created along with the area committees and is for capital projects. The aim was to spend all of the available money. It is not clear whether this fund for area committees will be replenished in future - it is something that the city council will have to decide based on its spending review.

The projects approved for Coleridge were:
  • A Crossing for Perne Road just north of the Radegund Road roundabout (£65,000)
  • The verge/parking/yellow line plan for Birdwood Road and Chalmers Road (£59,000)
  • Completing the gap in the Rustat Road footpath (£10,000)
  • The Ashbury Close/Golding Road cycle path consultation and plan (£34,500 or £47,500)
The last of these projects was given a lower priority and therefore will only happen if one or two of the other approved projects for the area falls through for any reason (and of course subject to a satisfactory outcome to the consultation, which will proceed anyway).

All of these projects will benefit Coleridge residents; I am particularly keen on the last three and all have been supported by local Conservatives with the last two being initiated by Chris.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cambridgeshire Tories well represented in blog awards


The independent 2010 Total Politics blog awards are out for the top Conservative blogs and Cambridgeshire Tories feature well.

This 'Cherry Hinton Road' blog has entered at number 74 while over on Perne Road Coleridge branch chairman, Richard Normington, has moved up from 90 to 64 (well done, Richard!)

The full local list is:

21 (27) Steve Tierney
40 (50) Steve Barclay MP
59 (88) Ellee Seymour
64 Richard Normington
67 (77) Tales from a Draughty Old Fen
74 Your Coleridge Conservative Action Team

(Today also marks four months since Labour's last local blog post.)