Wednesday, December 17, 2008

No to Bunker Records Centre

The County Council has been looking for a site for its public access County Records centre. I had suggested the former nuclear bunker off Brooklands Avenue. Sadly, it appears the answer is no - just had this back from the County Council:

"Thank you for your interest in the ex-cold war bunker at Trumpington as an option for the Cambridgeshire History Centre. I and colleagues visited the site on 27th November to ascertain its suitability.

Whilst it had potential for records storage (being large, secure, and naturally cool, with internal walls that could be removed in the newer part of the building) it did not offer the same potential for staff or public facilities. Staff facilities were a cramped network of small rooms on different levels which could not be adapted due to the listed status of the old part of the building.

In respect of public facilities there was no potential at all for these, either in terms of space or suitability. The site also suffered from poor access, being tightly located within an essentially residential area with limited scope for car parking and not close to public transport drop off points.

We have, therefore, rejected this site as an option on the grounds of lack of space, difficulty of adaptation, and problematic access."

I have to say I am disappointed. I visited the site at the back of the Accordia development last week, and there has been huge amounts of building since I was last there and the site now looks very cramped, so I can imagine there may be limited options to extend the bunker building to meet the County Council's requirement.

The Accordia site is 'award winning', and certainly has plus points, like the quality of building design and materials, and the use of landscaping - when the posh town houses started at around £1m each, you would kind of hope the buildings would be nice.

But putting aside the fiasco of the childrens playground still not being open (poisonous trees planted around the edge, months and months to remove, still not done despite promises from the Council etc...), if this is planning's finest hour, I'd hate to see its worst (actually I think I may have visited its worst, but that's another story). The site is just a dormitary development, nothing that could remotely be described as a destination on site. No shop, no pub, no significant community facilities. People will leave their property in the morning, return in the evening, and never have cause to meet their neighbours. And the transport is also a missed opportunity - there should have been a major cycleway running through the site connecting with the Guided Bus way and Newton Road. With such a lack of focal point, its a shame the bunker couldn't have been put to a more public use.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Speedwatch Latest

East Area Councillors from all parties attended a briefing meeting today about the Speedwatch scheme. There is one 'kit' available for the Cambridge Area (potentially a second next year) It appears Councillors from all three main parties (myself included) have requested that East Area should have first dibs on the new 'Speedwatch' equipment, and this has been agreed by the local community safety partnership. The police representatives outlined how the scheme works:

Prior to use, there will be a training session for volunteers.

Volunteers are responsible for using the equipment (as pictured above), and determine themselves when to monitor road speeds.

Cars passing the speedwatch monitor at more than a preset speed (36mph is the standard for 30mph roads) will cause the monitor to flash up the speed of the car. In this case the volunteer writes down the speed, number plate, car make, and colour.

The information is passed to the police. If the number plate is consistent with the car details, the police write to the registered owner pointing out that they have been seen speeding and asking them not to do it again, but obviously no legal action can be taken.

It was claimed that if the same car was noted on several occasions, then the police could potentially undertake more formal speed checks at the relevant time of day, and the County Council will also use information collected to build up a picture of speeding trouble spots, but in terms of action, that is about it.

I support using this initiative, and would like to see it tried out in Coleridge speeding trouble spots, like Coleridge Road and Birdwood Road. But I'm not about to support Labour's calls for huge numbers of additional cameras to be purchased before we know if the pilot is a success, not least because I have some significant concerns about the scheme.

Firstly, lack of cameras doesn't look like the problem - you need to find volunteers prepared to operate them, and this will take a significant time commitment if it is really going to change motorist behaviour. It is likely that there will be plenty of time to share the equipment, although it will need storing somewhere.

Then there is the quality of data obtained - I don't think the use will be controlled enough to give an objective view of the speeding problem in various areas - we really should be undertaking proper controlled reviews to determine trouble spots, and the Council can already do.

But perhaps my biggest reservation can be summed up by the reaction I've had from more than one person on the doorstep to the scheme - we shouldn't have residents policing and snooping on their neighbours, its the police's job and we pay a lot of tax towards them. The police can stop motorists immediately the offence takes place, and have the authority to issue tickets, or exercise professional judgement and discretion - it really should be down to them to police these problems.

Far too often with traffic problems like those on Hills Road bridge, cyclists without lights and antisocial speeding on residential roads, the police show little or no interest in concerted action over a period of time, just undertaking occasional operations mostly for publicity purposes. For this reason I will doubtless try to add anti-social speeding again to the list of police priorities at the next East Area committee.

That said, Speedwatch could play a role in stopping what is a real problem. The police have volunteered to talk about the Speedwatch scheme prior to the next East Area meeting on 15th January, and I would encourage any local residents who may be interested in setting up a group to come along. Abbey, Coleridge and Romsey ward Councillor's all seemed to want access to the equipment in their area, and the meeting is likely to discuss how it will be used, which might get heated. Cllr Harrison if you are reading - chill, relax, I'm sure we can all play nicely...

Exclusive: Mill Road Tesco Being Fitted Out?

On the way out this morning I saw two men attempting to enter the Mill Road Tesco site with a crowbar and a drill. Was this an attempt to re-open the social centre?

Or is Tesco planning to open a store in spite of the recent rejection of its appeal or in anticipation of a successful appeal on the second application?

Judging by the presence of a "Hutton Shopfitters" van just out of the shot, I suspect the latter is a good guess.

UPDATE (Wednesday): Ok - excitement over. It just looks as if the locks got replaced. Andrew

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Leisure Park Tescos Applications

Coleridge Conservatives have spent quite a lot of time talking to residents to find out their views on a possible new Tescos store on the Leisure Park site, to see if this would be a popular move.

But the permissions required for the store are mostly planning related, so on Friday I visited the planning department at the Guildhall to look at plans for the three applications, and find out how they might fare when the planning decision is taken.

Two relate to the shop frontage, cash machine installation and signage - and I am struggling to see how these would be remotely controversial if the store name on the plans wasn't Tesco.

The third is the application likely is most likely to be contentious in planning terms - for refrigeration plant and a fenced area to be installed at the rear of the store. The application is supported by a consultant's report, that not surprisingly concludes the plant's noise impact will be acceptable - but it was the similar report for the Mill Road Tesco where they didn't seem to have done their homework. Its not clear yet what the officer advice will be on this - doubtless noise experts at the Environmental Health department will be commenting - it will be hard for a non-expert like myself to draw any conclusions before then. I can't see delivery lorries being too much of a problem - there is already a delivery area, and the store is next to an industrial estate well used to receiving deliveries by lorry.

I was also told that there had been significant public response to the application, but not as much as the Mill Road Tesco, and in contrast to those applications, there have also been a number of comments in support of Tesco's opening.

At the request of Cllr Hebert, it looks like these applications will be determined by the Area Committee, likely to be the meeting due on 15th January. My guess is that these applications will be approved, and there will be more local residents happy than unhappy.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Manchester says NO!

Coleridge Conservatives are delighted to read today's news that a referendum in Manchester has voted to reject plans for a congestion charge, with a massive 79% voting against the charge.

The plans were rejected by all 10 boroughs, despite the outrageous Government blackmail attempt of offering £2,800 million pounds of transport improvements, but only if they implement a congestion charging scheme, with the suggestion that nothing will be available for much needed transport improvements without introducing congestion charging. There was also a massively publicly funded publicity campaign to support the yes side, but the people have sent a clear message to the government that they aren't going to be bullied into participating in their flawed social engineering experiment.

Cambridgeshire County Council is facing the same dilemma as Manchester, with the Government's blackmail over transport improvements leading to the TIF bid being considered by a recently appointed transport commission. It is now clear that the public are having none of it, and any charge here will be deeply unpopular with local residents.

Cambridge Conservatives have been consistent in their opposition to congestion charging in Cambridge - it is completely inappropriate for a City of Cambridge's size, and will have a disproportionately damaging effect on lower paid workers commuting into the City who are vital to the local economy. With this firm rejection of the plans by Manchester, Coleridge Conservatives are calling on the County Council to immediately scrap any plans to introduce a charge here.

And to Gordon Brown (and his parliamentary candidates charged with defending his policies at the next election!) we say, if you are listening at to anyone at all any more - people don't want your damaging congestion charging schemes, stop trying to blackmail Cambridgeshire and give us the money we need for transport improvements without string attached, or we won't co-operate on your demands to build thousands of houses. Roll on 2010 when we will have had a chance to get rid of the dreadful bankrupt Labour government and put a stop to all this nonsense.

Manchester residents have sent a clear message to the Government about where they can stick their congestion charge, the County Council in Cambridgeshire should do the same.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fix the Fence

About two years ago a section of fence around the Davy Road flats, owned by the City Council blew down. I've been moaning at the Council for ages (since May 2007!) to look after their property and get this fencing re-instated properly, as it is causing problems for local residents.

After many requests to officers, I had to resort to putting an oral question down for last weeks Full Council meeting to the Executive Councillor for Housing, and finally there seems to be some progress - I've been promised some action by March 2009, and an on-site meeting is being arranged for next week.

Next on the list for embarrassing the Council into action is the dangerous pavements that City Homes are responsible for off Tiverton Way - still no action after months and months:

I know the Government is at least partially responsible for these problems - they steal half the rental payments from Cambridge council tenants that could be spent on maintenance and ship the money off to other parts of the Country, but the response from the Council is still very poor.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Future of Quayside

As I indicated in a previous post, the regulation of punting in Cambridge is a serious business, with safety problems relating to getting on and off punts, the problems of nuisance punt touting, issues about where punt businesses can operate from, as well as more general concerns about the role of punting in Cambridge tourism.

Keen observers of the Council's meetings schedule will have noticed a Strategy & Resources Special Committee Meeting last Monday, to discuss 'Quayside Property Matters'. In fact, this decision had been deferred from a recent scheduled meeting, and opposition Councillors (if not back-bench Lib Dem Councillors who should also be scrutinising these decisions) have held several meetings with Council officers to clarify the situation.

From the publicly available report:

The Council is currently seeking to register land ownership at Quayside with the Land Registry and is involved in other associated ownership disputes and litigation with interested parties here... A compromise agreement has been provisionally agreed between all of the parties, subject to formal acceptance, that should resolve and formalise the land ownership issues. As well as addressing the land ownership issues, the compromise agreement also addresses issues at Quayside such as health and safety, public access and safe use of the River, providing a long-term formal solution that has not previously existed.

The rest of the agenda item was a 'pink paper' report - not for public consumption. The meeting resulted in a relatively lively discussion involving whether the compromise agreement was in the Council's (and hence Cambridge's) best interest. I know that my Coleridge Labour colleagues on the City Council are very concerned to ensure that I give them full credit for everything they do, so I am happy to report that Cllr Herbert and myself spent a considerable period of time scrutinising the deal on the table, whether the Council could or should have done more to consult with other interested parties, and whether the deal sold the City down the river, so to speak.

Sadly I can't report the outcome as the final deal still needs to be agreed with the relevant parties, but I think this is an important decision for Cambridge, and I will be pressing for full details to be available when the agreement is finalised so we can judge how well the City Council has acted in the past, in agreeing this decision, and what the implications are going forwards.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Drain Fixed at Last

When I get requests for action from local residents, I can normally split them instantly into three categories, those where I know I can get something done, those where I know there are significant reasons why the action requested can't (or indeed shouldn't in my opinion) be done, and those where I'm just not sure what will be possible.

Fixing the drains on Cherry Hinton Road should have been firmly in the first category, but with the saga it turned in to, I was starting to have my doubts. However, I have just had the following email back from the resident who orginally complained, way back before I was elected in May:

"Work was finally done on the blocked drain on 26 Nov ! It has rained since and the problem seems to have been solved."

Many thanks to the County Council for persevering with the technical problems involved here - hopefully this has now finally fixed the problem.

Guided Bus Stops

With the Guided Bus system due to open in Spring 2009, the County Council is currently consulting on proposals for new bus stops for the Guided Buses in the centre of Cambridge. More details of the plans are available on the County Council's website here:

Any comments should be sent to:

Huge Pressure on Council Tax

At last night's full Council meeting at the Guildhall, I warned of huge pressures on next year's budgets at the City Council, and urged Liberal Democrat Councillors to start taking their role in scrutinising the Council's budget setting process more seriously.

In theory backbench Liberal Democrat Councillors should be scrutinising the decisions of their Executive Councillors. In practice I am struggling to think of a time when I can recall any Lib Dem speak in an open meeting to question the decisions about to be taken or fail to vote for an Executive Councillor's recommendation. Contrary to the 'not really a party politician' impression they like to give to the public, they appear to be heavily whipped, and speak only to criticise what opposition Councillors say.

This year, that approach has some serious risks - the Council's finances look to be in very poor shape indeed, for three reasons.

Firstly, there has been a catastrophic failure of risk management, as £9m is frozen in Iceland. The key people responsible for safeguarding the Council's (and therefore the taxpayers) financial assets seem to be asleep on the job, and we need a much greater emphasis on financial risk management.

Secondly, there are known pressures on the budget this year unlike those for many years. Money stuck in Iceland, coupled with falls in interest rates will seriously reduce interest income, and the Government's concessionary bus fares funding fiasco also leaves a £1.3m hole in the budget. The government grant increase will be dwarfed by these factors.

Finally, I don't think the Council has yet grasped the seriousness of the recession currently happening, and the effect it will have on Council income. Every area of the budget needs review. There will obviously be pressure on Council tax and housing benefits, and more difficulty collecting Council tax. But the impact could be much more wide ranging , from the pressures on organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau that rely on significant Council funding, to income from charges that are already at or near the level of market resistance this year, like the price of city centre car parking and the cost of Folk Festival tickets. It will be no good the Council reporting back in a year's time that they've failed to meet their budget because these factors haven't been considered fully.

If the Council does keep to its planned (and already very high) 4.9% Council tax rise despite the huge pressures on income and costs this year, then there is likely to be some very damaging expenditure cuts, and/or a raid on reserves. If this doesn't seem to be the case, the question will be why did the Liberal Democrats allow Council tax to get so high, if it was so easy to make these savings now, they should have been made earlier. Either way, the Council needs to seriously raise its game in terms of financial scrutiny.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Planning decisions at area committees

Richard Taylor in the comments has asked me to post my reasons for not voting on planning applications at Area Committees, so this seems like a good opportunity.

Firstly, some history. Around 2003/4, the Liberal Democrats running the City Council setup Area Committees, ostensibly to bring decision making closer to local communities, and encourage community involvement. As part of setting up these committees, they decided that planning applications significant enough to be decided by Councillors rather than Council officers, but not having City wide significance were to be decided at these committees.

It is difficult to come up with a good argument that says the area committees are a sensible use of Council resources. It is rare that more than about 15 members of the public turn up at East Area Committee, frequently outnumbered by Councillors, Council staff and others on the public payroll – the extra costs (staff etc) of running these committees in 2004 were estimated to be £100,000 per annum (Scribbles on back of envelope, 4 committees, 6 meetings per year, generously 30 members of the public in each, average cost per meeting per member of the public engaged - £138 – can you see why I am outraged at the costs?) Whilst much of the debate at these meetings is useful, many of the members of the public present are already very empowered to communicate with their local Councillors (resident association officers, local Council candidates from various political parties etc), and rather than empowering more people, it is possible that these meetings actually further relegate the views of those not currently engaged in local decision making process – i.e. the literally 99.9% of the population of East area that chose not to turn up to these meetings.

But deciding planning applications at these meetings isn’t just a waste of money, it is actively damaging the quality of planning decisions made by the Council for the following reasons:

  • Regardless of training offered, the average experience of planning law and policies amongst members of area committees is significantly below that of the main planning committee, and indeed shortly after the local elections, Councillors on area committees were asked to make what are quasi-legal decisions with no training or experience at all.
  • All Councillors on the main planning committee should have an active interest in planning, as opposed to Councillors who may be more interested in other aspects of the Council’s work.
  • Decisions made after 10pm at night by people who will likely have been working all day cannot be as well considered as those made at a more sensible time.
  • During the working day at the Guildhall, the full planning committee can call on expert officers where necessary, e.g. tree experts etc to help clarifying points before making decisions.
  • The main planning committee meetings monthly, Area committees every 8 weeks, frequently making it hard for Area committee decisions to be made within the target timescales, costing the Council money and risking immediate appeals for non-determination as happened with Mill Road Tescos.

All good reasons why making planning decisions at area committees is a disaster. But for me there is an overwhelming reason why I refuse to take part. The current planning system does not permit those deciding to ‘pre-determine’ applications – they must keep an open mind until the meeting when the decision is made, and those who, in the jargon, have ‘fettered their discretion’ cannot then take part in the decision.

And it is this aspect of the situation which means I refuse to take part in planning application decisions, so that when local residents contact me, I am free to let them know my opinion on an application, and offer my full help to oppose or support an application if applicable. Yes, I could just refuse to take part in those applications for which this scenario happens, but I wouldn’t want my constituents (or indeed anyone in the City) to be reluctant to contact me about a planning matter, knowing that by default I couldn’t even let them know what I thought about the application.

This issue got heated at the time of the Mill Road Tesco refrigeration application – with letters to the paper criticising those, like myself, who refused to vote on the application (even though I did speak at the meeting to raise my concerns). I think the concerns were more that Councillors hadn’t put aside all other considerations and voted to oppose Tesco, but it didn’t stop the Lib Dems passing a shabby motion at full Council trying to bully all members of the Council into supporting their policy on planning decisions at area committees.

I was elected this year on the following manifesto pledge:

“Conservatives will scrap the area committee system. The fiasco of the Tesco application on Mill Road showed how the planning system is in chaos, and how the area committees are incapable of taking decisions. This is an experiment that has failed. We will look at how resident’s participation can be made more effective and move to timely meetings of a full planning committee.”

I will continue to campaign for a change to the Council’s deeply misguided current policy, and in order to best represent my constituents interests, I will refuse to take part in Area Committee planning decisions.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

VAT change notice 'wholly inadequate'

Following the pre-budget report and local government settlement, the City Council has been looking into the effects of the changes announced by Chancellor last week. On the VAT change, the City Council has commented:

"VAT – the standard level of VAT will be reduced from 17.5% to 15% for a 13-month period from 1 December 2008 to 1 January 2010. The Council is able to reclaim VAT, and so there is no impact on it’s spending. Whilst it is not clear what effect, if any, this will have on the Council’s income, the period of notice to implement the changes (4 working days) is wholly inadequate to effectively deal with the practical issues involved; and costs of making the associated changes are being reviewed."

So despite being leaked the weekend before to the papers (for which no government minister yet seems to have been raided by counter-terrorism police) the short notice of this panic measure by the Government is going to cause problems to the City Council, as it will doubtless to many small businesses up and down the Country as they struggle to change systems in time. I wonder if any retailers have seen lower sales this last week as people wait until monday before spending again in the expectation of lower prices, and if they can expect to make up for such lost sales later.

But if the measures proposed last week to try boosting the economy such as the VAT cut are causing problems, they are nothing to the problems that will be caused when we have to start paying back all the money Labour has borrowed on our behalf, and taxes rise.

Shadow Chancellor George summed up where we are best in his pre-budget statement response: "It is confirmation of the time- old truth that in the end all Labour chancellors run out of money and all Labour governments bring this country to the verge of bankruptcy. Stability has gone out of the window, prudence is dead, Labour has done it again. Massive borrowing, rising unemployment, tax giveaways for Christmas paid by tax rises for life, giving with one hand, taking with the other - everything we have come to expect from this prime minister."

By expanding public sector spending at unsustainable levels over a number of years, despite a growing economy, we have had both rocketing taxes (many by stealth) and increasing borrowing. Because they have failed to reform how many of the public services are run, much of the increased investment has been wasted, with little to show for it - but we do have an army of nannying public servants, dedicated to telling us what to do in every area of our lives, like how to play with tiddles.

As when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, getting the public finances back into a sensible shape will be the key priority of incoming Conservative government. This will again be painful, but the alternative, Gordon Brown's approach of trying to borrow his way out of a debt crisis could destroy the UK's economy for a generation. Already the market is rating defaults on UK government debt as more likely than some company debt, and as the government tries to borrow more, the market will be less and less willing to lend, and will demand higher and higher interest rates. Confidence in our currency could collapse. Gordon Brown's incompetence has got this country's economy into a terrible mess, and they are now showing every sign of making the situation worse.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Tesco have submitted three planning applications related to their proposed new store on the Cambridge Leisure Park site.

08/1533/ADV - Illuminated Tesco Signs
08/1532/FUL - Formation of covered service yard and associated plant works including the erection of a 2m fence
08/1531/FUL - Shop front alterations and installation of ATM machine

Closing date for comments is 3rd Dec (Standard consultations), 9th Dec (neighbour consultations)

Tesco's plans for Mill Road are problematic due to the problems of coping with Tesco delivery lorries in narrow streets, and the threat to the diversity of shops on Mill Road. It is far from clear to me that these arguments apply to this latest store - and competition is usually good for consumers. I've already had one resident contact me to express support for this store, but if there is significant opposition, then the decisions should be made by Councillors rather than delegated to the officers. If you have strong views one way or the other, please comment on the planning applications and let us know.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Whippet Bus 114

I've been looking into the arrangements for Whippet bus service 114 - which always causes a large number of complaints when I speak to residents on Lichfield Rd. No-one can understand why such large, noisy buses are run down a small residential road - particularly as they don't appear to be very well used.

It appears the situation is complicated to say the least - Whippet run the basic service (hourly) on a commercial basis. The County Council contributes to run a tendered service hourly during the week, and the City Council contributes some funds to allow the route to operate half hourly on Saturdays. On the figures I've been told, the average subsidy per passenger on the tendered service is about £3 - although I don't know how this works out, as presumably if there was no tendered service at all, some of the passengers using the half hourly service would just use the hourly service that is run on a commercial basis.

The good news is that the County Council is retendering the service in April, and I have requested that they also ask for tender offers to operate the service in smaller, quieter buses that have low level access that would be better appreciated by some Lichfield Road residents - although these tender offers are expected to be higher. When the offers come in, we can see what the best solution is for taxpayers and Lichfield Road residents.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Objections raised to Coleridge Planning Applications

As ward Councillor I raised objections to two Coleridge planning applications considered at this evening’s East Area committee.

In the first application, an extension for the care home on Cherry Hinton Road at the junction with Kelvin Close was turned down by the committee, citing the reasons given by objectors, including myself. There are existing problems with delivery lorries blocking narrow Kelvin Close, which would be exacerbated by the larger premises, and the increased distance from the new car parking to the main entrance. The plans also called for the demolition of two family houses on Kelvin Close, and local residents who turned up to the meeting in numbers were clearly delighted.

In the second application, a bar on the Cambridge Leisure site was asking for permission for late night opening (to 2am) seven nights a week. There have been concerns for some time about alcohol related anti-social behaviour originating from the site, and the cumulative effect of bars is a concern. Having heard considerable complaints from residents in neighbouring roads about late night anti-social behaviour, often some distance from the site, but which are likely to have been caused by users of the Leisure Park site, I don't think this application is in the interests of residents and objected to it. Fortunately the committee also agreed, and the application was turned down.

As ever, I didn't take part in actually making the decisions which I think are better made at a central planning committee, so that I was free to stand up for local residents in these cases. The final decision was made after 11pm, surely not in the interests of good decision making - when are the Liberal Democrats going to listen to complaints about how crazy their Area Committee arrangements are for deciding planning applications.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lichfield Road Set for Protective Planting

Some Lichfield Road residents have been suffering from damaged cars after people using the footpath through to Perne Road then used resident's car parks as an inappropriate cut-through. I raised this as an issue with the Council some time ago.

Following a consultation with affected local residents, and securing a small grant from the Councils 'Safer Stronger City' funding pot, the Council will now be taking some action. An order has been placed for new planting to be provided at the end of the garage block and for a temporary fence to be put up to protect the planting until it is established. This work should be completed by the end of January.

Not a huge issue in the grand scheme of things, but this type of action can be controversial so it is good to see resident involvement and some action that hopefully will go a long way to fixing the problem. Many thanks to the City Homes staff involved.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fire at new mosque site

There has been a serious fire at the old John Lewis warehouse on Mill Road. The site has been purchased by the Muslim Academic Trust with the intention of building a new mosque, so the building was due for demolition anyway, but the fire has caused Mill Road to shut between Perne Road and Coleridge Road, and this is likely to remain the case for a couple of days.

As our pictures show, damage is extensive, and the building is likely to be demolished on safety grounds. Police are treating the area as a crime scene, and forensic science experts were still working there this morning.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Taking a Punt

I like punting, and indeed take it very seriously as this picture demonstrates:

I've been looking into various issues related to punting, which plays an important role in tourism in the City, but has its problems. The Council is faced with nuisance issues from punt touts, and health and safety issues such as the serious incident recently reported in the CEN.

Independent punters claim these problems come about because the Council is making it hard for them to operate safely - see There are some complex issues involved, but generally speaking I think we need to have some sensible and well regulated competition in the Cambridge punting market. The City Council certainly seems to have it in for independent punters - and there was controversy at the last Strategy and Resources committee over the Council's use of CCTV cameras to monitor their activities on Jesus Green, where the City Council has banned them from operating. Despite partially concealed (if signposted) cameras, and the fact that the Council was aware of the identities of at least some of the people it was spying on, it maintains that the cameras weren't covert, and were directed at stopping unlawful activities not spying on individuals, so didn't need authorisation under the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Dubious in my opinion, and certainly enough for me to conclude that a precautionary approach to compliance with RIPA was not followed in this case - I take back all I said about big brother is generally well behaved.
The issues surrounding punting in Cambridge aren't about to go away any time soon, and I'm not sure the behaviour of the Council is helping things.

Cherry Hinton Hall Improvements

Cambridge City Council have recruited a consultant to explore possible improvements to Cherry Hinton Hall park, including the reintegration or re-use of the former propagation area which is now vacant land.

The consultant will be working with some members of the general public, selected at random in the locality, and also with stakeholder bodies such as the police, folk festival, schools and so on. This work is scheduled to take place early in December and will take the form of group discussions.

They are also asking for comments from local Councillors, so if anyone has strong views on what should happen in this area and isn't likely to be part of the planned consultations, please be in touch and I can make sure your views are aired at the appropriate time

Hills Road Bridge updates

Courtesy of Trumpington e-cops (bizarrely I don't think it has made it to Coleridge e-cops UPDATE: Has now been sent out on Coleridge e-cops as well), the police are finally taking action on the Hills Road Bridge situation:

"On the 12th & 13th of November 2008 we will be enforcing traffic regulations at the Hills Road / Cherry Hinton Road junction, between the hours of 17:00 -21:30. This is due to concerns from members of the public that motorists are ignoring the NO RIGHT TURN onto Cherry Hinton Road and carrying out inappropriate manoeuvres through the road works on Hills Road Bridge.
There are also concerns for cyclists who are cycling on the pavement and cycling without lights during the hours of darkness (sunset is around 4.10pm. You will need your bike lights on from then).
Our ultimate aim is to ensure the safety of motorists and cyclists and to ensure they are driving and cycling to the correct traffic regulations."

No news yet on when the final phase of single lane working will happen - except that it won't be before Christmas!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Strawberry Fair - Yes, but fix the problems

This Thursday, the Community Services Scrutiny committee will be considering a report on the future of Strawberry Fair - specifically whether or not the Council should grant permission for the Fair to happen in 2009. I am not a member of the scrutiny committee, but have been involved in various discussions with interested parties.

After some consideration, I believe the fair should be given permission to go ahead next year in a similar format to previous years. Personally I enjoy visiting the fair, and believe it provides entertainment, particularly music, that is appreciated by many local residents. The demographic who do enjoy Strawberry Fair is wide, and encompasses groups of people who may not appreciate many of the other arts and entertainment events held in the City that help to make it a great place to live. As a volunteer helping on the No2ID stall the last couple of years, it has also seen many younger people engage in political issues, perhaps for the first time, in times when it is widely accepted that young people are completely apathetic or disinterested in key issues that will shape society going forwards.

This is not to say there haven't been problems - some inevitable in an event of this size, others more intrinsically related to Strawberry Fair, which have caused unacceptable nuisance to local residents. So my support is with a big caveat - these issues really do need to be stamped on, and the Council, Police and organisers must work together to fix this. If we accept this is an event that is valued in large parts of the community, all three parties need to accept responsibility for ensuring it does not cause problems.

The mitigation measures proposed in the officers report are a good start, but there is limited comment on drugs. It is far from the case that in the past drug use has been tolerated, but the police and organisers need to make it absolutely clear that illegal drugs are completely unacceptable at the Fair, and that people flauting the law will be identified and will not be allowed to enjoy a day out at the Fair. Similarly on alcohol usage - it needs to be clear that those under 18 and those recklessly drunk will not be allowed to drink (more) at the event or be served in any neighbouring establishments. These aspirations need to be backed up with action from the authorities on the day and beforehand.

But with these provisos, I think the problems can be mitigated to the extent that the Fair should still go ahead next year.

There is a more general issue over usage of the main central commons and parks - Jesus Green, Midsummer Common and Parkers Piece. The current Council policies essentially just talk about the need to conserve these areas. With the nature and increased frequency of events now happening, the Council needs a policy that balances the wear and tear on these areas and the nuisance to local residents with the benefits and enjoyment the events bring. A new policy is needed that restricts the number of events of each category, and allows appraisal of events depending on the numbers of local residents that enjoy them, any financial benefits or costs to the council, and the nuisance to local residents in order to decide what is allowed. I understand plans are afoot to review these policies in the near future, but its not before time.

Members of the public are welcome to attend this Thursday's meeting, and even address the committee - in which case you would need to get in touch with the committee manager beforehand - details on the agenda.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Environmental Improvements: City Council must get its act together

I'm pressing the Council for action on a couple of projects that can loosely be described as environmental improvements. One is my election pledge to try opening an official cycle route between Ashbury Close and Golding Road, the other to fix the 'missing footpath' problem on Rustat Road near the cycle bridge.

The City Council has an official 'environmental improvements' budget that the area committees decide how to spend, and the same staff can be involved in projects to spend s106 funds from developers. Trouble is, the City Council does not have enough of the designers/engineers required to implement these projects, so progress has practically ground to a halt. The result is that Council budgets, and more crucially money received from developers that may have to be paid back if it isn't spent is sitting unused. Area Committee meetings come and go, with little progress to show in this area. The Council has know about this problem for months, and failed to fix it. I am calling on them to get their act together so we can have some progress on these much needed schemes, as it is beginning to look shambolic.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Cycling Demonstration Town Improvements Announced

The county council has announced the improvements that it plans to put in place with the money from its successful bid for Cambridge to become a 'Cycling Demonstration Town'.

There seem to be some genuinely good improvements here that will add value for cyclists; it will not just be a case of splashing some white paint around.

Some of the plans for outside Cambridge should also help people in surrounding villages to be able to leave their cars at home when coming into the city, thereby potentially easing congestion in the city.

We'd be keen to know of any potential problems with these proposals but overall it looks as if the county council should be congratulated for this work. We'll be hoping to get more information on some of these schemes.

Some of the major features of the plan that I've picked out as being especially helpful for Cambridge are:
  • Cycle training for children and adults
  • Speed reviews in residential areas and links
  • Chisholm Trail feasibility study
  • Cycle Parking: review and new facilities
  • Interactive and additional signing
  • Refreshing and improving existing facilities
  • Rapid response crew; dedicated works team to implement small-scale minor work
For residents in and around Coleridge these specific schemes will be relevant:
  • Improvements to Hills Road and bridge
  • Widening of the Tins Path between Burnside and Cherry Hinton
  • Review of facilities on Cherry Hinton Road between Hills Road and Cherry Hinton High Street
Coleridge Conservatives are in touch with the county council cabinet on these plans so please let us know what you think.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Spin in Overdrive

Coleridge Labour press machine is in overdrive again. In yesterday's CEN, they had the front page splash claiming Tesco's were coming to Cambridge Leisure Park. Trouble is, today's CEN seems to have Tesco denying the story. I guess we will find out in time if it is Tesco who are telling fibs, which they have form for, or Labour making it up as they go along just to get their names in the paper, which they also have form for.

(UPDATE: Fair play to Labour, they do seem to got the story right on this one. Have to say I'm shocked by Tescos - they appear to be a complete shambles all of a sudden...)

The interesting question is what will people think of another Tescos in Cambridge. I am Tesco neutral - their stores are appreciated by many customers, but in some areas their presence causes legitimate concerns (like on Mill Road, regarding the diversity of other shops and delivery arrangements), and there must be concerns about allowing them a local monopoly. But every proposal should be considered on its merits, and the relevant part of our planning and transport regulation systems should be used to tackle the problems as they arise.

Labour's suggestion that the Cambridge Leisure park site is remotely similar to the Tescos situation in Mill Road however is clearly hysterical, as is the suggestion that Tescos should make full disclosure of their plans up front. Does this plea apply to all commercial enterprises, or just Tescos? Should the City Council provide full disclosure of every commercial project they are involved in even before decisions have been made, so other commercial enterprises can exploit the situation and remove all potential benefit to the schemes original proposer? Labour really are clueless when it comes to understanding how commerical enterprises work - which doesn't bode well considering how many of such enterprises the government is now running...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cambridge a Three-Way Marginal - it's Official

We are all used to seeing party leaflets that pick out a particular year's results in a particular type of election and declare "This election is a two-horse race - party X cannot win here". This is of course designed to scare supporters of party X into voting for party Y to keep out party Z.

Well the good news for Cambridge voters is that with the Conservatives almost neck-and-neck with Labour in total votes across the city in May and a fast dwindling Liberal Democrat vote, there really is everything to play for in Cambridge and every vote will count.

But there's no need to take our word for it - this job advert for the Labour party in Cambridge states:
Cambridge is a demanding but rewarding challenge. It is now becoming a 3 way marginal!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Request made for Speedwatch

Following my previous post, I have formally requested that Coleridge is considered as a pilot scheme for the new residents' 'Speedwatch' schemes being started by the police and County Council, specifically in the Coleridge Road and Lichfield Road area. Speeding has been raised as a key issue on these roads when we have been speaking to people on the doorstep, and I think there will be significant support from local residents.

The County Council has confirmed that my request has been received and handed over to Cambridgeshire Constabulary, who are co-ordinating such requests.

Meeting Budgens

I have had a useful meeting with the manager at the Budgens on Adkins Corner this morning to discuss a couple of issues - namely delivery lorries and the state of the pavements outside.

On delivery lorries, the situation is complicated by the fact that like many Budgens stores, this shop is now run as a franchise. So the delivery problem is the responsibility of Budgens centrally, not the local store, although they are keen to work together to get a solution.

The problem is large lorries reversing off Perne Road causing a danger to passing pedestrians and damage to property:

The local store management have agreed to provide high visibility 'banksmen' for all deliveries by articulated lorry - the problem now is working out arrangements for letting the store know in advance that a lorry is about to deliver, but hopefully some progress.

The pavements outside Budgens have been a constant source of complaint, and I know of at least one case where compensation is being pursued after a trip - this incident resulted in a couple of paving slabs being replaced. However, the whole area could do with improvement (and some better cycle parking) but the problem area is actually private land, and it is the responsibility of the building owner, not Budgens to do something about this. I will try to make contact with them, but I think getting something done about this issue is going to be in the 'difficult' pile for some time...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

New Regulations for Householder Development

New regulations introduced on 1 October 2008 make changes to householder extensions that may be undertaken without planning permission. These regulations include installation of micro-wave antenna (satellite dishes), flues and chimneys, outbuildings and the introduction of a new class involving the formation of a vehicle hardstanding within the curtilage of a dwelling.

I'm told these regulations are quite complex, so probably best to check with the Development Control department at the City Council if you think you may be affected - or contact me if you need a more specific contact and I can put you in touch.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Party Funding

Just read something totally astonishing on the BBC website from Cambridge's very own MP:

The Lib Dems said the bill would not stop wealthy donors from "deluging" money into key constituencies and would not offer a "fair solution" to Labour's trade union funding link.
"We don't need tinkering, we need comprehensive reform," said its spokesman David Howarth.

When he mentions wealthy donors, will he be explaining about the crook that funded the Liberal Democrats to the tune of £2.4m at the last election when he was elected, or for that matter, how much of the huge amount of money that was targetted on his campaign in Cambridge can be attributed to that source. Don't know how much if any ended up in Cambridge (directly or indirectly), but would be interested to find out...

Cambridge University Festival of Ideas

The team behind the University of Cambridge Science Festival has organised a 'Cambridge Festival of Ideas'. Billed as a celebration of the arts, humanities ans social sciences, with many free events for all ages, it looks well worth checking out the programme at

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pink Festival Noise

A follow up to my previous post about noise problems at this year's Pink Festival.

I've now had a chance to discuss with Council officers the results of the debrief held, and as a result, there will be revisions next year of how noise pollution at this event is managed, to help ensure better compliance (if the Pink Festival is run next year - it is a volunteer effort not organised by the City Council - hopefully any changes will also apply to the Folk Festival).

One of the problems identified was the lack of ways for the public or Councillors of contacting organisers or the Council during the event with noise complaints - I was certainly unaware of how to take any action during the event. The Council gave contact numbers to Cherry Hinton ward Councillors but not Coleridge Councillors, which obviously isn't helpful as although it is just inside Cherry Hinton, the site is almost on the boundary of three wards. And then the organiser's mobile number was given incorrectly! Hopefully next time Councillors in at least the three closest wards will get the relevant numbers, and City Council noise officers will be available at the key times, but we would also like to see noise levels lower than last year, particularly later on in the evening.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Quick off the mark

Labour in Coleridge are always quick off the mark to get their pictures in the paper. For example, here, they are calling for more money to be made available for speed cameras of a type that can be operated by residents.

This refers to a new scheme from the County Council whereby local residents operate speed cameras in conjunction with the police - I think the way it works is those exceeding the speed limit are sent warning letters. A small number of cameras are being made available Countywide for pilot schemes - Labour wants much larger funding committed even before we know if the scheme is going to work.

I think it could be a good idea - a questionnaire on our ward-wide July newsletter asked if any local residents would like to get involved. I can't say I was overwhelmed with volunteers, which to say the least is a problem. Councillors can doubtless be more persistent in persuading people to take part, but ultimately can't (and indeed shouldn't) force them.

(UPDATE: Having spoken to a fair few people on Coleridge Road over the weekend, I think it is fair to say there wouldn't be a problem finding residents to get behind this scheme...)

But the interesting thing about Labour's latest press efforts is the claim: "Cllr Lewis Herbert, who leads the opposition group, and his colleague Cllr Miriam Lynn voted during last week's East Area Committee meeting to give cameras to residents in their wards of Coleridge and Abbey in a bid to combat speeding." which must have come from Labour. Trouble is, I checked the meeting minutes and they did nothing of the sort.

Although funding for cameras was discussed, the only relevant vote I can think they are referring to is actually a vote on an amendment proposed by me to make tackling speeding a local policing priority (in additional to other priorities such as anti-social behaviour in various troublespots etc.) Speeding is a serious problem on many roads in Coleridge (and indeed some roads in Abbey and other wards), but the police really don't seem to take the problem seriously, so I want to make it one of their priorities. Maybe then they will look into why it is some people are prepared to drive often through their own neighbourhood at recklessly fast speeds, and do something about it. Trouble is, one of the Labour City Councillors for Coleridge was absent from the meeting (as was the Coleridge County Councillor), and other Labour members of the committee (who are in the majority) refused to back my amendment, so for the second time running, it wasn't passed.

Speeding is a serious problem in the ward - if my fellow Coleridge Councillors really want to see some action on speeding, perhaps rather than speaking to the press, they could have a word with their colleagues in Petersfield and the like, and make sure they all support my call to make tackling this a police priority in the area.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Station Area thoughts

After speaking at the Station Area planning meeting yesterday morning, I sat through almost the whole day, but had to leave just before the decision was made around 7pm. Although I wasn't surprised to hear the result - I had predicted the result and who would vote which way in early afternoon.

Personally, I am very disappointed with this decision. The scale of development proposed with its lack of on-site parking is going to cause chaos for car parking in Coleridge, and I think traffic levels generally in Tenison Road and Hills Road will prove to be a problem.

This is also a missed opportunity, and will leave future generations with very little to show in terms of open space and space for transport interchange. It effectively precludes the bus station ever being moved to the station from Drummer Street. And whilst cyclists have more spaces available, they may turn out to be less than happy that they will now be further from the station entrance.

It was an eye-opener to see how such a major application was effectively forced through the planning process. From a very early stage, officers at the City and County Councils had clearly decided that after the wholly inappropriate previous application this application was a 'flier', and all stops were taken out to try making the application acceptable with numerous meetings and discussions behind closed doors between Council officers and developers. The Councils had good policy reasons to want this application to succeed - the area desperately needs redevelopment, and be in no doubt there will be major improvements to transport infrastructure as a result. Not to mention the shopping list of other goodies the Council will insist the developers pay for as part of the permission - new CCTV systems in the area, £1.5m for public art, £1.3m cash in lieu of the lack of open space, contributions towards education, £3m for the Guided Bus, the truly astonishing cost to the developer of providing nomination rights to the Council for a small number of subsidised rental homes etc etc - in the context of the City Council (and even the County Council), these are big sums of money, all effectively a form of tax, all agreed by officers prior to going through a democratic scrutiny committee - in contrast at other times Councillors spend hours discussing a few hundred pounds for environmental improvements at meetings like the East Area Committee.

How I thought planning applications were supposed to work is the application is made, the City and Council Council officers provide a generally independent view on whether the application satisfies the multitude of relevant planning policies providing advice during the course of the application. During the meeting itself, planning committee members review the application and come to their own personal decision as to whether or not it is acceptable. But in this case, the advice of the City and County officers is in no way shape or form independent - there was just too much at stake for the policy objectives of these organisations, and objectivity of the advice was seriously at risk. It is arguable that the Councils took an iterative approach until something acceptable was in place, after which the Councils were effectively campaigning on behalf of the applicants to get the decision through.

I don't know if the Lib Dem members of the committee had discussed the application before the meeting and expressed opinions as to whether or not it might be acceptable. But it was a remarkable co-incidence about how the members split on the final vote. And the applicants certainly looked quite relaxed all day! Personally, I am concluding that yesterdays decision was in fact a party political decision, that could well have been made some time ago, but who knows. In a way, if the officers had been allowed to effectively negotiate with developers and present the application in the way it was without agreement in principle from the ruling group, I would be even more worried about how the democracy of the this decision worked.

So I would like to congratulate Ashwells all those involved at the City and County Councils - a tremendous amount of work has gone into this major planning application, and the dilligence and professionalism of the officers will doubtless have resulted in numerous changes to this application for the better, and, credit-crunch permitting, Cambridge can look forward to a significantly improved transport interchange. But I can't help remaining disappointed at what this application could have been.

We look forward to seeing the detailed planning applications for specific buildings that Ashwell’s brings forward, and in view of the credit crunch, when they will be looking to make this development happen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Station Area Application Accepted

The city council's planning committee accepted the 'cb1' station area redevelopment application shortly before 7pm.

The vote was 6-2 in favour.

The two votes against were by the only two opposition councillors and were on the following grounds from Cambridge's Local Plan:
  • Insufficient open areas and recreational spaces
  • Urban design criteria
  • Co-ordinated development
  • Impact on conservation area
  • Mixed and balanced community considerations

More later...

Station Area Planning Application Decision Meeting in progress

The planning meeting for the station area redevelopment is currently at lunch. The objectors, applicants and local ward councillors (including myself) have had their say – I reiterated my objections to the scheme, raising concerns about the lack of public open space, and the traffic and parking problems that the large scale of the development would cause.

Members of the planning committee are now going through the various aspects of the plans, questioning officers on the detail of the application, and some sceptical points are being made by the planning committee.

Cllr Hipkin made his usual rant about lack of family homes planned for the development. Usually this is a valid criticism, and one I would support. However in a central business district close to the station, it is difficult to think of an application where this criticism is less appropriate.

There are concerns being raised about the transport effects, and about how sufficient the transport interchange will be. There is also a very good point that the applicants are being expected to foot the lion share of the bill for the station transport exchange, when this is a key bit of public infrastructure that arguably should have much greater contributions from the County Council, the Government, Network Rail and the bus companies. This to my mind is a very important point as commercial viability of the scheme is being used as a reason for requiring the very high density and lack of open space.

But it is still early, and the decision could go either way!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tesco Launch Another Appeal

Tesco have launched another appeal - this time against refusal to grant planning permission for refrigeration equipment on the existing building.

The recent public enquiry related to Tesco's extension application - the decision on this is expected towards the end of November. The latest appeal relates to a later application to allow refrigeration equipment on the existing sized building - it was their plan 'B' in case the extension application is refused. I think they have a much better chance of winning this latest appeal - I was predicting Councillors would pass it at the Area committee. It will also be decided by public enquiry.

I have to say I'm none too impressed with Tesco at this point. At the Conservative party conference I spoke to some of their public affairs people to put the point that many local residents were unhappy about the potential store, its effect on the viability of other local shops, and the transport implications from their delivery plans, and to ask if there was anything they would be prepared to do to mitigate these concerns. This was followed up with a call to them last week when they told me that they wouldn't take any decisions on whether to launch this latest appeal until after they had the results of the first public inquiry, so call back then - it was therefore a surprise to hear about todays appeal. I'm now left in the position where I'm not sure I'd believe anything they told me...

Warning: Guided Bus works this weekend

Just had this from the Guided Bus team:

"We have received a request from the Guided Busway Contractor, BAM Nuttall, for single lane working this Saturday and Sunday over Hills Road Bridge to enable them to remove temporary supports to the excavation in the centre of the road. Having looked into what is involved it will be extremely difficult and very time consuming for this work to be done from within the works area, but very simple and straightforward to complete if done from the road side. We have therefore agreed to their request.

The work will be carried out on Saturday and Sunday (18 and 19 October) starting at 7am and finishing by 4pm. One lane at a time will be closed to allow a wheeled excavator access to remove temporary steel sheet piles. While this is going on traffic will use the other lane controlled by traffic signals."

This is likely to cause significant disruption on Hills Road this weekend, but will also give a chance to add in cycle lane markings that will hopefully reduce problems for cyclists from aggressive car drivers. The Guided Bus works on Hills Road are currently significantly behind schedule - this will allow some catching up and reduce the total time the roadworks are operating. I've responded to the Guided Bus team:

If we are allowing this, can we please ensure that the time of the single lane working is kept to an absolute minimum by planning to work to minimise the disruption as a first priority and ensuring such a plan is appropriately resourced.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the power to literally anyone to request information (with limitations) from public authorities and there is an obligation for authorities to respond within 20 working days.

Today I submitted an FOI request to the county council to discover what communication took place between the council and the applicant in the course of assessing the traffic implications for the CB1 station area redevelopment plan.

The traffic assessment is supposed to be an analysis by the transport authority, the county council, of a planning application being put before the planning authority, the city council. It seems that in this case the county's consultants, Atkins, were working with the developer to ensure that the plan would be acceptable.

Coleridge Conservatives are concerned that this relationship might render the traffic impact analysis insufficiently independent. We hope that the FOI response, when it comes, will shed light on the extent of interworking.

The progress of my FOI request can be tracked on the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow? website - one of the many really useful open source tools from mySociety for improving democratic scrutiny and empowerment.

What next for Tiverton House?

I am currently trying to find out the latest update from the Council about interest from potential buyers in Tiverton House, but it looks very much like it is still for sale.

It could be worse, but the building is already covered in ivy, and I've just reported an abandoned fridge there.

The Lib Dems running Cambridge City decided to sell off the former sheltered housing on the open market some time ago. That decision was never going to be a great one, but it is looking worse by the day. If there is, as I suspect, a lack of serious interest in the site, the Council should be urgently coming up with a new plan. It is a travesty if the City Council is allowing one of its own properties to remain empty for long periods of time when there is such demand for housing in the City.

Meeting Delay Call rejected

The City Council is has rejected calls for the Ashwell's planning meeting to be delayed, saying:

The Council policy is to make committee reports available to the public at least five full working days before a committee and this has been done in relation to the CB1 scheme (in fact the report was published a day early on Tuesday, 7 October). I appreciate that the main report is lengthy (156 pages) but this is not unusual for a major scheme of this type. Indeed reports on matters such as the local plan tend to be lengthier. The report is structured in such a way to make it easy to locate topics so that if a member of the public has a particular concern then a topic can be readily located in the report.

The Council has made considerable efforts to allow the public to be briefed and to make representations on the CB1 scheme. A series of public meetings and Development Control Fora have been held over recent months. The report sets out all the representations made during this extended process.

In view of these considerations, I believe that the City Council has followed its own policy and set out all therelevant considerations for the Planning Committee so that a decision can be made at the scheduled meeting on 15 October.

I have the feeling this is their final word on the matter...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

City Council has £9m exposure to Icelandic banks

Further to my previous post, it has been revealed that the City Council has £9m invested with failed Icelandic banks - significantly more than many district Council's affected by the problem.

There is currently no assurance that any of this money will be repayable - as a debt free authority it has relatively large sums in total (£81m) invested in the money markets, but losing £9m of this would be a serious problem. So whilst there is no immediate cash crisis, if the money proves not to be recoverable, it could seriously impact capital reserves, and the longer term capital investment program. In the short term, revenue accounts are likely to come under pressure due to a shortfall in interest received.

The Council has played by the rules - it invested in a diverse number of banks, and only used those that were top rated. The problem is that on the 1st of October credit ratings for Icelandic banks plummeted, and the City Council's money was locked in until May 2009 so couldn't be withdrawn.

I will have questions to ask about whether anything could have been done to avoid this problem, and what steps should be taken now to minimise the risks in future.

Call for Meeting delay

I have written to the Council today to ask that the planning meeting scheduled for 15th October to look at the Ashwell's CB1 station area redevelopment application should be delayed.

It has become clear following the public meeting on Tuesday to discuss the transport implications that there simply hasn't been enough time for the public to digest the huge volumes of information, some of which has only been available at a very late stage, and to comment on the final amendments that were only submitted by Ashwell's. These were only finalised at the end of September and are yet to be subject to a formal public consultation period.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Credit Crunch

It appears that the credit crunch problems have taken a significant turn for the worse this week, and there are now serious problems that are likely to have terrible effects on many businesses and households. Politically it is a very strange situation where politicians need to forget their normal general principles, be they from the centre-right (laissez-faire) or the centre-left (state intervention), as the situation is so unusual it is far from clear what the right thing to do is.

As a result of the apparant complete collapse in Iceland's banking system, many local Councils appear to have financial assets at risk. Earlier today I wrote to the Director of Finance at the City Council to ask:

Does the Council have any financial exposure to Icelandic banks or any other institutions affected by the credit crunch?
Are any such institutions on our approved list of banks?
Have any reviews been undertaken of our approved list of banks in light of the current financial situation?

It is unlikely there is an immediate problem - which would require some urgent clarification from the Government as to the extent of guarantees announced by the Governments of the UK and Iceland relating to deposits in Icelandic banks, but even if there hasn't been a problem so far, I think the Council (which is currently debt free) needs to look at the counterparties it is prepared to hold money on deposit with and assess the risk to the Council of possible defaults and what action can be taken to mitigate these risks.

Transport Assessment for Station Area Redevelopment

There were some astonishing claims repeated at the public meeting last night about the county's traffic impact assessment for the CB1 station area redevelopment. Chris Howell, Richard Normington and I were all present to help scrutinise the report. Considering the short notice for the meeting it was very well attended.

The central claim is that there will be "only a modest increase in vehicular traffic (16%)" on account of the restricted opportunities for parking - there would be one fewer parking spaces after the redevelopment! When quizzed about this figure (since the baseline figures used were questionable) the consultant admitted that the real figure was more like 35%, although apparently even a report by the developer, Ashwell, suggests that it would be 65%.

I questioned the validity of the report's assumption that car usage could be suppressed simply by having severe restrictions on parking within the development and asked for examples of any other developments that had such limited provision for parking. The consultant had nothing to say on this point - the assumption is essentially justified by assertion.

I also asked why the report does not include any analysis of the likely extent of overspill parking in Coleridge on and around Rustat Road. The response was effectively that reactive work could be considered on consulation with residents after the development has gone ahead but that this did not need further consideration at this stage.

The transport assessment has clearly failed here - its very naive assumptions about how easy it is to limit car use may well suggest that the development would be self-contained but no evidence has been presented as to how this development would be different from any other in that regard.

Despite its flawed assumptions, the report is otherwise quite thorough, and to be fair, it is suggested that the extra vehicular traffic that is conceded will not manifest itself at the peak times and so will not be such a problem.

This transport assessment forms part of the report to the central planning committee of the City Council which will consider the CB1 application on Wednesday 15th October at 9.30am in the Long Room at New Hall.

Chris Howell asked how independent the traffic impact assessment process had been from the applicant's drawing up of the plans and it was revealed that there had been an iterative process between the two parties. While this approach may have seemed like a practical solution for saving time and effort by all we are worried that the council officers and their consultants may unintentionally become inclined to compromise their assessment as a consequence of being involved in the development of the plans.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Central Library Update

The Central library is currently undergoing a major refurbishment. For those interested, the County Council now has a website to keep people up to date on progress at

Friday, October 3, 2008

Lollipop Person Wanted

At the last Cambridge Area transport committee it was raised that there is a problem recruiting Lollipop men and women, but particularly to cover the vacancy at Perne Road Cambridge, where parents have been campaigning for a crossing.

At the start of the September term leaflets advertising crossing patrol vacancies were sent to all schools with a vacant patrol site, and the local media has been contacted highlighting the urgent need for permanent and relief crossing patrols throughout Cambridgeshire.

Unfortunately to date nobody has come forward to apply for the patrol site on Perne Road - filling the vacancy relies totally on a member of the local community coming forward.

If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Station Area Public Meeting

As hoped, the Council is holding a public meeting to discuss the transport elements of the station area redevelopment plans.

The briefing by officers of the County Council on the transport implications of the Ashwell proposals for CB1 will be held on Tuesday, 7 October 2008, 1900-2130 hours, at Main Hall, Hills Road Sixth Form College, Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 8PE

There will be an opportunity for questions after the presentation.

The short notice is due to the decision being considered by the Planning Committee of the City Council on 15 October. The Committee meeting will be held in the Long Room at Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall), Huntingdon Road, Cambridge CB3 0DF and will start at 0930 hours. This is also a public meeting, see here for more details of the (limited) public speaking rights.

Monday, September 29, 2008

D Day for Station Area redevelopment

The planning application for the CB1 Station Area Redevelopment will be considered at a special meeting of the Planning Committee on Wednesday 15 October 2008 at a venue to be confirmed.

The City Council's website will be updated with this information as soon as possible.

Great News on Council Tax

There have been some great announcements from the Conservatives over the last couple of days - perhaps the most headline grabbing is a Council Tax freeze for two years. If Councils can keep tax rises down to 2.5%, if the Conservatives win the next election they will fund a further cut to keep Council tax frozen for at least two years. The Conservatives have been working on this pledge for some time, involving Conservative Council leaders, with help from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and a large accountancy firm, so it is properly costed. The central funding will come from cutting advertising and consultancy spending, both of which have rocketed under Labour, and give very poor value in many cases for taxpayers funds. For local Councils, the decade of state interference and 'government by target' will be rolled back, giving Councils much better scope for controlling Council tax.

I was at a briefing meeting for Conservative Councillors earlier today with the shadow ministers responsible for all areas of local government. It sounds like there is a real commitment to giving power back to local people, and there will be more exciting announcements over the next days and weeks. The next general election must be held by June 2010 - it can't come soon enough.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Off to Birmingham

I'm currently on a coach to Birmingham for the Conservative party conference. (turns out last minute coach tickets are much cheaper than last minute train tickets, and there isn't much difference in journey time!)

If a week is a long time in politics, what a difference a year makes. This time last year, Labour were miles ahead in the polls, and many commentators suggested the best David Cameron could hope for was to put off an early election. I never really agreed with that assessment - I had seen through Gordon Brown and New Labour spin a long time ago, and could scarcely believe it when Labour MPs allowed him to become leader without a challenge. Any sort of scrutiny of his record as chancellor during an election would see not just a deeply flawed individual, but an economy that was built on totally reckless borrowing - by both government and individuals, used to fund the expansion of a nanny state that has steadily trapped ever more people into dependence on means tested benefits, and that seeks to control ever more of our lives. Cameron is no novice, but it feels like anything would be better than a proven incompetent who doesn't even realise how and why his policies have contributed to the mess the economy is in at the moment. But after much nail biting indecision, the election was bottled and the rest is history. The next election is far from won for the Conservatives, but it certainly now looks possible that the Labour nightmare will soon be over.

For mere local delegates like myself, party conferences are more about networking and meeting friends than listening to big speeches. With possible Conservative government no more than about 18 months away, I am keen to know the shadow cabinet thinking on the key issues that affect local authorities, and the residents of Coleridge, and press the case for policies that will help here in Cambridge. Current local Councils are run for the most part as branch offices for national government, considering the financial meddling and target setting that governs almost everything Councils do. Personally I would like to see wholescale reform, abolishing all nationally set targets and obligations, replacing them with genuine local control to respond to local problems. Top of my hit list is Labour's attempts to blackmail Cambridgeshire into introducing congestion charging, and their central housing targets that would see thousands of homes dumped on East Cambridge regardless of local objections and the lack of transport infrastructure. There is also the scandalous £1.3m 'Cambridge Tax' that is the concessionary bus fare scheme and the way much of the rent from Cambridge Council tenants is shipped out to other parts of the Country under Labour's finance formulas. If I can get some of these messages across to the decision makers, I will have had a good conference...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bring back weekly bin collections!

The Conservatives have announced that the next Conservative Government will be making money available to bring back weekly bin collections - hurrah.

We need to be better at recycling, or to be more precise, we need to reduce the amount of waste we landfill. But the right way to do that is to make recycling easier and more convenient, and to work with manufacturers and companies to reduce the waste material produced in the first place.

Under Labour, there has been a different approach - extreme nannying by making it very difficult for Councils to retaining weekly collections to 'force' people into recycling, with a whole load of more sinister bullying like micro-chipped bins and new stealth taxes and fines planned so big brother can really try to control personally what people put into bins.

For people involved in local government, in a world of bureaucracy, strategies, plans, grants, partnerships, meetings, and services frequently directed at or used by small parts of the population, it is easy to forget that for large number of people the most readily identifiable service provided by local authorities is the collection of household refuse. And many people feel that by abolishing weekly collections the service levels they experience from their local Council have halved. I welcome the Conservatives latest announcement.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Another Piece in Station Area Jigsaw

Another piece has been put in place for Ashwell's mega station area planning application, as the County Council Transport team has published its response to the application. As the local highway authority, it has a duty to look at the plans and assess if the impact on the local highway network is acceptable. More details are published here (towards the bottom of the page), In summary, I looks like the County Council believes the application is OK on highways grounds.

I spent yesterday afternoon with other Councillors listening to Atkins, the County Council's consultants on how they came to this conclusion. The application will see significant improvements to several junctions, including a new bus/cycle access road from the Brooklands Avenue junction, and resiting of the war memorial to improve the Station Road/Hills Rd junction. But a key factor in the County's conclusion is Ashwell's decision to severely restrict car parking spaces on site, which it is believed will reduce car traffic to the site. Overall, the effect of the plans in terms of increased daily journeys to buildings on the site is expected to be as follows:

Vehicle movements (mostly cars) Up 17% from 3,212 to 3,749

Cyclist movements Up 192% from 3,145 to 9,199

Pedestrian movements Up 556% from 1,322 to 8,666

Public transport passengers (excluding rail) Up 173% from 2,112 to 5,757

With total movements up 180% from 9,791 to 27,371.

In other words, with the high development density planned for the site, journeys to/from the site will rocket, but only a tiny part of the increase will come from car movements. Frankly I'm sceptical. The wholly erroneous claim that the station area is surrounded by controlled parking zones so car parking won't be displaced to neighbouring area was again made - this completely ignores Coleridge ward across the bridge, a large part of which is a short walk from the site - it could end up being renamed 'Ashwell's car park ward'. But new development with so few parking spaces is untried, and there will be severe pressure from users of new buildings particularly the offices. Existing car parks are currently lightly used - in the new development every square inch of parking space allowed by the planners will be full. I also think there will be significant unmodelled traffic movements from people being dropped off to offices on the site. So despite this new report, I see no reason to withdraw my objection to the application.

The work that has gone into this report is significant, with lots of experimental work and modelling, but as in any work of this nature, as noted above there will be some key assumptions made that could be seen as controversial. I support calls for a further public meeting to discuss the implications of this traffic report before the planning application is decided (pencilled in for an October planning meeting). This issue is just too important for Cambridge, we need to give some real scrutiny to these plans. And on the topic of scrutiny, the multi-million pounds of spending that the Council demands from planners like Ashwells in so-called s106 agreements shouldn't be just left to Council officers to agree with developers - these agreements are really a form of taxation, and in view of their importance should also be subject to democratic scrutiny by Councillors.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chariots of Fire

Many congratulations to the thousands of people who took part in Chariots of Fire last Sunday, raising thousands of pounds for local charities. Cambridge Conservatives have entered a team in this event for several years now. After last year's debacle where the announcer insisted on calling us Cambridge Conservatories (I'm sure I'm not supposed to find that amusing), we had a bit of a change of team name this year.

The result for Team Tory was mid-table mediocrity, but a good time was had by all. Many congratulations also to the team from Cantabrigensis Hash House Harriers. Despite winning the mixed team event for the second year running, their podium picture somehow failed to make the Cambridge Evening News (despite the presence of the Mayor, Cllr Mike Dixon in the centre). I can't imagine why...

Volunteering Opportunity at Wintercomfort

There is an opportunity to volunteer at Wintercomfort, the Cambridge based homeless charity based on Victoria Avene.

This particular call for volunteers involves helping with the council-sponsored cold weather provision for rough sleepers - they would like to develop a pool of volunteers to work on a rota basis to help rough sleepers come in from the cold, that is expected to operate on freezing nights approximately 25-40 nights a year.

If you are interested, there is an open event at 3pm next Monday, 29th September, at Overstream House, Victoria Avenue, or contact them via details on their website.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cleaning Rustat Rd

Following a complaint from a local resident, I've been in extensive correspondence with the City Council about how the standards of gutter cleaning can be improved on Rustat Rd - they are currently in a very poor state. Turns out to be less straightforward than you might think, mostly because of problems of getting cars to move so mechanical sweepers can operate, rather than less effective and more time consuming manual sweeping, particularly in view of the commuter parking problems that the Lib Dem dominated Joint Traffic Committee refuse to address.

So on Wednesday I met up with the Head of Streetscene at the City Council and one of our three Labour Councillors to discuss the problem, accompanied at various times by curious local residents. It was agreed the road cleaning is not currently adequate, and the Councillors will try to work together with the local residents association to get people to move their cars on a chosen Saturday afternoon to give it a proper clean, starting at the Cherry Hinton Road end. Lets hope the spirit of co-operation can continue!

Gutter cleaning is now done on a reactive basis to avoid problem roads going too long between cleaning sessions, so if there are any other roads in the ward that need gutter cleaning more regularly, please be in touch.