Friday, May 30, 2008

A new use for the Bunker?

The County Council are currently looking for a home for Cambridgeshire's archives after a deal to use part of the station redevelopment site fell through. They want to create a new centre with high quality storage and state of the art protection and preservation facilities, that will allow public access.

I have suggested they investigate using the Cold War Bunker off Brooklands avenue, (pictured below with special guest appearance from former Trumpington Conservative Candidate John Ionides)

The bunker was saved from demolition as the Accordia development was being built when it became a listed building - which was absolutely the right decision, it is vital that we keep buildings like this and don't lose what is a significant reminder of our recent history.

I'm not at all sure of the size of the building or suitability, but it appears to be reasonable large and recently gained planning permission to turn it into a document store. I just think it would be apt to have a historical building with local government connections serving a more peaceful purpose looking after and providing access to historical local information.

Hills Road Bridge Update

Just had this back from the Guided Bus team which sounds promising:
"Regarding car drivers dangerously overtaking cyclists on Hills Road bridge, we are going to put up further signage.

We have also been speaking to the police about two matters, which are cars dangerously overtaking cyclists on the bridge and dangerously U-turning on Hills Road (some do this to avoid a banned right turn). We asked the police, if they could enforce these two matters, but didn't ask them to enforce no cycling on the footpaths."

Fortunately these signs below have now been removed - not sure what the intention of them was, but many drivers certainly interpreted them as an indication that cycling wasn't permitted on the bridge at all...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hills Road Bridge Guided Bus works

Just been speaking to the Guided Bus team about a number of issues with the Guided Bus works on Hills Road. The local press have presented this as a traffic nightmare causing complete chaos, I'm not sure it is quite as bad as all that, and the disruption needs to be put into the context of a major improvement to the public transport and cycling infrastructure in South Cambridge.


On the issue of the narrow traffic lanes - these have apparantly been designed such that cars should not be overtaking cyclists. At the moment there is a choice for cyclists between keeping close to the left and making an invitable dodgy overtaking manouvre as safe as possible, and cycling in the middle of the carriageway and risking the ire of impatient motorists. In view of my conversation, I think the latter is the best approach, and I hope that signage or other measures can be taken to ensure cars, taxis and buses understand the situation. For very slow cyclists, I think walking up the pavement might be a sensible second best solution. The signs on the southbound approach concerning cyclists also appear very misleading in view of the advice, so hopefully these can be looked at.

I have also reported the area of new tarmc in the middle of the Brooklands Av/Hills Rd junction, as the hole + ridge combination could be dangerous for cyclists coming off the bridge - hopefully this can be fixed.

I confirmed the working hours - the generally permitted hours are 7am to 7pm Mon-Fri + Sat morning, with some late night/Sunday working by arrangement. I have to say on some of the times I've crossed the bridge recently there hasn't appeared to have been a lot of work going on (although it could be all happening under the bridge...). In view of the disruption, it would be nice to think everything possible was being done to reduce the time taken.

Finally, for a project like this where road conditions change rapidly and there are lots of concerns, I think the Council's standard 2 week response time for emails is just too slow - I hope this can be speeded up in future...

UPDATE: Just seen what looked like a couple of PCSO's stopping people for cycling on the pavement over Hills Road bridge, so to re-iterate this isn't an acceptable option, although I can't help feeling the risk to cyclists on the road from other vehicles is the key safety problem here! The misleading signs also appear to have been taken down.

Mill Road Tesco again

Looks like the Tesco Squatters are making themselves at home.

East Area Committee

Thursday week is the first meeting of the East Area Committee I am due to attend since being elected. The City Councils area committees were set up by the Lib Dems around 2003/2004, and are designed to bring decision making closer to the people. So I will get together with other Councillors from Coleridge, Romsey, Abbey and Petersfield (because we have so much in common!) at 7.30pm on June 5th. Members of the public are welcome to join us at Cherry Trees Day Centre, St Matthews Street.

Trouble is, very few members of the public do turn up at these meetings - 30 would be a good turnout, or to put it another way, 30 people attend, over 24,000 residents of the relevant areas choose not to attend. Most of those who do attend are already actively involved in their local communities - I attended these meetings regularly last year as a Council candidate. Coleridge residents are much more likely to know what is happening in the ward and be able to influence events by reading our regular in Touch newsletters and contacting me personally. This would also be much more efficient - the meetings were originally budgeted to cost Council tax payers £100,000 per year - as members of the public are frequently almost outnumbered by paid Council officials and the Police who also attend, I dare say this cost has gone up since.

But Area Committees aren't merely a waste of Council Tax payers money - they actually seriously harm planning decision making, because at the end of the meetings, some local planning applications are decided by the Councillors. These are the applications too important to be decided by Council Officials, but not strategic enough to be decided by the full planning committee. This has a number of unfortunate consequences, beyond the mere fact that important decisions are often being made after 10pm at night by Councillors who could have been working all day.

Firstly, even though East Area Committees are held every 8 weeks, this is still enough to introduce significant delays in approving planning applications - the main planning committee meets monthly. This means targets aren't met for determining planning applications on time, which can cost the Council money, and in cases such as the Mill Road Tesco fiasco, can result in controversial decisions being appealed straight to the planning inspector in Bristol due to failure to determine the application in time.

But the key flaw is that all local Councillors are expected to be involved in deciding local planning applications - even if they are not interested in planning or adequately trained or experienced. As a result, the Council's Code of Conduct for Councillors prohibits them from taking a view on the application in advance, and therefore severely restricts the assistance they can give local residents to oppose or support a particular application.

For this reason, despite a keen interest in planning matters, I object in principle to the Area Committees deciding planning applications, and will refuse to take part in this part of the meeting.

In conclusion, the cost to Council Tax payers of these meetings is out of all proportion to the benefit, and in the case of planning decisions actually makes things worse. I think they should be scrapped, planning decisions moved back to the main planning committee (which should sometimes meet in the evening where there is a particularly controversial application such as Tescos), and replaced by ad-hoc ward or area meetings where there is a particular issue of keen local interest.

UPDATE: The agenda is now available here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

No longer a car owner

This week I finally sold my beloved car. I'd been meaning to do this for ages - since changing jobs I haven't needed it for work, so I was only driving 3-4,000 miles a year. The final straw was Gordon Brown's decision to put the tax on the car up from £210 to £415 next year, so I just couldn't justify the fixed costs of keeping the car on the road, and I'm now carless.

This changes to car taxes planned from next April year are gradually getting more attention - they are next year's 10p tax rate crisis for Gordon Brown (if he is still around by then!). The environmental grounds for punitive taxation of low usage older cars are completely spurious, its just a desperate tax grab amongst a supposedly captive audience, and one that has cost me dearly, as the value of my car clearly plummeted on budget day and I sold for a knock down price. But there are going to be so many people who are seriously affected by this (think pensioner on low income with low usage older car facing a £415 a year car tax bill...), that I still think there is a chance these new taxes will be reversed (with further choas caused to the second hand car market). As Gordon sits in his bunker claiming nothing is his fault, I seriously wonder if he has any idea what effect his policies are having on people in real life.

Meanwhile, its going to take a while to work out if I can really manage without a car. Most of my journeys are by bike, and I'm close to the station. I've discovered Tesco home delivery, which could replace most of my previous car journeys. There is also now a car share scheme in Cambridge, run by Streetcar - this looks great, but it seems just a bit expensive for hiring if you needed a car for a weekend, so I may stick with normal car rentals. One thing is for sure, getting rid of the car is going to leave plenty of cash for holidays - I've just bought a flight to Ireland for £2.42 return, fully inclusive!

Friday, May 23, 2008

City Council Annual Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mill Road Mosque

If you are interested in the plans for a new mosque in Cambridge on Mill Road, I have been sent the following link: I'm pleased to see that those behind the plans are seeking wider community involvement!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tesco Squatters

It appears the site of the prospective 'Tesco Local' on Mill Road has been taken over by squatters. In other developments, Tesco have now appealed against the refusal of permission to extend the former Wilco site on Mill Road Broadway, to add to their original appeal against the bungling City Council's failure to determine the orginal application within a reasonable period of time.

Usually the arrival of squatters is cause for deep dismay amongst local residents. With Tesco showing every sign of wanting to press on with opening a store regardless of local opposition, can't help feeling that these squatters will be looked upon rather more favourably.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Councillor Induction

This week is quite a busy one for the newly elected City Councillor. On Thursday there is the Annual meeting of the Council - members of the public are welcome to attend from 11am at the Guildhall.

The first part is mostly ceremonial, when the new mayor for the coming year is appointed (barring fireworks on the day this is due to be the current deputy mayor Mike Dixon).

The second part is the more political bunfight where Executive Councillors and committee chairs are selected - these are the key people with Executive power and responsibility for City Council Services (It can safely be assumed these will all be Liberal Democrat), and the Group Leaders will make an annual statement about their priorities for the year ahead. I am not a group, being only one, but hope to have a chance in the ensuing debate to start setting out the Conservative agenda for Cambridge. And a bit like Prime Ministers questions, I get the chance to ask a couple of oral questions (in advance), and follow up with a supplementary question on the day. Hopefully these can pin down the ruling group on some of their more ambiguous policy positions.

I've also had a meeting with Member Services yesterday, and handed over the rest of a huge list of issues from around the ward for various Council officers to follow up - its going to take a while to get action on all of these, and today I've met the Housing officer for Coleridge ward at City Homes South, to discuss various issues facing Council tenants that I picked up on the doorsteps during the election campaign.

All in all, a busy week, but hopefully making some progress.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tiverton House

In response to queries on the doorstep in the Tiverton Way area, I've asked the Council about future plans for Tiverton House, and in summary, this is the situation:

1) Disposal was approved in November 2007 by the Lib Dem City Council. A sales agent was appointed, and the final residents left in March. There has been some work going on to prepare sales materials.

2) The Council has not yet received any planning enquiries from interested parties but these are expected very soon as the full information packs are being sent to prospective purchasers

3) The planning officer is clear that there isn't any option other than residential use .There are two likely outcomes either the building will be retained and adapted internally to upgrade the flats and eliminate the design idiosyncrasies or it will be demolished and the site redeveloped residentially.

4) the Council as vendor would be unlikely to put constraints on the disposal as the main requirement is to maximise the sale receipt.In the case of internal adaptations and refurb the potential for nuisance for local residents should not be great . In the case of redevelopment there could be the normal impact associated with a building site but the Council as planning authority would can set working hours limits and require the developer to work to the considerate contractor scheme

So in short, it isn't clear yet what will happen to the building or the site, but I'll be keeping on the case when there is some more news to make sure the impact on local residents is kept as low as possible.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Corrie/Davy Junction

Quick bit of info...

Lots of people were concerned about parking near the Corrie Rd/Davy Rd junction - I've followed this up with the relevant people, who have inspected the site and confirmed that the yellow lines weren't properly re-instated after road resurfacing, and this will be fixed (hopefully reasonably shortly) to put them back to where they should be. Extending them beyond this is apparantly a wholly more complex question...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I'm back

I've just returned from a weeks holiday on the island of Vis, off Croatia (booked some time before the elections!), to a mountain of mail and email to get through - there are a huge number of briefings and key documents to read for new members of the Council, but my key priority is to try getting some action on the now long outstanding issues list from around the ward. There does finally seem to be some progress, and some meetings with key people at the Council needed to fix things are being put into the diary.

Vis is about a quarter of the way across the Adriatic from Croatia to Italy. Due to its strategic location, it has long been the scene of military action - in 1811, an outnumbered Sir William Hoste, who had served with Nelson, had a decisive naval victory against the French just off the Island, in one of the last naval battles of the Napoleonic wars. In World War II, an airstrip along the valley in the middle of the island was used as a stop off point for British planes. But its hard to believe now that in such a peaceful place unspoilt by hoards of rowdy tourists, men on the island were fighting a war in modern Europe on the Croatian mainland in the early 1990s.

Looking at my pile of paperwork, I'm thinking of the Croatian word Pomalo, which seems to be a bit of key word on Vis, but there's just too much to do!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

First with the News

The Cambridge Evening News is reporting that Cambridge muslims are looking to build a mosque on the former Robert Sayle site on Mill Road. Cambridge Conservatives hope to be in touch with leaders from the Cambridge muslim community to discuss the plans and investigate if these plans can be used to build links between the muslim and non-muslim communities in Cambridge.

Remember, you read it here first, nearly a month ago!

Congestion Charging Consultation

This morning at a packed presentation including Councillors, Council Officials and Press, the County Council announced results of the consultation exercises undertaken relating to congestion charging. I asked some questions about how the surveys were conducted, but have many more left to answer!

For me, the key result was from the question asked in door-to-door interviews (i.e. not a self selecting set of people), to what extent do you support the principle of congestion charging: (MRUK report, p56):

Strongly support: 7%
Tend to support: 24%
Neither support nor oppose: 19%
Tend to oppose: 16%
Strongly Oppose: 33%

I.e. opposing 49%, supporting 31%, in a statistically valid survey conducted across Cambridgeshire. In Coleridge whilst door-knocking, we found approx two-thirds against, one-third in favour. We also found that a lot of those in favour in principle became anti in scenarios in which they would be affected by the charge.

The Council's online survey (i.e. self selecting respondents) was even more anti-Congestion Charging, so those less happy with the plans were more likely to go out of their way to make their view known.

Despite these results, I also believe the questionnaire was designed to make it as hard as possible to disagree with congestion charging. The in 'principle' question was followed by the question: if all money raised was spent on improving transport, would you be in favour. Of course, more were then in favour, but the question is nonsense - there won't be any money raised, it will all go on administering the scheme - it may even cost money to operate. Why not ask, if the Congestion Charging scheme involved your car number plate being constantly tracked as you drove round Cambridge, would you still be in favour, or if the scheme didn't cover its costs and Council tax had to go up as well as paying the charge, would you still be in favour.

To me the result is clear - Cambridgeshire residents do not want congestion charging, and any politicians going to the polls next May still supporting it could be in for a rocky ride with the electorate - we must drop plans for Congestion charging now.

There was a slightly conspiratorial air to the meeting - the next big step for the Congestion Charging debate is the County Conservatives group meeting on Friday, when a new leader will be elected - this could trigger a change of tack from the County. I could tell you the gossip, but I'll be sensible...

Meanwhile I'd be interested to know what brief the market research company was given, and who came up with some of the blatantly biased questions. I feel some Freedom of Information requests may be coming on...

Full results and reports should be available from 5pm here.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Farming subsidies

During the election campaign, I was struck by the thought that in these times of high and rising food prices, there is no need for the government to subsidise farmers such as in the EU Common Agricultural Policy.

It seems the Economist this week has come round to the same way of thinking - I think there could be trouble ahead for the EU on this issue, as more and more people suffer from high taxes and high food prices, there is going to be fury and rightly so if farmers are enriching themselves as a consequence.

Officially a Councillor

I didn't get quite as much sleep as planned after the count on Friday morning because I was at the Guildhall just after midday on Friday to sign my acceptance of office and officially become a City Councillor.

It has to be said I have been disappointed with the response (or lack of) from both the City and County Council to my questions and requests over the last few months. In particular, earlier in the year, the planning department refused to meet with Conservative representatives including myself to talk about the major planning sites around the City, where in the planning process these sites were, and what influence members of the public and Councillors could have on the process going forwards. I took the opportunity to ask the Chief Executive why this was the case, and he confirmed that there are still some key posts unfilled. This is all worrying stuff, in view of the sheer amount of development that is planned, and I'll be raising this issue again.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Verdict

At around 2.15am after several recounts, and discussions over dubiously marked ballot papers, the result was finally announced that I won the election in Coleridge by a mere 14 votes. It was an amazing night of results in Cambridge City - the Greens winning Abbey ward to win a seat on Cambridge City Council for the first time, Labour retaking Arbury, but losing by a fair margin in Kings Hedges.

I would like to thank everyone who voted for me yesterday, and in particular my team of helpers, many of whom performed heroics to find those extra votes needed to win. Also, my sincerest commiserations to Tariq - to lose by such a small margin at a time of such (rightfully) huge Labour losses across the Country is no mean feat, and as much as I disagree with the Labour solution to many of Coleridge's problems, on many local ward issues I will doubtless be following up where he left off.

The title of this blog will change to reflect the new situation, and I hope to use it to keep residents informed of the issues affecting the ward, and what I have been doing to tackle them. Now I think some sleep is long overdue.

UPDATE: Full results available here.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Polls Open

Polls are now open in the City Council elections. You can vote today up to 10pm.

You can find your polling station on the City Council website here - but be warned the Council appears to have completely ignored my complaint that the postcode is wrong for the Lichfield Road polling station...