Thursday, July 31, 2008

Coleridge Highways Issues - On the case

Following a successful tour of Coleridge with the Cambridge South highways supervisor from the County Council last week, I raised a number of issues where there should now be some action:

Kelvin Close and Tiverton Way footpaths will be considered for a slurry seal next year to fix the broken up surfaces.

Cherry Hinton Road (opposite Budgens) drainage will have a more thorough examination of what is causing the problems, which needs to wait until EDF have finished their works.

Cherry Hinton Rd road surface repairs have been reported to Street Works and they should be getting the relevant service company in to make these defects safe.

Birdwood Road drop kerb repairs are ordered and being chased up with contractors, so works should be done shortly.

Missing safety railing on Perne Road roundabout is being ordered and will be refixed once it has arrived.

Radegund Road drainage (pavements at bottom of road near the shops) has been cleaned out. ADC the drainage contractor has identified a broken pipe and root damaged which has had a order raised to fix.

I have also made a couple of suggestions that I hope the Council can look into:

Putting small stickers on safety railings near junctions (e.g. Cherry Hinton Road and Hills Road) asking people to contact the Council if they see railings being struck - these railings are there to protect pedestrians, but there isn't enough money in the budgets to pay for replacements where they have been hit and bent but are still functional. If all accidents are reported promptly to the Council, it can be investigated to find out if the police are aware who is responsible for the damage and seek to claim costs of replacement back from the reckless drivers who would have mounted the pavement if it wasn't for the railings.

Finally, I am hoping to arrange a cycling trip around South Cambridge with the highways supervisor as this is the best way to identify the damaged road surfaces (Like Hills Road) that are causing cyclists real problems, to help prioritise road repairs.

If any local residents are aware of other highways maintenance issues, please be in touch and I try to get some action on your concerns.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The most ridiculous government comment ever?

On the BBC news website story about yet another government security breach when 3,000 blank passports and visa forms were stolen, I have just read what must be the most moronic comment ever uttered by a government spokesperson which is saying something:

"The passport service said the stolen documents could not be used by thieves because of their hi-tech embedded chip security features."

In case it isn't obvious, all the chip does is encode the information on the passport into written form. If this information is checked against a list of stolen passports it will be shown to be one of the stolen passports - but as the Register points out that is exactly the same situation regardless of whether the information is read from the passport itself or from the chip on the passport - the chip makes no difference in this case.

Of course, in the myriad of scenarios where a passport is presented as proof of identity without the chip being read, and when it isn't checked against any records of issued passports, these stolen passports will be invaluable to all manner of criminals, which is why the BBC article estimates the stolen passports to be worth £2.5m to criminals rather than the Government's ridiculous suggestion above that they are worthless.

I can barely contain my anger at the thought that the same government agency is planning to spend literally billions of pounds of our money on an ID card and national identity database, when it has proved again today that it is both incapable of ensuring security and is utterly, utterly clueless when it comes to understanding the benefits and risks of information technology solutions.


I've heard more than one complaint about the fact that both Mill Road and Hills Road bridges over the railway have been down to single lane working, and have just had a response back from my query to the County Council.

Apparantly the Mill Road works are emergency leak repairs by Cambridge Water so there was nothing that could be done to avoid having traffic on this bridge disrupted at the same time as the Guided Bus related works on Hills Road bridge. All very frustrating for everyone - the end of the Hills Road works can't come soon enough...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Spinning the Station Development

When I wrote that final amendments had been submitted by Ashwells, the developer behind the proposed CB1 station redevelopment, I was certainly a bit confused by what had actually happened.

The notification to Councillors of the amendments did not appear to amount to much in terms of scale - the biggest change being a proposed northern access road to the site. So it was surprising to say the least to read the spin in the local papers - final amendments had been submitted, and the plans had been scaled back 25%, implying those final amendments had significantly reduced the scale of the development.

In fact, nothing of the sort had occured. The first Ashwells planning application a year or two ago had been for a huge overdevelopment of the site, and was rejected by a Cambridge record number of planning reasons for refusal. A new application was submitted earlier this year, with a reduction of around 25% in building floor area, that Ashwells are currently trying to get through the planning process. The latest 'final' (although they probably won't be) amendments that were the basis of the stories in the local press did not make significant changes to floor space from the original resubmission earlier this year.

I would be very interested to know how the local press came up with its spin that the 'final amendments' represented a huge reduction in scale. If I was being cynical, this could be one of the oldest tricks in the book. Submit an application for a really gross overdevelopment of the site that is soundly rejected, then significant reductions in scale can be made sounding like a huge compromise, when in fact it is still more than the site should have.

What do I think of the application? I am not going to be making the decision on the planning committee, so am free to make my views known. (Cue repeat of my rant about Area Committees)

This still looks like an overdevelopment of the site to me.

The open space element is less than the City Council's planning standards require, and the proposal is for the developers to pay a 'commuted sum' to the Council, to spend on open space elsewhere in the City to compensate for this. Except the Council already has almost £4m in the bank for formal and informal open space previously paid by developers in similar situations -I don't know what this will be spent on, or even if the Council will be able to spend it, but it certainly won't be compensation for the fact that the station development needs more open space, particularly in front of the station in the new station square.

The development density also raises transport concerns - the plan to massively restrict car parking could result in huge additional parking pressure in Coleridge ward, and if we are going to make this work there needs to be huge improvements to cycle access to the site, including in my opinion a new southern cycle/foot bridge.

But the Council is to some extent being blackmailed - if we don't deliver the additional density and the sub-standard open space, the desperately needed redevelopment of the transport interchange at the station is at risk as Ashwell's claim the whole development won't be 'commercially viable'. As Mandy Rice-Davis might say if she was interested in planning and development control, they would say that wouldn't they.

We need to look very carefully at such claims by the developers, but we also need to look carefully at all the obligations being placed on the developers of the site, and what they are costing the developer. As ever, the Council is trying to get as many allocation rights to 'affordable' housing on the site as it thinks it can get away with, by forcing the developers to provide 40% of the residential land free to a housing association. But if the scheme really is on the borderline of commercial viability, it could well be the case that the subsidised rents enjoyed by the Council's chosen tenants on the site are far from costless - they could be being paid for by the travelling public in Cambridge suffering from an overdense site lacking public open space. As downward pressures continue on both the residential and commercial property sectors, Council's will have to stop seeing developers as a costless resource to meet their policy aims (which they never have been), and start to think about the economic effect of their planning obligations and how the policy objectives can be met in today's very different commercial environment.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Community Safety Survey - Please respond

The Safer Communities team at the City Council has been in touch. Tackling anti-social behaviour in Coleridge was one of my key election pledges, and as part of this I am encouraging residents to report all issues to the police and City Council, so that I can follow up by checking the police and Council are aware of all issues and taking appropriate action. I would therefore urge all Cambridge residents to complete the online survey. Anyway, here is the message from the Council:

Tell us about your views on, and experiences of, crime and disorder in Cambridge.

Cambridge Community Safety Partnership, together with the other partnerships in the County, is running an online survey to give people who live or work in Cambridge the chance to have their say on issues of crime and disorder.

Visit –

The information obtained by this survey will be incorporated into the 2008 ‘Strategic Assessment’ for the city. This document is produced annually and brings together all information held by different agencies and views of the public on crime and disorder. It enables the Partnership to identify the most important community safety issues in Cambridge and ensure funding and resources are directed to appropriately tackle these priorities.

We would be really grateful if you could give up a few minutes of your time to complete this online survey. Completed surveys will be put into a draw to stand the chance of winning £50 worth of high street vouchers. The survey will be online until 12th September 2008.

If you have any questions or would like a hard copy please contact Paul Griffin at Cambridge City Council on 01223 457045, or email

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Officers recommend Tesco Approval

The officers report about the latest Tesco Planning Application (which is for refrigeration plant and equipment that they would like to install in order to open a Mill Road Tesco without their earlier planned extension) is now available here.

As predicted, despite huge numbers of objections from around the City, the recommendation is for approval of the application, subject to conditions to protect local residents from noise nuisance from the plant. The officer has clearly indicated that the application needs to be judged on its merits, not on the merits of opening a Tesco per se, saying:

"In my opinion the application does not raise issues of highway safety, a view shared by the Local Highway Authority, which has chosen not to comment. As rehearsed previously, I do not
share the premise of many of the objectors, that highway safety is an issue in the consideration of the proposals for the condenser and the air conditioning plant, because approval of the plant will make certain the re-opening of the store and the traffic/congestion/safety issues rehearsed through the objections will arise out of that re-opening of a retail use by this applicant."

"While sympathetic to the concerns about the vitality and viability of the area and the perceived implications of the proposal for the well being of the local community and its diversity, I do not
agree with the standpoint that all those issues can be addressed on the back of a proposal for a relatively limited quantity of plant and equipment."

The application will be decided at the East Area Committee, agenda here, to be held:

Date: Thursday 31 July 2008
Time: 7.15pm for 7.30pm start
Place: St Philips Church, 185 Mill Road, Cambridge

In line with my personal policy, I will choose not to take part in deciding planning applications at this meeting despite being a member of the East Area Committee.

What are my views on this? I am not against Tesco's opening on Mill Road in principle, and there are pro's and con's to local residents of the introduction of some aggressive new competition.

That said, there are some very valid concerns about Tesco's plans, notably the impact from deliveries and customers to the local traffic situation. It was quite right for the extension plans to be refused for this reason.

If this application is approved next week (and I am struggling to see how Councillors can realistically object unless there really is something demonstrably dodgy about the noise reports), I think it is time for the objectors to recognise that Tesco has permission to open a store if they wish to do so, and move on to ensuring that all relevant traffic regulations are complied with and not altered for Tesco's convenience at the expense of local residents and other road users. For these aims, the campaigners would have my full support.

Redundant Traffic Sign Posts

Just had the following from the City Council - any suggestions, please be in touch:

The City Council has a modest residual budget allocated for the removal of redundant traffic sign posts; (ie. those not carrying any sign at all).

This budget has been in existence for some time and it is essential that the remaining balance be used during the current financial year.

Ideally I would arrange for a City-wide survey to be undertaken to locate redundant posts but depleted staffing resources preclude this at present.

I am therefore seeking your assistance in identifying any redundant sign posts within your Ward so that I can arrange for their removal.

Please give as much information as possible as to the location of any posts which you can identify; eg. relating to a house number or the junction of two roads; so that the Council's contractor can readily identify the item in question.

Finally, I would reiterate that I am looking for posts which are totally redundant rather than those carrying signs which might be considered redundant; the County Council has only agreed to the removal of posts, not signs.

Update: My first suggestion, remove this redundant lighting pole from Cherry Hinton Road:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Local Politicians Working Together Shocker

For those of you who think local politicians spend all their time criticising each other, I bring news of the Guided Bus southern liaison meeting last week, when Councillors and residents got to grill the heads of the Guided Bus project from the County Council and from the contractors Nuttells. I attended, along with one of our three Labour Councillors (and it always seems to be the same one at these types of meetings - where are the other two? Ooops, I digress...). It has to be said, we again found ourselves in agreement about the management of the Roadworks on Hills Road.

We shared significant concerns about the way Hills Road roadworks are being managed, particularly at the times of single lane working.

The message back was that this operation had been reviewed, they were trying to manage the traffic as best they can, and nothing more can be done. The problem is a health and safety risk raised at a late stage by the piling contractors - despite protection of the equipment, there is a risk of material from the drilling falling onto vehicles on the neighbouring carriageway when drilling is taking place, so at these times the bridge has to be reduced to single lane working.

Local Councillors are heavily dependent on the advice of experts in this situation, but looking at the traffic chaos that occurs at the Cherry Hinton Road junction when there is single lane working, the illegal and dangerous turning manouevres in Homerton Street and the unequal traffic flows from Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road, we just weren't convinced that more couldn't be done. I'm also sceptical that the overall approach to risk management is very sensible - focusing on a minute risk with limited damage if it goes wrong and causing choas as a result, and ignoring the dangerous pothole in the middle of the Brooklands Avenue junction that has been reported repeatedly for weeks and the crazy driving by some people.

As a result of the meeting:
  • The officers are going to look again at traffic management during single lane working.
  • We are going to request a meeting with a senior police officer to find out why repeated requests for police enforcement action have been ignored.
There are two more spells of single lane working - one from now for a few days, and a further period of 10-14 days towards the end of September. Work on the station forecourt will begin in Autumn 2008 - this could cause some problems there as the short stay car parking will need to be moved. Roll on completion of the project in 2009!

One of the benefits of electing a Conservative Councillor in May was that Labour Councillors are having to raise their game from the complacency of the last 20 years, so it should be a good time for residents to get things done around the ward. Whilst I think many of Labour's policies generally are a disaster for Coleridge (like forcing housing targets and planning policies on us, and trying to blackmail the County Council into accepting congestion charging), there are a number of local ward issues where Coleridge Councillors from different parties agree - lets hope we can continue to work together for local residents in these cases.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Big Business is watching you

I'm told that the controversial Google streetview cameras have been spotted in Coleridge...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Open Season on Council Financial Information

I've just discovered something that looks genuinely amazing. Its called the Audit Commission Act 1998. It may not sound very exciting (having audit in the title doesn't help in this respect), but it does appear to give astonishing rights to local residents to look into the accounts of the Council. For a short period of time after the Council's accounts are audited, residents living in the relevant area have a right to inspect any financial records making up those accounts. And it appears that aspects like commercial confidentiality don't come in to it - just about the only exception is records relating to employees payroll.

And the good news is - it is currently open season for Cambridge City Council accounts until August 26th. For Cambridgeshire County Council, you will have to contain your excitement until 13th August for open season to begin.

What I think this means is that if you want to inspect any invoices or contracts relating to last year's City Council accounts you can do, and take copies. Want to know how much various contractors have been paid, or who the Council is doing business with and on what terms - just ask. As a Councillor I can ask and would expect to see most information I wanted, but I think conditions would apply - like having a reason for wanting it in relation to my role as a Councillor, and respecting confidentiality. The Audit Commission Act appears to give all residents very wide powers to inspect information during open season - I can certainly think of a few long term contracts I have already asked about since May that I wouldn't mind reading (and reading them would beat counting sheep for insomnia).

I still can't quite believe the right to information is as strong as presented to me, but I understand Freedom of Information (FOI) campaigners are using the act to challenge where Councils are refusing to release documents outside the open season under FOI legislation due to commercial confidentiality, when there was an absolute right for the public to read the documents during open season so how can they be called confidential. There are also some interesting implications from a data protection angle, but that is another story.

If anyone does try using these powers in Cambridge, please let me know how you get on.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cambridge Station Area Redevelopment

Ashwells have submitted revisions to their planning application for the station area, partly to reflect points raised at the development control forum. I think it is fair to say this is a fairly final set of changes and they are really hoping to get these plans through, but we'll see how well they go down with the planning committee.

The CEN is claiming the news plans represent a significant reduction in floor area, although I have to say I'm struggling to see the significant changes from the summary I have seen, other than the plans now including vehicle access to the new Station Square and multi-storey car park via a northern access road off Tenison Road, so I'm trying to find out what the reductions in size have been from and to.

Final comments need to be received by Tuesday 12th August, and there will be a public feedback meeting held on Thursday 7th August from 7pm to 10pm in the Small Hall, Guildhall (date presumably subject to David Howarth's travel plans) where the developers will present proposals and take questions from members of the public. (questions should be submitted in advance by 4th August to

Contraflow cycling on one-way streets

Maybe the Department for Transport reads my blog, but after Monday's prod, I have received a response to my complaint about the signage for contraflow cycling on one way streets:

"Dear Councillor Howell
Thank you for your email and the questions that you have raised. As you may be aware, traffic signs and road markings are prescribed in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 (TSRGD). The "No entry" sign is to diagram 616 in Schedule 2 and the cycle route sign is to diagram 955 in Schedule 6 of the Regulations. TSRGD can be viewed online at .

You can not use the "No entry" sign and the cycle route sign in the manner that you have suggested as it is not a prescribed use of the signs - the prohibition of the "No entry" sign extends across the entry point of the side road and clearly you can not then use a sign that allows cycles to past that point. If there is a physical segregation this, in effect, creates two distinct routes and then these signs are permitted. Figure 1 in the contraflow leaflet shows this road layout, the "No entry" sign is sited on the small traffic island and the opposite side of the side road, leaving the cycle route unhindered by any restriction/prohibition, allowing the use of the cycle route sign.
Kind regards xxxxx"

So in conclusion, yes we do have to use the signage specified. But there was no response to my request to actually change the regulations, so I've sent them another email:

Many thanks for your reply (below) to my original email outlining the statutory basis for the permitted signage for contra-flow cycle lanes.

The essence of my original email (also below) is that the current regulations relating to contra-flow cycle lanes are not fit for purpose, and are causing difficulties for law enforcement and traffic management on the ground.

Further to the evidence in my original email, I would draw you attention to the agenda of the Cambridge Traffic Management Area Joint Committee held on 14/7/08, item 5 e) Cycling in one-way streets off Mill Road,where both the petition presented to the committee and the discussion at the meeting highlighted the serious difficulties the current signage regulations are causing.

I would be grateful if you could please let me know what the process is for changing these regulations. Is there a general update of theTraffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 planned, and if so, what is the current timetable for this? Alternatively, is it possible to amend the TSRGD 2002 statutory instrument?

Can the request to change these regulations as indicated in my original email (or after consultation with the many cycling campaign groups who are desperate for a change in this area) please be considered by the appropriate official, and let me know whether any changes in this area are planned or are likely to be acceptable, and if not, why not?

Can you please let me know which minister currently has the responsibility for these regulations?

Many thanks,
Councillor Chris Howell

Complete our latest survey on line

If you are a Coleridge resident, you should shortly be receiving our latest In Touch newsletter.

This month we are including a resident's survey covering two of the key issues in the ward at the moment - speeding and rat-running on residential roads, and crime/anti-social behaviour. We are keen to know your views on these issues, so we can try to persuade the powers that be to take some action.

In particular, as mentioned before, there may be scope for residents action groups to tackle speeding drivers, so we are keen to know if any local residents are interested in this idea and would like to help take it forward.

On crime and anti-social behaviour, we are concerned about under-reporting of problems, and want to make sure that the police and City Council are fully aware of all the problems so they can direct appropriate resources.(We will be discussing all the problems noted with the police, anonymously unless you are happy to let the police know who is reporting the problems). And the police are also trying to restart neighbourhood watch schemes, so we are keen to hear from residents interested in getting involved in this.

For the first time in Coleridge, the survey is available online at

The resident's survey is intended for Coleridge residents, but if you are elsewhere in the City and have strong views on the issues, please feel free to fill in the survey and we will try to follow up the issues.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Strike set to hit local Councils

Members of the Unison Union are planning strike action on 16th/17th July this week in a national dispute over pay.

There is expected to be some disruption (including in refuse collection), but the exact levels of disruption will depend on the extent to which unions that aren't striking won't cross picket lines. Further information on the impact is available from the County Council and City Council and further updates will be made to these Council websites as they become available.

I have a lot of sympathy for workers affected by the current state of the economy - the Government view of inflation that determines pay rises appears to be a complete work of fiction to those affected by rising fuel, food and utilities bills. But this is a problem affecting everyone, and the Governments wasteful spending policies of the last few years have left no room for tax cuts, so there is no alternatives left to offset the effects of inflation, and household budgets are going to be stretched this year - thanks to Gordon Brown, we are all going to be poorer this year, and so strike action can't be the right way forward in this dispute.

Coleridge Traffic Issues on the Agenda

Two Coleridge traffic issues were subject to petitions at the Cambridge Traffic Management Area Joint Committee today.

Credit where it is due to the former Labour Councillor for Coleridge who in his role as a school governor supported parents bringing a petition requesting a new pedestrian crossing on Perne Road – close to the schools on Radegund Road. Most shocking aspect of this is the fact that there has been no lollipop person at the site for some time despite there being a vacancy for some years – and it was felt that the problems of dealing with secondary school pupils might have affected the ability to recruit. The petition was noted and various suggestions for budgets that might finance a crossing were given. However in the first instance, I don’t think it should be beyond the Council to get this vacancy filled – be in touch if anyone has any suggestions.

Less credit to Labour Councillors on the issue of parking controls on Rustat Road – unfortunately they failed to respond to requests for areas to consider for consultation for on street parking controls, and a decision was made as recently as April 2008 to consult in neighbouring areas of Queen Ediths, and it is difficult to revisit a decision just made within 12 months – as I found out when I asked for urgent action on this soon after election.

A petition was presented now asking for Rustat Road to be included in the consultation exercise due to occur in Queen Ediths. There is a real problem now in Rustat Road, and the new developments with permission on the Tim Brinton site and The Cambridge Water site, and the massive application currently under consideration for the station area will all add to the problems, as will any new parking controls in Queen Ediths. Despite pleas from myself and one of our Labour Councillors and support from Labour and the Conservative County Councillor on this committee, the Lib Dems blocked the plea to include the area in consultations for new parking controls – instead preferring the dogs breakfast of consulting Rustat Road residents on what they think of new parking controls in Queen Ediths. They just don’t seem to care about residents outside their ward. As we are both moving in the same direction, I hope Labour ward Councillors can work with me to tackle this issue going forwards.

Also on the agenda was the problematic signage for 2-way cycle usage on one way streets. I’m still waiting for a meaningful reply from my email to the government...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Post Office Meeting Changed

The City Council's main consultation meeting about the post office closures has had its date changed from 22nd July - it will now be held on Monday 11th August, from 7pm at the Guildhall.

Opposing the post office closures planned for Cambridge needs everyone to work together - the last thing we need is this sort of shambolic organisation from the Liberal Democrats running Cambridge City Council. At the Councillor briefing on Thursday, there was no mention of a date change. By Friday evening, a press release had been issued changing the date without consultation - at least with the Conservative representative on the panel.

The official excuse is to dump the Council officers in it: "This is to give officers more time to publicise the meeting to ensure that as many people as possible can attend and have their say." They have had weeks to publicise the meeting date, it has been in diaries for ages. We have heard a different excuse, and will certainly want to know if any senior Cambridge Liberal Democrats are on a foreign trip on the 22nd July.

Our latest In Touch newsletter was printed in Friday - it will now need to be delivered with a correction slip. I just hope residents aren't put out by either turning up on the previously publicised date, or because they are on holiday on the new date.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Post Office thoughts

There was a briefing for Councillors last night from the Post Office, Postwatch and the County Council about closures planned for the City. A few things emerged.

Not for the first time, it was suggested that work behind the scenes by the County Council and Postwatch prior to the closures may have resulted in fewer closures being announced - worst case scenarios were losing up to 40 Post Offices in the County, compared to the 23 announced. Not much consolation to Coleridge with one of its post offices on the list though...

The timing of the consultation is, to say the least, unfortunate. All three in Cambridge marked for closure are in areas with large student populations - and these students will have left Cambridge for the Summer before closures were announced, and will return after the consultation closes - the closing date for the consultation must be changed to allow their views to be heard.

There are areas of the City that desperately need new Post Offices rather than closures, such as the Barnwell area of Abbey, and Queen Ediths ward to the South (which will be affected by the St Johns closure). I know Andrew Lansley MP is talking to the post office to try getting a new branch at Addenbrokes.

Finally, I think the new development planned for the area around the St John's post office, coupled with the lack of alternatives in Queen Ediths ward are strong grounds for retaining this post office - there are hundreds of new homes built or with planning permission on the Tim Brinton site, The Cambridge Water site, Shaftesbury Road, and I hope this argument can be made strongly to the Post Office.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hills Road Roadworks - Update

I've had some information back from the Guided Bus team following the myriad of complaints about the effect of the single lane working:

"The single lane operation has been introduced to provide a safety zone around the piling rig. The piling rig is in effect a very large drill. Although there are devices to prevent this happening there is a risk of material sticking to the drill and falling off from a considerable height. The closure of the extra lane and the footpath are to ensure that if this happens it doesn't land on a member of the public. I appreciate that it may appear that the lane is not being used, or only used to park vehicles, but this is not in fact the case. The lane is re-opened as soon as possible after piling operations are concluded.

The first phase of piling should have been completed yesterday. So there will be a respite for a week or so while the road surface istemporarily re-instated and the traffic management re-organised to allowus to pile the central section. There are fewer piles in this section so it should be done more quickly."

And while I remember, I did get an explanation from the police as to why they were targetting cyclists on the pavements on the Hills Road Bridge earlier:

"the ticketing of cyclists on the pavement there was at the request of the South area committee in response to complaints by pedestrians and was part of agreed action on priorities".

In case you are interested, members of the South Area Committee can be contacted as follows:

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

County Initiatives set to help Coleridge

At a briefing yesterday for Councillors in the City from the Conservative run County Council, a couple of initiatives were mentioned that should be good news for Coleridge.

The first is that following a pilot scheme in St Neots, the County Council trading standards department in association with the police has launched a Community Alcohol partnership in Cambridge to tackle underage drinking, and Coleridge is one of the three wards set to benefit. The aim is to get the various parties tackling underage drinking to work together to stop the problems. There will be work with retailers to stop under 18s buying alcohol. However, it was shocking to discover that many underage drinkers discovered by the police get their alcohol from adults and even their parents. So as well as involving the police to crack down on underage drinking in public, the the new campaign also involves education in schools and communication of the problems to adults.

The other initiative of interest was the suggestion that the Council could support community anti-speeding groups, who can hopefully monitor problem roads, identify drivers going to fast, which could either result in advice being issued by the police, or more targetted police enforcement action. I have long been disappointed with police response to the problems of speeding on various roads in the ward, and the inflexibility and cost of many of the proposed solutions to the problem such as traffic calming or fixed cameras - a community based approach could encourage more drivers to behave responsibly on their local roads.

Both these initiatives should have the ability to target action on those who aren't being responsible and are causing problems, and I fully support them.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Post Office Closure Links

Following the news that Coleridge ward is to be hit by the closure of St Johns post office, here are some links to further information that may be helpful.

County Council press release listing closures.

Cambridgeshire ACRE advice page on closures. Details on how to complain are in the document here - it suggests that complaints need to address the issues in the branch access report here - the Coleridge branch facing closure is on page 55. A good line of attack to start with might be the huge numbers of additional dwellings due to be built in the immediate neighbourhood (most of which assume ludicrously low levels of car ownership!)

The Conservatives Post Offices action plan and online petition.

Cambridge City Council Post Office Closures page

City Council closure meeting press release.

The Post Office 'Network Change Program' (aka shutting post offices) pages - follow the links to information about the closure program and how to register your complaint.

Please write to the post office as indicated in the links above or attend the City Council's meeting on 22nd July (7pm to 9pm in the Large Hall at the Guildhall) to complain about Labour's post office closure program hitting Coleridge.

UPDATE: The meeting date has been changed at late notice to 11th August.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Recycling Ideas

A few weeks ago now I met with some Council officers to discuss recycling performance in Cambridge, and the apparent contradiction between the City Council’s claims to be leading its ‘peer group’ of Council’s when it comes to recycling, and the fact it has fallen behind neighbouring Conservative lead Councils in Cambridgeshire like Huntingdonshire and Peterborough in recycling performance.

It is fair to say that few people find refuse collection the most riveting topic (in the list of exceptions to this, a certain City Councillor springs readily to mind) – but it is also true that for many people refuse collection is the only Council provided service they can readily identify, so when life is made harder or more expensive, residents want to know where their extortionate Council tax is going. Moving general refuse collection to fortnightly is bad enough for some people, spying on bins and fining people for not recycling causes another level of outrage.

I didn’t blog at the time on recycling with some of the huge amount of detail I picked up the other week, but Gordon Brown’s headline news today asking people not to waste food has caused me to think again about the issue. Rather than the usual Labour spin/gimmick/initiative, today’s news may be rather more meaningful for a change. One of the facts I learnt when I met the recycling officers was that the average household throws away £400 of food per year. Imagine not doing that, and saving £400 a year – a reduction in Council tax of this amount would be huge.

The trouble with recycling is that what is sensible and what appears obvious aren’t always consistent. We ship plastic chips from bottles for recycling back to China. Seems daft – except the ships may be going back empty, and China is the only place where waste plastic can be used. And on today's topic of food waste, a commentator pointed out that planning ahead – buying ingredients days in advance at the supermarket may actually cause waste if plans change and food goes out of date - better to keep the minimum of fresh food in the fridge on a necessity rather than 'may be needed' basis.

I believe the Council can and should be doing more to encourage recycling, but how should it go about this? – I have some general principles:

1.Although many residents do care about recycling, or rather reducing waste, in general local Councils care much more. This is because they have to deal with much bigger problems than fortnightly bin collections, such as where to site controversial landfill pits or incinerators, management of said facilities to reduce their toxic by-products, paying landfill tax etc – hence the disconnect between the extreme measures some Councils want to introduce and resident’s acceptance. We need to educate residents, and encourage the idea that it is a social responsibility to reduce waste where possible.

2. Carrots not sticks. We shouldn’t attempt to coerce, fine, or bully people into reducing waste and helping with recycling (we already pay enough to the Council) - it needs to be positively in people’s interests. Hence my enthusiasm for Gordon Brown’s announcement today, but with high prices for all commodities such as packaging, it should become increasingly clear that throwing away useful materials is ultimately costing people money.

3. Recycling needs to be made as convenient as possible. The current rules and sorting required are just too complex – we need to make more sorting and recycling automated and mechanised, we need to make collection of all types of recyclable materials easier for residents so that recycling is easy to understand and easy to do. Other areas are better at this than Cambridge.

4. Finally, more of the focus should be on producers of waste – manufacturers, as this is where the real progress needs to be made in reducing the amount of waste with products, and making them more recyclable. The WEEE waste directive is a step in the right direction, but it is pressure from the consumers, not the government that will move producers fastest. For example, on food products all too often consumers go out of their way to buy the pretty/overpackaged/overpriced products (for reasons best known to experts in behavioural aspects of marketing) – a product in a colourful outer cardboard wrap will outsell a bland, minimally packaged tub of essentially the same foodstuff. We need a widespread change in consumer attitude to start looking critically at how products are made and packaged, and avoiding those with excessive packaging. Campaign groups are already working on this, we need to get to the consumer tipping point that will result in real action.

I hope to be able to develop these ideas into some specific policy suggestions over the next 4 years!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Coleridge hit by Post Office Closures

Although the list of Cambridgeshire Post Office closures is not officially announced until 10th July, the CEN is reporting that the St Johns Post Office on Hills Road, just inside Coleridge ward is amongst the 3 in Cambridge to shut.

I will be making the case as best as possible for this post office not to be closed - as well as being my closest post office, it seems well used and is an area of huge new developments - including the site opposite that has just been granted planning permission for over 100 new homes - to close it now would be very short sighted indeed.

Yet again Coleridge is being let down by a Labour government that will have shut over a third of the post office network by the time it is thrown out of office in 2010. Prior to the latest 3 closures, the number of Post Offices in Cambridge had already fallen from 21 in 1999 to 16.

The Conservatives have put forward an action plan to allow a better business case to be made for keeping Post Offices open, and tried to stop the closures in parliament.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Perne Road Shops again

I met with the agent responsible for the Perne Rd Roundabout shops yesterday. They are now definitely aware of my concerns for the site, and the need for urgent action.

Subject to successful negotiation with the relevant parties, they are hoping to put in a planning application in 3-4 months time for a 'refurbishment with extension' project that will result in shops with flats above.

I am hopefully that the agents will be speaking to the planners and ideally local residents in advance of the planning application submission to check what they are proposing is likely to be acceptable, so there aren't any further delays to the project, but this will clearly depend on the details of the final application submitted. In any case I'll be monitoring progress to check there aren't any unnecessary delays...

Property Prices down 47% in Cambridgeshire?

I have a vested interest in house prices falling - I sold up a couple of years ago, and cannot imagine what has been supporting the prices people have been prepared to pay to buy houses since.

With the average 2 year fixed rate mortgage interest hitting 7%, the financing costs alone of a £200,000 property are £14,000 a year, or £1,166 a month. (Even if you don't have a 100% mortgage, you are still forgoing interest on the deposit put down...). Added to this the additional costs of being a homeowner (redecoration, insurance, depreciation of the kitchen, bathroom, boiler, roof, windows etc), and the transaction costs of buying and selling. Then consider that property currently 'valued' at about £200k in Cambridge could probably be rented for about £700-£900 per month. In other words, unless there is a huge _rise_ in house prices to compensate owners for the additional costs, it is much much cheaper to rent, and landlords are subsidising tenants for each month they are living in a property. As tragic as it is for those who find themselves in a property worth less than they paid for it, and unable to pay the mortgage, either rents are going to rise significantly (unlikely in the current climate), or I can only conclude there are sharp falls still to come in house values.

One problem with a falling house market needing sharp correction is it becomes unclear how much a house is worth - i.e. when the bottom has been hit, but clues can probably be found by looking at auction results, and I came across a property up for auction last week - a flat in Cambourne High Street. Despite a reserve of only £85k, the flat failed to sell, attracting a highest bid of £82k. So looking at, I found out how much the flat last sold for. It's a bit unclear what happened here, because there are two transactions recorded for the property both on 14th December 2006, one at £115k, and one at an incredible £155k, but on the face of it the value of this property could have fallen 47% in only 18 months from £155k to £82k

If house prices do fall anything like this (and I think they are still overvalued by about 25-30% in Cambridge), there is going to be serious consequences for many people. But there will also be serious question marks over Government and the Council's housing policy - despite a decade of the biggest boom in house prices ever, policies designed to dramatically increase the desperately needed supply of housing have simply failed to deliver. On major sites around Cambridge, the big housebuilders are already downing tools - the Council has blown it. The reason - ever greater demands on developers to gift land to Housing Associations for homes to be let to the chosen few on subsidised rents (so called affordable housing), and to sign Section 106 agreements handing over millions of pounds to fund the Council's shopping list of projects in the local area, some with only tenous connections to the development in question. Because taxpayers don't pick up the bill directly, what is effectively millions of pounds of taxation has been sought locally with the minimum of democratic scrutiny, paid for by the unnecessarily inflated cost of new homes in the private sector, and most disadvantaging those in the middle - the hard working families with low paid private sector jobs, priced out of the private sector housing market, and not qualifying for the so-called 'key-worker' housing whatever that means. This is chronically unjust.

As the truth dawns on local Councils that their housing policies have failed, developers will just say no even to existing s106 agreements, and a major rethink will be necessary to allow the housing that people desperately need to be developed in a way that people will accept.