Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pink Festival Noise?

Was anyone else disturbed by noise from the Pink Festival at Cherry Hinton Hall yesterday? It seemed pretty loud to me from here in Argyle Street, and I will be following up a complaint from a resident about the noise. I think the Pink Festival could be a worthy addition to the Cambridge calendar of community events, but not if it is going to cause unnecessary disturbance to local residents.

I've asked the Council what conditions were placed on the events organisers with regard to noise and what can be done to avoid problems in future.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

An Apology!

In the chaos of moving house and unpacking boxes, I haven't been able to chase up replies to emails sent to Council officers on various ward issues where I didn't get a reply, so there are a few people who have been waiting for too long for me to get back to them with a response or action plan - I can only apologise.

It appears that there is a problem with the way the City Council's email systems have been handling my emails, as a result recent mails have found their way into a Spam trap at the Council, and as a result they haven't been received or answered by the relevant people.

For the technical minded, the problem appears to be that my email signature includes a link to this blog. For reasons which were a bit unclear, a little while ago the anti-spam blacklists included the whole domain, so any emails including a link to a blogspot blog were at risk of being marked as spam. I think this problem has now been fixed, but the Council's Spam checkers are still blocking such emails.

This is potentially a very serious problem if it results in emails from members of the public being ignored by the Council. If there is anyone more clued up than me on spam filtering techniques reading, I'd be interested to know:

Is it reasonable for a spam filter to mark as spam any email that includes a web address?

The Council notifies users about potential spam emails not delivered with a summary list of from addresses and subject lines - this clearly isn't resulting in real emails being identified - does this policy sound reasonable or what more can be done to avoid genuine emails being mislaid?

Also, please let me know if you have sent emails to the City Council that don't appear to have had any response...

Tesco Gives Up on Hanley Grange Eco Town

The local BBC news this lunchtime are reporting that Tesco has abandoned plans to develop Hanley Grange as an Eco Town. Whilst they will doubtless keep an interest in the site and try again at some point, this is clearly a fantastic result for all those (including Cambridge Conservatives) who have opposed these ill-thought out plans - many congratulations to the Stop Hanley Grange campaign.

It is also another blow to the Labour Government and its plans to dump thousands of new homes on Cambridgeshire against the wishes of local people. With every passing day their authority and ability to implement deeply unpopular policies diminishes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gordon Brown Stuffs Cambridge City on Free Bus Passes

Gordon Brown announced with much fanfare his new policy of nationwide free concessionary bus fares. From 01 April 2008, anyone over 60 or who is disabled, qualifies for a national bus pass which will allow free off-peak local travel anywhere in England. Gordon Brown also claimed that the scheme would be completely funded by the Government Nationally.

Sadly, Council tax payers in Cambridge City are about to discover just how worthless reassurances like this from the Prime Minister are - we are going to be well and truly stuffed.

At a briefing meeting last week ahead of the Strategy Scrutiny committee, we discussed the City Council's 'Medium Term Strategy' - its five year financial forecast that aims to keep the Council on a firm financial footing by looking at the challenges and opportunities ahead. Amongst these was an updated forecast for what the cost of Gordon Brown's 'free' concessionary bus fares would be to Cambridge City - the estimate has risen from £660k to approx £1.3 million pounds - that is the difference between what the City Council expects to pay Stagecoach and what the City Council expects to receive from the Government - a policy forced on the City by the Government, with costs over which the Council has little control.

Reading this post you might think that it can be dismissed as a party political rant - certainly Labour suggested the Council keeps quiet and lobbies the Government for more funding in the background. People certainly get more immune to Government claims and reassurances that turn out to be worthless. So we need to be absolutely clear here - this is an absolute scandal of massive proportions. To put it into context - this extra money that the Council needs to find accounts for 20% of the City Council part of Council Tax bills, just to fund another of Gordon Brown's broken promises.

I was elected on a pledge to put the Council Tax payer first - I have and will continue to argue that in the current economic climate our Councils need to tighten their belts like everyone else, make some challenging savings and cut or at least keep down rises in Council tax. The tragedy of this news is that the Council will have to find the challenging savings, but will still need to put up Council tax by an inflation busting 4.5% year on year, which is deeply depressing for those struggling with ever greater bills of all types. I still think we can and should find a way to restrict Council Tax costs that are rising out of control, but the first task is for the Council to lobby the Government and let them know the scale of the damage they have inflicted to City Council budgets. This story isn't going to go away any time soon.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Post Office Consultation Response

Blogging has been a little light recently as I have been moving house, but the deadline for the consultation on Labour's post office closure program hitting Cambridge is tomorrow, so I have submitted the following response:

Network Change Programme: Area Plan Proposal Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and South Lincolnshire

Response to Consultation

This is a response from Councillor Chris Howell, a member of Cambridge City Council representing Coleridge ward to the Area Plan Proposal Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and South Lincolnshire.

I am writing to object to the planned closure of 3 Post Offices in the Cambridge City Area, and specifically to oppose the proposed closure to St Johns Post Office on Hills Road in Coleridge Ward. There should be no reason why the current network in Cambridge City should not be viable as it is, and indeed it urgently needs to be expanded to address areas currently lacking in provision such as Barnwell in Abbey Ward, and in the South of the City such as Addenbrokes, where St Johns is actually already the most convenient alternative.

Factors Relevant to all Post Offices in Cambridge Under Threat

Population Growth Generally
Cambridgeshire’s population has grown by 26% since 1981 (per Cambridgeshire County Council Research Group population estimates 1981-2006) and the County is forecast to be among the fastest growing in the country over the next fifteen years (per Office for National Statistics 2004-based population projections). There is significant government pressure to build homes in the County, and much of the planned growth will be in the Southern Cambridgeshire sub-region – locally produced estimates indicate the population in the City could increase by over 30% over the next 15-20 years.

Growth in student numbers
Both Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin University have expanded student numbers greatly over recent years (e.g. Cambridge University total undergraduates and post graduates increased from 12,118 to 17,845 from 1981-2007 -, and this trend is expected to continue. All three post offices threatened with closure are in areas with significant student populations.

New business opportunities
There are many areas that post offices could expand into, notably the increased provision of government services (e.g. a ‘Government GP’ service as proposed by the Conservatives), and there is huge political goodwill from all parties to make this type of arrangement work.

Pressure on the Central Post Office
The Central Post Office in Cambridge is already busy at peak periods, and will not be able to support additional visits from nearby Post Offices closing – in another area I am aware of shutting the local sub post office to the main office resulted in unacceptable levels of queuing.

St John’s Post Office, Hills Road,
St John’s Post Office is centred on an area of extraordinary population growth. Over 2,000 new homes are either recently completed, under construction or have detailed approved planning permission, including major sites within 100 yards of the post office. The precise sites are detailed in the formal response from Cambridge City Council. This will clearly increase visits to the Post Office far in excess of the current levels. There is also a major redevelopment planned for the nearby station area.

Lack of Post Office Coverage in South Cambridge
Following the earlier closure of the Wulfstan Way Post Office, vast areas of the South of Cambridge, including Addenbrokes Hospital are now a long way from a post office – for many people in Queen Edith’s ward in particular, St Johns is currently their local post office, and its closure will require them to travel further. The journey to the alternative on Hills Road or the Central Post Office requires a journey down a busy and frequently congested main road.

Lack of suitable alternatives
The most obvious alternative, Cherry Hinton Road has restricted opening times, including shutting over the key lunchtime period. If St Johns is shut, the Post Office must ensure that Cherry Hinton Road branch is open for longer including lunch times.

Finally, consultation arrangements have been unfortunate to say the least for the student population – all three earmarked for closure are in areas heavily populated with students, either from the central colleges, or in the case of St Johns from neighbouring Homerton College. As it stands, students will have left Cambridge for the summer prior to the closures being announced, and will return after the closure of the consultation. If there is any sense in which the consultation is a meaningful exercise, the deadline for responses must be extended into the Autumn to allow representations from students and student organisations.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

All Time Favourite

I've just rediscovered one of my all time favourite political speeches - from William Hague's demolition in the House of Commons of the Lisbon Treaty, the rehashed European Constitution.

What a pity our local MP broke his election promise to support a referendum on the European Constitution, as the Government went on to ratify the treaty despite Ireland's No vote and performances like that above from William Hague...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Britten Place Pavements Revisited

I checked the state of this paving in Britten Place and nearby in Trevone Place last week. As this area forms a part of the surrounding housing, it falls under the responsibility of the City Council. Chris Howell had reported this area back in April and it was earmarked for improvements this year, hence the tape that had been erected to surround the area.

Unfortunately the condition of the paving has deteriorated further and is now quite dangerous, while the posts and warning tape have fallen down. We have now asked if something can be done sooner rather than later.

If there is anywhere else that needs attention then the Fix My Street website is an excellent way of reporting it as reports go directly to the council as well as being available for other interested parties to check on progress. Your Coleridge Conservative team is happy to help chase up such issues.

UPDATE: The City Council has now said that works should be undertaken within the next two months that will see the paving slabs replaced with tarmac - we want faster action but it is significant progress to have a date that we can try to hold the Council to. CJH

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Station Area Comments

Prior to the deadline for comments last week, I have submitted the following comments on the amended Station Area planning application for Ashwell's CB1 scheme:

I am writing to object to the above (revised) planning application.
The essence of the objection is that the density of the proposed
redevelopment for the whole site (in terms of total sq ft of
floorspace) is too high, with the following adverse consequences:

1. Lack of sufficient public open space. The area dedicated to public
open space generally, and the new station square specifically is

This is particularly important for this application in view of the
need for space in station square for a transport interchange, coupled
with the need for an area suitable for welcoming visitors to the City,
and providing facilities appropriate to waiting for and accessing

If we do not get this right now, and require extra space for transport
in the future in the station square, it will not be possible to extend
the square with the buildings proposed.

A commuted sum in lieu of sub-standard public open space would not be
acceptable in this instance. The space is needed in this area, and
there is already considerable unspent s106 funds available in the City
for public open space from other schemes and other developers, so it
is unclear how a commuted sum could be used to increase public open
space elsewhere or even be used at all sensibly.

2. Height of the proposed buildings is out of character with the area
and Cambridge generally, and will dominate the skyline.

3. The high density increases the number of people that need to access
buildings on the site, so will add to the traffic management problems
of the site.

The suggestion that severely limiting car parking will control car
access to the site may prove to be naive, and will add to already
significant parking problems in Coleridge ward, particularly in the
Rustat Rd area. To mitigate this, if permission is granted, I would
request conditions or agreements are made to ensure the developers
will fund and implement consultations with residents and parking
control measures if appropriate to reduce the problems for Rustat Rd
area residents.

Whilst I believe the high density will have an unacceptable impact on
car traffic levels in the area, if the application is accepted, I
believe these impacts can and should be mitigated by further
improvements and access to the site for sustainable transport such as
cycling and pedestrians. The connection from Carter bridge needs to be
quick and convenient. I am concerned that the cycle parking proposed,
whilst a significant improvement on current levels may still prove to
be inadequate and fail to support future demand. Also, the cycle
parking should all be at ground level and as near to the entrances as
possible. Finally, to encourage non-car access to the site, I believe
a new pedestrian and cycle bridge should be built as a condition of
the application to connect the Leisure Park area to the station area
more directly than the already overcrowded Hills Road Bridge.

Other issues and comments:
Management - That acceptability of the plans will depend crucially on
management of the site going forwards. Assurances from the applicant
that they will manage relevant parts of the site themselves so far as
is possible should be backed up by appropriate planning conditions. In
particular, I am concerned about the usage of student accommodation
during the summer holidays, and how problems experienced elsewhere
with a succession of short term occupants of the accommodation over
the holiday period can be avoided. There also needs to be stingent
conditions to reduce noise concerns from the student accommodation,
and strong enforcement on prohibitions of car ownership by students.

I have serious concerns about the appropriateness of the 'modernist'
design vision implied in the application supporting documents to date.
Design should be distinctive, high quality, with exceptional quality
of materials and construction, to reflect the high profile of the
area, but must be consistent with the architectural heritage of the
City of Cambridge (which is not the City of London).

On the plus side, this is an area that desperately needs
redevelopment, and I welcome the proposed improved transport access to
the site in general (without commenting on the specific details of the
implementations proposed) in so much as the application provides
additional access to the area, both for cars and cyclists, strongly
support the increased number of cycle spaces, and recognise that the
application as it stands is a significant improvement in terms of the
transport interchange at the station site.

Police Meeting nearly arranged

After huge numbers of complaints about the lack of policing of the traffic during the single lane working on Hills Road bridge, it looks like arrangements are nearly in place for a meeting between an Inspector Hutchinson from Parkside, local Councillors and other interested parties. It is hoped the meeting will take place in September before the next (and hopefully final) period of single lane working due for late September.

Both the County Council and myself personally asked the police to undertake traffic enforcement against the huge numbers of dangerous manoeuvres carried out by drivers during these works. The chaos was obvious to anyone looking at the Hills Rd/Cherry Hinton Road junction during periods of single lane working.

Personally I think that if nothing changes, there is a real risk of a cyclist of pedestrian being killed or seriously injured during these works - I will certainly want to know where the chain of communication broke down such that the police didn't seem to want to act appropriately.

Please let me know if you have any views on the specific police enforcement actions that would be appropriate.

Holiday Snap

I've just returned from a week's holiday, cycling in Ireland. Fortunately we managed to avoid the worst of the rain, and had some great days cycling through lovely countryside.

After a blissful week away, the chaos left a week ago hasn't gone anywhere - chiefly the fact that last week my landlord has returned from 18 months working in Russia and very unreasonably wants his house back! House hunting over the last few weeks has given a real insight into how housing and planning policies over the last few years have affected those who need to live in Cambridge - more of this later when I finally get the keys to a new home - at which point I will have house moving to look forward to.

Many thanks to Andrew Bower for blogging on the Post Office consultation meeting last week - many Coleridge residents will already have met Andrew as he has been working with the Conservative team in Coleridge for some time, and helped me a lot canvassing at the last two elections here, so is really up to speed on the local issues.

I hope to blog updates from the last couple over weeks on the key ward issues as I catch up over the next few days.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Post Office Closure Public Meeting

The City Council hosted a public meeting last night on how Labour's Post Office closure plan will affect Cambridge. The panel consisted of two Post Office representatives, a representative of the independent watchdog Postwatch and four local politicians.

Unfortunately, since the Lib Dems forced the council to change the date of the meeting to allow their own MP to attend, instead neither Chris Howell nor South Cambridgeshire Conservative MP Andrew Lansley were able to be present. However, Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Richard Normington (left in photo) was on the panel to put the case for loosening Labour's constraints on Post Offices, allowing them to become commercially viable and therefore survive as the key community resource that they are.

In a refreshing outbreak of agreement between politicians, all agreed that Post Offices are vital for some sections of the community as well being valuable to virtually everyone. However, Labour's parliamentary hopeful was looking a little isolated as he tried to defend his party's indefensible plan.

An important message that came out of the discussions was that while we should all put the case to defend the specific post offices that are under threat, such as St John's on Hills Road, we must also tell the government what we think about their rigid target to lose 2500 Post Offices, in the hope that they will change their minds. Considering how many U-turns Gordon Brown has performed in the last year and that 20 of his own MPs rebelled over Post Offices, we shouldn't give up on trying to replace the plan at the top level. While your local Labour representatives haven't opposed the plans in public yet, we hope that they are putting pressure on their Westminster colleagues in private.

The most productive element of the meeting was discussion of ideas for how to make Post Offices more commercially viable. This is the cornerstone of the Conservative Post Office Action Plan:

The key parts of our plan are:
  • Freeing up Sub-Postmasters
  • Using Post Offices as Government GP service
  • Campaigning on the Post Office Card Account
  • Encouraging 'Council Counters'
The importance of freeing up Sub-Postmasters was emphasised when a Sub-Postmaster for elsewhere in the county mentioned that she had been asking to be allowed to offer popular extra services at her branch but was not allowed to do so.

The great tragedy about the closure plan is that so much of it could be avoided. The fact that profitable branches could close under the scheme illustrates how ill-thought out it is, while the fact that branches can only be saved at the expense of others shows how uncaring it is.

The deadline for responses to the formal consultation is 26th August 2008. Responses must be sent by e-mail to or by post to:

National Consultation Team
Post Office Ltd

It is recommended that responses are copied to Postwatch at or "FREEPOST POSTWATCH".

According to Post Office Limited, responses must refer to errors and omissions from the Branch Access Reports drawn up for Post Offices targeted for closure. See pages 49, 55, 61 for Cambridge branches. Further guidance is available from the City Council.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Andrew Lansley MP joins Post Office fight

Local MP Andrew Lansley visited Coleridge this week to help the campaign to save St Johns Post Office, which is threatened by Labour's latest Post Office closure program.

I joined Andrew to discuss with the sub postmaster the branch usage and how local residents might be affected, including:

  • The lack of post office facilities for the hundreds of new homes being built near to this Post Office.
  • The lack of post office facilities for many people in the South of the City, including staff at Addenbrokes.
  • The students living in the area, and the consultation deadline closing prior to their return.
  • The limited opening hours of the nearest alternative post office.
  • The range of services that the post office allows each branch to offer.

Andrew will be feeding back his own comments to the Post Office.

Many thanks to Andrew for visiting Coleridge and joining the fight to save St Johns post office - some customers were slightly surprised to discover that St John's Post Office whilst in Coleridge ward is also currently in Andrew's South Cambridgeshire parliamentary constituency, along with other parts of the ward south of Cherry Hinton Road!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Folk Festival Thoughts

Firstly many congratulations to the City Council Arts and Entertainments staff who put on another brilliant Cambridge Folk Festival last weekend.

As a Councillor for a neighbouring ward, I would obviously be keen to hear any feedback from local residents, good or bad about how the festival was run this year. But after many years there is considerable expertise, and as a major festival site in a residential area, considerable effort goes in to minimising the hassles for those local residents who may not appreciate the music or the revellers, so I hope there were no major issues.

When I was a Councillor previously in Cherry Hinton, a question heard more than once from a minority of people is why does the Festival have to be held in Cherry Hinton Hall, the site is too small etc it should be moved to Coldhams Common or elsewhere in the City. I disagree - the site is a part of the festival, and although there are many visitors from outside Cambridge, for many local residents the Folk Festival is a key part of their arts and entertainment calendar - long may it continue.

I will have a couple of comments for the organisers. Firstly, although the weather could have been worse, the rain showers will have resulted in some damage to the grass. After torrential rain some years ago there was considerable damage and the repairs were less than ideal - we need to make sure any damage this year is fixed as soon and as well as possible to bring all of the park back into use. Then there is my pet topic of cycle parking:

It would be nice if there was more temporary cycle parking on site to avoid bikes being chained to every available road sign and fence in the area.

But I suspect the most significant issue for the Festival going forwards is that of ticket pricing. In recent years, Councillors have repeatedly raised questions at Council meetings about ticketing arrangements, as demand significantly exceeded supply, and many categories of ticket sold out instantly overwhelming systems. But with ticket prices going up over a number of years, and Gordon Brown's mismanged economy sending household spending power spiralling in the opposite direction, supply and demand may have now met in the middle. Although a sell out this year, this took longer, and I was certainly able to buy a ticket a week before at less than face value. It was a similar situation with tickets at this year's Glastonbury Festival. Last time I looked at the finances for the Folk Festival (some years ago admittedly), although the accounts are muddied by 'central overhead recharges' from the Council (which make trying to understand any part of the Councils budget a nightmare), it looked like the Festival makes a modest contribution to Council finances. This equation would rapidly move the other way if the Festival ceased to sell out, so there is a risk with any further increase in ticket prices. Personally I still think the festival represents fantastic value for money, but ticket prices could represent a tricky call for organisers next year...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Persistent Traffic Offenders to Face Action

The County Council has published the following notice that they intend to take action against persistent non-payers of parking fines, with action commencing today. Motorists are generally over taxed and over harrassed, but nothing annoys people more than seeing people 'playing the system' and ignoring charges that more responsible people (e.g. because they also haven't registered the car properly). This sounds like an excellent plan from the County Council.

"Notice is hereby given that Cambridgeshire County Council, under the powers contained in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (as amended) and the Traffic Management Act 2004 (as amended), intends, from 4 August 2008, to commence with the removal of vehicles parked in contravention of a road traffic regulation order where the owner or keeper has persistently evaded payment of penalty charge notices previously issued and to introduce additional charges in relation to the removal of those vehicles.

A vehicle which has been removed shall be released upon payment of:

a.) the penalty charge amount; and
b.) the additional parking charge of £105 and any vehicle storage fee which is currently £12 per day, or part of a day, during which the vehicle has been impounded.

The charge for any vehicle that is disposed of is £50.

The Department for Transport define a Persistent Evader as a vehicle owner with three or more recorded contraventions for the vehicle and the Penalty Charge amount for these have not been paid, represented against or appealed against within the statutory time limits, or the representations and appeals have been rejected but they have still not paid. Motorists are reminded that vehicles not recovered within the appropriate timescales may be disposed of."

Friday, August 1, 2008

Cycle Parking Again

The East Area committee last night didn't just discuss refrigeration plant and equipment - it also talked about environmental improvement schemes for East Area. One small part of this I found particularly annoying in view of my previous concerns about cycle parking in new developments - I have just sent the following to the planning department:

At East Area Committee last night, Councillors were presented with an environmental improvement project for Fairsford Place cycle parking.

The officers report states:
'This potential scheme has been requested by residents on this fairly new development which does not cater well for cycle parking.'

Although the sum of money to be spent is relatively small (estimated less than £3k), I am deeply concerned both that new development is allowed in Cambridge with insufficient cycle parking space, and that the Council should now be picking up the bill for rectifying this.

I would like to understand if the problem in this case is failure of the developer to comply with agreed planning permission and conditions, failure to enforce existing local plan minimum cycling parking standards by the Council when granting permission, or inadequacy of the local plan standards.

Could you please let me know:
What planning permissions have been granted in Fairsford Place?
What provision the agreed plans made for cycle parking?
How the provision agreed compares to the local plan?

Tesco Defeated at East Area Committee

After around two hours of discussion about the planning merits or otherwise of the installation of a small amount of refrigeration equipment on the back of a shop in Mill Road, Tesco's suffered a defeat at the hands of Councillors on the East Area Committee. Cllrs Smart and Wright voted to oppose the application, whilst Councillors Blencowe, Hebert, Hart and Walker abstained, defeating the proposal. In line with my previous policy, I didn't vote on the application, but did speak to highlight what I saw as the two key issues and ask those deciding to consider them:

Does the fact that Tesco's would like permission for a some refrigeration equipment to be installed before opening a shop mean that all the planning issues related to a Tesco's opening (mainly the traffic impact from deliveries) become factors in whether or not to approve the refrigeration equipment? I suspect not, the officers and Council's legal advisers said not, but in view of the complaints citing this reasoning and the crucial nature of the argument, I argued that Councillors should have received independent legal advice citing previous case law on this point before approving.

Secondly, despite the Council telling Tescos in no uncertain terms to dot the i's and cross the t's on their acoustic impact report, the original efforts from their consultant appeared to be somewhat flawed, to put it mildly. In this case, I suggested, Tesco needed to get their story straight and demonstrate they had done the right investigatory work to prove their proposals complied with local planning policies about noise pollution before permission should be granted.

If the above two concerns had been addressed, I think I would have struggled to have recommended anything other than approval. In the event, 2 Councillors voted to reject the application, which was enough to defeat it. I have to say I'm still a bit confused as to how they phrased their objections to marry the evidence to the planning policies, but that was the result. I can only imagine the grief that a certain acoustic consultant will be put through by some Tesco managers next week.

Many congratulations to all those in the No Mill Road Tesco campaign, who have vigourously opposed Tescos applications. My prediction that this application would get through has been proved wrong. I'm now playing double or quits, and predicting that there will be an appeal against this decision arriving with the planning inspector in the very near future. In the meantime, life goes on at the Mill Road Social Centre...