Thursday, October 30, 2008

Spin in Overdrive

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cambridge a Three-Way Marginal - it's Official

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

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

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

Monday, October 27, 2008

Request made for Speedwatch

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

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

Meeting Budgens

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

New Regulations for Householder Development

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2008

Party Funding

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

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

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

Cambridge University Festival of Ideas

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

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pink Festival Noise

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

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

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

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Quick off the mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Station Area thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Station Area Application Accepted

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

The vote was 6-2 in favour.

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

More later...

Station Area Planning Application Decision Meeting in progress

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tesco Launch Another Appeal

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

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

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

Warning: Guided Bus works this weekend

Just had this from the Guided Bus team:

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 10, 2008

Freedom of Information Act

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

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

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

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

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

What next for Tiverton House?

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

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

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

Meeting Delay Call rejected

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 9, 2008

City Council has £9m exposure to Icelandic banks

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

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

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

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

Call for Meeting delay

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

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Credit Crunch

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

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

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

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

Transport Assessment for Station Area Redevelopment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Central Library Update

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

Friday, October 3, 2008

Lollipop Person Wanted

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

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

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

If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Station Area Public Meeting

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

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

There will be an opportunity for questions after the presentation.

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