Wednesday, December 17, 2008

No to Bunker Records Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Speedwatch Latest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exclusive: Mill Road Tesco Being Fitted Out?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Leisure Park Tescos Applications

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2008

Manchester says NO!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fix the Fence

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Future of Quayside

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

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

From the publicly available report:

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

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

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

Friday, December 5, 2008

Drain Fixed at Last

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

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

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

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

Guided Bus Stops

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

Any comments should be sent to:

Huge Pressure on Council Tax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Planning decisions at area committees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was elected this year on the following manifesto pledge:

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

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