Friday, February 27, 2009

Liberty Convention this Saturday

The Convention on Modern Liberty is tomorrow. The convention is running concurrently across the UK in seven locations, including Cambridge. Coleridge Conservative Councillor Chris Howell will be chairing a debate on "The view from the trenches - engaging with government in the digital age".

The event is free and open to everyone. It starts at 9.45am and runs until 5.15pm at the Cambridge Union Society, behind the Round Church, 9a Bridge Street. See the official site for the full timetable.

Why not come along to have your say on the gradual erosion of ancient freedoms under the Labour Government?

Tiverton House

Last night at Full Council I again questioned the Council's policy towards Tiverton House, and urged the Council to come up with an alternative plan should they not be able to sell the property to bring it back into residential use.

The Lib Dem Executive Councillor for housing confirmed the scandalous situation that the property has now been vacant for 14 months, and refused to give any assurances that they would give up plans to sell it off, claiming they were again in negotiations with a purchaser. How are we supposed to pressurise owners in the private sector of empty buildings like flats above the Perne Road shops if the Council holds empty property like this?

I'm looking in to where they are with sales negotiations, to try and find out what any prospective new owners propose to do with the building.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Should we punish risk or consequence?

Just been listening to Lord Ahmed's solicitor criticising the 12 week jail sentence handed down today to his client who was found to have been using a mobile phone while, claiming he was a scapegoat. My understanding is that whilst the police investigated a collision involving Lord Ahmed, it was discovered that he had been using his mobile phone to text over a long period of time earlier in the journey, although this wasn’t a factor in the accident that later occurred.

When someone drives after drinking, or if you text whilst driving, or choose to drive in any other way that significantly increases accident risk, there is a good chance that you won’t cause an accident, let alone leave someone killed or injured. But there is also a significant chance that drink driving or texting whilst driving will result in the death or serious injury of an innocent party.

If Lord Ahmed’s texting had resulted in a death or serious injury, the prosecutors and victims family would doubtless have rightly expected a very significant jail sentence, far in excess of 12 weeks - a quick search of BBC news reveals a number of tragic examples. I think there is a case to be made that if we want to reduce the death toll on our roads further, perhaps we need to punish more based on how recklessly risky the behaviour of the driver was, regardless of the seriousness of the consequences, as once a risk has been taken, the consequences are ultimately just a matter of good or bad luck. So personally I think Lord Ahmed has got away lightly – the message needs to be sent that texting while driving is not acceptable under any circumstances.

There isn't much relevance of this to Coleridge, except that I can't help thinking about how the police have chosen to police the Hills Road Bridge roadworks, where recklessly dangerous overtaking manoeuvres have been all but ignored for the purposes of law enforcement, and how different this approach would be if one of these manoeuvres, that are completely unacceptable, was unfortunate enough to result in the death or serious injury of a cyclist.

Police and Council Street Surgery Planned

A street surgery is planned for residents of Rustat Road, Argyle Street and William Smith Close from 6pm on Wednesday 4th March, outside Northfield's Stores on Greville Road.

The local antisocial behaviour officer, police officer, housing officer, city ranger and fire safety officer have been invited as well as ward councillors. Coleridge Conservatives intend to be there.

The police and city council have organised the surgery to give people a chance to meet officers and discuss any issues. In particular it's a chance to talk about crime, antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and environmental improvements.

There was an intention to hold a meeting between councillors and the police to discuss how to deal with recent waves of crime in this area, and extending eastwards through the ward. We hope, excepting the possibility of a miracle solution arising at the street surgery, that the surgery will not be a substitute for that meeting.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Exclusive: Tesco Still Trying to Open on Mill Road

Tesco have withdrawn their appeal against refusal of planning permission for refrigeration equipment on their proposed store on Mill Road, that was due to be held shortly at a public enquiry.

However, Coleridge Conservatives understand Tesco have not given up on opening the store on Mill Road, but believe they may be able to meet their needs for the new store without requiring this planning permission, by installing plant within the store, and they are due to meet the planning department shortly to discuss.

Tesco already has sufficient permissions to open a store on the existing store footprint, but had been seeking permission to install refrigeration equipment on the building.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A new localism

David Cameron today announced a Green paper outlining Conservative policies for local government if they win the next General Election. The key theme is about returning power back to local people as opposed to the current system where local government is frequently just a branch office of national government, controlled by endless streams of dictats from on high. I am particularly encouraged by the plans to abolish centrally imposed housing targets, giving Councils more power to control their own destiny and allowing them to benefit from measures that strengthen the local economy.

Here are the main ideas - the full paper is available on

Strong local economies
• Abolishing all regional planning and housing powers exercised by regional government, returning powers and discretion back to local councils.
• Creating bottom-up incentives for house building, by allowing you to keep the increase in council tax revenues from new homes, rather than it being equalised away by Whitehall.
• Allowing councils to establish their own local enterprise partnerships to take over the economic development functions and funding of the Regional Development Agencies.
• Giving a real incentive for councils to promote local economic growth, by allowing you to keep the uplift in business rate revenues.
• Giving local authorities a new discretionary power to levy business rate discounts, allowing you to help local shops and services (for example, rural pubs, or post offices).
• Increase the freedom of your council to act in the best interests of residents, by giving councils a general power of competence.
Vibrant local democracy
• Letting councils choose their own organisational structure, such as returning to the Committee system if you wish.
• But building on the success of the London Mayor, giving citizens in the large cities of Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Wakefield, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham, Newcastle upon Tyne, with the opportunity to choose whether to have an elected mayor, through a mayoral referendums. The referendums would take place on the same day to ignite a national public debate.
• Abolishing Comprehensive Area Assessment – which looks to be just as burdensome as its predecessor, and further curtailing the number of central targets imposed on councils.
• Empowering citizens, not Whitehall, to ensure value for money by requiring more detailed information on local (and central) government expenditure to be published online.
• Continuing the work of the Lifting the Burdens Task Force to identify unnecessary burdens, and putting its recommendations into practice.
• Ending all forced unitary amalgamations of local authorities which have not already gone ahead – such as cancelling those planned in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon.
• Abolishing Labour’s new Infrastructure Planning Commission quango.
• Scrapping the Standards Board and repealing the flawed ‘pre-determination’ rules that prevent councillors from standing up for constituents’ views on local issues.
• Abandoning plans to regionalise local fire services, while providing new measures to enhance resilience in the case of a national emergency.
Gordon Brown’s target-driven, top-down government has hindered strong local economies and discouraged civic pride. We will bring councillors and their constituents closer to the levers of power. This will start to restore the trust that has been lost in our political system under Labour.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Former Post Office could become take-away

Last week the following planning application was submitted:

09/0059/FUL, 164 Hills Road, Conversion from confectionary to hot food takeaway (A5).

Which I think is the old St John's Post Office, that was the vicitim of Labour's post office closure program. Another step towards this area of town looking like an anonymous part of London surburbia...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Crossing Success

Usually when residents complain about the timings on crossings, there response from the Council is that there is nothing that can be done, as they are optimised already. But with the crossing on Coleridge Road near Greville Road, it turns out that there was a problem, and I've now had this back from the Council:

"I am pleased to advise you that our maintenance contractor has repaired and upgraded the crossing, and it is now working correctly. The settings have been checked and the clearance period following thepedestrian/cycle green signal is now variable - dependent on the presence/absence of people on the crossing. This will result in minimal delays to vehicles at times of low pedestrian flow."

Many thanks to the County Council for sorting this one out.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Exclusive: Standards Committee Whitewash

Following an incident in which he blocked an ambulance from reaching an injured patient, the Standards Committee at the City Council has today found Cllr Rosenstiel guilty of breaching the Council's Code of Conduct, in both failing to treat others with respect, and in bringing his office of Councillor into disrepute, despite strong protestations from Cllr Rosenstiel's barrister against the latter.

The meeting agreed on the facts of the case as set out in the Standards Board investigation report, with the exception of whether or not the ambulance had flashing blue lights on at the time – the ambulance service didn’t want to argue the point as Colin accepted he knew it was an emergency vehicle treating a patient after the conversation.

Cllr Rosenstiel’s barrister accepted the code of conduct breach that he had failed to treat a person with respect, and that Cllr Rosenstiel was acting in his official capacity, but argued extensively, quoting Ken Livingstone’s case in his defence - claiming Cllr Rosenstiel had brought himself into disrepute, but not the office of Councillor.

After noting that he was responding as ward councillor, had called council officers during the incident and referred to his status as Councillor whilst remonstrating, this defence wasn't accepted.

But in a unanimous decision, the panel then decided that the only santion applied would be that an apology would be agreed - personal, full, unreserved and unqualified, to both the ambulance driver concerned and the head of the ambulance service. This is right at the bottom end of what could have been applied, and in my view wholly understates the seriousness of the incident and its possible consequences. It will be interesting to see if Cllr Rosenstiel's constituents share my opinion that his position as a Councillor is untenable.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Perne Rd/Radegund Rd Shops and Flats

The state of the site at the junction of Perne Road and Radegund Road is a major source of requests for action, and after repeated calls to setup a meeting, on Monday I met with the developers, their architects and agents, and a representative from Coleridge Labour party , who is also pressing for action.

The developers reassured us that they are keen to bring the site fully back into use as soon as possible, and after delays due to commercial issues that needed to be resolved, they are now preparing to submit plans to the Council.

The current plans that we were shown on Monday are to refurbish the existing building, whilst extending it at the rear and into a new roof level to increase the number of flats. The shops would continue to trade if they wished to during the refurbishment works.

I certainly had a number of questions about the plans, in areas such as quality of design and materials, cycle and car parking and energy efficiency of the building, as well as the potential effect on neighbouring properties. Although the architect was aware of the potential issues, and confident that the plans address them, residents, planners and Councillors will want to review detailed plans. I made it clear that residents need to be consulted on the plans, and the obvious need to redevelop the site as soon as possible shouldn’t stop any potential concerns from being addressed as far as possible.

The developers seemed keen to take up the suggestion of consulting residents ahead of submitting a planning application, to maximise the chance of any issues being resolved at that stage, and proposed some type of exhibition of the plans, when questions can be raised, although if there are any urgent questions at this stage, please let me know and I can forward them. The owners aim to talk to the planners and highways authorities as soon as possible, and will then consult residents. They hope to obtain planning approval by the summer, and construction could take 12 months.

My priority remains to ensure the building is brought back into residential use as soon as possible, whilst continuing to support local independent shops at this location, as long as the plans are acceptable to local residents.

We have been at this stage before and then hit by delays, and plans are very much subject to change at this stage, so I have asked the Council’s planning department to let me know if they have not been contacted by the developers in the near future and I will be straight back on the case!

Gritting: Its Health and Safety Gone Mad

Its pretty clear that all local authorities have some questions to answer about their response to the recent cold snap - in particular their inability to grit roads, footpaths and cycleways sensibly.

One of the issues may be that several groups share the responsibility - I think householders should take on more of the role of keeping paths clear near their house, the highways authority (i.e. the County Council) needs to take care of gritting the public highway, at frequencies appropriate to the type of road/footpath, (which must include gritting key cycle routes in Cambridge), and the City Council is responsible for footpaths around its own housing estates. More heavily used routes, areas around key community facilities and areas with elderly populations should get priority.

Aparantly, the City Council no longer grits paths on its estates, even those with many elderly people. Speaking to one Council official today, there is a rumour in the City Council that the reason grit is no longer used in City Homes areas is down to the increased risk of the Council being sued - if a path is gritted, it is feared that residents who slip in ice might be more inclined to sue the Council, as the Council has 'advertised' that the path is safe by gritting it. I've no idea if this is the real reason (I suspect money has more to do with it), but if so, then health and safety regulations really have gone mad. There are questions to be asked.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Folk festival fiasco still on the agenda

In January the City Council announced that it was left with not option but to take legal action against its supplier of online ticket services for the 2008 Folk Festival, who had failed to hand over £618k of money owed to the Council.

Since then, opposition Councillors have only been drip fed occasional information about efforts to collect the money, and about the review commissioned from PricewaterhouseCoopers to look into the circumstances of the fiasco. One of the ways I can scrutinise what is going and make sure everything possible is now being done to recover taxpayers funds is to request that a report brought to committee - the request will be considered on Friday, and the Council has also agreed to have an update briefing for Councillors this week, but I hope a full report can be brought to the next Strategy and Resources committee so that these important issues can be considered in public as much as is possible.

Cambridge Cycling Campaign Strategy Day

On Saturday I attended part of Cambridge Cycling Campaign strategy day.

I have a lot of respect for the cycling campaign, and particularly the committee members who on a voluntary basis spend huge amounts of time on cycling issues, and whose level of expertise when inputting to decision making at the City and County Council and determination to improve Cambridge for cyclists (and therefore for everyone) is a great asset to Cambridge. As an organisation, they are already a highly effective campaigning force, and the strategy day was about reviewing activities and improving further.

A number of themes emerged from the dicussions I was involved in. To take one of these - policing in Cambridge is still falling a long long way short of the standards needed to ensure that cyclists and cars can safely and comfortably co-exist on the roads. As I know from dealing with Hills Road Bridge issues, when tackling any cycling related policing problems, their approach is often piecemeal and half-hearted, and there are numerous incidents where the police fail to take action against downright dangerous driving, leaving cyclists to fend for themselves legally after suffering very close misses, or even collisions and injuries.

Personally, I think there needs to be a 'new deal' between cyclists, motorists and the police in Cambridge on policing, to reflect the fact that Cambridge desperately needs more journeys to be made by bike to maximise use of our narrow road infrastructure, and bring all the other benefits in terms of health, fitness, access to low cost transportation options etc.

Firstly, the police need to take a more systematic approach to enforcement of the law. For cyclists, this means continual enforcement in areas such as cycling on the pavement or cycling in the dark without lights, not publicity lead initiatives, to stamp out these problems. For motorists, we need proper enforcement of speed limits on residential roads (by the police), and a willingness from the police to follow up on dangerous driving by cars that puts cyclists lives at risk. Too many people are dying on the roads in Cambridge that could be prevented. Cyclists may be equally at fault in many cases, but they suffer disproportionately from the consequences.
Secondly, bicycle theft needs to be made much harder to carry out due to use of locks and better cycle parking, easier to catch those responsible, easier to identify stolen bikes, and a determination to pursue punishment of offenders that reflects the key part cycling plays in local transport infrastructure.

To make all this work, there would need to be significant education amongst all types of cyclists, motorists and the police, and support from the highest levels of the police force. How to get that support is the key problem!

One of my main criticisms of the cycling campaign, is that although they try to take an extreme pro-cycling position, and seek to make this the mainstream policy position (both of which are fine - we need organisations to take this view), this is frequently accompanied by a suggestion from some members of the campaign, if not the official position, that the authorities (particularly the County Council) are anti-cycling and never do anything useful for cyclists. At this point I have to disagree - yes, more could clearly be done, and a lot of what is done could be done better (some measures such as substandard cycle lanes or dual use paths that force cycles to constantly give way are clearly counter-productive), but it is just wrong to suggest everything is rubbish for cyclists in Cambridge, a lot of good measures have been taken and to suggest otherwise risks alienating the key people that need to be on side. In many areas where the cycling campaign approach hasn't been adopted, it simply reflects a balance between the needs of various types of road user and the limited available space in many roads - as a Councillor formerly in charge of transport in the County once told me, 'I think I've got the balance about right when all sides are moaning equally'. I think the cycling campaign could make more progress by being more positive, and concentrating on the areas that significant progress could be made for limited funding and/or without disadvantaging other road users, for example:
  • New dedicated cycle routes, especially the Chisholm Trail, the Guided Bus, or in Coleridge, a new cycle route between Ashbury Close and Golding Road
  • Improving cycle parking around the City
  • Making sure new developments on green field sites have best practice cycle facililities built in
This said, ultimately the message to me from Saturday was that in many cases, to make progress there does need to be a step change in thinking from the local authorities about the effects of some of their traffic management measures on cyclists, and sometimes this requires cyclists interests to be put ahead of the (immediate) need for capacity for motor vehicles.

One such area could be Hills Road bridge - clearly the works have caused choas for months, but when finished there will remain long term problems with bridge capacity for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. Widening the bridge would be mind bogglingly expensive (£millions), so perhaps the solution is to reduce motor traffic to one lane in each direction permanently, and put in very wide (possibly hybrid) cycle lanes. It would be interesting to know what effect the transport planners think this would have on the junctions either end, and indeed to know whether Coleridge residents on the whole would be for or against such a reallocation of road space from motorists to cyclists, but hopefully with the result of much less conflict between the two parties.

Almost forgot to add, if you are a cyclist in Cambridge and want to see better provision, I thoroughly recommend joining the Cambridge Cycling Campaign:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Convention on Modern Liberty

The modern world has to grapple with issues such as the terrorism threat and the threats and opportunities of databases and information technology, which poses questions for politicians and their electorates. If you are concerned or interested about civil liberties in this context, then I can thoroughtly recommend an event that will be held in Cambridge on 28th February at the Cambridge Union - the Convention on Modern Liberty.

There is a national event being held in London on this day, and some speeches will be broadcast at the Cambridge event, to complement the debates and seminars that will be held in Cambridge. There is a good lineup of guest speakers and politicians from all parties speaking in the debate, and opportunity to participate in the debate.

The Cambridge event is free - for more details contact

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Councillor Rosenstiel Should Resign

The Cambridge Evening News are running a story about Councillor Colin Rosenstiel, who is being hauled in front of the City Council's standards committee, after an incident in 2007 where Colin is alleged to have blocked an emergency vehicle from entering Midsummer Common to treat a seriously injured person. There is a full report on an investigation of the incident from the Standards Board for England here (large pdf file), which makes damning reading.

Colin has form for this type of behaviour - he was caught on camera remonstrating with a van driver obstructing a cycle lane.

I understand that the Council's Standards Committee has the power to suspend Cllr Rosenstiel from office for 3 months. Generally speaking I think it should be up to the electorate to remove a Councillor from office if they behave like a small child when they don't get their way, but in both the cases above Cllr Rosenstiel was attempting to take direct action on issues where he is among the most empowered people in the whole City to take action through the proper channels. He is a member of the Cambridge Area Joint Transport Committee, and an Executive Councillor on Cambridge City Council, the authority that controls Midsummer Common. That a leading Lib Dem Councillor needs to resort to bad tempered direct action is testament to his ineffectiveness. He has lost the ability to challenge the systems and make change happen, and should resign.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Police Authority Winter Consultation on Wednesday

From the police via their e-cops system:

"Have the police got their priorities right? In an ideal world, what would you like to see happen in your neighbourhood from next year? The Police Authority is responsible for maintaining an efficient and effective policing service in Cambridgeshire. We set the police budget for the year ahead and are responsible for holding the chief constable to account for the delivery of policing in Cambridgeshire. To share your views with us about policing in Cambridge and hear more about the kind of work we are involved in locally and nationally, including our priorities for the year ahead and the resources available to us, come along to Wesley Methodist Church, Christ's Pieces, on Wednesday, February 4 at 7.30pm. We can't promise the earth, but we do want to hear your views. They will help us shape policing in your area and across the county over the coming year."

Which is great, I encourage residents to turn up if they have any concerns about policing priorities. 'Community engagement' is the latest central government inspired buzzword to be sweeping public services, and if the City Council's area committees are any indicator, this will doubtless be at great cost to tax payers. I have to confess that personally I am suffering a little from consultation fatigue here. As part of the East Area committee I help agree local policing priorities for East Area. As part of the City Council Strategy and Resources committee, I comment on the prorities set by the Community Safety Partnership, yet another body with its own meetings schedule including the police and local authorities that sets policing priorities. I worry about how much effort is being spent collecting opinion about setting police priorities, and doubtless deciding between different conflicting priorities, so that ultimately less resource is available for actually tackling problems like the little toerags who keep spraying 'DSC' all round Coleridge.

And then there is the extent to which setting a small number of priorities actually sets huge numbers of areas that will then be deprioritised. Like some of my priorities - cycle theft, that the community safety partnership rejected as a priority, or actual police enforcement of speed limits on residential roads (which the Labour led East Area committee recently rejected in favour of 'supporting resident's Speedwatch' as a priority, so it is now hard to see how the police could do less to tackle the problem if speeding wasn't set as a priority at all.)

I fear "community engagement" initiatives more generally are eroding the power of democratically elected people, transferring their powers to the self-selecting few who actively engage in the new community engagement initiatives, and further disenfranchising people who don't want to continually interact with the state, but just want the authorities to get on with efficiently providing core services.

Ideally we would have properly empowered democratically elected representatives (including for bodies such as police forces and local healthcare trusts), then residents can elect the people they think will best represent their interests, can contact them if they have a problem, and if they don't like the results, they can throw them out of office and elect someone else.