Monday, March 30, 2009

Tiverton House finally sold

The City Council has exchanged contracts for the sale of Tiverton House, and is expected to complete the sale in mid-May. Unfortunately, the Council has ignored pleadings from Coleridge ward Councillors of all parties and has proceded with a sale to a new owner who we understand intends to use it for student accommodation.

The Lib Dem Executive Councillor took the decision some time ago to sell on the best possible commercial terms, and as a result requests not to sell the building for student accommodation without consulting local members were ignored. We think there was an opportunity to put reasonable conditions into the sale contract that may have helped avoid some of the problems with student accommodation that have occurred elsewhere in the City.

As yet it is unclear the extent of any works required on site - I don't think the new owner is looking to demolish completely and rebuild - although there will be some refurbishments in the immediate future. So we don't yet know if we will get a chance to challenge any plans through the planning process, although we will be scrutinising carefully any proposals the new owners bring forward.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lib Dems: Folk Festival Fiasco nothing to do with us

I've just been debating the Folk Festival Fiasco with the Council Leader, Liberal Democrat Ian Nimmo-Smith on Radio Cambridgeshire. 

I have to say am a deeply unimpressed with his response to the problems. Firstly, he suggests that it is fine that one department can inflict £645k of damage to Council taxpayers funds, and this doesn't indicate a problem with wider risk management in the City Council. With this attitude, problems like this could occur again and again on his watch. But the most concerning is his suggestion that Executive Councillors with significant powers to run Cambridge had no responsibility at all for the fiasco, and he just dumped the blame onto unelected Council officers.

The facts are that this was a major contract for the Council that should have been subject to oversight and scrutiny by the Executive Councillors, and Folk Festival ticketing arrangements have been a hotly debated political issue since May 2007. Opposition Councillors asked no fewer than four oral questions at Council on the subject of Folk Festival ticketing, by far the largest number on any issue in this time, and a motion on ticketing issues was debated by Full Council in May 2007.

In November 2007, the Community Service Scrutiny Committee considered a report that started:

"1. Executive summary
Due to the sustained success of the Cambridge Folk Festival demand for tickets continues substantially to outstrip the numbers available, placing considerable pressure on booking arrangements. This report sets out the range of issues for 2008, and recommends the formation of an officer/member working party to monitor the progress of arrangements.
2. Recommendations
The Executive Councillor is recommended:
1 To approve the creation of an all-party officer/member working group on the Cambridge Folk Festival Box Office.
2 To agree the number of members on the working group and its terms of reference, to include the discussion of the respective merits of different ticket sales methods, problems associated with secondary ticketing and issues related to tickets for residents and make a recommendation to the Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation."

It was precisely these identified pressures on ticketing that should have been considered following this report that lead to the time pressure and ultimately the botched and deeply flawed contract agreement in 2008 - what on earth was the Executive Councillor doing while all this was going on?

Perhaps we can get some clues from the incredible oral question asked to the Executive Councillor by a backbench Lib Dem Councillor in Full Council, May 2008:

6. From Councillor McGovern to the Executive Councillor for Arts & Recreation 
Following the queues of the last few years would the Executive Councillor agree that the officers involved in the arrangement of Folk Festival tickets this year deserve congratulations on the success of this year’s sales?

So even whilst the Council was engaged in a contract now shown to have serious shortcomings, the Executive Councillor in response to this question was doubtless congratulating herself on having solved all the problems, oblivious to the real situation. If losing £645k of Council Tax payers money counts as "success" of the 2008 ticket sales to the Lib Dems, I shudder to think what would constitute a problem.

It tells you everything about why the Lib Dem administration is so disasterous for Cambridge City. No real scrutiny from backbench Lib Dems, just sycophantic questions at Council to prompt self congratulation, and Executive Councillors who appear to have no clue about the serious problems unfolding in the department they are responsible for.

Good news on 114 bus route

Some good news from the County Council on the 114 bus route. This route is subsidised by both the City and County Council, and the service has recently been reviewed and retendered.

Following complaints about the large, old buses in particularly using Lichfield Road I've been lobbying the County council for some time to ask that the retendering exercise included specifying smaller buses that have better access for people with limited mobility.

I've just had this back from the County Council:

"I can now confirm that the service level on the 114 service will be maintained from April. There is a small change on a Saturday where the gap in the timetable for the drivers break has shifted but the same number of journeys remain.

In terms of the vehicles these will be newer low floor vehicles, although the vehicle provided by Whippet may not be available by mid-April. It has been bought but is being refurbished at present and should be delivered soon after the new contract starts."

Many thanks to the County Council for responding to our concerns here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

HSBC Cherry Hinton Road Branch to Close

I have written to HSBC urging them to reconsider plans to close their Cherry Hinton Road branch, since this would compound the impact of the planned Cambridge Building Society closure, and to ask about their procedures in respect of closure plans.

Under the plans, accounts will be moved from 62 Cherry Hinton Road to the 62 Hills Road Branch on 5th June.

Thank you to Richard Taylor for alerting me to HSBC's plans.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Folk Festival Report is Truly Shocking

I’ve just finished reading the Council's report on the Folk Festival fiasco – it appeared on the website at about 5pm, and I didn’t get to see it in advance. I have to say some of the findings of the report are truly shocking.
  • Despite its complexity, there was no project plan for the Folk Festival indicating dependencies of the various tasks and key responsibilities.
  • Perhaps related to this, despite awarding the contract in Dec 2007, legal services were consulted late, given insufficient time to consider the agreement, and a decision was made to proceed with an incomplete (contract?) document on a Friday because tickets needed to go on sale on the Sunday.
  • This decision was taken without escalation within the service lines. The Head of Legal services should have been consulted anyway due to complexity of the contract, but he wasn’t.
  • There was no checking of the adequacy of the contract specification in either 2007 or 2008, in both occasions resulting in insufficient protection in relation to payment arrangements.
  • Key evidence to support compliance with contract procedure rules, such as results of evaluations was not available. 
  • After failure to carry out satisfactory financial viability checks, the finance department stated that the contractor should not be appointed, but this advice was ignored.
  • Despite problems with the system in 2007 concerning the functioning and performance of the system, there wasn’t proper testing of the system in 2008.
  • The Council was paid late in 2007, 4 ½ weeks after the festival. Despite 2008 funds being due by 11 August, the legal department wasn’t notified until 30th September.
  • It appears that the Council didn’t even know how much it was owed. Only a rudimentary reconciliation was carried out in 2007, and it looks like when a detailed reconciliation was carried out for 2008, the amount owed is now stated as £644,951 rather than the £618,000 previously reported.
All very damning, but it leaves many more questions unanswered.

If the Council’s procurement rules weren’t followed how do we know that the contract wasn’t improperly (as opposed to incompetently) awarded?

And not even knowing how much was owed is just incredible – if the company had just handed over £618k, would the Council ever have discovered it should have been paid nearly £645k?

The report also focuses very much on the financial controls and how they operated – it says little about oversight of those controls by senior management, who have ultimate responsibility for looking after the Council’s assets, and who therefore need to be confident that suitable controls are not just in place, but that they are working effectively. Where was the oversight? What have the external auditors said about the financial controls operation at the Council?

How can a report prepared by internal staff members be described as independent? (contrary to promises to opposition Councillors that a full independent review would be carried out) – particularly as the report doesn’t currently include the results of the external review by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

And I think how the Council has reacted since the problem came to the attention of senior management will need to be subject to another investigation when we know how much if any of the cash missing will ever be repaid.

And yet despite all this, and with knowledge of the problems affecting the Folk Festival and the money at risk in failed Icelandic banks, the Audit Commission in its comprehensive performance assessment rated the council as excellent, saying its “Financial management is strong and there is good medium-term planning to make sure the council stays focused on its priorities.” How on earth can this be the case?

The ruling Liberal Democrat group have a record of failing to challenge decisions in public, preferring to nod just about everything through without debate. I hope there are some serious questions being asked behind closed doors about the performance of the Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation, and her role in this fiasco. Ticketing arrangements for the Folk Festival have been the subject of repeated questions from opposition Councillors in the Council chamber, yet there is scant evidence in the report of any meaningful involvement from the Councillor with Executive responsibility in this complex and politically sensitive procurement exercise in 2008. Asleep on the job would be one way of putting it – I hope we will be seeing some responsibility taken by the ruling group for their catastrophic failures to look after Council taxpayers funds.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Brackyn Road and Corrie Road Survey

This weekend we surveyed residents of Brackyn Road and Corrie Road on various issues particular to those streets.

Number one on the list was the proposed new signs to direct pedestrians and cyclists between Rustat Road and Coleridge Road, since it is currently easy for people to get lost going through the cul-de-sacs, sometimes resulting in damage to fences. This has been something that Chris Howell has been working on for a while.

Other issues related to street lighting, the fences around the Davy Road flats and the effect of commuter parking on the area.

Thank you to those who have responded so far. If you live in these streets and haven't got round to responding to the survey yet then you can do so online.

Folk Festival Fiasco: Report Due Today

At some point today it is expected that a report will be made available on the City Council's website (linked from the Civic Affairs committee 30th March meeting agenda here) about the City Council's investigation into the Folk Festival ticketing fiasco.

Nearly 8 months after £618,000 of taxpayers money was due to be handed over to the Council from the now insolvent company that managed online ticket sales for the 2008 Folk Festival, this will be the first information the councillors have had about what actually went so catastrophically wrong with this contract.

Clearly the Council should never have got itself into a contract that allowed a supplier to keep such a large amount of taxpayers money, and we need to know answers to stop this type of thing happening again with any other contracts, and to hold those responsible to account. But there will still be many questions to answer even after publishing this report - questions I have already raised about the Council's conduct since August, why it didn't escalate the problem sooner, and why even months after senior management and Councillors did become aware of the problem, it still hasn't taken up my suggestions for recovery of the funds.

Finally, I want to know how a Council that can behave with such a cavalier attitude to the protection of taxpayers funds as in this case, that also has £9m potentially lost in Iceland can still receive top marks from the audit commission (who also lost money in Iceland!) about the quality of its financial management. I fear it is yet another example of slavish following of central government box ticking requirements in order to score highly in assessments whilst ignoring the basics.

UPDATE: Report now available here.

Bad news on Icelandic Investments

File on Four on Radio 4 yesterday did not make happy listening for the City Council:

"Meanwhile for the councils with cash trapped in Iceland the future looks bleak according to Mark Horsfield, of Arlingclose which offers investment advice to more than 50 councils.
Mr Horsfield has been tracking the market in unsecured debt linked to the banking collapse.
"It is trading at the moment somewhere between half a pence in the pound and nine-and-a-half pence in the pound," he told File On 4, dashing local government hopes of getting their money back in the months to come.
He added that this was a "reasonable indicator" of the likely payout unless "a deal is structured" between governments and the liquidator.
Mr Horsfield thinks it is unlikely that councils will receive significant payouts.
"As an accountant with my prudent hat on, I'd be scaling back my expectations," he added."

In other words, the Council may be looking at losing at least 90% of its Icelandic investments (or at least 90% of the £4-5m invested directly in the Icelandic parent bank rather than the UK subsidiary). I've written to the Director of Finance at the City Council to ask what our latest information is about recoverability of the Iceland investments, what our expectations are of the amount likely to be recovered from the Icelandic investements, and in particularly, which of our deposits are likely to fall into the category of unsecured debt of the type that is currently trading at less than 10p in the £. If we have lost most of this money it will be very bad news indeed for local Council tax payers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Minor victory in war on jargon - Bigger victory on crime reporting

It is timely that the BBC is reporting a crackdown on the use of jargon in local authorities, as there was a minor victory for common sense at the Strategy and Resources scrutiny committee on Monday. Whilst considering the future role of the police presentations and priority setting at Area committees (one part of these committees that is working reasonably well), we were asked to approve the following as an 'area for development':

"Some confusion has been highlighted in relation to the name Safer Neighbourhoods since it changed from Neighbourhood Policing. A standard introduction to the agenda item by the Chair of each Committee to explain the item will help ensure context to the presentation delivered."

The name "safer communities" in this context is meant to be more reflective of the partnership between the police and Council, but in reality nobody who isn't intimate with local authority speak has got the slightest idea what it means. So I proposed that we simply replace the above paragraph as an area for development with the simple proposal to change the name back to neighbourhood policing! And remarkably, the committee and leader agreed this change to the recommendations. 

More significantly, the committee agreed to my request to add a further area for development, namely to look at how crime and incidents of anti-social behaviour are recorded, to ensure all crimes and incidents are recorded to ensure they are taken into account when setting police priorities, and to allow Councillors to feed back the response (or lack of) to each incident that is brought to our attention. In short, I want to see zero tolerance policing, where every incident is recorded, analysed, and resources targetted appropriately.

There has been huge progress made in neighbourhood policing over the last few years - which I put down to two factors, the presence of Police Community Support Officers who provide a very visible presence on the streets (I frequently see our Coleridge PCSOs out on their bikes or on foot), and the opportunity for politicians at a local level to take part in the process, where I think the main benefit is not that we can set priorities for neighbourhood policing (which is ostensibly the aim of our involvement), but because we now have the opportunity to scrutinise the actions of the police, and the way in which they are responding to local problems. Roll on the next Conservative government which is planning to further this approach and give local people much more power of the type I have been fighting for - they have pledged to "make the police accountable to the people they serve through directly elected commissioners, crime maps and quarterly beat meetings".

Outside the realm of Council meetings, my colleague on Coleridge Conservatives Andy Bower has been doing sterling work chasing up the many incidents of graffiti particularly along Radegund Road and Davy Road. One of the main areas of graffiti was cleaned off very promptly (compare the picture below from last night with this two days ago) but there are still significant problems, and we are trying to get all these incidents recorded as crimes and persuade the police to take them seriously.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A return to single beat patrols?

The Daily Telegraph reports that the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, wants police to walk their beats alone, rather than always being expected to go around in pairs.

I very much welcome this change of attitude, which could result in better use of resources and help move away from the politically correct and risk averse approach that climaxed under the leadership of the previous commissioner, Sir Ian Blair. The new commissioner seems to have an encouragingly robust approach to policing, preferring the term 'police force' to 'police service'. I hope that his influence spreads across the country.

e-Borders or e-Bonkers?

It seems that the Government has decided to look tough on immigration, after a decade of presiding over huge and uncontrolled levels of economic migration that make earlier squabbles over illegal asylum seekers look like haggling over small change (David Blunkett had claimed there was 'no obvious limit' to economic migration).

Unfortunately they seem to have taken a step too far with their new e-Borders system by trying to use it to solve any and every problem of criminal justice. On Saturday we found out about plans to require everyone who leaves the country to provide a multitude of personal details including itineraries:
Even swimmers attempting to cross the Channel and their support teams will be subject to the rules which will require the provision of travellers' personal information such as passport and credit card details, home and email addresses and exact travel plans.
Then yesterday it turned out that the planned scheme will also have the scope to enforce civil penalties imposed by local authorities, e.g. for parking infringements:
Ministers are examining whether to use powers to track the travel plans of everyone leaving the country under a system known as e-Borders to deal with the problem of unpaid fines.
Has the government really not learnt about the limitations of government IT projects? Are they really willing to risk the loss of personal information on this scale, as has happened from so many other government databases? Do they really think that it is right to intrude so much into people's private lives?

Does e-Borders finally show that e-Gorders has really gone e-Bonkers?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Latest Graffiti Outbreak by 'Melon'

I have just reported a spate of graffiti tagging to the city council, a particularly bad example being the large mural above by "Melon" on a wall next the Coleridge Rec pool.

Here is a list of graffiti reports that we have recently made across the division:
We have been asking the council to pass on these reports to the police, because there is no way we can get tackling this sort of crime resourced without it being fully reported. There is generally thought to be a high level of under reporting due to people's expectations that nothing will be done, but local police have been urging people to report all crimes, and if they weren't, we certainly would!

As well as resourcing, we also need to help the police with intelligence as much as possible. For instance, can you pinpoint the time of any particular activity? Do your children have a clue who "ATS" (these initials often accompany the "MELON" tag) might be? Please let us know or e-mail "ecops.coleridge" at "" if you have any ideas.

The "Melon" tagger also painted his full mural onto the side of the Duke of Argyle pub some time between Midnight and the morning on Wednesday 11th March. Did anyone see anything?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Lib Dems try to bring in Congestion Charging by the Back Door

The Sustainable Communities Act started as a private members bill promoted in the House of Commons by Conservative Nick Hurd MP, and received cross party support. It aims to promote the sustainability of local communities, covering economic, social and environmental issues. There were high hopes it would help Councils to protect independent shops on local high streets, and saving posts offices or community pubs.

The City Council recently held a workshop to discuss the act and how the Council might try use it, and came up with a list of possible actions – none of which would help protect local shops, post offices or other things that build sustainable communities or the local economy, but instead a list focussing on misguided environmental measures, some of which can only be described as barking, and that have the potential to do real damage to the local economy. But this list seems to have been taken seriously, as it is now featuring in an agenda item at Monday’s strategy and resources scrutiny committee. From

Short list of potential proposals for consideration by Panel
1 Enable the Council to positively discriminate in favour of local companies/suppliers when procuring, where this would have local and/or sustainability benefits.
2 Give the Council the power to ban the use of plastic bags or ban free plastic bags in shops – charge to deter their use
3 Require supermarkets to give priority to local food producers and have food packed locally
4 Give the Council the power to ban single occupancy cars from certain routes at certain times
5 Return traffic planning to the City Council. Local areas to enact their own traffic restrictions (assumes existing funding stream also moves)
6 Give councils powers to make local decisions on road pricing rather than under the control of central government
7 Give Cambridge city council Integrated Transport Authority powers under the Transport Act to secure better regulated public transport
8 Charge supermarkets (e.g. Sainsburys, Tesco) retail parks and offices for their car parking space and let Councils reinvest the money on local services
9 Change current legislation to allow the local authority to keep all revenues from council house rents for the improvement and new build of council houses in that authority.
10 Let councils keep business rates to spend locally
11 Make it easier to bring empty homes back into use
12 Give councils powers to charge higher council tax for second homes that are not occupied for most of the year perhaps to help fund more affordable homes

I can see some potential for making progress on reducing plastic bag use, but otherwise there are some real shockers in here.

Yes it is terrible that half the Council tenants’ rents are shipped off elsewhere, but tell me the Council isn’t already doing everything it can to protest about this.

“Make it easier to bring empty homes back into use” – from the Council that has kept Tiverton House empty for 14 months! They can already use compulsory purchase to bring homes back into use, even if the owner is trying to make improvements and neighbours aren’t complaining, such as on Auckland Road in the City. What more do they want - take a 4 week holiday and come home to find the Council has taken your home off you?

“Require supermarkets to give priority to local food producers and have food packed locally”. Supermarkets already do promote locally produced food – as a response to consumer demand. But insist food is packed locally – what planet are these people on? Do they have any idea how it is that our supermarkets are full of a wide variety of food at cheap prices. What next - a state controlled National Food Service anyone?

But it’s the transport measures that have the potential to do real damage to business, as many have been in considered and rejected in the past, and all have the potential to do real damage to the local economy. Last Council meeting, we passed a resolution calling on Cambridge University Press to do all it can to avoid job losses in Cambridge. Now we are telling them that their staff shouldn't drive in to work without finding someone to share the journey with, could be charged for entering the City, and then charged to park when they arrive at work. Employers won’t have to worry about needing to make people redundant – they will find it impossible to find staff prepared to work in Cambridge.

City Conservatives are fighting hard to ensure congestion charging is ruled out for Cambridge – the last thing we need is the Lib Dems trying to bring it in via the back door through the Sustainable Communities Act. And what a wasted opportunity to use what should be a very useful bit of legislation...

Friday, March 6, 2009

New mosque plans progressing

I'm pleased to report that the Muslim Academic Trust is progressing with plans for a new mosque on the former John Lewis site.

They are currently half-way through the architectural competition, having shortlisted four architectural practices out of an original eleven. The architects on the shortlist are now preparing detailed proposals, including drawings, for a deadline of 28 April. A jury, including a lecturer from the faculty of architecture, and a non-voting representative of East Mill Road Action Group, will hopefully meet shortly afterwards to pick a winner.

The old building on the site was extensively damaged by fire last November, and demolition has now been completed without significant problems or contamination issues - after concerns raised by local residents, the small garden in front of the property was conserved during the demolition.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Congestion Charging in Cambridge: Have your say

I have just responded to the Transport Commission appointed to look at the issue of congestion charging in Cambridge and the County Council's TIF bid. They have been asking for responses to 5 questions, shown below.

The deadline for responses has just been moved to the 13th of March - more details on the Commission and how to respond are available on their website - if you have strong views on this issue, we recommend you get in touch.

Coleridge Conservatives are completely opposed to plans to introduce congestion charging in Cambridge - the Labour government is trying to force Cambridgeshire into introducing the charge by blackmail - claiming there will be no money for transport infrastructure if we don't agree. We think this blackmail should be rejected - as the residents of Manchester have already done - not least because the policy of a new Conservative government would be to drop all requirements for congestion charging in these transport bids.

The questions are as follows, with my responses to the commission below:

1. With the congestion in and around Cambridge and plans to build a large number of new homes in Cambridgeshire, do you think transport improvements are needed?

2. What do you think should be done to improve public transport, walking and cycling facilities, and the road network, to cope with congestion in and around Cambridge now and in the future?

3. Cambridgeshire County Council has bid for £500 million from Government under the Transport Innovation Fund scheme. What are your views on the proposals? Do you think it will help solve congestion in and around Cambridge?

4. Is Cambridgeshire County Council planning to spend the £500million for transport improvements in the right way? What changes would be better, or more acceptable, for local people and businesses?

5. To obtain the £500 million of Government money to improve public transport, walking and cycling facilities, and the road network in and around Cambridge, a form of demand management, such as congestion charging, is needed. This is part of Cambridgeshire County Council's proposals. Does the need to tackle congestion justify a charge for most vehicles coming into Cambridge in the morning peak (7.30am until 9.30am)? Are there alternative ways of reducing congestion and greenhouse gases?

My response follows:


1.1. Yes obviously. There is currently a deficit in transport infrastructure, so investment is required to fill this deficit and support new growth, both in terms of housing demand and the needs to support business and other economic activity.

1.2 It should be noted however that there is already transport investment planned outside the TIF bid, e.g. to improve the A14, through the cycling demonstration town funding etc.


2.1 The key to reducing congestion is to significantly increase transport capacity of all types. The effectiveness of this investment can be increased by planning new developments to reduce the demand for travel.

2.2. Transport improvements within the current City of Cambridge boundaries:In many areas of the city, potential for improving transport infrastructure is already constrained by the physical layout of the historic city, although even here there are measures that can be taken to increase total transport capacity rather than merely reallocating it (e.g. new cycle routes, making best use of existing corridors such as Newmarket Road, and possibly more radical steps such as bus tunnels).

2.3 Transport improvements outside the historic central areas:There are numerous areas where increases in capacity can and should be achieved – upgrading the A14, an Eastern Bypass, new station at Chesterton, new public transport corridors in new developments, but we should particularly focus on building cycle infrastructure into new developments consistent with the very best in continental Europe, such as areas of Holland or Denmark, not merely slightly better than the UK average as is current practice.

2.4 We can reduce congestion by reducing the natural demand to travel, particularly at peak times, through sensible planning policies – for example housing and jobs close to each other or to major public transport corridors.

2.5 Building employment near to housing will not however work on its own. We need to ensure the right types and tenures of property are built. The 2007 Hills Report into Social Housing provides important evidence on the likelihood of residents moving for job related reasons. “the rate of employment-related mobility within social housing is strikingly low. Nationally, one in eight moves is associated with work, but only a few thousand social tenants each year move home for job-related reasons while remaining as social tenants (even within the same area), out of a total of nearly four million.” (Hills Report, p5)

2.6 It is clear from this evidence that merely building housing near to employment is not remotely sufficient to ensure shorter, more sustainable journeys. Overall, the vast majority of people put factors other than proximity to employment such as suitability of housing as higher priority when deciding where to live. From this I would conclude that to avoid a transport problem from significant daily commuting, we need to ensure that the right types of housing (including family housing of all types and qualities) are available near to employment.

2.7 But we also need to recognise from this evidence that the obsession in planning circles for ever higher levels of ‘affordable’ housing, in particular in the social rented sector with high security of tenure at significantly below market rent levels, is disastrous for work related mobility which as noted above is almost non-existent in the social rented sector. This leaves those likely to be hardest hit by congestion charging plans least able to move for employment reasons, and thus providing a double barrier to social mobility. We need to find a way to ensure everyone has access to a choice of housing suitable to their needs at a cost they can afford, but current policies towards affordable housing are clearly not the answer.


3.1 The current TIF proposals are completely unacceptable, because theyinclude congestion charging for Cambridge.

3.2 The proposals would be helping to solve congestion by taxing the poor off the road, which is completely unacceptable on social justice grounds.

3.3. The proposals say to businesses thinking of locating here or relocating elsewhere that we do not and will not have sufficient infrastructure to solve transport problems, so we are attempting to reduce demand – in other words, we aren’t fit for business. Recently announced job losses at employers such as Cambridge University Press are a timely reminder that the Cambridge economy cannot be taken for granted by policymakers assuming that the local economy can continue to be successful no matter how business unfriendly we make the area.

3.4. The Congestion proposed is another tax on motorists, who are already overtaxed, in a country that is already overtaxed, and a very inefficient to collect tax at that – it may even cost money to collect it by the time the infrastructure, possibly including yet more snooping cameras, is paid for and maintained, and the scheme administered. Congestion charging is completely unsuitable for a small city like Cambridge, that lacks the significant public transport infrastructure including urban railways, underground and buses of a city like London.

3.5 Not unrelated to all these factors, congestion charging will make the current TIF bid impossible to implement politically, so it can’t contribute to the solution. When you don’t try to rig consultations in favour of people concluding we should accept congestion charging, you realise that it is deeply unpopular.

3.6 We already have plenty of evidence for this from Manchester. I dare say proponents of their TIF bid used responses such as the following from a survey carried out by Manchester evening News: "Is congestion charging a price worth paying to get £3bn Government cash to improve public transport in the region – including the expansion of the Metrolink to Ashton under Lyne, Oldham and Rochdale, as well as South Manchester and Manchester Airport?": Yes – 55%; No – 44% ( However, when the question of congestion charging was put to a straight referendum, over 78% of the electorate opposed congestion charging despite the linkage to the TIF bid funding, including a large majority in every part of the region. Congestion charging is deeply unpopular in Cambridge, and will not be accepted by local residents.

4. My comments on transport investment required are as per question 2.


5.1. Having lead people in to this question by encouraging people to reflect on the current state of transport infrastructure, possible future demands, and the improvements proposed in the TIF bid, your consultation now suggests there are only two ways forward – accept congestion charging as part of the TIF bid, or have no further investment in transport despite the levels of house building that the Government is trying to force on the Cambridge sub-region. This is a false dichotomy, and such an obviously false one at that it frankly discredits this whole consultation exercise, in the same way that the previous sham consultation exercise that you quote on the Transport Commission website was discredited.

5.2 There are many scenarios in which money will be available to support transport improvements in Cambridgeshire without requiring congestion charging.

5.3 For example, if the General Election due by June 2010 at the latest results in a Conservative government, then the County Council will be free to pursue a TIF bid without the congestion charging element, as this is the current Conservative party policy nationally. The Conservatives will also abolish much of the regional planninginfrastructure that is attempting to force unsustainable levels of house building on us, thus removing another element of the appalling blackmail that the Government is trying to use to force Cambridgeshire to be its congestion charging guinea pig.

5.4 Even if the current government continues forever, it is nonsense to suggest that we will end up building huge numbers of houses without any transport investment if we reject TIF – as we should just say no to the housing if the transport funding isn’t available (or not even worry about saying no - its not as if the current regional spatialstrategy is remotely deliverable). It will have been a nice try from the government to persuade us to help with its desired social engineering experiment, but if everyone just calls bluff, there will be no choice but to go back and look again at how best to allocate central resources to transport in the areas that desperately need those resources.

5.5 The solution to the ‘problem’ in so much as there is a problem is simple - significant increases in the transport infrastructure of all types, including roads, cycling and public transport must be built as part of any significant increase in the number of houses in the sub-region, coupled with sensible planning policies that reduce the need for journeys. If the alternatives are in place so that it isn’t necessary for people to sit in traffic jams, then people can either make a personal choice appropriate to their personal circumstances, or the question of congestion charging can then be put to the electorate in a separate referendum, to be considered on its merits uncoupled from the outrageous blackmail of the current TIF proposal.

5.6 How could we pay for the required transport infrastructure? Even in troubled economic times, it is likely there always be an uplift in value from granting permission for new developments in an area like Cambridge, and new residents will provide a new stream of local taxation revenue – the rules, be they local or national could be changed to ensure that these economic benefits from development are channelled into transport infrastructure, rather than being remitted to local Councils via s106 agreements or central government via changes in the Council tax base, to be spent on things that aren’t transport – if these policies were to change to allow existing local residents to benefit from new developments (which again is current Conservative party policy nationally), it might have the happy side effect of making new housing development rather easier to deliver than the current situation, with Arbury Park a half-completed monument to the failure of current planning policy, Northstowe barely off the starting blocks, and the southern fringe on hold.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lib Dems ignore Council Tax warnings

The Full Council meeting last Thursday agreed the budget and set the City Council part of Council Tax.

I have blogged before on the financial problems faced by the City Council this year, but argued that in the current economic situation the Council had to find significant cost savings, and do everything they could to keep down the burden of Council Tax.

To achieve these aims, the Council should be maximising the use of its resources, reviewing budgets starting from zero, and focusing on the core services that everyone relies on.

The Liberal Democrats ignored warnings from all opposition groups, and again put up their part of the Council tax by 4.5%, despite the recession and the lower expectations for inflation.

In doing so, they failed to make any serious attempts to make long term reductions in the core costs of providing services, have failed to consider the possible effects of the recession adequately, and general reserves are expected to plummet - the 'debt free' Council may even have to borrow to finance its capital spending program.

In short, the Lib Dems have failed to tackle the problems facing the Council, and agreed a 'hope for the best' budget that will add to the burden of Council Tax for years ahead.

What do you know about Puffin crossings?

Following a report that the crossing at the Coleridge Road/Davy Road/Radegund Road crossroads was operating a ludicrously short pedestrian phase, within which I was challenged to be able to cross, I took a look for myself.

I confirmed that the green man was only shown for about 5 seconds and that the beeping sound finished slightly before this. This did indeed seem somewhat extreme - I barely crossed in time with a fast walk and someone alongside me with a child was less than half way across when the crossing went red for pedestrians.

Thanks to a very fast response from the county council (who immediately checked out the crossing to make sure it was safe) I now know that this is exactly how this new-style of crossing, the 'Puffin' crossing, is supposed to work. The Puffin crossing is identified by the pedestrian signals being presented at a low height, just above the button, on the same side of the road as the pedestrian such that looking at the console one can see approaching traffic on the near side of the road.

While I was already aware of the Puffin crossing, I did not know that the signals operated differently from the Pelican crossings I have known all my life. Instead of the flashing green man showing to allow pedestrians to finish crossing, and possibly flashing amber to vehicles on the road, the new behaviour is to show red to both parties during the final crossing phase when pedestrians are not supposed to start crossing.

The idea with the new system is that by detecting people crossing the traffic is stopped for a minimal period, while the red light makes it less likely that pedestrians will decide to nip across too late and the lack of a flashing amber light reduces aggressive driving.

Personally I am not a fan of the new crossing as I understood the old one perfectly well and having two sets of semantics for ostensibly equivalent systems is confusing. I also dislike the absence of pedestrian signals on the opposite side of the road mounted high, since these are easier for people to see when lots of people are gathered at a crossing, can be observed more easily while watching the road as a whole (i.e. not just traffic from the right) and can be seen by other road users who for whatever reason find themselves beyond their own traffic signals but held up before reaching the crossing.

What do you think?