Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Labour's Regional Airport would wreck Coleridge

One of the more surprising comments to come out of last weeks full Council meeting was the admission from a Cherry Hinton Labour Councillor of a hidden agenda for Cambridge Airport. 

He confirmed that an Eastern Region Labour meeting had vowed to turn Marshall's into a regional airport, raising the prospect of many more passenger flights and even the likes of Easyjet flying to Cambridge.

We want to see Marshall's stay at the airfield site (and certainly don't want the high density housing/inadequate transport plan being forced on them by Labour's housing targets), but turning Marshall's into a regional airport will be a nightmare for local residents in Coleridge, with increased noise, traffic and risk. We will fight Labour's plans for the airport all the way.

UPDATE: Cambridge Labour Party are trying to dissociate themselves from Cllr Drydens comments - I'm happy to append the following comments received by email from the Leader of the Labour group:

"Rob as you know did make a comment but he definitely did NOT state at the Council meeting that eastern Region Labour Councillors had voted or had a meeting on this issue."

"Rob attended a non decision making meeting with regional trade union representatives where the unions supported the retention of Cambridge airport, and Marshalls, and supported Cambridge Labour Party's consistent opposition to the 12000 houses proposed there.

I have represented the party in Cambridge at all regional meetings of eastern region Labour Councillors since 2006 and on the East of England Regional Assembly, and there has been no such discussion by eastern Region Labour Councillors, never mind decision on this issue as you suggest.

Labour Councillor regional policy, followed through in meetings developing the Regional Spatial Strategy, is to support only two regional airports - Stansted and Luton."

I welcome Labour's commitment locally (if not nationally) to trying to save Marshall's in Cambridge - it is a battle I have been fighting since around 1999 after Labour's national policy moves on housing targets, and before Labour locally woke up to the issue. However the fact remains that a Labour Councillor made it clear in an open meeting of full Council that a grouping of Eastern Region Labour supporters/Councillors (of whatever constitution - I'm not familiar with the internal machinations of the Labour party) were calling for Marshalls to become a regional airport, something that is very worrying indeed and we will continue to oppose these plans. If Labour have any more clarification of Cllr Drydens remarks, we will be more than happy to publish them in the comments (not anonyously would be preferred!)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tiverton House Update

I've spent a fair amount of time over the last few weeks working on the Tiverton House issue.

Tiverton House was built as recently as the 1980s as sheltered housing for the elderly. The Council has long needed to bring their sheltered accommodation up to modern standards, and in their wisdom the Lib Dems decided to flog off Tiverton House to the highest bidder, to fund improvements elsewhere in the City. 

At no stage in the process has the Council considered what effect unsuitable alternative uses would have on the local area, and pressed on with the sale in the midst of a recession regardless. Last December I wrote to senior officials pleading not to sell Tiverton House for student accommodation. I asked questions in Council - yes we need to bring it back into use after 14 months empty, but it needs to be a suitable use.

My pleas, along with those from other ward Councillors were ignored. At the end of March we were informed that exchange of contracts was imminent, the purchasers likely intended use was for student accommodation, and the Council was even going to let work start before contract completion in May.

Since then I have chased up concerns about unreasonable working hours, but mostly tried to understand what powers we as Councillors have to object to student accommodation, and to make sure local residents and Councillors get some say. About a week ago I had an irate phone call from the new owner of the site, wanting to know why I was criticising his plans, how do I know what local residents want, and I should stop opposing his plans. Having spoken to many local residents about this issue over the last few weeks, I am confident that high density student accommodation in this area is not what people want, and I will fight to ensure everyones voice is heard, not ignored as the Council has done to date.

This seems to be an issue we agree with Labour on, so on Friday, along with one of our three Labour Councillors, I met with a senior planning official to discuss the potential planning implications.

The situation is complicated by the fact that their has been no formal planning application submitted, but we are confident that a number of possible elements of the new owners plan (e.g. converting guest rooms or shared spaces into flats, creating new entrances) will require planning permission, and rest assured we will be doing all we can to ensure any such changes come before a planning committee so local residents and Councillors will have the best possible chance of opposing undesirable plans for the site, and make sure issues like parking and refuse collection are fully considered.

At the meeting on Friday we also discussed a number of other approaches to the problem and want to setup a series of meetings with other parts of the Council. We have also asked to see copies of the sale agreements and any other conditions of sale - if the Council has failed in its duty to protect local residents interests, we will be holding the Liberal Democrats to account, because it is their misguided decision to sell this property rather than refurbish it that led to the current intolerable situation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Folk Festival Fiasco: Are the Lib Dems listening?

Following the financial mess at the City Council caused by their Iceland investments and the Folk Festival on-line ticketing Fiasco, Conservatives have long been calling for a wider enquiry into risk management, i.e. how the Council monitors risks and makes sure it has systems in place across the Council to pick up problems before they result in significant financial losses to Council taxpayers.

When the Folk Festival internal review was carried out, we called it a whitewash, with a promised independent review actually being carried out by internal audit, a branch of the Council's finance department, and focussed almost exclusively within the team responsible for putting on the Folk Festival. 

But there does finally seem to be some movement from the Lib Dems, and recognition that the problems might not just be a little local difficulty in one department. They have just issued a press release saying: 

"Cambridge Liberal Democrats are calling for a member-led Committee of Inquiry to be set up to investigate the broader implications of the 2008 Folk Festival.

The committee would look at issues raised in the 2008 Folk Festival independent review which could have a wider effect on the city council.

Cambridge City Councillor Tim Ward, a member of the Civic Affairs Committee, said: "We want to tighten up on procedures so that the problems we experienced with the Folk Festival last year can never be repeated."

Putting aside the bizarre suggestion that they need 'call for' an enquiry as if they are nothing to do with running the Council responsible for the mess, this does seem to be some belated recognition of the message we have been trying to tell them for months, and so todays announcement is welcome. 

Our point is that even if one department is making mistakes, systems within both finance and the legal department should kick in to ensure Council tax payers funds are protected - it is fairly clear both finance and legal knew about the arrangements, and we still need satisfactory answers as to why they were allowed to go ahead, costing taxpayers nearly £650.000.  If only we can get the Executive Councillor and Leader to show any indication that they feel in any way responsible for what goes on in the Council (when there is a problem of course - there is no such reticence if they think things are going well...), we will have made real progress.

Its a different story on the Icelandic investments - from the Lib Dems press release on that subject, everything is fine, and the Ostrich's head remains firmly stuck in the sand, but we will keep pressing them.

Monday, April 20, 2009

If this is the good news...

The BBC is reporting the headline: 'Councils may recoup Iceland cash'. If this constitutes good news for the City Council, then bad news doesn't bear thinking about.

What the article goes on to say is that Council's may recover 70-80% of their investment in Heritable bank - presumably this is just the capital, it doesn't mention interest. The City Council has £4m invested in Heritable, so could be looking at a further 20-30% of this amount, or £800,000 - £1.2m (remember annual Council Tax income for the City Council is only about £6m), currently unbudgeted, being lost. But, and its a big but, this is only the UK branch of the bank - the situation is likely to be much worse for the Icelandic parent bank Landbanski. It has previously been reported that the unsecured debt of this bank is trading at 10% of its value - so a much greater part of the £5m the Council has invested there could also be at risk.

I wonder if the BBC spin on this news comes from the Local Government Association, who apparently are being very helpful to local Councils tackling this problem - if I was being cynical I could imagine as much of this help was in deflecting criticism from Councils by managing news rather than actually making any difference to how much money is returned - they seem quite happy to spin on their own behalf (for example campaigning against elected police chiefs), and to protect Councils from legitimate criticism rather than concentrating on spreading best practice - I wonder how much the City Council pays them for this privilege...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Quango can go!

A letter I sent to the Cambridge News following up their article on extensions to the Regional Spatial Strategy was published in today's paper edition, but not on-line, so I am reproducing it here:

Quango can go

The government is trying to impose a mind-bogglingly large number of homes on Cambridge on top of the excessive number already planned, via its undemocratic regional quangos.

While I am glad that the city Labour leader is questioning the latest figure (News, April 15), wouldn't it be better if he lobbied the government to follow the Conservative pledge to abolish top-down housing targets and put the responsibility back into the hands of accountable local councils?

We should try to kick the Regional Spatial Strategy into the long grass until we can have a change of government.

Andrew Bower
Coleridge Conservatives
Argyle Street

The pledge to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and as a result allow local authorities to rewrite their local development frameworks is one of my favourite national Conservative policies (see Control Shift green paper on localism) and would be hugely beneficial to Cambridge, considering the threats of obscene over-development that are currently hanging over us.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Grass Verges: How long to wait for action?

The problems of grass verge parking are rapidly becoming one of the hottest topics on the doorstep in Coleridge. It is clearly a difficult issue - for some people (those not needing to park a car on the road) verge parking is just wrong, causes immense damage to the local environment, and should just be banned with the full force of the law. For others, they have no choice as there is nowhere else to safely park their cars, so it is completely unreasonable to try stopping verge parking.

Take Chalmers Road for example:

A huge verge parking problem (as noted above, I am aware that people parking on the verges may have no realistic alternative). But there are measures the Council could take here to protect some of the verges and improve the streetscape, such as planting some trees where people want them, and repair the verges. So I have been trying for some weeks now to get the Council to take some action. I have wanted to know the answers to two questions: What can the City Council do to protect grass verges on Coleridge (such as planting a tree on the verge on the right here), and who in the Council is responsible for developing the Council's policy in this area. 

Despite bragging in their manifestos about what they have been doing to help solve the grass verge problem, the answer from Liberal Democrat Cambridge appears to be nothing and nobody - the Council is literally doing nothing at the moment to work towards solutions to this tricky problem (or if they are, some very senior officers in the Council can't tell me who is responsible for work in this area.)

Solving this problem in the longer term will require a number of significant policy changess. Car ownership now is higher than ever imagined when Birdwood Road and Chalmers Road were built, and personally I think that is a good thing - this is a huge boost to personal liberty and for economic development, due to better workforce mobility - these upsides of car ownership are frequently ignored by the anti-car brigade. Contrary to the Lib Dems vision for Cambridge, we are not going to return to walking, cycling and horse and cart as the only ways of getting around. As much as walking and cycling should be encouraged (and this will be part of the solution), cars aren't going to disappear, they will just become greener and less polluting, ultimately being powered by energy captured in useful form without producing carbon dioxide. So to solve the verge parking problem, as well as encouraging alternaives, we will need to take steps to increase the availability of parking - for which there are a number of potential solutions, e.g. we could make it cheaper for people to get a "dropped kerbs" - currently an expensive Council mandated process, or create other parking spaces within the existing street layout.

But as a measure of how far from understanding the problem the Council is, it is setting up a much bigger problem for itself in future, by banning developers from including sufficient car parking on new developments, such as the flats going up on the Tim Brinton site that will be built with significantly less than one parking space per flat. Parking generally is probably the most frequent source of complaints to local Councillors - what a shame the City Council doesn't seem to be doing anything about the problems and in fact through the planning system is making them worse.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Exclusive: My First Ride on Guided Busway

Huge excitement today as I was allowed to ride on a section of the County Council's Guided Busway. The brand new Stagecoach bus, complete with small guide wheel picked us up from the County Council's new park and ride site on Butt Lane, Milton, and we had a couple of runs from Cambridge Regional College on Kings Hedges Road to Park Lane, Histon and back.

So what were the first impressions? Uneventful would be one way of describing it - like a bus only better. The ride was very smooth, and fast. The top speed is around 55mph, which we reached on the journey. It took just under 5 minutes from Park Lane (just past Histon) to Cambridge Regional College on Kings Hedges Road (even after slowing down to avoid some children playing on the line that probably weren't expecting a bus to be running!)

The tracks were complete, but there is clearly still some work to be done on the stops and other areas like CCTV, bike racks and landscaping - and obviously it is still early days in terms of knowing how much of a success the Guided Busway will be. One thing is for sure, the Guided Busway will open, and Cambridgeshire will have a significant addition to its public transport infrastructure. Making any significant public transport project happen is always difficult and always controversial, the County will deserve the credit when the Guided Bus proves to be a great success.

And a final treat - a video of the journey from Park Lane, Histon to CRC:

Rustat Road needs to be considered for Parking Controls

The County Council has asked Councillors if there are any areas of their ward that should be considered for consultation about parking controls. I have long been concerned about the current problems, and the effects of new developments on the Rustat Road area, and think residents should have the opportunity to consider introducing on street controls. This is my response to the County Council:

"I would like the Rustat Road area (to cover areas affected by station commuter parking) to be considered for controlled parking consultations and restrictions.

This does however need to be considered in the context of the redevelopment of the station area and the former water company site, and the prospective timing of these developments needs to be considered to help determine when is the most appropriate time to consult residents.

Finally, I would like to request that any consideration of parking controls looks at a wide variety of possible parking controls, for example parking restriction for small periods of the morning to reduce commuter parking as well as more traditional resident's parking."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter!

Coleridge Conservatives wish their readers a Happy Easter!

For Andrew's favourite source of religio-political commentary try a visit to the pseudonymous Archbishop Cranmer, or for a cultural take there's local Conservative Jonny Newton's comment on yesterday's Guardian coverage.

City Council's email handling still a shambles

When I was first elected as a Councillor in 2000, I pleaded with the Lib Dems to make email handling a priority of the then new-fangled 'e-government' agenda -all emails to service lines should be acknowledged automatically to indicate would be dealing with the email, then systems put in place to ensure every email received a suitable reply, i.e. all emails should be treated seriously, like the Council's handling of letters, only quicker and more efficient. These pleas were ignored.

Eight years later, the City Council's handling of emails appears to be as shambolic as ever - I'm trying to contact various Council officers about some ward issues, including urgently trying to get to the bottom of the planning situation at Tiverton House, and I am getting automated responses to indicate that my emails aren't being received again:

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification



Delivery to the following recipient has been delayed:


Message will be retried for 2 more day(s)

Technical details of temporary failure:
Unspecified Error (SENT_MAIL): Connection reset by peer

Last summer all my emails to the Council were ignored, for what turned out to be a completely spurious reason that never should have caused the Council to block them, and I have had other problems during the year getting responses to emails. If a letter was received by the Council, they would never think of putting it in a pile and ignoring it just because they didn't like the colour of the envelope, or reading a letter then not bothering to reply, but this if effectively what they do with emails on a far too frequent basis. No private company of any stature would allow their email handling to be as bad as this - the Council needs to get a grip. In the meantime, it would be helpful to know if anyone else is having trouble contacting the Council by email at the moment...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

HSBC Response on Cherry Hinton Road Closure

I have today received a reply from HSBC following my letter to them requesting information about their closure process and asking them to reconsider the planned closure, given the loss nearby of both the Post Office and the Cambridge Building Society.

HSBC has said that the closure is necessary due to the expensive new branch opening on St Andrew's Street, combining the operations of what will be the former Market Hill branch.

While there doesn't seem to be any chance of a reprieve, they have said that they are keen to know about any cases where individuals will have particular difficulties with the closure. So please, if you or anyone you know will be stuck due to this closure, I will be happy to pass details on to their regional office.

Apparently no redundancies are planned in relation to this closure.


Damage to the traffic calming on Radegund Road is getting beyond a joke. I've reported the latest damage to the Council here via www.fixmystreet.com, but this seems to happen on a weekly basis. if this was caused by a vehicle the whole thing would be written off, so it is clearly vandalism...

UPDATE: Already had a response back from both the police who will be stepping up patrols and the County who will be getting highways to fix the problem!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Neville Road Rec set for new mural

The Neville Road rec is set to have a new mural painted next week by local young people. I've just been to see some designs at a session organised by the City Council's Children and Young People's Participation Service and colourful is a word that springs to mind.

I think a mural could be a good addition in this area, but I am a bit concerned that although local residents may have been invited to this session, there may have been a lack of previous consultation over whether or not having a mural at all is a good idea - but I look forward to the final result. 

For young people who wish to help with the painting next week, there are sessions from 12-3pm on Tues 14th and Wed 15th.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Saturday Street Surgery

Chris and I will be holding a street surgery this Saturday, 4th April, by the shops at the corner of Perne Road and Radegund Road between 2.30pm and 4pm. Residents are invited to pop round for a chat about local or city issues.

This follows on from a successful surgery we held recently outside Budgens at the junction of Perne Road with Cherry Hinton Road, where we were joined by Cambridge's Conservative Parliamentary Spokesman, Richard Normington.

Closed Post Office to Become Takeaway

Wednesday's planning committee meeting approved the "Conversion from confectionary to hot food takeaway" of 164 Hills Road, the former St John's Post Office, in spite of an officer recommendation to refuse permission.

It is a real shame that the Post Office had to go because of Labour's Post Office closure programme. Clearly the character of this area is changing and we shall need to keep an eye on developments. Do let us know what you think.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Prompt Action on Street Lights

Thanks to the county council for acting promptly to fix a broken street light on Davy Road. The casing was falling off and so it was dealt with quickly on Monday morning when the office was open, after being reported by Chris at the weekend.

The broken light:

We very much hope that this was not deliberate damage but are slightly concerned that it may be, since there is a similar problem, which we reported earlier but is the responsibility of the developers, Taylor Wimpey, and has not yet been fixed behind the flats on Rustat Avenue.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Exclusive: City Council to bring back the Stocks

Conservatives can exclusively reveal that the City Council will be bringing back the stocks to help clamp down on antisocial behaviour in Cambridge. The new stocks will operate on Friday and Saturday night outside the Guildhall, when drunken yobs caught the previous weekend can be pelted with rotten fruit.

A Council spokesman told us: “The idea started in an Area committee open forum. We take suggestions received at Area Committees very seriously, so our anti-social behaviour task force immediately swung into action to consider the plans. Following a fundamental service review, we realised we could outsource the rotten fruit concession, which will not only pay for the stocks, but will raise additional revenue to help plug the holes in this year’s budget. The stocks will be manufactured from wood sourced from sustainable forests, and if we deliver the fruit by bicycle, the scheme will be fully compliant with our climate change agenda.”

Commenting on the plans, Conservative Councillor Chris Howell enthused: “I think this is a brilliant idea. Too often Council plans to tackle alcohol related anti-social behaviour clamp down on everyone having a good time – this scheme will really sort out the bad apples from the good eggs. I’m going to be first in line with some rotten tomatoes.”

A public consultation on the plans is being held online and the deadline is midday today.