Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Councillors meet Network Rail

Last night at a well attended meeting, three Network Rail representatives (covering commercial development and project management) talked to Councillors and Council officers about their plans for Cambridge Station.

The good news is that Network rail (or rather the government via network rail) is investing £17m in a new Island platform for Cambridge station - the main motivation being to support 12 carriage trains to help relieve overcrowding on the routes to London.

The main elements of the plan are to remove two of the underused lines at the station and to create a new island platform, approx 250m long and 9m wide in their place, with a track and platform on either side (to be called platforms 7 and 8). They are also planning a new footbridge to the island, from just north of the current station building (this seems to be the only place they can make it work). As well as supporting longer trains, the new platform will reduce problems with manoevering trains around the station, so could support more frequent services in future.

The plans could move forward quite quickly - Network Rail intend to seek planning permission next month - they don't usually need permission to develop on railway land, but do in this case as the station is a listed building. Construction would take 5-6 months next year - with small numbers of closures to the line hopefully coinciding with other engineering works. The new platform is planned to open on 12th December 2011, to coincide with the new winter timetable.

Less good news is that Network Rail really don't seem to understand just how many cycles use Cambridge station. We are in a unique situation nationally in terms of the high levels of cycle usage in the city, and failure to support journeys involving cycling and rail adequately (through lack of cycle parking and lack of support for bikes on trains) is holding back further takeup of cycling. If Network Rail doesn't get this right and lots of people go back to using their cars to get to the station, all commuters would suffer from increased congestion and longer journey times around the city.

Network Rail admitted they were using standard models for passenger movements through the station (to identify where the 'pinch points' like the booking office will be as passenger numbers increase), without taking specific account of the high levels of bike movements at Cambridge station. Their proposed footbridge is also a standard modular design that would require bikes to be carried up steps or put into small lifts. Along with other Councillors, I made the point that the new footbridge would need to be designed specifically to cope with high volumes of bikes and make it easy for people to cross the line with their bike. They have promised to let us have more details about their modelling of passenger movements for use of the new platform, and will have been left in no doubt that they need to rethink the footbridge. Councillors also urged Network Rail to work on this issue with Cambridge Cycling Campaign. It would be interesting to know how stations in places like Holland are setup to support cyclists...

Another topic of discussion was how a new entrance to the station could be created from the Coleridge side of the station. I support access to the station from this part of Coleridge, as long as it is mainly for pedestrians and cyclists - it would clearly need to be accompanied by some measures to stop commuter parking.

The area of land east of station is currently underused - mostly for the train washer, and the rail authorities are working on a longer term plan to redevelop this area all the way up to Mill Road. I would like to see a new Eastern access earlier than waiting for complete redevelopment of the area, but there are two problems - getting across the line next to the new platform 8, and the train washer (which apparently could cost over £1m to move elsewhere!). Hopefully network rail are going to think about possible solutions to this.

Finally, Coleridge Conservatives have been calling for much better communication from Network Rail about their plans for some time - it has taken a long time from when I first started asking Network Rail for a meeting for this meeting to be setup. I hope that in future they can be much more proactive in engaging both with locally elected representatives and the wider public about their plans to develop the railway network in Cambridge. I would like to see a new station at Chesterton, and the Chisholm Trail cycle route taken forwards. If the local Councils could find a way to raise funding for projects such as these (perhaps from existing developer contributions for transport), combined with funding from other sources, e.g. the government or train operating companies, these projects could happen earlier and issues like cycling facilities considered much earlier in the design process - all of this will require better channels of communication between all relevant groups, so hopefully yesterdays meeting was just the beginning.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Coallition Deal Published

More details of the Conservatives-Lib Dem coalition deal have been published this morning, and it looks like many of the best bits of the Conservatives localism agenda will actually happen - with the following commitments from the coalition:
  • We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a review of local government finance. 
  • We will rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils, including giving councils new powers to stop ‘garden grabbing’. 
  • We will give councils a general power of competence. 
  • We will allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to. 
  • We will abolish the Standards Board regime.
  • We will implement the Sustainable Communities Act, so that citizens know how taxpayers’ money is spent in their area and have a greater say over how it is spent. 
  • We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities. 
  • We will cut local government inspection and abolish the Comprehensive Area Assessment. 
In all, the potential for a radical shift of power to locally elected people, and a huge roll back of the powers used by central government to dictate in detail how local Councils operate. I can't wait to see some of this implemented...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Good news on Resurfacing

Good news from the County Council! Cherry Hinton Road is set to be resurfaced from Perne Rd to Cherry Hinton. This has been one of Coleridge Conservatives long standing requests for action to improve the road surfacing, and we welcome this news (although there are some sections nearer Hills Road that also could do with attention).

The County Council adds: 'It is anticipated the programme of work will commence mid June and will take approximately 6 weeks to complete. As the process is totally weather reliant it is impossible at this stage to give precise dates for each site.  However, notices to inform road users of the works will be displayed at each location at least seven days before any work is undertaken.'

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fix the Swings!

The swings on the Neville Road recreation ground have been vandalised. When I first reported the problem over a month ago, only two of the swings had been removed:

Now all of them have gone - apparently removed by someone with bolt cutters. The Council have assured me they can be replaced relatively quickly, but one aspect of the Council's response to this problem does worry me - they don't seem to have reported the criminal damage to the police and obtained a crime number.

When I follow up problems like this with the police, the usual response I get back is that they haven't had any reports so don't think there is a problem. I always encourage local residents to report all incidents of crime or anti-social behaviour (even if it frequently doesn't look like anything is being done in response to these reports...), so it is particularly disappointing that the Council itself doesn't seem to be following this advice. I hope incidents like this are rare, but when they do happen, I hope the Council will in future not just spend taxpayers money fixing the problem without reporting it to the police to investigate.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Where all the money goes - part 92

I was emailed details last week for a seminar being run by LGIU, the local government information unit, cost £250+VAT or £150+VAT for member organisations (i.e. tax payer funded local authorities). The title - 'Petitions – the new duty'. It goes on:
The government has produced its statutory guidance on the new duty for councils to respond to petitions.  It comes into force on 15 June 2010, and the e-petitions requirements come into force on 15 December 2010.
The statutory guidance requires all councils to revise their handling of petitions to ensure that they meet the new duty.
This seminar will focus on key issues that authorities will need to consider in implementing the new duty and in designing and developing a petitions scheme:
Involving elected members
How petitions fit within the council’s engagement and involvement strategy and its engagement processes
Implications for overview and scrutiny
Implications for partners and co-operation
Implications for senior officers
The DCLG model scheme
Setting thresholds
Sharing knowledge and experience with each other delegates will be invited to consider how petitions and e-petitions can work.
In other words, the (thankfully now deceased) former government has discovered that people don't much like the ability of local councils to respond to their concerns, so instead of tackling the real problem - the way in which local councils are dictated to in minute detail by central government, they conclude it must be down to how local council's 'engage' their communities. People don't like what is happening, so they put together a petition. They don't like the response to the petition (usually because the Council's hand are tied), so the government placed a duty on local Councils to respond to petitions in a certain way - and as taxpayers we now all fund the training courses to teach councils how to do it.

I've no idea if this is going to be included in the strong localism agenda of the new government, but I suggest an alternative model:

Genuinely empower local Councils and local Councillors to decide what happens locally
If residents aren't happy, they can contact their Councillors, email them, petition them or use any obvious method to make their view known.
If they aren't happy with the response from their Councillors, they dump them out at the next election and replace them with Councillors that will respond to their concerns.

And we scrap the central targets, duties and controls, scrap the civil servants dreaming up these regulations, scrap the taxpayer funded courses to teach Councils about them and use the money saved to help pay off the enormous budget deficit. Efficiency saving or cuts to vital front line services? I know which category I would put this in - but I dare say Labour will still be claiming it is impossible to reduce the cost of government at all without cutting 'vital front line services'

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Station Bus Interchange takes shape

The County Council held a briefing meeting today to update Councillors on latest plans for the new bus interchange at the station.

Progress is being made - the current plan is for the whole of the station area south of Station Road to be developed by the end of 2012 - a planning application for the bus interchange should be brought forward in May. There is some urgency as the County Council has secured £4.5m of grants to develop the bus interchange and new bus link road to Hills Road, and the money must be spent soon.

View Larger Map

The good news is that this should bring significant transport improvements to the area:

- a new bus and cycle road from the Brooklands Avenue junction on Hills Road to the bus interchange
- a new bus interchange that will double the bus stop capacity at the station
- numerous new pedestrian and cycle routes in and through the site south of station road.

The details of the new bus interchange appear to be high quality, with good materials, and features such as real time bus information.

But my view remains that the station area plans are a wasted opportunity. The bus interchange will be surrounded close by on both sides by high density student accommodation - if nothing else it effectively rules out indefinitely using the station area as a significant new bus station due to space constraints - the whole area looks quite cramped - a problem that will be exacerbated when the new trees planned for the area mature. I fear it is too late now to change this.

In other developments, I have been trying to arrange a meeting with Network Rail to discuss a range of railway related transport projects - the City Council are currently taking this forward and trying to arrange a meeting for Councillors focusing on plans for a new island platform - giving local people a say in how these plans develop remains a key objective.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Coleridge Election Result

Thank you to everyone who voted Conservative on Thursday in Coleridge and to the many people who helped my campaign for the city council election.

The result of the city council election was a win for Labour with the Conservatives again taking second place. The Liberal Democrats appear to have benefitted from their profile in the parliamentary contest. Adjusted for general election turnout the green performance was slightly down on last year's while the UKIP vote was squeezed.

1320 (32.3%) .. Lewis Herbert (Labour)
1160 (28.4%) .. Andrew Bower (Conservative)
1040 (25.5%) .. Thomas Yates (Liberal Democrat)
446 (10.9%) .. Valerie T Hopkins (Green)
118 (2.9%) .. Albert Watts (UK Independence Party)

Congratulations to my Labour opponent, Councillor Lewis Herbert, whose work for local residents has clearly been recognised. Coleridge Conservatives will continue to try to work with ward councillors from other parties where we share common ground.

Well done to Nick Hillman for moving us into second place in the parliamentary elections in Cambridge, building on the excellent work done by former candidate Richard Normington, who was personally responsible for reviving the Conservative campaign in Cambridge in the period since the last general election, resulting in us coming second in Cambridge in the European elections last year.

Special thanks to Chris Howell, Coleridge and Cambridge's top councillor and top Conservative campaigner, to Richard Normington, Coleridge branch chairman and to Tim Haire, Cambridge Conservatives' excellent new political deputy chairman. The work for 2011 begins now!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bower's Contract: 4. Fixing Planning

Local planning policies are broken. I want to see an end to garden grabbing, insufficient parking on new developments, the sacrifice of open spaces and the destruction of Cambridge's heritage.

Many of our problems derive from national rules, including effective maximum parking restrictions and crazy housing targets. Indeed the threat to Marshall was a consequence of Labour's housing targets, as warned by local Conservatives but dismissed as scaremongering by Labour councillors. Yet the city is suffering from a lack of family housing - a problem that the current mass development plans don't address.

However, the city council's own rules (the 'local plan') and the manner of their implementation make problems much worse.

If elected I would add my voice to that of Chris Howell's in calling for a rapid rethink of the plan, along with strategic development plans to take advantage of what we must all hope will be a new Conservative government's cancellation of Regional Spatial Strategies and reform of planning rules.

Even without a Conservative government, however, I would call for the city council to strengthen the plan to protect Cambridge's heritage, to remove the crazy tighter local requirement for maximum parking provision that is currently ensuring chaos for the future and to cut down on garden-grabbing developments.

Bower's Contract: 3. Working Hard

My third pledge if elected at this election is to work hard for Coleridge residents throughout the year, keeping residents regularly informed by newsletters and on the blog and being accessible to residents.

There is currently only one Conservative on the city council in Chris Howell, who punches well above his weight at the Guildhall. Electing another Conservative would make us twice a effective. And with the Conservatives you don't just hear from the person who is next up for election - the whole team works hard.

Much of our work over the last year can be scrutinised on this blog.

A Conservative government would also be excellent news for Coleridge and Cambridge. I urge you to vote for Nick Hillman for MP to help us get the changes we badly need nationally as well as locally on issues like planning. However, when it comes to the crunch I will always put local residents first.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bower's Contract: 2. No Congestion Charge

My second main pledge to Coleridge if I am elected as city councillor on Thursday is to continue to oppose congestion charging for Cambridge.

Congestion charging is not the right answer for Cambridge. I have campaigned hard against the charge ever since it was proposed in 2007.

Cambridge badly needs funding for transport infrastructure to match the huge developments being forced on it but the Labour government's answer was to blackmail the county council saying funding would only be available if a congestion charge were implemented, via the Transport Innovation Fund (TIF).

Congestion charging would be a complete disaster for Cambridge, fail to raise enough revenue to pay for its network of spy cameras and adversely impact most those on low incomes who rely on motor vehicles for trade.

Many Conservatives on the county council voted against the TIF bid but Coleridge's Labour county councillor voted for congestion charging with a spirited defence of the Labour government. The Lib Dems and the Greens are also right behind this lunatic plan and are desperate to resurrect the now dormant plan for congestion charging.

Fortunately the TIF scheme has been proven to be unworkable and the government has found it necessary to replace it.

I will stay vigilant to the risk to Cambridge of any renewed attempts to introduce congestion charging.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Perne Road Shops Latest

Last Friday I was at a meeting with the owners of the Perne Road shops (and one of our three Labour Councillors!), to find out the latest on redevelopment plans.

It wasn't good news for those looking for an early solution to the problem - redevelopment is currently on hold, due to lack of finance being available for this type of project. Whilst this could change any time, the owners have now offered to provide some funds to improve the site. They plan to put wooden boarding around the site, and will support some type of murals or artwork on the boarding. I have contacted the Council to find out if they could also provide some support, for example to allow local artists to work with the local schools to come up with some ideas for murals or some other type of public art.

It is still unacceptable that the flats on this site have been empty for so long, but in the meantime it would be great if we can get improvements to the site whilst development is on hold. As ever, let me know if you have any ideas.

Bower's Contract: 1. Lower Council Tax

This is the first of a series of posts running up to the city council election on Thursday in which I will cover my five main pledges to Coleridge to which I would work if elected.

Every Conservative should put the taxpayer foremost when dealing with taxpayers' money. That means that every pound is spent well.

Cambridge City Council has been increasing council tax by 4.5% year on year. For this general election year only they are raising it by only 2.5% but have planned to raised it by 3.5% and then 4.5% in the following years. That means an Olympic-sized cumulative tax rise of 11% by the Olympic year of 2012.

I would push for the city council to keep council tax rises down to 2.5% or lower for the next two years so that they can benefit from the council tax freeze promised by the Conservatives nationally if, as we all must hope, they get elected. In contrast the Conservative-run county council is planning 2.5% rises for those years, meaning council tax bills would be frozen.

The graph above shows council tax rises after the application of the Conservative national council tax freeze for frugal councils that keep their rises below 2.5% by 2.5% matching funding.

The full Conservative policy on the city council for keeping council tax low is on pages 10 and 11 of our manifesto.

We need a new culture at the city council to keep council tax under control. Instead of incremental budget changes that are thoroughly opaque we should instigate 'zero-based budgeting' whereby all expenditure is justified afresh and the council doesn't just keep on doing things which may not be to taxpayers' benefit because they haven't been identified.

David Cameron has the right idea when he talks about Labour’s ‘carnival of waste’:
I know there are those who will hear us talking about cut waste and say "you'll be no different, you'll have your pet projects, you'll go native when you start living in the land of bureaucrats". So let me explain why we'll be different. We'll be different because we are different. First, our attitude is different. Conservatives loathe waste. Efficiency is in our DNA. We never forget that fundamental fact about public money, which is that it's public, it's yours, not ours. It doesn't undergo some magical transformation at the Treasury to become government money. Those are the same pounds that were earned by you on the factory floor, on the hospital ward, in the office and we will never forget that we have a moral duty not to spend your money but to save it where we can.
Good government costs less with the Conservatives!

I would do my best to keep council tax down, following the best practices of Conservative councils across the UK and taking a lead by calling for councillor allowances to be cut by 10%.