Friday, July 30, 2010

One day left to vote for your favourite blogs

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2010

There's only one day left to e-mail your votes for your favourite blogs in this year's Total Politics blog awards.

The blog awards weren't on our radar last year until Richard Normington unexpectedly received one for the blog he wrote on the local association website. Richard's blog is a great read and highly recommended in its new location.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Green Car Park Madness

Abbey Ward councillors are certainly providing good entertainment value at the moment for avid local politics watchers.

First we had the Labour councillor at full council a week ago claiming that zero-rated VAT goods included hidden VAT payments for the input costs of producing and selling the items. Hint: next time you waste council time debating national policies it's probably best to do your homework first...

Now the Cambridge News reports Green councillors wanting to replace Park Street car park with so-called 'affordable' housing. The car park, which also includes secure cycle parking, is in need of major work or replacement. Originally budgeted at c. £1m it seems the cost may now exceed £2m.

This call is plainly bonkers. Apart from the significant loss of amenity and the effect on city centre trade the loss of the car park would punch a hole in one of the city council's most lucrative sources of income.

The council's budget setting report doesn't appear to break down the figure by car park and doesn't make it easy to find all the associated costs but gives a projection of £7.5m in annual car parking income. Even at the higher end of the scale for the cost of sorting out Park Street car park it is hard to imagine that it wouldn't still be a good value investment. Of course, Coleridge Conservatives would encourage the city council to do its best to keep the costs down!

Just as crazy, however, is the suggestion that it should be so-called 'affordable' housing that the site is used for. How is it good value for council taxpayers and the purchasers of unaffordable housing (anyone not eligible for the 'affordable' stuff) to subsidise accomodation on a prime site in the centre of the city?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cambridge Gateway and Hills Road

Coleridge residents will already be aware of the latest works on Hills Road bridge. When the bridge was being restored after the recent guided bus works the opportunity was taken to trial new cycling arrangements over the bridge. Now the Cambridge Gateway project designed to create a new bus, pedestrian and cycle link to the railway station area is in progress and includes a new permanent layout for the bridge with more cycling provision.

There are traffic restrictions in place such as a ban on turns from Hills Road into Brooklands Avenue and no overtaking of cyclists on the bridge in the single lane on the bridge. All the work is expected to finish in February 2011 and work on the bridge is anticipated to be finished by Christmas.

We are anxious that the no overtaking restriction is observed. We previously secured CCTV for this purpose but to doubtful effect. It would be easier to solve the problem if cyclists had the confidence to ride in the middle of the lane in this situation but that rarely seems to happen.

More information is available on the county council website: layout and briefing note.

Personally I think the new layout is far too complicated and would be happier cycling over the bridge without any cycle lanes at all but I accept that is a minority preference. Let's hope when the work is finished that it proves to be worth the money!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Should Cyclists be forced to wear helmets?

An argument that has been rumbling on for years hit the local press over the last week.

On wednesday, blog favourite Cllr Colin Rosenstiel was quoted claiming that wearing a cycle helmet makes you more likely to have an accident, and criticised the County Council over their attempts to compel staff to wear them.

But yesterday, the chief executive of Cambridgeshire head injuries charity Headway hit back, questioning the assumption that cyclists with helmets are more likely to be involved in an accident, and calling for a common sense approach, that those with helmets are more likely to have their skull protected in an accident than those who don't.

On this latter point, it is hard to argue that in the case of an accident involving a head impact, you wouldn't be better off with a helmet on, although the protective effect is nothing like as comprehensive as some might think, particularly in high speed collisions.

The issue of whether wearing a helmet makes you more likely to have an accident in the first place is more debatable. There are usually two parties involved in causing an accident, and usually through defensive driving or riding, either party can stop an accident happening. It is possible cyclists would ride less 'defensively' whilst wearing a helmet - an extreme way of expressing this is the argument sometimes suggested for preventing injury from car accidents - it would be safer to put a large metal spike on the steering wheel than an airbag - which rather graphically illustrates the point. Another factor that could cause  helmet wearers to be more likely to be involved in an accident is the effect the helmet has on other road users, and in particular it is claimed that drivers are more likely to drive closer to cyclists (i.e. less defensively) if they have a helmet.

But there is a third argument why forcing cyclists to wear helmets might increase the accident rate (not to mention also increasing levels of traffic and obesity) - a second order effect, namely that forcing helmet usage reduces cycling as it is significantly less convenient, which it turn makes if less safe for all cyclists. Countries with very high rates of cycling like Holland don't insist on helmet use, and tend to have much lower accident rates amongst cyclists, as road users always expect high levels of cyclists and change their driving or cycling accordingly to reduce the risk of accidents.

Put all these arguments together, and I can easily believe that the protective effect of helmets in some accidents is more than outweighed by an increase in accident rates and reduction in cycling take up if helmets are made compulsory.

Add to this my natural scepticism whenever government tries forcing an individual to do something purely for 'their own good', even when that individual has taken a considered and informed view that they wouldn't otherwise do it, and I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing rather more with Cllr Rosenstiel that we shouldn't be forcing helmet use on cyclists - it should be a personal choice.

Usually around town I don't wear a helmet - but I hope I ride quite responsibly and defensively. Riding along the tow path this evening marshalling the town bumps I probably will choose to use my helmet...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Principles or Rules

If you visit Ashbury Close in Coleridge, as I did last week, you are met with a pretty unwelcoming sight:

It is an example of a rules based approach to regulation - trying to set out in detail what is and isn't allowed.

There are many flaws in this approach.

It can lead to people putting in place restrictions that are unnecessarily restrictive. For example, the only principle I can think of behind 'no cycling' on Ashbury Close is that there might be conflict between cyclists and pedestrians causing alarm/distress or injury to one or other party that should be avoided. But the near complete lack of compliance with this rule, coupled with the lack of any record of problems is a key reason why I am supporting a proper cycle route being established here, and the removal of the no cycling sign - I think the principle that as long as it doesn't cause problems to others, we should be encouraging more environmentally friendly forms of transport, particularly on routes to schools, is more important - and almost all cyclists living in or using the close seem to agree.

With a rule based approach, it can be confusing to those enforcing the rules what is and isn't allowed, reducing the credibility of the system - I am struggling to see what law or regulation would actually be broken for at least two of the signs above if they were just ignored - its not as if Ashbury Close actually has any formal parking restrictions. As a Councillor, it can then lead to residents feeling let down when authorities are powerless to act, even if an apparent rule has been advertised.

But the big problem with a rules based approach is that we live in a complex world, and it is difficult to anticipate in advance every possible scenario, so rules quickly grow and become unwieldy to use as every new situation introduces a new rule, and even then there will be new situations not covered by the new rules.

The USA culturally has preferred a rules based approach in many situations - for example their accounting standards contain many specific rules, in contrast to the UK, which has an approach based more on principles and examples than rules. I wonder if this explains why expensive legal action seems so popular in the US?

The previous Labour government preferred a rules based approach to government - just consider how our tax system grew under the last government, or the number of criminal offences rocketed. The discretion of local authorities and other local bodies was reduced by central targets. Few people will agree that the sum effect of all these new rules was beneficial to the country as a whole.

Whilst rules sometimes have their place, in most cases I much prefer the alternative approach - principle based - where regulation sets out in broad outline what the regulation intends to achieve, and any constraints. And the key principles to me are responsibility, for yourself and those around you, and freedom in its broadest sense for those that are responsible.

If government of whatever form (or any other organisation for that matter) feels the need to set out in great detail what is and isn't allowed through a great set of rules, maintaining the principles of responsibility and freedom is all but impossible.

Monday, July 12, 2010

North West Cambridge Growth Area Forum

A second community forum event is going to be held on 20th July to discuss the 5,000 homes and 2,000 units of student accommodation planned for Cambridge's northwest fringe.

The event is a meeting concerning transport and how the developments might affect local communities and the way in which we travel in future.  There will be presentations covering different aspects of transport including, public transport, cycling, rights of way, policy and modelling.  Local Authority officers dealing with the planning applications will also be on hand for a questions and answer session.

All Cambridge residents interested in these developments are invited to attend the Community Forum Event on: Tuesday 20th July from 6pm - 8.30pm at Mayfield Primary School, Warwick Road, Cambridge, CB4 3HN.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Planning website and Cherry Hinton Road vets

The city council's new planning website is an excellent way to find lots of information about current and past planning applications in the city. However, there does seem to be a bit of a lag in updating the status of applications so watch out not to be misled! Let's hope the city council can get this apparent glitch sorted out soon.

Earlier this year we reported that due to an unfortunate set of circumstances the city council had lost the ability to make a local decision on the application to the inspectorate in Bristol. That appeal was unsuccessful. Looking up the application 08/1501/FUL on the public access web page it says "Appeal In Progress" although there is an attached document that shows that the appeal failed.

The prospective developer issued a new application, 10/0087/FUL in February. This new application was more acceptable to residents in neighbouring properties and was approved by the planning committee on 2nd June but the application is still shown as "Pending Consideration" on the web site.

In short, well done to the city council for a good new facility! Let's hope it proves to be good value for money and that its various issues can be sorted out.

Meanwhile many people will be in no hurry to see the vets disappear...

New Phone Mast Planned for Davy Road

As part of their mast sharing agreement, Vodafone and O2 would like to install a new base station on Davy Road to improve 3G reception in the area. The base station would include cabinets and a 13.8m high mast, and be located on Davy Road near the recreation ground and the junction with Coleridge Road - there is an existing T-Mobile mast a few metres down from the proposed site.

The phone companies have contacted Councillors to ask is we have any questions or concerns, ahead of a planning application expected shortly.

Having looked at the evidence, I don't think mobile phone base stations pose a significant risk to health - and certainly not a significant additional risk to that from existing radio sources (or from mobile phone usage itself, which is now nearly universal).

People who don't like the idea of a new 13.8m high column on Davy Road may not be keen on these plans, those looking for better 3G coverage in the area on O2 and Vodafone will be more keen! As ever, let me know if you have any comments of specific concerns to raise ahead of the planning application.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Housing Targets Scrapped

Housing targets are now officially dead. Councillors have been written to:

"As you may be aware, the Secretary of State announced the revocation of Regional Strategies with immediate effect on 6th July. Essentially this means that the East of England Plan (Regional Spatial Strategy) no longer forms part of the Development Plan for Cambridge and therefore should no longer be referred to in the determination of planning applications."

This is fantastic news, Labour's target driven agenda has gone, and there will no longer be pressure put on local authorities to build arbitrary numbers of houses - local Councils will now have to work with residents to get their consent to build more housing. This is an opportunity that should be embraced - the Cambridge sub-region desperately needs more housing (the CEN reported yesterday that last year prices increased by 26%, to £290k on average in the City, well out of reach of many families working in typical jobs in the City). We need our Councillors and Councils to change their mindset from compulsion regardless of local opinion to actively making the positive case for more housing - and it is inevitable that how we develop new housing will need to change. 

New developments must bring transport improvements of all types to everyone (and not just more traffic and congestion charging, which was all that was on offer to Coleridge residents from the previous plans for development on the airport) - the mindset all too apparant at both the City and County Council that says all local transport problems can be solved by 'demand management' must be replaced by demands for more transport capacity. New housing must be much higher quality, and bring new high quality public open spaces and other facilities, such as post offices and pubs in communities that don't currently have them, and facilities such as an ice rink for the sub-region. Finally, existing residents need to benefit rather than be penalised by the increased council tax base. Some commentators have claimed the abolition of targets will stop house building in its tracks. This is nonsense - the targets of the last decade saw reductions in new house building at a time of booming house prices and availability of financing for residential housing that was lax beyond the point of recklessness for many of the financial institutions involved. This defies all economic logic, and can only be explained by the catastrophically unfit for purpose regulatory environment that was Labour's planning system. Put simply, the failure of planners and government to make sure new developments benefited local residents, meant there was always massive opposition to them, and quality family housing wasn't delivered.

I fear the planners have not yet understood this. With the regrettable postponement of the A14 upgrade, the current planning policies prohibit significant growth at Northstowe and the NIAB site in North West Cambridge. Even now, planners want to change the planning policies to allow these developments to go ahead even if the A14 isn't upgraded. That would be a major mistake - the urgent task is to get the A14 and other transport improvements back on the agenda as soon as possible, and only when these are being built, to consider building the houses. When we need to convince people that new developments will bring real benefits in areas like transport, the last thing we need is new developments that demonstrably fail this test.