Phil Rodgers: My plan for the future government of Cambridgeshire
I have always thought that greater Cambridge would make an excellent independent state.
We have some great assets - a world-class university, a diverse cosmopolitan population, beautiful buildings and scenery, thriving technology and life sciences sectors, and that indefinable, well, Cambridgeness that gives the city its particular magic. But I do admit that this outright independence probably isn’t a practical proposition - after all, commuting into the city is bad enough at the moment without passport checks on the A14, and goodness knows what would happen to housing costs. So instead, I want to propose a more realistic objective - finding a way to improve our bewilderingly complicated local government arrangements.
Just look at this diagram of how Cambridgeshire local government is currently organised. As council tax bills thud onto doormats around the county in the next few weeks, some residents will find themselves paying tax to no fewer than six different bodies - parish councils, a district or city council, the county council, the fire authority, the police and crime commissioner, and now the Combined Authority, which is adding to our bills for the first time this year, but surely not the last.
The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) doesn’t currently charge any council tax, but if it gets its way it will be raising a very large amount of revenue in future years from the congestion charge.
All this complexity brings several different problems. It makes it hard for residents to navigate council services; it leads to wasteful duplication across the county; it erodes trust in local government by making it seem remote and unaccountable; and it creates a democratic deficit with large swathes of the county being run by a political party that they didn’t vote for and have no practical way of getting rid of. Overall it’s inefficient, bureaucratic, slow, and expensive.
If you need any proof that it’s hard for residents to navigate council services, just try asking them which council is responsible for which service. Indeed many residents are only vaguely aware that there is more than one council. It’s common on social media to see the City Council being berated for the state of the roads, or the county council for uncollected bins, even though it’s the county’s job to fix potholes and the city’s job to collect the rubbish.
Imagine the frustration of waiting in a council phone queue to sort out some urgent issue, only to be told when you get through that you’ve phoned up the wrong council and need to start all over again. And any local councillor will tell you how often they are contacted about issues that their own council has no responsibility for.
Several of our councils have responded to this situation by sharing services across their districts to try to deliver them more efficiently. Cambridge shares bin collection and planning with South Cambs, a CCTV system with Huntingdonshire, and the three councils also share several other services. This is certainly better than duplicating those services between districts, but it can have some unintended consequences. For example, Cambridge City Council recently found itself being dragged into South Cambs’s experiment with a four-day working week, and there are still many services that each district runs separately.
The complexity of our local government system means that important parts of it are not directly elected. The Greater Cambridge Partnership is a case in point - its members are appointed by the city and county councils and South Cambs, plus the University of Cambridge, rather than being directly chosen by residents.
Although three of the four partners are elected councils, none of their ruling groups mentioned 60-hour-a-week congestion charging for Cambridge in their manifestos, leaving many people feeling that the current GCP plans don’t have a clear democratic basis.
The university’s involvement is also problematic, even though its representative is a non-voting member of the board. Of course the university should be consulted about GCP plans, like other organisations in the area, but why should it get an unelected seat at the top table? The days when the University could appoint members of the city council ended in 1973, and we shouldn’t start going backwards now.
The democratic deficit doesn’t end with the GCP. Until recently, for many years Cambridge was under a Conservative-controlled county council that it could do nothing to get rid of. It couldn’t vote out Conservative county councillors because there was a grand total of zero of them representing the city; Conservatives haven’t won a single County Council seat in Cambridge since 1993.
Now the balance has teetered the other way, and this time a large part of the north of the county finds itself with no representation in the council’s ruling group. The fact is that parts of Cambridgeshire are just not well aligned politically; voting patterns in Wisbech and Petersfield, for example, are very different.
So what’s the answer to all this? It’s pretty straightforward - one council for Greater Cambridge. It should cover the current responsibilities of the city, districts, county, GCP, and Combined Authority across the Greater Cambridge area. It would have one set of directly elected councillors accountable to residents, and one set of council services.
There would be very little chance of residents phoning up the wrong council, or of different layers of local government arguing with each other. Probably no single party would have a majority, but then no single party has a majority of support amongst Greater Cambridge residents either, so that’s fair enough. Another unitary council could cover the rest of the current county council area, and would be a much better match politically for residents there.
Would this be quick and easy to implement? No. Would it solve all our problems with housing, transport, and growth? Certainly not. But would it be an improvement on what we have now? Absolutely.
Phil Rodgers has lived in Cambridge since 1984. Married with two daughters, he works as a developer for a city software firm. You can read more from him on his blog, and look out for his column each month in the Cambridge Independent.