The County Council is now holding committee meetings via Zoom videoconferencing, live-streamed to YouTube. This works so much better than having councillors, officers, speakers and observers give up half a day to all drive to the same location to have a ‘public’ conversation.
One of those meetings last week discussed whether to proceed with plans to abolish the Cambridge Joint Area Committee (CJAC) – plans which we are leading a petition¹ against. Ultimately, the debate is about who Cambridge residents trust to make decisions on their behalf. Cambridge has twelve out of sixty-one members on the county council, none of them in the ruling group. So, the councillors Cambridge elects have almost no influence over county policies, except through joint city–county committees, such as CJAC and the Greater Cambridge Partnership.
Despite officers’ public denials, the county council is a failing institution, desperately under-resourced to deliver core services, such as social care and highway maintenance, let alone plan and deliver innovative responses to climate, biodiversity and public health crises. The organisation depends almost entirely on outside consultants to develop policies and plans. Some of that work is exemplary, but much is an egregious waste of public money – especially when it comes to transport.
What’s the solution? Root and branch reform of local government. We need three types of organisations: a regional strategic body, operating openly and inclusively to develop policies to address the big challenges of today – on welfare, land use, energy and transport; smaller bodies to translate those polices into locally-adapted plans, and to deliver them in close alliance with the people and organisations affected; and, thirdly, specialised bodies to deliver everyday services, from adult social care to emptying bins, to a consistently high standard and efficiency.
In the meantime, Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council should petition the government to transfer transport powers from the county council to make Greater Cambridge a Highway Authority (like Peterborough). Then transport delivery powers would sit alongside the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning service, facilitating the development of a coherent new Local Plan for locating and connecting future homes, businesses and amenities.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 29 April 2020.
¹Our petition received 1,518 signatures. The response from Cllr Mac Maguire on 2 July 2020 reads:
The intention of the change is to bring Cambridge City in line with other parts of the County in terms of how matters such as Traffic Regulation Orders are determined. Local involvement will still very much be a part of the process. Proposals will be discussed with local County Councillors and as with other parts of the county, it is expected that most decisions will be made by agreement between the relevant local County Councillor and the Assistant Director, Highways. This will speed up the process of determination and it is expected that local communities and City Council Members will work with the relevant County Councillor as those decisions are made. It is anticipated that only a small number of issues will need to be referred to the Highways and Transport Committee and in that instance, all the same public speaking and petition rights exist as do currently for CJAC.