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 petition 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.