Full Council meeting at Shire Hall

Today’s Full Council meeting of Cambridgeshire County Council was the first of the new council year, so started with the election of the Chair (Mandy Smith) and Vice Chair (Mac McGuire).

The Chair noted the death of Nigel Bell, who represented Ely North & East as a Liberal Democrat county councillor from 2005 to 2013.  Lib Dem group leader Lucy Nethsingha paid tribute to Nigel’s contribution to the council.

There was a question from a member of the public about the redundancy and immediate reappointment as an LGSS* contractor of the former LGSS Director of People, Transformation and Transactions – the answer given by the Leader of the Council was so long and convoluted that the Chair cut it off half way through so we never did hear the full story.

[*LGSS is the partnership of Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Milton Keynes councils for the provision of ‘back office’ services.]

A petition was received asking the council to fund The Fields children’s centre nursery in Cambridge.

County council to move to Alconbury

The major debate of the day was about the proposal to move the county council’s HQ out of Shire Hall to a new purpose-built building at Alconbury.  Many councillors including me made the point that the public transport links there were poor, and also that there was a surplus of office space in a variety of local government buildings all round Cambridgeshire.  Cambridgeshire’s partner in LGSS, Northamptonshire recently went basically bankrupt and has now been taken over by Government commissioners – and one of the first things to happen was the sale of their brand new HQ.  And of course there is every prospect of some sort of reorganisation of local government sooner rather than later, leading to at least one tier of local government disappearing and even more surplus office space.  The Alconbury proposal was voted through by Conservative councillors, however, with other groups opposing.  For all the talk of this decision saving the taxpayer millions of pounds, I can’t help feeling that this will return to bite the council, and Cambridgeshire residents, on the bottom.

It’s not yet clear whether the council will sell the existing Shire Hall HQ, or just lease it out.  At present, the council’s Commercial & Investment Committee has the power to make that decision without bringing it back to the Full Council.  I asked the committee chair for an assurance that the committee wouldn’t take such a significant decision but would bring it back to the whole council.  Such an assurance was not only not given, but was pointedly refused.

Constitutional change

Until today, committee meetings could make decisions if only a quarter of their members were present. For a committee of eight, that could result in just two councillors making decisions, including Planning decisions.  That felt wrong, so I asked the Constitution & Ethics Committee to consider the question.  The committee did this, and recommended that the council should increase this requirement from a quarter to a half, and to one-third for the Full Council.  The council today agreed – result.

Appointments

The council appointed councillors to committees, and to outside organisations on which the council is represented; and appointed committee chairs.  As a result of other changes on the council, I’m now no longer on the Health Committee, which is a sadness as that is something I’ve very much enjoyed.

Motions from councillors

A motion from one of the independent councillors, Tom Sanderson, called for councillors to be allowed to attend the quarterly Highways Authority & Utility coordination meetings, which take place for council officers and utility companies to plan ahead together for roadworks.  My colleague Henry Batchelor seconded this, and I and my group voted for it, but the Conservative group opposed it so it was defeated.

A motion from Conservative councillor Anna Bailey proposed that the council should mount a ‘purge on plastics’.  I moved an amendment, put jointly by my group and the Labour group, to try to widen out what was a rather narrow and restrictive motion, but again this was defeated.  It was a decidedly surreal debate (why was it right to include plastic straws in the motion, but not plastic cups? why was it so wrong to ask for a committee meeting to discuss an action plan so that everyone could bring their ideas and discuss this properly? should we ban balloons?), and we ended up with everyone voting in favour of a motion that could just have been so very much better and more inclusive of other people’s contributions.

Questions

There were a couple of written questions put by a couple of my Lib Dem colleagues, about the growing menace of potholes, which received written answers.

Recent planning applications

The following planning applications in the Sutton division have been published by East Cambridgeshire District Council.

18/00608/FUL
Coveney
9 Main Street Wardy Hill
Revised access including dropped kerb and crossover.

18/00535/FUL
Little Downham
Land adjacent 82 Ely Road Little Downham CB6 2SN
New single storey dwelling and associated garage.

18/00604/FUL
Sutton
24 The Orchards Sutton CB6 2PX
Single storey rear extension and front porch.

Further information can be found on the district council’s planning pages. If you would like to respond formally to the council about any planning application, comments should be addressed to the district council and not to me.  Comments may be made

  • online using the council’s public access webpage (the link above);
  • by email to plservices@eastcambs.gov.uk;
  • or by post to the Planning Department, The Grange, Nutholt Lane, Ely, CB7 4EE.

Liberal Democrats gain South Cambridgeshire

Massive congratulations to the South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrat team for absolutely storming their local elections yesterday.  The Lib Dems gained seats across the district, surging from 14 councillors to 30, while the Conservatives slumped from 36 councillors to just 11.  The Liberal Democrats now run South Cambridgeshire district council with two thirds of the seats!

[Photograph by Susan van de Ven]

Recent planning applications

The following planning application in the Sutton division has been published by East Cambridgeshire District Council.

18/00543/FUL
Coveney
Ebenezer Farm, West Fen, Coveney
Erection of single storey extension at rear for games room, entrance, utility and cloakroom.

Further information can be found on the district council’s planning pages. If you would like to respond formally to the council about any planning application, comments should be addressed to the district council and not to me.  Comments may be made

  • online using the council’s public access webpage (the link above);
  • by email to plservices@eastcambs.gov.uk;
  • or by post to the Planning Department, The Grange, Nutholt Lane, Ely, CB7 4EE.

Recent planning applications

The following planning applications in the Sutton division have been published by East Cambridgeshire District Council.

18/00501/FUL
Mepal
Pond Farm, 3 High Street, Mepal
Proposed three dwellings (including demolition of existing timber outbuildings), and proposed internal and external works to listed building.

18/00541/FUL
Witchford
5 Common Road, Witchford CB6 2HY
Side extension and creation of first floor to form a chalet bungalow.

18/00531/FUL
Witcham
Witcham Lodge, Headleys Lane, Witcham
Part two storey and part single storey extension with access to roof terrace. Three circular windows proposed on front elevation of previously approved sun lounge (16/01202/FUL).

Further information can be found on the district council’s planning pages. If you would like to respond formally to the council about any planning application, comments should be addressed to the district council and not to me.  Comments may be made

  • online using the council’s public access webpage (the link above);
  • by email to plservices@eastcambs.gov.uk;
  • or by post to the Planning Department, The Grange, Nutholt Lane, Ely, CB7 4EE.

Keep it slow, keep it safe

A road safety evening in Witcham, organised by Witcham Equestrian Centre as part of their amazing fundraising activity to pay for changes to the speed limits in the village, drew a crowd tonight.

Parish council chairman Mick Housden explained the origins of the speed limit change application and progress to date.

Sergeant Phil Priestley from the local policing team spoke about the police perspective, and kicked off some useful discussion about interactions between cyclists and riders (how should cyclists approach horses? should cyclists ring their bell from behind a horse?), and about recording video when out on horseback using equipment such as a helmet-fitted Go Pro.  Phil rightly praised the work of the parish council and Witcham Equestrian Centre in blazing a trail for other villages to follow by working together as a community to make local roads safer.

Alan Hiscox from the British Horse Society (pictured here with me at the event) gave a talk based on the BHS campaign Dead? Or dead slow? Your choice. He gave some horrifying statistics: 39 riders and 230 horses have been killed in traffic incidents in the last seven years, with 840 horses injured.  85 per cent of these incidents were the result of vehicles passing horses too close or too fast.

Alan told us that an official study had recommended that ‘speed limits on roads with significant horse and rider activity should be reduced and enforced’ – exactly what the community is working towards in Witcham.

Nigel Leaney from Willingham Wheels talked about the experience of cyclists, another group of vulnerable road users.  He mentioned the new ‘safe pass’ poster campaign in Cumbria aimed at saving lives by reducing collisions between cyclists and vehicles. Nigel’s presentation also provoked a useful discussion about the importance of ongoing education and awareness for all road users.  The Highway Code is being updated constantly – when was the last time any of us read the latest version?

Ticket sales, refreshment takings, and the proceeds of the raffle at this interesting and thought-provoking event will add to the sums raised so far towards implementing the speed limit changes in Witcham.  Donations gratefully received at Patsy Horse’s JustGiving page.

Finally, did you know?

  • You can (and are encouraged to) report horse-related accidents, incidents or near misses at www.horseaccidents.org.uk
  • The British Horse Society runs a Ride Safe Award scheme – the essential award for all riders from beginners to performance riders.
  • Cambridge Cycling Campaign is a valuable source of information and advice for cyclists, including those taking up cycling after a long break.

Unlimited debts for council company

East Cambs Conservatives this evening agreed to increase tenfold the indebtedness of the council’s trading company (East Cambs Trading Company, trading as Palace Green Homes).

When the company was set up, the council agreed a cap of £5M on its own loan to the company. This evening, Conservative councillors voted to approve a £6.5M loan to the company from the Mayor’s Combined Authority, and to pursue a loan of a further £40M.

Furthermore, the council agreed to delegate power to one officer and one councillor to allow the company to enter into any number of further loans from the Mayor’s Combined Authority, of unlimited value, with no reference to the council as a whole, or to the Shareholder Committee set up by the council specifically to scrutinise the company and its activities.  The Shareholder Committee has now given up any pretence to be overseeing in any effective way the operation of the company.

Indeed, the March meeting of the Shareholder Committee was cancelled ‘for lack of business’, just at the very point at which the company was preparing to submit its requests to the Combined Authority for the two additional loans. If the chairman of the Shareholder Committee had been at the full council meeting this evening, I would have said to his face what I said to the meeting – that I think he should be considering his position.

‘Purge on plastics’ light on action

A motion to East Cambs full council this evening on a ‘purge on plastics’ was described by its proponents as ‘ambitious’. But in reality it was anything but. There was only one target date in it – 2042.  That’s 24 years away.

In addition to the motion, there was a Statement of Intent. There was also a proposal to have an Annual Statement to the council about it all. But a Liberal Democrat suggestion that there should be an action plan, so that we knew what the council was planning to do, how it was planning to achieve it, and by when, was soundly defeated by the Conservative block vote.

Perhaps that sounded too much like having to commit to something.

Flood protection works to begin again

Flood protection work on the Ouse Washes Middle Level Barrier Bank and South Level Barrier Bank is set to begin again this summer. This involves raising low spots of the embankment along the Hundred Foot, and widening haul roads.

Working hours will be 7:00AM to 7:00PM Monday to Friday between 15 July and 31 October, over the next few years. Once each section is complete six months will be needed for landscaping, and then the section can be re-opened.

The works will require diversion of various footpaths and bridleways: footpaths 5, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 16, and bridleways 7 and 8. Further information will be provided by the Environment Agency as work progresses.

Image: Richard Humphrey licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Cambridge Magistrates’ Court closure proposal

My motion to Cambridgeshire County Council yesterday asked the council to write to the Justice Minister (and SE Cambs MP) Lucy Frazer, opposing her department’s proposals to close Cambridge Magistrates’ Court.  Unfortunately, Cambridgeshire Conservatives didn’t agree, so it was defeated. This is what I said.

“The proposal to close Cambridge Magistrates’ Court, launched by South East Cambridgeshire MP and Justice Minister Lucy Frazer on behalf of the Government, has attracted opposition from many sections of the community, and for a wide variety of reasons.

Lawyers, court staff, academics, the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, even the Cambridge News court reporter, have voiced their criticisms of the plan.

The Member of Parliament for South Cambridgeshire and the Police & Crime Commissioner have gone so far as to express concerns.

The reasons given have been financial, practical, and arguments of principle.

The Cambridge Magistrates’ Court cost over £18M to build only ten years ago.  It is well situated next to Cambridge’s bus interchange and to a large number of other amenities.

Along with Peterborough and Huntingdon, it is what remains of a formerly much wider network of local justice which included magistrates’ courts in Ely and Wisbech, both closed in a previous round of 93 court closures in 2011.

At the time, residents in East Cambridgeshire were told that despite the closure of the Ely court, they could access local justice not significantly further away in Cambridge.  Instead, justice slips further and further out of reach with each decade.

It is argued that the court in Cambridge is under-used.  But the Police & Crime Commissioner tells us that there is a backlog of cases with lists now stretching into the summer.

It is argued that the closure of the court will save money.  But staff have warned of the potential for increased time and cost to the public purse in transporting people in custody to and fro across the county.

And there is of course the personal cost to defendants, witnesses and others who will now have to travel, mostly to Huntingdon, for custodial cases.

It is true, as the proposal document says, that for some people this will be a shorter journey.  But for many it will not.  The document paints a rosy picture of public transport to Huntingdon that is not mirrored by many residents’ experience.  It relies heavily on reference to the guided bus, which does not touch many of our local communities.

Public transport can be expensive, inconvenient and stressful.  It has even been pointed out that witnesses and court staff could end up on the same infrequent bus as the defendant, with the risk of intimidation.

Delays, adjournments and rescheduling in court rooms will cause real difficulties to defendants and witnesses reliant on the vagaries of an expensive bus network.  And this could lead to an increase in non-attendance – a significant cost to the legal system as well as the exact opposite of the efficiency the Minister says she wants.

Finally, the academics to whom I referred earlier, 39 legal experts, have pointed out that there is ‘no discussion whatsoever of the importance of strengthening communities, of the value and effectiveness of local justice to ensuring the legitimacy of the criminal process.  No attempt to measure transparency, fairness, and efficiency.’

These are important matters, at the heart of the operation of local justice.  They should concern us, as elected representatives of the people of Cambridgeshire.  I am therefore asking the Leader to write to the Minister setting out this council’s objections.”