East Cambs Full Council meeting

Yesterday I outlined the agenda for this evening’s meeting.  Here’s what I said about the two most controversial items.

Future role of the Shareholder Committee

“This reference from the Shareholder Committee consists of three recommendations:

  1. Revisions to the terms of reference of the Shareholder Committee
  2. Revisions to the Shareholder Agreements of the council’s companies
  3. A new document, variously called a modus operandi or a memorandum of understanding

The first two recommendations are related to each other, and their primary purpose is to reduce the ability of the Council to influence the activities of its two companies.

Under these proposals, the Council will no longer have any say over the ability of the directors of the companies to

  • Pay dividends
  • Engage in business activities outside their business plan
  • Increase the remuneration of employees or consultants by more than 1 per cent
  • Introduce bonus schemes, share options or profit-sharing for employees
  • Start or settle legal proceedings
  • Borrow money, provided the Council is not providing a guarantee or security
  • Create security interests over the business
  • Enter into contracts or transactions outside the normal course of the business, or
  • Make loans or grant credit.

The Shareholder Committee at least reinstated the requirement that the Council should approve any changes to, or replacement of, the companies’ business plan.  After all, as one member of the committee observed, it was ‘nonsense’ that the Council should be required to approve the companies’ business plans, but not required to approve any amendment to, or replacement of them.

The changes to the terms of reference of the Shareholder Committee double the frequency of the Board’s reports to the committee, but substantially reduce the committee’s remit.  The requirement for the committee to review the services and performance of the companies is struck out.  It will no longer receive management accounts, just summaries — though it is hard to imagine anything more summary than the financial reports the committee has received to date.

The Shareholder Committee has already been emasculated under the existing arrangements.  Its chairman cancelled two meetings of the committee during the time in which the trading company it is supposed to scrutinise was drawing up applications for over £45M in loans from the Combined Authority.

The company is required to send all agendas and supporting papers to members of the Shareholder Committee at the same time as they are issued to the Board.  I regret to inform the Council that under the existing arrangements, the company is already in breach of the Shareholder Agreement, as I have never received any such paperwork — a fact confirmed by the Chief Executive today.  Loosening the control of the Council over its companies can only make matters worse.

I used the word ‘scrutinise’, because that is the stated and sole objective of the Shareholder Committee in its terms of reference: ‘to scrutinise the East Cambridgeshire Trading Companies’.  This brings me to the so-called Memorandum of Understanding.  When this was presented to the committee, it was called a Modus operandi, a title the document still bears in its footer.  It fact, it is neither a modus operandi nor a memorandum of understanding, as it neither describes how the committee will work, nor lays out the terms of a relationship between two or more bodies.

If this document is anything it is something akin to an Oath of Allegiance to the Council and its companies.  It does not use the word ‘scrutiny’ once, despite this being the stated constitutional purpose of the committee. Instead we are supposed to be not the Board’s scrutineers, but its cheerleaders.  I utterly reject that, and I say to this Council that my duty is not to the company, not even primarily to the council, but to the residents of East Cambridgeshire who elected me — and it is my intention to carry out my constitutional duty on their behalf to scrutinise the activities of the Board in the way they run the council’s two companies.”

End of Year Council Report

“We are requested only to note this administration’s End of Year Report — not to comment, consider, approve or any other more active course of action.

But I do not feel I can let it pass without some form of challenge.

I shall forbear from addressing the various typographical errors in the document, though it is somewhat symptomatic that the very first word after the front cover should be mis-spelled — and indeed that the subtitle ‘some of our successes over the previous 12 months’ should be followed by a question mark.  I question it too.

The report talks of improving infrastructure and local transport, but refers only to roads and parking spaces.  There is no reference at all to bus transport, and if the response of the administration is that this is not something for which the district council is responsible, I would simply say — roads aren’t either.

The report talks of recycling, but not the year on year fall in recycling rates, from 56.6 per cent in 2015, to 56.4 per cent in 2016, to just 52.4 per cent in 2017.

The report talks of affordable housing, but gives no figures.  Last year just 11 affordable homes (out of 234 homes in total) were completed in East Cambridgeshire — the lowest number for at least five years.  The council’s new development at Barton Road nominally provides for two out of the 11 dwellings there to be affordable, with a third affordable property to be delivered somewhere else in the district.  I have asked where and when this third affordable home will be delivered, or even how that is to be decided, but have received no concrete answer.

It talks of Phase 1 of the North Ely development, but not the low levels of affordable housing on those sites.  It does not refer to the fact that an under-provision of about 850 affordable homes within this district was part of the inspector’s deliberations when allowing the recent appeal by Gladmans against refusal of planning permission in Fordham, nor that the ‘substantive unmet need for affordable housing which remains in East Cambridgeshire’ is part of the statement of case by Endurance Estates in their ongoing appeal against refusal of planning permission in Sutton.

The administration’s answer is not to negotiate hard with developers, but to encourage the building of many hundreds of unaffordable homes in rural areas — areas which would never have otherwise been granted planning permission — to deliver no more than the 30 per cent affordable housing it says it expects of any commercial developer building within the development envelope.

The report talks of apprenticeships, but not of the dramatic fall in apprentice starts across Cambridgeshire in the last year.  And it states that the Council itself employs over 250 staff.  This is particularly interesting because if that is true, the Council is obliged by law to report on gender pay gaps under the Government’s defined headings.  Yet the council’s own Resources & Finance Committee was recently advised that the Council would not be reporting under the legislation because it had fewer than 250 staff.  Something is not right here, and I would appreciate an explanation of whether the Council is in breach of the law, or just does not know how many people it employs.

But the report is as interesting for what it omits as for what it includes.  It does not see fit to mention the Purge on Plastics anywhere in the document — perhaps because the administration refused to draw up an action plan to achieve it.

The report does not update us on its promise to draw up plans to redevelop the council building by 2019 and to relocate offices.  Nor does it mention progress on its promise to seek to deliver a crematorium in the district by 2019.

This is not a report which inspires me with confidence in the commitment of the council to deliver on its promises.”

  •  Cllr Christine Whelan (Ely South) also commented on the report. She pointed out that the health and wellbeing section of the report appeared to blame people with chronic ill-health for being ill – and that many residents of East Cambridgeshire suffer ill health through no fault of their own. They would love to be more active, and need to be encouraged and supported, not condemned and criticised. She also observed that the community and tourism section of the report fails to mention that the markets in Ely are now run not by the Council but by the East Cambridgeshire Trading Company.  It also fails to refer to the fact that tourism in Ely has now been handed over to the City of Ely Council, but that there is no tourist service or strategy for the rest of the district.

East Cambridgeshire Full Council preview

So what’s on the agenda for tomorrow evening’s meeting of East Cambridgeshire District Council?  No petitions, motions, or questions from councillors this time.  But the deadline for questions from the public isn’t up until just before the start of the meeting at 6:00PM – so if you have a burning question you’d like to ask the district council, here’s how.

Shareholder Committee

The Treasury Operations Annual Performance Review is unlikely to cause much of a stir.  More controversial is likely to be the item on the Future Role of the Shareholder Committee with appendices Appendix B2: Shareholder Committee Terms of Reference, Appendix B3: Shareholder Agreement East Cambs Trading Company, Appendix B4: Shareholder Agreement East Cambs Street Scene, Appendix B5: Memorandum of Understanding and Appendix C: Summary of Shareholder Committee Amendments

This item will remove the council’s final say over a large number of matters which will now be decided solely by its two in-house companies. I kicked up quite a fuss about this at the recent meeting of the Shareholder Committee (the first one for months), and managed to persuade the committee to reinstate one or two of the powers they had proposed to remove, but it still leaves a lot of decisions to the company (two councillors, two officers, plus the independent chair).

The item also removes references to the original trading company being a ‘Teckal-compliant’ company, which it now will not be — but we knew that this would happen after the council messed up how it set up the company in the first place.

Finally, the council is proposing a new Memorandum of Understanding for councillors regarding the Shareholder Committee and the council’s trading companies.  I’ll have something to say about that tomorrow.

End of Year Council Report

This is the taxpayer-funded report that will be delivered to every household in the district telling us what a grand job the council is doing.  I’ll have something to say about that tomorrow too!

Statement of Community Involvement

This is an ‘update’ of the statutory statement that sets out how the council will consult on planning matters and engage with and support parish councils on the neighbourhood plans.  It is not clear what has changed between the proposed 2018 version and the current 2015 version, other than that the section on neighbourhood planning is new.  I have asked the council’s Chief Executive for a version that makes it clearer what the changes are between the current version and the updated one.

Polling Districts, Places and Stations Review and Community Governance Review

The Polling Districts, Places and Stations Review and Community Governance Review with all its appendices is the culmination of two rounds of public consultation.  It changes the various election arrangements to align with the changes to district council ward boundaries, and it reviews parish boundaries too to resolve some historical anomalies.

And finally, there’s a report asking the council to extend leave of absence for my colleague Cllr Sue Austen (Ely West) while she recovers from her recent serious ill-health.  And the council will receive reports of recent decisions by the Combined Authority.

The council has given up broadcasting Full Council meetings on YouTube, so I’m afraid you won’t be able to watch proceedings from the comfort of your own home. But the council is on Twitter (as @EastCambs) — and so am I.

Connecting Cambridgeshire launch

Today saw the launch of Connecting Cambridgeshire’s Digital Connectivity Strategy at the science park in Cambridge. The strategy aims to build on current and previous programmes, to ‘target a significant increase in the full fibre footprint across the area, improvements in voice and data mobile coverage (2G and 4G), better public access Wifi and trials of 5G (next generation mobile)’.

The event was unfortunately dogged by late (or non-) appearances, particularly from Government, resulting from transport delays.  A shame, as Government is key to making this work.

After welcomes from Connecting Cambridgeshire’s Noelle Godfrey and the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, we heard from David Cleevely CBE, Vice-Chair of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Economic Review.  Digital is ‘alongside fire and the wheel’ in terms of its importance, and needs weight behind it to make it happen, he said.  We also need a strategy to address the downsides, such as the ‘hollowing out’ of our high streets by the increase in online shopping.  We need equal access to opportunity and growth, in the Fens as well as in Cambridge, to overcome the ‘digital divide’. Demand is also important – doubling the demand for connectivity halves the cost of supplying it.

Gareth Elliott from Mobile UK was next up, pointing out the benefits of mobile connectivity and noting that 95 per cent of the population had at least one mobile phone. Barriers to further extension of mobile infrastructure (masts, basically) in the UK included political leadership, lack of suitable sites, strategic planning, consistency of planning, and under-resourced planning departments.  Opportunities included access to public assets, landlord relationships, updated and refreshed Local Plans, guidance and best practice, digital champions, planning reform, and investment and partnership.

Rob Hamlin from CityFibre introduced the 51 city projects the company was currently planning, and alluded to the widening gap between increasing demand and the capacity of current infrastructure. A graph showed how under-invested the UK is for fibre compared with other OECD countries.  Peterborough will be one of the first seven cities to benefit from the company’s strategic FTTP (fibre to the premises) partnership with Vodafone.

Trevor Linney from BT Openreach talked about the Fibre First programme, plans to get as much capacity as possible out of existing infrastructure, the civil engineering challenges (and opportunities including ‘quantum gravity sensors’!), the potential of robotics, and their collaboration with Huawei and the University of Cambridge.

After breakfast (!), we heard from Ian Adkins of Analysys Mason about their forthcoming study into pre-empting barriers to 5G connectivity, and from Mark Andrews from Enabling Digital Delivery.  Vincent Berghout from Cambridge Fibre suggested that focused regional operators could outperform national players, and outlined his company’s work with ‘TrueFibre’ broadband, ethernet, ‘dark fibre’ and more.  While businesses in urban areas were an attractive target segment, rural homes were expensive and difficult to reach – the final ‘one per cent’ would need community effort to enable them to be connected.  He laid out the capital and operating costs of build, buy and lease options for infrastructure investment, and the six main challenges ahead: legislative ambiguity, the ‘8 digit challenge’ of securing investment of £10M and above, continued funding of ‘fake [copper] fibre’, wayleaves and other land ownership issues, construction obstructions, and open duct access in new property developments.  The last speaker was Andrew Glover of Bridge Fibre who described their experience of dealing with local government.

The concluding questions and answers covered broadband in schools, the costs to companies including the financial risks associated with responsibility for reinstatement of roads and pavements, and the challenges of ensuring connectivity in rural areas – even though there is a potentially thriving rural economy, held back in many ways by lack of appropriate internet provision.

A useful event, with much to think about and feel positive about, but always that underlying feeling that the UK is now scrambling to catch up with something other countries have been investing in better and for longer – just at a time when the Government’s attention is distracted elsewhere and Government cash is even less likely to be available in the sums needed.  And the concern that while the quick and easy investments in our cities storm ahead, rural residents and businesses get left behind because they’re not economic for private providers and there isn’t the serious Government cash to make it happen.

Road safety figures continue to worsen

The number of people killed or seriously injured on Cambridgeshire’s roads continues to rise.  It’s been clear for some time that the local Road Safety Partnership target (a reduction to 246 a year by 2020) isn’t going to be met, with 2016’s figure of 348 rising to 366 last year.

Next Thursday (12 July) the county council’s Economy & Environment Committee will consider another report on road safety, with an action plan based on a previous report the Highways & Community Infrastructure Committee approved earlier this year.  The action plan consists of three areas of work: analysing collision data, integrating a ‘hub’ of road safety expertise into the highways service, and digitising speed cameras.

Ultimately, however, two issues remain: there isn’t enough money being spent on those improvements to the roads which are necessary for greater safety (such as the £4-5M package recommended by last year’s safety study of the A142 between Ely and Chatteris); and there is far too much irresponsible, reckless and dangerous driving on our roads.

Taxi fare increases consultation

East Cambridgeshire District Council is consulting on proposed increases to hackney carriage fares. Objections and comments must be received by the council by midnight on Tuesday 31 July. Any objections will be considered by the Licensing Committee on Wednesday 12 September. If no objections are received the new fares will come into effect on Wednesday 1 August.

If you wish to object, you are recommended by the council to give reasons for your objection.

The proposed increases (the first for five years) are weighted to affect overnight and bank holiday bookings the most, with fares between 7:00AM and 11:00PM rising much less sharply.

Details of the proposed new fares are as follows:

Tariff One
All journeys commenced after 07:00 hours and before 23:00 hours Monday to Sunday (excluding Bank Holidays)

  • First mile (approx. 1.609 kilometres) £3.70
  • For each additional 167.6 yards (153.3 metres) or part thereof £0.20

Tariff Two

All journeys commenced after 23:00 hours and before 07:00 hours Monday to Sunday (excluding Bank Holidays)

  • First mile (approx. 1.609 kilometres) £5.55
  • for each additional 167.6 yards (153.3 metres) or part thereof £0.20

Tariff Three

All journeys commenced on a Bank Holiday

  • First mile (approx. 1.609 kilometres) £7.40
  • For each additional 167.6 yards (153.3 metres) or part thereof £0.30

Waiting time

  • For each period of a minute or part thereof at any time £0.40

Sundry Items

  • Persons carried in excess of 4 persons £0.50 (per additional person, per trip)
  • Soiling charge Not to exceed £150.00

Any objections to the proposed table of fares should be sent in writing to the Senior Licensing Officer, East Cambridgeshire District Council, The Grange, Ely, CB7 4EE, or by email to licensing@eastcambs.gov.uk by midnight on Tuesday 31 July. A copy of the notice has been deposited at the Council Offices and is available for inspection during office hours until Tuesday 31 July.

Ely underpass works

Into my inbox from Cambridgeshire County Council:

As you may be aware, during the development of the Ely Southern Bypass there was a clear desire to improve conditions in the area of the underpass and station for pedestrians and cyclists.

Once the bypass has opened, the level crossing will be closed. Traffic using the existing underpass at the low railway bridge will be single file and controlled with traffic lights, allowing significant improvements for pedestrians and cyclists to be made.

This part of the project is a planning condition and aims to discourage through traffic from using the underpass and encourage use of the new bypass. It will not prevent local traffic from using this route should they wish to do so. We expect from traffic impact studies we’ve carried out, the majority of vehicles on the A142 will use the new road, greatly reducing the number of vehicles using the underpass. The waiting times at the proposed signals will therefore be short compared to the existing delays caused by the level crossing and make journey times much more reliable.

We understand there are concerns amongst local residents about the traffic being single file and the use of traffic lights and we can assure you these concerns were considered in our traffic impact studies. It is estimated the traffic lights will result in a maximum queue delay of 27 seconds per vehicle and vehicles will only wait once at a red light. We have taken residents’ concerns into account and changed elements of the design to minimise delays by making sure the lights are activated by vehicle detectors, which means they will respond as vehicles approach and at times when there is no demand the lights will show red in both directions which will allow them to respond more quickly. We have also brought the stop lines closer together to reduce the time that a driver will need to wait for opposing vehicles to clear the underpass section and for their signal to turn to green.

We wanted to give an update on the changes that will be implemented as part of the scheme – the principles of which were agreed as part of the Ely Bypass planning application –  and an opportunity for you to ask questions or raise comments on the project.

Please find attached the poster detailing the key features of the scheme, you can also get updated drawings and further details on our website (https://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/residents/travel-roads-and-parking/transport-projects/ely-southern-bypass/). Please raise any comments or queries as indicated on the poster by 31 July 2018.

Power struggles and collision courses

‘A power struggle between Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA mayor James Palmer (Con) and local leaders has led to ministers threatening to withhold up to £400m funding,’ the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) reports.

A disagreement between the Mayor and the Greater Cambridge Partnership* has led to housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire stepping in to try to pour oil on troubled waters. The LGC reports that previous communities secretary Sajid Javid and growth minister Jake Berry, as well as James Brokenshire, have been involved.

*The Greater Cambridge Partnership is the body responsible for implementing the City Deal covering Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire.

The Mayor’s interim transport strategy was approved last month, and sought to put on ice a number of transport projects on which the Greater Cambridge Partnership was working. The Scrutiny Committee which holds the Mayor to account was set to review the freezing of these projects, but in what had every appearance of a coordinated absence, not enough Conservative members of the committee attended the review or ‘call-in’ meeting to enable it to go ahead.

Mayor Palmer is reported to be blaming the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership for a ‘lack of progress during the four years of its existence’.

Are we likely to see an acrimonious spat followed by a bid by the Mayor to take over the Greater Cambridge Partnership and its potential £500M budget, as happened with the Local Enterprise Partnership which has now become a ‘Business Board’ of Mayor Palmer’s expanding realm?

A tour of the depot

I was invited by council director Jo Brooks to tour the depot used by (among others) the staff of East Cambs Street Scene, the new council in-house company responsible for bin collections and street cleaning.

I arrived at 1:00PM as arranged, to be followed by Jo in the front of a refuse vehicle, where she had been out since 6:00AM with the crew who empty all the dog waste bins – not the most pleasant job on one of the warmest days so far this year.

The depot building itself, between Chettisham and Littleport, looks seriously neglected inside, not a place that gives staff the message that they are valued. Now that the council has taken back the building from former contractor Veolia, work has started to make it more suitable and welcoming, including a coffee machine, working showers, and somewhere for wet clothes to be hung to dry – the bin teams go out in all weathers, not just sunny days like today.

Earith causeway

A useful meeting this morning with county council officers, Environment Agency staff, and neighbouring county councillor Steve Criswell. The meeting was arranged to consider how procedures could be improved when the road at Earith is flooded or at risk of flooding.

The Environment Agency team explained how they have considerable advance warning of flooding at Earith, as they can monitor the rise in the waters from Buckinghamshire through Bedfordshire to Cambridgeshire. When the appropriate trigger point is reached, the Environment Agency warns the County Council’s highways team, and issues an alert.

There are a number of electronic notification signs, which need maintenance, as well as manual flip-down signs in various locations on the road network which are used to warn when the road is flooded. The team will be looking to redesign these signs. I asked them to consider putting signs at the new Ely bypass, to give advance warning to HCV drivers coming off the bypass – and among other things we also discussed adding road closures onto the existing roadworks.org website to improve the accuracy of the information given to the public about whether the road is open or closed.

Recycling banks – keep or scrap?

The future of recycling banks in East Cambridgeshire is up for grabs in a consultation which closes on Saturday (30 June).

The introduction of wheelie bins for recycling has meant less recyclable waste being taken to local recycling banks, like the one on the corner of The Brook and Pound Lane in Sutton. 747 tonnes of recyclable materials were collected from East Cambridgeshire recycling banks in 2013/14 – but in 2016/17 the amount had fallen to just 217 tonnes.

Meanwhile the market for recycled materials has become more difficult: there is less money in the sale of recyclable waste than there used to be, so the cost to the council has gone up. Two of the three contractors (the glass and paper processing companies) do not wish to renew their contracts for our recycling banks because they cannot make a profit from them.

Simply continuing with the recycling banks as they are is likely to cost the council an extra  £20,000 a year.  The council is therefore consulting on the future of the recycling banks.

The council is putting forward three options:

  1. Remove all recycling bank sites except for textile banks, to avoid additional costs to the Council.
  2. Keep only the highest performing recycling banks: Tesco Ely, Waitrose Ely, Main Street Littleport, Fountain Lane Soham, High Street Chippenham, and High Street Cheveley.
  3. Keep all the current recycling banks, accepting the low level of items collected there, and the extra cost to keep them going.

You can complete a simple survey on the council’s website – but remember you will need to do this by the end of Saturday (30 June).