Friday: a day at Shire Hall

First up at 10:00AM, a meeting of the county council’s Commercial & Investment Committee. The committee approves down payments of £722,000 for grid connections for three energy projects at Babraham Park & Ride, North Angle Solar Farm, and Stanground closed landfill site, so that they will be able to export energy to the national grid.

We’re then asked to support a bid to the council’s ‘transformation fund’ for £390,000 to fund a team of people for eighteen months to progress the council’s investment and commercial ambitions, with the aim that they will become self-funding within eighteen months. This leads into a wider discussion about the sustainability of the ‘transformation team’ itself, from which some of the commercial team will be seconded, and which will also need to be self-sustaining at some point in the coming years.

We receive an update on the council’s strategy for older people’s accommodation. An ageing population, and rising prices for care, leave the council exposed to significant increased costs. There’s some debate about why there are empty care beds but prices still don’t come down; and about the suggestion of new ‘tenancy’ models of care which would ‘repatriate costs currently borne by the [Local Authority] to the appropriate agency’ – in other words, shift care costs from the county council to others including the health service and the housing benefit bill.

We have a first look at the committee’s budget proposals for the next financial year. There are two proposals: a continuation of the council’s investment in a pooled property fund; and increasing commercial returns from the county council’s farms estate. In response to a question from me, we’re told that we will be asked in December to increase the amount invested in the fund from £11M to £20M. I also ask about how the county council will develop a view on how decisions like the commercialisation of the county farms estate will contribute to climate change. What is the council’s view of the competing uses of agricultural land – whether for the council’s own solar energy schemes, for increasing non-agricultural uses of its own farms estate, and for agriculture and food security in the light of the coming climate emergency? The council has two working groups working on a climate change strategy and a county farms strategy respectively – they both report into the Commercial & Investment Committee, but is a commercial committee the right place to develop this environmental view?

Having noted the committee’s draft capital programme, we move on to note the council’s investment strategy. Overall the council aims to generate a six per cent return on its investment portfolio over the medium term.

There’s a finance monitoring report, our forward agenda plan and training plan, and then the press and public are excluded for a ‘Cambs 2020 Spokes Review’ – a somewhat cryptic title for the ‘spokes’ or non-HQ buildings from which the council will also be operating once it moves its HQ from Shire Hall to Alconbury.

Second up, a training session for Commercial & Investment Committee members on some of the council’s energy projects.

  • The schools energy efficiency programme has committed £11M across 55 schools to install solutions including solar PV, LED lighting, building energy management systems, new boilers, biomass boilers, and air-source heat pumps. These are generating financial as well as energy and carbon savings.
  • The Swaffham Prior energy project is a joint scheme with the local Community Land Trust which aims to create a district heating network to move the community from oil to renewable heating.

Finally, a meeting of the cross-party councillor steering group overseeing the development of the council’s climate change and energy strategy. A useful discussion about the overall aims of the strategy and the need to work with partners and local communities to make this happen. I pointed out the growing number of parish councils, including Witchford in my own area, now declaring a climate emergency and beginning to develop their own plans.

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