Cambridgeshire County Council annual meeting

Today’s annual meeting of the County Council took place at Alconbury Weald, and began at 10:30AM with the re-election of Cllr Sebastian Kindersley as Chair and Cllr Doug Dew as Vice Chair.

The meeting marked the deaths of two former members of the Council’s staff with a minute’s silence. There were a number of public questions, all related to highways and transport matters, and recommendations for changes in the Council’s constitution which were agreed without debate.

The chairs and vice-chairs of committees, and members of committees, for the coming year were agreed.

Five motions had been submitted for debate.

The first motion, from Cllr Alex Beckett (Lib Dem), was about the opportunities and risks of new technologies. The motion was altered by the proposer before being moved and debated, and its main proposal was to work with the Combined Authority to create a technology partnership to predict and prepare for future technological change. It was approved by 51 votes in favour, none against, and three abstentions.

The second motion, from Cllr Dr Geoff Seeff (Lib Dem), was about food labelling for allergens, and the devastating effects for those with allergies resulting from failures of labelling. There were several first-hand anecdotes, and I felt somewhat isolated in having neither an allergy nor a doctorate. This was also approved, by 54 votes in favour, none against, and just one abstention.

The third motion, from Cllr Steve Count (Conservative), called for all existing and new 20MPH proposals to be reviewed to ensure compliance with new non-compulsory guidance from the Government, and a change in the constitution to require such proposals to be decided by committee. Cllr Piers Coutts (Ely South) spoke extremely well to put facts straight about the consultation on the Ely scheme, and challenge the idea of full compliance with non-compulsory guidance. I also spoke in the debate, as did many other councillors. The motion was defeated by 20 votes in favour to 32 votes against.

The fourth motion, from Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dem), concerned the withdrawal by the Government of funding to improve air quality. It was approved by 36 votes in favour to 11 against, with seven abstentions.

The fifth and final motion, from Cllr Dr Susan van de Ven (Lib Dem), was a call for the council and its partners to strengthen international links and rebuild more collaborative relationships with international partners. This too was approved, by 35 votes to just one against, with sixteen abstentions.

Finally there were questions to the Leader of the Council Lucy Nethsingha in her role as the council’s appointee to the Combined Authority Board, and to Cllrs Anna Bradnam and Mark Goldsack as appointees to the Combined Authority’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee, all about bus services. The meeting concluded at 2:28PM.

Post office services update for Sutton

As recently reported the Mepal Post Office branch and shop are closing temporarily for a refurbishment until Thursday 29 August 2024.

Meanwhile the Post Office has announced today that its Sutton branch in the One Stop is due to close on Thursday 27 June at 5:30PM. As previously advertised, the One Stop national management no longer wished to host the facility at its Sutton store. Instead the Post Office will be opening a reduced service called Drop & Collect in the One Stop, starting on Saturday 6 July at 9:00AM.

The Post Office says: “Drop & Collect will offer services from a handheld device, allowing customers to maintain access to bill payments and prepaid parcel services from the current branch location.” The services available will be parcel collect and return (prepaid only), bill payments, and mobile top-up services. These will be open Monday to Sunday 7:00AM to 10:00PM.

For Post Office services other than this very limited offer, residents are advised to travel to Witchford or Ely.

As there will be a two-month overlap between the closure of the Sutton Post Office and the reopening of the Mepal Post Office and shop, I have asked what will happen in this period. The Post Office has said it is exploring whether a temporary service can be provided to customers during this time and will share further updates if this is possible.

Meanwhile in the longer term, the Post Office did advertise the opportunity to run a Post Office branch from another retail outlet in Sutton. Not surprisingly, given everything we have seen on television recently about the experiences of sub-postmasters, this appears not to have resulted in any applications. If anyone is interested in providing this service in the village, then they might want to contact Post Office Limited.

New and improved bus routes for our area

New bus routes and improvements to existing routes are on the way, paid for by the Mayor’s Precept.

Locally these will include an additional Ely Zipper between Sutton and Ely taking in villages in between. And a new service will operate between Ely and Longstanton Park & Ride, via Witchford, Sutton, Earith and Willingham—something I have been lobbying for for years.

A demand-responsive travel solution for rural areas across most of East Cambridgeshire is also being worked on. Development will focus on Isleham and Little Downham and wider communities.

I’m delighted that significant moves are being made to improve bus provision locally—despite the Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council voting against this funding when the Combined Authority Board was asked to approve the budget.

The routes still need to be procured and individual posters for each route will be released in the summer.

The Combined Authority’s web page on the bus proposals includes district-by-district explanations of the proposed routes, with maps. There’s also a very quick survey to fill in—please do!

Greener Together

Community energy was abundant at the Greener Together event at the Gardiner Memorial Hall in Burwell, which Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Charlotte Cane and I attended today.

Billed as ‘showcasing local community-led green initiatives’, the afternoon did just that, with stalls full of information and a packed programme of speakers.

Paul Webb from Burwell Parish Council and Wendy Lansdown from Cambridgeshire County Council welcomed everyone to the event, and then three speakers – me, Eithne George from the County Council and Emma Danielson from the District Council – set the scene for the day.

I referenced the County Council’s environmental ambitions, and the variety of opportunities there were to ensure a ‘just transition’ – a move to a more sustainable economy and environment with local support that leaves no-one behind. For me, communities are at the heart of these ambitions, which is why I put forward East Cambridgeshire to the County Council as a pilot area to explore decentralisation of some of the decision-making around the environmental agenda.

The discussion group leaders for the afternoon then introduced the topics for their sessions: community energy plans with Eithne George and Chris Parkin, repair cafés with Sandy Skelton, retrofitting the Gardiner Hall with Paul Webb, biodiversity net gain with Peter Bates of East Cambs CAN, and the Top 20 Actions for East Cambs with Emma Danielson.

This was a great opportunity to gather together so many like-minded people and share ideas, opportunities and the commitment we have to a greener, fairer Cambridgeshire.

Mepal Post Office temporary closure

Due to extensive building work planned at Mepal Post Office, Post Office Ltd has announced that its branch there will need to close temporarily.

The service will close on Wednesday 29 May 2024 at 5:30PM. The work is expected to take approximately three months to complete, following which the service is set to re-open on Thursday 29 August 2024 at 9:00AM.

A letter about the temporary closure of Mepal Post Office is available on the Post Office website. It refers residents to two alternative post offices, Sutton and Witchford. It advises that Sutton Post Office ‘offers similar services, with the addition of Vehicle Tax, and Euro Travel Money’.

However, Sutton Post Office was subject to a consultation last year which stated that ‘Sutton Post Office will be closing March 2024’ but that ‘One Stop has agreed to operate a Post Office Drop & Collect, which is a lighter branch format, from the same location’. A vacancy for a full Post Office in Sutton was advertised in the early part of 2024 on, but that advertisement has now closed.

I have therefore written to Post Office Ltd to query the current status of Sutton Post Office and the services available from it, and to ask what the result was of the advertisement of the Sutton Post Office opportunity which closed in March, and what the plans of the Post Office are now regarding provision of Post Office services at the One Stop in Sutton or elsewhere in the village.

Post Office branch information can be found on the Post Office website.

Regional Flood & Coastal Committee

An all-day meeting of the Anglian (Great Ouse) Regional Flood & Coastal Committee today—in the bracing sea air of, er, Alconbury Weald.

A formal morning meeting discussing funding for, and progress of, flood defence work in the Great Ouse catchment area, with presentations on flood modelling, and on Fens 2100+. I’ve been involved in these meetings for a few years now, and it seems that the Environment Agency is increasingly being robustly challenged on its performance.

Unusually there’s a large number of residents present, for an item on the agenda scheduled for just ten minutes—dilapidation of the sluices at St Ives and Brownshill Staunch, where some of the gates have had to be left stuck in the down position, affecting water levels. Government funding for maintenance like this just isn’t anywhere near enough—we’re told that the Environment Agency received one-tenth of the funding they asked for from the Government.

In the afternoon, there’s an informal workshop for Committee members to discuss priorities for the future. Lots of post-it notes as always, and useful discussion about asset management, funding, collaboration, data and community engagement.

EV charge points in village car parks

Cambridgeshire County Council is looking to work with parish and town councils to provide locations to host one or more electric vehicle charge points in their village car parks.

Following a successful first information session, the council will be hosting a second online session on Thursday 9 May 2024 at 1:00-2:00PM for parish and town council representatives who were unable to attend and want to find out more.

If you are a parish or town council interested in this scheme please sign up for the online information session by Tuesday 7 May.

The County Council is developing a funding application to the Government’s Local EV Infrastructure (LEVI) fund. This is supporting large-scale deployment of slow (7kW) chargepoints where residents without access to off-street parking (ie no driveway or garage) can charge an electric vehicle near their home. The Council wants to ensure an equitable distribution of chargepoints across the county, and to work with parish councils to enable a faster roll-out across more rural communities.

Parish councils would need to own or have a long-term lease for the proposed car park, and wider community-owned assets are also eligible. For those communities that do not have such assets, the Council will be looking to support with chargepoints on the public highway.

East Cambs Finance & Assets Committee

Tonight it’s Finance & Assets Committee at The Grange in Ely at half past four, with our usual lead member Cllr Alison Whelan committed elsewhere so Cllr Charlotte Cane is in charge of our group of four.

First up it’s the council’s Trading Company business plan. We’re not allowed to ask questions if they haven’t been submitted in writing two days in advance, which makes it (deliberately) difficult for opposition councillors to hold the East Cambs Conservative leadership to account. So there are lots of written questions, which the Leader of the Council seems to take as a personal affront. We’re not satisfied with the answers, so we request a recorded vote, and vote against the plan.

Then it’s the service delivery plans, and some searching questions have to be asked to ascertain who is monitoring the costs of the Conservatives’ £9M white elephant crematorium. It appears it is the finance team after all, despite appearances to the contrary in the written answers to our questions.

After that, we move on to discuss the council’s emerging climate change and nature restoration chapter to be added to its increasingly dog-eared local plan. This is somewhat hampered by the Government’s announcement that council local plans will not be allowed to be more ambitious for carbon reduction than current building standards. We propose that the council should ask officers to update us regularly on how far other councils are able to move the dial on this, and that we should ask the Chief Executive to write to the Minister pointing out the short-sightedness of his announcement, but we are defeated by the Conservatives. There’s then a separate discussion about hedgehogs.

The asset management plan is passed without dissent, and then it’s that rare thing at East Cambs, a genuine debate with a genuine compromise hammered out at the end of it. This time it’s about the council’s updated whistleblowing policy. We propose that the council should seek to check this against the benchmark framework promoted by Protect, a national organisation that’s been supporting and advising whistleblowers for over thirty years. At first this is set to be defeated, but common sense breaks out, and after some debate we agree unanimously to pass the version of the policy in front of us with some minor amendments, but to investigate using Protect’s framework to evaluate our policy and report back in June.

The annual review of RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) policies is next. This is what governs how the council carries out surveillance and investigation, for example in planning enforcement or flytipping enquiries. A pre-development grant application from one of the Conservatives’ favoured Community Land Trusts splits the committee. Then it’s working party notes and the forward plan, before the committee moves into confidential session.

We emerge into the rain at around half past seven.

Cambridgeshire County Council full council meeting

A full council meeting at Alconbury today, with by far the largest share of the time taken up by five motions from councillors.

After the usual introductory items of apologies for absence, minutes, declarations of interest, and Chair’s announcements, the council approves reports on senior manager pay data, the chief officer pay policy statement, and pay gap reporting.

There are then some changes to membership of council committees following more councillors leaving the Conservative group. (They won 28 seats in 2021, they’re now down to 22 with a by-election pending to determine whether they or the Liberal Democrats are the larger group on the council.)

The first of the five motions asks the council to work with Government and local council partners to ensure sustainable funding for the council’s Armed Forces Covenant officer role, seeks a Government review of armed forces accommodation charges, food charges and allowances, and to write to ministers about the current support offered to Afghan refugees and call for spouses and children of Commonwealth veterans to be granted right to remain at the same time as the serving veteran without fees. It passes with no votes against.

The second motion calls for the abolition of the Greater Cambridge Partnership – oddly, proposed by one of the three councillors who signed it into existence in the first place. It makes the slightly under-evidenced assumption that the Government will allow the Partnership to be abandoned but that we still keep the money. It’s all ridiculous electioneering, I speak and vote against it, and it is defeated with eighteen votes in favour and thirty-one votes against.

The third motion is more of the same, calling for the council to ‘resist any attempts made to introduce anymore [sic] new local forms of taxation’. It’s basically a complaint about the Mayor’s use of his right to levy a precept, which he’s using to improve bus services. But that right to levy a precept wasn’t invented locally – it was set down by Government in 2017 for all Mayoral combined authorities with a devolution deal. The motion proposes writing a list of ‘ambitious transformation strategic infrastructure interventions’ and sending it to the Government with a request for the money. Yes, that’ll work. I speak and vote against this nonsense, and so do most councillors, with only sixteen votes in favour, and thirty-two votes against.

The fourth motion notes low turnout in council elections and lack of engagement in politics particularly among young people. It wants the Chief Executive to write to Government asking for a proportional voting system, and the council’s Communities, Social Mobility & Inclusion Committee to work with partners to develop a plan to encourage greater understanding of the role of the different tiers of local government and how we can work better to engage with young people to increase participation in local elections. It passes by thirty-two votes to thirteen.

The final motion calls asks the Chief Executive to write to Government and invite council partners to join in the request to commit to making the benefits and opportunities created by growth accessible to all residents of Cambridgeshire, urgently commit to funding and supporting the delivery of essential infrastructure for growth, establish ambitious targets for affordable housing, and recognise that the Government’s Case for Cambridge vision requires investment in skills, training and education. The motion is universally agreed without a vote.

The Chair of the Fire Authority, Cllr Edna Murphy, reports that Cambridgeshire is now likely the authority with the lowest level of funding per head in the country. She draws attention to the increase in widespread fires and widespread flooding, and the demand on fire services. She also notes the forthcoming retirement of fire chief Chris Strickland.

The meeting closes at 2:23PM.

Papers for the full council meeting are here.