‘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.”

East Cambs council online fail

Whatever century East Cambs District Council is in, it certainly isn’t the 21st.

It’s now over nine months since the council gave up streaming its full council meetings – the last broadcast council meeting was in May last year, and the only video recently produced by the council was a promotional taxpayer-funded puff-piece.

Meanwhile, shortly after midnight last night I emailed the council to enquire why the papers for this afternoon’s committee meeting weren’t online.  I didn’t receive a response, so logged on half an hour or so ago to find that they’d been uploaded to the council website since my email.  Less than 12 hours’ notice of the business to be transacted isn’t very impressive.

On querying this, the response I received was that “As for legal notification, the agenda was published to the legal deadline with hard copies distributed to all Members of the Committee plus public copies were made available at that time. Unfortunately, as you have requested not to receive hard copies you did not get a copy.”

(I’m not a member of the committee, just a substitute, so I’m not sure that the council is helping itself with this line of argument.  Shouldn’t all councillors be able to see what the council’s committees are doing?).

The council continues to encourage councillors and the public to dump the paper and go digital.  I’m one of less than a handful of councillors at East Cambs who have tried to do my bit in this respect (I suspect you could count us on the thumb of one hand) – but it appears from the council’s response that it’s paper that counts, and online publication is just paper’s eighth cousin four times removed.

So I’ve advised the council that I’m ditching my request to go paperless, and it’s back to paper copies of everything for me. I need to warn the postman.

Shareholder Committee

I am becoming increasingly concerned about East Cambridgeshire District Council’s Shareholder Committee.  This is the committee of councillors whose role is to represent the council’s interests in the operation of the council’s two trading companies.

The March meeting of the Shareholder Committee was cancelled ‘for lack of business’.  The informal March meeting of the board of East Cambridgeshire Trading Company was also cancelled.  This is extraordinary considering the amount of money tied up in the trading company (a loan facility of £5M from the council, the full extent of which is being called on by the trading company earlier than planned), and the potential risk of the house-building and property development ventures in which the company wants to be engaged.

With government grants being cut, inflation rising, demand for services increasing, and the choice of the council not to increase council tax, the council is placing greater and greater expectations on ‘commercialisation’ and in particular on future trading company profits to keep priority services alive.

The trading company is already considering the level of risk it is prepared to accept to grow the property development arm of the business.  This has implications for the council (and public money) as well as the company.

Meanwhile, the £5M ‘cap’ the council has reinforced on its loans to the trading company is beginning to constrain the council’s and the company’s ambitions.  In particular, it is being said that the Community Land Trust in Haddenham, recently granted planning permission, is being held up by this limit.  Will the council, and the company, be looking elsewhere for funding for the company?

It is surprising and disturbing that shareholder and board meetings are being cancelled on the grounds that there is nothing to discuss, while such significant issues have not yet been properly debated in public by the council.

Local NHS commissioning group faces £48.2M overspend

At the county council’s Health Committee yesterday (Thursday 16 March), the following statement from the local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) was read out:

On 6 March 2018 the CCG Governing Body received a financial update that showed that we have been unable to contain our expenditure within the deficit of £15.5m agreed with NHS England for 2017/18. We are now forecasting that we will overspend our allocation by £48.2m. This is not a sustainable position and we are working with our partners to ensure that we identify how we bring the health system back into financial balance.

The main reasons for the CCG’s revised financial position for 2017/18 are: 

  • There has been greater demand for acute care than had been planned for, costing an additional £19million, particularly in non-elective pressures  
  • There has been a £6million increase in prescribing costs, due to national pricing changes  
  • There has been a rise in both the number of NHS Continuing Healthcare (CHC) patients and the cost of the care that they need, as well as a need to address a large backlog of assessments that has been identified significant numbers of patients, requiring the necessary financial provision. This has given additional cost pressures of approximately £14m in total  
  • Under delivery of the wider QIPP (savings) programme standing at £7.6 million 
  • The CCG has used underspends from other areas and contingencies to bring this figure to a forecast overspend in total figure of £48.2million. 

We are still in discussions with NHS England about our financial position for 2018/19, but as a health and care system we will work together to ensure that we deliver the health services that our population needs. We will continue to provide the appropriate level of care for our residents, ensuring that we manage costs sensibly, but we also need the public’s help to use health and social care resources wisely.

The CCG’s Chief Officer will be happy to brief the Committee fully at the Committee’s next meeting in May 2018. This would include why the CCG has ended the year in this position but also what plans it has to address the deficit going into 2018/19 as the financial plan will have been agreed with NHS England by that point, which will enable a fuller discussion about how the challenges the system faces are addressed.

Note: the CCG is responsible for buying healthcare services on behalf of the local population here in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The CCG is not responsible for buying GP, dental, pharmacy or optical services as this responsibility sits with NHS England.

Opportunity Areas, stakeholders and £6M

On Thursday last week, I took the chance to attend a breakfast meeting about the Government’s Opportunity Area programme for East Cambridgeshire and Fenland.

Over the coming three years, £6M will be spent on this programme with the overall aim of improving ‘social mobility’ in these two districts.  The money will not be spent by schools, but by the Government – expenditure is determined by the Department for Education Head of Delivery based on the recommendations of the local Partnership Board.

The programme’s stated priorities, established by local ‘stakeholders’, are to:

  1. Accelerate the progress of disadvantaged children and young people in the acquisition and development of communication, language and reading.
  2. Strengthen the effectiveness of support for children and young people with mental health concerns and those with Special Educational Needs.
  3. Raise aspiration and increase access for young people to a wide range of career choices and post-16 routes.
  4. Recruit, develop and retain the best leaders and teachers in Fenland and East Cambridgeshire.

These are all laudable aims, but I was left with a number of nagging doubts and unanswered questions.

How will the Government achieve all these aims in three years, during which the tide of its own decisions and those of the county council is flowing in completely the opposite direction: benefits cuts, closure of children’s centres, fragmentation of school meals provision, spiralling transport costs for over-16s attending sixth form or other educational provision?

Even if the programme makes a difference in these three years, how will it continue to do so after the funding ends and the Government team has packed up and gone home?  What will it actually, practically achieve that will be of enduring value?

What is the programme trying to convey to councillors and others invited to meetings like this?  It says it wants to ‘spread the word’ – but what message does it want to give, and what if anything does it want people to do to engage with the programme and its aspirations?  Does it want to connect with people beyond the ‘stakeholders’ who were originally invited to be involved, and who have advised the Government on how this £6M should be spent?

Changepoint – free help and support for healthy change

Did you know? Changepoint is a friendly and impartial service that offers everyone free help and support for any healthy change you want to make in your life. This could be for things like getting your family fitter, doing some regular exercise, dealing with stress, kicking a habit, or simply improving your general wellbeing.

Delivered by Everyone Health, funded by Cambridgeshire County Council, and supported by other partners, Changepoint is helping to improve the health and wellbeing of local communities.

Just visit the website, choose what type of changes you would like to make, and find events, activities and services near you. You can also talk to a Health Coach over the phone or in person.  You can on Twitter or find them on Facebook.

And next month Everyone Health will be providing NHS Health Checks in some libraries across the county. To find out more, and check whether you can book an appointment, contact Everyone Health on 0333 005 0093:

  • Wednesday 7 March – March Library
  • Thursday 8 March – St Neots Library
  • Monday 12 March – Huntingdon Library
  • Tuesday 13 March – Chatteris Library, Whittlesey Library and St Ives Library
  • Wednesday 14 March – Yaxley Library
  • Thursday 15 March – Willingham Library
  • Friday 16 March – Ely Library and Littleport Library

Protect free computer access at libraries

Liberal Democrats in Cambridgeshire have launched a campaign to protect people’s free internet access at libraries.

On Tuesday 13 February, the Conservatives will be proposing a charge for people using the internet at the library for more than half an hour.

Liberal Democrats believe that access to the internet is a key element of equality in the modern world, and that the County Council has a responsibility to provide internet access to those who for reasons of finance or where they live may not have high quality internet access in their homes.

Those living in poverty or in rural areas are already isolated in many ways. To charge for internet access in libraries will only deepen the inequalities in our county. Jobseekers and those receiving Universal Credit are likely to suffer particularly, as they are obliged to spend many hours looking for work in order to receive their benefits.

The Liberal Democrats are therefore opposing this charge and we hope our campaign will help defeat the proposal on Tuesday.

Please sign the petition here.

County council budget day

Today Cambridgeshire County Council set its budget, and for the first time in some years there was unanimity across all the groups about the level of council tax rise – the maximum 2.99 per cent increase permitted by Government, on top of the 2 per cent increase allowed for adult social care.

The Conservative group having resisted pleas to raise the cash needed over the last few years, the funding crisis is more acute than it need have been. With (finally) a belated consensus that ‘we can’t go on like this’, the real differences between the political groups at Shire Hall this year were not about the level of council tax, but about what to do with the £7.969M extra to be raised.

Whichever group’s budget was agreed, the council would have to use most of this money to plug the £4.3 million gap in the budget.  The Conservative administration’s proposals were that all of the remainder should be put away into reserves.

Two amendments were put forward: one by the Liberal Democrat group and one by the Labour group.  Both amendments proposed that the extra tax income should be spent on services rather than salted away – though there were mild differences on the exact direction of the spending.

I seconded the Liberal Democrat amendment.  This would have completely reversed the cuts to children’s centres, invested more in adult social care, committed not to implement increased charges for people receiving care, introduced a bus pass for 16-18 year olds to help them get around to college or work or leisure, and spent more on highways and footpath maintenance, local highways improvements, street lighting, and air quality monitoring.  We also proposed to save over a quarter of a million pounds by reversing the increase in county councillors’ allowances and by reducing the number of committees.

Our amendment was duly defeated by the ruling Conservative group, with Labour abstaining. Labour’s amendment was then defeated, with my group supporting it on the basis that while we didn’t agree with all the detail it was a jolly sight better than the only remaining alternative. The Conservative budget, unamended, was then put to the vote and was voted through, with all other groups opposing it.

One Conservative councillor accused the Labour amendment of being a ‘tax and spend’ budget. Surely though if there’s one thing worse than a ‘tax and spend’ budget, it’s a ‘tax and don’t spend’ budget, which is what the Conservatives have just imposed?