I have always thought that a greater Cambridge would make an excellent independent country.
We have some great assets – a world-class university, diverse populations, beautiful buildings and landscaping, thriving sectors of technology and life sciences, and that indefinable, well, Cambridgeness that gives the city its own charm. But I admit that this outright independence is probably not a practical proposition – after all, commuting into town is bad enough at the moment without a passport check on the A14, and goodness knows what will happen to housing costs. So instead, I want to propose a more realistic goal—finding a way to improve the bewilderingly complex local government arrangements.
Just look at this chart of how Cambridgeshire local government is currently organized. As council tax bills will be on doormats across the county in the next few weeks, some residents will find themselves paying taxes to at least six different bodies – parish councils, borough or city council, county council, fire brigade, or The Police, the Crime Commissioner, and now the Combined Authority, adding to our bills for the first time this year, but certainly not the last.
The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) currently does not charge any council tax but if you get your way it will collect quite a bit of revenue in future years from congestion charges.
All this complexity brings several different problems. makes it difficult for residents to navigate council services; leads to profligacy in duplicity throughout the county; undermines confidence in local government by making it appear distant and unaccountable; And it creates a Democratic deficit with large portions of the county run by a political party they did not vote for and have no practical way of getting rid of. In general, it is inefficient, bureaucratic, slow and expensive.
If you need any evidence that it is difficult for residents to navigate council services, just try asking them which council is responsible for the service. In fact, many residents are vaguely aware that there is more than one council. It’s common on social media to see the city council berated for the condition of the roads, or the county council for uncollected funds, even though the county’s job is to fix potholes and the city’s job is to collect trash.
Imagine the frustration of waiting in line to phone the council for some pressing issue, only to be told when you got over it that you called the wrong council and needed to start over. And any local councilor will tell you how often they are contacted about issues for which their council is not responsible.
Many of our councils have responded to this situation by sharing services across their regions to try to deliver them more efficiently. Cambridge shares waste collection and planning with South Cambs, the CCTV system with Huntingdonshire, and the three councils share many other services. This is certainly better than duplicating those services between regions, but it can have some unintended consequences. For example, Cambridge City Council has recently found itself drawn into the experience of South Camps with its four-day working week, and there are still many services run by each district separately.
The complexity of our system of local government means that significant parts of it are not directly elected. The Greater Cambridge Partnership is a case in point – its members are appointed by the city and county councils and South Camps, as well as the University of Cambridge, rather than being chosen directly by the residents.
Although three of the four partners are elected councilors, none of their governing groups mention 60-hour-a-week fee-bashing on Cambridge in their statements, leaving many people feeling that GCP’s current plans have no clear democratic foundation.
The university’s participation is also problematic, although its representative does not have the right to vote on the board. Of course the university should be consulted about GCP plans, as should other organizations in the area, but why should it get an unelected seat at the top table? The days when a university could appoint city council members in 1973 are over, and we shouldn’t start looking back now.
The democratic deficit does not end with the General People’s Congress. Until recently, Cambridge had been for many years under the administration of a Tory-dominated county council and there was nothing they could do to get rid of it. He could not vote for county councilors because there were a total of zero of them representing the city; The Conservatives have not won a single seat on Cambridge County Council since 1993.
Now the balance swung the other way, and this time much of the north of the county found itself without representation in the ruling group in the council. The truth is that parts of Cambridgeshire are not very well aligned politically. Voting patterns in Wisbech and Petersfield, for example, are very different.
[Read more: Phil Rodgers: Sex, religion and politics – what the Census tells us about Cambridge today]
So what is the answer to all of this? It’s very simple – one council for the greater Cambridge. It should cover the current responsibilities of the City, Counties, County, GCP and Joint Authority across the Greater Cambridge area. It will have one set of directly elected councilors accountable to residents and one set of council services.
There would be very little chance that residents would telephone the wrong council, or that different layers of local government would argue with each other. Maybe one party won’t get a majority, but then no party has a majority of support among the people of Greater Cambridge either, and that’s fair enough. Another unified council could cover the rest of the area of the current county council, and would be much better politically for the residents there.
Will this be quick and easy to do? no. Will you solve all our housing, transportation and growth problems? of course no. But will it be an improvement on what we have now? definitely.
Phil Rodgers has lived in Cambridge since 1984. He is married, has two daughters, and works as a developer for a software company in the city. You can read more about him on his site Blogand find his column every month in the Cambridge Independent.
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