Posts Tagged ‘cambridge’

Why we need Independents on councils

April 16, 2012

John explains why Independents help improve the performance of councils

To get things done by local councils it helps if groups of councillors agree policies and stick together to achieve them.  I do not oppose political parties in local government.  Indeed a council made up entirely of Independents would be disastrous.  But in the same way that a dish often tastes better when seasoned, a council works better when some of its members are outside the party system and retain the right to publicly oppose policies or expose abuses. 

Often Independents can usefully publicise practices engaged in by all parties, such as when they agree the way to allocate allowances to their own party advantage or pay over a part of their publicly funded council allowances to finance political activities.  Political parties also collectively promote a culture of political bickering or grandstanding  which achieves little but wastes precious time and scarce council resources.  A good local example of this is to be found in the so-called Area Committees which are talking shops, usually attended by all local councillors and a handful of regulars, but which cost the ratepayer thousands of pounds a year in hall rentals, amplification charges, officer time etc. 

Local parties are also frequently tied to their national parties and back policies laid down by their national party bosses rather than answering local needs.  For example, City Councillors who have for years defended the party line on centrally imposed house building targets or regional assemblies will not today deny that they were costly mistakes. However, at the time they were adamant in their insistence of their benefits.

Perhaps my strongest objection to parties in local government is the way in which a few powerful party bigwigs control and manipulate the many fellow councillors who are content to be told what to think and how to vote. I call them ‘lobby fodder’.  I left the Lib-Dems in 2006 because they couldn’t tolerate my propensity to speak my mind and to think outside the box and since leaving them I have been able to breathe intellectually and politically.

Of course a lot depends on how skilfully and usefully an Independent councillor uses their ‘freedom’.  For my part I see my role as highlighting issues of public concern in the hope and belief that they will consequently be raised in the order of party priorities.  I do this through the pages of the local and national press (who have published over fifty articles reporting my views since the last election), through private discussions with fellow councillors, away from the whips, and by persuasion in the various committees and forums on which I have a voice.  My greatest concerns have always been on planning issues and I think it fair to say that my voice on the Planning Committee is respected and often heeded by members of all parties.  So it simply isn’t true to say that as an Independent I don’t have influence.

In the meantime the campaign for my re-election goes on and I am pleased to be able to tell you that we are heartened by the response we are getting.

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‘Keep local elections truly local’

March 1, 2012

Cllr Hipkin comments: Local elections for the City Council take place in just over three months from now and already the political parties are ‘positioning’ themselves in an effort to woo voters.   The Lib-Dems tell us they have softened the government’s approach to public service reform and austerity.  Labour says the government has mishandled the economy and devastated the welfare state. And as for the Conservatives they believe David Cameron’s irresistible charisma will lead us on to the uplands of prosperity!

However, amid the welter of party propaganda on national politics what the parties hope we shall overlook is that the elections on May 3rd are local offering local people an opportunity to judge the performance of their local councillors.  Remember too that they are city elections, not county.  They are not about who’s in and who’s out at Westminster or Shire Hall nor are they a dummy run for the 2015 general election.  So I urge residents to keep their minds on issues such as the major developments planned on NIAB and University Farm and the impact they will have on residents, the growing traffic overload on the city’s roads, the protection of local streets and buildings from hasty and careless development such as what was proposed for the Texaco site, the maintenance of local roads and footpaths and the ongoing support for community activities such as those at Mayfield School and St Augustine’s.

Finally, at local elections we get the chance to elect people who live in the ward, who know its residents, who have worked hard to advance their collective interests and to look after individuals baffled or frustrated by the workings of the City Council.  So let’s look forward to the May election but let’s not forget what it is truly about!

‘We need tourism but it must be sustainable’

February 26, 2012

A recent Cambridge News front page story misreported me as saying that day trippers should be banned from Cambridge because they were clogging the streets and making life difficult for city residents. Let me make my views clear and see if you agree with them or not.

Cambridge is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and nearly 5 million people visit it annually.  As living standards in ‘emergent economies’ such as China rise the number of visitors to the city can be expected to go on increasing steeply.  Cambridge is a small city with a compact historic core so the challenge is to manage tourism in such a way that we do not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.   As an example of what I mean, scores of punt touts in the city centre may be ‘serving the local economy’ but to the extreme annoyance of both residents and tourists.  Indeed, some will see parallels between what is happening in Cambridge and places like Venice where the sheer volume of people in the summer months makes visiting the city stressful and disagreeable. If visitor numbers to the city go on rising and robust management policies are missing there is a real danger that the historic core will be spoiled for both visitors and residents.

Mass tourism is a world-wide phenomenon with a momentum of its own but to get the benefits of tourism without spoiling this beautiful city we have to identify Cambridge’s ideal niche market and promote the city with that market in mind.  I have stuck my neck out and argued that Cambridge should, because of its size and character, seek primarily to attract long stay visitors with an interest in the city’s cultural and artistic treasures.  I have argued for a Cambridge Pass to give visitors exclusive access to many of the city’s major attractions.  I would also like tourist buses to use park and ride sites rather than prime parking spaces along the Backs.  Perhaps a hotel room tourist tax, similar to those levied on visitors to continental cities, might help pay for many of the services which tourists use and quite rightly expect when they visit Cambridge.  These suggestions need careful consideration and testing, but I am sure that we have to start thinking pretty seriously and pretty soon about how to make tourism sustainable, that is to preserve the city’s heritage in such a way that we hand on to future generations a city that they can enjoy living in and visiting as much as we do today.

Cambridge Success Story ‘not all that it seems’

February 22, 2012

According to the latest report of the Centre for Cities, Cambridge, if not exactly booming’, is certainly bucking national economic trends.  Unemployment is low (although jobs as a proportion of population is also low) the number of new patents taken out in the city is higher than in the next six cities combined, average incomes are high and the equality gap appears to be lower in the city than almost anywhere else.  But before we throw our hats in the air in celebration of our good fortune let’s take a sober look at some of the issues the report fails to confront or skates over.

Keep in mind that this is an economic report and although a successful economy brings many benefits it may also have high social costs.  For example, Cambridge is plagued by congestion and high housing costs and its ‘vibrant’ night time economy has arguably eroded the quality of life of city centre residents.   Many people, perhaps especially those who have lived here for many years, find Cambridge’s ‘unsettledness’ disagreeable.  Community life may not be as cohesive as in less prosperous places simply because of the high turnover of population, and  local shops which give a place character get squeezed out by the retail multiples.

Of all the cities in the survey only Milton Keynes’ population is growing faster than Cambridge’s, an inevitable feature of economic success, perhaps.  But Milton Keynes covers a huge area and its nodes are widely dispersed; Cambridge is tightly concentric.  Nor does Milton Keynes have a tourist industry attracting four and a half million visitors a year, adding significantly to the pressures on the city. There’s no escaping that the current rate of growth of the city is putting considerable strains on its outdated infrastructure and compact historic core.

There are some outright disappointments in the report.  For example, for a city whose council trumpets its green credentials, it is sad to discover that its level of carbon emissions is only at the national average and higher than Ipswich’s or Luton’s where they make cars and have a busy airport!  And there are worries too.  Cambridge is over dependent on vulnerable public service jobs and who knows how continuing austerity and recession will affect employment in that sector in years to come.  Worrying too that Cambridge’s total number of businesses is shrinking faster than in most cities and there may be serious long term consequences for an economy as dependent as Cambridge’s on a relatively narrow range of industries.

There is also some statistical bamboozling.  The report tells us that the gap in incomes between high and low earners is lower in Cambridge than almost anywhere else in the country.  But not all salary earning residents work in Cambridge so their earnings are left out of the calculation and of those who commute to London daily or work abroad most will be on relatively high incomes.   Who, then, really knows how wide is the equality gap in Cambridge?.

My purpose in applying dampeners to a report which most cities in the UK would be extremely happy to get is simply to emphasise that economic prosperity has drawbacks as well as advantages and that if growth on the scale and at the speed it is happening in Cambridge is not properly managed it can end up doing more harm than good.

On the topic of growth the report is forward looking in ways which put it at odds with establishment opinion in the city.   It points out that ‘cities rely heavily on their regions to supply workers’ and ‘that understanding this interdependence can help policy makers target scarce resources.’  By contrast, the orthodox view among Cambridge’s political leaders and some opinion formers is that commuting is a curse and must be counteracted by stuffing the city to the limits with dwellings in order to reduce congestion.  What seems to escape both supporters of this approach, however, is that the superabundance of one and two bedroom flats that swamp the city do not accommodate key workers who formerly came into the city by car but are acquired increasingly by high earning commuters to London and buy to let landlords.  Far from solving the housing crisis these trends only serve to push up house prices, curtail family housing and push local communities out of balance.

The report is right to stress the ‘interdependence’ of the city and its sub-region and on this subject it is forthright: ‘Cities are not islands, they are intrinsically linked to their surrounding areas.  And it is these relationships which influence the economic success of cities,it argues.

Interestingly, the concept of Cambridge as a regional city in which growth is dispersed to new and existing communities connected by efficient transport routes is gaining favour in influential quarters.  The Labour group on the City Council has recently announced a shift in thinking toward a sub-regional solution to Cambridge’s growth challenges in which transport, economic development and housing supply form part of an overarching strategic plan. Cambridge Past, Present and Future is also taking a cautionary approach to current growth plans.  This shift in thinking echoes what Cambridge Futures concluded a decade ago, namely that of all the viable scenarios for city growth that of dispersal was most popular among city residents.

The fact is development space in the city is in short supply and if we are to avoid urban sprawl or over densification within the city we must plan for a number of growth hubs separated from the city by wide green tracts and connected by fast and efficient public transport.  Such a policy would also spread the impact of economic prosperity since companies would find accessible, low-rent sites outside the city extremely attractive. I have long argued that to confine the notion of a Cambridge sub-region to new communities such as Cambourne, Northstowe or Waterbeach (should that come into the picture) is not visionary enough. Just a little further out of Cambridge than the new settlements but too far away for any serious risk of coalescence are market towns such as Chatteris, Littleport and Wisbech, once one of England’s great ports.  These Fenland towns are among the most deprived and disadvantaged of any in Europe but they languish because of a lack of vision and of investment.  I believe it is in Cambridge’s long  term interests as well as its ethical duty to give more thought to how this larger sub-region might reap the benefits of economic success.

So let’s welcome the report of the Centre for Cities and take pride in Cambridge’s undoubted achievements but let us not be complacent.  We need to plan for a future in which Cambridge prospers but in which the fruits of that prosperity are wisely and widely deployed.