Or rather, Cambridge cannot sort out its longstanding problems such as transport congestion because of an over-complicated structure of governance driven by/designed as a result of party political concerns rather than what is best for the city & surrounding towns & villages

The structure of governance in Cambridge looks like this:


And…it’s a mess.

And it’s no way to run a city with a global brand. The Cambridge City Council/South Cambs District Council are actually at the same level – both district councils, but the diagram by Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport illustrates that South Cambs has to cope with all of the towns and villages immediately around Cambridge without having any say or influence on what happens inside the doughnut – that being the area of Cambridge City Council.

“What do the history books tell us?”

Quite a lot – see my blogpost on Lost Cambridge here. Some of the most interesting exchanges on what should happen to Cambridge happened in the 1920s & 30s – when the art/science of town planning was blossoming as a result in part of the drive to build homes fit for heroes following the sacrifices of the First World War. The map below from “A history of local government from 1834-1958 with special reference to the county of Cambridge” shows what politicians, councillors and civil servants were considering in 1934.


The boundaries for the area applied for by the then Cambridge Borough Council (now Cambridge City Council) reflect the anticipated future development of Cambridge that planners in the 1960s anticipated. We know this because again, the archives tell us this.

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

Interestingly enough, in the 1960s the councils proposed segregated cycleways – note how they link them to the secondary schools.

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

I’ll leave it to you to judge how accurate the planners’ predictions were.

“Back to today, who is responsible for what?”

Exactly. This is what’s on the menu of Cambridge City Council:

170204 CamCitCoListOfServices

And this is for Cambridgeshire County Council

170730 CambsCCServices

But due to the nature of services delivered and a wider geographical range, the county council’s budget is much bigger than the city council’s budget. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve switched my focus in recent times from the city council to the county council – I’m following the money.

City vs Country – the progressive island in a sea of conservatism

One of the tensions in local politics is the Conservative-led county council vs the Labour-led city council (and before 2014, the Lib-Dem led city council). There are more Green Party councillors on Cambridge City Council than there are Conservatives – there are currently no Conservative Party councillors on Cambridge City Council. Hence the frustrations of Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters and politicians when so much of what they would like to do in the city is effectively blocked by the Conservative majority on the county council.

“Has it always been like this?”


Former Cambridge councillor Colin Rosenstiel maintains a fascinating database of Cambridge election results going back to the 1930s. Note how the Conservatives collapsed in the 1990s in Cambridge and never recovered. There’s a Ph.D thesis waiting for someone to write: Why did the Conservatives collapse in Cambridge during the 1990s and why have they not recovered since?

Because the Conservatives used to run the council in my very early childhood here, and regularly returned Conservative MPs until Newnham College graduate and former Parkside teacher Anne Campbell turfed out the Conservatives in 1992 as their candidate, former Cambridge University Conservative Association President Mark Bishop (see list of past ones here) failed to succeed historian Robert Rhodes James. Therefore the left-liberal political control of Cambridge borough/city in the grand scheme of things is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“How does that work with ministers and MPs?”

My stereotypical take is that ministers of all parties that don’t know Cambridge well see it as this picture postcard view of public school, punting, King’s College and ***complicated stuff that we don’t understand but that impresses foreign people and brings in lots of money for the treasury that we can use for spending/tax cuts [delete as appropriate]***

So I can imagine some hereditary peers getting angry about the lack of Conservative councillors on Cambridge City Council being a constitutional outrage, and that we should go back to the old system when Cambridge University had 2 aldermen and 6 councillors on the city council. (Aldermen as a concept were abolished in England and Wales in the 1970s). See Colin Rosenstiel here for more on how elections that included having university councillors worked prior to their abolition in the 1970s. Part of me wonders whether the governance of the city would improve if we had University representatives on the council – representatives that were responsible for the University’s actions and who could be cross-examined by residents & councillors alike. (On the other hand, Anglia Ruskin University might take issue given the number of students it has).

“So, what about the Mayor of the county, the City Deal/Partnership and so on?”

Since I left the civil service in 2011, Cambridge has gained:

Now my focus here is on the structures rather than the individuals that hold office in them. Because if you’ve got your structures wrong, even the most talented of individuals will be bogged down with meetings and libraries worth of papers to read. I should know – I’m one of the people that tries to turn up to meetings and read the papers! Yes! This is why I’m still single!

I digress…

My point is that all of these new structures were put together in isolation rather in combination with each other.

I also note that the combined authority is at and does not have a suffix. Given its functions, this surprises me. (Turns out it’s 2 urls for one website ).

We’ve also had a rebrand of the Cambridge City Deal – now the Greater Cambridge Partnership. Essentially they are now up and running at a level that they really should have been running at the start. The problem is that they were too officer-driven at the start and it’s difficult for them to unpick some of the poor decisions made early on. For example not having a ‘year zero’ for information gathering, data collection and community consultations.

Finally there are the problems of the Local Economic Partnership, initially set up by Coalition ministers to replace the former development agencies, just with lower budgets. Since their inceptions, I’ve repeatedly criticised the lack of diversity on their board. Count the number of men vs women. Also note the stupid-crazy-stupid decision not to have the leader of the city council on their board. Note Cambridge local historian Allan Brigham here. Furthermore, Steve Barclay MP has gone after the LEP over the decisions it has taken and the impact on Wisbech, one of the most economically deprived towns in the region in his constituency. (A town I might add that has huge potential).

With many of these organisations, it’s not entirely clear where some members get their mandate from, nor who they are accountable to.

“So…what does this mean for decision-making from a citizen’s perspective?”

Everything is unnecessarily complex.

Therefore the only people who can really influence things are people with time and money. I was following the Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire local plans, filming for the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations. These were really intense meetings going into a level of detail that is politically microscopic, but ones that developers and landowners were prepared to hire very expensive barristers/QCs to represent them.

More simplified structures amongst other things would reduce the need for internal meetings to co-ordinate the actions of different organisations dotted around all over the place. Time could also be saved for everyone with clear lines of accountability in terms of who does what. The public would also have a greater understanding of what is going on – important for making informed decisions.

One of the things that institutions take for granted is the cost of residents’ input. These things are not free. It means something else foregone. In my case with filming, I get commissions from FeCRA as I’ve mentioned, along with kind donations from individuals (see here – please support my filming and reporting!), but the commissioning rates I charge are about a tenth of the market rate. The simple reason being that no one would pay the £500-£1000 a day rate for someone to film a local council or community meeting.

Interestingly, the County Mayor James Palmer has announced recently that he wants to review local government in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

I hope this book will be of interest to him and his officials.


There’s a copy in the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Cambridge Central Library, but this version is my own personal one.

“Publications on how the state functions from times gone by – a refresh?”

I found this in the RSPCA shop on Burleigh St for 75p.

It dates from just after the Second World War and is a fascinating read. While I’d like to think publishing a refreshed series covering the functions of all of the major organisations of state would be useful, the restructures over the past decade would inevitably mean they’d become obsolete very quickly.

In the grand scheme of things, too much power rests with Whitehall, and within it, The Treasury. Note Cllr Lewis Herbert on the business rates revenue that are surrendered to Whitehall. For me it’s not nearly as simple as asking ministers to allow local councils to retain receipts. Ministers have to come up with something that allows local councils greater tax and spend powers, while bringing in different systems to support those local councils in economically deprived areas that face higher demands for their services while having a lower tax base to raise from. The problem with the current situation is that ministers have repeatedly cut support from central government while not giving councils the ability to raise revenue from other sources. Being a council leader or a council chief executive is the opposite of being a newspaper/media baron: Responsibility without power.

Original source – A dragon’s best friend

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