Monday 16 December 2013

Topographical Survey - Kings Dyke Crossing

As I have siad to many people, work to deliver a bridge over Kings Dyke Crossing is progressing.  As part of this work a topographical survey is to take place at the end of this week - it should not cause disruption and there are no road closures as part of it, but you will see people round and about the area.  Here is the text of the letter that has been sent to interested parties:

"The County Council is investigating potential solutions to the congestion on the A605 at King’s Dyke caused when the level crossing is in operation. To allow a full and proper evaluation of the various design options, the project team is starting the process of gathering information.

We will require a topographic survey of the area and I attach a formal entry notice to allow this to take place. The survey team will not require entry into any building, as this is a non invasive survey recording locations and levels of buildings, walls, trees etc. 

I would like to stress that we are at very early stages of the project and no line or footprint exists yet for the options under consideration.

I anticipate further survey such as ecological and archaeological will also be required in the spring time. Should this include land under your control, a further entry notice will be issued.

We will be carrying out a full public consultation once we have decided on the best possible solutions.."

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Peer Challenge Report Published

The final report for the county council's Peer Challenge has now been published.  I published some comments about the initial presentation a while back (and got some political challenge as a result).

The final report is there for you to see warts and all - but overall I believe it is very positive about where the county council is, but expresses concerns going forwards because of two main issues - the move to committee governance and our financial position (linked with the cuts we are having to make to services).

Feel free to read and comment if you disagree. You can open the report from here.

Friday 6 December 2013

City Deal - Cross Party Working At Its Best

The Chancellor's Autumn Statement yesterday included a commitment from Government to support a Greater Cambridge City Deal, including agreement to the principle of what we have called "gainshare".

The City Deal is an initiative that is aimed at unlocking the huge potential in the Greater Cambridge economy through investment in infrastructure. The gainshare part is an agreement that, as the economic growth starts to happen, Government will give us a small amount back from the increased tax receipts they benefit from in order to pay us back for delivering the improved infrastructure. There is still more work to do on this, the aim is to get the detail worked up before next year's budget.

I could write pages about the City Deal - and probably will at some point - but for now I will say that this deal has exciting potential for the whole of Cambridgeshire and beyond. But for now, there is an important point I want to make about the politics of getting to this stage in the deal. I know that members of the public hate the yah-boo nature of politics (which I am sometimes guilty of engaging in - albeit only when I feel I am forced). That "yah-boo" manifests itself in a couple of ways. One is through differing structures of Government pointing fingers at others i.e. districts blaming Counties and vice versa, or finger pointing between Local Government and National. The other is the cross-party stuff that I know I don't need to explain.

I hope the public will recognise that the City Deal is a welcome example of the exact opposite. It has come about through collaboration between a Liberal Democrat run City Council, a Conservative District Council and a County Council that is politically in no overall control (as well as The Greater Cambridgeshire Greater Peterborough LEP and Cambridge University). Getting to this point has also involved huge negotiations between local politicians of all colours and Ministers, with support from our MPs and between council officers and civil servants. It is a great example of cross party working and of partnership working.

It is surprising how much of this sort of work goes on, I suspect that even more of it will happen in the future, but this is certainly an example worth highlighting.

Friday 15 November 2013

Sir Rhodes Boyson in a Onesie

I have a very strong view that whatever you do in life you must be allowed to keep a sense of fun and to never be afraid of laughing at yourself. I also believe that in any public role you should use your role to support good causes.
Today was an example of that all rolled up in one. This month I have been taking partin Movember. A cause that involves growing a moustache for charity and highlighting some mens health issues. Not wanting to do things by half, I have been trying to grow something that looks a bit like one of my rock heroes, Lemmy.

Councillor Martin Curtis

Yesterday, I was told it looks a bit like Sir Rhodes Boyson. Not sure I see it myself, but I'll take that.
Today, having heard that BBC Radio Cambridgeshire were having a "Onesie" party for their Children in Need show, I thought I would give them a surprise. So I turned up, armed with my hairy face, cookies, and a KISS onesie .
Batman with some bloke

We had a great fun time for the few minutes, I was there, alongside a serious chat about poverty. It also ended up with a commitment from me to donate £30 to Children in Need to avoid having to wear my onesie to an Eastern Region Local Government Association meeting today (which I have done).
The BBC do a great job with Children in Need, so I hope my surprise gave them a bit of a smile. I am very grateful to the producer and to Paul Stainton for fitting me into what was already a tight schedule.
Anyway, if the site of my mutton chops and the pleasure of seeing me in a onesie is not enough to force you to open your wallets and either donate to Children in Need, or to my Movember page (or even both), there is no hope.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Works to Whitmore Street and West end Whittlesey - 18th November

Job Title
A605 Whitmore Street and West End Whittlesey Carriageway Resurfacing Works and associated Ironwork alterations / repairs.
Start Date
Monday 18th November 2013
Anticipate 2 wekks weather permitting
Estimated £400,000
Diversions/traffic controls
Road closure with signed diversion via: A605 Peterborough Rd, To A605 Stanground (Peterborough City), A1139 to A47 (Area 6) to A141 Rings End / Guyhirn, to A605 Coates / Eastrea to A605 Whittlesey and vice versa.
Residents access via Peterborough Road end of site, under traffic control. Delays to be expected.
Day time/Night working
Night working 19.00 – 02.00.
Some day works may be required due to shorter night working window,  day working hours will be 09.30 to 15.30
Justification for scheme
Poor deterioration of carriageway and several mis aligned ironworks at several locations requiring maintenance.
Any other information
Contact Details for further information
Name: Gavin Wiseman
Telephone Number: 0345 045 5212
Email address:

Thursday 31 October 2013

Fenland Funding Fair

Fenland District Council and the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services are holding the annual Fenland Funding Fair and training session on "How to write effective funding bids?" on 26th November at Fenland Hall, March.

The event will give local community groups the opportunity to meet with key funders including; the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation and WREN, in order to discuss particular funding needs. Each group will be given a time slot within which to look at funding options and find out exactly what each funder requires for a successful funding bid.

In addition the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services will be holding a training session on "How to write effective funding bids?" in the morning (with a free buffet lunch provided for attendees).
The event will be free for CCVS members and £60 for all other organisations. To find out how to book a place on both events or to find out how to become a member of the CCVS then please contact 01223 464969, or 01354 622482.

Kings Dyke Crossing and Ely Southern Bypass - Still very much on track.

There are rumours circulating in Whittlesey at the moment that the proposed bridge at Kings Dyke Crossing has been cancelled. I need to confirm that this is absolutely not the case and that work continues to progress. I also need to make a similar assurance to East Cambs residents about the Ely southern bypass.

This rumour comes about because of a radio interview last Tuesday between Paul Stainton of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and the Leader of the Lib Dem group at the County Council to do with the peer challenge that was held in Cambridgeshire County Council a few weeks ago. That peerchallenge was very complementary about us as a County Council, but inevitably raised a couple of concerns which I have discussed here.

The Lib Dem Leader's response to a question about what he would do about the cost of our ambitious capital programme was to suggest a rolling back of our plans. He spoke about supporting the proposed New Science Park Station on the edges of Cambridge and then said:

"other things like the crossing in Whittlesey and the Ely southern bypass are things that, yes, we would like to see happen, but if we haven't got the money for them we're just going to have to wait a bit longer to pay for it."

(You can listen again to this interview for the next few days here. This clip is about 1h 9minutes in. My response is about 2h 9mins in)

I suspect most of the Lib Dems in Cambridgeshire have never spoken to a Whittlesey resident about Kings Dyke, otherwise they would not have suggested it was something that we "would like to see happen" - it is something residents have been asking for for over forty years and has become a necessity because of the increased time that the Wash Road is flooded and because of the ever increasing levels of freight using the railway (the amount of rail traffic is scheduled to increase by about 155% because of the Felixtowe to Nuneaton Rail upgrade).

I said on my blog that we would need to review the capital programme after we have had a decision from Government about the City Deal. However, my preferred approach would not be an immediate "slash and burn" and we are already looking at different, more imaginative, ways of dealing with our problems:

1. Schools capital. By far the biggest part of our capital spend is on providing new school places to cope with the growing population in Cambridgeshire. Currently the majority of funding for this comes from a combination of Government and developer contributions, but 20% comes from Cambridgeshire County Council capital funding. Last week David Laws MP, the new schools Minister confirmed at a Local Government Association councillors' forum that Department for Education had done a deal with treasury that gave them funding up until 2021 for new school places, based on an assumption that local authorities would no longer have to contribute from their own pockets - in recognition of the fact that Councils are already financially strapped for cash. The County Council are currently exploring this with the Government. If it proves accurate it will have a huge positive impact on our proposed capital spend profile. On top of that I have also asked for some work to be done to look at other local authorities who have driven down the cost of providing new school places (I need to stress that this is not me saying we should not provide necessary school places - but that we need to ensure we are not paying too much for them).

2. Cost of borrowing. Currently, when Councils borrow money they do so through the Public Works Loan Board at preferential rates. However, there is a view that local authorities could work together to find other ways of borrowing money that are potentially even cheaper (without increasing the level of risk). We are currently working with a number of other local government partners to look at how this might work.

3. Driving down cost. As we move forward with capital projects, one of the things the County Council does is "value engineering". Current estimates in the capital programme are, largely, based on comparisons with the cost of similar projects elsewhere. As we move closer and start doing more in depth analysis, we often find ways of reducing costs by taking out unnecessary work. One of the things we must do is be more robust in this and ensure we are not delivering work that is of a higher spec than necessary.

4. Government funding. Increasingly we are seeing signs that Government understand the negative impact that poor infrastructure has on economic growth. That is why they have agreed to sort out the A14 and it is their justification for HS2. The more ready we are to deliver improvements to our infrastructure (i.e. the better worked up our business case), the more we are likely to find ways of attracting funding from outside of the County Council to drive down costs of borrowing. As an example, Kings Dyke Bridge has an estimated cost, at the moment, of £15m, much of that is coming from sources other than the County Council.

The reality is that the combination of those things could have a massive positive effect on our capital programme without resorting to the "slash and burn" approach that the County Lib Dems seem to be proposing.

There is another factor here. Increasingly as a Council we are fincially incentivised to deliver economic growth (moving from grant funding to allowing us to retain business rates is one way that has happened). The initial feasibility report into Kings Dyke Crossing showed (without even factoring in the impact of the rail upgrade and the increased flood risk mentioned above) "a bridge to replace and close the existing King’s Dyke level crossing offers very good (high to very high) value for money and would be a financially worthwhile scheme". I am not sure that sort of analysis justifies the scheme as simply a "like".

I would make the same case about the Ely southern bypass. We are, quite rightly, putting a huge amount of effort into the City Deal - which is about working with local partners and Government to drive the unique and powerful economy of the Greater Cambridge area forwards; that economy does not deliver enough because it is constrained by poor transport infrastructure. One thing we must also try to do is expand that unique Cambridge economy further - to increase its spread. The Alconbury Weald Enterprise Zone, alongside the A14 upgrade, gives us the potential to spread that economy to Huntingdonshire (and potentially Peterborough), the Ely southern bypass gives us the opportunity to spread it to East Cambridgeshire. Not only will the County and District Councils benefit from that financially, it will also open up a whole new range of employment opportunities to residents to other areas like Fenland, Peterborough (and indeed beyond).

That sort of thinking around economic growth is important. They are things that we need to make happen - because they are right financially and because, of course, we don't just serve ourselves as a County Council, but serve the people of Cambridgeshire. It is true that we sometimes have to make tough decisions, and it is true that we may have to make some around our capital programme (if we cannot find other ways of driving down cost). But, there is far, far more work that needs to be done before we start taking a blinkered "slash and burn" approach.

It is worth saying that whilst the peer review did raise concerns about our capital programme, but it also said that Cambridgeshire County Council had a "strong and impressive ambition". Should we be reacting to one concern by eliminating the positives?

Meanwhile, please be assured there is no slow up in the move towards a Kings Dyke bridge or an Ely southern bypass.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Corporate Peer Challenge of Cambridgeshire County Council

Last week the County Council underwent what is known as a Corporate Peer Challenge. This is a process for reviewing the County Council using a team of Officers and Councillors from other local authorities and, in this case, someone from a major business.

On Friday they presented us with their findings in a presentation (which we will publish as soon as we can).We will also get a fuller report in a few weeks time.

There are a number of strands to the review that I thought I would raise here because they are worthy of public consumption - and I will try to be balanced.

But, it is clear that the overall findings of the review are very positive. The opening finding in the presentation is "Cambridgeshire CC is 'Premier League'". But explains that we are at a pivotal time where the big decisions need to be got right. This particularly revolves around finance where they believe there are serious risks because of the huge savings we have got to make. This is not helped by their view of the management structure which they don't just believe is lean, but 'very, very lean'. This statement will challenge those people that mistakenly claim we can make savings by slashing management (because the review shows that we have already done it) but that very, very lean structure becomes more important going forwards - which I will talk about later.

The aspect of the review that I was most pleased about was the way it recognised the loyalty, commitment and strong values of our staff - something I have always been very aware of. During the feedback session, one of the reviewers used the words "cracking" and "lively" to describe our staff team. The presentation also mentioned the need for myself and the Chief Executive to try and be more visible; This was not a criticism of what we do at the moment (both myself and the Chief Exec make a point of getting out and about) but rather a reflection of the need to up our game because of the increasingly tough financial decisions we face. I have already discussed this with the Chief Exec and we will be responding to this challenge and looking at ways we can engage more, to ensure sure we bring out the thoughts, views and ideas of our great staff as well as letting them know that we are very, very aware of how good they are.

One area of concern is that we may be over-ambitious, in particular around our capital programme (because of the impact on revenue in future years). The big concern is that if we don't get the City Deal that we are trying to agree with Government, our infrastructure ambitions could be difficult to achieve. This is the right challenge and an issue we have been aware for some time. When the City Deal is decided one way or another we have to review our capital programme. But people need to be aware that much of our capital programme is about delivering infrastructure that will help our economy - so if we have to reign in our ambitions because the Government don't give us the full City Deal, we will have to slow down infrastructure development and, in turn, slow down economic growth. This will have a negative impact on treasury receipts, so Government will be doing themselves-down as well as Cambridgeshire. But as a County Council we have to protect County Council finances.

In my view the biggest concern in the review is around the decision to move the Council's political structure from a cabinet to a committee system. Some of the concerns include; whether the real cost to the organisation have been measured; the fact that it will have an impact on our very important working with outside bodies; and that the committee structure is one that makes it difficult to make the tough decisions that are needed in the next few years. They also highlghted that members are not aware of the way the committee system will swing the balance of decision making and transfer power away from the Councillors that the voters have elected and towards the officers that the Council employs. When questioned further about these concerns the review team responded by saying that the council faces two options, to effectively grind to a halt under the committee system, or to significantly increase the level of delegation to officers.

There are some serious questions to be asked of the opposition groups in Cambridgeshire as a result of this aspect of the review. There is no doubt that the decision to move to a committee system was a power grab following the election earlier this year (which resulted in the Council going into no overall control). The Conservatives were very willing to commit to a wider review of Governance arrangements - but the power grab won. Let's be clear, the structure that got Cambridgeshire County Council into the 'Premier League' is the Cabinet system (and that is not just about the Cabinet itself but also the powerful role of scrutiny and opposition in holding Cabinet to account (which will be lost). The report also says that it is important that the Council gets the big decisions right in order to stay in the Premier League - be in no doubt that the move to a committee system is one such decision. The last time Cambridgeshire County Council had committees our Social Services Department were in crisis and subject to Government intervention. The question is - are you the electorate willing to risk Cambridgeshire's position in the Premier League because of a power grab, or would you have preferred a wider, more measured, review of governance as a result of a change in political balance?
Anyone outside of Cambridgeshire who talks with any authority about the committee system will tell you that one inevitable consequence is that decision making will slow down (in fact a senior Government Minister told me that we should add six weeks onto the timetable for any decision). That is not just a time issue - that six weeks will be added on because our officers are further tied up in processes; consider that alongside the comment in the review about our 'very very lean' management structure. The cost of the committee system is not just about how much Councillor time is involved, but also about unnecessarily tieing up our already stretched managers.

UPDATE: I have been told off this morning for not including the comments in the review about Leadership. So I will finish with a few comments about myself and Leadership in the report - which I am quite flattered by and I hope Mark Lloyd, our Chief Exec is too:

"Martin is the Leader for our time"

"The leader has a strong vision and commit ent to the future prosperity of the county"

"The leader is respected andseento have a consensual approach that is right for the time"

"Respect for the Chief Executive and his senior team by members, staff and partners"

"Mark is a real public service leader"

UPDATE 2: the presentation can be found here:

Monday 7 October 2013

Cabinet Meeting - Park and Ride Car Parks

We have a few quite important decisions to make at Cabinet tomorrow, some are likely to be quite difficult politically.  Probably the one that will get the most headlines (again!!) is the decision about whether to implement a £1 charge per car to the 5 park and ride sites surrounding Cambridge City.

This is something we would prefer not ot do, but we are increasingly driven by the financial situation that Cambridgeshire faces - which means as a result of National funding cuts we have £154m of savings to find over the coming years, despite having already saved £124m.

The discussion around Park and Ride charges is complex but, to me, it boils down to the need to answer a simple question.  Given the current financial situation is it right that Council Tax payers across the whole of Cambridgeshire - whether they use them or not - continue to subsidise the park and ride sites to the tune of £1m a year?

If the answer to that question is no then there is, of course, a question of whether parking charges are the right way to cover that gap.  There are a number of arguments around that, but the only practical alternative is to increase the charges Stagecoach pay to operate buses on the site; they would inevitably pass these additional costs on to their passengers.  This is where you get into the difficult debate about whether "all users" should pay, because there are a number of people who use the park and ride site but don't use the buses - should it be free for them and thus disproportionately increasing the cost to bus users?

The other consideration is, of course, the impact on traffic in the City centre.  Here is what the response to the scrutiny committee report says about parking costs

"Off-street parking is expensive with the cost of three hours’ parking at the main city centre car parks ranging from at least £3.80 to £6.50 and for a daily stay between £12.50 and £25"

Given the cost of parking in the City, I can't see that there will be an impact of a £1 charge on traffic levels.  This is borne out from the evidence from other cities that have implemented charges for park and ride parking where they have seen short term drops in use which then quickly catch up back to previous levels of use.

Of course, these are just my thoughts, it is possible that Cabinet will defer a decision or say no.  But if the answer is "no" the question is where else do we find the money from?

Thursday 3 October 2013

Development of Alconbury Weald

Its great to see the progress being made with the Enterprise Zone at Alconbury, with the new entrance and gatehouse being fully open for some time, and now the Incubator building rising out of the ground and expected to be open before Christmas.

I have a number of reasons to take a close interest in progress on the Alconbury development. As a Member of the Board of the LEP, I am keen to see the Enterprize Zone deliver high quality jobs and significant retained business rates income, which is central to the LEP's economic strategy and its future funding prospects.  I also worked on the Alconbury site at the beginning of my Civil Service career, so I have a sneaking interest because of that.

 As Leader of the County Council, I also see the huge role that Alconbury can play as part of the next wave of development for Cambridgeshire, providing space for the development of ideas that may emerge in our science parks but often end up being developed overseas, for high value manufacturing on a huge and flexible site, and being able to deliver over many decades thousands of new jobs and increased prosperity for residents not just in Huntingdonshire, but across the whole of Cambridgeshire and beyond.

And as a Local Member, I also want to ensure that Whittlesey sees its share of the spin-off benefits from Alconbury!

We also, of course, have a critical role in working with our colleagues in Hunts District Council on the planning application for the new commercial premises and homes that are being proposed for the Alconbury Weald site.

We must ensure that what comes forward in housing is accompanied by the appropriate provision for the people who will live there, with facilities like education and transport being in place and fit for purpose for residents, and so that the place augments the existing town of Huntingdon and works well with surrounding villages.

As ever, we will take our planning input very seriously. But, together with the Leader of the District Council, I am also keen that we move through the planning process as quickly as possible.

We won't shirk from ensuring that the development is of the highest quality, but we want to make sure that our debates with Urban and Civic as developers of the site are constructive, well managed, and dealt with without undue delay.

This is in all our interests, as Alconbury has the potential to be the most successful Enterprise Zone in the country.  It has fantastic transport connections, and is uniquely placed to make the most of the links to the burgeoning hi-tech economy of Cambridge to the east, and the manufacturing and engineering strengths in Peterborough to the north.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Facebook for the Technology Shy

This is another cut and paste - but well worth doing:

We (Cambridgeshire county Council) have been chosen as a pilot authority for a project designed to improve the quality of life for people who may have become isolated from family and friends. Volunteers would be invited to use a new piece of technology entitled 'Mindings' which has been labelled the 'Facebook for the technology shy!'
The purpose of Mindings is to enable older people, who may not have regular contact with family and friends to stay in touch with them through the simple use of a tablet computer to which people can send photos, reminders, text messages etc.
The older person just has to touch the tablet computer screen to indicate that they have received the message – there is no logging-on or other actual typing required. We have been selected - along with Central Bedfordshire Council - to trial the initial phase and we are now looking for up to 20 local older people to take part in the project.
Those of us who have embraced social media and technology know how it helps us keep in touch with family and friends and this is an attempt to share those benefits with some older people who may be frightened by a computer or smartphone.
To get involved people need to be:

  • At least 70 years of age
  • Able to understand and sign a simple consent form
  • Have lived in their current home for more than six months
  • Have family or friends who they see less than once a fortnight
  • Have friends and family who can send regular updates, message etc, depending on how the user wants to utilise Mindings
  • Be willing to share their experience of the systems with the Mindings Research Team"
If you know somebody who fits the above criteria please get in touch with me and I'll forward it on.

Monday 30 September 2013


This is a bit of a cut and paste, but it's important. Stoptober starts tomorrow. Most people who smoke want to stop - so why not join forces with loads of like minded people and try tomorrow:

What is Stoptober?

Stoptober is the 28-day national stop smoking challenge which is set to return following its launch in October 2012when more than a quarter of a million people nationallypledged to make a quit attempt, and over 160,000 successfully managed to quit. In Cambridgeshire approximately 800 people attempted to quit smoking during Stoptober last year, almost 200 more compared to October the previousyear. Evidence shows that stopping smoking for 28 days means that an individual is five times more likely to stop for good. Stoptober provides the opportunity for local stop smoking advice to be supported by a high-profile nationwide advertising campaign and aims to generate motivation and intention, making quitting more of a norm and to encourage people to collectively quit and support each other with their quit attempts. Stoptober is being supported by a number of nationwide organisations, companies and charities. Stoptober is calling upon people across the country to get behind the campaign and encourage as many smokers as possible to attempt to go smokefree for 28-days, from 1 October. In its second year, Stoptober is expected to be bigger and better than last year.

Stop smoking services

More people want to quit than make a quit attempt, with 68% of smokers reporting they’d like to stop, compared with 38% actually making a quit attempt. Stop smoking services, like Camquit, can assist smokers to make a successful quit attempt. Those living, or working, in Cambridgeshire whowant to stop smoking can access intensive support and advice from a trained advisor at Cambridgeshire’s local stop smoking service, Camquit. Camquit stop smoking advisors can provide smokers contemplating quitting, or ready to make a quit attempt, with expert advice on how to stop together with discussions about the best options when it comes to stop smoking medicines. Camquit are a team of professional advisors who understand that quitting is different for everyone. Advisors can arrange Nicotine ReplacementTherapies at prescription only cost and for those who don’t pay prescriptions these are free. They have extended open hours, including weekends and evenings, and hold clinics right across the county. Smokers are followed up for at least four weeks following the quit date to help them through the most difficult period. Those who attend Camquit can expect friendly and non-judgmental support from their stop smoking advisor. The first session lasts around 20 minutes, then follow-up sessions of around ten minutes in each of the following weekly sessions. Smokers who are supported through their quit attempt are up to four times more likely to be successful than if they try on their own.

For advice, information, and support making a quit attemptCamquit, Cambridgeshire’s local stop smoking service can be contacted on: 0800 018 4304 or referrals can be made on our website

Smokers can register with Stoptober at

Friday 27 September 2013

Life can be fun. Grafham Water Centre

I have had quite a difficult week this week, focussing on trying to get across a very difficult message about the tough situation Cambridgeshire is in financially because of massive reductions in Government grant.

So it was great to have a bit of light relief today when I visited the Grafham Water Centre to see the work they are doing providing outdoor and adventurous activities for young people. I have always loved what Grafham do, largely because I know how much good having fun in the outdoors can do for children's development. What surprised me today was how much they have moved forwards since my last visit; I particularly enjoyed hearing about the outreach work they are doing with schools.

Today, I think the plan was to put me on a RIB and motor around watching the children sail across the lake. I appreciate their flexibility, because I suggested I would much rather sail across with them so they found an instructor who sailed across the lake with me, they then (bravely) allowed me to sail back on my own. (I am no sailor, but it really wasn't that difficult).

Before today I never could have imagined you could put two 10 year old completely novice sailors in a boat with a minimum of training and get them to sail across a lake and back with very few problems; it provided a perfect example of the benefits children get from being stretched (of course they had back up from the instructors who were around all the time in the RIB's). I enjoyed the sailing today, but I got the most satisfaction from seeing the nervous faces (and tears in one case) of the children heading one way across the lake turn into smiles and laughter coming back. They then had even more fun having a massive splash-about in the water when they got back to the Centre.

I must finish by saying thanks to everyone at the Grafham Water Centre for looking after me this morning and, indeed, the amazing children who laughed their way through the whole morning while I was there (and of course their teachers).
Every Briton knows that it was really us that won the America's cup this week. It seemed a perfect time for me to spend a few hours pretending I was Ben Ainsley.
Photos to follow.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

No across the board salary reduction

I had a meeting with some of my cabinet colleagues at Cambridgeshire County Council today where we talked about the recent pay and conditions consultation that has been carried out to help meet the millions of pounds of savings we need to make. I was pleased to see that Cabinet colleagues who had been looking at the consultation results, talking to staff and investigating what happens in other Councils were in agreement. They felt we were right to look at these options but also, like me, agreed it was right not to look further at an across the board pay reduction

There will be an ongoing debate, including using arenas like Group Leaders to ensure that other political groups have their say, but I believe the final recommendations are highly unlikely to include a recommendation to reduce pay.

Cabinet have always wanted this to be a proper consultation and whilst, in light of the savings we have got to make next year, it was right to test the appetite for this measure, it is clear that staff do not want it, it is also clear that some other councils who have implemented similar measures have suffered recruitment and retention difficulties which affect their ability to deliver services (think of the implications, for example, on our ability to protect vulnerable children if we find staff leaving at a faster rate than we would like or if we were struggling to recruit).

I signalled this latter issue as a concern at the last Full Council meeting. It was also included in an email that I sent to the Chief Executive of the County Council on 29th August where I said:

" Another issue was raised with us about terms and conditions.  That is, to a degree, inevitable given that the consultation is happening.  One aspect raised was about the need for understanding of the wider circumstances that are affecting incomes, such as benefits cuts etc. etc. – things that are outside of our gift, but need to be considered.  It is interesting that this was linked to recruitment and retention – which you know was one of my concerns and correlates directly with what I was told by a leader of another authority a few days ago, who had been through a similar process, implemented a 2% cut and is now suffering a R&R problem with social workers as a result.  His advice was clear – don’t do it."

I have highlighted this email because it demonstrates that the Cabinet view is entirely based around the interests of the employees of the County Council who are our greatest asset, and because it shows that the line of thinking predates recent political spats about the behaviour of certain Councillors.

The financial pressures facing the Council mean that we still must deliver very significant budget savings so the review of other terms and conditions is on-going -as is consideration of other ways of saving money put forward by staff as part of the consultation.
To me, this is what politics should be about. Having a mature conversation and debate which sets out the problems and look at all the evidence before picking the best course ahead. These are difficult times and we have many difficult and challenging decisions to make to meet the tough savings required. but we aim to do this in a common sense way.
I hope that when staff see all of the formal recommendations around pay and conditions they will recognise that we have made active use of the consultation in coming to a conclusion.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Staff Pay Awards

The details of the pay awards for Cambridgeshire County Council employees have now been announced.  The agreement is for a 1% pay rise for the majority of staff, 0.8% for the middle management band and 0.5% for the most senior staff. 
It is interesting to see the conflicting pressures and views on this – our two biggest opposition political groups called for 0% for the top two tiers (albeit the Lib Dem member of the committee  voted at the committee just for 0% for the most senior management - more of which later) whereas the Unions called for 1% across the board – that suggests to me that the recommendation that Cabinet put to the Appointments and Remuneration Committee was probably about right.

I found the Liberal Democrat stance on this extraordinary.  The proposed pay rise went through our group leaders before the recommendation went forwards.  To be fair to the UKIP group, they were consistently opposed to a rise in the top two tiers – and they were the only group to oppose at group leaders.
So having nodded the change through at group leaders, imagine my surprise when all of a sudden the Lib Dems chose to release details of a confidential paper to the media and, in my view, blatantly lied. 

Their press release said this:
High-earning Cambridgeshire County Council officers could get a pay increase just weeks after the rest of the staff were told they face a pay cut and even possible redundancy.”

The Lib Dems know (they know because they tried to spin this before and had the truth pointed out to them) that if the reduction in salaries we are consulting on is implemented it will apply to absolutely all staff – so if the proposed reduction was combined with the pay rise which is 1% for the lower tier, 0.8% for the middle tier and 0.5% for the top tier, senior staff would face a bigger reduction (2.5%) than more junior staff (3%).  The Lib Dems have since spun this to talk about specific figures – but the basic truth is clear, if we went forwards with a salary reduction, senior staff would be hit hardest both in percentage and numerical terms (although it is worth pointing out for accuracy that the reduction would start next April whereas all the agreed pay rises will be backdated to April). 
Does this matter? It does for two reasons:
1. The electorate deserve to be told the truth; I want opposing groups to challenge when they think we have got it wrong and to put forward alternative arguments – but if they have to bend and twist the truth like this, then it helps no-one.  
2.  This particular deceit has the potential to drive a wedge between senior staff and the employees of the Council.  We have amazing staff who are facing tough times, they do not deserve to be lied to, things are tough enough financially in Cambridgeshire without this.
Next year there are elections taking place in Cambridge and in some of our Districts.  Ask yourselves this question – do you want to elect someone to power who is willing to mislead you in the way the Lib Dems have here?

The issue about salary reductions is being sold by some almost as a done deal; it is absolutely not the case.  The proposal is part of a wider review of pay and conditions which encompasses a number of options, we decided to include a possible 3% across the board reduction in salaries in light of the fact that we have £33m of savings to find for FY2014/2015; it was right to ask the question – but I made it clear at the last full council meeting that we had to be very mindful of the impact of such decisions on staff morale and on recruitment and retention - so we will listen to the voice of staff.  I have also consulted with a few other Council Leaders who have already made decisions to reduce salaries so I can get their views on the impact on their staff.  I, and my Cabinet colleagues, are waiting to see the responses from the consultation before we make any recommendations (and of course we will consult other political groups as well).  I am pretty sure that any final outcome will have a number of significant tweaks to what was consulted on, because I am determined that this should be a proper consultation and not tokenism.

For information, here are a few basic facts about salaries in Cambridgeshire:

1.    Government indicated to Council’s that it should challenge the ratio between the lowest paid council employees and the highest and if it was higher than 1:20 then it should do something about this.  Cambridgeshire’s ratio is well below this at 1:15.
2.    Cambridgeshire’s workforce has been reducing over recent years and this has included the senior leadership team; for example from our CLT team over the last 2 years we have seen a reduction in the number of Executive and Service Directors, which has resulted in 15% less capacity and equivalent reduction in cost of over £300,000 per annum.     
3.    The pay increases announced were not just concerned with Directors and senior managers, in fact these were the minor number - it included over 1,000 of our employees that deliver services to our communities on a daily basis – senior social workers, children’s centre managers, engineers, education advisers; senior professionals/managers whose average salary is 36k.
A final point, we could of course have given absolutely nothing to our most senior managers, and some would say they can afford it.  However – we do have a duty to ensure that we keep the best staff in Cambridgeshire.  The Leader of the UKIP group has challenged whether there is a real issue here – in fact he said on the radio:

“At the end of the day it’s a captured market. So these executives move from council to council, constantly raising the costs, and claiming that they’d earn twice the money if they were out in the public sector.”
The accuracy of that comment will unravel in the next few weeks.  But the truth is that our Strategic Directors are responsible for budgets that can run into hundreds of millions of pounds, they run services that keep children and vulnerable adults safe and are responsible for leveraging millions of pounds into the County Council’s coffers – so I want the best people in Cambridgeshire because 2nd best means less safe people and less money coming in from outside sources; our view was that the differential pay rise sends a message that we recognise the value and the great work that all of our staff do from the top to the bottom of the organisation whilst providing some balance.

UPDATE:   The news was released late last week that one of our Strategic Directors is moving to take up a Directorship in Royal Mail - this means that the last two Directors to leave the employ of Cambridgeshire County Council have not moved from "council to council" - which is the claim made by UKIP.

Which Cambridgeshire Councillor said this about Cambridge..

"Cambridge doesn’t sell anything that’s bulky. People come here, people whisper in their ears, they tell them stories, they tell them facts, they tell them fairytales. They teach them to speak English. Off they go again, no packaging, no transport, nothing, they do it…and if they forget it, it is their fault they’re stupid"

(think purple)

Friday 30 August 2013

End of Guided Busway Dispute

I hosted a press briefing today to advise the press of the details of the final settlement that signals the end of the dispute between the County Council and BAM Nuttall over the costs of constructing the guided busway. It wasn't easy because the details of the settlement are complex, but all of the media that were there, without exception were challenging but fair.

The position as we entered mediation was that the contracted price for the busway was £84m. The terms of the contract meant that as BAM overspent we were obliged to pay them up to £117m and then claim it back. BAM's legal claim on the council was for an additional £43m on top of that £117m.

We have always been adamant about the robustness of our claim and we entered into the mediation attempt and the subsequent negotiations on that basis. The result of which is that in the final settlement, far from paying BAM money they will be refunding us £33m.

Of course things are not quite as straightforward as that and the truth is (and even the facts underneath this are complex) we have occurred an additional £26m of costs to get to that position. But we have moved from a potential cost of £160m back to £84m as a result. The biggest part of that additional cost is £9.8m in legal fees. A huge amount of money which are, in effect, costs incurred because we have had to make a robust case to move to a position where we recouped £33m instead of spending an additional £43m.

Another huge cost is £9m in interest charges because of the additional money we had to pay BAM under the terms of the contract and which we are recouping. This concerns me hugely - I have announced that we will carry out a review into the guided bus project and I want this aspect of the contract to feature in the review.

It is worth saying at this point that all but £8m of this cost has been included in our budget forecasts and that this £8m will be paid for over 25 years through the Councils capital programme - so this is nothing like the financial armageddon that the Lib Dems have forecast.

I want to pre-empt the criticism I am going to make of the Lib Dem stance on the guided bus in this blog by complimenting all group leaders at the County Council for the way they have maintained confidentiality as the details of the agreement emerged and were shared with them. Not respecting that confidentiality could have harmed our case and cost us money and for that reason I genuinely appreciate their conduct. It is worth saying that when the settlement was put to them, there was no dissension to the idea that we should settle.

However, last year the Liberal Democrats were making real hay out of selling the worst possible scenario to residents of Cambridgeshire - this press release is one example of the way they continuously sold the worst possible scenario to the Council Tax payer, paying no credence to the clear message that we were confident of our position, nor of the evidence we presented at numerous cabinet meetings that showed where fault lay. Here are some questions that residents must ask of the Lib Dems:

  • By continuously selling the worst case scenario to residents, do you think they gave succour to BAM Nuttall in what I believe was their intention to get Cambridgeshire to blink first in the legal argument?
  • By taking the overly pessimistic line - one that was never going to come to fruition - do you think there is a likelihood that they cost Cambridgeshire more in the overall settlement, certainly in the process of arguing a robust legal case against BAM Nuttall?

It is for others to come to their own conclusions, but I am clear that the Liberal Democrat position served them well in terms of the publicity it gained, but served the people of Cambridgeshire badly in terms of giving creedence to BAM's negotiating position - which I think the final settlement makes clear was never credible.

The final settlement confirms that whilst the financial agreements in the contract and the performance of the contractor has cost us, the reality is that the final situation is not even close to the worst case scenario the Lib Dems tried to sell to Cambridgeshire voters.

Let me make it plain though. I am not happy with where we are today - I would have preferred something that was much more straightforward in terms of meeting the agreed cost and tomescales that were in the contract, I am convinced this is the right point at which to settle. To not have done so would have meant a court case with an uncertain outcome and even more money in the hands of lawyers. I do not think that would have been in anyone's interests - even though there is a chance we would have got an even better settlement.

From this point on we need to start focussing on the guided bus and how it performs. I have seen words floated around on comments pages on other websites such as "white elephant"; the reality is anything but that. The guided busway carries 28% more passengers than was projected. Before the busway was developed 1m passengers a year were travelling on the related bus routes. Today that is 3m passengers a year using the guided bus, with high satisfaction rates amongst users.

Further to that, for those arguing that this should have been a rail project, there is some challenging reflection too. The one day travelcard formthe guided bus that I bought from St Ives last Tuesday cost me £6. Travelling from Whittlesea to Cambridge (which I accept is further) by train costs me three times as much as that. Do you think you would have got a train service for that price? Let alone one that offered electricity charging facilities to the extent the guided bus does, free wifi and something much, much closer to a door to door service? I am typing this blog on a train that offers nothing like the same facilities.

My position as Leader of the Council is that we all need to reflect on this whole process - and we will have a review which helps this - but we also now need to move on and build on what, from an operational perspective, has so far been a really successful project.

If you read this article, please ost and challenge. The debate and the comments will be interesting.

Thursday 29 August 2013

Whittlesey Neighbourhood Police Forum

I received this by email from our PCSO team in Whittlesey this week:

"On Wednesday 11th September 2013 officers will be on the Market Place in Whittlesey from noon talking to the public to discuss our priorities for the next 6 months regarding concerns you have.

At 6pm we will be available in the council office on Grosvenor Rd, Whittlesey until 7pm and then from 7.30pm in the council meeting itself.

You can also raise your concerns before hand by either attending the Police Station in Whittlesey - open Monday Wednesday Friday 9am-5pm or at "


Wednesday 28 August 2013

Syria - My Thoughts

I don't very often comment on National issues, but every now and again I throw in my tuppence worth.  Syria is a huge issue and has many similarities to the Iraq issue, and the war in Iraq was one of the reasons I chose to leave my employment in the MoD - largely because of my objection to being lied to by Tony Blair.

As the debate in parliament happens today I hope there are a few things that MPs consider:

1.  Tony Blair is saying that if we do nothing we will be encouraging extremism.  It is a stupid argument - all the evidence from elsewhere does show that extremism could be a consequence of taking action. Blair has learned nothing from his past failures.

2.  It would be wrong to talk about "red lines" in relation to the use of chemical weapons and then to do nothing. That would show weakness and encourage further such scandals.

3.   We need to learn from the dodgy dossier.  There must be a genuine evidence based approach to any response.  We must be certain that chemical weapons were used.  One of the impacts of Blair's lies in the run up to the Iraq War is that the public no longer have confidence in Government decisions to go to war (part of the reason why it was right to recall parliament).

4.  Whilst I believe we can be confident of the UN producing an accurate report on the use of chemical weapons, the world has to accept that in terms of authorising further action, the personal interests of Russia and China mean that there will never be a resolution to support military action - this has nothing to do with the huge issues of right and wrong, it is to do with self-interest.  It is for this reason that serious questions have to be asked of the UN.

5.  The middle east is not like the UK, it is awash with tribalism and border issues - getting rid of one regime and replacing it with another will open up previous historic problems - it is this that extremists exploit.

6.  Isn't now a time for the Arab League to step up to the mark?  They know the issues, it is Arabs who are being harmed and killed by the actions of the Syrian Government and we are supposed to have friends in the Arab League that we can influence.

There are all sorts of conflicting arguments in here - but that is the nature of the beast.  This is not a simple cut and dried issue and MPs must get under that complexity as they debate today.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Who do you want running the show?

Here is a question. How do you want your council to be run? Do you want the people you elect in control or the officers that the Council employs? Most people tell me they want the politicians in control.


In May the opposition in Cambridgrshire forced a decision on the County Council to move to a committee system of governance rather than the current Cabinet structure. With the cabinet structure there are clear lines of political responsibility with the relevant Cabinet member being accountable for the areas for which they have responsibility,


As part of the work looking at committee structures I discovered today that with committees you are not, legally, allowed to delegate decision making to councillors, not even the chairman of a committee.


With the committee structure you have to define the levels of delegations to officers, but you are not allowed to offer any sort of delegation to the people you elect. Is that the sort of system you want?


My own view is that there is a real danger of the new system clouding responsibility and accountability. When you consider the huge safeguarding issues the County Council are responsible for through its statutory roles with vulnerable children and adults, confused accountability is the last thing we need.


We are really going to have to look at this closely.