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.

UKIP If you want to - we'll get on with the job.

We had organised a briefing session today involving myself, two officers (including a strategic director) to give an update to three Wisbech County Councillors  about progress on the Wisbech 2020 vision (these would be the UKIP Councillors that were elected last May).  Officer time went in to preparing for the meeting, which of course is about what is one of the most important projects that we are involved in - in fact I suspect Wisbech residents would say it is THE most important project we are involved in.

We had apologies from one of them shortly before the meeting and the other two simply did not turn up.  I find this really frustrating, it is discourteous to our officers and, even more importantly, it is discourteous to the residents they are pretending to represent.

Here is a question for Wisbech residents - is this what you are expecting from your Councillors?  I can say with some certainty that this would NOT have happened with their predecessors.

I have told officers to get on with what needs to be done.

Thursday 8 August 2013


Over the next few weeks I am trying to get out and about around the County visiting events and staff teams. This is not helped by the fact that my hand is in plaster and so I am not able to drive - but we are making it work.

Yesterday I had a great afternoon visiting a few of our County Farms in Fenland.  I learned a huge amount from it, about diversification, employment of foreign labour and about how farming is changing.  I was also encouraged by the enthusiasm being shown by the tenant farmers.

After that I went to a fun day that was put on at Wisbech Adventure Playground, a project I had a huge amount of involvement in when it was first delivered.  The scheme was not without its critics at the start - but I am incredibly pleased that we seem to have worked our way beyond that and I am very proud of the role I played in making that playground happen.  The day they had yesterday is probably best summed up using the words of one of the staff there:

Thank you for making the time to visit the playground yesterday during our "Playday" celebrations, and for your supportive comments. Thanks also for quality assuring our longest slide. We got a great photo and will forward that on to you once he has downloaded it! 

We estimate that around 500+ people from Waterlees and beyond attended yesterday and great fun was had by all according to our comments book.

In these difficult economic times I thought you might be interested to know the cost of the day, over and above the standard staffed play session that we would have run anyway during the holidays. The main expense was the collection of inflatables at £650. Funding donated by the Town Council (£200) and Community House (£300) contributed towards this. In addition, we made £75 in commission from the Ice Cream van, £160 from our tombola and an amount yet to be counted from Community House's barbeque stall, which will pay for the inflatables and return some money to the kitty of our "Friends Of" fundraising group to support future activities and contribute towards equipment etc. 

All the other stands and activities were provided free of charge with input from key partners such as our Community Development colleagues Wendy Lansdown & Tammy Liu (SPICE project), the Wisbech South & Oasis Children's centres and FDC's Community House. Furthermore I estimate there must have been 10-15 adult and young person volunteers helping throughout the day: conservatively a total of 105 volunteer hours!

I will publish the photo when I get it.