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.