Monday 24 March 2014

The Inevitable Necessary Clarification

As you would expect, the opposition in Cambridgeshire have sought to misinform and distract attention away from my real reasons for standing down as Leader.  It is that sort of behaviour that, after all, is the root cause of my decision.

1.  I am standing down because I don't believe committees work.  That is not true.  Yes I believe that Cabinet systems are less bureaucratic and lead to better decision making.  But it is not true that there is only one system of cabinet - there are many - some of which engage opposition and make them feel involved.  Conservatives offered a complete review of Governance last May - taking a view that the whole Council took a "what is best for Cambridgeshire" approach rather than leaping to a single conclusion within one month of an election with 39 brand new Councillors. Unfortunately, a more blinkered approach was forced upon us.

I do believe committees "can" work.  I don't think they work as well, but at their best they "can" work.  My concern is that the attitude of the two major opposition groups in the Council, unless they change, will not work.  Good decisions are not made when political groups believe that the most important thing is how they can use a decision to raise their National profile, or what is going to look good on their next newsletter.  I am afraid that "is" where the UKIP and Lib Dem Groups are in Cambridgeshire.  That is why committees are going to struggle at the County Council.

2.  I was forced out by my group. Anyone that says this does so without knowledge and, I would contend, is lieing.  The Conservative group were 100% supportive of me - they have been magnificent over the last year.   They have maintained confidentiality, had great discussions where we have needed them, individual members have respected decisions when they didn't agree with them and have stood full square behind me - and latterly, they have also supported my view that we should have more free votes at Council meetings.  There was absolutely no pressure for me to go from anyone, it was my decision and mine alone.

Let me give you the real reasons in as few words as possible.  I have loved serving our County over the last year.  90% of it has been great - I have absolutely detested the 10%.  But I don't like pettiness and I don't buy the sort of party first, people second mentality that prevails in politics - especially in the two above named opposition groups at the County. 

It was clear to me going forwards I would have to spend more and more of my time on that 10% - I suspect it would rise up to 50%.  That is not for me - and it is bad for Cambridgeshire.  So I have made the right decision for me and, I hope, sent a message to others about the need for a different approach.  What they do next is their call, but be minded of what I have said.

I expected this sort of response, maybe I should have done something to anticipate it, it is a typical bit of politics.  What I am now doing is mulling over a way of dealing with sort of stuff going forwards, so that I can expose it in a way that voters trust.

Saturday 22 March 2014

The examples you are after

After a night of reflection, I thought I would provide the colour I said I would about my decision to stand down as Leader in May. I could trawl back over the last year and bring back loads of examples, but in truth I don't have to look too far in the past to find enough examples to make my point.

Full Council agenda next week. I could go on and on about what we are discussing next week. But here are three examples from just one meeting:

  • Flying the LGBT flag. I realise this is a serious issue for some, and let me be plain, if I ever thought Cambridgeshire was discriminating in any sense against anyone, I would be horrified and angry - in fact the motion to Full Council does highlight the fact that we have a good story to tell in this area. I was asked a question about flying the rainbow flag at the last Full Council meeting, I said we would discuss it at Group Leaders (a meeting of all the Leaders of all the political groups). The current Cambridgeshire policy is to match the flag flying policy of National Government, this was explained to Group Leaders and the majority accepted it and agreed that we should not fly the rainbow flag. Now, I find we have a motion at Full Council to discuss it. So, Cambridgeshire County Council will have discussed the issue of flying a flag three times. Let me make it plain, I agree with the council policy on flags, once you deviate away from a policy that has structure behind it you open up all sorts of doors and complications. But, if Group Leaders had said they wanted to fly the flag, I would not have tried to revisit the decision at the next Full Council, I would have accepted it and moved on. Under a committee system, people are going to have decisions go against them - if people continuously find ways to revisit them, we will grind to a halt. It is this sort of behaviour that forced the Labour Government to introduce Cabinet systems in the first place (one of their better decisions) and we are seeing elements of that sort of practice in Cambridgeshire already.
  • Filming at Full Council. We have a motion next week discussing whether to do live webcasts of our Full Council meetings. The motion is correct, in that we could do this at low cost; not no cost, but low cost. All the evidence from elsewhere shows that when Councils webcast very, very few people watch it. There are plenty of informal mechanisms in the Council to raise and discuss this issue, but instead, we have to use one of the most time consuming, most costly meetings of the Council to discuss it. Bearing in mind a Full Council ties up the time of every single elected member, every single one of our most senior managers and many other officers - this discussion, which the evidence suggests there is little public interest about (note "little" not "none" is going to cost you the tax payer thousands and thousands of pounds to debate, whatever the outcome. Be assured, the reason this is being debated in this way is not about you the resident, it is about a few Councillors being able to put a leaflet through a door saying "look what we've done!" - a bit of populism that will cost you thousands. Full Council meetings need to discuss the biggest issues of the Council, let's leave the other issues for elsewhere.
  • Addenbrookes motion. We have a motion next week to debate supporting the move of Papworth Hospital to Addenbrookes. Sounds really important, and it is. However, it is not difficult within political structures to find out where the land lies Nationally on such issues. I did it with a few contacts at the Department of Health. Guess what I found out? It is fairly certain this decision has already been made, but is not yet signed off by Ministers. I am pretty sure the Lib Dems also know this, so when and if this motion gets support (which I suspect it will) and the National decision is signed off, the lovely Lib Dems will be able to put a lovely leaflet through your door saying "look what we did!". This motion is not about what's best for you, it is about the Lib Dems being opportunistic ahead of the elections in May.

I could go on about next week. To be fair, there are two important and very relevant motions for debate, one of which is about the Wisbech to March rail line, a motion I encouraged so we could genuinely make a statement about this issue (actually the motion was written well before the recent rail summit). But that allows me to make an important point. We have four UKIP County Councillors from Wisbech, guess how many of them have contacted me, expressed an interest or asked a question about this, one of the biggest issues facing their town? Not one.

UKIP. UKIP, as a new party, had the potential to offer something different to Cambridgeshire County Council. They haven't. They are a party that offer absolutely everything that people hate about politics, but they somehow manage to take it to a whole new level. There are loads and loads of examples I could use. But here are two.

Peter Lagoda. Last month, Councillor Peter Lagoda, a Wisbech UKIP Councillor pleaded guilty to benefit fraud. He pleaded guilty to "making a representation known to be false". What is worse is that he knew he was under investigation when he stood for election (he may even have been charged at that point, but I'm not sure) - ask yourselves a question, as a voter, if you had known he was under investigation for this, would you have voted for him? Now, some of you will say "yes I still would have" but many wouldn't - that latter group were deceived.

How did UKIP react to his guilty plea? You would have thought they would get rid of him instantly, in fact if you look at the National reaction, you would have thought they had - here is what they said in the National Press:

'If he has pleaded guilty to a criminal offence, the party will revoke his membership. He is currently suspended from the party and sitting as an independent"

That statement is not correct. He was, at that point, suspended from the UKIP group, technically that means that he is still listed as belonging to UKIP - he does not sit as an independent. That status has not changed since his guilty plea. You can check, he is still listed as a UKIP Councillor on the website.

In fact, what UKIP did was use the fact that he pleaded guilty to a charge that was lesser than the one he was originally charged with, to spin a story that this was all some sort of mistake. Let me repeat, he pleaded guilty to "making a representation known to be false".

Why does this matter? Well, apart from the moral issue, as a councillor who is suspended from his group, rather than as an indepndent, UKIP get more people on our committees. The number of people they have on committees is more important to UKIP than getting rid of a fraudster. (That probably explains why this guy is currently the UKIP Group Leader at Hunts District Council).

Wisbech. Wisbech is an important Town to the County Council. It is a lovely Town, with huge potential, but some big issues. I fight hard for it because I have a passion about deprivation. We started to get some good momentum in the previous council with the 2020 vision and we are still progressing on those issues, over the last year we have also made serious progress on the A47 upgrade and on Wisbech to March rail. Previously, we got challenge and great representation from our Wisbech Councillors. The current group are virtually invisible to me (to be fair Cllr Gillick is sometimes visible, but for all the wrong reasons).

A few months ago, I upset the Wisbech UKIP Councillors by highlighting the fact that I had invited them to a meeting to discuss Wisbech 2020 and they didn't turn up. They denied they were invited - I have checked the email trail, they were invited and they accepted.

You would have thought at that point, their group Leader would have had a chat and told them to up their game. So, what has changed? Absolutely nothing. I have still, despite the many things we are trying to do in the Town, yet to receive a single meaningful comment, question or challenge from a UKIP member about a Wisbech issue.

The truth is the only thing UKIP are interested in is having these people in their group as voting fodder. UKIP are happy to have people performing poorly as Councillors, as long as they turn up and vote at the right time. An important Town is suffering as a result.

I want to stress, these examples don't stand in isolation, they are a smattering of the sorts of pratice that has become increasingly prevalent since last May; I have found it incredibly frustrating. I don't mind a bit of party politicking at the right time, but the overall function of a County Councillor has got to be to provide strategic direction and drive as well as to represent their communities stongly and effectively.

Under a committee system, it is true that every Councillor is going to have more of an involvement in decision-making (I still contend that the quality of the decisions is more important than having the ability to stick your hand up more often, but I accept the change is going to happen). If we get bogged down in petty decisions that are all about party polliticking, if we get to a point where decisions are revisited numerous times because a minority of people don't like it, or we have political groups who are more obsessed with having numbers on committees than doing the right thing or are content for their Councillors to be voting fodder, as a Leader I would not be able to work to my strengths and lead that strategic vision. More importantly, if things don't change, the Council is going to have a serious problem. This is the reason I decided to stand down.

There may be others who are more able to succeed in that sort of environment (in fact there are definitely some in my group), I hope highlighting this issue might also force a few of the opposition group leaders to revisit their approach - or for their groups to make the necessary changes.

I have no doubt that the immediate reaction from those that I have discussed here will be to deny these issues. Remember what I have said - these are not the only reasons, they are a few examples that help paint the overall picture.

Friday 21 March 2014

Standing Down as Leader of Cambs County Council

Today I announced today that I am standing down as Leader of Cambs County Council in May. I will blog some colour to this over the weekend, but here is the press release I sent out today.

The reasons stated on here are the genuine reasons - in the next few days I suspect the targets of my reasons will create all sorts of speculation in order to deflect from the truth.

"County Councillor Martin Curtis has decided to step down as Leader of the Council at the Annual Meeting in May.

He took the leadership role promising not to become embroiled in petty politics and to do the best for the people of Cambridgeshire.

Almost a year later he and the Conservative Group, working with others have delivered billions of pounds of investment into the County – including a City Deal, A14 upgrade, new rail and transport measures as well as playing a part in delivering on a 30 year wait for fairer funding for our schools.

But with the change to a new committee system in May he believes the evidence of the last year and, especially of recent months, suggests that the Council will become embroiled in petty politics at the expense of the huge strategic issues the Council is succeeding with. He also fears that the new system could lose focus on protecting vulnerable Cambridgeshire residents from harm.

Over the last year the Council has achieved:

· An announcement about a City Deal which is a £1/2b investment in our County.
· Secured a deal for the A14 upgrade: a £1.5b investment.
· At long last, taken a huge step towards fairer funding for our schools, securing £20m extra.
· Planning permission for a major rail investment (Science Park Station).
· Support from the Transport Minister for the Wisbech to March rail line, a potential £40m scheme - he has not yet committed funding, but described it a "strategic priority".
· A superfast broadband project that continues to deliver on time and on budget, and is forecast to deliver improved coverage across the County.
· £128 million in savings over the last three years while protecting frontline services
· Continued progress on schemes like Kings Dyke Crossing and Ely Southern Bypass.
· Our first community hubs, working across Councils to save money.
· A Community Navigators scheme that is progressing to maturity and receiving widespread recognition for the work it is doing supporting older people.
· Settlement of the guided busway dispute - very challenging, but at a cost far, far lower than many predicted.
· An asset management approach to road maintenance which is reaching fruition.
· A multimillion pound refit for the College of West Anglia - delivering on a promise broken by the Labour Government.
· A £30m agri-tech investment in the belt between Cambridge and Norwich.
· Worked with AmeyCespa to bring the MBT plant back into full operation
· Working with our partners to deliver Stage 3 of the Tour de France which is the biggest annual sporting event in the world

He said: “This has been the hardest decision I have ever had to make. But I vowed to always do the best for the people of Cambridgeshire, I do not believe my skills rest in dealing with the continuous stream of dogma that is going to get into the way of the direction of this Council that the move to committees will bring. Evidence of the last few months has shown to me that this is where we are heading.

“Our Councillors need to be absolutely concentrating on the people of Cambridgeshire and the challenges they face. We need to be looking after the most vulnerable, making our roads work better and ensuring people have access to jobs.

“In the last year the Council has achieved billions of pounds of investment that directly benefit the people we serve. I am extremely proud of the massive strides we have taken in solving some of the major problems facing Cambridgeshire and our record stands for itself. But this is about to become bogged down by people more interested in grandstanding or focussing on minor issues that are better dealt with more informally than doing what is best.

“I fear that we are about to rush headlong into a Committee System that will be characterised by petty politics and infighting, with the needs of the people of Cambridgeshire coming a very poor last.

“It would be easy for me to carry on as Leader but I believe we are elected by the people for the people. I cannot, in all conscience, be part of that system and see the massive achievements we have made become lost in a sea of self-serving noise. I hope that by resigning I can make some of our opposition groups think twice about the lack of strategic focus they have shown over the last ten months and the damage that will do to a County Council with a £500m budget under the committee system.

“You only have to look at the agenda for the next full council meeting to see a glimpse of the future. I cannot be part of a system that is using its most important meetings to eat up time and money discussing video cameras and becoming embroiled in a third debate about flying flags while we have real deprivation and a job to do. The people of Cambridgeshire deserve better of their Council and Councillors and I do not want to watch the good work we have achieved be squandered by people who seem unable to deal with the big strategic issues like reform of social care or delivering an infrastructure that will drive economic growth.

“I cannot praise enough the support the Conservative group and the officers at the Council have given me over the last year, providing me respectively with selfless support and tireless work to deliver for Cambridgeshire. I will remain Leader until the annual meeting in May and remain a councillor, doing my best for the people of Cambridgeshire and Whittlesey. I will of course fully support the Conservative group and its new Leader.”


Wednesday 19 March 2014

City Deal - Thanks to all who have helped make it real

In the budget today, George Osborne announced the Government’s willingness to sign up to the Greater Cambridge City Deal and provide us with a £500m gainshare arrangement  Finally getting us within touching distance of a Deal that will deliver huge improvements.

I cannot stress what a game changer this will be for the entire County and also how complex the discussion that have got us here have been.

The majority of this money will be spent on transport projects and will start to deal with the infrastructure deficit around Greater Cambridge, helping to create thousands of new jobs and boosting the whole County’s economy.  I have made it a goal that the success should cascade well beyond the geographical boundaries of the work so that the benefits reach across the whole of the County and beyond.

This has been an absolute team effort to achieve this, especially at a time when there is little money around.

We have fought hard to argue the case that Cambridge and the surrounding County is vital to the continued economic recovery of the UK, we act as a magnet to world beating firms; our County competes on the world stage.  The deal is a recognition of us winning that argument and is testament to the hard work put in by everyone.

I would like to thank our partners Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council, The University of Cambridge and the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership and our MPs who have worked hard on our behalf in Westminster to argue the case for the City Deal.  I have spoken with many of them, especially Andrew Lansley, who have been lobbying behind the scenes for our communities.  I also want to thank the Conservative Cities Minister, Greg Clarke who has played a pivotal role in making this happen for Cambridgeshire – an excellent Minister doing an excellent job for our County.

Of course our staff at the County Council deserve huge credit too.

There is still some work to go before we sign up fully and, as with everything, the devil is in the detail.  But I am extremely optimistic that we will sign this very soon.