Method in the madness

This article was published in 1997, in Newsletter 15.

A while back, I gave an introduction to how the bureaucracy we are involved with works. Since then, we’ve got lots of new members who won’t have seen that, and the system has changed. So here’s another potted guide to who decides what and who to complain to.

Since the Cycling Campaign was formed, there have been lots of changes. Firstly we have a new Government. Then, power has changed hands at the County Council. And there are several new committees taking decisions.

The key players are national Government, Cambridgeshire County Council, and the district councils, the two that affect us being Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire.

The County Council is our transport authority. That means it is responsible for all decisions to do with transport, and is the focus of our attention. In practice, however, it delegates some decisions and much of the work. It is also limited by the amount of money it can squeeze out of Government, and it does not have authority over trunk roads (the ones with green signs, principally the A10, A11 and A14 in our area), or motorways (the M11). It also has no authority over public transport, which is now run entirely privately, but it can subsidise bus passes and non-profitable services/ which it does to a small extent.

The Council consists of ‘members’ (most people would call them ‘councillors’) and ‘officers’. Members – councillors – are not paid and are elected by you and me to represent us, one per electoral division (for example, ‘Abbey’ covers Cambridge south of the river around Newmarket Road, and is represented by Labour Party member Colin Shaw). There are over 70 County Councillors at the moment, but this will go down when Peterborough separates from Cambridgeshire, to have only a single tier of local government, next year; in the meantime, everyone is in a state of flux. Councillors take the decisions. To do so they sit on committees, which each typically meet three or four times a year.

Officers are paid employees of the Council, whose job is to act on the decisions taken by Members. However, in practice they do much more than that because the day-to-day running of the Council is in their hands. They also make recommendations to councillors, which are highly influential (though not always respected, as we have seen in the case of the Royal Cambridge Hotel junction recently). Officers are organised into departments which typically mirror the committee structures. The department which concerns us most is the Environment and Transport Department This was formed a couple of years ago when Transport was merged with another department, and is headed by Brian Smith.

The Environment and Transport Committee caught up with its department and met for the first time in June this year under its new chair, Tory councillor Alec Stenner. Committee membership is organised in proportion to the political colour of the council as a whole. Because the Conservatives had the majority at the last election in May this year (county elections are held every four years), the Environment and Transport Committee consists of 16 members, of whom 9 are Conservative and the remainder divided among Labour and Liberal Democrats (this will change when Peterborough leaves). Only two of these councillors (both Labour, Timothy O’Dell for East Chesterton, and the aforementioned Colin Shaw) represent Cambridge divisions. The transport spokespeople for Labour and the Liberal Democrats are councillors David Kelleway (who represents Fulbourn, Teversham and Fen Ditton) and Donald Adey (from Ely) respectively.

Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire District also have members and officers. They are involved in a number of ways. Firstly, there has been much greater co-operation between the councils in the past few years, and this has manifested itself in new committees to which the County Environment and Transport Committee delegates detailed decisions once policy and money matters have been decided. There are two ‘Area’ committees, one for each district, where councillors from district and county are represented, and a new one which I don’t know much about yet, a joint committee of all three councils (which has met only once so far).

The District Councils also sometimes pay money to the County Council, for example to enhance what can be done for cycling facilities. For example, South Cambridgeshire has contributed £100 000 this year towards cycle tracks between villages in its area, and Cambridge City is paying a big chunk of the cost of the Barton Road scheme.

On cycling, the three councils also co-operate on the Cycling Liaison group, a committee of officers and interest groups, on which the Cycling Campaign (and the Cyclists’ Touring Club) are represented (and which we were instrumental in setting up).

The grunt work is actually done in a number of ways.

  • The County Council does some design work in-house and buys some of it from a commercial consultancy, W S Atkins. It is much harder to get plans and details when Atkins (or private developers) are involved.
  • The County has what is called an Agency Agreement with the City Council, which means much of the work on the ground, advertising legal notices and so on for the City area (plus Fulbourn and Histon), is done by the City Council on the County’s behalf, for a fee.
  • Work involving trunk roads involves the Highways Agency, a quango to which operational decisions on trunk roads are delegated by the Government.

National government has also merged its departments of Environment and Transport, to come up with the D.E.T.R, the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. Civil servants (paid officers) work both in London and in ‘GOER’, the Government Office for the Eastern Region (in Histon), which co-ordinates bids for funding among other things. The Department is headed by cabinet ministers – John Prescott MP in charge, Gavin Strang MP on Transport, and Glenda Jackson MP and Baroness Hayman (House of Lords) as junior ministers. Our own local Members of Parliament have relatively little influence other than their status – their opinions carry weight with the Councils and government. They are Anne Campbell for Cambridge City (Labour), and Andrew Lansley for South Cambridgeshire and James Paice for South East Cambridgeshire (both Conservative).

Who to write to

We’re going to make some cards soon with phone numbers and addresses for particular complaints and comments. But for nearly everything, the place to write in the first instance is

Brian Smith
Director of Environment & Transport
Cambridgeshire County Council
Castle Court, Shire Hall
Castle Hill

You can report defects, such as pot holes, by phone (Cambridge 717766) but we recommend you write because letters are logged, acknowledged and require a response within a fixed time, whereas phone calls are notorious for being ignored. You can also e-mail – but this seems to have the same status as a phone call. Or fax on 717735, which most of the time is treated like a letter, but not always.

Dave Earl