How the system works

This article was published in 2001, in Newsletter 37.

Did you notice that there was an election in June? No, not that one: the other one, the one for Cambridgeshire County Council. For us cyclists, the County Council probably has more influence than most organisations. Yet, the City Council is probably more prominent among city residents and, for many, it’s just ‘the Council’ that does things. There’s an intricate web of power and control that affects our lives, in general and as cyclists. To be effective, we need to understand how The System works. That’s what this article is about.

And the system is changing, at all levels.

Image as described adjacent
Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, who doesn’t drive. But does he ride a bike?

National Government sets the scene, of course, constrained by European Union directives. In practice that means the newly reformulated Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DLTR). Environment has been hived off the former department. The Home Office also influences our world through the police and enforcement. The head of the new DLTR is Stephen Byers, MP for North Tyneside. Famously, he was recently derided in the tabloids for not being able to drive. Good for him, I say. Reporting to him is Minister for Transport John Spellar, MP for Warley near Birmingham.

The DLTR allocates money. Money lubricates the system, and much more of it has been promised to local government, and to our County Council in particular, as part of the ten-year transport plan. This is decided partly through the regional office in Bedford.

The County Council is responsible for transport issues and traffic management in our area. The election did not markedly change the political makeup of the council: it is still Conservative controlled. This is not surprising, since predominantly Labour Peterborough, unlike Cambridge, is no longer part of the county and governs itself, leaving a largely rural county. There is a County Council election only every four years. (Cambridge City Council rotates a third of its members at elections every year in the three years between).

Cabinetted

While control has not changed, the way the County is administered has. The Government said it had to change and offered three choices. The County opted for ‘cabinet’ style administration, like the Government. Cambridge City Council is to change in much the same way in due course. This means the committees that used to make decisions have been abolished. A single ‘cabinet member’ for each subject has replaced them. They are supposed to be held to account by ‘scrutiny committees’, though how these will work in practice remains to be seen. The leader of the County Council is Keith Walters, councillor for Sawtry.

Environment and Transport cabinet member is Shona Johnstone, who represents Over and chaired the Environment and Transport Committee before its abolition. Much as Government has shadow ministers, so there will also be party spokespeople. For Environment and Transport, Terry Bear, Liberal Democrat councillor for Linton takes over from Donald Adey who lost his Ely seat in the election. Labour spokesperson is Colin Shaw who represents Cambridge’s Abbey ward, and takes over from David Kelleway who did not stand for re-election in Fulbourn.

Despite these changes, the committee which takes many of the day-to-day traffic management decisions for our area remains in existence. The Cambridge Environment and Transport Area Committee is a joint committee of the City and County Councils. Like the City Council, it is Liberal Democrat controlled, but it has to operate in the policy framework set for it by the County Council.

Council Officers – permanent employees – also have a lot of influence. At the County Council, the Environment and Transport Department is headed by Brian Smith. In theory, councillors (now, specifically, cabinet members) are supposed to set the policy and take decisions. In practice, however, most of the decision making is rubber stamping work done and proposed by the transport professionals.

Trees-worth of consultations

Sometimes this is informed by consultation. We are deluged with consultations, more than we can handle much of the time. Often, small points we make will be incorporated. But the larger the scheme or policy, the more we have to make a fuss for anything to come of what we say. For some reason we still do not understand, schemes that come about through payments from developers are usually not circulated for comment, sometimes with dreadful results. Generally, the less well-formed a proposal is, the more likely what we say will carry some weight.

To complicate matters further, the County Council employs the City Council as its ‘agents’ within Cambridge (and for historical reasons Fulbourn and Histon). This means that some of the work that is the responsibility of the County is actually done by City engineers. This includes some of the consultations, so despite the County responsibility for transport, we often end up talking to people in the City Council. As a result, knowing who the right person to speak to can be tricky sometimes.

Of course, transport departments aren’t the only influence on us. Planning is also a big factor. This is also a shared responsibility between the City and County Councils. The County’s role here is more strategic. It sets the framework for development in the County through the so-called Structure Plan. Actually, a cynic might say the Government tells it what to do and it just follows orders.

The City and the other district councils then decide on the nature of development in their areas. This is the Local Plan. It is reviewed every few years, and that process is just starting now. Again, however, much of the content is pre-determined by what the County Council says in the Structure Plan.

Development control is the third strand. The City Council is in charge of this in Cambridge, and South Cambridgeshire District Council around it. This is how planning applications for big and small schemes alike are decided. These can have big effects on cycling in several ways. Firstly, of course, a development can change traffic patterns. Also, however, the Council has powers to negotiate payments from developers to reduce the impact of the new construction. These can fund road improvements among other things. Planning conditions can also be imposed – for example that a development will provide cycle parking to a certain standard.

So, it is a complicated system. Yet within it, the changes that make us scream with frustration and occasionally joy are concentrated in not very many people. So if one of these officers or councillors has a particular prejudice about how things should be done, it can make a really big difference to how we get around our city and surrounding area.

David Earl