Bureaucratic tendrils

This article was published in 2005, in Newsletter 58.

One of the biggest influences on the cycling environment is the way local government operates. This has seen some significant changes since we last wrote about it in the Newsletter, so we thought it was time to revisit the subject. One feature of local government, and public services in general, seems to be that they are repeatedly reorganised, so I am sure this will not be the last time.

Recent major changes to affect us are:

  • the move to cabinet-style decision making in Cambridge City, South Cambridgeshire District and Cambridgeshire County councils;
  • a recent withdrawal of the agency agreement that involved Cambridge City Council (and Huntingdonshire and Fenland to follow) in doing some of the design and implementation work on behalf of the County Council;
  • quango involvement in the development process.

The biggest confusion for most people is knowing who does what among the several layers of local government. One of the reasons for ending agency agreements is to reduce some of that confusion – in principle the County Council will now do everything related to local transport.

This means that some staff have changed employer and others have left, or may even have to re-apply for what is essentially the same job. No doubt some of the work will still be contracted out by the County Council, but to the private sector (we should not forget that the County Council is Conservative controlled). Consulting firm Atkins (formerly WS Atkins) already does a lot of work for the County Council. This might make it more difficult for us to liaise with them over details of design and implementation.

Area committees and cabinets

While the practical work will now be done elsewhere, the City Council does still have a say in what happens in Cambridge. The Cambridge Environment and Transport Area Joint Committee (that mouthful abbreviated to AJC) brings together councillors from both the City and County councils. Because of the Liberal Democrat control of the City Council and the mostly city-based County Councillors on the committee, it has a Lib Dem majority. However, the County Council can overrule it. This doesn’t happen often, but a recent case in point was local demand for two-way cycling in Trinity Street, where the County Council would not accept the Area Committee’s decision. South Cambridgeshire and the other districts have equivalent committees.

This joint representation is a survivor from the old method of decision-making. Most local government, including both Cambridge City and Cambridgeshire County, now operates a cabinet system. This means a single councillor taking responsibility for a particular subject area. Shona Johnstone, councillor for Over, is responsible for environment and transport at the County Council. While these cabinet members must still justify their decisions to, so-called, scrutiny committees and ultimately, to the electorate, it does put a lot of power into the hands of one person and limits the transparency of the decision making process. I believe it also puts more power into the hands of the unelected officers of the Council.

For each cabinet member there is a whole department, or directorate, within the council. The Director of Environment and Transport at Cambridgeshire County Council is Brian Smith. In practice, his job is mostly running and representing what is a large organisation.

His deputy for Highways is Matthew Lugg, and among the various groups he manages, is the Cambridge Projects team, responsible for much of the transport and traffic infrastructure and changes within the city. Inevitably this is where much of our interaction with the County Council occurs. Richard Preston is the head of this small team.

While the County Council decides on county-wide development (e.g., the decision in principle to build a new town near Longstanton, called Northstowe), currently through a document called the Structure Plan, the district councils operate the planning system itself. One big problem for cyclists is the variable quality in the way the planning system links up with transport decisions. At the strategic level, there is usually good intent but vagueness; at the individual site level, there can be serious problems. For example, for most road schemes, plans are published and comments invited. While the response may not always be what we would like, we are formally asked and our opinions are at least recorded. But for changes related to planning applications, schemes often just happen, out of the blue. For example, the proliferation of traffic lights on Newmarket Road arises out of the neighbouring retail developments. The current impasse over access to the Grand Arcade cycle park on Corn Exchange Street is fundamentally a failure of the planning and transport systems to link up properly.

Shadowy undemocratic organisations

As well as the two layers of council, there are a number of quangos which have a great deal of influence on our area. Of particular note is Cambridgeshire Horizons (www.cambridgeshirehorizons.co.uk), a high-powered independent body responsible for making the structure plan happen. Supervising the development at Northstowe will be one of its main jobs. Members appear to be keen to present themselves in business-speak: they are a ‘local delivery vehicle’ and they will ‘ensure delivery by identifying pragmatic and timely solutions to overcome barriers to implementation.’ That a number of people in senior roles at our councils now work for this organisation – Peter Studdert, formerly planning director at the City Council, and John Onslow, previously an assistant director in Environment and Transport at the County – underlines its importance, yet it is hardly known.

The East of England Regional Assembly brings together representatives from all the East Anglian councils, as well as lots of business interests plus a token environmentalist. It is currently asking for comments on an East of England Plan, yet another huge document which could have a major impact on everyone’s lives, but that hardly anyone will read. Oddly, they’ve just rejected their own document, saying the government won’t put enough money into transport developments to support the almost half a million new homes the plan envisages. But in many ways, their document is so strategic that its policies are inconsequential. For example, on Walking and Cycling (why do officialdom persist in always lumping these together?):

T12: Walking and cycling will be encouraged and provision for both will be improved. Strategic access to and within the Regional Interchange Centres (see policy T2) will integrate with pedestrian and cycle provision at the local level. Support will be given to the completion (by 2010) of the National Cycle Network in the region and linking it with local cycling networks to form continuous routes.

Does this actually add anything to what anyone else is saying? Will it change anything? At least it doesn’t say ‘cycling will be discouraged…’, but equally it doesn’t say how, when or where the encouragement will happen or what form it will take, except that ‘the promotion of walking and cycling is largely a matter for local planning.’

They do cautiously support ‘area wide road user charging’, but in such a way that anyone could find reasons to ignore it.

The East of England Development Agency is another body that influences our environment. Its role is to develop a regional economic strategy, and it is nearly all about money-related expansion: one of their goals, for example, is ‘making the most from the development of international gateways and national and regional transport corridors.’ Quite how the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘expansion’ go together when supporting growth at Stansted Airport is a puzzle. This agency is composed of councillors from all over East Anglia, business interests and others.

What do these regional and high-level bodies have to do with cycling? In one sense, everything; the vast amount of traffic generated by a new town half the size of Cambridge on our doorstep will have a huge impact on our ability to cycle and on how road space is allocated. In another sense, nothing. And that is the problem – cycling is rather beneath their notice. In a city where 25% of journeys to work are by bike, how could it come about that the new route to be built between the old town and the new was proposed without a proper surface for cycling? How does that square with the Regional Assembly’s proposed policy? What is the point to these platitudes if they have no effect?

The constant reorganisation of the bodies, departments, people and policies that affect our environment, the thousands upon thousands of pages of policies and plans, makes it almost impossible for anyone who has a life outside the closed club which is local government to understand or influence the process.

David Earl