How the Councils work … or, who to complain to

This article was published in 1996, in Newsletter 7.

It’s a puzzle to many people just who does what on our streets, and it’s getting more complicated. So here’s a potted guide. But before we start: in general if you want to complain about a cycling matter, if it is something straightforward like a pothole or faulty street light or traffic signal there is a phone number: Cambridge 717751. There is also a fax: Cambridge 717735. They rely quite a lot on the public to find out about faults. For anything more complicated, nearly always the first place to start is with a letter to the Director of Transportation at Cambridgeshire County Council, Shire Hall, Castle Hill, Cambridge CB3 0AP.

OK, now he is an officer. He’s an employee of the County Council and is in charge of a large department, covering transport matters across Cambridgeshire. At the moment, he is Mike Sharpe, who does cycle himself, by the way. However, he is leaving in the autumn when the department merges with the one which covers land use and environment. The Transportation Department has one group of people who deal with policy matters, and another group who organise building things. However, part of this function has recently been privatised, so a consultancy firm now does some of this. Then there’s road safety people as well – oh and they also handle waste disposal, so if you fall off your bike into a waste tip, you only have to talk to the one department!

There’s three other threads to the process. First, in theory, officers don’t actually decide what to do. That’s the councillors’ job. They’re elected every four years in the County (next elections due May 1997, when Peterborough will drop out of Cambridgeshire, which may change the political complexion). The Transport Services Committee makes most of the relevant decisions. But in practice, officers hold a lot of sway, making recommendations to committee, and in some cases they do take very important decisions on their own, from our point of view, when overall policy lets them.

In Cambridge (including Histon and Fulbourn) matters are more complicated. This is because there is a committee called the Cambridge Traffic Management Joint Subcommittee (“Joint-Sub” to those in the know) which consists of both City and County councillors. Many traffic decisions about Cambridge are taken here (generally the detailed plans, things which really do affect cyclists), though in theory (and in past lives in practice) can be overruled by the Transport Service Committee, which has to deal with the policy framework. (There’s also separate committees to deal with public transport etc., but we need not worry about those here).

Thirdly Cambridge City has what is known as an “Agency Agreement” with the County, which means that the City is subcontracted to actually build stuff. In practice this also means some decision making, especially in design of facilities, and publication of legal traffic orders. The City also deals directly with parking, and with planning applications and most off-road issues (like paths across the commons). They also put some money into the pot to provide cycle facilities, as more recently has South Cambridgeshire. Again, in theory, officers do and councillors decide (but elections are three years in every four here).

So while the County has most of the responsibility and policy-making powers, the City and South Cambs. have a significant influence in what happens. And while they all talk to each other quite a lot (a lot more than say ten years ago), they each have their own “culture” and way of working which means different methods of approaching them to get what we want.

Dave Earl