The prospects for the 2016 Cambridge City Council elections

It’s still more than six months until the next Cambridge local elections, but already the main local parties will be eagerly looking forward to the campaign, which, as ever, will throw up a number of fascinating contests. So here’s a look forward at the prospects for each of the 14 wards in Cambridge. But first, a disclaimer: since the elections earlier this year, I’ve re-joined the Liberal Democrats, and unlike last time, I’m planning to take an active part in the campaign. So you should bear in mind the possibility that the rest of this article might be a nefarious ploy designed to sow confusion amongst my friends in the Labour party. It isn’t, though – I’m still trying to be as objective as I can.

My more regular readers can probably recite this next paragraph from memory, but it’s worth a quick recap: Cambridge City Council has 42 councillors, with three representing each of 14 wards; councillors serve overlapping four-year terms. There are City Council elections each year for three years, electing one-third of the council at a time, with County Council elections in the fourth year. 2016 is the third year in the cycle, so the seats of the 14 City Councillors chosen in 2012 are up for election in May.

The coming elections will bring a distant echo of the 2004 all-ups, twelve years before. In that year, boundary changes meant elections were held for all 42 City Council seats. The top three candidates in each ward were elected for four, three, and two year terms respectively, to re-establish the pattern of overlapping terms – as shown on Colin Rosenstiel’s comprehensive Cambridge elections website:

Because we are now twelve years on, the seats won by the strongest candidates in 2004 are up for election again in May. Only three of these are still held by 2004 poll-toppers – Labour’s Rob Dryden in Cherry Hinton, and Lib Dems Sian Reid in Newnham and Catherine Smart in Romsey – but they will probably be particularly hard to dislodge, should they decide to stand again.

Labour currently have a fairly comfortable majority on the City Council, with a majority of six over all other parties combined:

However, the seats up for election in May were last contested in 2012, when the Lib Dems were suffering one of their worst periods of unpopularity nationally, following the formation of the coalition government and the broken pledge on tuition fees. In that year’s local elections, Labour won eight seats and the Lib Dems just four, with one each for the Conservatives and Independents. However, the Lib Dems recaptured Queen Edith’s from Labour in a 2014 by-election, so at the next elections they effectively have five seats to defend, and Labour seven. With the seats up for election shown as hollow blocks, the picture looks like this:

So could Labour lose control of the council this year? If they lost three of the seats they’re defending, they’d be down to exactly half the councillors, but would still keep control on the Mayor’s casting vote. It would take four Labour losses before the council was truly under no overall control. Is there any possibility of this happening? Let’s have a look at each of the seats. For each one, I’ve made a graph showing the local election results over the last decade (not including any by-elections).

Labour have been racking up large majorities in Abbey local elections in recent years. While the Greens held the seat a few years ago, their main focus will be elsewhere this time. Labour’s incumbent is Richard Johnson, who is Executive Councillor for Communities, as well as part of Daniel Zeichner’s casework team.

Once a Labour/Lib Dem marginal, Arbury has also seen some large Labour majorities in recent years, though recently these have been on a downward trend. This time it’s Labour’s Mike Todd-Jones who is up for re-election. As well as being a formidable campaign organiser, Mike has a large personal vote, as the peak in the graph when he was last elected in 2012 testifies. He’ll no doubt be hoping for another comfortable victory this time.

Castle is likely to provide one of the most interesting local contests at the next elections. The incumbent is Cambridge political veteran John Hipkin, who was elected on a landslide in 2012. As well has his City Council seat, he also holds the County Council seat which he won in 2013. Last year his wife Marie-Louise Holland joined him on the City Council, but only by a whisker; this year there was no Independent candidate, and the Lib Dems took the seat. John has achieved an almost Mugabe-like political longevity (while not, I hasten to add, resembling the Zimbabwean leader in other respects) – if he wins again this year, he would complete his term around the time of his 85th birthday. However the Lib Dems will be working hard to deny him the opportunity.

Another Cambridge political veteran is Robert Dryden, first elected in 1995, and currently Mayor of Cambridge, whose seat is up for re-election in Cherry Hinton in May. Rob is one of the surviving 2004 poll-toppers and as you can see from the graph, won in 2012 with a mountainous 73% of the vote. Should he stand again (and I have no reason to suppose he won’t) Cherry Hinton will probably provide Labour’s strongest result in Cambridge at the next elections.

Coleridge has been a safe Labour seat for some years, after a period when the Conservatives were in contention. However, last year, Labour’s majority fell considerably – partly due to the General Election on the same day, but also because of increasing Lib Dem activity in the ward. The seat up this time is held by Labour’s George Owers, currently Executive Councillor for Finance and Resources – a particularly challenging position in the current financial climate.

East Chesterton has swung back and forth between Labour and the Lib Dems in recent years. After a pummelling in 2012, the Lib Dems won quite comfortably in 2013, only to lose by just ten votes last year. In May this year with the main focus on the General Election, Labour’s popular candidate Gerri Bird held her seat comfortably, whilst Daniel Zeichner outpolled Julian Huppert in East Chesterton by a margin of just three votes. Next year the seat held by Labour’s Margery Abbott is up for election. It’s likely that both Labour and the Lib Dems will be putting a lot of effort into winning it.

King’s Hedges has had a fairly quiet time of it electorally in recent years, as Lib Dem support faded after the 2010 General Election, allowing Labour to regain the upper hand. The ward supplied UKIP’s strongest support locally in the General Election, but, this being Cambridge, that isn’t saying very much. Independent candidate Ian Tyes has been plugging away for some years but has yet to make a breakthrough. Labour’s incumbent is Nigel Gawthrope, who will have high hopes of being re-elected if he stands again.

Earlier this year Market produced the closest three-way election result in Cambridge political history, with the Greens snatching the seat by just seven votes from Labour, who in turn were six votes ahead of the Lib Dems. The Greens will certainly be focusing their efforts on Market again next year, and have already selected their candidate, Stuart Tuckwood. The Lib Dem incumbent is Tim Bick, leader of the Lib Dem group on the City Council, and chair of the Greater Cambridge City Deal Joint Assembly. A tight three-way contest seems likely.

Despite their tribulations nationally, the Lib Dems have managed to hang on to all their Newnham seats in recent years, and indeed haven’t lost an election in the ward since 1996. However, the days when Lib Dem candidates regularly won over 50% of the vote in Newnham are long gone. Labour have been pressing them hard in recent years, and the Green party has been more active too. The incumbent up for election this time is Sian Reid, former leader of the City Council, and runner-up to Julian Huppert in the last contest to select a Lib Dem candidate for Cambridge MP.

Petersfield is Labour’s heartland in Cambridge, with a large number of party members and a generally strong showing in local elections. While the Lib Dems did win a couple of seats towards the end of the Blair/Brown era, Labour have now retaken them, evicting the last Lib Dem councillor, Sarah Brown, in 2014. This time it’s Labour’s Richard Robertson whose seat is up for election.

After years of Lib Dem dominance, Queen Edith’s provided a shock win for Labour in 2012 as Sue Birtles won the seat from third place. However, when she resigned in 2014, Lib Dem Viki Sanders recaptured the seat for the yellow team, and will be up for re-election in May. While Conservative Andy Bower has been putting some consistent work into the ward, it’s likely that Queen Edith’s will remain a relatively safe Lib Dem seat.

Romsey will provide a particularly interesting contest this year as the apparently irresistible force of Labour’s revitalised campaign team meets the seemingly immovable object of Catherine Smart. The veteran Lib Dem councillor has been fighting elections in Romsey since 1993 and winning them since 1998. Cllr Smart has a substantial personal vote and will be a formidable opponent for the similarly formidable Labour team, who have retaken the other three Romsey seats from the Lib Dems. The Greens have also been stepping up their activity in Romsey, which was one of their three target council seats in Cambridge this year. The Cambridge Socialists, however, seem unlikely to stand again, at least while Jeremy Corbyn is leading the Labour Party nationally – a factor that can only benefit Labour.

The Trumpington seat up this year is held by Shapour Meftah, one of only two Conservatives to win a Cambridge local election in the last decade (the other being Chris Howell in Coleridge). It certainly represents one of the Conservatives’ best hopes of electoral success this year, though the Lib Dems will also have high hopes of a gain. The stronger-than-usual Labour showing last year was largely due to the General Election campaign, in an area that usually sees relatively little effort from Labour.

Finally, West Chesterton is likely to be another close Lib Dem/Labour contest, with Lib Dem Mike Pitt’s seat being up for election. In the last two years the Lib Dems have held off Labour by just 19 and 78 votes, and it seems likely that Labour’s well-known campaigner Mike Sargeant will make a ninth attempt to win the seat. Another close result seems likely.

So, given all that, how secure can Labour feel about their prospects of holding on to control of Cambridge City Council? As shown above, it would take a net loss of four Labour seats to deprive them of effective control. Based on last year’s results, their four most vulnerable seats numerically are East Chesterton (which the Lib Dems need a 5.6% swing to win), Arbury (6%), Coleridge (6.7%), and King’s Hedges (9.2%). The Lib Dems will be hoping to make gains in Castle and Trumpington, from the Independents and Conservatives respectively, but this will do nothing to reduce Labour’s majority. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems face a stiff fight in at least four of the five seats they are defending. As well as the raw numbers, of course, other factors include whether or not the incumbent councillor is re-standing (which we won’t know for certain until April), and if they are, what sort of reputation they have in their ward.

Nationally, the transformed political situation will certainly have some effect on the local elections, though it’s hard to say exactly what. The Lib Dems have been emphatically relieved of the burdens of office, and Labour has elected their most left-wing leader for a very long time. My instinct is that while Jeremy Corbyn will make Labour less electable nationally, he may well boost their chances in Cambridge local elections. Demographically Cambridge is a young city, and polls suggest Corbyn’s appeal is stronger with younger voters. There’s also the factor that Cambridge local elections, with their traditionally low turnout of around 30%, are all about motivating people to vote. Corbyn may well help Labour with this. Time will tell.

The 2016 City Council elections are the last for two years, as the County Council elections come round on the electoral cycle in 2017. This means if Labour do retain control this time, then (barring defections or by-elections) they will be secure in office until 2018. By that time we will have had the EU referendum, and the political situation may well have been transformed all over again.

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August Bank Holiday weather in Cambridge

Looking at the grey, drizzly weather outside, you might be forgiven for thinking that we’re once again experiencing a typical August bank holiday, when instead of wandering cheerily around in the sunshine enjoying our beautiful city (and dodging the punt touts), the people of Cambridge are instead forced to sit at home making graphs to put in their blog posts. But is this really normal August bank holiday weather, or is it just our old friend confirmation bias tutting to itself and muttering “Typical!” under its breath? Thanks to the Cambridge Weather Station, which has been faithfully recording Cambridge meteorological events for more than twenty years now, we can check the data. So here’s a look at what sort of weather we’ve actually had on the August bank holiday in recent years:

This graph shows the number of millimetres of rain per day for August (blue), September (red) and the August bank holiday (green), for the last few years. I’ve had to miss out a few years – 2000, 2001 and 2008 – when the weather station wasn’t working properly for the relevant period. But you can still see the overall picture fairly clearly: most of the time the bank holiday is dry or nearly dry, with just the occasional washout. Before last year, the previous four August bank holidays totalled just 1.2mm of rainfall between them. So the chances are that we’ll do better next year. As you can see from this Met Office map, Cambridge is in one of the driest parts of the country:

So we can at least hope for a bit of reversion to the mean next year.

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My contribution to the Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre process review

Cambridgeshire County Council has launched a review of its processes following the collapse of the Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre project earlier this year. Here’s my contribution:

Dear Cllr Shellens,

I am the blogger who published the article on Friday 5 June that revealed Mr Perrin’s disqualification from being a director. I subsequently spoke at the Highways and Community Infrastructure meeting on 26 June. I thought I would send you some notes about the sequence of events that led to the publication of my article, and some comments on the process. I am happy for this contribution to be published online.

As you know, on Tuesday 2nd June the H&CI committee voted by 7 votes to 6 to proceed with the Kora project. This was immediately followed by an effort to gather the 24 signatures required to call in the decision to Full Council, with a deadline of 5pm on the following Tuesday, 9th June. At the time it was uncertain whether the necessary number of signatures would be reached, and indeed only 26 signatures were gathered by the deadline, though the call-in was rendered moot by subsequent events. With this background, then, I spent some time on the evening of Thursday 4th June researching the Kora project. I was partly motivated by wanting to help the call-in signature-gathering effort, and partly by wanting to have something interesting to write about on my blog.

My starting point was the details of the 37 meetings between County Council officers and Kora that had been revealed a few days earlier in response to Paul Lythgoe’s Freedom of Information request (FOI 5101). Although the minutes redacted the names of the Kora staff involved, it only took a couple of Google searches to find out that the “RP” who appeared frequently in the minutes was Roger Perrin, listed as “Global Managing Director Regus Kora” on this LinkedIn web page:

The same web page gave Mr Perrin’s previous career history, including a nine-year period with Start Developments. Further searches soon turned up an article ( from the Cambridge News in 2009. This described an “enterprise hub” called Start Cambridge being launched by Mr Perrin, which seemed to have similarities to the proposed Kora project. A natural next question was what had happened to it, since it no longer seemed to be in operation.

At this point I turned to the Companies House website, to see what I could find out. I was also looking for any connection between any of Mr Perrin’s companies and anyone at the Council, which might help to explain why the Council had worked so exclusively with this one organisation. I didn’t find any evidence of any improper relationship of that sort, but I did find plenty of other things.

Companies House is currently going through the process of making company data freely available. On its existing site, there is a charge of £1 for downloading documents. While this is of course not prohibitive, it does make it more difficult to do wide-ranging search and analysis when you have to pay a pound to access each search result. Fortunately, there is already a beta version of the new site ( with lots of company information freely available. Using this, I found out a lot more about Mr Perrin’s past record as a company director, which is a complex one. In summary, Mr Perrin has been a director of a number of companies with “Start” in their names, some of which had been liquidated owing significant amounts of money to creditors. For example, here is a “Statement of Affairs” document listing the creditors of Start Operations Limited:

At this point I thought I had enough material for a blog article, saying that Kora’s director’s previous enterprise hub project had gone bust, which was clearly of relevance to the proposed CLEC project. However, to have maximum impact on the call-in process before the Tuesday deadline, I thought it would be a good idea to get wider coverage, so I contacted Jon Vale of the Cambridge News by email. This was at about 7pm on Thursday 4th June – Jon was covering a South Cambs District Council meeting at the time. Shortly afterwards, I thought to enter Mr Perrin’s name in the Companies House Disqualified Directors search, and found that he had been disqualified for a period of 8 years starting in 2011. I sent Jon a further email with this. There was then a good deal of back-and-forth over the next day as the News reviewed the basis for the story and decided whether or not to run it, and sought comments from the Council and Kora. I sent Jon a draft version of my article, and reviewed his story before we both published simultaneously at 7pm on Friday 5th June.

That’s basically a summary of my involvement in the sequence of events up to the publication of my article. Now for a couple of comments.

Firstly, the investigation I did really wasn’t very difficult or complicated. I went from the FOI 5101 minutes to Mr Perrin, from Mr Perrin to Start Cambridge, and from Start Cambridge to Companies House to find out what had happened to it. Council officers have stated that their standard due diligence process covered Regus Kora but not its representatives. They must have known that the CLEC project would be controversial and would attract public scrutiny. They should have prepared for that by doing at least some of the sort of scrutiny that members of the Cambridgeshire public would inevitably do. The information that killed the project was openly available with just a few basic web searches. The Council has to do a better job of preparing its projects for public scrutiny. Doing so can only improve them.

Secondly, freedom of information has been a key ingredient of this whole story. Paul Lythgoe’s FOI request gave me the starting point for my investigation, and the Companies House open data was vital in reaching its conclusion. In contrast, the Council kept the CLEC project away from the public gaze for more than two years, with 37 meetings taking place with Kora without even Cambridge councillors, let alone the wider public, knowing anything about them. Then when the project was exposed to public view, it rapidly collapsed, primarily thanks to the use of open data. As officers noted, legally there was no impediment to proceeding with the project; but as councillors of all parties wisely recognised, politically it had become untenable. This does not mean that the Council should fear open data, because it has killed this project. Rather, the Council should embrace it, because it makes projects strong enough to survive public scrutiny, and helps to win vital public trust. While there will always be a need for some information to be confidential, the secrecy in which most of the CLEC project was conducted meant that a great deal of effort was needlessly wasted.

Finally, I’d like to convey my best wishes to you and your committee for the difficult job you have to do in conducting this review. I hope your conclusions will help the Council improve the way it meets the many challenges it faces.

Yours sincerely,

Phil Rodgers

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Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre process review

Following the collapse of the Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre project earlier this year, Cambridge County Council has launched a review of the process that led to this situation. The review is being led by councillor Mike Shellens, Chairman of the Audit and Accounts Committee. He is asking members of the public who believe they have relevant information to email it to the Council for consideration.

It seems that the period for sending in comments began six days ago, though the first I heard about it was earlier today (Sunday 9th August) in an email forwarded from a library campaigner – as far as I can see there is no mention that this review is seeking input from the public anywhere on the County Council’s website. However, as there is still a week of the consultation period still to go, I thought I would publish the email here so that members of the public with relevant information can respond. Here’s what the email says:

Enterprise centre process review

As part of the Council’s commitment to on-going improvement and scrutiny of itself, it is undertaking a review of the process that the organisation followed when recently considering the proposal to establish an Enterprise Centre as part of Cambridge Central Library (known as the CLEC). The Council is no longer pursuing this proposal.

The terms of reference for this retrospective review are:

That the Council’s Audit and Accounts Committee:

  • undertake a review of the process by which the CLEC proposals emerged and were developed and to make recommendations on how that process could be improved;
  • prepare a protocol, recognising the need to raise additional income, for dealing with new commercial proposals covering matters to include scoping of proposals to be considered, engagement with members and dealing with confidential information;
  • undertake a review of the Spokes position within the Committee system and how it could be more effective;
  • report the findings of that review to Council as soon as possible.

These terms of reference highlight that the review is focused on any improvements that could be made to the process the Council went through, and is therefore not a review of the merits of the proposal to create an Enterprise Centre or not.

Cllr Mike Shellens, Chairman of the Audit and Accounts Committee, would like to invite any member of the public who believes they have information relevant to the above terms to share this via the email address Contributions will be published online as part of the information gathered by the Committee, so please make it clear if you would not like your name included in published information.

Please submit any information you feel is relevant between 3 – 17 August 2015. Such information will then inform the considerations of the Committee, who will publish their conclusions publically.

Update: There’s now a press release on the County Council’s website with a deadline a week later.

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Cambridge and the Labour Leadership election

With more than six weeks to go in the Labour leadership election, here’s a quick look at how the contest is playing out in our local Labour party. By way of background, here’s a summary of how the Cambridge Labour Party voted in the last leadership contest, back in 2010:


This graph shows the first preference votes cast in 2010 by members of the Cambridge Labour Party, compared to the overall totals for all Constituency Labour Parties. Broadly, Cambridge was a bit more pro-Ed and less pro-David Miliband that the overall Labour membership, though David was still a narrow favourite. Among the (then) lower-ranked candidates, Cambridge Labour tended to favour Diane Abbot rather more than the national party, and Andy Burnham rather less. In total, 716 ballot papers were distributed to Cambridge Labour members, and 522 of them voted – a pretty respectable turnout of 72.9%.

Five years on, which way is the Cambridge Labour party leaning this time? So far, it’s hard to tell much more than that there is a fairly broad spread of opinion. In a spirit of enquiry, I emailed all 32 Cambridge Labour councillors to ask which of the candidates they were planning to support. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not many of them were willing to share their preference with a Lib Dem activist, though I did get a few thoughtful and interesting replies – thank you for those. I’ve put together the following list of supporters based on various sources. I’d be happy to update it with more information – please do get in touch by commenting below, Twitter, or email – though I’m only including those who hold elected office for Labour.

Andy Burnham supporters:

  • Dave Baigent, City Councillor for Romsey
  • George Owers, City Councillor for Coleridge
  • Peter Roberts, City Councillor for Abbey
  • Ashley Walsh, County Councillor for Petersfield

Yvette Cooper supporters:

  • Richard Howitt, MEP for the East of England
  • Ann Sinnott, City Councillor for Petersfield,
  • Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge

Jeremy Corbyn supporters:

  • Margery Abbott, City Councillor for East Chesterton
  • Kevin Price, City Councillor for King’s Hedges
  • Peter Sarris, City Councillor for East Chesterton

Liz Kendall supporters:

  • Richard Johnson, City Councillor for Abbey

As last time, the election is by the Alternative Vote system, which means that voters list the candidates in their preferred order, and as the less popular candidates are eliminated, votes are transferred to the next preference. This vote transfer was crucial to the outcome last time, allowing Ed Miliband to overhaul his brother David by a slender margin. Arguably, 2010 was the first Labour leadership election since 1980 whose result was genuinely uncertain, but it looks like we are in for a similarly unpredictable contest this time. It’s going to be a fascinating few weeks for British politics.

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Emails between Cambridgeshire County Council and Kora

I’ve just received a response to my Freedom of Information request to Cambridgeshire County Council, asking for emails relating to the preparation and redaction of an earlier request by Paul Lythgoe, which originally revealed the 37 meetings about the (then secret) Kora library project that had taken place over two years.

There’s a great deal of information in this response – I’ve been sent over 200 pages of emails, though because of quoting there is a good deal of repetition of material. I haven’t had a chance to analyse it in detail yet, but because of the interest in this issue I’m publishing the response here. It should in any case appear on the Council’s public FoI log at 9pm this evening.

So here are the documents:

They certainly throw an interesting light on the process of preparing a Freedom of Information response.

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At the Council meeting reviewing the Kora library decision

This morning I spoke at Cambridgeshire County Council’s Highways & Community Infrastructure Committee meeting, which was debating the future of the Kora project at the library. Here’s (approximately) what I said:

Good morning.

My name is Phil Rodgers, and this meeting is, to some extent, my fault. The information that has brought us here today was uncovered by me, sitting at home with a laptop one Thursday evening earlier this month.

The reason I was doing this research was because I was trying to understand why the Council had been working so exclusively with this one organization on the library project, and seemingly in such secrecy.

I want to stress that I found no evidence of any improper relationship between Kora and anyone at the council. But I did find out, fairly quickly, that Kora’s lead negotiator had been involved in another enterprise centre project in 2009 that went into liquidation owing a lot of money, and that he had been disqualified from being a company director for eight years.

You now have to decide whether to press on with the Kora project, or whether to rescind the decision that this committee took on 2nd June. The report in front of you quite rightly highlights the reputational risks to the Council of pressing on.

I think one of the most striking things about Cambridge Central Library that has emerged during all this, is the fact that it is the fourth busiest library in the country, with around 850,000 visits per year – pretty impressive since Cambridge is only about the 50th largest city. The Central Library is a precious asset that needs to be safeguarded in a way that people can have confidence in. Given what we know now, I do not think that people will have confidence in a project involving Kora.

For the good of the library, for the good of the Council, and for the good of the people that it serves, I urge you to rescind this decision and find another way to address the very difficult budget pressures that I know you face.

And I want to ask one more thing. Please can we have a more open and transparent process this time. Because I can promise you that whatever happens next is going to be subject to a level of public scrutiny that the Kora project clearly wasn’t ready for.

Update: Thanks to Antony Carpen for filming my statement:

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