County Council statement on access to Castle Mound

Here’s a statement that Cambridgeshire County Council has given to the press about access to the Shire Hall site following its forthcoming sale:

A Cambridgeshire County Council spokesperson said:
“From the outset, the Council have made it clear to the public and any potential bidders that the special historical importance of the Shire Hall site, is an integral part of our aspirations for the future, not just for the city, but the County as a whole.

“As part of the bidding process interested parties were asked to consider our Heritage brief, inviting them to address continued public access to the Castle Mound, and to lay out their plans to improve the presentation, accessibility and interpretation of the site – looking at ways of increasing its appeal while maintaining its historic integrity.

“The Council does not wish to restrict access nor create new rights where they don’t exist, and by issuing a Landowners Deposit we are taking steps to protect this and to ensure the existing permissive access rights remain.

“We are now in commercial negotiations, but from the bids received we are confident that our expectations will be met and that the importance of retaining and even enhancing the heritage value of the site has been understood.”

See my earlier article for more on the background to this. I have to say that I don’t see how the Landowner Deposit does anything to protect the existing public access to Castle Mound and the rest of the site as the Council claims. It is indeed possible for a Landowner Deposit to include a statement that the landowner agrees that there are existing rights of way on the land, but in this particular case, the Council’s document specifically excludes this, stating that no ways across the Shire Hall site have been dedicated as highways:

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The whole point of the Landowner Deposit document is to specifically exclude the creation of any new rights of way. This doesn’t seem to me to be something that you would do if you were keen to ensure the right of continuing public access.

It’s good to hear that the Council is asking bidders to “address” continued public access to the Castle Mound, but my concern remains that there is nothing to stop a future owner from charging admission to the Castle Mound or even preventing public access altogether. We need to hear from the County Council how it is going to ensure that future generations of Cambridge residents will be guaranteed the right to freely enjoy this very special place in our city.

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The future of public access to Castle Mound

One of the many things I like about living in Cambridge is my commute to work. In the mornings, it takes me across Midsummer Common and Parker’s Piece; in the evenings, at least while it’s dark, I usually head up Regent Street, keep straight on to Castle Street, and then take the handy shortcut round the back of Shire Hall. Heading home by this route last week, I spotted a notice informing passers-by that the County Council had made a “landowner deposit” covering the whole of the Shire Hall site. Curious as to what this might mean, I’ve been doing some investigating – and it’s not entirely reassuring.

Back in May 2018, councillors took the decision to sell the Shire Hall site and relocate the County Council headquarters to Alconbury. As well as Shire Hall itself, the six-acre site includes the neighbouring Octagon building, the Register Office, some earthworks from the Civil War, and the Castle Mound. According to a recent Council report, the site went on the market in late October, and the deadline for bids was at the end of January. The Council is currently evaluating the bids, and expects to choose the winner by mid-March. The report says that interest is mainly for “hotel use, the retirement sector and student accommodation providers,” as well as some plans for flats or offices. The Council hopes to exchange contracts later this year, before finally vacating the site in 2020.

So what, then, does the Council’s “landowner deposit” mean? You can read exactly what it says here. Basically it makes two declarations, one under the Highways Act 1980 about public rights of way, and one under the Commons Act 2006 about a town or village green.  Here’s a map of the area it covers; you can find the original version here – click on Leisure and Culture, then Section 31-6.

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The Highways Act declaration says, in effect, “we claim there are no public rights of way across the Shire Hall site and we don’t want any new ones to be created.” If a route has been open to and used by the public for 20 years without the landowner objecting, then it can be registered as a right of way. The Council’s declaration says that as landowner they do object. This prevents any new public rights of way being created because of routes being used after the date of the declaration (10 January 2019). However, as I understand it, someone could still claim a right of way based on use before this date.

The declaration under the Commons Act makes a similar statement about “a town or village green”. It rather tragically says that the Council “wishes to bring to an end any period during which persons may have indulged as of right in lawful sports and pastimes” on the site – thus preventing anyone registering a town green on the land on the basis of new use.

I should mention that I don’t have any particular expertise in land law; this article is based on my understanding of the situation from reading about it. If you have specialist knowledge in this area please do add a comment below and I’ll be happy to update the article.

So why would the Council want to prevent rights of way or town greens being created on the site? Clearly, if you are selling some land, having a right of way running across it, or a town green in the middle of it, complicates matters for any prospective buyer. Probably this declaration is on some standard checklist of things to do when you are selling off your Council headquarters. But it does raise the question of what will happen about public access to the site, both for people like me using the cut-through to Magrath Avenue, and also for people wanting to climb Castle Mound.

Cambridge is not over-endowed with hills, and for generations Cambridge residents have been climbing to the top of Castle Mound to enjoy the views of the city below, photograph the sunset, and even occasionally propose marriage. Many people would be horrified if there was an end to free public access to the Mound, but as the landowner deposit seeks to prevent new rights of way being established, you have to ask how access is going to be guaranteed once the site passes into private hands next year.

The Castle Mound is a scheduled monument, as are the Civil War Earthworks on the eastern boundary of the site, and this does ensure that it is protected from being damaged or built on. But being a scheduled monument does not, of itself, ensure that the public has any right of access. So what will?

When I tweeted about this issue yesterday, Councillor Schumann commented that the Request to Tender document asks bidders to explain how they will maintain or increase public access to the Castle Mound. This is all well and good, but it’s not too difficult to imagine a situation in a few years time where the site may change hands again and be acquired by an owner who simply wants to maximise their revenue from it. It costs money to maintain a scheduled monument, so what is to stop a future owner from charging admission or simply denying public access at all? I hope we’re going to get a convincing answer to this question from the County Council as the sale process proceeds.

Update: The County Council have issued a statement. But it’s not exactly the convincing answer I was hoping for.

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Spot the difference

On Thursday, Cambridge City Council meets for the first time following the recent elections. As well as choosing a new Mayor and Deputy Mayor for the coming year, councillors will debate the Annual Statements put forward by the leaders of each political group. Labour’s comfortable majority on the Council will ensure that its Annual Statement is adopted as policy.

The text of Labour’s Annual Statement is closely based on the manifesto that Labour campaigned on during the local elections; indeed the bulk of the Annual Statement is simply copied and pasted directly from the manifesto. However, there are a number of places where changes have been made to the text. The risk with making such changes, of course, is that some irritating pedant will come along and pick over the differences between the two versions.

So let’s take a look.

In the quotes below, I show text from the manifesto that’s been removed in the Annual Statement like this; text that’s been added in the Annual Statement is shown like this. One of the first differences is in the section describing the Council’s achievements over the last two years:

Since 2016 we have, amongst many other things:

  • bid for circa £193 million to move Anglian Water’s Chesterton water treatment works recycling centre, which is essential to develop the wider area, and started will be starting work on consulting the community on its future

Do Anglian Water really call their sewage works a water recycling centre? They do indeed. They even have a Director of Water Recycling, one Paul Gibbs. It looks like the manifesto was a bit overenthusiastic about how far the consultation process has got, so the Annual Statement now merely says it “will be starting”, instead of claiming that it already has.

Another quoted achievement is that the council has

won with others a commitment from Government for a Cambridge South Station by 2022, a station with nearly zero cars except for disabled access.

Perhaps this addition to the Annual Statement is just clarifying that the Council isn’t claiming all the credit – or perhaps it is seeking to spread the responsibility now that the Government has announced that its target date for Cambridge South isn’t until 2025.

Later on in the document, there are some curious edits around the role of the Citizens Advice Bureau:

Continue to develop vital citywide and local advice and support services for those most in need, provided building on the work by the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), our skilled council advisers and others other agencies. We will investigate expanding CAB outreach to other locations of high need following the success of the ‘Advice on Prescription’ service at GP surgeries.

These edits seem to suggest that the Council may be considering delivering advice and support services by routes other than the CAB.

One of the more significant changes comes in the section on housing:

Develop Consider whether we can develop further the Council’s Housing Company, set up in 2015, to purchase and manage intermediate housing at submarket rents, and work with the Council’s Housing Development Agency and our partners in the Greater Cambridge Partnership to deliver additional affordable homes.

Here the Annual Statement is backing off from the manifesto pledge to develop the Housing Company further, instead merely promising to consider doing so. It would be interesting to know more about why this change has been made, and what the implications are for the Council’s Housing Company.

Some more backing off occurs in policy on mental health issues:

Ensure Council policies and delivery of services have an improved a sustained focus on the needs of people who experience inequality, including for people who are isolated, or experience significant mental health issues.

The Council might argue that its focus on these issues is already perfectly adequate, but merely sustaining rather than improving it is a less challenging commitment.

Another change occurs in the plans for Jesus Green Lido:

Bring forward proposals for the refurbishment or redevelopment of Jesus Green Lido, with an aim for completion by the time of its centenary in 2023

Here the Annual Statement adds refurbishment as a presumably cheaper alternative to the redevelopment of the Lido that the manifesto promised. The plans for the Park Street car and cycle park also get a bit of an edit:

Develop plans for a smaller Park Street Car Park, incorporating underground car parking and a new cycle park car and cycle parking, with an increased number of electric charging points, and wider site use to fund the works.

Someone has presumably remembered that Park Street already has a cycle park, so the redevelopment won’t be adding a new one. The additional charging points are a new pledge.

As well as the changes I’ve listed, there are others that simply clarify the manifesto text, and a few that tone down criticism of other parties, which is presumably seen as less appropriate for an Annual Statement than a manifesto.

Despite these changes, the great majority of the Annual Statement matches the manifesto word for word, and the differences are not very dramatic – it’s unlikely that many voters would change their allegiance on the basis of any of these policy shifts. But it’s still a bit surprising to see these kinds of changes being made to the platform that Cambridge Labour put to the electorate only a few weeks ago.

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My predictions for the 2018 Cambridge City Council elections

With less than 48 hours left until the polls close on Thursday in the City Council elections, here are my predictions for how things will turn out this year. In recent years, while I was actively involved in electioneering, I delayed publishing my predictions until the polls had actually closed – it seemed a little rude to tell some of my campaigning comrades that I thought their efforts were doomed before polling day had even started. However, now that I’m an ex-Lib-Dem once again, I have no such compunction, so you’re getting them a bit earlier this year.

But first, here’s a look back at how my predictions have turned out for the last few years. As you’ll see, I’ve never quite managed to get every seat right, and there are some consistent patterns – the Chesterton wards have been particularly tricky. Here’s how things turned out in 2014, the last time that the seats up this year were contested:

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I only got 11 of the 14 right that year – I got East and West Chesterton the wrong way round on knife-edge results (10 and 19 vote majorities respectively), and Labour’s Dave Baigent managed to take Romsey by a relatively comfortable 112-vote majority from the Lib Dems.

In 2015 I was agonisingly close to a perfect score:

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Only the Green victory over Labour by just seven votes in Market ward kept me from a 100% result. In 2016 I came close again, when I only got West Chesterton wrong:

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Mike Sargeant finally reaped the rewards of several years hard campaigning in West Chesterton, seeing off Lib Dem Nichola Harrison by 260 votes. Last year, with 12 County Council seats up for election, things went backward slightly as I got two wrong:

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Once again Chesterton proved troublesome, where Lib Dem Ian Manning overturned my prediction of a Labour win, and John Hipkin narrowly failed to hang on in Castle following boundary changes.

So what are my predictions for this year? As ever, let’s do the easy ones first.

  • Arbury: Labour hold
  • Cherry Hinton: Labour hold
  • Coleridge: Labour hold
  • King’s Hedges: Labour hold
  • Petersfield: Labour hold
  • Romsey: Labour hold

These are all pretty safe Labour seats now, even though four of them have had Lib Dem councillors in recent years. I’m expecting comfortable Labour wins in each of these.

  • Newnham: Lib Dem hold
  • Queen Edith’s: Lib Dem hold
  • Trumpington: Lib Dem hold

I’m less certain about these three, but I think the Lib Dems should hold on in each of them. Labour is now the main challenger in all three; despite some active campaigning, the Conservatives are no longer the force they once were in Queen Edith’s and Trumpington.

That leaves the five “battleground” wards: Abbey, Castle, Market and the two Chestertons.

  • Abbey: Labour hold. Labour had a scare last year, with the Lib Dem challenge coming within 75 votes of victory, but I think they’ve put in enough effort this year to hold on.
  • Castle: Lib Dem gain from Independent. With no Independent candidate defending the seat, Castle is especially unpredictable this time. Labour have put in a lot of work, and are certainly in with a good chance, having won the County seat last year, but I think lower turnout this year could favour the Lib Dems.
  • Market: Lib Dem gain from Labour. Relatively high resident turnover means incumbency is less of an advantage than it might be, and a Lib Dem win last year (though on the larger County boundaries) suggests that Market is a reasonable prospect for a gain.
  • East Chesterton: I’m expecting Labour to hold both seats, though not by much, and a split result certainly isn’t impossible.
  • West Chesterton: Labour gain from Lib Dem. I think Labour’s consistent effort in the ward in recent years is likely to be enough to give them the gain.

If all my predictions are correct, the the Lib Dems will gain two but lose one, and Labour will gain one and lose one. The Independents are certain to lose one in any case. This would make the new council Labour 26, Lib Dems 14, Green 1 and Independent 1 – the Labour majority remaining at ten. However, many of the wards are very uncertain, and this could easily be my wrongest year yet.

I’ll be at the Guildhall from 10pm on Thursday as the votes are counted, so follow me on Twitter for live coverage.

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Prospects for the 2018 Cambridge City Council elections

The daffodils are out, the occasional shaft of spring sunshine illuminates King’s College Chapel, and my timeline is full of pictures of cheerful party activists celebrating the great reception they are getting on Cambridge doorsteps. Yes, it’s local election time again. This year we are choosing one third of our representatives on Cambridge City Council, as the fourteen councillors elected in 2014 reach the end of their terms. In East Chesterton there is a double dose of electoral excitement, as Margery Abbott’s resignation mid-way through her term of office means there are two seats up for grabs.

So here is my now-traditional look at the prospects for the forthcoming local elections in Cambridge. Electoral nostalgia fans can find previous editions here: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017. First of all, let me dispel any sense of drama and excitement about the overall result: Labour will retain control of the City Council this year. However, there will be plenty of drama and excitement in at least some of the wards, and the longer-term picture is a good deal less certain.

Here is a summary of the state of the council before these elections – with 26 seats, Labour had a comfortable majority of ten over all other councillors combined.

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However, most of the seats up this year were last contested in 2014, when Labour won an emphatic victory. Consequently Labour have ten seats to defend this time, compared with only four for the Lib Dems. Here is the seat graphic again, this time with hollow blocks showing the seats being contested this year:

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So with fifteen seats being contested, and Labour’s majority amongst the other seats standing at only five, couldn’t they lose control of the Council this year? Well, theoretically, yes, but in practice Labour have enough safe seats that it would take a political earthquake to deprive them of control, and even in these turbulent times there is little sign of one. However, losing seats this year would make Labour’s position more precarious next year, when they have a further eight seats to defend. On the other hand, the Lib Dems are far from certain to make gains this year, and face some tricky challenges in wards they are defending.

There were no City Council elections in 2017, as it was the turn of the County Councillors to face the electorate. It was an unusual local election, taking place just a few weeks before the snap General Election, and alongside the vote for the first Mayor of the new Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Nevertheless, the results in Cambridge vividly illustrate the difference in voting patterns between local and national elections. Here are the 2017 County Council vote shares in Cambridge:

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And here is the result of the Cambridge seat in the General Election a few weeks later (on slightly different boundaries):

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As you can see, Cambridge went from a knife-edge result in the County elections to an emphatic Labour victory in the General Election – at least partly assisted by the collapse in the Green vote. Although Julian Huppert’s vote fell by only 1,676 votes from his 2015 total, Daniel Zeichner’s increased by 10,386. The principal reason for Labour’s General Election victory in Cambridge is that they managed to identify and motivate a large number of voters who had not previously supported them. However, history suggests that they may find it difficult to repeat this in a local election year, so we are likely to see a closer overall picture in this year’s vote.

Let’s have a look at the wards. I’ve previously illustrated each ward with a graph showing the local election results for the last several years. However, boundary changes mean that County Council divisions no longer match City Council wards, so this time I’m only showing the three previous City Council results, in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

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Abbey is the one seat in Cambridge where City and County boundaries still match. Looking at previous City Council results you would think it is pretty safe for Labour, but in the County elections last year Labour got a nasty scare, beating the Lib Dems by just 3%, and only after piling activists onto the streets on polling day to get their vote out. This was partly due to increased Lib Dem activity in Abbey ahead of last year’s General Election, but also due to the energy injected into the Lib Dem campaign by their candidate Nicky Shepard, who is standing again this year. With incumbent Labour councillor Peter Roberts standing down, Labour’s candidate is another Nicky, Nicky Massey. Although this is her first time standing for elected office in Cambridge, she has been involved in a number of campaigns, calling for a new pedestrian crossing near Cambridge Station, the restoration of a cannon on Cannon’s Green off Tenison Road, and in 2016 campaigning against Labour’s proposed peak-time congestion control points. The Nickys are joined on the ballot paper by Green Party candidate Naomi Bennett, who runs a tax consultancy, and Conservative David Smith, who works at Cambridge University Press. Overall I would make Labour favourites to retain the Abbey seat, though it certainly isn’t a foregone conclusion.

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Arbury also looks like a safe Labour seat on the basis of recent City Council results, though the Lib Dems performed somewhat more strongly on the different County Council boundaries last year. Labour’s candidate is the incumbent Patrick Sheil, web developer and Kierkegaard expert, who won the seat at a by-election last year. He faces veteran Lib Dem Tim Ward, who was Arbury City Councillor from 2000-2014; Green candidate Stephen Lawrence, making his 21st attempt to be elected in Cambridge; and Conservative Dylan Coll-Reed, a second-year Natural Sciences undergraduate at Trinity College and the current Chairman of Cambridge University Conservative Association. A Labour victory seems the most likely outcome.

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Castle offers one of the most intriguing prospects this year, as the incumbent Independent councillor, Marie-Louise Holland, is standing down. She won the seat in 2014 by just 20 votes, ahead of the Lib Dem candidate. This was rather a surprise to the Lib Dems, who had expected a larger Independent majority, and had consequently focused their efforts elsewhere. In 2015 there was no Independent candidate, and Lib Dem Valerie Holt took the seat reasonably comfortably. John Hipkin retained his City Council seat for the Independents in 2016, but narrowly lost the County seat to Labour last year, on rather different boundaries. With no Independent candidate this year, Castle is likely to be primarily a Lib Dem/Labour contest. Labour originally selected Baiju Varkey for the Castle seat, but he later switched to his home seat of East Chesterton. Labour’s candidate is now Mark Reader, who works in the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge University, and previously contested the seat in 2014. His Lib Dem opponent is Chesterton resident Cheney Payne, who is Head of Philosophy and Ethics at Thurston Community College near Bury St Edmunds. Lucas Ruzowitzky is the Green candidate, and the Conservatives are represented by Othman Cole, who is also standing for election in the Histon & Impington seat on South Cambs District Council. Completing the ballot paper is Aidan Powlesland of the Libertarian Party UK – as far as I can tell this is the first appearance of a Libertarian candidate in a Cambridgeshire election since Andrew Hunt contested Wisbech South in 2009. Mr Powlesland was previously a member of UKIP, and indeed contested UKIP’s 2017 leadership election, finishing last. During the recent General Election he attracted some press coverage with proposals to design an interstellar colony ship and mine the asteroid belt.

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As in previous years, Cherry Hinton is likely to provide the least exciting contest in this year’s Cambridge local elections, as Labour’s Russ McPherson seeks a fifth term of office in this rock solid Labour seat. The main point of interest will be whether Conservative Eric Barrett-Payton, Lib Dem John Oakes, and Green candidate Jenny Richens maintain the usual order of runners-up. If Labour doesn’t win comfortably here, I will happily eat any sort of hat you care to present me with.

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Another solid Labour win is likely in Coleridge, where Council leader Lewis Herbert is also seeking a fifth term. Two of Lewis’s opponents are newcomers; Lib Dem Noah Tate is a Content Manager at Cambridge University Press, and Green candidate Sarah Nicmanis is an Asset Management Administrator at the Hundred Houses Society. The Conservative candidate, Donald Douglas, is very far from being a newcomer – he represented Trumpington from 1998-2002. He is one of only five Conservative councillors elected in Cambridge in the last twenty years.

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Four years ago East Chesterton provided a campaign that was…well, let’s just say, full of incident, and a knife-edge result in which Labour’s Peter Sarris edged out Lib Dem Zoe O’Connell by just ten votes. Peter Sarris is standing down this time, and his ward colleague Margery Abbott has resigned mid-way through her term, so two seats will be up for election. Consequently East Chesterton voters have no fewer than eight candidates to choose from. Labour’s candidates are Carla McQueen and Baiju Varkey. Carla McQueen runs a youth group for children with social communication difficulties together with Abbey Labour candidate Nicky Massey; Baiju Varkey is a trainee solicitor. The Lib Dem candidates are Owen Dunn, a Computer Officer at the University of Cambridge, and author Shahida Rahman, who has stood for election in East Chesterton twice before. The Conservatives are represented by Timur Coskun, a second-year student of English Literature at Trinity College, and Tom Harwood, a final year student at Durham University, who ran the Vote Leave national student wing. The Greens have a single candidate, Gareth Bailey, who stood in Castle last year, and the ballot paper is completed by UKIP’s Peter Burkinshaw, the sole representative of his party in this year’s Cambridge elections, who is justly famed for his unsympathetic responses to the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s annual survey of local election candidates. A close Labour/Lib Dem contest seems likely, and a split result is entirely possible.

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King’s Hedges is pretty safe for Labour these days, and the re-election of incumbent Martin Smart seems the most likely outcome. The Lib Dem candidate is Daniele Gibney, who is Diversity Officer for Cambridge Lib Dems, and King’s Hedges ballot paper regulars Anette Karimi and Angela Ditchfield appear for the Conservatives and Greens respectively.

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Market ward has seen some unexpected results in recent years. The incumbent, Dan Ratcliffe, won his seat in 2014 in a contest in which the Lib Dems had disowned their candidate following an assault charge, but Dan could well have taken the seat in any case. The following year saw a ridiculously close three-way split and the election of Cambridge’s only Green councillor, Oscar Gillespie, by just seven votes. Lib Dem group leader Tim Bick narrowly held on in 2016, and Nichola Harrison won more comfortably for the Lib Dems last year on the larger County seat boundaries. Market remains the best prospect in Cambridge for the Green Party, whose candidate Jeremy Caddick, the Dean of Emmanuel College, is standing for a second time. Nevertheless I think he is probably heading for third place again, and the main contest will be between Labour’s Dan Ratcliffe and Lib Dem newcomer Anthony Martinelli, an NHS doctor and former University Challenge winner. Showing the flag for the Conservatives is Henry Mitson, a student at Gonville & Caius college. The Lib Dems will be eyeing a possible gain here, but Labour could well hold on.

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21 years ago at one of the first Cambridge election counts that I attended, Newnham Lib Dem candidate Elsa Meyland-Smith recorded the highest-ever number of votes in a Cambridge local election, 2,906. Things are rather different today, but despite narrower margins of victory, Newnham has continued to elect only Lib Dems in the intervening period. This is a record that is likely to continue this year, as the incumbent Rod Cantrill, recently selected as the next Lib Dem candidate for Cambridge MP, seeks re-election as a Newnham councillor. Labour’s candidate is Mike Davey, a retired County Council officer; Mark Slade, a musician and local entrepreneur is standing for a third time for the Greens, and the Conservative candidate is Connor MacDonald, a student at Emmanuel College.

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Petersfield sees a rematch between two of the candidates from the 2014 election, as Labour incumbent Ann Sinnott faces former Lib Dem councillor Sarah Brown. Army veteran Simon Lee is standing for the Conservatives, and Virgil Ierubino represents the Greens. Given recent electoral history, a Labour hold seems the most likely outcome.

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Queen Edith’s ought to be reasonably safe for the Lib Dems, but it’s not a certainty. With incumbent Tim Moore standing down, the Lib Dem candidate is newcomer Colin McGerty, an IT consultant who has previously been involved in campaigning in Abbey ward. Labour are fielding Dan Greef, who was their Parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire in both the 2015 and 2017 General Elections, and is well-known in the area. Conservative Manas Deb is standing for a third time, and Joel Chalfen is making a sixth appearance for the Greens. A Lib Dem hold seems likely, but Labour could pull off a surprise victory as they did in 2012.

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Once a Lib Dem stronghold, Romsey is now firmly back in Labour’s grip, with a well-organised and active campaigning operation. This year Labour’s candidate is former firefighter Dave Baigent, seeking re-election for the first time. His Lib Dem opponent is newcomer Joshua Blanchard Lewis, a languages tutor and former Vice-President of the Cambridge Union Society. Other candidates are Martin Keegan, Chairman of Cambridge Conservatives, and Caitlin Patterson, an NHS Staff Nurse, representing the Greens for a second time. I’m expecting a Labour hold with an increased majority.

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Trumpington should be reasonably safe for the Lib Dems, but Labour have now established themselves as the main challengers in a ward which had a Conservative councillor only two years ago. One of the factors changing the ward’s political makeup is the large amount of new housing being built; another is the increased level of Labour campaigning in recent years. Incumbent Lib Dem Nick Avery is standing down after a single term, and Daniel Hilken is hoping to succeed him for the yellow team. Labour’s candidate is architect Katie Thornburrow, standing in Trumpington for a second time. Phil Salway, a Senior Technician at Cambridge University,  is the Conservative candidate, and Ceri Galloway, who has stood unsuccessfully for the Green Party 15 times in Trumpington, is back for a 16th attempt.

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Finally, West Chesterton promises another closely-fought Labour-Lib Dem contest. Incumbent Lib Dem Ysanne Austin is standing down, and Jamie Dalzell is defending the seat from the challenge of Clare King, who will be hoping to make a gain for Labour. Clare was Lib Dem councillor for East Chesterton from 2007-2011 before switching to Labour in 2012, while Jamie has previously stood for the Lib Dems in Cherry Hinton and King’s Hedges – coming within 200 votes of victory in the latter seat last year. Shayne Mitchell makes a 16th attempt at being elected for the Greens, and Mike Harford, a retired marketing company manager, is standing for the Conservatives.

So what is the City Council likely to look like when the dust has settled? Excluding the seats being contested this year, Labour have 16 councillors, the Lib Dems 9, and there’s one Green and one Independent councillor. Amongst the seats that are up this time, I think Labour can be virtually certain of victory in six: Arbury, Cherry Hinton, Coleridge, King’s Hedges, Petersfield, and Romsey. Lib Dem victories are likely (though not guaranteed) in three: Newnham, Queen Edith’s, and Trumpington. That leaves six “battleground” seats: Abbey, Castle, East Chesterton (2 seats), Market, and West Chesterton. In each of these, only Labour or the Lib Dems have a realistic chance of winning – I’m expecting the grand total of Conservative, Green, UKIP and Libertarian  victories in Cambridge this year to be zero. So overall I think Labour will end up with 22 to 28 councillors, the Lib Dems 12 to 18, and just one each for Green and Independent. With 42 councillors overall, this means that Labour will retain control, though if the Lib Dems perform at the upper end of expectations, we could be in for an interesting time next year, when Labour will have eight seats to defend and the Lib Dems just five. In 2020 we are likely to see all the City Council seats up for election at once following boundary changes, so things will certainly be interesting then.

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The corporate structure of Milton Road Library

Once upon a time, Cambridge libraries were more straightforward operations than they seem to be today. The County Council owned the building they were housed in, ran the library, and Cambridge residents came in to browse the bookshelves, relax, read the papers, and borrow the occasional book. Nowadays, however, things are a little more complicated. Here is a look at the intriguing collection of companies that appears to be involved with Milton Road Library.

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As I write, nobody is browsing the bookshelves at Milton Road Library – the building has recently been demolished, and is to be replaced by a new building which will house a number of flats, as well as a shiny new library. I understand that part of the imposing 1930s entrance has been preserved and will be incorporated in the new building. However, the site is no longer directly owned by the County Council. A collection of freshly-incorporated limited companies has sprung up, and their balance sheets are humming with library-related activity.

Some of the story is told in the minutes of the Council’s Commercial and Investment Committee, which has been dealing with the sell-off of the library site and the setting up of the corporate structure that now owns it. Remarkably, the County Council bans search engines from the site that holds its committee papers, making it much harder to find the relevant information [Update: They’ve since removed the search engine ban]. Fortunately Companies House has a more open policy.

Back in May 2016, the Committee approved the establishment of a Housing Development Vehicle (HDV), a separate company which the Council would own and sell property to, for the HDV to develop. The idea was that instead of selling off property to a developer, the Council could make more revenue by owning a development company itself. The minutes of the meeting record some concern from councillors about this approach. Tellingly, officers advised that “…having Councillors on the Company Board, had led to problems for other Councils – the company needed to be free and agile enough to run its own business.” Instead of councillors, Council officers would take up positions on the company’s board, at least initially. When councillors expressed concerns about whether this would lead to a conflict of interest, “…Officers reassured Members that whilst they would have a role once the HDV was being set up, it was envisaged that professional directors with no connections to the County Council would be in post as soon as possible.” We will see in a moment to what extent this has happened.

The HDV company was duly set up in June 2016, under the name Cambridgeshire Housing and Investment Company Ltd, known as CHIC for short. There were two directors initially, Quentin Baker and Christopher Malyon. Quentin Baker is Executive Director at LGSS Law Ltd, a legal services company jointly owned by Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Central Bedfordshire councils; Chris Malyon is Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Finance Officer of Cambridgeshire County Council. In April 2017 they were joined on the CHIC board by David Gelling, an experienced property developer who has previously been involved with companies based in Tattenhall, near Chester. His LinkedIn profile reveals that he has worked on property development for the Ministry of Defence, and has “extensive property and political contacts in the London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham markets.” At time of writing, Mr Gelling is the only director without a direct connection to the Council. Exactly how and why he was selected for this role is unclear, at least to me.

The decision to sell Milton Road Library to CHIC was taken at the October 2017 meeting of the Commercial and Investment Committee. CHIC would redevelop the site, replacing the existing building with seven flats and a new library. The Council would then lease the library back for a period of up to 25 years. The minutes report the capital value of the site as £1.82 million, and the rental of the library as £13,668 a year. The committee noted that the seven flats “…did not meet the City Council’s threshold for affordable housing, which was ten homes. The decision on whether to sell or rent the properties would be down to the developer.” The plan was duly approved.

In February 2018, CHIC changed its name to This Land Ltd and sprouted a number of subsidiary companies: This Land Asset Management Ltd, This Land Development Ltd, This Land Finance Ltd, and This Land Investment Ltd. All four subsidiary companies have the same three directors and are wholly owned by This Land Ltd. None of them have yet done anything very exciting, at least not that has to be reported to Companies House. This Land Ltd, in turn, remains 100% owned by Cambridgeshire County Council.

Milton Road Library is not the only Council property that This Land is involved with. Mr Gelling’s LinkedIn profile says This Land “…will primarily focus on residential developments, creating in excess of 1000 new homes and will create neighbourhoods in both rural and urban locations.” One supposed advantage of having a separate company is that the Council can borrow money at low rates, and then lend the same money to This Land Ltd at a commercial rate, pocketing the difference. However, as long the company remains wholly owned by the Council, this seems to amount simply to shuffling money around – This Land Ltd is expected to make large paper losses in its early years.

So what does all this matter? I think there are two key concerns. Firstly, this structure seems to make the management of these formerly Council-owned properties more opaque and more remote from elected councillors. Secondly, there is inevitably the concern that the continued – and enormous – financial pressures on the Council will lead it at some point to consider selling off some or all of its 100% stake in This Land Ltd, effectively privatising formerly publicly-held assets.

Arbury Councillor Jocelynne Scutt has tabled a question for Tuesday’s Full Council meeting asking for more information about This Land, and in response the Chairman of the Commercial and Investment Committee, Councillor Josh Schumann, has offered to circulate a briefing note to all members. Let’s hope that the Council will publish it to the general public. We will be watching developments carefully.

 

 

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Can Labour form a minority Government?

In a slight change to this blog’s regular topic, here’s a look at the political picture nationally rather than just in Cambridge. One question that has been raised since Labour’s better-than-expected showing in the General Election on Thursday is whether or not Labour could realistically form a minority Government. Here’s a look at the numbers, starting with the composition of  the new House of Commons:

comp

The Conservatives are the largest group with 317 MPs – or 318 if you include the Speaker, but as he is neutral and does not normally vote, I have listed him separately. Labour are 55 seats behind the Conservatives, with 262. Amongst the minor parties, Sinn Fein now have 7 MPs, but they do not take their seats in the Commons and so do not vote. The other seats in Northern Ireland are now all occupied by the DUP, except for North Down which is held by an Independent, Lady Sylvia Hermon.

As I write, the Conservatives are busily trying to conclude an agreement with the DUP which would make the Commons arithmetic look like this:

suppgov

The 317 Conservatives plus the 10 DUP MPs would add up to 327, while all the other MPs, apart from Sinn Fein and the Speaker, would total 315 – this would give the Government an effective majority of 12. However, if the Conservatives cannot ultimately enlist the support of the DUP, then their 317 MPs would face a combined opposition of 325 – enough to defeat them by eight votes.

So could Labour form a minority government instead? Their immediate problem, on putting forward a programme for Government in a Queen’s Speech, would be that their 262 MPs would be outvoted by the 317 Conservatives, by a margin of 55. Clearly, they would need support from other parties. Let’s look at what those parties have said about this.

The SNP’s Nichola Sturgeon has said, “If there was to be a hung parliament and the parliamentary arithmetic allowed it, I would want the SNP to be part of a progressive alternative to a Conservative government, not in a coalition.” So that’s probably enough of a basis, at least in theory, to add the 35 SNP MPs to Labour’s total. That brings it to 297, still 20 votes behind the Conservatives.

What about the Lib Dems? On the face of it, their policy would seem to rule out any sort of pact or deal with Labour. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that they find some way of supporting Labour against the Conservatives. That adds 12 more votes, bringing the total to 309, still eight votes short of the Conservative total. Let’s throw in the four votes of Plaid Cymru, and the vote of the lone Green MP, Caroline Lucas. We’re now up to 314 for our theoretical anti-Conservative alliance, still three votes behind the Conservative total of 317.

With Sinn Fein and the Speaker out of the picture, that just leaves the 10 DUP MPs, and Lady Sylvia Hermon. Even if the DUP MPs abstain on the Queen’s Speech, that’s not enough to put Labour in power – the Conservatives would still have three more votes. For Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister, he would need the active support of the DUP as well as all the other non-Conservative parties. The DUP have explicitly ruled this out, saying that they would not support a Labour Government while Jeremy Corbyn remains leader. So barring something completely unexpected, such as mass defections, or a Conservative-Labour Grand Coalition, there is no way that Labour can form part of the Government as things stand.

Update: Julian Huppert points out that as well as the Speaker, there are three Deputy Speakers, who don’t vote either. The rules state that one of them comes from the same side of the House as the Speaker, and two from the other side. This doesn’t change the conclusion that Labour can’t govern without DUP support.

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