In the third and final part of my look at the forthcoming County Council election here in Queen Edith’s, it’s time to assess the candidates themselves. As a reminder, if you want full background on what we’re being asked to vote for, my article on the subject is here. I’d like to thank the many people who’ve said encouraging things about it.
So, as I outlined last week, we have four candidates standing for the single position representing Queen Edith’s on Cambridgeshire County Council. Our elected councillor will be one of 69 from across the county, and will hold the position for four years until the next County Council election.
Like most other political bodies, Cambridgeshire County Council is party-driven, with councillors usually voting on decisions in party blocs. As the councillors are split approximately 60% Conservative, 30% Liberal Democrat and 10% the rest, we usually end up with whatever the Conservative party councillors want. In addition, 80% of the councillors represent the towns and villages away from the city, so those of us here in Cambridge usually end up with whatever the more rural councillors want. And you won’t be surprised to know that the “Conservative” and “more rural” councillors tend to be largely the same people. The situation is not likely to change significantly at this election.
So you may think that there’s not much a councillor for Queen Edith’s (or any city division) can do. But far from it: while it’s quite likely that the county council will not have the needs and desires of city residents uppermost in its priorities, if we don’t have a good councillor putting forward our case, we’ll get nothing at all. For example, the threat to close Rock Road library came from the county council, and needed an involved county councillor to speak up for it. Many ideas and campaigns may start with local residents, but they need a councillor to pick them up and run with them.
Our outgoing county councillor is Geoff Heathcock of the Liberal Democrat party, who has held the position for 20 years and is now retiring. Even the local Labour party has thanked Geoff for his hard work in the post, and being re-elected four times is an impressive achievement.
Before we look at the candidates individually, how is the election likely to go based on party political trends? Excellent local political blogger Phil Rodgers reckons that the city’s huge Liberal Democrat delegation to the county council (the party won 11 out of 14 seats four years ago) will be reduced in number significantly, with the Labour party the main beneficiaries. With the shock of Queen Edith’s changing its allegiance from the Liberal Democrats to Labour in the city council election last year, our division must surely be one of those which Labour is hoping its candidate can win.
Chart: Council Election voting by party, Queen Edith’s, 1993 to 2012
Source: Cambridge City Election Results since 1935 (Colin Rosenstiel & Keith Edkins). Click to enlarge.
Over the last 20 years, the Liberal Democrats have rarely received less than 50% of the vote in Queen Edith’s council elections, as the chart shows (click to enlarge). The party’s candidate has only been beaten on two occasions, but of course last year was one of those, and marks a massive surge in the Labour vote. However, it was acknowledged that this was at least in part due to a massive campaign effort which the Labour party will be unlikely to be able to repeat in 2013. The surprisingly defeated Liberal Democrat candidate last year was Amanda Taylor, who’s back this year. And here’s another interesting observation: her Labour party opponent, John Beresford, also stood in Queen Edith’s, unsuccessfully, in 1995, 1996 and 1997. And Labour’s most successful elections in the last 20 years until last year? 1995, 1996 and 1997.
So what’s likely to happen?
On every benchmark I can think of, only John Beresford (Labour) and Amanda Taylor (Liberal Democrat) are making any effort to get elected. I have heard nothing from the other two candidates, as a resident. While it’s possible that, as a representative of a smaller party, William Birkin (Green) has far smaller campaigning resources, the same can’t be said, I assume, of Tom Bygott (Conservative), whose lack of any local presence during the election campaign is more surprising. As I mentioned in my previous article, he doesn’t even live in the area, unlike the others. A Twitter commenter last week said “the Conservatives have given up in Cambridge” and maybe the party is being selective with the battles it’s fighting. Here’s what I’ve seen of the campaigns so far:
Notice a pattern?
So, much as I would like to tell you about all four candidates, I can offer nothing about two of them – not a leaflet to quote from, not a web page, and no replies to an email I sent them asking for some opinions. If the past voting trends tend to suggest this will be a two-horse race, William Birkin and Tom Bygott don’t seem to be trying to overturn that prediction. If what a city division like ours needs more than anything is a county councillor who will raise issues, then it’s hard to entertain the idea of voting for them. That’s a shame, because I like the idea of Green Party representation on a council, and I can see the advantages of having a Conservative councillor who might have more of an “in” with the ruling group.
(Update, 24 April: After reading this, a couple of people have been in touch via Twitter to say they’ve at least seen a Conservative leaflet, so maybe there’s a last-minute campaign after all. But I can only report what I’ve seen myself)
Which brings us to what appear to be the more serious candidates, John Beresford (Labour) and Amanda Taylor (Liberal Democrat). Both of these have been campaigning furiously, and both were good enough to take time out to reply to an email which I sent to the candidates, asking two questions which I thought were important.
The first of these was: “Given that the County Council is dominated by councillors from outlying towns and villages who have no particular interest in the wishes or wellbeing of Queen Edith’s residents, and who are mainly members of the same party, what do you think you can achieve for us?”
John Beresford replied that what he can do is to ensure that the under-privileged are represented, presumably because he feels only a Labour councillor will do this. He said: “I certainly think it is one of the functions of a Cambridge-based councillor to make sure the interests of Cambridge are represented at council level. I also think it is the function of a Labour councillor to ensure that the interests of the under-privileged are also strongly represented. There is a lot of rural poverty and deprivation in Cambridgeshire. I also believe that good infrastructure is important to the future prosperity of the county, so road and transport developments are also important.”
Amanda Taylor tackled the question head on. She replied: “I am confident I can achieve things for the people of Queen Edith’s as an opposition councillor. I know I can do so because I have done it before. When first elected to Cambridge City Council, I worked with the council officers and stood up to members of the Labour administration on behalf of local people.
“Working with the council officers and using the internal scrutiny process are key opportunities for the opposition to influence outcomes for local people. In this way, the Lib Dems on the County Council called for a highways maintenance review to make the case for major investment in our roads, pavements and infrastructure, following which an extra £90M was made available. Some of this has been allocated to Queen Edith’s, including half a million pounds for Hills Road.
“Any councillor – indeed any member of the public – can raise issues at council meetings. I’ve already had some successes doing this with the County Council. A recent example was identifying transport funding allocated by the County and petitioning for it to be spent on lighting the Guided Busway.”
My second question was: “What do you consider to be the main issues falling under the County Council’s remit which affect Queen Edith’s residents? Do you have any policies on these issues which you think might distinguish you from rival candidates?”
John Beresford chose development, parking and schools. He said: “From our canvassing the effects of coalition benefit changes have had a profound effect upon residents in parts of Queen Edith’s. I would certainly want to do all within the council’s power to offset the effects of these changes. The preservation of the green belt at Worts Causeway is also an important issue. I want to see brown belt options exhausted before we start looking at areas like this.
“Parking is also an issue, and we have been vociferous and active in easing the burden on residents in the Field Way estate and those living off Hills Road, for example in questioning the lack of student parking places in the proposed Cambridge University Technical College campus.
“Finally, our local schools are suffering from a historic lack of funding, along with helping to finance the academy programme. Fair funding for all Cambridgeshire schools will be an ongoing battle for the council, and within council I will fight for a more adequate education budget to, for example, speed up building repairs at Morley School.”
Amanda Taylor went for parking, public transport and schools. She said: “Queen Edith’s is beleaguered with parking from outside the area, from Addenbrooke’s hospital staff and visitors, school and college students. Liberal Democrat councillors were involved in setting up the South Area parking review, looking at parking management. However, action can also be taken to promote alternatives to the car.
“One of the reasons behind the volumes of visiting traffic is that public transport, while it’s good where we live, is poor or non-existent in many parts of the county, or not at useful times of day. No buses for people in the rural areas means more parking here. Easier and safer cycle access would be a double win, as it would encourage more people to cycle, and also help to keep car numbers down. The Liberal Democrats have pledged to improve junctions that are dangerous for cyclists (our ‘own’ at the Fendon/Mowbray/Queen Edith’s Way and Cherry Hinton/Hills Road intersections are both in the top ten most dangerous in the city), and to provide more cycle parking.
“Many of the pavements in Queen Edith’s are in a terrible state: some are so bad that people with walking sticks or frames walk in the road because the surface is better than on the pavement. They need to be improved to make it easier for everybody to get about. The Lib Dems on the County Council have proposed an extra £2.5 million for pavement improvements, more funding for dropped kerbs and accessibility improvements, and have made a manifesto pledge to grit more busy pavements, particularly those near schools.
“The county-run schools in the area are of a high standard, and popular, including our newest school, Queen Emma. There are, however, many families disappointed in places in the local schools, including at pre-school level. Primary schools are fully subscribed, yet are hampered by delays to building improvements. We would invest £2m in better maintaining our primary schools, which the Conservatives have allowed to fall into a state of disrepair – demoralising for teachers and pupils. We would press the County to narrow the gap in achievement between children from wealthy families and those who are struggling, making good use of the Pupil Premium, the extra £900 allocated to each child on free school meals in an effort to narrow the gap.
“We would provide more capacity for nursery education, another double win, getting children off to a good start socially and educationally, as well as enabling parents to work outside the home should they wish to do so. These and other commitments and proposals were put forward by the Liberal Democrats in the County Council budget debate.”
I’m sure that anyone who’s got this far will find little with which to disagree from either candidate. Indeed, from what I’ve seen, both give the impression that they would make good representatives for Queen Edith’s. In the end, it may come down to our choice of general party policy; you can find the Labour party manifesto here and the Liberal Democrat party manifesto here. Maybe you’re attracted to Amanda Taylor’s long council experience, or perhaps you agree with John Beresford that we need Labour party representation on the council. Either way, please remember that there will be issues over the next four years for which we need a good county councillor, and that your vote counts.