Roll the drums… it’s time for the Queen Edith’s Online look-ahead to next week’s city council elections. I’m absolutely delighted that my Unofficial, Independent Election Guide For Residents has clearly been so well received. This, however, is a more subjective view of the four candidates.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had the chance to communicate with all of them. Not wanting to take up too much of their time, I decided to focus on one issue, which was local housing development. However, I think their attitudes to this say a lot in general about what sort of councillors they would make if elected to represent Queen Edith’s.
As a bit of background and as a reminder, like every other ward in Cambridge, we have three city councillors, who are elected in successive years, allowing only a gradual turnover between parties rather than anything sudden. In the 1980s, Queen Edith’s elected exclusively Conservative Party councillors. A Liberal Democrat councillor was elected for the first time in the early 1990s, and the party then dominated the vote for well over a decade. In 2012, however, after a major campaigning effort, Queen Edith’s elected its first ever Labour councillor. So it’s fair to say that the ward has given all the major parties a hearing over the last 25 years, and has been very slowly drifting around in its politics.
Combine recent election results with national opinion polls, and it would take an incredible effort for anyone other than the Liberal Democrat or Labour candidates to win the ward in 2014. There’s been no sign of this happening. The Conservative Party has only a tiny campaigning group in the area, and the Green Party is even quieter still (as well as focusing its efforts on the European election). Either could, I believe, come into the reckoning in future elections here if they can find the resources to compete, but I don’t think that’s going to happen this year.
The Labour Party has been out canvassing support in Queen Edith’s for many months, although they seem to have changed candidate from the one who introduced himself to me last year. The Liberal Democrats have only started specifically campaigning for this election more recently, but they obviously have an enthusiastic and/or sizeable supporter base, as evidenced by the volume of literature we’ve had through our doors. The Conservative Party appears to have made more of an effort than in the last couple of elections (which isn’t saying much), but lags a long way behind. And the Green Party has been almost silent.
And what of the candidates? None have been a Queen Edith’s councillor before. Both the Labour and the Conservative candidates have stood for election here in the past, unsuccessfully. They know the area and its politics. The Liberal Democrat candidate is standing for the first time, but has been prominent in party literature as a “local activist” for a while. So it’s certainly true to say that all of those three are committed local candidates. Their outlook, however, and particularly that of their parties, is reasonably different.
Whenever local residents organise any sort of campaign, somebody steps up and creates a website or Facebook page to act as its focus. An email mailing list is set up without even thinking about it. Why? Because it works. Anybody launching a local business in 2014 would consider their website to be as important to the business as the storefront. It’s what the customers expect. Yet in local politics, “consumers” increasingly consult Google for information and what do they find? Very little from the candidates themselves. I know, because the number of visitors which an independent website like mine gets – and the size of its email list – continues to astonish me.
The Liberal Democrats are well ahead online at a local level. The Liberal Democrat websites and Facebook pages are nothing great …but they’re there, and they’re regularly maintained. It’s not hard to do. Every day, potential voters will be pointed towards them, or will stumble across them. Labour seems to be making an increased effort, although for a party which expects to be running the city council soon, there’s not nearly enough information out there. The Conservative Party is missing a trick, especially with so many older voters looking at UKIP instead, as in my experience, older voters are even more engaged online with current affairs than younger ones. The Green Party, although tiny in comparison, is the most disappointing of all. It has a story to tell, and an affordable medium online in which to tell it. In business, online marketing is the big opportunity which allows small companies to compete with large ones. And small companies seize that opportunity.
City Council Politics
One thing certainly worth pointing out about this election is the overall political composition of the city council. This has had a Liberal Democrat majority for several years now, but the situation is likely to change after this election. Local blogger Phil Rodgers, who crunches the numbers better than anybody, says that a Labour majority on the council is “very likely”. This will probably lead to some major changes in council priorities. If you’re a tactical voter trying to choose between Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates (as the only two realistically likely to win in Queen Edith’s), you might like to consider whether you want to elect one more councillor to the ruling group (Labour) or to the main opposition (Liberal Democrat).
So, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve approached all four candidates over a specific issue, which (thanks to your suggestions, dear readers), was development. Obviously this has been a huge topic in the area over the last two years, especially with the creation of the proposed “Local Plan” to guide development in Cambridge until 2031. If the Labour Party does now become the largest party on the council, after so many years, this document will probably be looked back on as the Liberal Democrats’ defining legacy.
A Question For The Candidates
The Local Plan, to the dismay of many Queen Edith’s residents, especially the Save The Cambridge Green Belt campaign, includes proposals to develop an area off Wort’s Causeway for housing, within the current designated Green Belt. This, it has been estimated by one report, will increase Babraham Road traffic by 15%. So I asked the four candidates what their opinion is of the GB1/GB2 Wort’s Causeway development; what their opinion is regarding further Green Belt development to the south of Cambridge; and how they think they would act if elected as a Councillor and further Green Belt development came up for discussion.
Firstly, I have to say that I did not receive any response from the Green Party candidate, Joel Chalfen, who has been an elusive presence with almost no published way of contacting him. I had a brief exchange of emails once I had finally tracked him down, but I can’t offer any information as to his opinions. [Update: Dr Chalfen has sent in some thoughts, which must have disappeared in the email ether at the time, but which are in the comments below]
The other three candidates were far more willing to engage, and if this is an example of their commitment, on that basis I would be happy to have any of them as a councillor.
What The Candidates Say
Tim Moore, for the Liberal Democrats, produced a detailed response justifying why the party felt there was no alternative to including the Wort’s Causeway site in the Local Plan. It should be said that his colleagues from Queen Edith’s all argued against the development when the Local Plan was under discussion, although they did not then support a motion to remove the development put before the council by an independent councillor.
Dr Moore gives me the impression that like his colleagues, he would take a measured view of development issues, and would fight for Queen Edith’s residents’ concerns within his party, but I have no reason to believe that at the end of the day he would go as far as voting against his “party line”. His passion that the Local Plan is the “greenest” option which still accepts the reality of the situation in Cambridge, is undeniable.
John Beresford, for the Labour Party, was also accepting of the need for extra housing (“and particularly for social housing”), but says that he supports the Save The Green Belt Campaign, and if elected would help in their search for brownfield sites within the city, saying “they have found one – there may be others”. Queen Edith’s Labour councillor Sue Birtles also argued strongly against the Wort’s Causeway site, like her local Liberal Democrat counterparts.
The Save The Cambridge Green Belt campaign does have some serious concerns about certain members of the local Labour Party, who I’ve listened to suggesting that almost any new housing is to be welcomed because more supply will, they say, bring down the cost and stop home ownership being the preserve of higher income groups. I don’t believe that Mr Beresford agrees with this, however.
Another point made by Mr Beresford is that “the area at the junction of Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road is an architectural disgrace.” He says that “if elected I shall encourage intense scrutiny of future high development proposals. I want to leave my children and grandchildren a city to be proud of.”
This sentiment has been more than echoed by Vince Marino, for the Conservatives. Mr Marino has been leading his campaign with his views on what he called the “disgusting” developments around the Leisure Park and at Addenbrooke’s, and it should be pointed out that the only current Conservative member of the city council did support the move to take the Wort’s Causeway development out of the Local Plan, so the party has form in this respect.
In person, Mr Marino is even more forthright about what he calls “unwanted and unneeded” local development than his campaign literature suggests. He also made the point that the lack of any planned amenities within walking distance of the Wort’s Causeway development might lead to the planning inspector declaring the site unsustainably small, and demanding it be made bigger.
I’m not going to tell anyone who to vote for, but I’m sure Mr Beresford, Mr Marino and Dr Moore would all ably represent Queen Edith’s residents. I have no idea about Dr Chalfen. [Update: see comments below] In general, although candidates stand under party banners, I find that at local council level, most of the decisions they make are driven more by practicality than ideology, and I think we should try to keep our tribal allegiances in the background when choosing between them. I want a councillor who will find the time to represent me when I need them to, and political colours don’t play a part in that.
That said, one of the factors you might take into account is whether or not you want another representative in the majority party group on the council. Whether the Labour Party takes control or if the council stays in Liberal Democrat hands, we already have one councillor in each camp. If you’d like another in the majority group, and believe (as most commentators do) that it will be the Labour group, then you’ll vote for John Beresford. If you’d prefer another voice in what will probably be the main opposition, you’ll vote for Tim Moore. And if you want a real outsider (but a forthright one), you’ll vote for Vince Marino.
I wouldn’t like to call a winner – it’s probably going to be close between Tim Moore and John Beresford. But I do think that we have some reasonable candidates.