Cambridge Parliamentary Hustings Focusing on Growth

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009. 4:26am

Cambridge Parliamentary Hustings October 2009

Top: Richard Normington, Daniel Zeichner. Bottom: Tony Juniper, Ian Nimmo-Smith.

On the evening of Friday the 23rd of October I attended a hustings for prospective Cambridge Parliamentary Candidates run by the Federation of Cambridge Residents Associations with the cooperation of Cambridge Past Present and Future. The event focused on the subject of planned growth, particularly the building of new homes, in and around Cambridge.

Main Speakers:

David Howarth (Liberal Democrat), the city’s current MP did not attend. Ian Nimmo-Smith said he had no parliamentary ambitions personally, but was representing the Liberal Democrat view on this occasion.

Arguing for Investment in Cambridge

I asked a question, which was put to the speakers:

Are members of the panel prepared to argue that Cambridge ought get more than its fair share of central government transport infrastructure investment? If so how will they make that argument?

The answers to this question, like many others, clearly separated the Green Party’s Tony Juniper from the others. Mr Juniper stated that if was elected as Cambridge’s MP he would not argue for more transport investment in Cambridge. He said he did not think that as a wealthy part of the country we should keep that wealth locally. He said the wealth generated in Cambridge should be distributed more widely with the aim of making the country as a whole more equal.

Ian Nimmo-Smith said we have to look at “UK PLC” as a whole. He stressed that the important concept was the “Cambridge Sub-Region” and stressed that it was important that investment was across the whole area. He said we can’t have growth with second class infrastructure.

Daniel Zeichner spoke passionately, he said there was a clear case for regional investment in the region. He spoke about strengthening the national economy for the “post-financial sector” era said that more people and more housing in the Cambridge region were an important part of that.

Richard Normington said that we are starting from a point of a huge shortfall in infrastructure investment in the region and argued that making the argument that the nation should invest in the Cambridge area is easy. He put forward the point of view that as the city’s competitors are global, we have to invest to keep up and provide the best quality of life. He made clear he took “deep issue” with Tony Juniper’s equality argument.

My View

My view is that the country ought invest its money for transport improvement where it is expected to generate the best return for the nation though improved economic productivity. I think it is possible to make an argument, on that basis, that substantial funding ought be directed towards the Cambridge and the surrounding area. (See also what I said to the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission) We should be supporting innovative science and knowledge based businesses as a key strand of how we can trade our way out of our current, indebted, economy position. While I agree with much of what the Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour representatives said in response to my question I think they have to be judged on their actions. Mr Zeichner promoted himself throughout the evening as being closely involved with the current government’s strategy for growth. That government came up with the Transport Innovation Fund mechanism for distributing transport funding which involved strong-arming areas into accepting a congestion charge in return for funding even if people in those areas were not supportive of the charge and thought it would have a negative effect on the local economy. The Cambridge Liberal Democrat view on local transport investment is clearly illustrated by their opposition to upgrading the A14 despite the congestion and regular injury causing crashes.

I don’t want to see Cambridge represented by someone like Tony Juniper who will not be pushing the city’s interests first and foremost. I think that investment in the Cambridge region is the best route to take in the interests of the national economy. Mr Juniper’s proposal to increase the pressure on the Cambridge economy in the interests of extracting more from it, making it less internationally competitive, in order to redistribute wealth across the country amounts in my view to a strategy which will result in the country as a whole getting poorer. I don’t want to see us all go down together – which appears to me to be what Mr Juniper’s policy amounts to. I don’t think it will be good for the country or for Cambridge.

Balance of Power Between the Central Government and Local Councils

This was the first of three topics which had been set in advance. First each speaker made a short speech on the subject, these were followed by questions from residents association representatives Michael Chisholm and David Halford as well as from Independent City Councillor John Hipkin.

Daniel Zeichner said that whenever parties got into government they became less enamored with localism but when in opposition they discovered its joys. He explained he personally had experienced that transition and that he had changed his views as he had become more involved with government. He said “the balance is difficult” but that he thought “the balance is probably broadly right”. He argued that if there was too much localism than very little would get done and said NIMBYism is a real problem in the country central national government is needed in order to overcome. Hedging his bets a little, also said he would like to see more powers for local councils. He criticised local councils, and Cambridgeshire County Council in particular for not using powers the Labour government have given them. He cited powers relating to bus regulation as an example. He also spoke in support of raising money (taxes) locally he urged councils to use powers given to them to do this.

Tony Juniper started by saying local councils find themselves implementing global priorities alongside national ones and that what local councils do needs a national and international context. He said the current balance was not right, and there was not enough power at a local level. He said he would argue for local delivery with national targets. He said this was “about the most centralised country” and said it had fewer councillors per capita than any other country. He said it was not only about government, but about engaging the public in decision making. He also spoke positively about the Prince of Wales and specifically the process of “enquiring by design” (Collaborative Design Processes) which the Prince espouses.

Richard Normington said that he largely agreed with his Green counterpart. He explained his view the planning system is too centralised. He argued that authorities could be persuaded to accept the need for growth without government intervention. He said currently intervention was two fold – involving “random statistics” (by which I think he meant targets without a clear derivation) accompanied by a threat that if local councils didn’t implement them the Government would set up a QuANGO as they have done in Nottingham. He said that “here in the East we’d rather influence even if we don’t like the direction”. Later he clarified that he was defending the Conservative County Council for its compliance with Government schemes such as Cambridge East, the TIF bid etc. by claiming the Government had left them without other options. Richard Normington expressed a support for localism, and also raised and addressed a consequence – “postcode lotteries” he said that under the system he, and the Conservatives were proposing there would be varying levels of services across the country, but countered this by saying there would be a greater opportunity to “sling councillors out” if they had made bad decision. He finished by saying: “A planning system which trusts the people is better than the alternative”.

Ian Nimmo-Smith started his remarks by saying the Liberal Democrats viewed the current relationship between “central government and people living locally” is “part of the broken constitution of the UK”. He said the question is “to do with how you as a citizen living in the area can influence decisions which influence and affect you”; he put forward his party’s view that a great deal of power is held by Whitehall which should be devolved. Pointing out that not only power needs to be devolved and local councils need resources he put forward his party’s policy (which not all Cambridge Liberal Democrats agree with) which is council tax needs to be replaced by a local income tax. He said the balance between the amount raised locally with the amount given by grants from the centre needs to be changed in favour of the former. This he said would ensure that accountability for actions taken by councils would be much more direct, it would be clearer that it was your money they’re spending on your behalf. He complained that currently local councils are predominantly simply agents for central government.

Probing the Speakers

The three questioners (who the agenda described as “interlocutors”) on the platform then put points to the speakers. One member of the audience took umbrage with this format, describing it as “elites talking to elites”, and shortly afterwards walked out.

The first question was directed to Daniel Zeichner, he was asked if he agreed that giving power to local authorities without accompanying resources doesn’t get us far and if so how he would transfer to a more local tax-take. Mr Zeichner’s response was that the Business Rate Supplements Bill had already made this power available, it was just authorities were choosing not to use it.

When questioned on council tax, he said a local property tax was important, and it was right that we fund our services through a basket of taxes.

Tony Juniper was asked to comment on the same subject, he spoke about local authority bonds, as used in the USA, to fund local infrastructure projects and said he “would be inclined to putting them on the agenda”. He spoke against any structure which would result in richer areas (as Cambridge is) retaining more of their wealth and said that he was “looking to help those parts of the country which are less well off”.

Richard Norminton again agreed with Tony Juniper, he too pointed to bonds which are used elsewhere to finance extra infrastructure. He said he didn’t want a local income tax on the grounds that he didn’t want his local authority knowing his income, and on the grounds that any system would be too complex. He said that the level of council tax was currently too low and that had come about as an attempt to soften the blow when the poll tax was got rid of.

Ian Nimmo-Smith countered the Conservative critique of a local income tax, saying that there was no need for a local council to know the details of an individual’s circumstances; suggesting I think, collection could be handled centrally. Business rates were mentioned by Ian Nimmo-Smith; he said that only 9% of what’s raised locally is currently returned to be spent locally. He said local business want greater proportion returned to be spent on things like education, training and transport locally. He too said that tools like bonds and other means of “levying to achieve capital” work. Personally I think we need to be discouraging more public sector debt.

John Hipkin asked Daniel Zeichner to comment on the fact the Government are “hot on sending down housing targets”, and they press to have those targets fulfilled without providing the funding to go with them. He made his question specific to Cambridge, speaking about the TIF bid for which the county council had to bid for, in competition with other areas, and for which they would only be considered if they agreed to a deeply unpopular congestion charge. Cllr Hipkin asked: “Is this a rational way of funding infrastructure development?”.

Daniel Zeichner replied saying that housing targets don’t come out of thin air but are based on “predictions” and defended their existence saying “someone has to set targets”. He said he didn’t have a problem with the current, regional level, at which targets are set. Is said that without targets there would be few local authorities rushing to volunteer to have development in their areas. He said that there were significant resources coming forward in the Cambridge growth areas, and Cambridge Horizons is the key organisation put together to push things forward. He did note he didn’t agree with all Horizons does. He then addressed the ways of extracting public benefit from the planning gain. He said that the government had tried to introduce a planning gain supplement, and from next April the Community Infrastructure Levy would address the question of letting the public get at the increase in value (from £10K to £2m per acre he quoted) resulting from the approval of planning permission on open land. Daniel Zeichner didn’t even attempt to defend the TIF process for bidding for transport funds.

Ought there be a Unitary Authority for Cambridge?

Ian Nimmo-Smith, leader of the City Council, went first on this subject saying: “Many of the activities of the city are hampered, if not hamstrung as powers don’t reside locally in key areas such as the road network and transport strategy. What we have at present is not as fit for purpose as it should be. We need a Cambridge which has got all the powers within a joined up council.”

Richard Normington said: “There is always a huge temptation to jump on the local government reorganisation merry-go-round. There are differences in what councils do. Where there are problems such as traffic it is possible to set up organisations where councils talk to each other.” (Cllr Nimmo-Smith shook his head vigorously at this point; I wonder if Richard Normington has sat through a Traffic AJC meeting. I have and am aware city members are at the mercy of the Conservative County Council Cabinet). Richard Normington did note one flaw with the current arrangement, the question of which political holds power where and at what level and that there would be conflicts. He said “The Liberal Democrats can’t expect neat little boxes, mostly as restrictions are placed on local councils by central government”. Richard Normington said that £1.8m is spent by councils on compliance with central government (that doesn’t sound much if it’s national). He finished by saying: “Central government has to get its paws off local government” and reiterating he is against reorganisation.

Tony Juniper described the “situation in terms of delivery at a sub-national level” as “messy and not joined up” and “expensive and inefficient”. He said that here we had a group of QuANGOs whereas in other countries such as Germany they have joined up local government. He said he was in favour of looking at this, but had “no crystalised answer” he said that one reason people didn’t engage with politics as they can’t work out what’s going on.

Daniel Zeichner said there was a clear case for a unitary authority and said that if Labour wins the next general election he would invite Ian Nimmo-Smith to come with him to meet the relevant minister to put the case, with him, for a unitary authority for Cambridge.

Summing up

Each speaker was given the opportunity to sum up on the subject of if the structure of local government in Cambridge is appropriate.

Richard Normington said the Conservative offer at the next election was to “trust the people” and that he would like to see local authorities and planning authorities given freedom to make use of the planning gain. He said the Conservatives would give local authorities six years in which they would benefit from taxes raised on new development so that local authorities would have a real incentive to promote development.

Ian Nimmo-Smith said that Cambridge had agreed to develop the fringe areas for housing, housing that is needed for the workforce in the city. He said that in the past very restrictive planning policies had resulted in people coming into Cambridge to work, mostly by car, and that there is a need for that extra housing in order to achieve a better balance between where people live and where they work. He said that future projections in the Regional Spatial Strategy were not sustainable and EERA’s proposals are unacceptable and must be opposed.

Daniel Zeichner said that over the last decade the argument for new housing had come along way and people have accepted that they do need housing. He urged the electorate not to throw it all away [by voting out the Labour government], he said that tremendous work had been done by many local authorities which needed to be allowed to finish the job.

Tony Juniper said there was a need to shift to more local government; but that wasn’t the key question for “most people”. He said the important question was what will the city be like in 10,20,30 years time and there is a need to engage on the question of how we can build a city or the future. He said that the kind of question being discussed – on the current structure of local government – doesn’t get people excited and engaged.

My View

I think it is important that decisions are taken at an appropriate level, and that we have an effective democracy where people’s views count. Richard Normington, Tony Juniper and Ian-Nimmo Smith have I think taken localism too far; and the current Labour Government has removed the democratic element from major planning decisions. Currently public and democratic involvement is frustrated by so many different stages to the planning process, and the existence of an unelected and unaccountable planning inspector. I think there is a need to simplify the many stages, ensure that objections once raised are considered at all future stages if they are still applicable, and most importantly democratic accountability needs to be at the core of the system. It needs to be made a lot easier to find out what is proposed and engage with the debate. I think the current Cambridge City boundaries fail to reflect the reality of the city, and the surrounding area. I think the City’s boundaries should be redrawn to cover a much wider area and the council’s powers increased.

What are the Appropriate Limits to Growth in the Cambridge Region

Ian Nimmo-Smith “answered” this by saying that “growth had already been through the democratic process” and there is a need to ensure housing is provided.

Tony Juniper said “We can be clear that some growth in housing is needed in the years ahead as more of us will be accumulated, irrespective of immigration. The biggest question is where do we put it, do we want to be clustering in the South East where the economy happens to be hottest?” He said we should look at how people can be attracted to other parts of the country than this little corridor between Bournemouth and Cambridge. This is a big question but it has to be on the agenda. We have continued to grow the economy, but levels of well being have stayed the same since the 1970s, the issues are much deeper.

Daniel Zeichner said that Tony Juniper had set down a very big challenge, and when the Labour government came in they tried to do that. He said it was hugely difficult to push economic activity elsewhere, giving the example of the BBC “still reviling” against a move to Salford. He said that people need housing here and now, and again made a plea not to risk the plans already in place. He said there were thousands still without housing, and he said there needed to be transport alongside housing allocations. He turned specifically to the proposed development on the Marshall Airfield, he said that building 12K houses on that site was dependent on a congestion charge and doesn’t work if that charge isn’t there. He said he did worry about some of the current allocations such as that one.

Richard Normington said that growth limits are a subject we’re not allowed to talk about locally as the government sets the targets and decided where houses are going to go. “That’s the problem with the system and it needs to be changed” he said. He also brought in a statistic saying 47% of new homes are flats, blaming the government for having a “peculiar set of incentives in place”.

Probing the Speakers

Cllr Hipkin lead the questioning on the subject of growth limits. He started with a question to Richard Normington: “Your party (the Conservatives) have said it will reverse the top-down process, you say if you give greater power to local authorities they will not resist growth but will take on the responsibility. You say there will be incentives to local authorities – what sort of incentives will induce local authorities to the notion of unbridled growth and get them serious about providing housing, particularly social housing?”

Richard Normington replied saying that his party’s policies would provide an opportunity to have a different debate, a debate about what we can bring into the community. He said that people might be looking for new shopping centres or different ways of bringing economic growth. He said people will want to have extra facilities for their community.

Addressing Tony Juniper John Hipkin said: “You spoke about the need to redistribute wealth. If you take the case of Cambridge it happens to be at the centre of a county which includes some of the poorest areas in the country such as Chatteris. How do you expect the economic growth to be diverted and how are you seeking to bring about that?”

Tony Juniper replied saying that the reason we’ve got inequality is that we’re pitched into a situation where there are clear differences between winners and losers. This inequality, he said, is the greatest threat to the world. In terms of rural East Anglia he said we needed to “relocalise the economy” and create relationships within the region so we are competing with each other and not countries on the other side of the world. He proposed moving to sustainable farming, giving an example of an organic farm which employs thirty times the number of people as a typical farm the same size and, Mr Juniper said, “produces food people want to eat”. He said that the lack of a wind industry in the UK showed the weakness of the global system. Mr Juniper was also the only speaker to mention water as a limiting resource; this is one I think is often overlooked and particularly important (possibly needing a large national piece of infrastructure to solve as well as efforts to reduce demand in new developments).

John Hipkin questioned Ian Nimmo-Smith saying that people’s reaction to growth was like driving and hitting a bank of fog; they couldn’t see where they were going so the instinctive reaction is to step on the breaks. He said people have no vision and can’t see what it will be like. He asked Ian Nimmo-Smith to describe his vision of the Cambridge of the Future, in the mid-21st century.

Ian Nimmo-Smith responded saying that this would be a city his children and grandchildren would see. He predicted that many strengths we have now will have developed, such as the university, the knowledge based economy, the fine East Anglian Landscape, the commons and open spaces reaching out of the city. He pointed to the fact the city had been enlarging its amount of publically accessible green space in the new development areas. He said the city of the future will be vibrant due to the considerable proportion of younger people which will continue to be a feature of the city. A diversity of cultures, races, places of origin and a diversity of cultural and sporting activity would also remain present he predicted he said “this city is one I’m confident the people of Cambridge will want to be nurturing”.

John Hipkin pursued Ian Nimmo-Smith on some specifics, he said currently Cambridge was a concentric city with everything looking towards the historic core. He said you really feel the growth in the city centre. He asked if Cambridge might develop, if the city was to expand in a serious way, to make it a nodal city with alternative centres which would take some of the pressure off the city centre. He asked if the airport development would become a district people wanted to be in, or just a housing estate.

Ian Nimmo-Smith said he was happy to say yes, and accept a nodal city as a good description. He said there was already one small new centre – at Cambridge Leisure. On Cambridge East, he said “If you’ve seen the Marshall master planning – that does envisage institutions relocating to a new campus in an area like that; relocating institutions, sports venues etc. and not encouraging a purely dormitory suburb was the direction to be taken, but creating strong local identities within the framework of a compact city”.

Questioning Daniel Zeichner Cllr Hipkin asked: “Why when the council try and get developers to build to higher carbon reduction standards does the government prevent this?”. Zeichner replied saying the reason was investor confidence. He said part of the debate is “how high do you set standards”, and described a delicate balance with between developers and environmental targets.

Tony Juniper jumped in on this point, complaining that the government’s accepted (low) targets reflect the interests of the likes of Barrett Homes who he said made up stories saying that can’t meet higher targets. He described mass house builder’s way of doing business as chucking up a load of rubbish and said they had found a way of basically printing money. What they should be doing he said was trialing new methods of house building, saying that already it had been demonstrated that a zero carbon house can be built for £60K and the government ought demand this is what they do.

This is one area where I strongly agree with Tony Juniper; the quality of homes in terms of energy usage, is nowhere near as good as it could be. This has to be an area for government to demand high standards. The government has to be dong the long term forward thinking, looking at the potential of energy insecurity and rising energy costs in the future. Insisting on better quality new builds now is an excellent way of investing in the future of the country. Wider quality issues need to be addressed to, particularly in this region where most new housing appears much poorer quality than what is built elsewhere in the country.

Daniel Zeichner said it was a huge battle with the development industry to get them to do things. He said there was a risk of loosing investment from developers if ambitions were set too high, he said developers held out to maximise profits. He also made the apparently unconnected point that the reason there were “no domestic windfarms” was because “conservative councils say no” – he said they would do the same thing with housing.

Answering the point about Conservative planning policy Richard Normington said that planning has to be done right, and if it can’t be done right it shouldn’t be done at all. He said targets should be set and if builders build they do, if they don’t they don’t and if local people say the targets are unrealistic, under the Conservatives they can throw the local councillors responsible for setting them out of office.

Ian Nimmo-Smith said the problem with getting improved standards is that house builders think short term and there is a need to connect them with house buyers and managers to get them to look long term. He said Cambridge University is building to higher standards because they’ve got a whole cycle view of what’s needed and are building for the long term. The consumer, Ian Nimmo-Smith said, can’t see the point in spending an extra £5K no a house to ensure energy efficiency.

Tony Juniper said that building houses would not result in the price falling and enabling people to afford houses. He said that you would have to build millions of houses to significantly affect the price. One problem he said was that current activity was all about the market rather than council housing, and there was a need to set targets for council housing. He said he wanted to see a “greater percentage mix of zero carbon council houses”.

My View

Building new houses can, in my view, affect market prices but only if it is good quality, both in terms of the build and location. Poor quality housing won’t affect house prices outside new developemts; high quality well located new homes will. I think there needs to be care taken with the provision of social housing and shared ownership that they are not pursued at the expense making properties on the open market more affordable. I do not think that it is good for society to have too great a proportion of social housing. In addition to their affect on market prices they reduce people’s mobility to the determent of the national economy.
The current cost of a home as multiple of salary is a figure which needs to be brought down; housing supply is only one small variable affecting this, the easy availability of credit, and the willingness of people to take on debt is another very significant factor which also has to be tackled.

Should Growth Be Accompanied by Appropriate Infrastructure and How Should the Infrastructure be Funded?

The chairman introduced this question speaking of a trip he had made to china where he had visited an area where there were first just roads, then on his return saw a complete town.

Richard Normington said that Cambridge would benefit from a proper ring road. He noted that two of the biggest employment spots, the science park and hospital are outside the city centre.

Daniel Zeichner commented that he was sure the local people in the area where the new town in China had been built didn’t have much say in what was happening. Zeichner complained that very few people understand the arguments about how to fund infrastructure, he said few people had heard of the Community Infrastructure Levy as it was not covered in the press. He complained about Tony Juniper’s contributions being just rhetoric Zeichner repeated what he had said before about things getting really hard once you were in Government. He said that after a decade Labour was now close to solving the problems, CIF, coming next year being an example. He said if there was a better option than CIF he wanted someone to tell him what it was.

Ian Nimmo-Smith said it was clear that you needed to have infrastructure in place at the time it is needed. He suggested creating a bank which could invest and then get its money back.

Tony Juniper said that infrastructure spans a range of different things, he asked those present to consider the challenges which had been faced in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s and recognise that the assumptions about the past don’t hold for the future. He said we should be thinking about local services as an alternative to road building, and gave the example of the Cambridge Green party campaigning against the closure of a post office. He said he would like to see a school, a doctor, a post office within ten minutes walking of where everyone lives. He said that water and “green infrastructure” were also important for quality of life. He told everyone he was backing Wicken Fen and said 99% of wetlands in East Anglia had been lost. He finished by switching to calling for “getting serious about district heating” and small scale heating. He said there was a potential export market there if it could be got right.

As Tony Juniper and Daniel Zeichner had been talking about the redistribution of wealth, the other speakers were asked for their views on the “North / South divide”

Ian Nimmo-Smith said he was very much a local politician and had not applied his mind to the question.

Richard Normington said that that government centrally has been obsessed with solving this problem; which is why this area is a net contributor and other areas net beneficiaries.

Tony Juniper expressed a view that developers have got to pay more.

Daniel Zeichner was asked about “how to get things done”, and if he like the idea of infrastructure on a 19th Century scale such as tunnels under Cherry Hinton. He was asked if present policies take infrastructure far enough. In reply he said he agreed, there were not enough big infrastructure projects. He said that he had met Yvette Cooper as local housing minister and thought that government needed to get more involved. He balanced this by also saying that local people would revile against imposition by central government as they respect their local authorities. He complained though that local authorities and Cambridgeshire Horizons had not come up with large infrastructure projects, putting some of the blame on the “section 106″ route for funding.

Further Questions to the speakers

The panel were asked if they thought a levy on developers, be it the current system or the proposed CIF, was the right mechanism to fund infrastructure. They were asked this in the context of the side at the junction of Hills Road and Cherry Hinton road where the developer is currently arguing for a reduction in their contribution from £1.5m to £0.5m. The questioner also said that an assumption that there would be no children in one and two bed flats had been demonstrated to be false (suggesting contributions should reflect that).

Ian Nimmo-Smith said he was not one to defend planners and planning is not a perfect science.

Tony Juniper brought the “Major Infrastructure Planning Commission” into the discussion. Talking about developers contributions he said that there was an assumption that developers were entitled to 15-18% of their costs as profit, and they thought that as that was no longer realisable they ought be entitled to make a lower contribution. The fact that often the council doesn’t know how to spend contributions in lieu of green space, as there’s no green space available to buy in the city for the sums available, was also raised. (Too often they go for “developing” existing spaces which can mean, as the proposals for Jesus Green showed, covering over grassed areas).

Richard Normington said that the Conservatives have pledged to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission if elected to Government and to deal with over-long planning processes. He said he supported speeding up planning inquiries. Richard Normington then attacked Tony Juniper’s “localism” proposals saying he wanted us all to return to the stone age, then perhaps realising Juniper’s views are not quite that extreme, characterised the green policy as being “to go back to an Elizabethan Economy”. To which Tony Juniper responded: “I was talking about schools and hospitals”. I think Richard Normington was right to draw attention to the rather extreme viewpoint taken by Tony Juniper.

The panel were then asked “What Should We Do?”. Tony Juniper said we needed to set clear standards for new development; ensure the legal system was balanced, and ensure that infrastructure planning QuANGOs were “deactivated” and power is returned to local communities.

Richard Normington said he wanted local authorities to be given the power to keep development under control.

Ian Nimmo-Smith said that the developers were not the enemy, but there is a need to work with them. He blamed the financial climate for problems rather than the current system.

Can Cambridge Survive Without Marshall?

This question was put to the speakers. Ian Nimmo-Smith jumped in first to claim: “No one is forcing Marshall to move”. He continued: “Their airport site is £1.5 billion worth of land. The company has adapted to change and opportunities in the past.” He then gave a speech he had given at the Full Council the previous day about the company flying their engineers out to other countries rather than bringing planes to Cambridge. He said this was a greener way of working.

Daniel Zeichner said Cambridge would survive, but wouldn’t be the same without Marshall. He made clear he would support Marshall staying the city. He said four thousand houses could be built on the site without affecting the operation of the company. He said asked Richard Normington how he would defend the Conservatives at the County Council who are (along with the City’s Liberal Democrats) pushing for development of houses on the site. Richard Normington repeated his argument that if the county council wanted to influence what was happening they had to go along with what the government were requiring them to do.

How Can “Ordinary People” Be Engaged in Planning?

Daniel Zeichner said this was a hard question. He said the answer was to have more politicians going out and talking to people.
Tony Juniper said that too often proposals were developer led and said more ought be “people led”.
Richard Normington said most normal people wanted to be left alone. He said the fact 37% of planning decisions locally are overturned on appeal was a major problem with engagement as local democratic decisions were not respected.
Ian Nimmo-Smith attacked Richard Normington for his “utopian ideal” in suggesting people could be “left alone”. He said that the answer to public engagement in planning was more “development control forums” such as those run by Cambridge City Council.

Along the same lines as the point of view expressed by Tony Juniper I think there is a need for more proactive strategic planning at all levels the system needs to be less reactive to developers’ proposals.

In their final comments Tony Juniper said the city needed to decide if its verges were for cars or for grass and trees. He spoke again about his involvement in the “Great Fen Project” and Wicken Fen. Daniel Zeichner said we needed more zero carbon homes, and to transform busses. Ian Nimmo-Smith drew attention to the fact there are plans to more than double the amount of public green space in the city as more homes are built.

My View of the Speakers

While I think that the Green Party’s views have enough support that they ought be heard in Parliament I don’t think this ought happen by Tony Juniper being elected to represent Cambridge and Cambridge residents as the city’s MP. To enable representation of such voices I would like to see an element of the House of Lords open to any groups which can muster an electorate of a size determined by the competition for the available seats. I think it is a problem that the current system doesn’t result in appropriate representation of minority parties and viewpoints which have support thinly spread across geographical constituencies.

Tony Juniper made many very sensible statements which I agree with, but he also revealed himself and his party to have quite extreme views, which I believe if translated into policy would be terrible for the country. For example he proposed extreme protectionism, blocking trade with the rest of the world, to create a localised economy. I fear his policies would result in the country getting poorer and individuals would also poorer particularly by having to spend a greater fraction of income on food – just one of many consequences of rolling the economy back many centuries as he proposes. I think its excellent that Mr Juniper is standing and making his arguments, I just hope my fellow residents of Cambridge vote for someone more moderate.

Daniel Zeichner made very clear that a vote for him is a vote for the current Labour government continuing just as it is. I thought it was notable that Mr Zeichner made no comment about Cambourne. He had recently come under attack for calling the new town “unsustainable” and “soulless” though rapidly backtracked and apologised after residents complained about his comments. If he has truly changed his views then his apology is commendable, though it makes me wonder how strongly held his opinions were in the first place. I think we need to learn lessons from Cambourne and not hold it up as an example to follow. This is critical with a similar development in Northstowe in its early stages. We need someone who stands firm by their convictions (unless they are convinced by a better argument) to represent Cambridge.

Richard Normington’s contributions left me concerned that he was downplaying the role of national government too much. We’re only a small county and I think Parliament, if allowed to be effective, can be a highly democratic forum and the right place to make major decisions on matters such as national infrastructure and energy generation. I felt he was overplaying the importance of local democracy, local decision making and empowering local councils. I support all these things, but not to the excessive degree Mr Normington appeared to. I think that decisions have got to be made an an appropriate level and that clarifying statement was missing from Normington’s position. On the structure of local government Normington argued the current situation is fine. Someone at the event said it was ludicrous for body with powers not much greater than a town or parish council to run one of the most economically important cities in the country I have more sympathy for that view than the opinion that all’s fine.

Ian Nimmo-Smith’s contribution was unsurprising: indecisive inconsistency is what you get from the Liberal Democrats. It’s difficult to argue with someone who says one thing and does another. For example on encouraging Marshall to move but claiming to support the company staying in Cambridge, or saying we need infrastructure to support growth but opposing the upgrade of the A14. I felt Ian Nimmo-Smith was not up-front and clear about his party’s position, too often he failed to explain what it was rather than state and defend it for example during the discussion on roads he didn’t mention the A14.


The meeting was due to be chaired by Nigel Brown (see the self promoting page on his company’s site entitled “decades of dedication”). Mr Brown did not turn up.

As far as I could tell no members of the professional press were present.

There was a £3 charge on the door to cover the costs of hiring the building. Those attending had to give their names in advance and names were taken at the door.

I make no apologies for the length of this article. I want to do all I can to make it easy to find out what the candidate’s views are. I have done my best to accurately record what was said. As always any corrections, either in the comments, or to me via email, will be gratefully received.

24 comments/updates on “Cambridge Parliamentary Hustings Focusing on Growth

  1. Brian Johnson

    Well done, Richard. That looks to be a good synopsis of the meeting.

    But, I have to say that, having read it, all I want to do is sigh.

    Why have we no candidate who cherry-picks the (obvious) best of the options and is prepared to stand up for those in front of their own party?

    At the moment, I fear we simply have party mouthpieces.

    Oh, and well done John ‘Locutus’ Hipkin – we need more like him.

    (Where do we send our share of the £3 entry fee? ;) )

  2. Chris

    Terrific article Richard. I’d like you to know that your blog is really appreciated by a lot of people.

    Those who say that the internet is killing off local journalism (for that read “local newspapers”), and is therefore apparently a bad thing for democracy, should read blogs like this …and compare what they provide with the non-existent discussion on local governance traditionally provided by the local press in cities such as Cambridge.

  3. Daniel Zeichner

    A very good account of the meeting, but just a couple of corrections! I was the speaker who compared the current powers of the city to a parish council. On your conclusion that I want the Government to carry on as is, I would take issue. I played a key role in the long battle to change the government’s view on the future of council housing, getting involved in a tough fight with John Prescott – that was all out in public and documented. I first expressed concern about PFI back in 1996, and in the last week I have given public support to postal workers. I have argued for changes to the policy on id-cards and on Trident – so I would characterise my position as certainly wanting a Labour government, but a better Labour government, and one which I think many in Cambridge would support. Finally on Cambourne, my apology was for the upset caused to residents not on the essential point which I have made whenever asked, that it is essential to put transport plans in place at the same time as making housing decisions, not afterwards as in the case with Cambridge East.

  4. Martin

    Daniel, when you say that you have “argued for changes to the policy on id-cards” can you clarify what you mean? Last time I heard you speak on this, at the meeting at Parkside a year or two ago, you seemed to put across the view that they and the database should go ahead and not be scrapped.

  5. Richard Article author

    I am grateful to Daniel Zeichner for those clarifications.

    I am surprised to hear he has argued against the government policy on ID cards. In June 2007 I watched him defend ID cards at a No2ID meeting at Parkside; there too he appeared to me to be taking a position indistinguishable from that of the Government.

    I think it is increasingly likely, despite the views from the likes of Charles Clarke, that the Labour Party will not go into the next election still proposing a national ID Card scheme and database. I hope the argument against them has already been won. Maybe that’s wishful thinking.

    Zeichiner’s view on the future of council housing is that there should be direct investment by the state rather than via housing associations or other intermediaries.

    A search for “trident” on Mr Zeichener’s website reveals no results and I can’t find his view via a Google search either. His policy page does state that he is proud of our current government for leading the debate on reducing our nuclear weapons stocks.

  6. Morcom Lunt

    As main organiser of the meeting, and in view of posts above, can I make the point that David Howarth did not refuse to attend. When possible dates for the meeting were sent out, David made it clear that he could not attend on 23rd October. We had eight people whose calendars had to be matched and on the dates that David offered, there were three of the other seven who could not. Reluctantly therefore we selected a date when we knew that David could not be present. In Ian Nimmo Smith we had an eloquent speaker who is very knowledgeable on local affairs and well immersed in Liberal Democrat policies.

  7. John Hill

    It’s all very well to say blogs don’t kill off local newspapers, but how many people are there like Richard Taylor who (commendably) gives up several hours a week for free to sit through interminable council meetings.
    Not many and even fewer with the dedication, technological know-how and lack of partisan politics that Richard has.
    Also one lawsuit and this site is history – unless Richard has a financial backer with deep pockets

  8. David Vincent

    I fully agree with all the views as to the value of this site. It is very worrying that the paucity of local news outlets mean that we seem to depend so much on the efforts of one individual. Having said that, I don’t think we can accuse Richard of lacking “partisan politics”. Lacking party politics, certainly. The important thing is that he generally makes it pretty clear where his reporting ends and his own views begin.

  9. David Vincent

    Seems a bit sudden. Obviously there is serious disarray in the local Conservative ranks. I can’t say I was especially impressed by Normington – his CV is markedly short of real jobs and studded with work for “research groups” and similar solely political roles – I am sure we will see him in a safer seat all too soon (unless of course he has been put off by the diminishing financial propsects of being an MP). Having said that, I thought Normington was essentially against a congestion charge himself. Cambridge is the sort of place that might be impressed by the idea of an open primary. Or indeed by an all-woman shortlist. However, I don’t get the impression the local conservative association will show much imagination.

  10. Richard Normington

    Richard, thanks for this summary. Just few clarifications on my comments and very small in the sum total of your work.

    *£1.8m is spent by councils on compliance with central government

    This is the average cost per council, not a national total.

    *He said that the level of council tax was currently too low

    Right now, we should be looking at how to keep taxes down across the board.

    For council tax, the gearing effect means that to raise money you see a disproportionate increase in council tax rates to achieve modest rises in overall spending.

    The proportion of local authority funding coming from local sources has fallen over the last century, with a major fall taking place when the community charge/poll tax was abolished. However, council tax has proved to be a great stealth tax for central government as Whitehall could blame local authorities for rises, even if when they were to meet new duties being placed on them by central government [eg moving licencing from the magistrates to the local authorities].

    *The chairman introduced this question speaking of a trip he had made to china where he had visited an area where there were first just roads, then on his return saw a complete town.

    That was me, not the chairman, discussing a friend’s visit. The point was to show that you can put infrastructure in place first – but I do not support the Chinese Development Control system! The ‘bridge to nowhere’ criticism is misplaced and unhelpful when infrastructure is in place early.

    *From the comments section, David Vincent “thought Normington was essentially against a congestion charge himself.”

    Yes, I am 100% against congestion charging, as I hope my successor will be.

    Richard Normington

  11. Ellee

    Great reporting yet again Richard. You are an ace news blogger. I was sad to hear that Richard Normington is standing down as a Conservative parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, especially as he took the trouble to respond to your article.

  12. Richard Article author

    Daniel Zeichner has written back to me on the question of ID Cards.

    He said:

    *While he explained the government position at the No2ID meeting that didn’t mean he agreed with it.

    *He is against compulsory ID cards.

    *He wants a less polarised debate aimed at finding the correct balance between “the benefits that advanced IT systems offer” and the “understandable demands for privacy”.

  13. David Vincent

    Good of Richard Normington to comment on his position. A pity – if unsurprising – that he didn’t feel able to explain his reasons for standing down as the PPC for Cambridge so abruptly. And good of Andrew Bower to remind us that the Conservatives are currently blocking housing development throughout the south of England and telling people to “wait until after the election”.

  14. David Vincent

    It is a pity that parliament will be losing one of the few MPs who seem to have come out of the furore about expenses with an umimpaired reputation. I had assumed David Howarth would have been re-elected fairly comfortably. I wonder if Richard Normington would have made the same decision to stand down as a candidate had he known this (of course, it may well been common knowledge in political circles for some time before it was made public).

  15. Jez McEwan

    I wonder if he would have been reelected next year – in 2005 there were students queuing round the block to vote Lib Dem following the introduction of top-up tuition fees and the ongoing Iraq war (both massive issues for city residents too). That won’t be the same in spring.

    Outgoing MPs also get a nice golden goodbye if they step down, rather than voted out.

  16. Richard Article author

    The Committee on Standards in Public Life Report on MPs’ Expenses and Allowances published on the 4th of November 2009 has recommended a change to the system. Paragraph 26 of the report states:

    When MPs leave office they are entitled to redundancy pay in the form of a resettlement grant. Unlike most redundancy arrangements, the grant is paid to all MPs leaving Parliament at dissolution, including those who go voluntarily for retirement or other reasons. We recommend that, starting immediately after the next election, only those whose departure is involuntary should receive the grant. MPs who stand down voluntarily should instead receive an additional eight weeks’ pay to assist with the transition and to cover the time they spend on bringing their parliamentary work to a close.

    Recommendation 30 summarises the above. Recommendation 31 states: “The resettlement grant should be paid at a rate of one month’s salary for each year of service as an MP up to a maximum of nine months’ salary, as proposed by the SSRB (Senior Salaries Review Board)”.

    The current system is ageist (the amount paid varies depending on the age of the MP, and on the number of years served; the scheme can pay up to a year’s salary to an MP who loses an election which I feel is not right).

    I think the current system is wrong, it is far too generous and inequitable. The nature of the role of an MP is that every-time there is a general election MPs know they may be booted out of office by their electorate. Individuals need to plan for that eventuality themselves, they are not in a particularly special position, many have people, for example the self-employed, live on incomes which might disappear with little or no notice.

    MPs may “resign” decide not to stand again, or they may lose an election. Those are the only options. Even if they are deselected by their party they can still stand, and as Ken Livingstone and others have shown, those who deselected by parties can still stand for elected office and win. There is always notice that an election is impending.

    The only payment at the end of a term of office I think could be defensible would be a small payment to enable transfer of casework; perhaps enough to keep a member of office staff employed for an extra month or two, or to enable the MP themselves to carry out that work.

    There may be interesting consequences if the recommendations in the Standards in Public Life Report are adopted. MPs may be more willing to rebel against their parties, especially when they are thinking of retiring as being thrown out rather than retiring will result in a financial benefit to them. Also, as the recommendations will only come in for the next Parliament, it may encourage even more MPs to stand down before the next general election.

  17. David Vincent

    We must be very careful that we do not return to the position where only rich men (and it will be largely men) are able to be MPs. Pay for MPs was introduced so that ordinary people would be able to stand, not just those with private incomes or private fortunes (or rich backers pulling their strings as we see in the USA). As it is, we are seeing a situation where parliament is filled with “professional politicians” – candidates such as Richard Normington, whose career is spent in Central Office, lobbyists’ offices, “think tanks” and the like. If we get trade unionists, they will be people who have worked as administrators in unions, rather than worked in jobs and simply been members of trade unions. We will have the odd barrister or journalist (who can carry on earning a supplementary income whilst being an MP). And we will have row after row of people with no hinterland, no experience of anything other than meetings and focus-groups, who speak that horrible business-speak of consultants rather than any language known to those who vote for them. If we do not give MPs decent redundancy payments (and redundancy payments in general are “ageist”, Richard, in that the calculation changes according to the age of the person made redundant – I assume the theory correctly being that it is harder to get another job the older you are), then we should not be surprised when those MPs turn up as “consultants” or “non-exercutive directors”, explaining to businesses and banks how to play the system, or renting out their name to put on the notepaper. Which decent and capable citizens in their right minds are going to want to be an MP if all they get is press intrusion into every aspect of their lives, a fairly low salary and the chance of being thrown out at the whim of the electorate with a few weeks wages. Perhaps we should bring in the last of the Chartists’ demands – annual parliaments. You might find good people who would be willing to take a year or two off to run the country, and it would at least stop them becoming institutionalised.

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