Cambridge Central Library cuts and the shape of things to come

cambscc08:20 Thursday 4th June 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: Should a councillor from Ramsey or Whittlesea be able to decide what happens in Cambridge city centre? Well that’s exactly what happened with the controversial decision about Cambridge Central Libray earlier on this week. It’s prompted new calls to make Cambridge a unitary authority, the same as Peterborough. ┬áLet’s speak to the Group Leader councillor Ashley Walsh. So what benefits do you think there could be to Cambridge of a change like this?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well I think Cambridge is now a city of huge national importance, it’s rate of growth, the importance for the Eastern and Southern economies, (such) that we really have to be able to control our own destiny in terms of how we want to grow, what sectors of the economy we want to develop into. And we don’t have the power to do that at the moment, because most councillors represent parts of the county that have very little to do with Cambridge, and centre around places like Peterborough, or places around Norfolk. And they just don’t get what Cambridge needs and what it needs to do in the future.
DOTTY MCLEOD: There is a flip side to this of course, which is that if you became a unitary authority in Cambridge, you would no longer have the power to decide on things going on in Ramsey and Whittlesea and Wisbech. Would you be happy with that?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well I think when councils work together very well, as the City Council and South Cambridgeshire do over developing housing, then you can have the power to do that, because you influence each other and you work together. But the Central Library is ust one eaxmple of where Cambridge has suffered because people representing elsewhere in the county have not been able to develop beyond their own parochial interests.
DOTTY MCLEOD: It’s just democracy, isn’t it, the fact that people in different areas decide on one thing that might affect one other area?
ASHLEY WALSH: That’s true. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with having two layers of local government. The big problem now is that because cuts have been so bad, it’s now becoming an argument about defending your own local area from the scale of the huge spending reductions. So although it might sound like a high ideal to be democratic and represent the whole county, because we have very little money around, people are just defending their own interests. The reason I think that we’ve had to lose the third floor of the Central Library is because Conservatives have historically underfunded branch libraries in the county. And Cambridge is now having to pay that price.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. Well let’s talk about what happens when a council becomes a unitary authority. One man who knows a lot about this is counciilor Charles Swift, an Independent councillor for North ward in Peterborough. Been a councillor more more than six decades, so seen many changes, not least Peterborough becoming a unitary authority. So you’ve been a councillor before and after Peterborough became a unitary authority. Has it been good for the city do you think?

CHARLES SWIFT: Well it was good for the city when the concept was first originated. And that gentleman just speaking has hit the nail right on top of the head. Cost cuts. Now we became a unitary authority in 1998, and I used to serve on the Cambridgeshire County Council some fifteen years as well. But when we became a unitary authority and had all the in-house services, what we didn’t have at that particular time was all the massive cuts, and the powers being taken away from local authorities which have been taken away now. Now we’re a unitary authority now, and I’m sitting in my chair in Scotney Street now. There is no services that I as a councillor administer in the ward I’m representing, because 92% of all our services now in a unitary authority have been put out to the private sector, including the libraries. So unless they can wave a magic wand at Cambridge, and get the finances that you require, they’ll be in the same boat as Peterborough that can’t run the services, and it won’t matter whether you’re a unitary authority or a Tom Dick and Harry. You just can’t function. And what we must realise and your listeners must realise and so must councillors that we’re on our way out, completely on our way out, and services. And what they’re talking about now, Manchester and all these other areas are becoming larger authorities. So there is very little space left, and very little functions. And even if Cambridge take over education, well education is going out into the free schools or academies and goodness knows what. So he’s got a cultural shock coming in a way. If it becomes a unitary authority, he’ll find he’s powerless.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Let’s get Ashley’s view on that. A bit of a warning shot Ashley Walsh.
ASHLEY WALSH: Yes, and I would do well to listen. A man of such long experience and I’m only in my mid-20s. So I should pay attention. But the thing that’s unique about Cambridge I suggest is that they’ve very wisely over the last thirty years invested in commercial property, invested in the growth industries in Cambridge. So the scale of austerity on the district level in Cambridge has not actually been that bad compared to lots of otehr authorities. So they have an investment capacity to look after these services in the public sector that other councils don’t have.
DOTTY MCLEOD: He’s very confident isn’t he Charlie.
CHARLES SWIFT: He’ll find he’ll be selling his assets off, selling the family silver off in Cambridge, to pay for these things he’s talking about now. So at the end of the day you run your assets down to try to provide the services.