[C]HRIS MANN: So, the man who was, until earlier this year, the most powerful politician in Cambridgeshire local government, has declared his support for a radical shake-up, and the abolition of a tier of councils. It would mean an end to Cambridge City Council, East Cambs, South Cambs, Hunts District and Fenland. In their place, former Conservative Leader of the County Council Nick Clarke now favours a new unitary authority for Greater Cambridge, and an enlargement of the one in Peterborough that already exists. He says the move would save money and be more effective. I’ll get reaction live in the studio from the Leader of Cambridge City Council, and the Leader of Huntingdonshire District Council, both with axes apparently poised above their heads. But first of all Nick Clarke. Welcome.
NICK CLARKE: Good afternoon Chris.
CHRIS MANN: You didn’t say this when you were in power.
NICK CLARKE: No. Absolutely. I’ve always believed that unitary is the right thing from a management sense, but the pain to go through to achieve that would have been a complete distraction right now, when we should be focusing on the people of Cambridgeshire. What’s changed is that the County Council has decided to throw away the strong leadership model of the County Council, and move to committees. So in some senses the dynamism will go anyway, so now is the time, in reference to the cost savings that need to be made, to look again at the structures of all the councils.
CHRIS MANN: Because at the moment of course different councils do different things. So the people doing planning don’t run roads, and so on. There’s all sorts of a mix up. This would provide all local government services under one roof. Am I right?
NICK CLARKE: Yes. It’s not a new concept. Peterborough has been doing it for some time. The trouble with the unitary is that it needs to be big enough to have the critical mass to carry out its activities. I know in the past people have said they would like a unitary for Cambridge, but what they really mean there is for things to carry on as they are, but to acquire more powers, typically over highways. The County Council of course, the majority of its work is in things like adult social care and childrens’ services, and you need enough critical mass to make that work. So anything less than sort of half the County each probably wouldn’t work. In an ideal world, you’d want to include Peterborough in one large unitary for the whole county, but I suspect that’s a step too far.
CHRIS MANN: Let’s just talk about how you would split this up geographically. The one in the south of the County would provide all local government services for Cambridge, the south and east of the County, and am I right most of Huntingdonshire, do you think?
NICK CLARKE: I think where people naturally look towards Peterborough for their support, then that would quite reasonably that they should be included in the unitary for Peterborough. But it’s about the travel to work area. It’s about the economic footprint of the particular two areas, Peterborough and Cambridge. And where they naturally sit is where the unitary should sit.
CHRIS MANN: So Peterborough unitary would be enlarged to take in the north of Huntingdonshire around Sawtry, and most of Fenland.
NICK CLARKE: I think that’s probably the natural break. I’m sure there’d be some finessing that could take place there. I’m not sure what Martin Curtis would think about Whittlesey going into Peterborough, but there you go.
CHRIS MANN: Martin Curtis of course is the current Leader, your successor, Leader of the County Council. Let’s get some reaction . Let’s bring in, first of all, Jason Ablewhite, who’s a fellow Conservative. Leader of Huntingdonshire District Council. Jason, hello to you.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Hello.
CHRIS MANN: So, split Huntingdonshire in two effectively and get rid of your District Council.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Yes. I’ve got a certain sympathy to what Nick has just said, in terms of how you get the most efficiency out of local government at the moment. It’s what we’re all looking at at the moment, what local government is going to be looking like in the future. I’ve got a great deal of sympathy for that argument. But even the thought of splitting Huntingdonshire into two is something I think would be a step too far for a lot of its residents. It’s got a proud history and a proud tradition, and was a unitary authority in its own right, hence the word Huntingdonshire.
CHRIS MANN: So if we forget that geographical thing, the general principle, because you already share back room staff, don’t you ..
JASON ABLEWHITE: Yes.
CHRIS MANN: .. lots of you.
JASON ABLEWHITE: I think in terms of the actual principle, I think it’s where, if we’re all honest with each other, I think it’s where we accept that it’s heading. This is where local government is heading. The three tier system was always going to be clumsy. It was introduced in 1974, giving little dribs and drabs for local parish councils to do, which are now the most, on the whole, the town councils especially, the most inefficient tier of local authority, spending 60% on average of their budget on administration, to deliver the other 40%. So yes, there is an argument for it. But I think what you would see with a reorganisation of local government in essence, which is what we’re talking about, would be the complete reduction of three tiers to create a unitary authority across a geographic area.
CHRIS MANN: Let’s bring in our third guest now. Tim Bick is Leader of Cambridge City Council. You’re a LibDem. Are you agreeing with the Conservatives on this principle?
TIM BICK: I’m not sure at this stage it’s a question of political party policy. I think it’s about what makes sense for the area as a total. I’m pleased that someone like Nick is now opening his mind to different ways of doing things from the status quo. And I think that’s really something that we’ve been arguing for from a city for a long time. We would agree that there should be one level of elected councillors providing most of the services that people receive.
CHRIS MANN: So it’s wrong at the moment, in other words. It’s inefficient at the moment.
TIM BICK: It is. It’s complex for the electorate to understand. It’s provocative of unnecessary argument between different layers of councillors. And so it would be an excellent step, and the City councillors has argued that for a long time, to have a single layer of government for the local area.
CHRIS MANN: OK. Got some reaction on Twitter already .. Mr P says ” .. should be the one to save money. Current Peterborough administration has shown it doesn’t work.” Phil says ” Not sure on this. Not sure what benefit Peterborough gets from being one now.” And Richard asks whether Nick Clarke is about to launch his to become Mayor of Greater Cambridgeshire. Nick?
NICK CLARKE: Well let me do the last one first. No I’m not. (THEY LAUGH)
JASON ABLEWHITE: Yes you are.
CHRIS MANN: Oh yes you are says Jason Ablewhite.
NICK CLARKE: Thank you for the nomination but I still say oh no I’m not. But look, there’s no point taking Peterborough as an example, because there are people that don’t like the politics in Peterborough.
CHRIS MANN: Which are led by the Conservatives.
NICK CLARKE: It doesn’t matter who they’re led by. I totally agree with Tim. This has nothing to do with party politics. This is about looking at the structures. Are they fit for purpose? Can we afford them? The fact that we have six chief executives, excluding Peterborough, across Cambridgeshire, all being paid north of £100,000 a year doesn’t make sense.
CHRIS MANN: Tracey Roberts on Facebook says “Would it mean more funding, or would more money be used to duplicate services? Not sure the public would benefit.” David Hawk says, ” It depends very much on whether the needs of the rural community can be balanced with those in the cities. Priorities can be quite different. I always assume this is why Cambridge has its own council, rather than being part of South Cambs. It has different priorities.” Tim, of course Cambridge City hardly goes out to the boundaries of the city. It’s quite small.
TIM BICK: The boundaries of Cambridge City are a problem. They don’t really make any sense today, and the city is growing beyond them. But the area where I would take issue a little bit with Nick here is that although the economics of this are a very important aspect, I don’t think they’re the only aspect. And I’ll echo a little of what Jason is saying here. I think it’s very important that we base the areas for local councils and unitary councils included on places were there is a real community of interest, a real community identity, which is focused on a place most people can identify with, and results in decisions being taken as close as possible to where people live. And I could agree with Jason that if I was representing Huntingdon, the idea of splitting up a historic entity would be probably the wrong way to go. So I think there’s a lot of discussion needs to take place.
CHRIS MANN: The biggest town in Huntingdonshire is St Neots.
JASON ABLEWHITE: It is indeed. Yes.
CHRIS MANN: Where would that look to? Would that look to Cambridge or Peterborough?
JASON ABLEWHITE: Well again I think it looks to Huntingdonshire. It’s proud to be part of Huntingdonshire, and has been for many many years, and it’s something that we acknowledge on a regular basis, that it’s not only a town in Huntingdonshire, it’s actually the biggest in Cambridgeshire in all sorts of ..
CHRIS MANN: Town as opposed to city of course.
JASON ABLEWHITE: In terms of towns, yes.
(BREAK) (TRAVEL) (TRAILER)
CHRIS MANN: So we’re talking about the idea put forward by the former Leader of the County Council Nick Clarke, of abolishing a tier of local councils and having two unitary authorities, one for the north and one for the south of the County. Let’s briefly go round the panel to get a response to the fact Jason Ablewhite, Leader of Huntingdonshire District Council that you have spent much of this year looking at your books and having cutbacks, aren’t you, slashing your staff …
JASON ABLEWHITE: Yes.
CHRIS MANN: .. looking at the back room things. So in terms of that, this makes sense, doesn’t it, economically?
JASON ABLEWHITE: The economic argument is there. It’s as simple as that. When I talked about the inefficiency of town councils in those aspects, bearing in mind I’ve been a town councillor for nearly fourteen years now, and you look at areas like that and you think, well actually, if you pooled all of that resource and you put it into one authority, you could provide that at a much much greatly reduced cost. One of the things that actually gets in the way sometimes in terms of how we deliver our services is the most important bit, which is the democratic side. But it’s hugely expensive to provide that democratic side in any organisation. If I take my own town of St Ives, you’ve got seventeen town councillors that are unpaid, to be fair. They’re all volunteers. But they sit around a table administering about £650,000 a year, which is about the same amount of money that is taken in tax across the whole of the town, to the District Council’s functions, of which there are five members that represent that level.
CHRIS MANN: Jason, we have to leave it there. Thank you. Let’s just get some final reaction from Tim Bick, Leader of Cambridge City Council. Tim, is this going to happen?
TIM BICK: I think its day will come eventually. I think that we need to separate ourselves from the economics of this. Councils are going to share services. They’re going to do that with or without the sort of reorganisation we’re talking about. I think we want to concentrate on getting one level of democratic representation around natural communities, and I think if we can find a formula for that, yes this will happen. It must happen.
CHRIS MANN: And Nick Clarke, will it get voters interested in local government again? Because people don’t bother to vote, do they?
NICK CLARKE: No I think they’ll be as apathetic as they are at the moment. That’s the issue at the moment. What’s important though is to get the mechanisms of councils efficient as they can be, so that every penny that can be spent on the people of Cambridgeshire is spent on them.