At midnight a week ago last Monday I ceased to be a county councillor. I was first elected 16 years ago and, as I’ve said many times, I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. Certainly I couldn’t have imagined it lasting so long. So as I look back, what are the highlights? And in keeping with my basic rule ‘what are the 5 highlights?’
1 Saving Histon Station
This goes all the way back to 2007 when the County Council had just approved (Lib Dems voted against) going ahead with the Guided Bus. Their plans included demolishing the Histon Station building on the grounds that the Inspector has said that it didn’t need to be preserved. Ironically one of the arguments for demolishing it was that the canopy would interfere with the passage of double decker buses. As we now know the original building had no canopy and when it was removed some rather attractive brickwork was revealed.
There was no big campaign to save the station but slowly a ground swell of public support for the building developed and a petition in the early part of 2007 was presented at the May council meeting by Pene Nudds. It became clear that there was a mood to save the building, I recall one resident saying ‘two generations went to war from that station’, and slowly a campaign developed. I remember developing its key elements with Denis Payne sitting on a bench outside St Andrew’s Church (Impington) before the start of a parish council meeting.
The high point of the campaign was a rally one Saturday morning attended by 300 or so people. I guess with such obvious public support the Guided Bus team had little alternative but to change their plans and leave the building intact.
The building itself was owned by Ken Hart who has now sadly died. However before he did he partnered with the other owners of the development sites close to the Station and a development proposal came forward which preserved the building with a part of it reserved for commercial use.
2 Leading the Lib Dem group
Despite my ignorance about what a county councillor does and my utter naivety as a member of the Lib Dem council group I became its leader in May 2007 and I held the position for three years.
I described leading the Lib Dem group as like herding cats but to be fair it wasn’t that bad because we all did have a fairly strong shared allegiance to Lib Dem principles. We generally functioned as a cohesive unit and never was that more tested than in the period which we referred to as Shonagate.
Coincidentally with me becoming group leader the Tories changed theirs and I found myself dealing with Shona Johnson across the council chamber. That didn’t have time to mature because we soon found ourselves involved in choosing a new chief executive. At the end of the process we agreed on one and then offered him the job which he was inclined to accept. Trouble was Shona changed her mind and rang him him and asked him not to. That was pretty outrageous and we reckoned that she’d acted ultra vires, referred her to the Standards Board and called on for her to resign. What was amazing about this time was not that Labour fully supported what we were doing but several Tories, some quite senior, expressed their support as well.
To cut a long story short she did and the first choice candidate was again offered the job which he accepted again. That’s when Mark Lloyd became Chief Executive of Cambridgeshire County Council.
Perhaps the high point of my leadership was the recognition of the group by the Local Government Association Liberal Democrats as being worthy of a ‘special commendation’ which was presented to me in March, 2009.
One of the problems of being the group leader is that I was visible and in the election of 2009 I found myself under attack with a couple of Tory heavyweights standing against me (it was a two member division in those days). However we fought an aggressive campaign which resulted in neither Tory getting in. I did one more year as group leader and stepped down in May 2010.
3 Securing the future of the library
The County Council has always seemed to be short of money. Nowadays this is because in the UKIP years the Tories got into the habit of not raising council tax enough to cover the costs of what the council should really do. This has meant that ‘savings’ have to be made and the libraries budget is always a soft target. In 2015 somebody hatched a plan to close the very successful Histon library and to replace it with some sort of part time alternative with movable shelving in the St Andrew’s Centre.
I don’t recall the detail of the battle but do recall some anger that this plan emerged without any consultation with me. Fortunately the resulting action on my part, with support from the Parish Council of which I was chair at the time, made the case for retaining the library in its existing location, by School Hill Garden.
The School Hill Garden row of shops and other units has of course been redeveloped and the developer has been keen for the library to remain as an anchor for it. We expect the library to move back in to its new unit in the middle of this year. In the meantime the community has been well-served by a mobile unit operating outside the Baptist Church.
4 Chairing the Health Committee
2013-2017 was the period of UKIP. That did give rise to some pretty crazy behaviour at the council as UKIP councillors brought some sadly Faragesque opinions and behaviour to the council but there was also an upside. The sizable UKIP block deprived the Tories of an overall majority and the council moved away from a ‘strong leader’ model with a cabinet to a committee system which required more consensus working. And it did work and although there was some grandstanding at full council the committees took their time and generally arrived at good consensus decisions.
The chairs of the committees had important roles. Although they had no explicit power per se they were responsible to run the meetings and to get decisions taken and a skilled chair could presumably have some influence over how this might happen
As fate would have it I was chair of the Health Committee 2015-2017 and enjoyed another period in the spotlight. It was an interesting committee because although it had a relatively modest budget it also had the right to scrutinise the NHS.
It was a largely apolitical committee with few if any contentious votes. I have a basic belief that chairs of committees should not vote, casting or otherwise, because if they do they’ve failed. Consensus has not been achieved. Better to not vote but to go away and reconsider the issue from another angle. Anyway I can only recall voting once, more on that later.
We had the full political presence on the committee. The UKIP rep was Paul Clapp who was immensely constructive and valuable, there was an excellent Labour member in Zoe Moghadas and, of course, a good Lib Dem member in Susan van de Ven. There were also four Tories including my deputy chair, to be honest I never knew if I could completely trust him. They were generally constructive but disappointingly unsupportive when taking a motion to the Local Government Association was proposed. That was the one time I voted.
I presented the motion at the LGA conference in Bournemouth and that was my only ever presence on a national stage.
On a more personal note I had to work closely with the Director of Public Health, Dr Liz Robin. Liz and I used to meet Monday mornings at 0800 and it was always a grim and rather sterile meeting. Then Fitzbillies opened its branch by Magdalene Bridge and we moved our meetings there and they became much more pleasurable. However Liz always insisted that we met in the back room so that we could not be spotted by passers by who might make mischief of such informal offsite meetings!
5 Making my handover secure
I decided to step down as a councillor for one very good reason and one rather selfish one. The former is my belief that people should move on, if you stay too long in a post you stagnate, you run out of ideas and, perhaps most importantly, you block the opportunity for younger people to engage. The latter is simply my horror at the thought of travelling out to Alconbury for council meetings. Shire Hall was always so convenient, I could be there in 10 minutes with a fair wind.
Having made that decision I felt a responsibility to ensure that my successor would be another Lib Dem and would be elected ‘easily’.
There was a good platform of course. I was re-elected easily in 2017 and then the organisation that delivered that result was successful in getting all three Lib Dem district council candidates elected in 2018. Since then the community has experienced Covid of course but throughout it’s enjoyed the benefit of four visible Lib Dem councillors and there’s been no vehicle for promoting the other parties.
Covid limited activity until the beginning of March, which was maybe a blessing, but by then we had a good candidate in Ros Hathorn who already had good public visibility.
We mobilised the delivery machine, took some great photographs and delivered top quality literature. For once we had a large canvass team so that it didn’t all just become the responsibility of the candidate and we knocked on lots of doors. Come election day we had about 50 stakeboards up and we’d even delivered blue letters both north and south of the A14. Although other parties put up candidates they were largely invisible.
To be really successful you have to be a little paranoid so I did worry that a large Tory vote might sneak out of the woodwork, that the community would reassert its left wing bias and vote Labour or that the national polls for Lib Dem vote share would be reflected locally. But it wasn’t necessary and when the votes were counted Ros was elected with over 50% of the vote and a bigger margin than I’d got 4 years ago. Job done!