We are now at the stage of broken local government where the City Council in one of the fastest-growing and economically most ‘vibrant’ cities in the country feels it necessary to discuss selling off the Guildhall in an attempt to balance the books.
Why? Because it needs to cut around 30% of its spending in the next five years.
In the event, a majority of the councillors at the Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee which considered this item last Monday decided that they weren’t willing to take that step, instead requesting officers bring forward proposals for how to make the Guildhall fit for twenty-first century needs, while also further investigating the pros and cons of alternative comparator arrangements.
But it remains the case that the Council is now having to target savings of around £11.5m per year on top of the extensive ‘rationalisations’ and ‘efficiencies’ that have already been made during the past 12 years of reduced support from national government.
Similarly, the County Council is now contemplating a £20m gap in its finances, up from a projected £17m in February. And it’s obvious that, as the cost of living crisis bites, councils will be hit by the triple whammy of increases in direct costs (eg rising energy costs); reduced income (eg less use of city centre car parks by shoppers); and extra demand for support from residents.
What can be done?
In terms of what local government can do about ameliorating the situation, the answer is pretty much nothing. Two motions will be proposed at this Thursday’s meeting of full Council:
- from Lib Dem Councillor Nethsingha, calling on MPs “to be clear that Brexit remains a key and persistent cause of the cost of living crisis”
- from Labour Councillors Collis and Carling, calling for “a far stronger plan of action from national government” to address the problem.
Sadly, the City Council writing to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (whoever that happens to be by next Thursday) is not going to change anything. To be clear, I am not knocking the proposers of these motions and I share their intense frustrations and concerns – when you have conversations with residents who have no food in the cupboard and can’t keep the electricity on it would be hard not to. But as the chapter titles in this 2021 report make clear, local government has been systematically hollowed out:
It’s uncomfortable for any political party to admit weakness, for fear that opposition parties seek to exploit that admission. But I believe now is the time for politicians of all hues in Cambridge to level with residents, very directly and very bluntly, about the scale of the challenges our local government is facing, and the fact that it has so few tools to stem the decline. The phrase “taking hard decisions” really will apply to the Council’s financial priorities and residents need to understand the context for those decisions; the implications for them and their neighbourhoods; and – critically – the possibilities for their own involvement in finding different ways of mitigating those implications.
My reading list at the moment includes ‘The Connected Community‘ and ‘Citizens‘, both of which advocate for resilience built from the bottom up, in the same way that blossomed during the Covid pandemic.
Retaining our wealth
We also need to look hard at the responsibilities of the business sector towards the city. At the moment, various businesses develop their own solutions to conundrum of ‘private affluence, public squalor’, for example the heavily-subsidised private bus services run by the various tech campuses, insulating their employees from the deficiencies of public transport provision which others have to endure.
But this is a poor coping mechanism – there is copious evidence that life in an unequal society leads to worse outcomes for everyone, regardless of individual financial standing, as shown in this graphic about national economies. Closer to home, it’s sobering to hear that Cambs police are already seeing an upturn in shop-lifting offences as people struggle to feed themselves, and are anticipating that other forms of crime will also increase.
Hence, we have to find ways of retaining the wealth generated here for the benefit of all. Part of the solution will be what’s called community wealth building, and some good examples of various approaches by which this can be achieved have been compiled by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. I’d like to think that the Cambridge business community can see the wisdom in engaging wholeheartedly with this agenda. This ought to be an easy decision for all the reasons indicated above. The alternative is that, even as they try to sell the story of Cambridge as the “best small city in the world”, the evidence all around them undermines their pitch.