Thoughts on the South Area Committee meeting, 9th March 2020
At last night’s South Area Committee meeting, the most newsworthy items looked like they would be updates on Fendon Road roundabout and Cambridge South station; but it turned into an even more thought-provoking evening…
South Area Committee is a quarterly meeting attended by City and County councillors for Queen Edith’s, Trumpington and Cherry Hinton wards. The public are able to attend and ask questions, but it is mostly not well attended (perhaps only a dozen members of the public) unless there is a well-publicised, headline grabbing agenda item coming up.
Because of interruption caused by December’s General Election, last night’s meeting was the first since September and there was a lot on the agenda. The most newsworthy items looked like they would be updates on Fendon Road roundabout and Cambridge South station; but it turned into a thought-provoking exploration of how decisions get made and money gets spent more generally in the city, and what we might do about it. More on that later.
Fendon Road roundabout
Two County Council officers attended the meeting: Vanessa Kelly (Senior Project Officer) and Dorothy Higginson (Group Manager, Major Infrastructure Delivery). They came along to provide an explanation of the time and budget overruns now predicted for this project – extended from eight months to 11 months, and from £0.8m to £1.8m. You can see the video of the entire exchange above, filmed by Chris Rand. However, I’ll summarise the most important points:
- The overrun is being entirely blamed on not being able to predict the extent of the utilities which would need relocating until after they excavated the site. This is going to make it very difficult to ever trust another project plan!
- They will now be working extended hours – into the evening and over the weekend – to try to make up lost time. Good news in terms of getting the job done but likely to be painful in the short term for residents who live near the site
- The cost overrun will be covered by taking more money from the £3m funding pot which was supposed to cover the roundabout and Robin Hood junction and Cherry Hinton Road cycleways and Queen Edith’s Way cycleways. The roundabout and the Robin Hood junction will now between them use up almost all of that budget, but the Cycling team are hoping to find more funding for the other projects.
- One public questioner raised the state of the pavements along Queen Edith’s Way – would they be repaired if there was no money to do a major renewal associated with a cycleway project? The answer was that “pitted shared use paths are the responsibility of the County maintenance department and not the cycling team”.
I asked about the cost/benefit calculations regarding this project. I don’t remember ever seeing the original assessment published – and whatever justification there was at £0.8m cost would obviously be lower at £1.8m cost. The question is – at the new cost, is the project still worth it?
The officers weren’t able to give me a definitive answer but Dorothy promised to put whatever documents existed into the public domain which should make interesting reading. You can find out more about the background to this discussion in my recent Cambridge Independent article.
I was also asked to comment on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire this morning:
Cambridge South station
Two representatives from Network Rail, Mike Blissett, Consents Development Manager, and Sophie Moeng, Consultation Manager, came along to discuss the new station proposals, which have recently been open for consultation. You can still see the proposals here although the consultation itself has now closed. I have previously written about their implications for Queen Edith’s .
I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t learn much that was new last night, though there was a helpful list of the ‘interventions’ which might be required to make the new station a reality, including remodelling of Long Road bridge, the Guided Busway bridge, Addenbrooke’s Road bridge and diverting the drain alongside the railway.
Questions from councillors focused on Network Rail’s suggestion that the construction compound for the project – estimated as taking 24 months – will be based in Hobson’s Park, the new public park on the Trumpington side of the railway, with consequent loss of amenity space and environmental damage. Several councillors objected to this on behalf of residents and requested that Network Rail prioritise finding space on the Campus itself; but because of building rush onsite, it’s not very likely that appropriate space will be available by the time work starts in around 2023. So, Residents 0 Biomedical Campus 1 (at least).
This tension about for whose benefit the station is being built also emerged in exchanges about the number of passenger journeys which the station is being built to accommodate. Network Rail again stated last night that it will be a Category C facility, i.e. built for a maximum of 2 million passenger trips a year, but as I have repeatedly pointed out, the Campus Transport Needs Review published in January 2019 assumed close to 5 million trips a year. I simply don’t understand how it is possible for Network Rail and their ostensible client to disagree by 250% on the likely use of this station! The Network Rail reps said they would have to look into the discrepancy.
The inconsistency of community funding
Three further discussions on the agenda have collectively really made me wonder about better ways of running our area and paying for projects which matter to residents:
- The police inspector who came along to the meeting spent 30 minutes telling us what they are doing to combat drug use and anti-social behaviour among at risk teenagers in Trumpington. He spoke particularly highly about a boxing project they’ve run: “There was a marked improvement in the behaviour of those who attended, both inside and outside of school, with better schooling engagement leading to improved grades and fewer detentions and other sanctions”. He commented that they had submitted an application for further funding via an Area Committee grant.
- Approval of those annual Area Committee grants was the final agenda item. South Area has in total just £17,780 to distribute and the fund was, as usual, oversubscribed. That means that many worthwhile projects which make a real difference to people’s lives got smaller allocations than they had requested. One of those was the boxing project mentioned above, which was awarded £2730 against an application for £3550. This would be understandable, except…
- Immediately before the community grants were discussed, there was a presentation on the City Council’s Environmental Improvement Programme and councillors were invited to approve 11 projects across the three wards, at a total cost of £34,500. All the projects are in themselves laudable; but given the financial constraints under which the City Council operates it was slightly disconcerting to see a total of £20,500 (i.e. more than the total budget to support local community groups) being allocated to public benches, including an estimated £1.5k to restore or replace a single bench on Trumpington Road!
I asked the officer to justify this level of expenditure, saying surely much of this work could be undertaken for free by volunteers or Community Payback teams working with the Council’s own Streets And Open Spaces officers? That’s certainly what we’ve done in Joy’s Garden, the Queen Edith’s Community Forum’s new community space on Baldock Way, where two benches have been restored and repainted by volunteers at zero cost to the Council. And it seems particularly painful to juxtapose the generous funding available for these EIP projects against the shortage of funds for community groups.
The Chair, Councillor Colin McGerty, observed that it was frustrating to have to work within these siloed funds rather than to allow decisions based on real priorities – in other words, we need give local people in the city the same devolved power for funding local projects as parish councils have in rural areas. I absolutely agree with this – and there is a way to change it. Legislation exists which allows the creation of urban parish councils, such as Queen’s Park in London (2014), which can charge a small levy on council tax giving them independent funds to spend on what their residents think are important. They also benefit from retaining 25% of Community Infrastructure Levy generated by big construction projects in their area, again to be spent on local priorities.
Setting up an urban parish in Queen Edith’s would be a radical step and not to be undertaken lightly, but it would be one way of achieving a degree of independence and focus on *our* issues which has been missing for a long time.
Let me know what you think!