Bloomers and bloopers offer us a lighter memory of a torrid year
- Credit: SUBMITTED
In a year when it felt like the world stood still, politics in Cambridgeshire trundled on.
Despite around 10 months of pandemic related restrictions, the whole thing can still feel like the stuff of fantasy.
For many, this year has been heart-breaking – loved ones have been lost, livelihoods and life plans shattered, and all of us, social creatures, forced apart.
Politics – managed disagreement – can seem beside the point at such times, but it can and must continue, for lack of a better alternative, and this year was no exception, despite its extraordinary backdrop.
Before looking back at some of the major developments of the year in the world of Cambridgeshire’s democratically-led organisations, here are three of what might be deemed notable gaffes.
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What happens on Zoom doesn’t always stay on Zoom, and so we will always have the video, captured by editor of the Ely Standard, John Elworthy, of the moment in September when one East Cambridgeshire councillor left his microphone on and was accused of calling another councillor “thick”.
Conservative councillor and school governor Alan Sharp appeared to aim the remark at Liberal Democrat Charlotte Cane.
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“Excuse me, what was that?” she replied. “Somebody just called you thick,” another councillor chimed in, “perhaps because they had forgotten to mute themselves”.
The chair of the meeting said he was not aware of who made the remark, but that it was “obviously not appropriate”.
It was suggested that whoever it was should apologise, which drew no response from Cllr Sharp, who was safely back on mute.
In April, Lib Dem county councillor Ian Manning apologised after beginning a one-day “solidarity” Ramadan fast by posting a picture of his breakfast plate of bacon on social media.
Cllr Manning said he was “tired and not thinking clearly” when he posted the image. “My main worry was that I’d let my friends and the Muslim organisers of LibDemIftar down – but they didn’t see what the fuss was about as I’m not Muslim,” he said.
Not the case for the national press however, after many publications ran the story, and it even went international, with coverage in Arab News, based in Saudi Arabia.
Another Lib Dem county councillor, Barbara Ashwood, apologised after she was spotted on camera smoking whilst she attended a virtual council meeting from home in July.
The incident drew criticism from the leader of the county council, Conservative Steve Count, who said on Twitter: “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.
"We have responsibility for public health! We run massive campaigns to help people pack up smoking”.
On a more serious note, any sense of how 2020 would unfold both in the political realm and beyond was completely shattered in the first few months of the year.
Councils play a crucial role in protecting and enhancing the health and wellbeing of residents at any time.
But in addition to the usual workload, this year Cambridgeshire’s councils helped the county navigate one of the most socially and economically challenging periods in a generation.
Cambridgeshire’s councils and the Combined Authority have been at the coalface of a national effort to endure the impact of the virus and subsequent lockdowns.
Tens of millions of pounds have been distributed in business grants and support payments in the county, thousands of people have been supported in self-isolation and through hard times, a huge amount of personal protective equipment and other supplies have been distributed.
Some of the work has seemed grim – including the creation of an emergency mortuary in Cambridge, which thankfully has not yet been needed – but some of the work has been uplifting, including the housing of rough sleepers for the duration of the crisis.
Leaving aside the support for business, the cost of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns to councils has been enormous.
A report compiled in October showed the cost to Cambridgeshire councils then was thought to be around £130 million, in part compensated by extra funds from the government and the NHS of around £100 million.
One of the defining features of the pandemic has been the increased pace of change, and that has been especially true for council finances, with forecasts for the year varying widely as the course of the virus changed and the government announced additional support.
The impact on services is likely to be felt next year. Cambridgeshire County Council has said its pre-pandemic estimated shortfall for 2021/22 was £4 million, it’s now around £30 million.
But despite the disruption, the day-to-day work and decision-making of councils continued.
Council meetings switched to online formats such as Zoom, and despite a great sense of unity in responding to the virus.
And, after a pause for the immediate crisis, politics returned, and the disagreement and squabbles continued virtually – with all manner of issues from infrastructure overspends to residents parking to planning decisions able to be debated and decided on just like like in normal times.
Support in figures
Over 14,400 businesses were supported in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and over £146 million was awarded in support grants
Over 200 rough sleepers were provided with emergency accommodation in Cambridge alone as part of the government’s “Everyone In” pandemic response
A number of councils and other groups provided support to their fellow residents.
Cambridgeshire County Council’s Covid Hub distributed 3,590 food parcels, checked in with 44,000 people of which nearly 8,000 were identified as clinically extremely vulnerable, and is expecting to support 32,000 children and young people access food over the Christmas period
Elections – or lack of
May’s local elections were postponed owing to the pandemic, and with no ballots allowed to be cast until at least May 2021, a few vacancies have cropped up as a handful of councillors across the districts have walked away.
But the standout consequence of delayed elections has not been a vacancy but rather someone left in post a little longer than anticipated.
Late last year the county’s police and crime commissioner, Conservative Jason Ablewhite, stood down and it was revealed he faced an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct in relation to messages sent on social media to an adult member of the public (in April the Crown Prosecution Service announced it would not seek to prosecute, and he has not been arrested or charged with an offence).
With only around six months before the electorate was due to decide the next police and crime commissioner, Mr Ablewhite’s deputy, Conservative Ray Bisby, took over on an interim basis in November.
Edward Leigh, the independent chair of the panel that decided to allow Mr Bisby to step up to the main job, said the panel chose him as a “caretaker”.
Mr Bisby “probably wouldn’t” be the panel’s choice for the role, and he “doesn’t necessarily have all of the qualities that the elected commissioner would be expected to have,” Mr Leigh was quoted as saying.
But Mr Leigh considered the appointment acceptable as “the feeling was that he was fine as a caretaker”.
“He has no power to take any initiatives,” Mr Leigh said by way of reassurance.
A little awkward then, when, with the pandemic delaying the elections, Mr Bisby found his interim term length tripled to a year and a half.
Chaos and theatrics in the name of preventing climate change caused a sustained period of disruption to Cambridge City Council and the county council, as well as the Greater Cambridge Partnership in February, with climate activists Extinction Rebellion undertaking a carnival of protest across Cambridge.
Earlier this year, when council meetings were held in actual rooms with people, Extinction Rebellion took full advantage and disrupted Cambridge City Council’s budget setting meeting with shouting, standing on tables, and one particularly adventurous protester abseiling in from the public gallery.
The meeting was stopped, the police were called, and protesters ended up spending the night in the council chamber.
Other notable protests carried out included blocking off a central road into the city centre for the entire week and setting up camp, digging up the lawn outside of Trinity College and dumping the soil in Barclays bank, and later in the year protesters erecting their own cycle lanes on a major road (which some people said were an improvement on the county council’s own attempt).
James Palmer vs GCP
The leader of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and the area’s directly elected mayor, Conservative James Palmer, spent much of 2020 at odds with the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) – made up of Cambridge City Council, South Cambs, the county council, the University of Cambridge and business community, with government backing of £500 million.
In February, the mayor announced a halt to the GCP’s plans for a £160 million busway connecting Cambourne and Cambridge for the second time.
“It has become clear to me that GCP lack the vision, strategic thinking and the ability necessary to deliver any of the transport priorities for the Cambridge area,” he said.
The ensuing saga saw the GCP pause, attempt to continue in summer, only for the Combined Authority to raise the prospect of legal action – and the mayor went as far as to suggest he may even dig up the GCP’s route if they went ahead.
After almost a year of strong rhetoric, all eyes were on the mayor when he sought the support of his transport committee to take his “indicative alternative” to the GCP board for consideration, only to find no seconder.
The mayor blamed a technical glitch, but the GCP said the mayor’s Combined Authority had “no mandate” for the alternative, and restarted its own plans.
The GCP has said the 2024 target delivery date for the project is now “unlikely”.
The mayor also made the case that the Combined Authority that he leads should absorb the GCP, and one of his political allies even asked in parliament if the government would consider scrapping the multi-council partnership. Answer: effectively, no.
But the GCP also announced this year that it has secured the endorsement of government to continue with its own programme, after its first of a number of progress reviews.
The mayor on the other hand received a letter from government, leaked to the Ely Standard, which the paper described as telling Mr Palmer to “put his house in order” (it was also revealed the government is withholding funds to the Combined Authority for affordable housing for reasons which have not been fully disclosed, but the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed civil servants have raised doubts over progress).
The mayor and GCP have subsequently pledged to improve relations and work better together, but since then the mayor has described having both the GCP and the Combined Authority as a “waste of money”.
It was quite a year for investment in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
After four years, work was completed on the A14, bringing to an end (well, nearly) what was described as Britain’s biggest road project.
The Combined Authority and its leader, the Conservative mayor James Palmer, celebrated construction starting on a number of major projects, including a new university for Peterborough, a new railway station for Soham, and the first homes to be sold at a discount to help people onto the housing ladder as part of the £100K Homes scheme.
Together with the county council, work also started on the long-awaited Kings Dyke crossing, near Peterborough.
The mayor said progress on the projects – some talked about for many years or even decades – shows what can be achieved through devolution.
Meanwhile, the Combined Authority set up a new company to help delivery of a Cambridge-centred metro system.
The metro has been long in the planning, and it remains unclear if it can ever be fully funded.
But millions of pounds were committed in 2020, and a number of industry leaders, including civil engineer and tunnelling expert Lord Robert Mair CBE, were brought in to help run the new company.
In July, prior to establishing the new company, experts had advised the Combined Authority its strategy for the metro would prove unaffordable.
An alternative was suggested, which the mayor accepted as a positive step, saying it would cut costs by more than half, to an estimate of less than £2 billion.
The change in technology being considered was welcomed by the leader of the city council, Labour councillor Lewis Herbert, but he said in August that he has doubts over whether the Combined Authority can deliver the metro in its stated timeline of 2023 to 2029.
The county council oversaw the construction of a new “Dutch-style” roundabout in Cambridge, which though eye-catching, cost about three times the initial estimate.
Significant progress was made on another county council cycle infrastructure project in the city, the Chisholm Trail, with a new bridge put in place over the River Cam.
But once again councillors found themselves venting frustration at spiralling costs, up from £14 million to £21 million, just for the northern half of the route.
Not a great deal of progress was made on the GCP’s Cambourne to Cambridge busway project, but a route has been selected for another busway for the city, CSET, which will connect the Biomedical Campus with Granta Park and a new park and ride by the A11.
Meanwhile a handful of residents in Waterbeach discovered that the GCP is currently considering a busway route through part of the village which could require demolishing their homes.
They will have to wait until after Christmas to know for definite whether or not their homes are safe.
A preferred location was also announced for the much-discussed Cambridge South Station, and a preferred route for how East West Rail will reach the south of the city.
Not everything got the green light though, the Combined Authority scrapped plans for a new pedestrian and cycle bridge over the River Great Ouse, and the government “paused” plans for the Ox-Cam expressway.