Cambridgeshire County council to leave site despite fears people may be ‘alienated’ from democracy

Shire Hall in Cambridge
Shire Hall in Cambridge

The county council is to leave its iconic Cambridge headquarters, which has been a seat of local government since 1067, despite fears people could be “alienated from democracy” by less accessible new premises.

Cambridgeshire County Council today (May 15) voted to accept a recommendation that new premises in Alconbury would be the preferable option for a new council HQ and to authorise the release of finances to acquire it.

This means the council will soon be leaving its base at Shire Hall, built in 1933, which, according to a council spokeswoman, has been a seat of local government since the Normans built a castle on the site in 1067.

The move away from the expensive, old premises is intended to save the council money in the long run, but there was dissatisfaction in the chamber that Alconbury would be suitable as a new location.

Lib Dem councillor Lorna Dupre said members of the public would not be able to access Alconbury so easily, which would have a chilling effect on local democracy and people’s participation.

Cllr Dupre said: “So many people are going to be alienated from public democracy if we move to Alconbury.”

Labour’s Cllr Noel Kavanagh said Northstowe would be a better location, with better transport links. He said staff and members of the public visiting would need to rely on cars to access the council. This, he said, would further add to the congestion and traffic on the roads.

Cllr Kavanagh said: “It makes no sense to have Alconbury as the location. It is quite isolated.”

Conservative Cllr Joshua Schumann said the council can’t turn its back on “£57 million of savings” that would be unlocked by the move from the expensive Shire Hall.

Lib Dem leader, Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, however, said she could not understand paying for a brand new headquarters when they should be spending on improving council services.

Cllr Nethsingha said: “We don’t believe it is the right time. The council’s staff should be concentrating relentlessly on improving adult social care services.”

Conservative Martin Shuter said: “I think we all agree, this building is not fit for purpose. Look how damp the ceilings are. There is paint coming off the walls. I very much look forward to coming to stay when it is a fine five-star hotel.”

Cllr Shuter said the location of the new headquarters was less important than many were saying, and that the most important thing was to find a new “adaptable” building.

Fenland councillor Steve Tierney invited the council to “check its privilege” over the Shire Hall move adding, “It’s not all about Cambridge.”

Cllr Tierney said the move matters less to many councillors and members of the public who live outside the city, than some who live inside it.

Labour leader Cllr Joan Whitehead said: “We are concerned about staff and the people who work for us. The majority of the workforce lives in Cambridge. They will need to use the car to get to work. We are concerned about how they will get to work with no public transport. It is unjust to say we are just being Cambridge-centric.”

The council voted to accept the recommendation that Alconbury is the best site, and to authorise the investment needed to acquire the site. There were 35 votes for, 21 against, and one abstention (Cllr Peter Hudson).