People sometimes ask me what Liberal Democrats stand for. In the past, we were perhaps not very good at answering that question. Fundamentally, our philosophy is about a belief in freedom: freedom to express your beliefs and further your aspirations for yourself and your family; but also freedom from oppresssion or enforced conformity; and a recognition that people cannot be free if they are enslaved by poverty, disease or lack of educational opportunities.
At a local level, Lib Dem councillors and members put their beliefs into practice through what we call “community politics”. Residents in Walton, South Werrington and Gunthorpe will be used to receiving Focus newsletters. The Walton Focus is just publishing its 324th edition and has been running for over 30 years. We are currently expanding this service into Paston and parts of Hampton. We also deliver residents’ surveys and street letters to find out what people think. The aim is not only to get Liberal Democrat councillors elected but also to inform and consult residents and to empower them to help deliver real change in their local communities.
On the city council at present we are nearing the end of a two year process to review the council’s governance arrangements. For too long, under the so called “strong leader and cabinet” system, all the power locally has rested in the hands of just a handful of councillors. Most councillors are involved in a largely weak and ineffective process called “scrutiny”: Most of the urban area doesn’t have parish councils and the attempt to set up area committees was abandoned a few years ago as, allegedly, it was costing too much. At cabinet and most council committees, members of the public are only allowed to speak if the chairman decides to let them.
The review could have been an opportunity to ditch all of this and set up an open inclusive and accountable committee system of governance, such as that which operates at Cambridgeshire County Council and also to look at devolving real power to parishes and local communities. But instead, what is proposed is a modest modification of the cabinet system which will enable some of the decisions to be scrutinised before they go to cabinet, rather than afterwards. There will be fewer scrutiny committees and fewer councillors involved in scrutiny, so the danger is we will end up with even less effective scrutiny of decisions than we currently have.
At the same time, councils all over the country are talking about coming together to form “combined authorities”. Government has said it will devolve significant new powers and budgets to them if they do. A danger for Peterborough is that we get sucked back into a “Greater Cambridgeshire” whereas we actually have much more in common with parts of south Lincs and East Northants.
But a combined authority could mean we get a chance to plan, for example, a more effective and workable system of public transport with better links to neighbouring towns and cities.
Currently transport is a classic example of the paucity of ambition and forward thinking of Peterborough’s Tory current council leaders. Previously we had a Local Transport Plan set out some a long term vision for a transport network which suits the need of a city with a greatly expanded population: with aspirations for an all year round park and ride, new train stations in Hampton and to the north of the city, greater use of the river etc. But in the draft new transport plan, just published, all of these laudable ambitions have been stripped out and all that is left is a long list of road building and widening projects: applying 1980s solutions to 21st century transport problems.
In this, as in many ways, the people of Peterborough have a right to expect much more from our city council.