It has been over a decade since the once-mighty Cambridge Conservatives produced a manifesto of any real substance. It was written in the run up to the General Election 2010 in the final days of Gordon Brown’s Government that was struggling with the fallout of the Banking Crisis 2008, and the inevitable institutional fatigue that accompany’s any political party that has been in office for over a decade. The Conservatives on the other hand had regained the support of newspaper proprietors that had broefly switched allegiance to Labour in the late 1990s when it was clear the Conservatives were never going to win. There was also this short-lived phenomenon (mainly on social media) of Cleggmania. Comedian Adil Ray in his comic character Mr Khan – Community Leader [stereotyping self-appointed individuals sometimes found in and around local government!] then made this spoof video to see if the press buzz around Nick Clegg, the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, had broken outside of Westminster.
Above: “Nick Clegg? What’s that?” One market stall holder’s response to Mr Khan when asked about the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Ouch!
Cambridge Liberal Democrats – the high point
The chart from Messrs Edkins and Rosenstiel for 2010 speaks volumes – at the local elections that year the Liberal Democrats had just ousted all of Labour’s councillors from their stronghold of King’s Hedges, and were dominant in traditional Labour strongholds such as Arbury and Romsey. But going into coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives proved to be a devastating blow for the party – one from which they still have not recovered from. In 2014 an audience of young people took the then Deputy Prime Minister to task.
Above – Nick Clegg on BBC Three in 2014.
At the time of writing, the Liberal Democrats have only 14 MPs. At the 2010 General Election the Liberal Democrats won 57 seats – which was actually a reduction of five from the 2005 election. Amongst other things, a failure to concentrate resources on seats that they needed to defend cost them some previously high profile MPs, some of whom they could have done with in ministerial office.
Such was the damage done to Cambridge Labour’s standing by some of the policies of national government – in particular the Iraq War, and the introduction of tuition fees and later top-up fees, that by 2010 they had fallen back into third place at the general election.
Above – note also the Cambridge Green Party got their highest polling result in Cambridge in their history
The Cambridge Conservative Party’s manifesto.
The Cambridge City Council elections 2010 took place on the same day as the General Election – you can see the ward-by-ward breakdown of votes here. Note the higher numbers all round due to much higher turnout associated with general elections (over 67,000 voted in the 2010 City Council elections). For example compare the totals with the Cambridge City Council elections 2011, where under 40,000 voted in total.
The headings in the Conservative manifesto for Cambridge 2010, written by Messrs Bower & Normington was as follows:
At the time, Cambridge had one Conservative councillor on the city council – Chris Howell in Coleridge ward.
Comparing then with now
You could say “what a difference a decade makes”, but Whitehall and Westminster are notorious for short-term political thinking & forgetting past learning from old policies. At the time, there was huge controversy in East Anglia about housing targets – rural areas objecting vociferously to what they saw as centrally-imposed house building targets. Hence the point about the planning system. 13 years later and the planning system still remains a mess.
On transparency, remember this was only five years after the rights of access included in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came fully into force (on 01 Jan 2005 – I remember the time well in my civil service days, the early requests coming in from campaign groups protesting against housing developments!)
Some issues are recurring ones, others have a long history – and one or two sound familiar today!
Local political parties in opposition always have to be ‘leading stuff’. I don’t know how that sits with the electorate today – feels a bit like astro-turfing sometimes, especially when it is a community group not associated with any political party that has done the groundwork.
On the first two, you can read about the proposed congestion charging plans of 2007/08 under the Conservative-led County Council here. The language is intended to pass the buck back up to central government in ways similar to some of the debates we’ve had in more recent times here. Ultimately it was ministers that tabled legislation (inevitably approved by Parliament) enabling certain local authorities to bring in congestion charging schemes, but those schemes require ministerial approval.
On Marshall’s of Cambridge, we now know they are moving to Cranfield. At the time, the Liberal Democrats made the case for using the Airport site for housing. This was opposed by many people who worked for the company who were worried about what would happen to their jobs, because there were very few places locally that required their skills set. Furthermore, there was a concern that the diversity of Cambridge’s economy would be hit by the loss of a major engineering firm.
As for people riding cycles without lights, this has been a problem for over a hundred years.
Above – Cambridge Daily News 07 Jan 1919 in the British Newspaper Archive
‘If you vote LibDems you might help keep Gordon Brown in Downing Street!’
It’s funny how things turn out. Actually, that reflects the huge party-political uncertainty at the time. No one really knew what the outcome was going to be. The Civil Service had simulated what coalition negotiations might look like between the parties in the run up to the general election 2010. The Conservatives were worried they hadn’t quite ‘sealed the deal’ with UKIP a looming presence over David Cameron on his anti-EU wing, and Cleggmania appealing to the pro-EU wing of his party. Furthermore, the rhetoric of looming job cuts in the public sector prevented Labour from collapsing.
The problem Cambridge City Conservatives ultimately came up against was that their party’s policies in Central Government undermined their ambitions set out in this manifesto. For example on resources for local government and their town planning teams.
This was a very big issue at the time was the Railway Station redevelopment – still controversial to this day. Recall Olly Wainwright’s article for The Guardian in 2017 where he interviewed lots of familiar local people. Andrew Bower, who lived locally to me at the time, maintained a useful blog in the late 2000s on what was happening – you can read his posts about the Railway Station here. You can also read independent blogger Richard Taylor from 2008 on the same issue
“Government spending on planning fell from £1.13 billion in 2010/11 to £961 million in 2017/18, a reduction of 14.6%”Built Environment Committee – Meeting housing demand. published 10 January 2022 – HL Paper 132
Above – the House of Lords Built Environment Committee noting the central government cuts to town planning.
“The Government needs to increase resourcing for local planning authorities consistently and for the long term. Additional resources should be targeted at improving local plan-making and processing planning applications more quickly. This should include through increasing planning fees to help cover the costs of the system.”Ibid, Para 168
Housing design and ugly buildings
Some of you will be familiar with the book Hideous Cambridge, by Messrs Jones & Hall who did a splendid job. Every so often, second hand copies come up on auction sites and ABE Books. I hope they do a refreshed second edition.
Prior to publication, it had an active social media presence such as here on Tumblr.
Above – tearing into bland architecture – David Jones.
***Your newbuild housing has got measles!!!***
Not surprisingly, it was a theme picked up by Messrs Bower and Normington.
The problem is that central government planning policy under the Conservatives in the 2010s did not see that significant improvement. Hence the commissioning of the Living with Beauty report in 2020. It remains to be seen whether this turns into anything substantial in terms of planning policies that local councils can enforce, as well as changing the cultures within the built environment professions.
Tories on Transport
Compared to some of their county colleagues, Cambridge’s Conservatives were much more pro-cycling, and had a number of activists involved in the Cambridge Cycling Campaign – now CamCycle. For all of the brickbats thrown the way of CamCycle by pro-motoring individuals, within the city the membership numbers speak for themselves – over 1,500 members with representation from across the four political parties on the City and County Councils. Few other organisations in Cambridge have such active participants across the political parties.
Note again the issue of central government dictats. The first two paragraphs above wouldn’t look out of place in the manifesto of any of the other political parties. The third point reflects the very high level of control that the Labour Government 1997-2010 had over local government, something that was only beginning to change in the latter part of their time in office. There are long term historical and (political) culture reasons for this. Such was the state of public services after 18 years of austerity under the Conservatives of Margaret Thatcher and John Major that Tony Blair took the view that local government was a bit of a basket case and would be unable to deliver the reforms he wanted at the pace he wanted. Hence the establishment of a host of national agencies with chief executives reporting directly to ministers, bypassing local councils. The plethora of targets that accompanied much-needed funding meant that local councils found themselves with additional bureaucracy that didn’t seem to be contributing towards the improvements. Hence in 2006 the then new Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly launched a White Paper / major policy document called Strong and Prosperous Communities, published in 2006. It set out how the reporting burdens would be condensed and consolidated, with more freedoms to give to local councils. In 2010, the Conservative Successor did away with that entire system – but also took away lots of funding as well. Hence why councils in many areas responded by increasing council taxes as much as they could to ease the hit.
“How does the manifesto read today?”
One important thing to recognise is that the national political context matters when examining this document. 2010 produced one of the closest contests in Coleridge Ward for years – Andrew Bower coming within 160 votes of equalling Cllr Lewis Herbert’s tally that year.
Above – from the 2010 Cambridge City Council elections on 06 May.
The close margin of under 300 votes between the top three candidates cannot be assessed without considering what was happening in national government in the run up to polling day – and the fact that it was also a general election day. Furthermore, Cambridge Labour only had nine councillors on Cambridge City Council that year, compared with the 29 they have today.
The relationship between central and local government was also very different – one where the former provided funds for the latter – but with lots of strings attached. Today, there’s very limited funding against multiple competing demands – and the structures of the Greater Cambridge Partnership & Combined Authority to add to the burden of councillors workloads.
Cambridge has changed significantly as a city since 2010 – the census alone tells us that
“Population growth has slowed in all four UK nations, but in Cambridge it increased by 17.6 per cent between the last two Censuses, from just under 123,900 in 2011 to around 145,700 in 2021.”Cambridge Independent 03 Jan 2023
That’s an increase of a town about the size of what Haverhill was in 2001. (Just over 22,000 people – today it’s just over 27,000). That is a significant increase, and as I was reflecting recently there are entire neighbourhoods that have been built since I left the civil service that I know nothing about. Even walking around the city centre today, I reflected on how I hadn’t seen a single familiar face in a city where the economy has transitioned to one that has a much more rapid turnover of employees – and thus population. This is a particular feature of some of the new post-graduate institutes and courses run by the University of Cambridge where students and researchers will spend a few years in Cambridge working very intensively before being expected to move onto pastures new, making way for the next cohorts.
The context of the post-2010 years
The challenge for the Cambridge Conservatives collectively when looking at their 2010 manifesto is accounting for the decisions taken by their senior members in ministerial office. Furthermore, three House of Commons’ Select Committees – all of which have a majority of Conservative MPs on them, and two of the three of which have Conservative MPs as chairs, have published devastating conclusions about the state of local government after over a decade of Conservative Chancellors and Local Government Secretaries of State in charge. As I mentioned on a different blogpost:
“One of Pickles’ legacies was all but to destroy local government in England. Three committees of MPs concluded this over the past couple of years:
- Local Government Audit – “System of local government audit close to “breaking point”” by the Public Accounts Committee on 14 July 2021
- Local Government Finance – “Council finances unsustainable without reform, say MPsCouncil finances unsustainable without reform, say MPs” by the Commons Levelling Up Committee (the old Communities and Local Government Select Committee) on 19 July 2021
- Local Government Structures, Systems, Processes, and Boundaries – “System of government in England in need of serious overhaul, say MPs” – Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 31 October 2022″
From Cambridge Town Owl 08 Feb 2023
One hypothetical question to ponder: Had the Cambridge Conservatives won political control of Cambridge City Council, to what extent would they have been able to have delivered on their 2010 City manifesto given the actions of their party colleagues in ministerial office over that same period? [If this was an essay question it would have: “Give reasons for your answers and provide evidence to justify your points”!!!]
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