Cllr Steve Count is the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council.
Councils across the country just like ours are the leanest public organisations in the UK. The continued pressure to make every penny count at a time of reduced finances has encouraged us to be adept at finding innovative ways to save evermore of the valuable public purse. However, there is one difference that I wish to highlight. In Cambridgeshire, the Conservatives operate with no overall control in a committee system.
When we discovered the opportunity a bonds agency could deliver, as well as deciding it would be a good thing for Cambridgeshire County Council, we had to work out how to make it happen. I would love to say that all parties jumped at the chance to move ahead as early as possible, but it doesn’t work like that here. If you want a great cup of tea you have to warm the pot first, and that’s how we move forward.
In other councils with a firm political mandate and a cabinet system, a decision can quickly be made and the officers will enact it. The basic premise that Cabinet members and leaders have a large degree of trust in each other moves matters forward at a pace. In our Council, officers will take proposals to a group leaders’ (political) meeting. There then begins a slow process of building up trust in a proposal, before moving it forwards to council. This is because not only is there mistrust as a starting point between political parties, there is also the repeated search for political advantage. In progressing the Municipal Bonds Agency (MBA), I feel we have to do a sales job twice over. Once to get it to council and once to get it over the line. Even then we will repeatedly have to re-justify a position simply because of political mistrust.
Despite all of the above and probably due to the incredible financial pressures we are under, our staunch convictions, as well as slimmed down bureaucratic barriers enabled us to be the first in what I envisage to be a steady stream of councils endorsing adoption of the MBA framework.
Like similar authorities across the UK we have tremendous pressures for areas such as schools and transport. Cambridgeshire is the fastest growing county in the country and funding of these vital projects is becoming harder as the revenue impacts of borrowing for capital programmes hit already stretched budgets. We have a roughly £1 billion capital programme over the next ten years, approximately £230 million of that will need to be funded from borrowing. Uncertainty for the future is at an all time high, so the MBA potential to provide a highly effective and potentially cheaper alternative for borrowing is something that is definitely worth pursuing.
This decision, like many others, I am glad we in the Conservative group have managed to persuade sufficient opposition members to adopt. Would I rather we had the political mandate to be even more streamlined and unfettered in decision making, yes. That is why we are working on how to regain control in 2017. Does the present system stop Cambridgeshire County Council from being effective? No, but it means we just have to work harder to achieve our aims.
Just because you’re dragging an anchor behind a stricken vessel, doesn’t mean you stop rowing for shore.