A politics review of the year - part 1

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There were no elections in 2020

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 heartbreaking – loved ones have been lost, livelihoods and life plans shattered, and all of us, social creatures, forced apart.

Politics – managed disagreement – can seem besides 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.

Here is a look back at some of the major developments of the year in the world of Cambridgeshire’s democratically-led organisations.

Pandemic

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.

 

Extinction Rebellion

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).