By-elections loom as South Cambs Conservatives leader Peter Topping steps down
PUBLISHED: 12:03 11 January 2020
The outgoing leader of the Conservative opposition group on South Cambridgeshire District Council has reflected upon his time in office and what challenges await, after stepping down on New Year's Day.
Peter Topping resigned his Whittlesford ward seat - which includes Thriplow and Heathfield - on the council, along with his seats on Cambs County Council and Newton and Whittlesford parish councils on January 1 - his 61st birthday.
The councils will now hold by-elections to replace Mr Topping - a vocal Conservative voice for the area for more than a decade.
Councillor Heather Williams, of The Mordens ward, has taken on the leadership of the Conservative group on South Cambridgeshire District Council.
Mr Topping said it was a "personal decision" to move to Northumberland, where his wife works for the NHS.
"For the last couple of years we have been sort of running two houses and commuting backwards and forwards at the weekends to see each other, so it's a very personal thing," he said.
Mr Topping was first elected to SCDC in May 2008, and was first elected to the county council in May 2013.
He took over as leader of the Conservative group and the district council in South Cambridgeshire in 2016, but lost his party's majority to the Liberal Democrats in 2018.
The outgoing Conservative has lamented what he described as the "divisive" politics in the county, said he has "mixed feelings" about the devolution he pushed so hard to get, and warned shifting demographics could see his party out of power at South Cambridgeshire District Council for some time to come.
Reflecting on the changing face of public services during his time as a councillor, he said: "One of the things that I've seen over the last 10 years or so is a sort of thinning out of some of the strands of society that keep things going.
"Some examples of that for me would be, the reduction in the police community officers, and at one time the police used to hold regular community meetings with villages - and that's gone. There are fewer planning offices at the district council, and the county council road maintenance is massively stretched and even cutting back on the number of councillors. All these sound quite small things, but it's a sort of chipping away or a bit of an erosion of the things that hold society together. And one of the things that there used to be, certainly when I first started as a councillor, was a lot more press coverage of local issues.
"The other thing is the pressure on villages that's come up with the amount of development in and around Cambridge. And at times it seems an unequal struggle.
"Whereas at one time a village might have, say, a big development to contend with every couple of years, in some villages now it's every couple of months. And people feel it's just a relentless tide of business parks or more housing or car showrooms or whatever it is, and I think it saps people's confidence that there is some sort of level playing field.
"Because when you have a big developer throwing resources at getting something through, it's very difficult for a couple of parish councils and a part-time parish clerk to be able to stand up to that".
Mr Topping was a vocal campaigner for greater devolved powers for Cambridgeshire, which bore fruit with the creation of the Combined Authority in 2017.
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He said: "I put a lot of effort into devolution in 2015/16 because I thought it would bring a more coherent voice for Cambridgeshire.
"I put quite a lot of personal capital into that project, and I'm not sure that investment has been repaid, and it sometimes seems that local government or local politics in Cambridgeshire is as divisive as it's ever been. And that's worrying, and it's worrying for one big reason, which is that if there isn't a coherent local voice pitching things up at Whitehall then Whitehall doesn't listen."
He said "coherent lobbying" for Cambridgeshire "doesn't seem to be in place," and said the "turbulence" you would expect at the Combined Authority when it was first starting out "still seems to be there, and that's not a good sign".
A further challenge he said, is the additional complexity for the public to understand how local government works in the area.
"I don't regret it [devolution] because it seems too early to say, and it seems that devolution is the way that things are going, but I would have hoped that by now it would have settled down into a more coherent, working together sort of approach. Certainly when I was on the Combined Authority and since then it seems to have been very fractious, and that's not what it was about," he said.
He said local politics in South Cambridgeshire faces two key challenges for the future: the "relentless" scale of development, and at a county level the need to address the problems with adult social care.
"Cambridge city itself is full, so all the economic growth is going to be in and around South Cambridgeshire," he said.
He said health and social care "need to integrate in a way that just isn't happening". He described adult social care as "the biggest challenge in terms of local government expenditure". "At the moment local government is just spending more and more, particularly on adult social care. And that's why all the other things that county councils want to do, are being squeezed," he said, adding a plan to tackle the problem is "one of the things that everyone is still waiting on central government to come up with, after about four or five years of saying they are going to produce a blueprint".
Mr Topping said his party also faces challenges if it is to regain power at South Cambridgeshire District Council.
"I think the demographics of South Cambridgeshire are changing. There's less farming and there's more genetic scientists or people working in science labs, and that is something the Conservatives will need to work out how to understand," he said.
Asked if the Conservatives can retake the council there, he said: "I think it will be a long haul. I think some of the things that the Liberal Democrats are spending money on are unwise, but I don't think in the immediate future it's going to be a big change back to the Conservatives.
"But all political parties that want to survive have to adapt, and [the new leaders of the Conservatives on South Cambridgeshire District Council] are showing that we are adapting to people's expectations."
He said: "Heather [Williams] is a young mum, an accountant by background, and she's jolly hard-working, and she reads the detail and she understands the finances and so I think she will be a very credible opposition leader and certainly will hold [the leader of the council, Bridget Smith's] feet to the fire, but I think in a positive way".
He said it was a "privilege" to serve the villages of South Cambridgeshire, but said it will be "quite pleasant" not to be "rushing around" so much, saying there have been times with council or community meetings every night of the week, and sometimes with more than one meeting an evening.
He said he was particularly proud of his early contribution to environmental policy. He said: "I found the money for the first sustainable officer post. People didn't talk about climate change and carbon and 2050 in the way that we are now, but we laid some of the foundations for South Cambs being pretty good at green schemes and helping villages to come up with and sustain various carbon-neutral projects. And I did that in 2010, and I like to think that was a little bit ahead of the curve."
Asked if he will return to local politics in Northumberland or elsewhere he said "never say never," but said it's not in his immediate plans.