Bad decisions will not go away …

16414393-abstract-word-cloud-for-decision-theory-with-related-tags-and-terms… and Cambridgeshire County Council made one at its May meeting last week.

I was not at the meeting, it clashed with a holiday I’d booked, but it’s only the third one I’ve missed in over 12 years now as a councillor so my conscience is pretty clear. However I would have liked to have been there to see how other councillors would have justified voting in favour of moving the Council’s headquarters to Alconbury.

To some extent it was surprising that this decision came to Full Council. Previously it had been decided, wrongly, that the decision would be delegated to the Commercial & Investment Committee (C&ICom). But then rather surprisingly that committee decided to refer its decision back to Full Council for ratification.

I was a member of the C&ICom and attended the meeting at which it made its decision but sadly it chose to do that in secret. Click here for my take on that. I suspect that the minutes of this private session would be accessible under Freedom of Information rules.

So it came to Full Council which was then privy to some information including a comparison table (in the council agenda papers) and an accessibility comparison.

I do not disagree with the proposal to move out of Shire Hall. It is a beautiful building but it’s unsuited to the work of the Council today and it’s far too expensive to operate and maintain. What I do disagree with is the precipitative rush to a decision based on some very flaky data.

Why is it precipitative? Because there’s no reason why the decision had to be made this month and with so much uncertainty abroad about the future of the County Council and the structure of local government going forward it might have been smart to wait until there was more clarity. Plus there’s the issue about the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership (GCP) and the work it’s doing to facilitate better transport systems. These were not reflected in the accessibility comparison and might be considered sufficiently material for this to be done.

Rule number 1 in making decisions is to resolve as much uncertainty as possible before you make the decision. The County Council chose to ignore this rule.

Why is the data flaky? Check out the comparison table which rates the two options as equal except for timeliness and place which together account for 4 points of difference and accessibility which accounts for 2.

During the work leading up to the decision I argued that the decision should be based on long term criteria because that would be the future to which we were committing ourselves. That’s why there’s no criterion related to the ability to retain the existing workforce which, if it had been included, would almost certainly have strongly favored Northstowe.

But if you discount the workforce retention issue (rightly in my opinion) then why on earth do you include criteria related the risk of late delivery (unquantified) or to the absence of adjacent shops etc on day 1?

If the impact of the transition is to be included then this should be reflected in the economics but as can be seen in the table the financial return is considered to be the same for both options.  In fact delivery risk is shown separately in the table where it is regarded as the same for both locations.

If the timeliness and place difference is discounted then we’re left with accessibility and the table which awards the decision in favour of Alconbury does not fill me with confidence:

  • Bedford is seen as a primary source of labour
  • there is no reference to the impact of any GCP activity
  • the rankings are obscure to say the least
  • there’s no reflection of cycling or walking
  • etc etc

So where to now? Press the pause button, resolve the uncertainties and then revisit the decision. Do it at the right time when it has to be made and not a moment sooner.

Here’s a good quote:

“I think the two things most opposed to good counsel are haste and passion; haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind.”

― Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War



  1. Hi Cllr Jenkins, and thanks for the interesting post, which echoes some of Lorna’s worries I think:

    I personally consider that important property decisions like this need to be taken with maximum clarity and openness -certainly not in secret, not with such haste, and not with such puzzling evaluations.

    It sounds from your account that this needs revisiting and re-assessing before too many binding and lucrative contracts get signed.

    I certainly was surprised by Alconbury as the alternative choice, and could not see what advantages if any it possessed over the current location -let alone what the net financial gain to the council of such a deal might be.

    One of my criteria for an alternative site would be the question of how easy it would be for members of the public-especially those dependent on public transport -to get to the new location, in order to attend council meetings on issues that affect them.

    Is that something the council considers to be at all important ? It doesn’t seem to me that Alconbury is particularly easy to get to; but I may be wrong .

    Cheers John Oakes


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