Why some recent council meetings have left me scratching my head over the lack of involvement from the wider community
Controversial blogpost title? It should be.
Cambridge has this strange setup of area committees (see here) at local authority level where small planning applications and community grants are decided. It’s also where local people can turn up and speak on issues affecting them in their locality.
“Who’d turn up to a council meeting on a cold rainy winter’s night in suburbia?”
That depends on the nature of the community. During my days in the civil service I was sent on a visit (actually, I chose to go on this one) to the other end of the country – the Lake District. In my enthusiasm, I also agreed to go to a local parish council meeting on the grounds that I had never been to one before & wanted to get a feel for what the community was like. So in the pitch black, on a cold rainy winters night I found myself in a freezing community hall at the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. As we were the first to arrive, I wondered what I’d let myself in for. But then lots of people turned up. They heard that some chap from London – from Central Government had come all the way up to meet them all. And when the meeting got started the room was buzzing. I had my picture taken with the local councillors – and was also conspicuous as being the only non-White face in the room. At the time I thought nothing of it – remember that Cambridge (the town side) during my childhood was far less diverse than it currently is now, so I didn’t feel that out of place as far as that was concerned.
“Why then, do so few members of the public turn up to Cambridge area committee meetings?”
It’s probably better to say that attendance fluctuates. If there is a particularly contentious issue or application that has been publicised by a community group, people will turn up. However, comparing such committees to the parish council example I used above is that in the former case, the area committees are an artificial construct. The parish council – where the chairman was also an elected district and county councillor had a different feel to it. Perhaps because the nature of the communities meant that the parish council was inevitably a core part of the life of the community. After all, it was one with very difficult transport connections so going elsewhere required real effort.
The other thing for me is that what people can talk about is ever so limited that actually, in the grand scheme of things there feels little point in turning up unless you want to complain about a broken street lamp or a pothole. (This is despite things like Fix My Street). Even when you can make the case for something – such as local police priorities, does it make a difference on the ground? I managed to get the police to focus on noisy vehicles last year, but did not detect any impact in my local area as a result.
“So…it’s decisions that have real impact that matter?”
Not quite – planning applications and the distribution of community funding can make a significant impact. But unless you have an interest in an application for either, why would you turn up?
Young people conspicuous by their absence. Again.
The only person at this evening’s South Area Committee in the room who was possibly younger than me was an architect representing one of the planning applicants. I’m heading into my mid-30s so don’t really count as young any more. One of the items discussed this evening was about what community projects Cambridge City Council should consider funding. (See page 3 of here - I hope someone’s been into local schools to ask the students there what they’d like). The East Area Committee considered their own list for their area last week. I wasn’t allowed to comment on the East Area’s list as I didn’t attend their community consultation event last year. I attended the South’s one instead – and blogged about it here.
The thing is, at the South event I pleaded with council officials to ensure young people were involved in the decision-making processes. Yet I didn’t see much evidence of this either in the discussions or in the attendance at the meeting. Basics such as late-night meetings on school nights?
Not only that, we also have a draft local plan that’s still out for consultation – see here. I ****really hope**** someone in the city council has taken the display boards into schools and colleges, and engaged with the young people there. Ditto with the county council and transport strategy – see here.
Because if not, that would be absolutely scandalous.
Community Development Strategies again?
The city council has tried engaging with young people before – and failed. See here. Community engagement is bloody hard work. Ask any councillor or much-maligned community development officer. But are institutional turf-wars and artificial administrative boundaries making the challenges unnecessarily harder? You only have to look at the financial controls to see what some of the challenges are. Schools – in particular academies, will have their own funding pots from the state. Thus they are separate from district councils that may as well be on a different planet to schools. (In Cambridge, most secondary schools (if not all) are now academies, while primary schools are generally still backed by the county council). How do you overcome those boundaries while at the same time safeguarding children?
The curriculum for this has just been published for secondary schools – see here. Is there something within this that can provide for some sort of continuous engagement between schools, community service providers and councils at a grassroots level? Ie something more than an annual talk by a local councillor trying to explain what a local council does in…10 minutes? (That’s all I had in the mid 1990s – with zero engagement at sixth form).
This is one of the challenges the Shape Your Place team in Cambridge has regarding online engagement. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts, I’m doing some voluntary outreach work with the team in schools and colleges across the county. In a nutshell, I’m working from a viewpoint that we cannot simply rock up at schools and colleges and say “Here’s a new community website for you! Write stuff on it and be citizen journalists!” It’s got to fit within a wider context of their relationship with their local area, their ability to ask questions of adults and decision-making organisations, and finally seeing how their input has direct results in their local community. But again, the engagement has to be continuous. That means a role for local councillors – and also means those councillors being accessible via the means that young people use.
“That social media problem again?”
Exactly. And not just councillors but council staff and other providers of community services too.
That’s not to say social media is this magic bullet. Before even looking at social media, a whole host of work needs to be done before young people even begin to start thinking about engaging with their local councillors. For some, it might simply be the case that what councils do is of little interest to them. For others, there might be a particular issue that they wish to campaign on. Given the catchment areas of the further education and sixth form colleges in Cambridge, public transport is a massive issue. (Hence why the transport strategy consultation must be taken into the colleges) Chances are there are others too – and it’s important that any engagement activities pick these up.
The social media bit becomes important in continuous engagement – particularly the conversations that happen in between the offline face-to-face activities such as meetings and workshops. But that also means councillors having the confidence to use social media themselves.
“Is this evidence of young people being systematically excluded?”
Systematic exclusion does not mean someone’s made the conscious decision to exclude young people, or has deliberately conspired to make things harder for them to engage. Far more likely is that no one has looked at how current systems and processes make it difficult for young people to get engaged and involved, let alone changing those systems and processes. For example:
- Are major consultations systematically brought into schools and colleges to get the views of young people?
- Are consultations drafted/written in a style and language that the community in general can clearly understand?
- What methods of data collection do you have on finding out the issues that young people have, and how is such data fed into decision-making processes?
- How is citizenship education in schools consistent with what local councils and other institutions do on outreach and engagement?
- What do other parts of the UK (and even abroad) do well on engaging with young people, and what can Cambridge and Cambridgeshire learn from them?
Personally I feel the city and the county can do far better than it is currently doing on this. And no, me and Puffles are not going to stop going on about it until/unless we see some significant improvements.