If we accept that the title represents reality in Cambridgeshire, how do we turn this around?
A big ‘If’ perhaps, but this was something mentioned by David Cleevely CBE earlier in 2013 when he slammed Cambridgeshire politicians and political/administrative structures. (See here). Interestingly, David and others have recently launched the Cambridge Ahead Group. (See also articles here and here). It’s also worth spending a few minutes looking at this digital video they’ve created, outlining the challenges, as well as their 2030 vision for Cambridge
Can Cambridge politicians rise to the challenge? Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Daniel Zeichner responded to David’s challenge in this article. It’s something I know that other politicians from other political parties have also accepted: Our political structures and systems of administration are simply not able to cope with the pressures being placed upon it. We’re also lucky to have Julian Huppert as a constituency MP who, compared to one or two of his counterparts works his socks off on issues local and national. (Yes, you try dealing with 10,000 pieces of constituency casework in your first year as an MP - the stuff you’re constitutionally required to deal with.) Julian’s raised the profile of the city significantly since his election and also I believe in comparison to his two predecessors – though others may disagree with me on that one.
But…I have issues. Big issues
I blog about them all the time – see my blogposts about Cambridge here. There are two themes that my issues fall into. The first is one about the insular nature of the institutions and those that lead them, the second is the business focus of David’s initiative.
‘Little co-ordination, little strategic planning, no long term vision’
The above in my view is how you could label the activities of Cambridge’s institutions ***as a collective***. You may have individual silos of brilliance and excellence, but the manner in which all of these institutions functions is…dysfunctional. I’m being deliberately provocative here. Dysfunctional cities don’t build ugly buildings – but in Cambridge we’re having lots of them built. Big finance and their developers know how to game the planning system. It’s why some of us are moaning about it. (See here, and here, and my blogpost here.)
Now, David’s initiative is an understandable response to the challenges that Cambridge is facing, given an unresponsive political establishment both locally and nationally. Locally, the councils are fighting for their lives in the face of massive cuts. Only recently the prospect of more council tax rises combined with further cuts was raised yet again (see here) – on top of what the city & county have already undertaken. Who’d be a local councillor in this environment? No – really. Who would take on the gig of having to deliver cuts that are the decisions of central government?
Where are the women? Where are the local independent businesses? Where are the young people? What is the role for older people? Where is the community activism?
To be fair to David and friends, their digital video acknowledges the challenges of building communities – and especially the problems created by the poor planning of Cambourne. It’s not just the transport problems but also the impact of moving lots of people to a new settlement – which has had mental health impacts.
Will the communities’ priorities be the same as that of businesses?
My take is that business is a function of the community, not the other way around. Again, I can understand why the group of people and institutions that David has gathered around has a strong economic focus. I just think that this focus is limited, and could potentially lead to some very skewed outcomes. For example while the location of Cambridge United and Cambridge City football clubs may not be a priority for business and university types, it is a priority for the 4,000+ fans that turn up to home games on a regular basis. Not an insignificant number of people.
Who’s representing small independent businesses? It’s not all high-tech high-value
Looking at the current membership from the private sector (see here), they are mainly the local offices of some very big multinationals or national firms/organisations. This risks creating a bubble – a concrete bubble that’s impenetrable for anyone else to break through. The price of membership is eye-watering (see here) though I note there are ten seats for charitable and voluntary organisations, as well as other individuals.
It’s a similar problem with the Greater Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough Local Economic Partnership. Puffles gave them a kicking about #DiversityFail on their board (see here – spot any patterns?). Sorry chaps, it ain’t my LEP if 50% of the population is not represented on it. Which trio of men are going to step down and allow talented women from their organisation to take their places? Because if the organisation genuinely believes they just happen to be the most suitable and most talented people from across the county for board roles, I say they are not looking hard enough.
Young people are our future, so why are we excluding them from decision-making processes?
I got angry at a recent LEP gathering, where too many (mainly older men) talked about young people, rather than engaging with and listening to them. (See my blogpost here). I also complained about this in terms of local authority structures and processes. (See here). The thing is, young people are doing some ***really great things*** across Cambridgeshire. I saw it for myself at the National Citizens’ Service graduation event earlier this year. (See here). Yet when I speak to employers, councillors and others about this, too many people are ignorant of the great things that young people are achieving.
What about the experienced minds?
I delivered a couple of training sessions on social media to lots of councillors very recently. One of the challenges they put to me was that the more rural parts of Cambridgeshire are places where people come to retire. They also said that this does not mean they come to the county to do nothing. They too want to be active members of our communities. How do we embrace the wealth of talent and knowledge that they bring with them? What are the barriers and how do we overcome them? This is where I encouraged all of the attendees to reach out to their local schools and colleges to put on some ‘social media for social action’/skills-sharing events.
The problem a number of us have had is trying to get some traction in institutions. This is why I have been door-stepping so many of them. But again, it’s not easy if you are a one-man-and-his-dragon-fairy-band. And it’s getting frustrating – to the stage where I’m having to stop using the ‘softly-softly’ approach and be a little more hard-hitting. The questions I have submitted for a local council meeting (see here) give an indication of my approach:
- Ask open-ended questions that help expose some of the gaps or short-comings with given activities or policies
- Ask what’s going to be done about it
- Turn up to a follow-up meeting a few months later and ask for progress updates
- …and repeat until successful, or escalate if not.
…and regarding the final remark on 4), by escalation I mean for example using my knowledge of how Whitehall works to overcome the blockages in our local systems. Alternatively it might mean organising an alliance of people and groups with shared interests to put pressure on where the blockages are. Escalation in this sense doesn’t always have to be upwards. It can be sideways too!
Recent conversations and meetings?
I’ve had several with a number of people and community groups. I’m also speaking on a panel at a local conference on skills for 14-19 year olds. (See here and do join us!) In a nutshell, we’re going to be following-through on these issues. i.e. we are not going to go away. Too many of us have invested too much time and energy into what we’ve done to let it drop. And for me, the message from the young people in this video (put together by one of Puffles’ friends, Rhammel Afflick, who is smashing through lots of barriers in London) lays down the challenge.
I will. Will you?