Facing detailed scrutiny from the experts that are the Cambridge Cycling Campaign members
…even though I often call them the Cambridge Cycle Campaign. (They campaign for cycling, not bikes – as I’ve often been told!) So *****Big Thank You***** to Hester and the Cambridge Cycling Campaign for the invitation to be on the panel.
The document Cllr Herbert is holding is Making Space for Cycling - do have a read as it applies nationwide, not just to Cambridge.
I said I’d be arriving late because of an essential rehearsal with The Dowsing Collective - we’ve got an event on Sunday (See here). Also, I find singing with so many people (a number whom who are older and wiser than me) to be a very therapeutic and inspiring experience too. The lecture theatre at Emmanuel College has splendid acoustics – it’s sort of a mini Apex in Bury St Edmunds (see my review of singing here). We’ve got a gig in July at the Apex – confirmation here so come along if you want to hear us!
“Yeah – but singing’s not going to get you elected. How did the politics go?”
I disagree – singing has given me the confidence to stand, even though me and Puffles have no intention of getting elected – as we told Richard Taylor when he asked earlier.
Choir practice or council meeting. What would you choose?
More planning with my friend Ceri
Ceri Jones has been my rock throughout this campaign. She’s been the person I’ve bounced most ideas off of, and has been the person who has probably given me the biggest kick up the backside when I’ve needed it most. In this case it was making a poster that I can pin up in cafes, libraries and supermarkets to remind people to vote. Remember that aim number 1 of my campaign is to increase turnout. What I’ve not seen around is many posters reminding people of this – let alone the signs outside people’s houses. Which reminds me – we need to design one for Puffles.
“Yeah – but how did you get on with the cyclists?”
I arrived very late – but gave advanced notice. When I got there, Cllr Lewis Herbert and Cllr Rod Cantrill were there, along with former County Councillor Simon Sedgewick-Jell of the Green Party, but formerly of the Labour Party (and leader of Cambridge City Council).
Do I pretend to be a dragon-fairy-made-human or do I comment as me?
This was something I had not really thought about until I sat down – realising it will be Puffles on the ballot paper and not me. So do I run with policies about the price of a decent bottle of rioja and the availability of jellybellies and pistachio nuts, or do I go with the serious stuff? I chose the latter.
Actually, I took a ‘big picture’ view that reflected my policy background in Whitehall, crossing this with growing up in South Cambridge. I saw no point in trying to compete with the other panelists on experience as councillors because I have nothing to go on. Hence rather than starting with ‘cycling-specific’ things I wanted to go with the big picture. Remember that all the others had the benefit/millstone of party political brands. I on the other hand had no baggage, so felt the need to explain to an audience knowing nothing of me or Puffles some of the very basics about who I am. I took the principle of commenting on how to change systems and processes so that they not only benefit cycling campaigners, but the whole city. Hence not mentioning cycling specifically in my early remarks. When they got to specifics – such as the Cherry Hinton Road/Hills Road junction, I commented that when I did my paper round 20 years ago, the junction was a death trap for me then, and it’s a death trap for me now.
Puffles the dragon fairy – rising above the rest?
I don’t think everyone got the metaphor of Puffles having wings so being able to fly above everything and take a big picture view, but my point was to make the link between what was happening in Westminster with what was happening at Guildhall/local council level. This was the point I put to Cllr Herbert about local political pressure to make Cambridge a unitary authority. Basically, it needs to be written into party manifestos – national ones at that (or certainly have commitment in writing from politicians with national policy remits) committing parties to this restructure.
In the grand scheme of things, there was little disagreement with principles. All of the other panelists explained at some length to Cambridge Cycling Campaign members that they were hamstrung by ‘the system’ or ‘the county council’ – which in the grand scheme of things is largely true. What I felt was missing was any exploration of how we could deal with these things. This is one of the themes I’ve been running with regarding a community action summit (see here - I’ve got some positive news coming up on that soon).
Was Lewis caught between a rock and a hard place?
Both councillors were in my opinion. But that was in part due to the mindset/institutionalisation of being part of the local civic infrastructure for many years. The same applies to me with seven years in the civil service. People from the private sector have told me on more than one occasion that I’ve been ‘institutionalised’ by the civil service – and with good reason.
I got the impression that both Lewis and Rod were looking at things from the shrinking resource pool as a result of Coalition cuts to local government budgets. Given that they are campaigning against each other to take political control of the council, understandably their focus will be on the bottom line. I on the other hand have a cuddly toy, a Twitter account and a blog. Hence the prospect of having to deal directly with the budgetary constraints directly isn’t something I have to worry about. Accordingly, I’ve had the time to think ‘big picture’ on some of these issues.
Lewis acknowledged that the Cambridge Cycling Campaign is carrying out some of the functions that Cambridge City Council should be carrying out itself. He’s right. At the same time, I asked whether there was a better way that ‘we the city’ could tap into the experience and expertise that we have in Cambridge. Because at the moment we’re nowhere near achieving our potential on this. For example we have a number of people from Continental Europe from places with far better public and cycling transport infrastructure than we have in Cambridge. I asked how we could tap into this wealth of experience.
“What if Puffles gets elected?”
Puffles won’t get elected. If Puffles does get elected, it will speak volumes about the state of politics in this country. And that won’t be a good thing either. As I mentioned in this blogpost, I’m not seeking election. Rather I’m trying to change a culture by getting more people involved in local democracy. One of the ways to get publicity for this is to put yourself (one way or another) on the ballot paper. But that alone – as I blogged here – is not nearly enough.
“What did you learn from the hustings?”
And that reflects the passion and expertise that the Cambridge Cycling Campaign has within its ranks. The Campaign and its members are an asset to our city – so much so that they produced this substantial document: Making space for cycling. It felt a bit more like a ‘public policy’ discussion rather than a ‘party politics rough and tumble’ event. There was no representation from cycling-sceptics there. Had there been, I fear it would have descended into a shouting match between one side and another. Yes, people would have had the chance to shout at their opponents. But for what purpose? Creating a lot of noise but little light?
When you have that amount of expertise being channeled in your direction, it’s hard but to sit back and admire. At the same time, I also refreshed what I saw as my role on helping the campaign (I’m a cyclist at heart and a bit of an eco-warrior at the best of times).
This for me is one of the biggest challenges in local democracy and civic society. I want to see more women, and more younger women taking an active role in both. I want to see them in decision-making roles. Cambridge Cycling Campaign is fortunate that they have a critical mass of very talented women in decision-making roles. But when I look around Cambridge and see the diversity of people that cycle, I don’t yet see that reflected in the people that come along to the meetings and scrutinise local councils. That’s not to say they’re not aware – they are. They’ve also tried outreach into schools. Having come up against a brick wall on this front myself, this is something that requires a huge amount of persistence. But given the massive developments happening in Cambridge, providing that much-needed public and technical scrutiny understandably takes priority over what might be seen as ‘softer’ actions.
“So…what are you going to do about it?”
Support them. Campaign members are part of the vanguard of making Cambridge a better place. Not only that, they are being proactive about it. I found myself nodding to many of the contributions that were made from members. As I mentioned at the hustings, I’d like to see every secondary school and further education institution having a nominated student link officer on their school/student council for the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. The simple reason because so many of them cycle to school or college. I used to be one of them. The challenge – something I’m going to pick up on their behalf – is persuading the schools administration to make it happen. Easier said than done.