Dealing with the challenges of being a market town with an international brand
Because that is what Cambridge currently is. But before I get stuck into thing, a summary of links to keep in mind
- Shape Your Place
- Teacambs for July (where we’ll be discussing some of these things)
- The 2030 vision for Cambridge
- East Anglia Rail Prospectus
I’m in that somewhat privileged position of having Cambridge as a home town while being able to see some of its problems having lived and worked away for several years. Since leaving the civil service I started jumping up and down about how to make things better locally. As it has turned out, the listening and planning stage has ended up being far longer than the few months I had anticipated. I’m still at that stage.
The town gown divide
Local councillor and Cambridge graduate Peter Roberts is due to lead a debate in the City Council chamber this week on this subject. One of my earliest blogposts on this subject was from 2011 (see here), one which was based on negative experiences from my childhood vis-a-vis the university. One of them was when a friend and I got kicked off some tennis courts at Homerton College because we weren’t members. There was no way local teenagers could become members. And we wonder why tennis has ‘accessibility and class issues.’
Cambridge University has come a long way since those days. More of its individuals and institutions are outward looking than in days gone by. There are some excellent things being done by the likes of the Cambridge Hub and the Stimlus Project, as well as the likes of Francesca Rust at Anglia Ruskin raising the local profile of students there.
But…and there’s a big but…
There is a growing acknowledgement that Cambridge (in the wider sense) will lose out if it becomes the plaything of the superrich. Yet this is what Cambridge is becoming. You only have to look at the combination of house prices and how both house prices and language schools are marketed. One local estates agency boasts that up to 30% of its new homes are sold to overseas investors. (It’s far worse in London). The bland boxes that have gone up around Cambridge station ever since the Belvedere gated community went up in 2004 have been marketed at London commuters. Why you would need a gated community in a part of the country with low crime rates I don’t know. Pictures of centuries-old colleges and relaxing by the river. Yeah – as if your rabbit hutch of a flat is going to have such views.
Gaming the planning system – international finance attracted by the international brand crushing a market town infrastructure
That is what is happening here. What’s happening with the victorian Wilton Terrace is an example of this. A developer puts in some poor quality designs, planners initially reject them citing several things, developer makes the bare minimum of changes needed to get the plans accepted – knowing that the local authority won’t be able to afford to refuse the second time around because the developer will appeal to the planning inspectorate who will be able to overturn the decision & award costs against the council.
In a booming market, it doesn’t matter to the developer what the designs look like, so long as they generate a decent return. Where the financiers, architects and developers are not local, design matters even less as they don’t have to live with the consequences of their development – especially once they’ve cut and run with the money.
Finally, the people that make the final decisions on planning – the councillors – are only part-time themselves. I’ve spoken with councillors and candidates across the country over the years and many say that the burden and time commitment placed upon them means that there’s no point in even considering standing for election (which is not cheap anyway) because they won’t be able to make the time commitments. My point? Perhaps it’s time to say that we are asking people to take on too much in return for ‘expenses only’ payments in local government. The local government administration point is acknowledged in the 2030 vision, but it’s not yet clear to me whether any of the alternatives put forward will be able to face down big finance and stand up for the local community.
Building up civic society – community development
It’s not homes that make up a community, it is the people. It’s the building up of civic society in Cambridge that I am particularly interested in for a number of reasons – not least boredom. (And an awareness of lots of interesting things that happen in London that we could easily host/have here). The whole concept of local government-sponsored ‘community development’ will come as an anaethma to some readers of this blog. That’s something you’re supposed to leave to…well…’civic society’. The problem under the previous Labour administration is that civic society ended up becoming too inward-looking and staid – ending up being too dependent on the state for grants and support. As a result, when the Coalition brought in such huge cuts, there was a massive shock to the entire sector.
‘Civic society’ in a place like Cambridge is diverse by its nature – which means it’s not this monolith that has this leader at the top who can take decisions on its behalf. One of the mistakes of tick-box culture in the past is that consulting the voluntary sector was seen as sending an email/letter to senior managers of a local consortium of voluntary sector organisations for their clearance on something in order to demonstrate meeting some statutory obligation. In Whitehall, the equivalent is having representation from the Local Government Association on your project board to say that ‘local government is represented’. With the growth of social and digital media, the idea of having a one person/organisation represents all in a sector is now obsolete.
What does civic society in and around Cambridge look like?
The fact is we don’t know. No – really, we don’t. In a social media age, any picture of civic society will be limited on the grounds that people are more willing and able to self-organise. It’s both communities of interest as well as geographical communities that this organisation is happening over.
We know that use of social and digital media is a significant barrier across Cambridge. Representatives from some of the more established voluntary groups that are part of the Cambridge CVS said so at their 2012 AGM in November. About two-thirds of people I surveyed in the main conference room (about 60-70 people) indicated they were not comfortable using social media. On the other side, there are people who rely on social media to self-organise. Have Search for events in Cambridge on both Meetup and Eventbrite as well as Facebook for those of you with access to the latter, and you’ll get an idea. Note I’ve not even started with the communities at Cambridge University, Anglia Ruskin and the schools & further education colleges.
What is the 2030 vision for Cambridge?
We need to find out where things currently stand & then decide where we want to get to – i.e. the 2030 vision. The problem I found with with the 2030 document is that I didn’t get a sense of a positive vision – rather a series of different challenges that needed to be overcome, written in a technocratic style. Straight-forward maybe, but not particularly inspiring. Perhaps this is where the party politics and being a good communicator come into play. A case of “I’m going to close my eyes and you’re going to describe to me what Cambridge in 2030 is going to be like – and I’m going to open my eyes inspired by what you’ve said.”
So who needs to do what? – Strategies
I had a look at an old Cambridge Community Development Strategy from…ages ago to get a feel for what previous plans were. It’s now defunct as the old local strategic partnership no longer exists. It’s sort of been replaced by a local economic partnership – which is like its predecessor but without any central government money. It’s also worth noting that Cambridge City Council are consulting on a refresh of their 2013-16 Community Development Strategy because they’ve just done an equalities impact assessment on it. But I can’t find the original strategy.
No – really: Who needs to do what?
For a start, Cambridge City Council needs to publish the above-mentioned strategy – and that strategy needs some specific targets and actions. It should not contain wide sweeping statements that can be forgotten about the following day – such as “We will improve how we work with our partners”. *Yawn*. That way, any existing actions can be refined and improved.
We (or the councils) need to map civic society to find out what we already have and what is already out there up and running. Actually, that work has already been started by Cambridgeshire County Council at Cambridgeshire.Net (do have a look). It’s started incorporating a new online county-wide forum called Shape Your Place (SYP) – which now covers Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire. If you are interested, please come along to Teacambs at the end of July [CLICK].
I’ve blogged about SYP before (see here), taking a slightly less sceptical tone than my fellow local blogger Richard Taylor who blogged here. For those of you interested in holding local government to account as a citizen journalist, Richard, who tweets at @RtaylorUK is worth following – especially if you are in Cambridge.
Questions informing a mapping exercise
The county council’s team at Cambridgeshire.Net are already onto some of this, so this is really in support of what they are doing. Some quick-fire questions include:
Rooms, halls and venues
- Where are all of the community venues in Cambridge that can be rented out?
- Where are the web pages and photographs/pictures of all of the community venues?
- How easy is it to find out the costs and availability in hiring the various parts of the venue?
- How easy is it to go about booking such venues?
- How affordable are the venues?
- What can be done and by whom to make the venues more sustainable/improve the quality of services on offer?
- What existing activities already take place at each venue?
- Who runs the different activities at each venue?
- Does our public transport network make accessibility to venues easier?
- Who could do with bigger/smaller venues?
Groups, societies and communities
- How many formally constituted groups and societies do we have in/around Cambridge?
- How many of them are active, how big are they, how regularly do they meet?
- How many of them have email addresses/websites/social media accounts?
- When and where do they meet? How do members/participants stay in touch?
- For those that receive state funding, which ones have the potential to merge with each other, share costs or other activities?
- Which of these have the potential to join up and put on shared events to wider and larger audiences?
- How many informal groups and gatherings are there in/around Cambridge?
- Which informal groups have the potential to join up and host events of interest to wider and larger audiences, or even new events altogether?
- What investments and where would make the biggest difference to both the sustainability of different groups, and increase participation from people across the city?
More generic questions include
- For groups and societies, what things are you currently not doing that you would like to do, and what are the barriers that are stopping you?
- For individuals and citizens, what are the activities that you would like to do, and what are the barriers that are stopping you?
The reasons why the last couple of questions are important is because there might be something that a public sector organisation is/isn’t doing unwittingly that is creating a barrier. For example for some people the barrier might be childcare – both costs and availability of an affordable suitable carer. In which case would provision of a creche at some of the more larger community venues make a series of activities much more accessible for those with young families?
For others, there may be a skills issue – such as basic IT, literacy and numeracy skills. There might also be a problem with awareness. Are there some really basic places not covered where we could have some community noticeboards? The easy wins are busier bus stops and railway stations. Why so few community notice boards in places where people are inevitably waiting?
If all of this stuff interests you, feel free to go along to your area committee (find yours here), make your views known at Shape Your Place, and especially if you work in the public sector, come along to teacambs (last Thurs of every month in the John Lewis Cafe, Grand Arcade, Cambridge from 4:30pm).