A blogpost on two interesting events in one evening
Puffles and I went along to two gatherings on 18 July 2013 with a community engagement hat on:
- A full council meeting of Cambridge City Council (See here for papers)
- The Liberated Feast event highlighting food waste in our economic system
Community development as a concept
It’s the sort of stuff that attracts derision from the “PC Nonsense” brigade – all too often attracted by novel and colourful job titles picked out of newspaper adverts. One of the first blogposts I wrote was in defence of community development officers. It was one such community development officer – Maxine Moar from Manchester who gave me a solid grounding in the challenges they had to deal with, during my civil service days. While Cambridge doesn’t have the extremities of the challenges that inner cities included in the New Deal for Communities programme have, Cambridge does have its own. Just because a city is seen as economically successful does not mean it doesn’t require careful management.
The rapid expansion of Cambridge as a city means that some thought needs to be given about the people that are going to live there. That doesn’t automatically mean people should be compelled to do things. At the same time it also doesn’t mean people should be ignored – especially as people moving into these new homes will be paying council tax.
I discussed some of the wider issues in my blogpost on Cambridge’s 2030 Vision. I won’t repeat them here. Instead I’ll look at the debate had in the council chamber on the issue.
Cambridge City Council and community development
The first person who spoke on this issue at the meeting was…me. I should have given notice the night before, but didn’t see anywhere that gave guidance on the rules of speaking publicly. I thought you could just rock up. But as I was speaking substantively on a motion tabled by one of the councillors – Peter Roberts of Labour, they let me off. Cllr Roberts’ motion was covered in the Cambridge Evening News, highlighting the town-gown divide, praising Cambridge Hub on helping overcome it and saying the council should do more to work with students to get them volunteering.
I was generally supportive of what Cllr Roberts’ motion wanted to achieve, but said that it needed to be part of a wider comprehensive community development strategy for the city, one developed by and signed up to by the people and the institutions that make up the city. The risk with these things is that they are institution-specific and thus things bounce around in the silo. This is what I wanted to help break. I specifically called for:
- A mapping exercise to be carried out in partnership with Cambridgeshire County Council and other partners to build a picture of who’s doing what and where in our city
- Commissioning a city-wide community development strategy in a manner mentioned in the above paragraph, putting ‘digital’ at the heart and making openness, transparency and accessibility the default.
What was really nice to see there were representatives from Cambridge University Students Union and Anglia Ruskin Students Union – including Gabbi Foreman and Megan Bennett. (I mistook the CUSU lot for the ARU lot in my remarks at the meeting – apologies!) Representatives from both student unions spoke – and it was really nice to see that both want to make an even greater impact than they already are.
Party politics aside…
Cllr Sarah Brown (the executive portfolio holder for community wellbeing tabled an amendment to Cllr Roberts’ motion which caused a bit of controversy – as did the oversight of Cllr Roberts’ not consulting Anglia Ruskin Student Union before composing and publicising the motion. But for me this was all a bit of a storm in a teacup. What matters to me is that the issues are now very much on the local political agenda.
The part of the debate that I was there for mentioned a fair amount of interesting detail about problems, history and individual positive actions. For example my local councillor George Owers mentioned Cambridge Credit Union. I mentioned Cambridge Online‘s free computer training, and learnt more about Cambridge Time Bank and the Cambridge Local Exchange where people can exchange goods and services at a ‘hyperlocal’ level with each other without having to exchange money.
What didn’t seem to click with the councillors though was the really big picture. For example Cambridge Online has spaces for free basic computer training but limited uptake. At the same time we have evidence to show that people both need and want this sort of training. Councillors mentioned that we needed to bring the two together – and mentioned other similar types of examples, but didn’t comment on dealing with the issues systematically. This for me is where both the mapping exercise and the community development strategy come into play.
Over the next few months Puffles and I will be pushing for the completion of the mapping exercise and setting in motion the process to develop a city-wide community development strategy.
Liberated Feast – food called
I had to head off early because of a fantastic event called Liberated Feast – the local brainchild of Jennie Debenham who worked her socks off to put together a wonderful feast for nearly 100 of us at Emmanuel URC around the corner from the Cambridge Guildhall. (The former being the same venue Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett spoke at on a recent visit to Cambridge – which I blogged about here). It was also nice to see local MP Julian Huppert there too – having made it back from the last day of Parliament before the summer recess.
The feast was made from unwanted food that supermarkets – namely Sainsburys and the Co-op did not want. (The latter of which also provided some nice Fair Trade wine – I recommend the Argentinian Malbec). Volunteers also went foraging and ‘gleaning’ from local farms to get hold of unwanted fruit and vegetables to make some lovely salads and desserts.
Gleaning is a short-term solution to the waste that comes from stupidly high cosmetic standards for fruit and vegetables. The UK network is here. At a time of rising food poverty and food prices, more campaigners are clocking onto the idea that we need to have an overhaul of our attitudes towards food. Additionally, they also want to put further pressure on supermarkets too.
Gasps around the room
The UK Gleaning Network has listed the facts here. The level of UK food imports is also a national security issue too. What made people outraged – and I heard an audible gasp around the room, was when Martin (the guest speaker) told of the relationship between food importers and farmers in developing countries. Basically if the supermarket importing decides it doesn’t want a particular consignment of goods, it can send it back – with the farmers in poorer countries expected to take the loss. By the time the goods are sent back, they are spoilt and have to be landfilled or disposed elsewhere. The imbalance of power is huge. And people – myself included – became rightly angry about this.
We also had a musical performance too from Foulignouma, bringing a couple of impressive-looking instruments from West Africa with them. I can’t pretend it’s the sort of thing that’s on my music playlist, but it’s nice to have something different once in a while. At the same time, I also think the music bit helped make the whole event work too. Jennie got the combination right with raising a political issue, sharing food, a performance and raising money for two organisations. The turnout spoke for itself and brought together lots of people who had not met each other before.
An insight into the sorts of community events Cambridge is capable of
This is what I feel all of the volunteers that made the evening happen demonstrated. They did it off of their own backs without needing to spend huge amounts of money on publicity. They used a combination of social and digital media along with traditional pounding of the streets, turning up to other events and meeting new people along the way. And it worked.
How can we make more things like this easier to make happen?
This was one of the questions David Cameron tried to ask with Big Society. As I put to one of his former advisers, Philip Blond at an event at Anglia Ruskin University earlier this year, Cameron was unable to give Big Society a clear consistent and understandable policy definition of his vision of Big Society (and how to achieve it), nor did he understand the close links between local authorities and small community groups & organisations. The cuts to local government devastated the sector.
At the same time, I don’t deny that parts of the more established voluntary and community sector organisations had become too dependent on the state and too inward looking. It was one of the criticisms I mentioned at the last AGM of the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services. The way society has taken to using social and digital media tools is little short of a social revolution. You just have to look not just at Facebook but local searches of things like Eventbrite and Meetup – where if you search by city name, you’ll find lots of events and groups all listed there. My feeling with the institutions in Cambridge at the moment is that they are unsighted to all of this. Hence why I called for both a mapping exercise and the commissioning of a city-wide community development strategy. That way we can systematically overcome the barriers that are stopping people from getting involved in improving our city and communities.
Food for thought?