Three community gatherings last night, four tonight…


Ensuring multiple links across multiple institutions across Cambridge to break through some of the barriers

I took Puffles to ***four*** different gatherings this evening. Starting at 5:30pm and finishing at 10:00pm. I guess it sort of gives me an idea of what it must be like for an MP fighting to keep their seat in a volatile constituency – such as Cambridge. (The city has had MPs from 3 political parties in 3 decades & in my lifetime). Last night it was three gatherings, the big one being the Long Road Sixth Form College open evening, and the day before that it was the AGM of the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services. It’s been a bit non-stop but at the same time I feel a momentum that’s not so easy to stop either. I’m trying to work out if this is a good or a bad thing.

Science and the city

The first event was with Cambridge University’s Science and Policy Exchange. It was a series of presentations on future cities and the role of public policy. The speakers – Haidee Bell of NESTA, John Souter of the London Internet Exchange, Noelle Crossley of Cambridgeshire County Council and Zach Wilcox of the Centre for Cities all gave powerful but different presentations. Thus avoiding the risk of repeating what others had said previously.

Is London like a talent and wealth vacuum cleaner?

Zach kicked things off with some sobering statistics from the Centre for Cities about how the sheer size and power of London is sucking in wealth and talent from across the country, as well as crushing some projects and startups that might otherwise be successful. This reflects my own anecdotal experience during my time in the public sector. There’s something about ‘the London experience’ (of living and working) that changes your perspective on things. It’s had a massive impact on how I now view Cambridge compared to how I saw things growing up here. (The Centre for Cities views Cambridge’s problems here). How I view and analyse Cambridge’s problems & its potential for the future is shaped by what I’ve seen elsewhere. The data on both job creation and share of the economy they showed was striking. Smaller cities in England lost out on both in comparison to London.

“We need to stop electing stupid politicians”

Words to those effect by John Souter of the London Internet Exchange. His point is that we need higher calibre individuals to stand for election, engaging in the party political process. That or we need to completely change our political processes so that we have a greater range of people with more talents holding elected public office. That doesn’t mean everyone should have a degree from oxbridge. But it does mean, as he said, that declaring ignorance in something being a badge of pride needs to be eliminated. Think of those that say “I’m not good at maths” or “Computing is too complicated for me” or even “I don’t do politics“. Interestingly, he said the current generation of MPs is likely to be the last where it’ll be acceptable to be IT-illiterate. The pressure from people using social and digital media will be too great.

Connecting Cambridgeshire – a county imbalance?

This is an issue in Cambridgeshire because despite the reputation Cambridge has, the north of the county is much more economically deprived in comparison. This is reflected by the poor transport and infrastructure links. Have a look at Wisbech in north Cambridgeshire – where I took part in some online exchanges on Wisbech Shape Your Place with the Cambridgeshire County Council leader Cllr Martin Curtis and some local residents. This is what Noelle Crossley and team are working to overcome with the Connecting Cambridgeshire project. At the same time, I can’t help but think there are a number of key sectors of the economy that are able to hold citizens to ransom – basically because the state no longer does direct delivery. Telecommunications is one. If the market won’t serve an area – especially rural areas, people and the local economy loses out. This is a particular problem in rural areas where new technology and innovation in agriculture is dependent on decent connectivity. We see this too with housing, energy, transport…is the way our economy is structured, with very powerful and influential firms able to lobby (and they do) politicians and public officials, screwing everyone else over?

Creative economy

In Haidee’s workplace they are looking at a number of interesting projects – see here. The story though seems to be one of missed opportunities – not least because local government has not been ‘primed’ to take advantage of them. Her main example was the free online democratic engagement tools produced by My Society were not being incorporated by local councils and cities into how they engage with citizens. The only example we’re currently aware of is with Brighton and Hove – see here. I agree with Haidee. Although I’m promoting Shape Your Place across Cambridge and beyond, I have my issues with both the site and how it’s been managed by local councils. My two big issues are the sequencing of actions (ie people in institutions and community groups should have been trained on how to use it before the launch) and that it is not part of an explicit city or county-wide communications plan or community development strategy.

Engaging academics in politics

That for me is was the big unanswered issue – despite raising it in the Q&A session. The fact is much of the public policy debate focuses on the details – the ‘hows’ rather than the ‘whys’ which are all too often seen as ‘party political’. It’s a perfectly reasonable challenge from my party-political social media friends & contacts who say people like me should stand for election to public office. It’s all very well moaning at things, but if you’re not putting forward solutions, why should anyone listen to you?

At the same time though, the very nature of how we do politics for me is obsolete – and I’ve said so here. Local resident Professor Mary Beard said the same on BBC This Week – tearing into the ‘lines to take politicians’. My challenge to political parties remains: How can political parties engage with citizens who are interested in politics and policy-making, but don’t want to become members lock stock and barrel? Take Labour and the living wage issue that Labour’s local parliamentary candidate Daniel Zeichner spoke about recently. How can the local Labour party engage with people passionate about living wage issues but who don’t want to get involved in other things the party does? (Irrespective of reasons). Ditto with Julian Huppert and the Liberal Democrats. There are a lot of people in Cambridge who rate Julian highly as a constituency MP, but don’t like the party that he represents because, for example of the decisions taken by the Coalition.

Retiring before taking on the job you were supposedly born into

The local Fabian society held a talk about the Prince of Wales, falling on his 65th birthday. Former New Statesman editor Stuart Weir gave a talk similar to this piece. Not that many people came along to that talk – between 15-20 people there, and an older demographic overall. While it was nice to have some interesting exchanges with the various people in the room, it wasn’t the most energised political gathering that I’ve been to. As it turned out, much of the energy seemed to be in the room where I headed next…

Cambridge University colleges’ green officers gather for an evening of learning and ideas-sharing

I’ve invited Suyin Chalmin-Pui and Poppy Damon – currently the co-chairs of Cambridge University Students’ Union Ethical Affairs Team to write a guest blogpost about the event, because there were a number of interesting things that came out of the gathering. I have also invited Emily Dunning of the Cambridge Hub to do similar. The reason for both is that I want to help promote what students do to an audience beyond the ivory towers of Cambridge’s colleges. Not only that, there are a number of non-university societies that students can team up with to deliver events and activities that can have a much greater impact.

For me, the main learning point I took away was when one of the students said it was nice to feel that they were ‘not alone’ in feeling passionately and wanting to do something about the environment and climate change. (As opposed to Nigel Lawson’s comical performance on BBC Question Time earlier when Stella Creasy MP (pictured here with Puffles) gave the ex-chancellor a good verbal kicking. I thought that Lawson gave a textbook example of what it looks like when a politician represents the views of very powerful and wealthy vested interests acting against the interests of the people.

The other thing that a couple of the students took away was the idea of a ‘skillsfest’ similar to that which Transition Cambridge ran very recently. (They even blogged about it – see here!) Talking of which…my final destination for the evening was a pub meetup with Transition Cambridge.

A spring Skillsfest at Anglia Ruskin University co-branded by the two university students union and Transition Cambridge?

This was an idea I took from the students’ gathering to some of the Transition members. One of the difficulties that has come up at a number of gatherings I’ve been to in recent months is getting some solid connections between Anglia Ruskin students and both Cambridge University students & the non-student city societies. Hence the idea of running a skills fest similar to the one earlier on, but based in the heart of Anglia Ruskin University’s Cambridge campus on East Road. It’s within easy access of that hotbed of Cambridge radicalism, Mill Road, as well as being in fairly easy access to a number of Cambridge colleges too. Given the experience and facilitation skills a number of the Transition Cambridge members have, such an event could have a significant and long-lasting impact linking various groups and societies, as well as being a learning opportunity for lots of people.

Food for thought?

Puffles at a Cambridge City Council recycling stall at a community event recently
Puffles at a Cambridge City Council recycling stall at a community event recently

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