Puffles ***reads the #localgov social media riot act*** to Cambridge councillors


Because quite frankly, the attitude towards young people and improving civic engagement from too many of our councillors absolutely stinks.

[Updated to add – worth reading Chris Rand‘s understated but equally hard-hitting summary here].

I don’t normally give our councillors a kicking, but I’ve been to one-too-many meetings where the needs and views of young people are all-too-often ignored. Not just them, but the city at large. Too many councillors have lost what little imagination and dynamism they may have had to have a significant positive impact on their local area. Too many of them it feels, are just going through the motions. I’ll aim to mention the honourable exceptions in this blogpost – as well as what the local parties can do to turn things around. But I’ll start with the kicking first.

When a new young face turns up to speak about a specific issue that her and her friends have given their views on, give them a platform and a microphone. Don’t push her item back till it’s past her bedtime.

Councillor Mark Ashton, chair of the South Area Committee made an absolutely woeful decision not to prioritise the contribution of a very young resident who needed to be back home by 8pm. He was rightly castigated for his failure both by the lady she was with, and by former mayor Cllr Sheila Stuart. See here and here.

I asked a series of questions which left too many councillors absolutely petrified with fear – even though I’ve hardly hidden the sorts of issues I’ve been campaigning on. Furthermore, they had a couple of days notice from the post I put up on the council-backed community website Shape Your Place – see here. The only person who emerged with their reputation enhanced was Councillor Amanda Taylor – who blogged in advance about what the issues being discussed would be. What’s the point in having local councils backing a community website (and putting money and resources behind it) if councillors are simply going to avoid it?

Hiding behind the chair

Councillor Taylor was the only person who made anything near a challenge to the chair when I put what were a series of very straight-forward and non-controversial questions to the committee. These included:

  1. Given that several of Puffles’ younger followers in Cambridge have responded positively to the idea of planned & sequenced civic engagement activities as students go through secondary school, who is interested in making this happen? (Citing idea 11 in this slide pack, and citing Netherhall, a secondary school within the committee’s area – inviting councillors to step forward)
  2. Will the committee reach out to the student councils of both Netherhall and Long Road, inviting them to have permanent observer status on the committee?
  3. Will the committee invite non-executive directors of Long Road, Hills Road and Addenbrookes Hospital to come to committee meetings regularly given the number of issues raised by local people about the local impact of those institutions?
  4. Please can those councillors that were not there at the last meeting to answer my questions listed here on social media, please respond now
  5. The Mayor of Cambridge challenged councillors on East Area Committee to step forward for a ‘question time’ event at local secondary schools in their area, who will do the same for Netherhall in the south area?
  6. What innovative, dynamic and radical actions will councillors undertake to do in 2014 to inspire young people to engage in local democracy, mindful that most current Year 12 and Year 13 students will have the vote at the 2015 General Election?

Most of the responses were batted back to me by the chair – saying effectively it was up to the institutions to get in touch with the committee, not the responsibility of councillors to be community champions and reach out to the young people.

The result?

Institutionalised paralysis – with the adults (all of whom are either paid or who receive allowances from the taxpayer – unlike me) waiting for each other to make the first move. I’m not going to allow adults to get away with blaming young people for the democratic malaise. They are ***your children*** Your generation brought us up. Take some fucking responsibility!

None of those questions I’ve numbered above are particularly controversial, difficult to answer, party political, overly personal or abusive. Very straight forward and should be a doddle for most competent councillors to respond to – as Councillor Taylor demonstrated to the committee.

On question 6, hardly any of the councillors wanted to respond to the challenge – all asking for time to consider. Actually, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. They have until 3rd March 2014 to consider their responses – and hopefully they will publish detailed and considered responses on Shape Your Place here. There was a good exchange on East Area here on social media in local government. Me and a couple of others will be rocking up to cross examine all of you on your answers. Don’t say you were not warned.

On question 4, I was flabbergasted to hear that some councillors said they were not sighted on the question. The minutes of the previous meeting speak for themselves.

“The Chair agreed to circulate the questions to those members of the Committee that were absent.” [See end of 13/52/SAC]

‘But we have to be invited!’

They already have – the schools and colleges all had open days. I went to Hills Road and Long Road’s open days. Why was it that I went along but hardly any of the local councillors went along? There was an engaged group of ***several thousand*** teenagers all in the mindset of thinking about future careers and plans, receptive to new ideas…and you missed the lot of them.

On question 3, again, the relinquishing of responsibilities – leaving it up to institutions to make the call as to whether to send someone along or not. And you wonder why we have a fragmented public sector. The chair made the ruling and no one challenged.

#DiversityFail in Cambridge Labour Party

Have a look at the six councillors for the Coleridge and Cherry Hinton wards of Cambridge here. That Labour has failed to ensure diversity in its candidates and that none of them are proactively, innovatively and dynamically reaching out to younger audiences – in particular through social and digital media, is quite frankly a disgrace. Even more so because there are so many talented women in the Labour Party – Puffles should know as several follow Puffles, and also because Labour’s election co-ordinator, shadow cabinet minister Douglas Alexander MP has said social media is ‘crucial’ – see here.

How do we improve things?

I’m not calling on every single councillor to start using Twitter and tweet like a dragon fairy. That would be stupid. What I want to see is a significant change in mindset and culture from councillors in Cambridge south of the river.

I have offered free 1-2-1 sessions on social media to local councillors of all parties in Cambridge regularly since 2011 – though none so far has taken me up on the offer. I’ve also pointed them in the direction of the free social media surgeries with Cambridge Online here. Again, similar unenthusiastic response.

Bringing in outside help

Are you a party political activist or a politician who is good with social media and engaging with young people? I’m looking at Labour and Lib Dems primarily due to the political make-up of South Cambridge, but the Tories and the Greens could also do with shaking up too. If so, please come down to Cambridge and sort out your local parties.

Or else what?

Or Puffles might start threatening to stand against them and campaign. You have no idea what sort of a campaign a mischievous dragon fairy could run against a lumbering complacent incumbent. Take Cllr Jeremy Benstead in Coleridge. He’s been a councillor here when I was still doing a paper round. I wanted to invite him to talk about the new proactive, dynamic and radical things he has done recently to inspire young people and residents to get involved in local democracy. But he wasn’t at the last East Area Committee meeting, nor did he contribute to the debate about engaging with young people at the one before that. Crazy given that there are two secondary schools in his ward as well as a primary school – along with two further primary schools that border his ward, and Hills Road Sixth Form College that sits within it.

As I have said to a couple of Labour councillors, if the local Labour Party can find a woman who is passionate about getting young people to engage in local democracy and is very good with social media (and is passionate about the environment too!), I will be more than happy to back her. If Councillor Benstead stands for re-election, me and Puffles reserve the right to stand against him and campaign actively too. Councillors in Queen Ediths and Cherry Hinton wards (Lib Dem and Labour respectively) who are up for election shouldn’t sigh easily either. Me and Puffles could also choose to stand in those wards. Coleridge, Queen Ediths and Cherry Hinton are all wards I spent my childhood in.

So my challenge to Cambridge Labour and Cambridge Liberal Democrats is this:

Get some candidates who are passionate about engaging with young people in local democracy and who are good with social media to stand in South Cambridge. You may even find some of them at the 1billion and rising event in February on Mill Road. (See here). Redress the gender & diversity balance in particular in Coleridge and Cherry Hinton. If you can do this, me and Puffles may well back you – and even campaign for you. Do the opposite and we may well stand against you and campaign hard.

It’s your call.


8 thoughts on “Puffles ***reads the #localgov social media riot act*** to Cambridge councillors

  1. Councillors are not exactly covering themselves in glory here are they? Come on, young people aren’t that scary, they’ll be of voting age come 18 so it makes sense to engage with them. Show them that politics is something that has relevance to their lives too, not just an activity that “old” (over 40) white men do.

  2. At the East Area Committee on 9 January I raised the ‘2014 Wish for Riverside’ request made on Cambridge’s Shape Your Place site. Some councillors didn’t appear to have heard of this request, which was a surprise to me as it had been made recently and I understand councillors in the area are emailed when a contribution is made in their area.

    I know that two councillors, Peter Roberts and Richard Johnson, were aware of this via Shape Your Place (Cllr Johnson) and Twitter (others may have been too). If the council is going to spend money on Shape Your Place then councillors need to get involved too.

  3. It shoul be noted that at the subsequent South Area Committee meeting (3 March), Cllr Ashton reported that following the comments made, he contacted the local schools and colleges to inform them of the council’s support for any collaborative initiatives, and to let them know that staff and students are always welcome at local meetings. To date he has received no response.

  4. It should be noted that at the subsequent South Area Committee meeting (3 March), Cllr Ashton reported that following the comments made, he contacted the local schools and colleges to inform them of the council’s support for any collaborative initiatives, and to let them know that staff and students are always welcome at local meetings. To date he has received no response.

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