The problem with telling Puffles (or other ‘Guildhall Groupies’ as some of us have been described) that such meetings are open to the public is that we have a habit of turning up and asking ***lots*** of questions.
Me and Puffles rocked up to Trumpington Village Hall this evening to see what was happening in the Cambridge Southern Fringe (See here). It was a gathering of the Southern Fringe Community Forum (see here). I don’t think I’d ever been inside before, but had been past it on more occasions than I care to remember. It was in the local news recently when some people got hot under the collar. Some of you may be more familiar with the local peer and former mayor sticking two fingers up at a former defence secretary in the Lords recently (see here).
Cambridge Southern Fringe development
Now, back in late 2007 when I was in housing policy in the civil service, I was invited back to Cambridge to talk about sustainable housing. (See here). What was interesting for me in delivering that presentation was all of the policy work I had been learning was being sketched out for building in fields just south of my childhood neighbourhood. Hence why I’ve been more than a little disappointed at some of the design quality of some of the buildings that have gone up.
Although the focus was mainly on the healthcare infrastructure being built on this side of town, I wanted to get a feel for how the various institutions were working with each other, and to get a feel for what was going on community-action-wise given that I’ve been turning up to council meetings that cover a ward that, compared to other parts of South Cambridge I don’t really spend much time in other than family dinners and governor training. (I played football there a few times as a child, and went to a few house parties there in the last decade but that’s about it).
Who’d turn up to a meeting on a cold, wet Thursday evening?
There were about 30 of us in the room give or take a few of the speakers, with one of the local councillors Cllr Andy Blackhurst acting as host. Looking at the displays and some of the historical maps, I got the feeling that Trumpington – like Cherry Hinton is one of those villages that has been swallowed up by an expanding city. Despite being surrounded by lots of modern housing, there are a number of buildings that give the place a feel that is distinct from Cambridge city.
The people at the meeting were for the most part older than me – hence me asking where all the young people were given that it was their future we were discussing. Some families had brought their children to have a look around, and to be fair to Cambridge City Council it sounds like they are being proactive in trying to integrate people moving into this part of the city with the rest of it. One thing to note is that this part of town does not yet have its own secondary school. (It’s part of the building plans). As with the Abbey ward in Cambridge, I’ve wondered what impact the lack of a secondary school has had on youth engagement. That said, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts, the administrative separation of city and county has meant that with the city council, a culture of limited engagement with schools has developed. The reason being that in Cambridge, with a two-tier local government structure, education falls within the county council’s remit – as Cllr George Owers stated in no uncertain terms. (See here).
“So…why did you turn up and what did you ask?”
I was thinking about things from a local community facilities at Addenbrookes – 10 minute bike ride from where I live – and the links between a whole host of publicly-funded organisations. I’m thinking in particular Long Road Sixth Form College, the University Technical College, the proposed secondary school and the proposed community and health centre.
One of the other things I wanted to do was to see to what extent some of the issues I had uncovered at the last Cambridge South Area Committee meeting were having an impact on this side of town. In particular I wanted to find out from the Addenbrookes representative why they weren’t sending anyone along to the South Area Committee meetings given that residents often complained about parking by hospital staff on residential roads. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The representative from Addenbrookes, Rachel Northfield told me that the South Area Committee hadn’t invited anyone from Addenbrookes to attend on a regular basis – they needed a formal invitation.
“Hang on a minute – didn’t councillors say it was up to Addenbrookes to attend?”
They did – and we have it in writing too – see the response to my Q6 in the ‘Open Forum’ item here. (I told you I have a habit of asking lots of questions!)
That was the point where I put my foot down and said that we had institutionalised paralysis, with Addenbrookes saying they needed a formal invitation on one hand, while councillors on the other hand saying it was up to Addenbrookes to make the first move. Thus nothing gets done. Unless you have a politically-aware dragon fairy in the neighbourhood.
The institutionalised paralysis is also something that impacts on school-local government relationships too. Note item 4 in the same section where the Chair of the committee told me that councillors needed a formal invitation from schools and young people – setting me the challenge of doing the facilitation between schools and the council committee.
Should it be me doing this?
After all, I don’t have any children and I don’t get paid for any of this – councillors do. But on the other hand, if I don’t do it, who will? This then brings us back to the problem of who has a long term vision in their mind at a political level of what Cambridge could become. If the councillors have a long term vision, few of them are articulating it publicly in their own words. This is one of the reasons why I’d love to see more local councillors blogging – it allows them to articulate their visions for Cambridge and political philosophies in their own words.
The other challenge local public bodies haven’t really worked out yet is how to get the best out of community activists. It was something I discussed with a couple of local councillors recently. Are councillors tapping into the wealth of knowledge and expertise in South Cambridge? My feeling is that they are not. Councillors don’t need to be on the board of governors of every school in their ward, but what they do need are trusted friends and contacts on the boards and in parent and teacher associations just to keep them up to date with what’s going on in and around the schools. From the conversations I’ve had, not all of them are in that position.
The lesson from local MP Julian Huppert
The reason why Julian has a reputation of being a hard-working constituency MP is because of the way he uses social media to update people about what he is doing and who he is meeting with. A simple: “Off to meet with X, Y & Z today” on his Facebook page or in a tweet is all it needs. It sets the background music. A very different way of doing things compared with the high-profile photoshoots, communications strategies and press-releases that I often saw under the Labour government when I was in the civil service. Remember though that these were the days when social media had not entered the public’s consciousness. Hence as far as trying to ‘manage’ the news, they may have been reasonably effective for the time – but not now.
Julian’s example the sort of thing I think councillors and some local public officials could be adopting. A short post on whatever social media tool with a hyperlink to where all of the papers are published – because in the grand scheme of things, Cambridge City Council is very good at making the papers available to the general public. It’s just less effective at publicising using social media. For example hardly anyone other than myself seems to respond to the content they put on Facebook. (See here for events). That they have started putting the content on Facebook is half the battle. The other half is finding the community groups to engage with that might want to make use of it. I’m convinced it can be done – but it just needs a bit of imagination from council staff and councillors alike.
So…what about these meetings then?
Now, I’m not expecting vast hordes of locals to start turning up to every meeting that there is going. In the grand scheme of things, the content of most meetings and how they are managed will send most people to sleep. Again, the problem is the structure of local government as set down by Parliament: It’s made for the 19th century, not the 21st. Even the layout of the council chambers is a Victorian fantasy rather than one that has the councillors facing members of the public. There’s no use of multimedia or big screens to illustrate some of the problems that councillors are debating. It’s all paper-based.
One of the speakers recommended to me that I go along to one of the Addenbrookes board meetings. It was only at the end of the meeting that he got hold of me and said I should really go along. Perhaps there’s a culture in the local public sector that views local people who turn up regularly as ‘local busy-bodies’ with little else to do with their lives – therefore if you distract them with other stuff they’ll get off your back. I can completely understand that point of view – even sympathise with it. The problem with me and Puffles is that we don’t work like that. This comes back to the point of the local public sector bodies not really knowing how to handle me and Puffles – and perhaps vice-versa too. I’m still trying to work out what the best methods are for bringing the various public bodies together in a manner that has the greatest positive impact for the city. Sometimes I get it right, other times I get it wrong.
Intelligence, ideas and specifics – and being persistent too
Andrew Lansley made such a pigs breakfast of the Health and Social Care Act that it’s not clear to the general public who to be scrutinising. In my neck of the woods there’s this lot, and there’s this lot. To say nothing of my GP surgery. Which reminds me. One of the things that struck me about what looks like a fantastic new health centre for Trumpington is the lack of integration with dentistry, pharmacy, mental health and facilities for physical exercise as part of people’s healthcare. Hence why I told the meeting that the relationships between the centre and the bits that I and others at the meeting felt were missing were going to be things I was going to scrutinise.
One of the things that has started getting some wheels turning – slowly – is following up things that were said or committed to at public meetings. It’s how we got a fire engine and the Mayor to visit our school’s Christmas Bazaar. It’s the ‘getting things on public record then following them up’ that’s one half, as well as doing your own positive things that help on the other. Again, it’s one thing being a keyboard-kevin moaning and being abusive about stuff. Personally that’s not the way I roll. It’s quite another when you do – and are seen to be doing positive things in your area. Even setting an example perhaps. At the same time, when organisations do good stuff, say so. Again, perhaps that’s one of the things that has caught some councillors off guard – they’re not used to people standing up in public forums and saying ‘thank you very much for what you did.’
Just because you advertise meetings does not mean people will turn up
Exactly. Despite the posters I’ve put up across South Cambridge, hardly anyone has turned up on top of those already at said meetings. But then that’s part of the learning process – trying to find the different solutions for different communities. Just because you and your target communities use social media doesn’t necessarily mean the two of you will connect. You’ve got to be relevant to each other. Letting people know that things are happening is one thing, making it relevant to them is quite another – and finally making the ‘invitation to take part’ a personal and meaningful one even more so.