Some thoughts on a gathering at Kings College, Cambridge on trying to solve some of Cambridge’s problems
“What does Cambridge need to become a successful future city?” That was the question of this event. Now, at the end of 2013 I put together my own set of ideas of some of the things I wanted to see in Cambridge – see here. Also, past blogposts tagged Cambridge are peppered with thoughts and ideas – often following meetings, workshops, gatherings and social events.
Not the usual suspects
I didn’t know what to make of it originally. There were 40 of us there to start with, of which I only knew a handful of. What was great was that there are clearly lots of people beyond existing community action circles that want to make a difference. What was worrying was that as a result of few familiar faces being there, I wondered (other than through social media) how those people would start interacting with those already familiar with the existing local government systems and processes.
The four themes hosted by different people and groups were:
- Antisocial behaviour
- Sustainability food-wise
The pitch that I was least familiar with was the one that I learnt lots from – by Jimmy’s Night Shelter on homelessness. One of the people presenting was a former service user, and spoke both with great clarity and authority on the barriers that homeless people face when trying to find suitable homes and employment. The most striking concept for me was when he challenged us to identify ‘who the owners of the barriers were’. At a local level, that’s both a challenging and imaginative way of getting to a point where campaigners in particular can take action. Cambridge students this term through the Cambridge Hub are targeting homelessness in Cambridge. (See here).
I stuck with the Cambridge Sustainable Food City group because of the multiple links this project has with a number of different things I’m keeping tabs on locally. What I found interesting were the ideas and actions that other people wanted to do, as well as the insights from people from outside of Cambridge. Again, this is something I want local government to have more of in Cambridge. The feedback that your project is on the right lines is just as important as finding out something new.
Liz Stevenson of Connecting Cambridgeshire was also presenting. There were some mind-blowing statistics around the poor connectivity of Cambridgeshire, despite the high-tech headlines you often see. It’s a big issue in the north of the county where even 3G mobile access is poor – so poor that it’s on council agendas. Liz also mentioned that Cambridge has the largest influx of daily commuters for any district council outside London – with a 30% increase in the city’s daily population as a result of people commuting into the city. At present, our transport infrastructure can’t cope – as the head of the local bus company said here. Cambridge needs to deal with housing and transport if it is to have any hope in becoming a successful future city. (Hey, show me a city that doesn’t have housing & transport issues).
The same themes recurring
This was one of the conclusions from co-organiser Joanna Massie of the RSA. She said that each group noted as a city, people and institutions are not as connected, interlinked or as aware of each other (and who does what) as we could be. And that’s a significant barrier – one I’ve been trying to take on for quite some time. But it goes far further than some of the things I’ve been raising. For example the Jimmy’s Night Shelter representatives said that when their service users stated the shelter as their home address, potential employers would drop them like a stone – thus perpetuating the cycle of homelessness and unemployment. They said they would like to see better, stronger links between potential employers and their representatives (they mentioned Cambridge Chambers of Commerce specifically) in this respect.
While the Cambridge Hub and ARU’s volunteer bureau work their socks off in small offices, several students both there and at other events have said that they find it difficult to reach out to resident community groups even though there is a strong desire from the student bodies of both universities.
The thing is, it’s only been in recent years that Cambridge University in particular has started making real efforts in reaching out to local residents that otherwise have nothing to do with it. Growing up in Cambridge as a child, I found the attitude of the University’s administrative staff (who were often the first point of contact in an age where you had to phone for everything) being particularly poisonous – especially with young people. What do you do with those people whose attitudes have not changed but who still work within the institution? Accordingly, for the likes of us that grew up here having that as our early interactions with Cambridge University and the colleges, why would anyone want to follow this up later on in life? Therefore, how does Cambridge University demonstrate to local residents who might have a negative view of it that it really has changed? (Assuming that is what it wants to portray).
‘A good start…’
This was how one of the participants described the event. As with all events, it could have been better. At the same time, I’m kind of framing the evening as a pilot event for some of the things that we might/might not do for a possible community action summit for later in 2014. (See here).
“What could have been improved?”
The only two options available on the online booking form at the start were for RSA fellows and for students. For an event about Cambridge becoming a successful future city, there was one group of people not mentioned at all: Residents. It was only when several of us got in touch with the organisers did they amend the online booking form. I don’t think for a moment it was a deliberate omission or a snub towards residents. More it reflected an oversight as a result of institutional inertia. In this case an organisation based in the heart of Cambridge University-land getting together with a London-based network with a very long history putting on an event for both of their membership groups. Hence the importance of diversity in organisations – it reduces the risk of oversights such as this. Unfortunately it meant that people that might have been interested or curious didn’t come along.
I’d have preferred shorter, sharper pitches from a couple of the speakers – ones where the issue was crystal clear as well as what sort of input the speakers were going to be asking from those that had come along. Finally, I’d like to have seen all of us invited to think of our own personal small one-off action to take post-the gathering. For me, the final point is one that applies to every event of this type that I go to. Now that you have all of these people in the room, what do you want them all to do that is positive and constructive?
“Does the summer Community Action Summit follow nicely from this?”
Along with the SkillsFest in Cambridge on 2nd March (please join us!!!) I’d like to think that it does. (I’ll need to ask Joanna Massie and friends (Jo & co, please see here) very nicely, but there’s potential in it).
At the same time, a number of people in the local councils over the past few weeks have got me to think about how to manage people’s expectations of local government over the next few years.
“Why do people’s expectations of local government matter?”
The simple fact is that budgets here are shrinking big time – and will continue to do so over the next few years whoever of the mainstream parties is elected in the 2015 General Election. See Cambridgeshire County Council here, and Cambridge City Council here. At the same time, because of their legal powers and provision of statutory services, local government cannot and should not be ignored.
“What is the ‘local government endgame’ that Westminster has in mind?”
That’s one of the things that worries me. The RSA makes it crystal clear in it’s publication Managing Demand: Building Future Public Services.
Public services face unprecedented challenges. Rising demand, changing demographics and stretched finances mean that local authorities and public service providers face a stark choice: change the way they work, or face the possibility of service retrenchment, increasing irrelevance and perpetual crisis management.
“Increasing irrelevance and perpetual crisis management.” The first is not good for democracy, and the second is not good for service delivery. What I don’t see from Whitehall and the parties in Westminster are their visions for what local government will look like once the big cuts are over and their ‘reforms’ have taken place.
If Cambridge is going to become a successful future city, its people, communities and the institutions accountable to them have to be at the heart.