What’s your vision for Cambridgeshire? Because the county council are starting the debate


A somewhat fortuitous merging of a pre-submitted oral question from myself on Be the change – Cambridge with a debate on the future structure of public services in the county

A video of most of the debate is here. (I’ve not embedded it because the file is massive. The debate itself lasted for about 50 minutes, but the full video is 5 hours long!)

The text of the motion is as in the pics below:

MotionRestructureCambs1 MotionRestructureCambs2

The text version is here.

The above actions are significant – as is the cross-party support

My question wasn’t so much a question as a pitch for publicising Be the change – Cambridge to the full council and putting the project firmly on the radars of the county council’s political leadership and the chief executive. I had a perch on one side of the hall, next to new local government correspondent for the Cambridge News, Jon Vale.

A panoramic photo of the full council - taken on a smartphone
A panoramic photo of the full council – taken on a smartphone

“Why does the county council matter?”

Because of its duties over transport, minerals and waste, and education. We have a two-tier authority in Cambridge, three tier outside of urban areas. Cambridgeshire has lots of town and parish councils.  My pitch to the county council was on the premise of our definition of Cambridge being that of its people rather than geographical boundaries. I then used examples of how our approach to problem solving was one that bypassed administrative boundaries. In particular I mentioned the rail campaigns in Wisbech and Haverhill, and how I personally viewed them as integral to Cambridge’s future in helping alleviate the housing crisis while at the same time spreading some of the economic benefits of our city.

An inclusive response followed by an inclusive debate – under the dark cloud of massive cuts

This was as sobering moment for the councillors of all parties. I mentioned the headline in the Cambridge News (see here) in my follow-up. In the debate in the video linked at the top, it seems a lot of work has gone on in the background. That there was cross-party consensus on the need to investigate alternative governance arrangements for the county took me by surprise because to be honest, I didn’t see it coming politically. Since the 2013 county council elections when the Conservatives lost control (in part due to UKIP winning 10 new seats on the council) there has been no overall control. There was also ongoing concern as to whether new governance arrangements would work.

“So…does that mean we’re going to get a unitary authority for Cambridge & South Cambs?”

Not necessarily. As mentioned in previous blogposts, the political debate will be on where to draw the administrative lines in any restructure. The debate however went far beyond where to draw lines. It also covered things like increasing political literacy of people in our county as well as which services should be brought under the oversight of local government. For local government watchers such as myself, this made for a surprisingly interesting debate. Why? Because rather than engaging in party-political point-scoring, the politicians had to come together to solve a common problem – or sink together. The county council will lose a third of its budget (on top of existing cuts, and a growing population) in the next five years. Either they solve the problem or local government in Cambridgeshire implodes.

“‘They’ solve the problem?”

This is where Cllr Ian Manning pointed to Be the change – Cambridge as one possible route for getting the ideas of more people to take on these challenges. We’ve already started looking at these – see the write up and embedded videos here.

What is our vision for the county?

For me, this is the question to start off with. All the more interesting in the context of people speculating on the future of leadership. This article says in the future, leaders will be judged on asking the right questions rather than coming up with the right answers themselves. That indicates why Cambridgeshire needs to get a comprehensive picture of what the people that make up our county imagine it could become. I’m not talking utopian dream stuff, nor am I talking simplistic big policies at a national/international level. I’m looking at taking people through a process where they can come up with their own ideas and work together to solve mutual problems.

“It’s just as lucky we’ve got a general election in mid-2015”

Absolutely – because rather than having a media/TV debate-driven election campaign in Cambridgeshire, we could have one based on something completely different: one shaped by the people – and not just those that will be voting. After all, we’ve got the communications technology to assist us. There are still too many ‘not spots’ and places where broadband speed is too slow. It’s something that I’m becoming all too aware of when I upload digital videos – such as the one from Hitchin Lib Dem PPC Pauline Pearce (aka Hackney Heroine). Pauline was in Cambridge earlier to meet Cambridge Student Lib Dems to shake them out of their slumber with this number!

“So…what needs to happen between now and the election?”

The end of the motion indicates this.

“This Council therefore calls on the Chief Executive to:

  1. investigate the merits and potential of outcome and place-based budgets which encourage and enable efficient cross-service delivery;

  2. investigate the possibilities for and appetite of partner organisations to collaborate more closely and potentially to pool budgets;

  3. identify and investigate possible alternative future governance arrangements which could radically improve the way we fund and deliver services for the benefit of Cambridgeshire residents.”

Sequencing matters here. The first action is actually item 2) => Investigating appetite of partner organisations to collaborate & pool budgets. As one of the councillors said in the debate, there’s no point if savings for one organisation lead to disproportionately increased costs for another. Furthermore, ‘partner organisations’ do not need to be restricted to the public sector. They also don’t necessarily need to be formally constituted either. Some of these may be informal networks that organise using social media, or by word of mouth.

If the concept of pooled budgets and more co-ordinated systems works, then 1) can be explored. This isn’t just about chucking bags of not-much-money together. It can also be about getting developers, planners and architects to agree to more citizen-friendly processes, such as getting local residents to suggest their ideas ‘at design stage’ for developments. As far as Cambridge is concerned, one of the biggest developers is Cambridge University (and its colleges). What would development in Cambridge look if Cambridge University functioned as if it assumed responsibility for the people of Cambridge rather than just its members?

It’s only once you’ve got these principles in place that you can start looking at suitable governance arrangements => 3)

But before we do all of that…

…we’ve got to have an informed decision-making process. That means gathering evidence. Some of it will be quantitative – such as at Cambridgeshire Insight. What are the evidence bases and data sets that people want and need in order to make considered judgements? What are the evidence bases and data sets that we don’t have but need to get hold of? (Our known unknowns if you like!)

There are also qualitative evidence bases that we’ll need too. Some of these might be maps of the county – ones where we’re looking at possible transport links. Others might be blueprints and ideas for futuristic developments that are resilient to changing climate patterns (& things like increased risks of flooding) and lifestyles (such as more single occupancy households and an ageing population).

How do we ensure we have representation from across our county, and most importantly of all, diversity of experiences, knowledge and talent?

This could be a once in a generation opportunity for the county. At the same time, I’m under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge. It’s huge and it’s daunting. It’s going to need lots of people to do things they’ve not done before – or never thought they were capable of. It’s going to need people to talk to and listen to people they might not normally work, socialise or mix with. It’s going to require open minds – where all of us are prepared to leave negative myths, prejudices and stereotypes behind. To borrow a phrase and a video from a recent campaign launched by the Prince of Wales, it’s going to require a critical mass of us to step up to serve

I will. Will you?


4 thoughts on “What’s your vision for Cambridgeshire? Because the county council are starting the debate

  1. Very struck by the fact that, as you say, if this isn’t sorted out, the cuts will mean local government implodes. It’s staggering (though sadly not that surprising) that the Government thinks this is reasonable.

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