The case for Cambridge


On the challenges Cambridge faces – with three Cambridge MPs at Cambridge Ahead

Jon Vale’s write-up in the Cambridge News is here. Details of the event organised by Cambridge Ahead are here – including a list of speakers. They also organised professional filming too – I’ll link to it when it’s edited. The brochure handed out to everyone is here – do have a read.

The two most striking presentations for me were from Matthew Bullock of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, and from Alex Plant, formerly of Cambridgeshire County Council, The Treasury and for about two weeks of my civil service career, my director at the old Government Office in Cambridge. I’ve known Mr Plant since 2006 and he’s one of the most highly-rated public servants I’ve worked with. The combination of his presentation on tax increment financing as a possible solution for Cambridgeshire’s problems on infrastructure were very interesting indeed – especially given his experience at The Treasury. Combined with Mr Bullock’s presentation on very long term investments (he’s a former banker) this gave me an insight into the sort of time horizons institutions such as pension funds and university colleges are looking at. Not for the likes of these are the micro-second trading run by powerful computers using complex algorithms. At least, I don’t think so!

At the same time, the worlds that Mr Plant and Mr Bullock were talking about seemed to me to be very different to the world of local council committees that I’m sometimes found at. It was one that felt very daunting, re-enforcing my sense that Cambridge is a city with the public administration infrastructure of a large market town trying to manage a global brand attracting international finance. And we’re not cut out for it.

Cambridge is growing, but not everyone is in favour of it

My thinking when I launched Be the change – Cambridge was that growth was inevitable, but that we the people that make up Cambridge can influence the nature of that growth. Here’s The Green Party’s transport spokesman Dr Rupert Read

Dr Read stood for the Green Party in Cambridge at the General Election, increasing the number of votes for the party from just under to just over 4,000. At the same time, nearly 10,000 people voted for the Green Party at the local council elections at the same time, giving Councillor Oscar Gillespie a seat on Cambridge City Council for The Greens. To what extent The Green vote will hold up with Jeremy Corbyn now leading Labour remains to be seen. However, looking at The Green Party vote in 2013 where they stood a slate of candidates at the local elections with zero campaigning, they still pulled in over 2,000 votes. That’s a solid core. At the same time, there are a number of active groups who oppose in principle the growth of Cambridge – as Dr Read’s tweet reflects.

MPs united

It was interesting to see Heidi Allen MP (South Cambridgeshire), Lucy Frazer QC MP (South East Cambridgeshire) (both Conservatives) and Daniel Zeichner MP (Labour) giving a pretty consistent message to everyone gathered in terms of their views on the challenges Cambridge faces. This was picked up in the presentations – despite the party political differences, the local councils and politicians work well with each other compared to other parts of the country.

Although Mr Zeichner is the MP for most of Cambridge (Ms Allen’s constituency covers the ward of Queen Edith’s which falls within Cambridge City Council’s boundary), there are significant challenges for Ms Allen and Ms Frazer given the predominantly rural nature of their constituencies. Both have villages in their constituencies that border Cambridge that want to maintain their rural character.

A united message from Cambridge to central government – but should that mean we don’t raise our internal disagreements?

The point that both myself and Sam Davies – a fellow community activist in South Cambridge disagreed with one of the speakers on was on keeping internal disagreements behind closed doors. This was a point made by Neil Darwin, chief executive of our Local Economic Partnership. Mr Darwin made the reasonable point that the councils in Greater Manchester put a united message to central government – even though the council leaders there have more than their fair share of disagreements. But given the dominance of the Labour Party in & around Manchester, the political dynamic is different compared to that of southern Cambridgeshire.

Keeping things behind closed doors also goes against moves by the civil service to open up policy making – see Cabinet Office’s open policy blog here. The presentation by Mr Bullock in particular demonstrated to me that Cambridgeshire’s talent needs to be brought into our local policy-making processes rather than having a limited number of politicians, council officials and ‘key stakeholders’ making decisions behind closed doors. Back in 2011/2012 I delivered a number of presentations to various audiences in Whitehall about why the closed model of policy-making was obsolete in a social media world. I stand by those conclusions. (See the slide show here).

The other issue is political legitimacy.

Who is conspicuous by their absence in the audience?

This has been a continual issue for me for years – getting more people involved in our local decision-making processes. We have a structural problem in & around Cambridge that is incredibly difficult to solve. Trying to solve them takes a huge amount of effort and patience – and in my case, spoons. My health hasn’t been great this year and it’s had a huge negative impact on what I’ve been able to achieve – in particular since the general election. Hence why I’ve been moving away from doing things to connecting people & institutions in the hope they can take the initiative and run with things.

Young people were conspicuous by their absence – despite attempts by Cambridge Ahead and others to reach out to schools & colleges

Discussing with Emma Fletcher of Smithson Hill, and Edward Leigh of Better City Deal about the challenges she faced with community engagement, the only way we found we could get schools to engage is if Greater Cambridge City Deal structures had a knowledge of the school curriculum and a ‘way in’ to have Cambridge’s future built into things like the geography curriculum, citizenship and so on. Teachers – who increasingly struggle to afford to live in Cambridge, inevitably find themselves less familiar with Cambridge as they have to commute further distances to get to work. At my former primary school, the former head teacher commuted in from St Neots every day. Last year, a house on the road the school is down went for over £1m.

A safe space for big picture problems solving

As far as I’m concerned, the Greater Cambridge City Deal Assembly isn’t working. It could be that much-needed safe space for big picture community problem-solving and ideas-scoping. Instead it feels all too much like the discussions at the Board are the same ones had at the Assembly, and it’s not clear how the discussions at the Assembly influence the Board.

This matters because the people who are on the Assembly include people who run large institutions. Their time doesn’t come cheaply. Unfortunately the space for multiple conversations is lost, as meetings involve only one person speaking at a time when we could break out into groups and have a go at practically solving particular problems. One particular issue came to light at the Cambridge Ahead event when specific infrastructure requirements were mentioned. Haverhill is specifically mentioned in The Case for Cambridge document here. Yet despite me raising the Haverhill Rail Campaign in at least three separate city deal meetings, city deal authorities have not even got in touch with the campaign to see how they could work together to deliver a much needed Cambridge-Haverhill-Sudbury-Colchester-Chelmsford rail link. (See Graham Hughes of Cambridgeshire County Council in response to my public question here) The link is one that would link up Anglia Ruskin University’s two campuses by rail. Conversations I have had with the current and past presidents of Anglia Ruskin Students Union indicate this would be popular with students – especially with sports competitions. See this very interesting paper by the Haverhill Rail Campaign.

At some stage Cambridgeshire will have to deliver – and Northstowe does not set a good example for Whitehall to look at

Here’s Cambridge entrepreneur Peter Dawe

And he’s right. Interestingly, Ms Allen’s predecessor Andrew Lansley spoke to make a very similar point about the lack of building on the site. (See Northstowe’s website here). The political creature in me noted that Mr Lansley was a cabinet minister in the last Conservative-led government with a Conservative-led district and county council for much of the past five years, so does part of the blame lie within his party? Actually, for this audience the political colours of who ran what didn’t matter – what mattered was getting the infrastructure agreed and built. To give them their due, Ms Frazer, Ms Allen and Mr Zeichner seem to be working together in a co-ordinated manner that I did not see with their predecessors in years gone by.

“What would you like to see happen now?”

I’d like to see The Assembly turned into a community-focused problem-solving forum where people and communities can develop ideas & solutions that can then be taken to The Board for deliberation & decision-making. At the moment there is too much duplication.

I’d also like to see our local MPs co-convening a gathering of local institutions that could get more people involved, to do so – perhaps under the sponsorship of one of the ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government. In my experience as a former civil servant in that department, local organisations went out of their way to help with whatever it was I was working on. There are also enough Cambridge-dwelling civil servants that commute to London who could be brought in to help bring their expertise & networks to bear.

Finally, we need to have a conversation about how the people & institutions of Cambridgeshire communicate with each other. The city deal has a communications strategy – it’s here. I think we should go far beyond what’s in paragraph 3 listing ‘we shall use XYZ to communicate’. I’d like to see all those that do the broadcasting taking part in a problem-solving session along with community reporters, activists and anyone with an interest. Should we, for example invite the new cohort of Cambridge Regional College media students to cover what’s happening? Who are the groups on Meetup that might be interested? (Do a search for groups in Cambridge on Meetup – you’ll be surprised just how vibrant & active the groups are).

“Who’s going to pay for all of this? Because it’s not going to come from local government”

The lesson I learnt from Dr David Cleevely was to get a prospectus together to ‘sell’ to interested parties. I’d love to be part of a working group on this but the state of my health means I cannot drive or lead it. What I do know is that the desire from the wider community is there. We’ve just got to figure out how to tap into it and join up the various hard-working dots.


2 thoughts on “The case for Cambridge

  1. What I find particularly puzzling is the lack of joined up thinking on how we expand or if we do and how we cope with traffic. There are groups thinking about this stuff in their own separate meeting rooms but, as far as I can tell, nothing to link their work to form a cohesive argument. Is that the case? I’ve yet to get an answer to this.

  2. I saw Heidi Allens tweet just now: –
    “I’m concerned by the pace and direction of the city deal. Seeking a meeting”….

    and her follow up explaining her concern: –
    “Not decising on antyhing at all, in any kind of rapid way”

    I could not agree with her sentiments much more. Decisions need to be made and quickly and based on those decisions money needs to be spent and infrastructure delivered. Spending a load of time and money having “community meetings” seems to me like potentially time and money wasted (unless its focus on getting a specific outcome – e.g. consent to get on and build railway, roads, buslanes, houses etc)

    The problem Cambridge has (as documented in “The Times” today), is that people who want to live and work here cannot because the infrastructure sucks and the housing is overpriced. It isn’t a lack of local democracy…. or a lack of community involvement. Indeed its quite the opposite, too much democracy is allowing NIMBY wreckers (like Rupert Reed) hold the city back and deprive many families the opportunity to live in this great city (and forcing them into horrendous commutes – which isn’t great for the environment and depriving them of family time which hardly fits with a good work life balance).

    To enable things to move forward decisions need to be made by moderately smart people based on decent analysis. If this means somewhat suboptimal decisions being made that don’t please everybody then so be it. Better that we get some infrastructure in place quickly then spending time and money determining what optimum decisions might be …without ever many any decisions.

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