How to make Cambridge better – a response


Some thoughts on John Grieve’s article in the Cambridge News

John Grieve is a local veterinary surgeon in my neighbourhood, and wrote this article in the Cambridge News recently.

In many senses, we’ve been here before – I’ve lost count of the number of ‘The future of Cambridge’ type events that I’ve been to (and helped organise) in recent years. Recall the paper Cambridge 2065 raising a number of competing visions for the future of our city. Some that I filmed include:

Note the above are playlists of videos – with multiple videos in them. People have been busy with ideas – but for what purpose?

The common theme that keeps on coming up again and again with all of these ideas is how the systems and structures of public administration are set up to frustrate anyone who has a positive idea to improve the place. Councillors and even the proposed executive mayor simply do not have the powers needed to make the decisions that people want them to make.

“What sort of powers?”

  1. Powers to raise revenue
  2. Powers over planning and transport – policy and delivery
  3. Powers over regulation of businesses
  4. Powers over major public services – health, education and employment

Essentially, ‘The Treasury says “No!”‘ is a recurring theme – just as it is in many a Whitehall department. Because of Brexit, the civil service simply doesn’t have the capacity to cope with many other policy changes – least of all the restructure of local government which successive prime ministers have put in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Cambridge is a city with global recognition governed like a large market town.

When you look at the calibre of the county councillors ***collectively*** on the benches of Shire Hall, you don’t see a reflection of the diversity of skills and talents that our county has. The councillors that are there are a function of the electoral system that they went through to get elected. Given the bear pit that is full council, who in their right mind would put themselves through something like that other than the most dedicated political activists or public servants with both time on their hands and/or money in the bank/a sympathetic employer? The background reading for meetings alone is enough to put off all but the most dedicated of local government watchers. No amount of outreach programmes are going to change the makeup of the council benches while the systems and structures remain as they are.

Essentially, the sort of overhaul local government needs – the sort that recognises the digitally-driven world more and more of us live in, is not the one that can be delivered by local government alone. All the powers are tied up with the executive currently trying to figure its As from its Bs following the gross negligence of not preparing contingency plans for a Brexit vote (as concluded the influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee).

Governance and management

One of the subtitles in John’s piece, as I’ve alluded to above, is where many of Cambridge’s problems stem from. Having to go to Whitehall with a begging bowl over and over again creates a culture of dependency in local government – and infantilises the political cultures across our towns and cities. It also creates an incentive for the larger organisations to bypass Guildhall or Shirehall in favour of Whitehall. Why turn up to a council meeting when you can invite the minister to dinner at high table at one of Cambridge University’s colleges through a college connection? It’s an approach that is familiar to local council watchers for decades – but one that is now obsolete in this era of all things digital – and of demands for transparency too.

Careful with demands for a Greater Cambridge Unitary 

Personally I’m fully in favour of a single council for Cambridge and surrounding districts. All of the candidates for Cambridge in the general election went on public record in 2015 stating the same – their differences being on where to draw the line between Cambridge and the rest of the county. The problem with any unitary council is the risk of internal navel-gazing. I saw this in London when I lived and worked there. Overcrowding on public transport was – and still is a major issue. Thus demanding the huge levels of public transport spending. Yet there was almost zero debate about reconfigurating the transport systems of the south-east to reduce significantly the number of interchange journeys into and out of London. For example for me to get to the wedding of my older brother in the west country recently involved either driving on the M25 or changing trains & using the underground between Kings Cross & Paddington. Assuming we get East-West Rail, the need for people to go into London will reduce. Cambridge’s risk is that it could neglect the needs of people in surrounding rural areas as demands for transport funding grows – even though funding transport in rural areas might have the impact of reducing rural congestion more than spending money in urban areas.

Historical context

The huge and yawning gap in all of this is the complete lack of historical context with the future of Cambridge. I’ve not seen anyone ask and find answers to the question: “How did the city of Cambridge get to where it is today?” For example, why is it that Cambridge currently only has one railway station? And why is it where it is?


Have a look at the above map from the book below that I managed to get a copy of – even though it’s been out of print for nearly 40 years.


And why didn’t we get a footbridge over the railway line by the main railway station?


…because as far back as 1910 councillors were talking about it and we still don’t have one – the cycle bridge being too far along Rustat Road and having the main aim of taking cycle traffic off the main roads into town.

And why are we still not systematically involving students and young people?


Saffron Walden, just up the road was calling for such involvement as far back as 1980. Cambridge City Council still doesn’t have a youth council – even though South Cambridgeshire District Council does. If you want ideas for potential separate cycle routes for children and students to use – away from motor traffic, why not ask them to pick out possible routes? After all, they use the routes every day and know the dangers.

Talking of young people – here’s one young person who changed Cambridge’s history.

My conclusion?

Much as I’d love to have things like the Cambridge light rail (We’re so getting a merchandising range made up – esp if the Cambridge Monorail has one!), we need to get our historical houses in order, and get our systems of public administration in order. The problem is that compared to the scientific and technological advances coming from in and around the city, these tasks feel boring and mundane in comparison. But, dare I say it they are more important if Cambridge is to reach anywhere near its potential.


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