A busy year ahead for 2017 in & around Cambridge


No time to mope around and dwell on how ‘orrible 2016 has been – there’s stuff that needs doing

Various memes have been doing the rounds along the lines of heroes and idols being dead, enemies being in power and the like. The sentiment is understandable. Yet one of the reasons I chose to move my focus away from national politics towards local politics was because I wanted to focus and engage with the sorts of things I felt I could influence – whether directly or through encouraging other people around me to get involved.

“Why not go in the opposite direction and focus on international issues?”

Part of it is an age and health thing. Having done Model United Nations during my student years, and having followed various international campaigns over the years, I feel I’ve done what I reasonably can. At the same time, one of the things that makes such campaigns exciting is being surrounded by and working with other people in a similar situation. When you’re a lone ranger type as I have been for some time, it’s harder to see what impact you have vs when working as part of a co-ordinated collective group. Furthermore, there are more, better people than me working on those issues. Better for me to focus on my niche here than get in the way of others.

It’s time consuming, it’s boring, but it’s essential

Lots of aspects of local democracy inevitably are – and furthermore there is so much of it that it’s hard for most people to keep a track of it to find the needles in the haystacks. With three councils covering the ‘Greater Cambridge’ area, one of the councils, Cambridge City Council has all of these meetings in January alone. (How many of you knew where to look for the council’s calendar of events?) Clicking on one of the more important ones – Planning on 04 January, we see the agenda here. Scroll down to item 5 on the agenda and a click through will take you to a 94-page document. The much-locally-maligned all-White-male Brookgate team have resubmitted their plans for Murdoch House and their proposed replacement for the old mill silo that got me hot under the collar back in October 2016. The developments in and around the railway station were one of the things that led local author David Jones to write his book ‘Hideous Cambridge’ (see the older Facebook posts here – how well have they dated?)

Cambridgeshire County Council has its meetings listed in the links here, and no doubt the City Deal will start populating its meetings here. We also have the local plan process still going – and for every day we don’t have an established local plan for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire, the easier it is for less responsible developers to push through speculative developments. Even though at the end of the day it’s irresponsible ministers that have written the rules and commissioned the legislation that favours developers’ profits over sustainable communities.

“Don’t your plans sound like keeping Cambridge preserved in amber?”

My take for many years has been the following:

  • The forces being brought to bear on Cambridge are far too great for local people and local institutions to deal with. (I learnt in Whitehall that ministerial policy teams couldn’t cope with such forces so how local government is meant to cope I have no idea)
  • Growth and change is inevitable in the face of the above, so how can we collectively influence those forces so that what we end up with benefits those of us that have to live with what is built?
  • We must define and solve our problems collectively – at the moment the wealth of talent our city has is not being brought to bear on the challenges we face. As a result, it feels that a few people are making a lot of money out of the growth of the city while residents, students and the wider society generally are losing out.

Problems in context

This doesn’t mean saying ‘let’s whine about context and then carry on as before’, but rather looking at an existing issue from a different viewpoint and seeing if that then leads to an alternative decision or solution. For example:

  • How do the Cambridge Connect Light Rail proposals look if, once complete the local transport authority/local council bans tourist coaches and cars from entering the city centre, and instead providing large out-of-town park-and-ride parks linked to the light rail network, requiring passengers to buy tickets to travel into and out of the city?
  • What would Cambridge road traffic look like if a similar approach was applied to courier/van delivery firms, where for small packages they all had to be deposited again at an out-of-town depot for distribution in the final mile by local cycle courier firms?
  • Haverhill in Suffolk, 14 miles from Cambridge, at the last census had a population of around 27,000. Considering that Cambridge’s population is in the process of increasing by around that much to 2030, is Cambridge getting the equivalent of the extra facilities for a small town’s worth of population growth? i.e. “Where’s my new municipal swimming pool and leisure centre?!?”
  • How do proposed solutions match up to the proposals in the distant past. Do rejected solutions now read better/worse in the situation we are now in?

Who scrutinises the scrutineers?

I think this is going to become a little bit more of an issue for the various charities and community groups this coming year – as it will for me as well. It’s one of the reasons why I’m always clear with videos of meetings where I have been commissioned (ie paid) to film and provide a video record.

We’ve seen more councillors asking questions back of community groups and campaign groups at public meetings asking for information around numbers of members, and processes of forming a ‘corporate policy’ for their organisation. This means asking/answering:

  • Is your organisation formally constituted with a Chair, Secretary and Treasurer (and thus a bank account)?
  • What constitutes membership of your organisation?
  • What is the policy-making process for your organisation?
  • How can members contest/challenge/propose amendments to the policies of your organisation?

Some organisations will have further rules and laws that govern them. As a registered charity, Cambridge Past Present and Future is governed by charity law and has to submit accounts to the Charity Commission (see their record here).

Something tells me that part of this year will involve encouraging and educating local residents to become active citizens through community groups, charities and residents associations – and holding them accountable as well as their local councillors and politicians. At the same time, with such a huge workload we may see more councillors and politicians working more effectively with residents. For example in the run up to council meetings, will we see more councillors posting social media messages with links to papers inviting residents to suggest points to make/lines of questioning at the meetings concerned? I’m surprised more don’t follow the good example set by Julian Huppert during his term of office as MP for Cambridge 2010-15.

Elections, mayoral candidates, and transport as the main issue in Cambridgeshire?

Given how the policy of executive mayors has been made by ministers, and given that Cambridgeshire County Council is the institution whose councillors are up for election, this is one of the rare occasions that young people will have more of an influence in local council elections. The simple reason that they are more likely to be users of public transport – in particular buses. I’d like to think that schools, colleges, youth groups and civic societies across the county can encourage adults to talk to children and young people about all things transport in the run up to the elections – and make the case for those who don’t yet have the vote.


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