The report makes painful reading for those involved, but better late than never. Note the weaknesses the writing, checking and approving of the report.
The findings in the report by engineering consultants Mouchel (click on ‘External Review’ in the second-last paragraph of this press release) hit the headlines in the Cambridge News this week – see here. Interestingly (and perhaps understandably) Josh Thomas who wrote the article focused on perhaps the most high profile recommendation, but the one that had the lowest priority – the one recommending full voting rights for the Local Economic Partnership and for the University of Cambridge. The reason being it’s clearly the most politically controversial. Institutionally and behind closed doors, I can see both institutions wanting to have more influence than others, but what they both lack is a democratic mandate from the people – hence why I agree with Cllr Lewis Herbert, my local councillor and chair of the City Deal Board that the idea is dead in the water. One other reason for this is that it would require Parliament’s consent for the terms of the City Deal Agreement signed in 2014 to be carried out.
A wingtip to Cambridge’s women heroes.
My new historical Cambridge Hero, Miss Eglantyne Jebb (who went on to found Save the Children after WWI) was instrumental in the shaping of modern Cambridge in the run up to the First World War with her epic book Cambridge – a brief study in social questions digitised here. There are a number of issues she raised in that 1906 publication that are still being dealt with today – one of which falls under the city deal’s remit: apprenticeships & skills for young people. Her work is already influencing how I intend to scrutinise not just the city deal but local democracy in and around Cambridge in general.
Cambridge hero – Miss Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children.
“Yeah – but what about the report?”
The first thing to look at is the specialism of the firm, and the authors of the report.
In one sense the document is a standard consultancy commission. But the cover page above doesn’t quite add up because the author in the record of issue table is also cited as the reviewer – Matthew Lugg. You can find out about him here. Looking online for the background of the checker cited, I can’t see on their linkedin profile anything around a knowledge of local government or programme management. That said, for a piece of work like this you would not necessarily need a detailed specialist to review it – just someone who can properly proof-read the document to ensure that it makes sense to a non-specialist. In the approved column in principle I’m against the concept of an author approving their own work. Someone higher up the chain, or someone with a similar level of expertise inside the consultancy should have signed this off.
The ‘get out clauses’
“This report is presented to Greater Cambridge City Deal partnership in respect of Greater Cambridge City Deal External Review and may not be used or relied on by any other person.”
So I’m going to rely on it for the purposes of analysing the external review as a member of the public reading a document that has been made public (and even if not, would be disclosable under access to information legislation).
“What are the issues the report has raised?”
This Review has shown there is also a clear consensus about why there is this lack of confidence which is based on a number of key issues:
- Lack of dedicated resources and insufficient resource
- Lack of strong dedicated technical leadership
- Weak systems and processes
- The need for a more up to date evidence base
- The need for more robust governance
- An inability among those delivering projects to articulate the overall vision and how their piece supports that
- Insufficiently developed working relationships between officers and members
- The need for a more proactive approach to communications
All of the above make me go ***eeek!*** Or would do if I wasn’t already aware of them having followed the city deal fairly closely since late 2014.
In late 2016 off the top of my head I identified the following:
- No historical context
- The lack of a ‘research and evidence-collection stage’
- The lack of shared problem-solving workshops where locals have access to experts in the field as they discuss issues and ideas
- The very poor communications until very recently
There were a number of things I picked up at the very start – in late 2014 that the review says are still issues.
The reason why I asked to see a programme/project initiation document is so that I knew the city deal authorities had systematically covered all of the major issues that were likely to arise. Ditto with risk management.
Lack of dedicated staff
This has been something that has hamstrung the city deal programme from the start. As highlighted by the report, the senior Cambridgeshire County Council officers simply have too much on their plate in addition to their city deal commitments. That’s why in principle I welcome the appointment of Nicky Stopard (albeit as an interim) the new chief executive of the city deal. This appointment ideally should have been permanent and should have been made much much earlier.
One of the reasons they may continue to struggle with recruitment is because (Again as many have said, not just this report) the city deal lacks an overall and inspiring vision. To most people at the moment, the only things the city deal is associated with are:
- Concreting over the countryside in west Cambridge
- More buses into a city centre that is now at peak bus
- Banning cars
- The Chisholm Trail (the Cambridge north-south cycleway)
The top three made for easy mobilisation of protestors.
There was – and still is a deeper problem for the city deal authorities that was utterly foreseeable: In a city like Cambridge it was inevitable that some incredibly bright and intelligent people were going to scrutinise in detail what the city deal was proposing. They had the choice of bringing that group of people on board as critical friends or turning them into hostile adversaries – the latter making far more work for officers. For whatever reason, and only the senior officers doing the day-to-day work on this can answer for this, they chose the latter.
Lack of a sound, comprehensive evidence base
My last job in the civil service before leaving involved closing down and evaluating the New Deal for Communities Programme (which ran for 10 years). One of the exercises I ensured my team undertook before I left was to undertake a ‘public administration lessons learnt’ exercise. The main question I asked my team to answer was: “Knowing what we know now after 10 years, if you were charged with restarting this or a similar programme, what would you do differently?”
Party political issues
Although it doesn’t explicitly show, Cllr Lewis Herbert seems to be taking a disproportionate share of the fallout from inside Cambridge. The City Deal has a Board and an Assembly that broadly reflects the party political divisions on the local councils concerned.
At a board level, it looks like this:
- Cambridge City Council = Labour (Chair)
- South Cambridgeshire District Council = Conservative
- Cambridgeshire County Council = Conservative
At an assembly level, it looks like this:
- Cambridge City Council = 2x Labour, 1x Lib Dem
- South Cambridgeshire District Council = 2x Conservative, 1x Lib Dem
- Cambridgeshire County Council = 1x Conservative, 1x Labour 1x Lib Dem
It will be interesting to see if the makeup for the county council changes following the elections in on 04 May.
As you can see, as far as party politics go it is the Conservatives that have the majority of votes on the board. (The assembly can only make recommendations). Although we are not party to conversations behind closed doors, one of the very controversial issues that splits councillors on party lines is congestion charging. Initially it was ruled out by the city deal, but growing concern about worsening air quality in Cambridge has meant that this is coming back but potentially under a different guise.
Furthermore, with changes to the Conservative members on the city deal board, there hasn’t been that high profile continuous media-friendly presence on the board, most of the statements coming from Cllr Herbert. It’s only been in recent times that Cllr Francis Burkitt, representing South Cambridgeshire District Council, has spoken publicly to the media about some of the controversial transport schemes – in particular in the rural districts west of Cambridge where he is a local councillor.
“What would you have done differently?”
The one lesson that’s applicable to the city deal is having a ‘year zero’. Have that as your year where you are not working up projects, but one where you are doing little other than listening, data collection and evidence gathering. The city deal authorities had the opportunity to do this. In fact, the Be the change – Cambridge project showed them how in a workshop expertly facilitated by Dr David Cleevely in late 2014. The project was hosted at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge with Cambridge Ahead. See here for the write up of 2014’s Conversation Cafe.
The Greater Cambridge City Deal should have commissioned a video like the one above at the very start to set out its vision, and have this embedded on its landing page or on its ‘about us’ page. But it has neither.
“But we’re in a very different place now – what with the 2015 general election, Corbyn, Brexit and now these new county mayors?”
True – when we had our conversation cafe event in 2014, none of us could have predicted what was going to follow in the national political world, nor how it would affect our city and county. But it still doesn’t account for the poor communications since the launch until recently, and the lack of an inspiring vision.
Note the video above wasn’t put together by anyone professionally. That was me, Ceri, Sharon, Kris, Georgie and Emma running around Cambridge filming stuff and doing interviews, then me doing editing and buying a soundtrack from a professional soundtrack site to accompany the clips.
Finally, just because something happened in the past does not mean we cannot learn from it. Hence my point about lack of historical context. I’ve got no sense of whether the city deal authorities ever did an historical literature review of past Cambridge plans. I know they exist because I’ve found them in the county archives (in the same building where several city deal staff work), the Cambridgeshire Collection in the central library and have also acquired my own copies. With a growing local history community in Cambridge, this would have been an ideal opportunity to have tapped into the expertise of community historians to discover what other schemes were tried, which ones went ahead, which ones failed, and why.
Above – a detail from the 1950 Holford Wright Report
Looking at the above map:
- Why didn’t we get a footbridge and car park on the eastern side of the railway station in Cambridge?
- Why did we get a bridge on Elizabeth way at the Newmarket Road/East Road roundabout?
- Why did we not get a road bridge over Ditton Meadows connecting the north of Cambridge (Milton Road) with the East of Cambridge? (Barnwell Road)
Re Ditton Meadows, longstanding councillor and Mayor of Cambridge for 2016-17 Cllr Jeremy Benstead recalled campaigning against such plans to build on it at the recent East Area Committee.
People interviewed for the consultant’s study
For me, this reflects the instinctively closed nature of local government in Cambridgeshire (when compared to the pioneers of all things open in #localgov), in that the only people interviewed were internal to the city deal programme. So although put together by an external organisation, they didn’t take into account of the view from the outside, which could have shed far more light on the communications issues.
I’d be fascinated to see a similar exercise being carried out for people interested in, but outside of the formal city deal structures.
The big challenge the city deal authorities have is getting community groups back onside. As the report acknowledges, they won’t be able to please all of the people all of the time. But because the city deal didn’t involve community groups and beyond at the very start in terms of defining the problems and challenges, and because they came in with controversial schemes that (in the minds of community groups at least) seemed to come from nowhere rather than from say the public call for evidence, the task of convincing the public becomes that much harder. For example it’s not clear where the bullet bus idea came from nor why it got funding, while ideas such as the Cambridge Light Rail* or those suggested by Smarter Cambridge Transport.
*Transparency note – I run the light rail Facebook page as a volunteer.
It’ll be interesting to see how differently the city deal authorities run the tranche 2 set of the city deal in light of the consultants report, as well as the impact that the new staff have.