Cambridge: The state of our city

Summary

Why our towns and cities could do with annual updates

This post stems from this blogpost on LostCambridge, where I noticed copies of the Cambridge Independent Press from over a century ago contained data from a whole host of civic and public services. It made me wonder why we didn’t see this sort of data published more prominently in this day and age. Part of the problem as I discussed with a number of local friends and residents over the past few days is that locating the data alone is something that takes more effort than most people are prepared to spend.

Pickles’ much-maligned town-hall-pravda’s

Local councils produce their own publications – some of which have become controversial over recent years. Former Communities & Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, to supporters and opponents alike, the ministerial wrecking ball of council budgets between 2010-15, made it his mission to clamp down on those councils that published their own publications on a regular basis – competing with commercial publications. So the inevitable challenge is producing something that explains to people what the statistics mean, but don’t have any partisan comment woven in.

Weekly updates informing citizens and busting myths

Local public services know that when they really deserve it, Puffles will give them a metaphorical kicking on Twitter. In the same way, Puffles will also praise them when they do good stuff. Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust started producing weekly infographics-style updates after we pointed out that their predecessors were publishing these on a weekly basis in local newspapers. Today, we have weekly updates.

An excellent example of keeping locals informed using social media

Bear in mind Addenbrooke’s hospital is a regional hospital – and a sort of ‘mini town’ in itself on the edge of Cambridge.

The fragmentation of our city’s public services

Part of the problem is there is no unified centre of co-ordination (different conceptually to being a unified centre of micro-management command-and-control style). To give you an example of this fragmentation, Cambridge has:

  • The Highways Agency responsible for the M11 and A14 – reporting to the Department for Transport
  • Network Rail, responsible for tracks and signals – reporting to the Department for Transport
  • Privatised train companies reporting to shareholders
  • Privatised bus companies reporting to shareholders – who won’t put on new routes unless subsidised
  • Cambridgeshire Constabulary – reporting to the Police & Crime Commissioner and the Home Secretary
  • Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Executive Mayor – coming into being in May 2017 – no one’s really sure how this will work
  • The NHS Trusts & Care Commissioning Groups – no longer properly accountable to the Secretary of State for Health due to the Health and Social Care Act 2012, so no one is really sure who they are accountable to, but at least Healthwatch keeps an eye on them
  • In Cambridge’s city limits, Cambridge City Council is responsible for lots of things – but not education, libraries and local roads.
  • Covering the whole county, Cambridgeshire County Council covers education, local roads and local transport, and libraries.
  • The academies programme means more and more schools are now outside the control of local councils and report through their academy sponsors directly to the Department for Education.

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Busy bees – Cambridge City Council’s list of services

“Doesn’t Cambridgeshire Insights produce anything data-wise?”

It does – see http://cambridgeshireinsight.org.uk/ – and goes beyond just public service output to cover things like state of the housing market and of the local economy.

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More busy bees – our county’s number crunchers at Cambridgeshire Insight

“That’s all very well, but other than *Ooh, that’s nice to know*, what’s the point?”

This is where such a guide needs to be linked to lines of reporting & accountability. In the grand scheme of things, most of us wouldn’t know who to complain to, how to complain, what our rights are, and what the duties of the organisation we’re complaining about or to, are. Hence why sites such as WriteToThem.com are ever so useful as they cut out a lot of the waffle in the middle and make the process of sending an email to the correct organisation that much more efficient.

The tricky bit is with political parties and campaign groups. Council publications have graphics of the names, faces and contact details of local councillors (Cambridge City Council via here, and Cambridgeshire County Council via here). To what extent should they go further with formal weblinks to party websites and social media pages? Should it be left to residents associations and community groups – or even local bloggers such as Chris Rand in Queen Edith’s ward/division in Cambridge?

“I still don’t see the point of it – I wouldn’t read it. What time’s Zed-factor on anyway?”

Vision – a city where:

  • more of us are familiar and knowledgeable about our public services.
  • we can use them as and when we need without either side becoming stressed out by the other
  • more residents are acquainted with at least one of our locally elected representatives to the extent they would feel comfortable contacting them if in need
  • more residents feel a connection with local institutions and public service providers and those that work for them
  • more residents feel they can take a sense of responsibility monitoring/scrutinising/keeping an eye on one theme or area knowing that there are other residents in the city covering the others.
  • when it comes to election time, voters are more willing to vote – and cast an informed vote due to having read the data, met/questioned/read about the candidates and relating those with their day-to-day lives. (Eg if what candidates publish does not match with people’s day-to-day lives, implication is the voter is less likely to vote for said candidate).

The implication with the above is that such a publication, while being party-politically neutral, would not be value neutral.

“What does ‘not value-neutral’ mean?”

It’s one where throughout the entire publication, the message is one of getting involved in, and taking responsibility for civic life of the city one way or another. That can be something as simple as running a neighbourhood blog (as Chris does with http://queen-ediths.co.uk/) and/or organising things at a ward/neighbourhood level (such as Abbey in Cambridge) to being on a local school governing body, PTA or alumni/former pupils’ network. In Cambridge from what I’ve seen, the older private schools are much better at keeping in touch with former pupils (and thus getting donations from them) than their state school counterparts. That’s not the fault of those at the state schools – where in some cases several generations of the same family will go, but because the wider funding system does not allow schools to employ staff to focus on staying in touch with former pupils.

“Let me guess: Someone’s done this all before”

How did you guess?

Here’s the Cambridge Independent Press talking about the Cambridge Charitable Organisation Society, of whom Cambridge Heroes Mary Paley (later Lady Alfred Marshall) and Florence Ada (later Cllr Lady) Keynes were the twin pillars.

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The above refers to Eglantyne Jebb’s 1906 report: Cambridge – a brief study in social questions (buy your copy here). The quotation that resonates with me is for this blogpost is this:

“The book is not written primarily for philanthropists, but for those citizens who, though they cannot devote any considerable portion of their time to working for their town, yet wish to be kept informed one way or another in making it a better and happier place for their successors to live in”

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Cambridge Hero: Eglantyne Jebb who wrote a book to encourage others to make Cambridge a better place for future generations – like ours. (Photo – Museum of Cambridge).

“Why not take the phrase Eglantyne wrote and sharpen it?”

In a nutshell, why not?

“The annual ‘Cambridge – the state of our city’ report is written primarily for residents who, although may not have lots of time to work for good of our city, wish to be kept informed one way or another in making it a better and happier place for our successors to live in.”

Following in the footsteps of Cambridge’s civic giants

More Cambridge Heroes at the Museum of Cambridge – Florence Ada Keynes, Maud Darwin (daughter-in-law of Charles), Clara Rackham and Dame Leah Manning.

If you’ve not already read about the group of people I’m describing as the Cambridge Heroes, have a read of this blogpost and of those before and after. There is another set of these boards put together by Tamsin Wilmhurst, now of David Parr House. Because history seems to have written out these heroes of our city, me and Puffles are writing them back in, because they made such a huge difference. The line we’re running with is this:

The Cambridge Heroes:

  • Learn their names

  • Recognise (or remember?) their faces

  • Read their stories…

  • …then ***match their impact***

…because you never know, their examples combined with making the data and information of today easy to reach might just inspire a new generation of people to breathe some much-needed fresh air and people-power into our local democracy. Because given the challenges our city faces, it’s about time we invited the city with all of its talent to take a much more active interest.

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