How do you involve people in local democracy and politics if they have very little time, and are permanently tired?

Summary

Some more thoughts following my week in hospital

…thoughts other than “Why hasn’t the Minister for Murdoch resigned as Secretary of State for Health yet?”

(The title is from the front page below around the last time people were calling for him to resign from a different Cabinet post)

You see, in the olden days of epic policy clusterf–ks, the minister responsible would resign. He was warned months and months ago, he’s been in post for years, this is on his watch. Yes, I’m a little bit more sensitive to this policy issue having had one op cancelled myself – albeit only for a day, but I spoke to patients who told me they had a series of cancelled and postponed operations behind them.

Trying to keep up with everyone else

One of the reasons I ended up in hospital I think was that I spent much of the autumn trying to keep up with ‘not mentally ill’ people who had not been through a mental health crisis and were thus able to function fully. I’ve not been at that stage for years – and perhaps never will be. Thus being utterly exhausted it was only a matter of time before an illness of some sort got me. We won’t find out which one until my MRI scan next month.

It wasn’t just the filming of council meetings & everything under the sun in the guildhall that I was doing, but the editing and processing which, in my mind at least I tend not to consider as ‘work’ when there’s something on telly at the same time. Or an interesting Twitter debate happening. I filter much of the dross & hate out. Combining that with the late 2017 series of We Are Sound mini-gigs at the Round Church (see here – more coming up in January & February 2018), by the time I got close to Christmas there was nothing left in my tank. The next thing I knew and it was 4am and I was being wheeled into a cardiac ward at Addenbrooke’s.

I couldn’t do what the nurses, cleaners, healthcare assistants and others do on a day-to-day basis. 

And yet they are a wealth of knowledge – not just in their field but on how to improve things around them and us generally – eg in our communities. It’s just our consultation systems are broken.

Let’s take this –  “Consultation on Main Modifications to the Cambridge Local Plan” – I have no idea how anyone who has not been following this is supposed to contribute to this. It’s almost as if the planning system has been designed by ministers and lobbyists to exclude as many people as possible to make it the play thing of only those that can afford it. We’re lucky that we’ve got more than our fair share of community activists who can make sense of this and spend a little time on scrutinising some of the paperwork – Sam Davies here as one example. But separate to that consultation is next week’s planning committee meeting, which happens monthly. This month has over 500 pages in the agenda pack alone, not including drawings. It’s not good enough just to publish stuff. We’ve got to get much better at making it easy for people to filter stuff almost automatically so that they land quickly at the things that they want and need to know.

On 11th January part of my neighbourhood discusses crime with the police. Another big report.

Again, I screen-grabbed the essential table and shared it to see if anyone else picks up on it to scrutinise in detail. Then there are Greater Cambs Partnership transport things coming up over the next fortnight – see here. And the County Council’s up and running from 9th January here.

“How do you convert all of that into something that people might want to know about?”

Exactly.

My take is that a critical mass of residents would be happy to commit to 5-15 minutes per week reading a summary of what has happened or will be happening in their local area, whether in a newspaper or an online newsletter. I wouldn’t put that number of people at much more than 5-10% of people in any one neighbourhood. But what matters is that those are the people who are the eyes and ears for their wider social group.

You see, the thing is, what happens with the transport planning in the complicated stuff that gets discussed at these meetings will have a huge impact on the future of the staff at places like Addenbrooke’s. What might make some executive or shareholder with a big developer a little bit of extra profit for that financial year may also end up screwing over half a city for the best part of half a century. That’s how important it is.

Once you take the time to think all of these things through – something that long term illness has allowed me to do in a way that working inside Whitehall never gave me the time to do, is that you start to see all of the connections. Long hours, long commutes, low pay, hard work, high house prices, high rent prices, polluted air…these are not the makings of a sustainable city or a sustainable future. They are also not the making of community engagement or people participating in shaping the future of their towns or cities. But then the political establishment is paralysed by their own adherence to the narrow confines of their political and economic model that even if they did have the imagination to dream up of something new – or even if they saw it elsewhere (places like The Netherlands or Copenhagen in Denmark regularly cited for sustainable transport), they wouldn’t allow themselves to believe that similar could be achieved here.

“So…where do we start?”

It’s something I’ve explored before during my civil service days – the difference now is that I no longer have the health or the willpower to drive through some of those ideas or to carry out the necessary analysis of the communities that make up Cambridge today. Hence going for the stories that haven’t been told in Lost Cambridge. Because as I’ve found out, our predecessors have been grappling with similar issues for over 150 years. Once we’ve got the historical picture painted, then we can work out what didn’t work in the past and why, and work out what sort of city we want to become.

One other thing to add almost as a postscript, is ensuring that we’ve got all issues covered ‘by someone’. Just as more than a few people have relied on me to film various meetings, I also tell myself (for my own sanity) that other issues are the responsibility for other people. Delivery of healthcare services? Healthwatch. Transport? The Cambridge Cycling Campaign for cycling. We did have a new bus user group set up but I don’t know what happened to it (see this article). In an ideal world, local councils would have far greater powers to raise revenue to pay for the admin and organisation support for community groups. But that requires a change of heart from ministers and/or a change in the law. That’s not going to happen this side of Brexit.

Supporting my community reporting

They say freedom isn’t free and that democracy is not a spectator sport. With my filming of local council meetings in and around Cambridge, I aim to bring local democracy to your desktop. Please consider supporting my work.


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