Shall we put on some ‘how to scrutinise your council’ style events in/around Cambridge?


No need to restrict it to councils given the dead hand of Whitehall and the results of years of outsourcing to the private and voluntary sector either.

In terms of really big picture things, that work has already begun locally with the Imagine 2027 series where a number of high profile expert speakers have been giving talks on what they imagine the world in 2027 might look like from a positive perspective, and how we might get there. I’ve been part of the recording team filming the events, so do have a look at who said what. See also who has posted what on Twitter here. A similar group headed by Sarah Nicmanis of Cambridge Green Party has been running the Changing Conversations series – one open to all discussing different topics and providing a space for activists from other (mainly progressive) political parties as well as those of none, to exchange views and share learning – often following a presentation from a (non party-political) expert speaker.

But what about discussing what local institutions do?

It’s more complicated.

For those of you who live in Cambridge, have a look at – how easy is it for you to navigate and make use of? For those of you in South Cambridgeshire, see and ditto. Working out how these function is essential to keeping tabs on the planning applications that have an impact on our communities.

The same goes for meetings:

Who’s got the time and resources to go to all of the above? (Especially in this era of repeated cuts to local press?) Does anyone have an overview of all that’s happening in our city? A sort of ‘dragon’s eye view’? Furthermore, who are the people who can ‘breathe the fire of a dragon’ onto those organisations dragging their feet so to speak?


Diagram by Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport

“Sounds like you need a masters degree just to make sense of the structures!”

Feels like it, doesn’t it?

One thing I’ve never got my head around is how all of these organisations talk to each other, and let each other know what is going on. Or do they? Do the train companies have conversations with the bus companies about synchronising their services like they do in Switzerland? So that when you step off your train and exit the railway station, your bus is waiting there for you? It’s something I’ve moaned about for some time but nothing seems to be done. The more we moan and the less that gets done in the face of such a fragmentation of public services, the more it makes me want to just say

“Sod it – nationalise the lot of them and bring them back under the democratic control of the people”. 

“That will cost a lot of money”

Not if we declare an emergency under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and pass regulations under Section 22(3)(b) of said Act and confiscate the lot without compensation. Job done.

Actually, it doesn’t work like that in real life, but it’s a reminder that there are a number of pieces of enabling legislation already out there that confer a huge amount of power on Ministers of the Crown.

Enabling legislation – too much power to too few people

It was an enabling provision that Labour passed in 2003 – only with the support of Labour’s Scottish MPs (it would have fallen if it were English MPs voting – as is the system today) that enabled Tony Blair to bring in top-up fees for students in England. It was this same provision that enabled the Coalition to bring in the even higher fees with a couple of debates in Parliament in 2010 – to the crocodile tears of the Labour MPs that voted through the 2003 provisions.

All three parties are to blame for the imbalance in the treatment of students and young people since the introduction of tuition fees in the first place in 1998. My school cohort was the first generation to face fees, and I’ve still not forgiven the politicians involved.

“Why is politics so complicated? Why shouldn’t the public know more about what’s going on?”

“You can be open, or you can have government!”

In the grand scheme of things, you are only going to get a small proportion of people in any given community really involved in what goes on at a political level.

HenleyCentreDCLGCommunities Research2008 Slide 109

The above – Commissioned by DCLG, created by The Henley Centre/Headlight Vision, by Andrew Curry, Joe Ballantyne, Becky Rowe, Anouk Van Den Eijnde. 2008.

The above was from one of the most substantive pieces of social research I’ve seen commissioned for public policy during my civil service days, but for whatever reason the civil servants at the time really didn’t want it released. It was only a few years after I left the civil service that they finally let me have a copy. Whitehall is full of expensive commissioned studies that would actually be very useful to the public’s understanding of politics and policy – the release of which wouldn’t embarrass anyone. The cultural inertia of an organisation is something that has a very long half-life, and changing that culture is like trying to turn around an oil tanker. I’d like to think that social media use has helped change some of that in Whitehall.

Somewhere like Cambridge should be looking at having 11% of its population involved in local democracy, politics and civic life. How does that compare with the situation on the ground?

I’ll leave that to the councillors to answer – they are the ones who are most likely to go door-knocking so will have a better feel for this than me.

Note the subtle difference between community-focused versus the democratically-involved

You can be a helper at a local school fair yet have nothing to do with local democracy. And vice-versa.

What this research doesn’t tell us is the impact of social media – this work effectively pre-dated Twitter, while Facebook was still seen as a young people’s thing back then. It’d be fascinating to see a “Ten years later” piece of research to see what has changed and what has remained the same.


Classroom or workshop-based learning on local democracy

I’ve not seen this done locally before – others may have better experience of how something like this may work. Is Cambridge at that stage where enough people would turn up say to a Saturday workshop/crash course on the basics of local democracy? By that I don’t mean “This is the guildhall, this is the mayor, these are the parties” as if from a textbook, but starting off from where the participants are starting from. That could be their first interaction with this institution called the state (eg being born in a maternity hospital) through to one of the first things you’d notice if the local council disappeared: bin collections. (Or lack of).

That first session say on a one day event may well involve thrashing out who wants to learn what – done in an unconference style as we did with Be The Change Cambridge in 2014-15. It was at that event that the first gathering of the tour de force that is My Cambridge was held.

Another option is using the framework of evening classes, and having a series of say six evenings where we look at a different institution, finishing each session with an action that involves each individual sending a piece of correspondence to said institution, and then reviewing at later sessions the responses we get back. i.e. that way we ‘normalise’ the concept of lobbying public bodies, and also talking to each other about local democracy beyond moaning about the bad stuff. (i.e. coming up with ideas for further actions or possible solutions).

Moving beyond old models of communications

Comms model pre social media AC2011

The above is from a study I worked on in the dead-end days of my Whitehall career in 2011 that I took with me when I left, and gave back to Cabinet Office a couple of years later when I had worked up a few more things outside the system. It’s from this presentation/slide show. The point being that the above model is very discrete and ‘one way’ as far as citizens are concerned.

Fast forward to today…

Comms model pre social media AC2011_2

…and all of the grey dots have been turned into yellow dots, indicating people active on social media, taking part in multiple conversations. That doesn’t make a judgement on the quality of the conversations – as the whole furore around conspiracies and ‘fake nooze’ has demonstrated.

“But who has time for all of this civic engagement?”

This comes back to the engagement segmentation. On those most likely to become involved, how much of it is because no one has invited them to get involved? Had Cambridge Labour Party had a buzzing system of recruiting under-18s in the run up to the 1997 general election, they would have had me not just as a member, but also as a street volunteer in their campaigns because I was solidly pro-Labour at the time – all the way up until the whole tuition fees mess.

For all of the talk around the impact of social media on elections, part of me thinks that there is huge potential for more regular face-to-face engagement like in the days of old as described in the newspaper archives. I keep on having to remind myself that in those days there was no TV or radio, and there also seemed to be a police constable on every corner who could be summoned to carry out an arrest of a local rapscallion or rascal  who had somehow been detained by two splendid chaps for some sort of an affray.

This is one of the reasons why I favour a small number of regular big set piece events that allow community and campaign groups to set out their stalls – for example the Mill Road Winter Fair, or the Strawberry Fair in Cambridge where the public can have relaxed conversations with campaigners and activists outside Political spaces. I also think there’s huge potential for set piece party political debates given the popularity of the hustings at the recent general elections. Here’s one clip where in Waterbeach, Conservatives and Labour went head-to-head in 2017 at a standing-room-only event.


There’s no one single solution that will bring about a world where we have more people involved creating a better society – certainly at a local level.

At a personal level, I get the sense more of us are looking for new faces to get involved and take on some of the burdens of just keeping an eye of what is going on. For those of you interested, come along to the talk by the former Mayor of Bristol on what Cambridge can learn from them. It’s hosted by the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations.

“Can’t I be one of the passive ones? I lead a very busy life!”

The trick here is setting up your online world to update you automatically when new things are posted. For example:

I’ve also learnt the hard way that no one person can cover an entire city and do it really well. Following my stay in hospital I’ve tried to scale back what I do, and make the call in my mind at least that another group has got that one covered. Campaigning on climate change & lobbying the universities? Cambridge Zero Carbon Society has more than got that one covered. Scrutinising new transport schemes? Smarter Cambridge Transport is on it. Better cycling provision? Cambridge Cycling Campaign have got that sorted.

I’ll finish linking to this article: Do you have a cause that is worth joining?



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