Making Cambridge an inclusive city – at FeCRA’s AGM for 2019


More lessons from Bristol, and a re-look at some old blogposts.

In some recent conversations, I was reminded of a couple of diagrams. At the annual gathering of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations recently, we had another expert speaker from Bristol – Professor Robin Hambleton. (See the video playlist here). The first was the shambolic state of the governance of Cambridge.


From Smarter Cambridge Transport, the fragmentation above does not cover the privatised bus services, the academised schools, the hospitals & health services, and the police all outside the reporting and accountability structures of municipal councils. Prof Hambleton was spot on saying that the UK is one of the most centralised of states in the world. Having taught in other countries, he commented that regional and local government in Germany were protected by their constitution. Hence central government could not dictate to local and regional councils in the way that happens in the UK.

The second was from a study I discovered during my civil service days.

What does your community look like?

The above was from 2008 – which pre-dates the explosion of multitude of social media tools bar email and Facebook. There was no Twitter for politics. back then. This, the growth of mobile video, and the impact of Brexit and Donald means that some of the above-figures may well have changed. Furthermore, the above-model does not account for those that might or do behave in a way that might be destructive to communities and societies.

Clouds and silver linings

The implosion of functioning government is at a level that I have not seen in Westminster and Whitehall. We should not be in this situation constitutionally – the convention is that when a prime minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons, he or she should tender their resignation to the Queen and either advise on a replacement, or recommend a dissolution of Parliament to make way for a general election.

But that cannot happen while the clock is ticking down for – as things stand a car-crash-no-deal Brexit. The UK leaves the EU by the automatic functioning of the triggering of Article 50 of the Treaty of The European Union. Thus we have paralysis in Whitehall. The House of Commons has repeatedly rejected the Prime Minister’s deal, and everything else too. The hung parliament cannot as yet come to an agreement on the way forward.

One of the few silver linings of all of this is the significant growth of people wanting to find out more about politics and our system of government – warts and all. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that ever since the EU Referendum we are seeing more and more new faces involved in local democracy. This year’s Cambridge City Council elections could see the biggest slate of first time candidates winning their election contests. I predict as many as eight of the 14 council seats at Cambridge Guildhall up for election could be won by first time candidates in Cambridge.

The biggest petition in the UK’s history

For online petitions on Parliament’s website, that award goes to the Revoke Article 50 petition – ten times the size of the Leave the EU Now petition. (The latter with over 600,000 signatures is still a very significant number of signatures). Can it be compared with the millions that signed the Chartist petitions of the mid-1800s? Not really because of the extra efforts that went into collecting the signatures for the latter, and also because the freedoms that we enjoy today are not the same conditions that the Chartists faced. Essentially the Chartists were taking bigger risks.

Heidi Allen MP and the ‘Tiggers’ 

The local elections on 02 May 2019 will be the first real electoral test for both Conservatives and Labour since the breakaway group of MPs now led by the MP for South Cambridgeshire. Essentially both political parties have had sand kicked in their face by different sections of the media over how they’ve handled Brexit. Keep an eye on Peterborough and East Cambridgeshire in particular.

“What’s all of the above got to do with making Cambridge inclusive?”


My previous blogpost of Cambridge being a protesting city was well made given the rise in the number of protests that happened shortly after. Hundreds of people from Cambridge went down to London for the million-person protest calling for a people’s vote. (That’s not to say it was entirely representative of the whole country – the march was in London for a start. But to get that many people out on the streets marching against a government policy shows a significant level of unhappiness as it takes a huge amount of effort to agitate people to an extent where they are prepared to travel to the capital for a big protest).

More protests

Primary school children and parents marched against cuts to schools

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner spoke to a separate rally against leaving the EU, in Cambridge.

….While secondary school students marched on strike against climate change.

…while the housing protests haven’t gone away either – here with Cllr Anna Smith and Montreal Square residents & supporters.

Not just the ‘usual suspects’ protesting

There are too many protesting about too many different things for any one organisation to try and monopolise any of the protests. The huge number of home-made signs reflects this. This makes it much harder for the politicians to dismiss. Furthermore, the line between taking direct action that causes inconvenience, and the line that says follow the official channels to make your case, is becoming much more blurred. This blurring has been led locally by the Cambridge collective of the Extinction Rebellion network – who blocked Mill Road not so long ago, and did the same on Hills Road for about half an hour during rush hour.  And with good reason. Asking questions of politicians alone has not worked. I’ve tried – this from 2 years ago. Air quality has gotten even worse despite actions and petitions from hundreds more people.

Blocked at every turn by restrictive structures and institutions

One of the most frustrating things to see in Cambridge is the level of homelessness on the streets – in the face of all of the headlines about the wealth the city supposedly generates. From the fragmentation of local state and civic institutions, to the hoarding of powers and finances by Ministers and The Treasury in London, to the planning system in the eyes of local residents appearing to favour speculative developers looking for a quick buck rather than a system that incentivises developers and communities to work together to solve shared problems, attempts to solve our city’s problems seem blocked at every turn. And then the city gets blamed for the inequalities within the county even though the political decisions that lead to said inequalities are taken by politicians not elected by the wards and divisions inside Cambridge City, but in Cambridgeshire County’s rural wards and divisions. Ask most transport campaigners inside Cambridge and they would welcome – and campaign for significantly improved public transport links to surrounding towns and villages. For a start such links would significantly reduce the car traffic on the roads. I’m all for rail links to Wisbech and Haverhill. I’m all for light rail links to places like St Ives, Ramsay, Chatteris and Cambourne. But successive governments have never had the courage or imagination to put in the structures or finances to deliver any of this. And as a result, no one wins. In the current quagmire of Brexit, much of the civil service policy capacity has been diverted to solve self-created problems rather than the very real long term and persistent problems the country and the world faces. And we’re not going to get those five-or-so years back.

“So…what next?”

For a start, find out the candidates standing for election in your area. The Democracy Club crew prepare a big database of candidates with video and social media links for such things – though much depends on the goodwill of crowd-sourced volunteers cleansing the data and inputting candidate links. Elections aside, it feels like everything is on hold due to the Brexit mess. At a social gathering with some of my Lost Cambridge local history community earlier, I learnt how the uncertainty was having a huge impact on small to medium sized businesses, and how pro-no-deal MPs were claiming that the increase in orders from firms were signs of a strengthening economy rather than realising that this was evidence of firms stockpiling as contingencies, leading to a shortage of warehouse space. That’s in the face of changing consumer habits as people have moved away from the traditional high street shop to shopping online – leading to a residual increase in demand for warehousing space aside from Brexit contingencies.

On educating people about democracy and politics

The points I made in this blogpost from late 2017 apply here. We had a really good discussion about politics and current affairs as mentioned above. There were six of us at the local history gathering. I learnt first hand from people running their own businesses about the direct hits they were taking, and they learnt from me about the insights from my time inside Whitehall. These included the legal differences between the Scottish Independence referendum that had automatic triggers in the event of a Yes vote, versus the EU Referendum whose result in law was only advisory – and that everything that had stemmed from it was the result of conscious and deliberate actions by Government ministers. (For example if/when to trigger Article 50). The list of things the Government has completely missed out was powerfully listed by Lord Bilimoria who robustly slapped down former Home Secretary Michael Howard in his speech here. <<– Enjoy.

When the dust has settled in national politics, we’ve got to deal with educating the public about democracy and politics – not least to deal with the problem of misinformation and ‘fake news’.



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