Cambridge’s street communities on complex local public services


Spending an evening listening & learning with homeless & vulnerably housed people in at Wintercomfort in Cambridge

I was commissioned to do a short workshop on democracy and registering to vote for the local charity for homeless people Winter Comfort. It was one of the toughest but at the same time one of the most worthwhile workshops I have run. I stuck around for an extra hour to listen to what people had to say about their experiences of local public services.

“Where do you start with something like this?”

Neither I nor Wintercomfort had run one of these. The aim was to get homeless & vulnerably housed people engaged in democratic processes as part of getting their voices heard. The challenge for me was figuring out how to persuade people to go to the laptop with Emily from Cambridge City Council ready to register them to vote.

“This sounds familiar”

A couple of years ago, I wrote how lots of things needed to be done before organisations and campaign groups went out to encourage people to vote – see The challenge for me was to put some of this into action. What did I need to do in order to persuade people to get to the stage where they might be vaguely interested in registering to vote? The first thing I realised was that I knew absolutely nothing about the experiences of Cambridge’s street communities. So I asked them to ‘map’ their communities – in particular the people, organisations and activities they had day-to-day interactions with.

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The above-two photographs show just how complex and diverse their day-to-day lives are. This made me realise that if someone like me was unfamiliar with this, what was it like for the rest of the general public? It was also a wake-up call for things I took for granted when one of the participants asked me:

“How do you spell comfort?”

Yep – check my privilege.

Starting like this prevented me from walking straight into the elephant trap of coming across as over-patronising – even though a couple of the men there said that this exercise was a complete waste of time. It was only when I said this was just as much for my benefit and those of my social media followers in local politics as it was theirs. It also nipped in the bud any risk of ‘sugar-coating’ all things democracy.

A sceptical and unpredictable group of participants – with good reason

With some groups I’ve run workshops for, I’ve come across people whose view is very much the less ‘state interference’ they get, the better. The participants in this workshop are in a position where the state has a large impact on their lives – but is not delivering (for whatever reason) in terms of solving their problems of homelessness and the other problems often found linked to it. Everyone I listened to that evening had been failed by public services one way or another. The experience of that – which left them without a roof over their heads – understandably is going to influence how they viewed public services.

The personalities of people who were there were incredibly diverse. You had people who were very confident speakers with very strong opinions, and you had those who quietly huddled in the corner – unbeknown to me but who were taking in absolutely everything. There were also some people who were drinking too – though this did not disrupt the event.

Differing views about the role of central and local government

Interestingly, participants saw it as the role of central government to intervene and deliver services directly when local government failed. This is what happened in the early days of Tony Blair’s government, where new agencies were set up reporting directly to Whitehall and ministers because the view then was that local councils could not deliver the public services needed. It was only about a decade later that decentralisation became a theme, picking up speed under Hazel Blears when she was Communities & Local Government Secretary.

Strong views about governance and transparency

Participants were absolutely red-hot on failures of governance and transparency both in local government and on non-state providers such as charities. They questioned whether the staff at some state-funded providers were qualified to do the jobs they were commissioned to do, and asked why the costs of procuring some goods and services cost so much – asking where the money was really going. Given the information, I could imagine a few of them giving some senior managers at both a local and national level a really good grilling!

Services not joined up at a local level

The strongest message coming back was for Cambridge City Council to have a much more regular presence at Winter Comfort – in particular housing officers. The same goes for organisations that deliver health services. The most popular idea was having a ‘super social worker’ who would be part-employed by the police, health and local council so they could ‘sort things out’ as they said. What struck me was how similar this was to an idea I blogged about several years ago, but how they had come up with the suggestion independently. It’s more compelling coming from them because they are the ones that use the services more regularly than me. From my blogging perspective, it’s a piece of applied public administration. It’s one thing saying ‘Yes nice blogpost but…’. It’s quite another having to respond to a vulnerable member of the public who is dependent on those services and who is being failed by those services.

Their ideas for Cambridge’s politicians to consider

Emily from the council and I wrote down their questions, concerns and complaints on a big sheet of paper.


One of the things that chimed with me was when people said public services should go to where homeless people are, rather than expecting homeless people to have to shuttle from office to office. In public service social media circles we often talk about going to the social media platforms that people are using, rather than creating new ones and expecting people to come to us.

I asked Wintercomfort staff to invite local MP Daniel Zeichner to spend an afternoon/evening listening to the community, and asked them to invite a panel of councillors and political party representatives to allow people to put their party political questions to those at a local council level. Interestingly, the councillor who got the most praise from participants was Cllr Gerri Bird, Mayor of Cambridge for 2014/15. When I asked why, they said it was because she listened, visited regularly and spent time with them rather than rushing off after 15 minutes. This was my experience of Cllr Bird during her mayoralty. (We have ceremonial mayors in Cambridge rather than executive mayors – the Leader of the Council – currently Cllr Lewis Herbert, is primarily responsible for policy & strategy).

Assuming all goes well, I’ll be feeding all of this back in person to Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on 22 October. (See for details).

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Greater Cambridge Assembly meets for the first time…


…but do the people of Cambridge know it even exists, let alone know how to influence it?

Here’s a pano-pic I took at the start of the meeting


…having made my way via bus from Cambridge to Cambourne, a very new ‘newtown’ built in the last few years to help accommodate a growing county population. Here’s the WikiP entry, & here’s their parish council’s website.

Cambourne’s been much-maligned as an example of how not to build a newtown – a few of which this Guardian article touches on. In the grand scheme of things, the faults are with the planners and politicians, not the people that have chosen to move there to make the best of it. The big problem for me as a sometime visitor to the local council is poor public transport. Given the planned expansion and the scale of the place, for me there should have been some planning for rail – ideally as part of the East-West Rail plans.

“So…who’s on the Assembly?”

Here’s the list. I also picked up that people could ask public questions – but didn’t spot the bit about giving notice. That said, having seen the first couple of hours of the inaugural assembly, I’ve now got ***lots*** of follow-up questions for the assembly (as well as to the executive that the assembly scrutinises). Anyway, here’s what asking a question to the assembly looks like, courtesy of Jim Chisholm of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, & Dr Julian Huppert MP.

“How did you find the meeting?”

Not exactly earth-shaking. To be fair, the setup we have is the result of successive failure by Whitehall to give Cambridge the local government structure it needs to deal with the problems it has. This assembly is the next best thing to a much needed unitary authority (in my opinion). Instead, we have three different councils with three different sets of political control (Cambridge (@CamCitCo) = Labour, South Cambridgeshire (@SouthCambs) = Conservative, Cambridgeshire County (@CambsCC) = No overall control) combined with representation from what Whitehall would call ‘key stakeholders’. Now that the assembly is up and running, @SouthCambs need to update the assembly web pages (see here) so everyone knows who is on the assembly, who they represent & why.

The thing is, it could have – and perhaps should have been something much more substantive and, dare I say it ‘exciting’. Part of the problem I think is with communications – something I touched on when I scrutinised the shadow city deal board in November 2014. (See my write-up here). In a nutshell, the papers for the 12 January meeting (see here) should have been the basis for some really exciting community activities to get people’s input into the proposed transport schemes.

“How many schemes were there?”

There were lots on the list and at various stages of planning. Yet all too often I find myself wondering where the ideas for transport schemes – especially the more expensive ones – come from. Given how transport infrastructure affects our daily lives, shouldn’t people have more of a chance to find out about how the system works & how to influence it? (Or at least be encouraged to?)

Sparking people’s imagination

I think there’s a huge opportunity with the general election coming up to get people involved. Lots of parties, activists & organisations are working to get people interested in the election, so why not do something that keeps people in touch once the votes have been counted? We found out today in Cambridge that one of the political parties is going to accuse the others of not being nearly radical enough on transport issues in Cambridge.

Given the number of local public debates there will be in Cambridge, it’ll be interesting to see what the exchanges are like – and what specifics the candidates are prepared to commit to in their local party manifestos.

The wider question on ‘how we communicate with each other as a city’ still needs addressing

The set up of the assembly in part acknowledges that we don’t communicate, let alone work together as a city. For a start the lack of diversity in the room was in striking contrast to the diversity of people that make up Cambridge. For example, the experiences of young people in local further or higher education (ie those that live at home & commute daily rather than those that leave home to go to university) is likely to be very different to those representing the business interests when it comes to cars vs cycles & busses. But they still face the same problem of congestion in Cambridge. But how are the views of young people being collected and systematically fed into the decision-making processes?

As far as media was concerned, Jon Vale of the Cambridge News was there for the meeting as well as myself filming various bits of it. I also counted just over a dozen people in the public seats at various points – though it wasn’t clear who was representing/reporting for someone else and who was there as an interested citizen. Given the amount of money being spent as part of the deal, my take is there needs to be more publicity and civic education about not just the city deal, but about our civic and democratic institutions generally. But that can’t be addressed without looking at how we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions. Because let’s face it, everyone’s got something to sell or a message to share. But does everyone want to listen? How do you make it easier for people to filter the things they don’t want to hear but be kept informed about the things they want to know about?

It’s not all doom & gloom though!

This is a 15 year process. There is still scope for people to influence the decisions the assembly takes. The most interesting bit for me is that we now have a very public forum to scrutinise Cambridge University – as they have a seat on the assembly.

Friday 16 Jan – debate on Cambridge Railsee here for details  – four of the five prospective parliamentary candidates will be taking part.

Cambridge – we need to talk about community & concert venues


Some thoughts following a year of going to lots of venues in and around Cambridge

Being a self-styled ‘community cameraman’ means I get to go out and about filming in lots of community venues. This year I’ve been to places in my home town that I had never been to before – such as the Corpus Playroom. These have often been venues that I have heard of but never got round to going to. This week it was the CB2 Basement – which is exactly as described. You can get about 30 people inside theatre style. Suitable for short performances and sketch shows, or for singer-songwriters starting out. Here’s a sketch from Paul & Izzy’s funky panto on 18 December 2014

“Is there lots of bad news for Cambridge on this front?”

On the venue front, yes – but…

“But what?”

But…the problem isn’t one that can be solved by the venue owners or operators themselves. It’s something that goes far beyond a level that institutions currently consider. It also requires a level of co-ordination & co-operation at undreamt of levels.

“OK – list the problems”

  • Transport accessibility to venues
  • Knowledge of existence of venues & their availability
  • Affordability of venues to people & groups that want to use them
  • An anecdotal but as yet unquantified excess demand over supply

…to name but a few.


Let’s take two very separate case studies: Cambridge United Football Club and the West Road Concert Hall.

Cambridge United

Car traffic on match day is always huge, making it difficult to run a decent Citi-3 bus service because Newmarket Road gets clogged up very quickly. Just as we did during my season-ticket-holding days, the roads of the local industrial estate and residential roads become places where fans try to find any space reasonably close to the stadium to park. During the 1991-92 season, there were games I attended where Cambridge would get double the attendances they get today – in the days when United had Dion Dublin & Steve Claridge up front. Had United got promoted that season, they’d have been in the Premier League for 1992-93. As it was, they lost to Leicester City, who subsequently lost to Blackburn Rovers & the rest is history. My point is that even with a high-flying team, Cambridge United will struggle to get more than 7,000 into the stadium for a match simply because the local transport infrastructure is not up to scratch. Why the local councils have not been able to agree transport improvements or an alternative venue is beyond me.

West Road Concert Hall

With Cambridge University’s main concert hall, as a child we used to go to the classical music concerts here. I remember them being excruciatingly ‘Keeping up appearances’-style events – ones where I felt embarrassed to be there. They didn’t have popcorn during the intervals – they had apples instead! Big shiny red ones! These were the days when my understanding of ‘cool’ was all things Stevenage – where they had a multilplex cinema, a bowling alley, an ice rink and most importantly, a McDonalds. Cambridgeshire remained stubbornly free of the last until 1992/93!

Just as it was then, it’s notoriously difficult to find a parking space nearby. The only bus route that serves the hall is the Uni4 bus service – aimed at students rather than residents. For those students living/studying close by, rocking up to a concert is relatively easy. If you are a resident in Cambridge suburbs, going to a concert requires military precision planning. Again, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the musicians or composers are, you’ll struggle to get people from outside classical music circles going along.

Where are our venues?

I discussed this here – part of the problem is we don’t have all of the information we need in an easy-to-access-and-analyse format. There are many hidden venues in Cambridge’s community silos – such as Save our Space through to under-used school and church halls. My existing challenge to the city is: How can we make the process of searching for suitable venues much less frustrating and time-consuming?

‘We can’t find suitable venues – they are all booked up/they are too expensive!’

I’ve heard these points made too many times for us not to do something about it. What we don’t have is hard data on the number of enquiries made that do not lead to confirmed bookings – and the reasons why. From anecdotes from people across the city I believe there is huge untapped demand for community venues. See the second half of the video below.

But without a more solid evidence base it’s difficult to make the case for greater investment in new or expanded existing ones.


The above was my view from the stage of the Cambridge Corn Exchange – before people filled it for the Dowsing Sound Collective Christmas Cocktail that sold out. What you’re looking at in this picture is 1,000 soon-to-be-filled seats. This was the first time I had seen the Corn Exchange from the stage. My first impression was that it was smaller than I had anticipated. The transport infrastructure around the trio of Cambridge venues – The Guildhall halls, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Corn Exchange isn’t great for pedestrians. The reason being they are strangled by the car routes into and out of the main city centre car park. (Will we get a metro?)

Even students are finding it hard to find venues – their colleges putting corporate interests first

This was one of the complaints by the recently-founded Whose University? campaign. With continued funding pressures, and with the international brand Cambridge has, you can see why conferencing is big business. But how do you balance the demands of conferencing with the needs of students?

If we want to find out what sort of venues Cambridge needs, and then go about building them, where do we start?

My first reaction to looking at the Corn Exchange was that Cambridge needed a venue with double the capacity. The Corn Exchange itself needs a big refurb backstage too – as do many of the other venues I have been to. If anything, the architecture backstage in the older venues feels a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ – splendid at the front where the customers are, but a maze of warrens at the back. Not good if you’ve got over 100 singers or large props on stage! Hopefully with the new Cambridge Live Trust they’ll be able to get some investment into the building.

‘Get me the data, get me the proposals from the community groups’

This for me is where we’re at now. Hopefully the coming together of the Cambridge arts’ communities can be the catalyst that drives the change. Gathering the evidence base is an essential part of that process.

Scrutinising the Greater Cambridge City Deal


Making sure the people of Cambridgeshire get the chance to scrutinise the looming changes to local government in our county

It was almost by accident I found out about the meeting – via Twitter

Despite another bad night’s sleep the night before, I dragged myself into town for another piece of community activism to scrutinise the early plans for delivering the Cambridge City Deal signed off in a wave of local publicity by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in June 2014 – see here.

A handful of us turned up – including local council meeting regulars Richard Taylor and Martin from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. The sight of two of us filming the meeting took one or two in the room by surprise. At the same time, the lack of a mainstream media correspondent took me by surprise, so I occupied the ‘Press Desk’ being the first person in the room. (Hey, my vimeo account has been described by one politician as ‘local TV!’)

Get in there early to maximise your influence

Which is what Richard, Martin and I basically did. In one sense we’ve put the future board ‘on notice’ that there will be a handful of us scrutinising in detail what they are coming up with – and not from a corporate/big business perspective. Not only that, the nature of that scrutiny is likely to be very different to the static responses you get from traditional consultations. Ie meetings will be filmed and comments discussed online for all to see in a continuous process, rather than the ‘discrete’ traditional consultation periods that limit when people outside policy circles can influence things. Improving public consultations has been bouncing around as an issue in public policy circles for quite some time – here’s Saul Cozens from UK GovCamp 2012. Keep an eye out for the next batches of ticket releases for UKGovCamp 2015 – see here to join many of the brightest minds in digital public services in January 2015.

Trying to synchronise ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ with the City Deal processes

That’s the challenge that the Be the change – Cambridge community faces. One of the big issues that emerged from our Conversation Cafe event was on improving local government – see here. With the local councils now actively exploring alternative governance arrangements (in particular following the debate and vote from Cambridgeshire County Council in October 2014 – see here), and the City Deal processes now being made public, now is the time for as many interested local people to have their say. Part of that involves helping people find the parts of these massive changes that they want to spend most of their time scrutinising.

This is important because hardly anyone who is not involved in the process as part of their day job will have the time, knowledge of issues, knowledge of processes and the passion to commit to scrutinising the whole lot. Therefore – and as we discussed later that evening – it makes more sense to allow people to focus on their areas of interest – ideally through existing local groups such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign on transport, or perhaps the Cambridge Area Partnership on schools. The point here being that we’re not re-inventing the wheel or trying to create a new organisation. Rather, we’re saying to community groups that we can work with them by bringing various parts of the processes to the attention of their members & supporters.

The papers – these need publicising far and wide

They are embedded in the individual meetings listed here. The ones that matter I’ve pulled out for your attention, in particular:

Now, in the grand scheme of things I don’t see the lack of publicity of the above as some sort of secret conspiracy to hide things. Papers for meetings are hardly the sort of things people get excited about – unless you are a policy wonk like me.

The thing is, there are some ***really significant*** items in the papers that are easily missed to the untrained eye. In particular the shared service around strategic planning, the last item in the status updates table. That’s why seemingly innocuous papers need scrutinising by people external to delivery. It’s good program management to have that level of challenge built into your structures.

My chance to ask some questions

Richard Taylor filmed these – it’s always awkward trying to ask questions and film at the same time. See his footage here.

Transport and rail

We know significantly improved rail infrastructure can take some of the housing pressure off Cambridge, while at the same time providing a boost to surrounding towns that are currently disconnected – such as Wisbech and Haverhill. I also mentioned the East Anglian Rail Prospectus – see here.

Education – supporting governors

I’m a school governor at a local primary school in South Cambridge. Two of our secondary schools on this side of town were rated by Ofsted as requiring improvement. Governing bodies across the city are facing greater pressure as the Dept for Education increases the responsibilities of governing boards, requiring them to have professional skills that in years gone by they were not required to have. Hence asking what the City Deal would do on the skills agenda to deal with this – something that would have an indirect positive impact of making schools more aware of what the wider community (in particular the business community) can offer in terms of in-kind support. The point here is that employers need to be aware of the school planning cycles, and of the pressures they face. Better to support schools that way at a local level than remain as passive recipients of school leavers, only to complain that they don’t have the right skills sets.

Project management

This is a big one for me – not least because although it’s not nearly my strongest still, I’ve seen good project and programme management in action. The documents I’d like to see published include:

  • Project initiation document for the City Deal
  • Risk assessment – what are the things that might lead to the City Deal’s failure and how are those things being managed?
  • Stakeholder analysis – who has what interest and what influence, and how are these people & organisations being involved? How are disinterested people who might be affected significantly being invited to take part?
  • Timelines – what’s expected to happen and when?
  • Budget – who has got what resources?

Some of the discussions from our Be the change – Cambridge event at the Cambridge Brewhouse on 18 November 2014

Things are moving at quite a pace on our side as a result. We had 20 people joining us for this event, which meant we could explore a number of things in detail in small groups while later on were able to have a round-up conversation at the end that involved everyone together. I filmed the feedback sessions. For the purposes of this blog (because at the time of typing it’s 1:30am and I want to go to bed!) here’s the first two groups feeding back.

There’s still a long way to go. If ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ interests you, and you want to make a positive difference to our city (defined by the people who make it, rather than administrative or geographical boundaries), you can get involved via:

Listeners to Cambridge 105 Radio may also catch some of the interviews I recorded following the City Deal meeting.

Widening and yet consolidating the debate on the future of Cambridge


There’s lots of stuff going on about the future of Cambridge, but how do we connect them all together, avoid duplication and ensure we get as many people involved as possible?

Lots of us took part in the event: ‘Could Cambridge become a smart city?’ in the 2013 Cambridge Festival of Ideas. My thoughts following the event are here. How far have we come since then? The preamble for this year’s event is as follows:

So, for 2014, we’re back for round 2 and this time, Collusion’s live experiment challenges artists, technologists, academics and citizens to work together to find creative solutions to some of Cambridge’s ‘wicked’ problems, aka, problems that are difficult or impossible to solve, e.g. transport, environmental issues, community cohesion.

The first thing that struck me was: “****Eeek!**** They’ve missed out the politicians!”

Fortunately, local government happen to be on board as two of the colluders. Politicians matter, because if we take this model of a smart city, we find one of the key components of a smart city is smart governance. You can aim for smart people, smart environment, smart mobility, smart living and a smart economy, but if you don’t have your governance structures sorted then the rest come crashing down.

“Why so?”

Rule of law. You can’t have a smart economy unless you have the essentials of contract law to underpin it. You can’t have sound laws unless you have sound law-making processes that carry the confidence of the people. With that you need some sort of political framework. Politics might be as welcome to most communities as the bubonic plague given recent headlines, but you need to have some process to define the rules or conventions that shape how people interact with each other. Why is it that cars stop at traffic lights?

‘Let’s get creative and transform how we engage with the city. ‘

This is the title of a new project that Rachel Drury and friends are running as part of the Maker Challenge – see here. This is at the same time as my project Be the change – Cambridge, along with Cambridgeshire County Council’s exploration of alternative governance models announced in mid-October. Then you have Cambridge Ahead who have done some in-depth research, identifying housing, transport and education as the three big issues for businesses in Cambridge. Then there is Cambridge Past, Present and Future’s 2030 vision report. On top of that, we have the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s 2016 vision for Cambridge. I’ve not even mentioned Cambridge City Council’s budget consultation – see here – it closes on 31 October. Given that the consultation is the first of the new Labour administration that took office last May, they have every right to turn around and say they are the ones with the political mandate for the city.

My take? We have to bring these currently disparate projects and processes together. In the grand scheme of things, I quite like the idea of the Maker Challenge. The bit that is missing is the public administration/political interface. Will the results feed into local government decision-making, or even the general election campaigns?

“Isn’t bringing all of this together what ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ is all about?”

It is – and we are having our first wider post-conversation cafe gathering in Mid-November – details in the next day or so.

We’ve also got to remember the general election of 2015 as well. Political parties have already started campaigning for it. Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman and Chuka Umunna for Labour have all been in Cambridge in the past couple of weeks. The Lib Dems have been leafletting in Coleridge ward, introducing their new active candidate for the ward (Simon Cooper), and the Conservatives have been hitting Queen Edith’s ward en masse for the first time in years. (There were eight of them a few days ago – numbers unheard of by all but the longest-resident of citizens). My take is that we cannot have a city-wide conversation separate to the electoral and political processes.

The above reflects the initial success of the conversation cafe event from September – see videos and the write-up here. We’ve been slightly slow off the mark in the response and follow-up because, if I’m honest I’ve become a little overwhelmed by the scale of the growing challenge. It’s one thing to organise an event, but quite another when it starts evolving into a series of actions and activities that involve co-ordinating some very large local institutions! Managing this will be one of the issues we discuss at the November gathering.

‘How could art and technology help to tackle some of Cambridge’s difficult to resolve problems?’

I can hear the cynics already, sarcastically coming out with things like:

“I am a conceptual artist who specialises in contemporary pottery made out of environmentally friendly renewable and recyclable sources…and I am going to solve Cambridge’s traffic problems…by making a jam jar!”


“I am a mobile phone programmer and I am going to make an app that is going to deal with long term political apathy and low voter turnout just by pressing a button!”

No – it’s not like the above-two at all. I had a chat with local musician Melody Causton about sourcing material from archives. This stemmed from her recent song ‘The Devil Fears Him’ about Jack the Ripper.

Our discussion covered her going to some of the recently-released archives from Bow Street Magistrates Court, to her heading to the county archives as a source of lyrical inspiration. This has been done before – for the Tour de France in Cambridge.

The above was sung by the Dowsing Sound Collective (with me in the backing vocals somewhere!) This was a case of using music to engage people in a city event. The piano and bass arrangement by Andrea Cockerton in my view are awesome. I remember when we sang the chorus for the first time. Something chimed. It really was quite moving. Art and music can be used to get people involved. The challenge is how.

Now, while I’m not inviting anyone to write a song about the technicalities of local government finance in Cambridge, the concept of ‘sketchnoting’ brings art to writing up meetings. One of Cambridge’s finest, Michele Ide-Smith demonstrated this earlier this year at UKGovCamp 2014. See her slides here.

“It’s all very well saying ‘art and tech can solve our problems’ but who is going to pay for it?”


And we know the financial situation is absolutely dire for local government – see here. If your art or tech solution is based around getting a grant from local government, it’s already dead in the water -> unless it involves a greater saving elsewhere in the organisation and/or leveraging in greater amounts through sponsorship or benefactors’ donations. (There is the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation that has a list of local grant funding organisations).

On the art side, things worth exploring are those that inspire, mobilise and influence behaviour. On the tech side, using technology to provide information under tight time constraints to help people come to decisions (as opposed to making the decision for them) is another. Think live bus times (“What time should I leave to go to the bus stop?”) vs the sat nav (“I drove onto the guided busway/cycle bridge because the sat nav told me to!”). There’s also the cyclescape tool.

Another thing worth looking at is using art and tech in the planning system. How can we use both to get developers to engage with local residents at design stage so that people are not needlessly irritated by needless oversights? Here’s a high-profile example of when things go wrong. The view of the building from Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road are depressing to say the least – hence the party-political controversy.


An unscheduled tour of The Fens


After getting up at 5:45am & only realising I had got the CommsCamp14 conference day a week early when the train left Ely (north of Cambridge), I decided to go on a mini tour…starting with Peterborough

Exactly – after spending too much on the train ticket. But rather than going home, & with a school governors meeting scheduled for the evening, I asked myself what the least stressful and most productive way of spending the day could be. Having been meaning to visit Peterborough Cathedral for many years, I thought no time like the present.

Peterborough deserves a better railway station

It’s not a ‘St Pancras International’, & never has been. But for a city that is effectively ‘the gateway to the Fens from the north’, Peterborough really could do with a railway station that tells the passing traveller that ‘this is a place to do business’. It doesn’t do that at all. Mind you, neither does Cambridge. A couple of glass and corrugated metal tubes over the fairly large number of tracks is all it is. A sort of upside-down Clapham Junction if you will.

It was still very early (by my standards) by the time I wandered round to the cathedral grounds. The first thing I noticed was how fresh the air was – a damn sight more fresh than the air in Cambridge. My A-level geography recalls that as my bit of Cambridge sort of sits in the middle of a gentle trough, we don’t get much fresh air round here.

Cathedrals as statements to the people

Historically in these parts, the Cathedrals of Peterborough and Ely (along with Kings College Chapel) were the buildings that dominated the local area. Religion aside, they are repositories of our region’s local history. (That region being East Anglia – A list of cathedrals is here). That’s what fascinates me as a historian-at-heart.

Film skool homework

Last week, we played around with big studio lights to get a better idea of how lighting has an impact on filming. One of the things we were told was that early morning light is the best for filming and photography. It was only when I walked through the doors of Peterborough Cathedral did this make sense.

Early morning sunlight...or an angel at the other end of the cathedral? ;-)
Early morning sunlight…or an angel at the other end of the cathedral? 😉




The above photograph was taken with a mobile phone. It was as I was photographing the interior that I also understood the difference that a top-of-the-range camera can have. I tried a series of different shots – most of which were unsuccessful quality-wise. For a building as grand as this, you need the kit and the skills to match. And I have neither.


The above is an attempted panorama from one side to the other, using a mobile phone. The strange thing for me here is that pre film skool, I don’t think I’d have even attempted a shot like this.


The striking thing about this one (above) for me was the colourful light from the stained glass – again it was more powerful visually in person. We sometimes get the sense of cathedrals being dark, vast and gloomy places without artificial light. In popular film, I always get the sense (perhaps linked to manipulative clerical figures in dramas) that this imagery of the buildings are portrayed in that sense to reflect the clerical characters.

Katharine of Aragon's tomb - the fruits there are pomegranates
Katharine of Aragon’s tomb – the fruits there are pomegranates



Finally, there was Katharine of Aragon’s tomb – something I wanted to see if anything just to get a: “It really happened” sense of tudor history.

The photos above don’t do what I saw ‘justice’ visually

But the difference between this visit and my previous attempts to capture images of interesting buildings is that I have a better understanding of process and what to look out for. In particular the need to take lots of photos in order to find ‘the one’.

Then the organist started playing

In most places, playing anything that loud would have got you arrested – but not here. Again, recorded on a mobile phone, have a listen.

Now, I’m not the greatest organ music fan, but even this made me stop in my steps.

Next stop, Wisbech

It’s taken a kicking in the press of late (eg here in The Guardian). I’d been meaning to go there for quite some time anyway because of an interest in what linking Wisbech up with Cambridge by rail could do for both places. This was something I mentioned in my manifesto in the local elections of May 2014.

One thing that was noticeable was the number of national flags flying compared to the south of the county. North Cambridgeshire is a Tory vs UKIP battleground (the latter with councillors representing the town) – a battle that helped squeeze out the Greens and Lib Dems from taking the final Euro Parliament seat. I noted the flood risk posters (along with appeals for volunteers to help teach basic IT skills) in the local library and council buildings. Put this together with UKIP’s electoral success in this part of the county alongside the lack of a party manifesto for the Euro elections along with a record of climate change scepticism and you get the sense that what’s going on here politically does not match the assumptions of the London politics and policy bubble.

Decades of political failure the cause of Wisbech’s decline?

I’m thinking in the wider historical sense. It’s actually quite a picturesque town that had clearly seen some better days economically. Given some of the plans they had (again, on display in the library), there are people that genuinely care about the town. So why has politics been failing Wisbech?

Certainly the loss of the rail line in the 1960s did not help. How can you have the capital of the Fens not connected to the rail network? Furthermore, as the town’s master plan for transport states, it only has two bridges across a wide river. It doesn’t take much to cause gridlock in the town. Finally, on the bus route into the town, I saw some developments on the edge of town that can only further suck the life out of the market town. A cinema and a large supermarket, followed up with further developments of more ‘out of town’ shops are not going to do any favours to the Georgian town centre. If anything, Wisbech has the potential to match, if not exceed what Bury St Edmunds has to offer – especially with local independent shops.

Instead, charity shops and discount shops, along with the traditional array of clone-town brands are all too prominent. Again, that’s not the fault of the local people (or the recent arrivals) – that’s the result of central government policies over the years. The sort of infrastructure needed to connect Wisbech is financially beyond the reach of the town and district councils.

Wisbech to Kings Lynn

Road-wise, this bit was particularly grim. Although the main roads had been resurfaced, they had not been flattened. Hence the suspension of what was a brand new bus was tested to its limits and made me feel so sick for the rest of the day that I ended up missing a school governors meeting, being bed-bound not eating much at all. This made me think what it must be like for those that have to use such routes regularly – in particular students & those on low incomes.

What struck be about two of the central squares of Wisbech and Kings Lynn (as with Bury St Edmunds and with St Ives just outside Cambridge) is how cars dominate them. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better, more imaginative way to use the central civic squares of our towns than as car parks. But again, this isn’t going to happen without sorting out the public and alternative transport issues. Our local government set up in East Anglia is simply not organised in a manner to have the resources or legal powers to solve these problems locally. All too often they’ve ended up in some quango or in the hands of some all-too-frequently-reshuffled minister in Whitehall.

…and back to Cambridge

It would have been so easy to have gone back to Cambridge, sulked and slept. In times gone by I probably would have done. But there was something in me that said: “You’ve got to do this – and do this carefully too”. Recall things such as this. Hence looking for potential rather than saying ‘Why aren’t you the same as Cambridge?’ (Did I get close with the Bury St Edmunds comparison?) Ditto with the problems & challenges. It’s pointless pretending they are not there, or diminishing their significance. At the same time, writing places off in their entirety means condemning the good as well as the bad.

Wisbech, as well as the villages and towns that surround Cambridge are part of the solutions to Cambridge’s problems of transport congestion and high housing costs. At the same time, the areas surrounding Cambridge could be benefiting more from Cambridge. For example I don’t see many posters at the guided bus stops showcasing some of the local towns and villages along the routes.

At the end of the day, I came away with a feeling of:

“Working together, we can be better than this”

Improving local government in the context of Trojan Horse story


Looking at some bigger picture issues on a news item that has engulfed Westminster – and examining the principles of some local government roots

Part 1 – Education

Both the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary made statements to Parliament (here in response to an urgent Q by the former, and here in a separate statement by the latter). Birmingham Council have made statements published here. Rather than focusing on the story, I want to look at some wider principles around local government and accountability.

Health and education – political hot potatoes

Understandably so – one is dealing your day-to-day existence while the other is about the future life chances of those that are dependent on you. Directly outside of local government, it’s health and education that people tend to be most passionate about at a local level when it comes to public services. Being a school governor over the past few years has given me an insight into what this passion looks like on the ground from parents, teachers and volunteers on the ground – the sort of passion you don’t get to see inside public policy world.

The incentive to centralise

It takes a brave and competent politician to resist the urge to micromanage when they are being blamed for things that go wrong. If you find yourself in an organisation being blamed in such a way, there is an incentive for you to take direct control of things and manage them yourself. Yet the sheer size of our education system – think of the number of schools, colleges and universities that we have in total – means that the sort of micro-management we’ve had in recent times has been a source of the problem. This is one of the reasons why I regularly advise younger political activists and politicians seeking higher public office to get an understanding of how large organisations function.

The faith vs secularisation debate

I’ve gone on record saying I prefer a secular education system – for which I give my reasons here while acknowledging the problems of delivering it. The complexity of our education system means even with the greatest political will in the world, you could not secularise it overnight. As far as the cases in Birmingham are concerned, the schools at the centre of the political firestorm are not faith-based ones. Some of the concerns raised (and the principles linked to them, such as segregation on gender) are ones that go beyond that one geographical area.

Holding up the political mirror to politicians

This pic from Private Eye (various people on Twitter) speaks volumes


This was something that came up on Question Time earlier on as well. Should private schools be allowed to opt out of some of the basics safeguards that politicians are now talking about? (for example the Deputy Prime Minister here. This was also an issue Ed Miliband raised at Prime Minister’s Questions – see here & Cameron’s response).

Education policy

On the private vs state-funded schools, there are those that want to see the former abolished. Nationalise the lot. This was sort of touched upon by playwright Alan Bennett (summarised in the Independent here, and in full at the LRB here –  in the latter effectively calling for the nationalisation/merging of private providers with state providers to reduce the class divides). On the other hand, private institutions are becoming a big export earner as the global elite send their children to England for education – Cambridge being one of the prime destinations. Competing priorities: A growing UK export earner (& the jobs they provide) is solidifying the class divisions not just within UK societies but across the world too. There are other policy examples too Arms sales boosting export earnings but enflaming conflicts abroad (creating refugees)? Some global financial services that support speculation on food commodities that hit farmers in poorer countries?

On the faith vs non-faith schools, as far as ministers past and present are concerned, their figures show faith schools produce students achieving better exam results. (They also ignore concerns about ‘selection by the back door’ when data on free school meals shows differences between high performing faith schools and national averages – i.e. is it a ‘faith ethos’ that drives the results or selecting children of parents from more affluent backgrounds?).

There are also numerous problems with exams – not least the media regularly reporting concerns from employers about falling standards and/or not understanding the complexity of what qualifications actually mean. This is where the almost infinite choice of courses available is a market failure because employers (who are one of the main targets for the system) don’t have the time to find out what each qualification means. If employers either don’t understand or trust the qualifications, what’s the point of having them?

Issues with the regulators

OfSted hasn’t come out well either – why are were we outsourcing inspections in the first place? It simply creates another institutional barrier between the main inspector and sub-contractors. Those barriers create communications barriers – hence issues with consistency of inspections – see here.

Gove vs Miliband/Hunt

The Shadow Education Secretary’s response to the Secretary of State is here. While watching this on TV, I tweeted that Labour might be quickly re-writing their education policies on the back of this. Gove seems happy with the current structure, Hunt and Miliband are not, but as the latter indicated in Prime Minister’s Questions said Labour see local ‘directors of education’ accountable to the Department for Education (and not to local councils) as the policy response. The more difficult policy option is to strengthen local government and local councils to deal with these issues. But given that more schools are being taken out of local council control (under both Labour and the Coalition), what role is there for local accountability?


Part 2 – Local Government

Do the roots of these issues lie within local government (and local housing policies?)

This was something picked up in the aftermath of the riots in 2001 – see here. Given the nature of primary schools which (certainly with state ones in Cambridge) tend to serve small local communities, it’s easy to see how the data on the backgrounds of those attending don’t show an even consistent picture. With Birmingham, various news outlets showed charts cross-referencing the location of schools with geographical data on ethnicity and religion. This was also an issue I found out about when speakers talked about it at various conferences I went to during my civil service days. One councillor said that while in London she mixed with lots of people from a variety of backgrounds, where most of her family lived in one of the northern cities were able to live their lives without engaging with people from different backgrounds.

How do you undo decades of flawed local government housing policies?

It’s not just that, it’s also a wider issue of local government and its place within our political system. Compared to other countries, the UK one of the most centralised – especially when you look at the powers UK cities have compared to other countries. Ditto when you compare their powers during the 1800s vs what they had during the 1990s/2000s. The problem over the past few decades is that Whitehall has seen local government as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

It’s not helped by a civil service culture that has not understood local government. In the training and development for civil servants, certainly until very recently local government experience was undervalued. There was a lack of people with experience in local government working in the civil service. The Fast Stream in particular was one where the ‘glitz and glamour’ of working with ministers and Parliament was promoted, but where looking into the whites of the eyes of people in most need of support on a day-to-day basis was not.  (Note that the Fast Stream system has since been overhauled & is a different beast to what it was when I was on it in the mid-late 2000s. The questions of how diverse the intake is vs the wider population (and the culture of the network) remain outstanding.

Local government improvement put in the ‘too complicated to do’ pile

That’s what’s happened over the past few decades. I don’t like using the term ‘reform’ because all too often it means privatise, outsource, reduce terms and conditions, and cut jobs & services. In the case of local government, whether Thatcher’s decision to abolish the Greater London Council & cap local authority taxes or the centralisation under Blair in the late 1990s (again, irrespective of the political/policy merits),  both weakened the powers and the role of local government to that of administrators. For ministers who are very ‘hands on’, this is very appealing. Take policy control outside of your political opponents at a local level and hand it to a government agency whose boss you get to appoint. If you’re a Conservative minister, why would you want to let a Labour council have unrestricted local tax raising powers? If you’re a Labour minister who prides him/herself as being strong on law and order, why would you want to allow a Liberal Democrat council have a ‘hands off’ approach to problems at a community level?


How do you make local accountability work?

How do you make local government strong enough to resist policies that fragment and polarise communities? Those at the top of their own communities & who like exercising their power/influence without being accountable for their actions. TV over the years has spoofed this brilliantly, whether Hyacinth from ‘Keeping up appearances’ or Mr Khan from ‘Citizen Khan’.

I’m looking at this through the microcosm of Cambridge reflecting a wider picture. We have a fragmented public sector. We know this. Trying to get some level of co-ordination and co-operation was something I campaigned on during the election and have been following through since. The problem is that we are starting from a very low base. For example we have local institutions that don’t even talk to each other. Few people follow what happens in local democracy here, let alone actively and regularly engage with it – particular if they are outside party political networks. Too many of us are ‘free-riding’ on the back of the efforts of too few people to make local democracy work and local government function efficiently.  Cambridge residents hold a wealth of skills, yet so few people and residents for whatever reason apply them to local democracy. We the people are part of the problem. We are also part of the solution.

When you have such a small group of people taking on such big burdens of local democracy, it’s easy to see how small but well-organised groups of people can be seen to have a disproportionate influence by others. In Cambridge, some motorists complain about the influence of the cycling lobby for example. Even though my personal view is that many of the proposals from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign would significantly improve transport in Cambridge, the impression some get is this group is more likely to get its way than the others.

This in part is where I’m sympathetic to the general Liberal Democrats view of bringing local public services under wider local council control. So rather than having healthcare, job centres, the police and education bypassing local councils, bring them under the control of local councils. For somewhere like Cambridge, having a unitary authority rather than a separate city/county divide would go a long way. Making as many of our local public services directly accountable to a local council and people will have a greater incentive to engage. Why shouldn’t my doctor, dentist, hospitals, schools and police officers be directly accountable to my local council? Why is the combination of:

  • the mess that is Lansley’s model for healthcare
  • the farce that is the system of police commissioners (look at the turnout and look at how easy it is for commissioners to give ‘jobs for the boys’ without proper scrutiny)
  • the system of free schools outside local council control

…better than having everything under the scrutiny of one local democratic institution?

If you’re a secretary of state, or an MP looking for a ministerial red box, why would you want to give away so much power and control to a local level? In the case of the above-three-mentioned policy areas, ministers have given away just enough power to distance themselves from bad things that might happen while at the same time ensuring that no other party-political institution can take control. Healthcare messes up? Blame the faceless clinical commissioning group. Police mess up? Blame the commissioner that hardly anyone voted for. Schools mess up? Blame…exactly.

“Why did the Lib Dems sign up to this mess when their original policy of local accountability seems to make more sense?”

Exactly. I guess there are a couple of things. One is the compromises they made inside the Coalition. Another is that they’ve taken such a hammering over being in the Coalition that a lot of talent inside the party has either left or is lying low. Another is that they simply have not made the case for what they want in a strong, clear and persuasive manner.

Ministers and politicians have got to stop bashing local councillors over expenses

It’s an easy target. For the workload that local councillors and executive councillors have to undertake (& the abuse that all too often goes with it), you don’t do it for the expenses. But given the costs of living, who could afford to set aside 20 hours per week for local council business? Again, this links back to the mess that is UK housing policy. The huge pressure of high rents & mortgages mean that families have to work full-time just to keep their heads above water. Few have time to invest in their local communities in the way they would like to. If costs of living were lower, if people didn’t have to work full time to make ends meet, would people invest more time in their communities? What would the impact of a citizens income be? (Frances Coppola discusses this here).

My view is that councillors should be paid – and as a starting point on what that level should be, for simplicities sake I’d go with the median wage. Given the complexity and demands of what they have to do combined with the costs of living,  I don’t think the current system is sustainable. Yes, it’s a noble principle to say that councillors should not need to be paid, but then that means fewer people in lower paid jobs can afford to consider standing for election, let alone be a councillor given the time it requires to be good at it. Given the age we live in – with the rise of ‘portfolio careers’, 20 hours a week on council duties plus 20 hours a week working part-time in an unrelated job elsewhere seems like a reasonable compromise.

Food for thought?

By failing to deal with the housing crisis…

…are politicians undermining the ‘hard working families’ and ‘big society’ that they claim to be acting in the interests of?



This applies nationwide – not just to Cambridge, although I’m writing this in the context of a Cambridge City Council meeting on our local plan – filmed by Richard Taylor here. Cambridge local plan documents are here.

Important as the local plans are, too many of the levers are held in The Treasury. Ministers over the past 15 years have chosen not to relinquish the powers they have to local councils to enable them to cope with the housing bubble. They also did not take action to nip the housing bubble in the bud – and for that the buck rests at the doors of both Gordon Brown and George Osborne.

“Who are the ultimate beneficiaries of high and rising house prices in the South East, and who are the losers both there and beyond?”

This is what I’ve been trying to get my head around. When you need two incomes to sustain a mortgage plus a lump-sum from family for the deposit, something’s wrong. When you have mortgages so out of sync with incomes, something is wrong. When there is a far greater demand for social housing, something is wrong. When so many people are living in sub-standard housing, something is wrong. When rents are so high that they take up a disproportionate chunk of people’s income, something is wrong.

So where does all this ‘surplus’ go? Who are the property owners and where does it all end up? In tax havens? (For those of you interested in economics, this paper makes for interesting reading). And what happens to it if it does end up in a tax haven?

Interesting given the various accusations (such as this) that have been thrown at him and his companies regarding ‘tax efficiencies’. We tried Victorian-style philanthropy in Victorian times to deal with poverty and inequalities, and it failed. Hence the welfare state and social security.

“But isn’t all investment good?”

For me, investment and speculation are not the same thing. Buying a UK property & waiting for the prices to rise is not investment. It’s speculation. Investment in my book (in a property sense) involves not just buying the property, but actually improving it – whether self-DIY or paying for someone else to do up the property in order for someone else to buy it and have people live in it later on.

The problem is that policy-makers – in particular politicians and those close to them – seem unable to come up with something that differentiates long term investment from shorter term speculation. The other thing is that by throwing money at a property bubble, it takes away investment that might be more productive elsewhere – where people, villages, towns and cities really need it. Hence this article in The Guardian by Aditya Chakrabortty about London being this vacuum cleaner sucking up all the money & investment.

“The wrong sort of housing? That’s a bit like the wrong sort of snow falling on the line! Doesn’t it provide construction jobs?”

Actually, it isn’t. With London and now surrounding areas of the UK now being a sort of ‘reserve currency’ for international finance types, too many properties are being built for the whims of that market rather than for the people that actually live here. You can actually buy your way to citizenship through the investor route these days – see here. I can’t help feel that this seems a little counter-productive. The amounts of money are tiny compared to the wealth that some in tinpot dictatorships have been able to squirrel away. And it’s not as if the super-rich are the sort of people that spend time in local communities face-to-face, working and building up strong relationships in our towns and cities – unless you call getting room service in a five-star hotel ‘community engagement’. Don’t the migrant workers on poverty pay contribute far more to local communities as human beings than ‘investors’ who buy properties waiting for prices to go up, spending maybe a few weeks a year in the UK staying either in an expensive hotel (owned by a multinational headquartered in a tax-haven) or an under-used luxury penthouse?

“So…what are you going to do about it then?”

This for me is why structures and connections between political institutions at a local-to-global level matter. One of my local councillors, Cllr George Owers (Labour) said the following at the Cambridge City Council local plan debate:

Instinctively, I’m in support. But the public policy type in me starts asking whether councils have legal powers to implement this. (As far as I’m aware, I don’t think they do – not to the extent it would burst an international speculative property bubble of the like that’s killing Cambridge).

I then look at the front bench teams in Parliament – the ones responsible for The Treasury. On both sides I don’t see the calibre of politicians able to deal policy-wise, lobbyist-wise or mainstream-media-firestorm-wise with the housing crisis. The super-wealthy have too much to lose. We’ve seen this with the recent flooding. Only when expensive homes by the Thames started flooding did the media and politicians start visiting everywhere in their droves. Hence it being sort of therapeutic to see mainstream politicians – in particular ministers – getting an absolute kicking from residents that have suffered in part because of the failures and decisions I referred to in my previous blogpost. For all the talk of ‘localism’, when it comes to civil contingencies it seems that there is a significant role for national public bodies.

The other thing not covered – not least because of the media’s fetish with UKIP personalities rather than policies – is the role of international co-operation in dealing with challenges that are clearly international in scale. International speculation is clearly one of them. Again, my principle is that if firm firms are multinational, the regulators need to be. And those regulators one way or another need to be democratically accountable. ***How*** you actually deliver that is a damn sight more complicated than what is otherwise for me quite a nice soundbite of a principle but a policy-wonk’s dream/nightmare [delete as appropriate].

“Killing Cambridge” – that’s a bit extreme isn’t it?

Probably. But my point is high housing costs and high costs of living mean that for too many people, Cambridge is now unaffordable – as the councillors said at the meeting. I gave up on the idea of having my own place ages ago – see here. I live with my family because as a freelancer (still trying to recover from my mental health crisis a couple of years ago – hence not able to work full time), my income is so low and volatile to the extent that I can’t afford to rent my own place. And I’m not the only one. From a personal perspective – especially compared to where I was say five-seven years ago, this has a ****huge**** impact on my self-esteem. This article about the ‘used to haves’ is one that resonated strongly with me – minus the ‘materialism’ aspect. I used to have a full time job that paid into a pension. I used to have my own place where I wasn’t living with family. I used to have a vibrant social life. I used to have better physical and mental health. I used to have a positive but realistic vision of where I wanted to get to in the future. I used to have hope.

But I don’t have that now.

Even worse, I can’t see how to get out of this situation beyond either a lottery win or a revolution in society. One of the reasons I do what I do locally is that it’s the only way I can make some sort of a positive difference in the hope that it will benefit those around me & also that it keeps me active on the assumption that my health will one day get better so that I can start applying for full-time work again. Because there are some really interesting posts that I would love to go for – especially in London (part of the problem I know) – but for which I simply do not have a good enough mental health to cope with – whether the commute or living & working down there.

As far as Cambridge goes, I remember a friend from school coining the phrase: “Why would you want to live in a town full of executives where you can’t find a plumber?” – and this was in the 1990s. Is that what Cambridge risks becoming? Will it become a place where around the railway station you’ll have a London commuter overspill bubble, surrounded by lots of buy-to-let accommodation for university and language-school students interspersed with residents who bought their homes decades ago along with pockets of ‘token’ social housing at a level that central government feels it’s compelled to have – but just enough to prevent serious unrest? Is it going to become somewhere where if you are a teacher, nurse or a bus driver you have to commute into the city from outside? Because the roads round here are ***really*** designed for mass local travel. Yeah, as if.

“Don’t the politicians care?”

It depends what level they are at. If you are a local councillor, chances are that you do – simply because of the workload you have combined with the abuse that seems to come with the territory in political debate all too often. Why would anyone put themselves through that?

At yah-boo-public-school-ninety-nine-a-hundred land that is Prime Minister’s Questions, the public don’t like the behaviour of the politicians they see on the telly – see here. It’s not helped by the fact that the mainstream news reports PMQs as real news. I wouldn’t go far as to say that all of the frontbench politicians don’t care. It’s more a case that too many of those with wealth, power and influence don’t live within the communities that most of the rest of the country live in. Hence they are blinkered from the day-to-day struggles that many people have to face. If your day-to-day rent and travel arrangements are all paid for, you don’t have to worry about whether you can go to an event that evening or not. Public transport considerations are less of an issue when your taxi fare is paid for and where you have a grace-and-favour-apartment nearby to crash at. When you get a ‘meals allowance’ you don’t have to worry about whether you can afford certain ingredients or not when you are at the food shop. Finally – as I have to pull myself up on sometimes, they take for-granted the knowledge and access they have when trying to solve problems.

“So…you got any housing policy solutions?”

While I’ve heard some interesting individual suggestions, Natalie Bennett got it spot on when she said the current housing market is out of control. It cannot be reined in by a single policy lever – whether legislative (passing laws) or fiscal (tax/spend). For a start, not enough of us know what all the inputs and factors that impact the housing market currently are, let alone have any idea of quantifying them. It’s like I have more questions than answers:

  • Who owns which bits of land?
  • What are the land values of the various bits of land?
  • What are the current uses for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current demands for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current protections for the various bits of land?
  • Which bits of land need more protection?
  • Which bits of land are suitable for development?
  • What is the spread of housing demand across the country?
  • Who needs what types of housing in which parts of the country?
  • What are the financial gaps between the types of housing people need and the types of housing they can afford, and how does this vary across the country?
  • Who doesn’t have decent access to housing?
  • Who has too much housing and is under-using it?
  • What are the policies that can tackle under-use of housing and relieve excess pressure?
  • How would those with the housing assets try to ‘game’ the system to ensure they kept all of their properties at the expense of everyone else?
  • How does transport fit into all of this?
  • How does resilience to/adaptation to climate change fit into all of this?
  • What are the costs associated with improving the above-two points?
  • What are the likely future trends with housing demand and supply?
  • Which components cost what when building a house?
  • Which specialist labour types cost what?
  • Who do we need to be training in and in what levels in the future?
  • Where is the investment going to come from?
  • What are the international factors that impact the housing market?
  • Is what people need and what people want the same thing? (How do you manage expectations?)

The above are just a handful of questions. See what I mean by housing policy being complicated? Yet it gives you an idea of the sorts of information you need in order to start creating some detailed, radical policies to deal with something that is screwing up the lives of too many people.



Puffles looks at trains again


Musings on maps – of the railway kind. And following the wanderings of my mind.

This blogpost started off from reading an article about Blackpool – see it here. There’s one thing that troubles me not just about Blackpool but northern England in general from a political perspective. Despite having lots of MPs in the north – and especially while in office, Labour failed to deliver the integrated public transport system that John Prescott signed his name to in the mid-1990s. Essentially, Labour today needs to show it has taken on board the ‘public administration lessons’ from its time in office. Part of the problem in my view is that in the world of politics, the political actors like the policy but they don’t like or pay enough attention to the public administration. My advice for anyone going into the world of politics with the aim for executive public office (whether at local or national level) is to learn how large organisations function, and learn about how partnerships between organisations function. And malfunction – for both cases.

“What about Blackpool?”

I tend to hear about it in a ballroom dancing context. Blackpool is seen as the capital of competitive ballroom dancing. (Vienna being the capital of social ballroom dancing in my view – hence having been there a couple of times for some very grand balls during my dancing days). I can’t recall ever having been to Blackpool. In East Anglia we’ve got our own seaside resorts – ones which suffer similar challenges (though perhaps not on the same scale) as Blackpool. It’s one of the things that got me thinking during my civil service days about the role of transport.

Blackpool and Great Yarmouth – similarities

Early in my civil service career I was taken on a tour of the latter to see for myself the challenges faced by local councils there. Ditto with Harlow – Conservative MP Robert Halfon’s neck of the woods. (He’s been following Puffles for quite some time). In all cases, I kept on coming back to the issue of public transport – railways in particular. It was nearly a decade ago that I was in Great Yarmouth, but I remember traffic-clogged single lanes into and out of the town. I also remember a dilapidated railway station too – similar to the scene that I stumbled across when I was recently in Felixstowe town. Just by looking at the station architecture you could see that these buildings had seen better days.

If you look at both towns, you’ll notice that the transport system isn’t one that can benefit from passing traffic easily. If you’re going to go to either, you have to make a conscious decision to go there. What I mean by that is that neither appear to be convenient ‘stop off’ points en route to somewhere else. Thus it’s easy to see how such places can become forgotten about in the national political mindset. Out of sight, out of mind. Whether we’ll see the resurgence of some seaside resorts on the back of offshore windfarm maintenance needs (such as the one mentioned here) remains to be seen. Transport infrastructure is just one of the basic requirements. Decent homes and training facilities for the local population are also needed. Because as Frances Coppola states in her blogpost here, firms given the choice would rather take on someone already skilled up rather than investing in the training themselves. (For me, this is a market failure where through taxation of firms, the state needs to provide at least some of the training needs for businesses).

Looking at the transport maps

  • The first one I had a look at was the National Rail Infrastructure Map for 2010 – see here.
  • The second one I looked at was this one – the map of electrified rail lines – see here.
  • Then I looked at a paper by Louise Butcher for the House of Commons – see here (scroll to pages 10 & 11).

Have a look at all of them. What do you see? What stands out?

For me, the following stand out:

  1. There’s no outer London rail orbital enabling services to easily bypass London
  2. There’s no East-West rail link in the middle of the country (though there is announced work on this), meaning lots of needless journeys into London
  3. There is a huge lack of electrification in the north of England.
  4. There are no direct East-West rail links linking up the great northern towns (though one has been announced as per Louise’s paper.

Looking at the main national map (this one) I like playing ‘dot-to-dot’, pondering which bits would be good to join up and why. Not just in terms of improved services but also in terms of improved resilience when there’s a disruption on a busy route. The much-talked of Lewes-Uckfield railway in Sussex is one that has been regularly talked of by Labour’s Lord Bassam (their chief whip in the Lords, & former Brighton Council Leader when I was living there) as a line that could take the strain off the existing & overcrowded Brighton-London line. Closer to me, a London-Harlow-Stansted-Braintree-Ipswich-Great Yarmouth-Norwich line could take some of the strain off the London-Chelmsford-Ipswich line, while an electrified Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough-Birmingham line would make the route a damn sight more faster and more reliable than the 3 hour diesel chugmobile service that makes the journey into and out of London to get to Birmingham a safer bet.

Looking at the maps, I’m sure you can come up with your own – feel free to add them in the comments, especially if you’re in Scotland or Wales. What about a tunnel linking Scotland and Northern/Republic of Ireland?

“Yeah, but where’s this money going to come from?”

Prior to the banking crisis, I’d have said that was a good question. But for me the banking crisis threw out all of the old assumptions given the amount of cash outlay £133billion according to the National Audit Office and the guarantees of over £1trillion – see here for the source. If you can afford to bail out the banks to the tune of £133billion and not have anyone taking the hit for it – rather giving one of them a seat in the House of Lords (read this and get f—ing angry) you can sort of understand why voters are not apathetic, they are angry and pissed off. This I feel sums up the mood of more than a few people. I know it doesn’t really answer the question though.

But it’s not all bad news for the trains – if only they could publicise the good bits

Every so often I buy Modern Railways Magazine. My view is that if I’m paying lots for train fares, I want to keep tabs on what the money is being spent on. Actually, as magazines go for non-scientists and non-engineers like me, it’s actually quite interesting – not least the recent edition where they showed lots of pictures of the construction of Crossrail. If you want to inspire people about big engineering, show them pictures of, and take them here – similar to what they did with the Olympics’ site which at one stage was the biggest construction site in Europe. The overhaul of that site cost less than a tenth of what it cost cash outlay-wise to bail out the misbehaving investment bankers.

What we’re capable of

I think this is one of the things that divides the traditional political left and right. The well-rehearsed slogan of the latter is that the problem with socialists is that they always run out of other people’s money. The mindset of the former is that with all of that money being splashed out on whatever celebrity, offspring of billionaire or city boy that hits the papers, couldn’t it be better spent on something for the improvement of society rather than a bottle of champers with too many 000s at the end of the price tag?

A wandering mind

To finish off with, what this blogpost I hope has given you an idea of is how my mind wanders from place to place. We started off in Blackpool, moved to Great Yarmouth, then looked at some railway maps, then moaned about politicians, then looked at railway magazines, then moaned at bankers then finished off with wondering what humanity could be capable of in a positive way.



The autumn statement


More political tactics than radical strategy and long-term vision as Osborne and Balls crossed swords

I never find these parliamentary statements particularly pleasant viewing. Too much testosterone-fuelled willy-waving and point-scoring for my liking.

Statistical spin on the National Infrastructure Plan

Frances Coppola complained to Puffles late last night that the National Infrastructure Plan (see here) was a very politicised document. In a quick scan at stupid-o-clock in the morning, I could see what she meant. The ‘mood music’ of the document was very much comparing the current administration with the previous one. The graph on page 6 was particularly striking, with no clear reason as to why you’d compare 2005-10 with 2011-13. For me it would have been better to have broken down the figures on a year-by-year basis – if anything to get a sense of changes over time. This and other data/statistics’ issues in the document may be something that some of you may wish to refer to/consult with the UK Statistics Authority, should you feel it merits such action.

Frances also noted that cuts to capital spending announced in the 2010 spending review (note the cuts to capital spending department-by-department here) were hardly mentioned. Compare that to the case made for infrastructure investment on pages 15-21.

The lack of infrastructure spending over the past couple of decades

The document concedes that there has been a lack of infrastructure spending across administrations. One of the things Labour I feel still needs to work out is why, over 13 years it failed to deliver on infrastructure investment over a number of key areas – in particular energy security, renewables, and the integrated public transport system that John Prescott lauded in the hot summer of 1997. My own take is that the continual ministerial reshuffles and reorganisation of government departments made it very difficult to get the long term stability needed to deliver on those commitments, even though arguably the money was there at the time.

Do you quench or choke off the demand?

On page 16 there are some striking forecasts on rising demand for road usage through the tables on rising congestion. It reminds me a programme I watched about The Joy of Logic. Basically there were lots of little political mind games you could play with it – until it got into the heavier maths. One of the arguments went: “Bad stuff is happening, and in order to stop bad stuff from happening, something must be done. Action X is a something, therefore action X will stop bad stuff from happening”.

One of the options civil servants have to give to ministers when presenting them with a series of options along with their recommendation, is the ‘do nothing’ option. With good reason too. Foreign policy is a useful context to look at in this. Why does the UK intervene in some countries and not others, even though what’s happening may be very similar?

In the context of road congestion, what are the other policy options that can deal with congestion directly, and what are the options that can deal with congestion indirectly? What will be the health and social impacts of say, building more roads? What sort of public infrastructure is likely to have the greatest impact on alleviating congestion and where?

Looking at policy issues beyond a departmental silo


The direct policy levers that the Department for Transport has on congestion are primarily financial or legislative. You can spend money on X, Y or Z, or you can legislate to restrict the driving of certain types of vehicles on certain roads. Think bus lanes or changing the maximum weight of freight lorries.

Indirect policy levers are the ones the DfT has limited influence over. One of the things many towns and cities have to cope with is ‘the school run’. When you give parents much greater ‘choice’ about which state schools to send their children to, as opposed to limiting their choice to very local schools, one of the consequences of that policy is increased traffic congestion. In Cambridge we have three of the biggest further education colleges in the county – Cambridge Regional College along with Long Road and Hills Road Sixth Form Colleges. I went to the open days of the latter two recently, and met students there who were from outside the county. This mirrors my experience at both institutions well over a decade ago. Now, there are very good reasons for having large catchments for further education colleges – not least because the smaller towns and villages may not have the course options or the facilities that the young people need.

Housing too is another indirect influence on transport congestion. Wouldn’t it be good if low-paid workers could live close to their places of work rather than having to commute long distances into city centres? When I was at school in the early 1990s in Cambridge, one of my teachers commuted in from Downham Market every day – a concept I found to be crazy at the time. (Actually, I still do). But then the Chancellor announced today that councils will be required to sell ‘expensive’ social housing to help fund the building of new social housing. What impact will that have in Central London? Will it turn it into an enclave for the stateless super-rich?

Under-16 pregnancies

This is something that confuddles politicians for a number of reasons. Policy-wise, the main levers have been held by the Department of Health. But again, this is an issue that you cannot simply throw money at, nor pass increasingly restrictive legislation on, in order to reduce the number of pregnancies experienced by girls under the legal age of consent.

As far as institutions go, children and young people fall primarily under the responsibility for the Department for Education. Thus if you want early intervention on the issue to reduce the risk of conception under 16, in principle one of the best places to start is in the schools. Yet sex and relationship education is an extremely controversial area where religious organisations lobby strongly. Not only that, religious organisations control the delivery of education – and SRE at a number of schools. If you are a minister in a constituency with a number of religious schools in, and you are in a volatile swing seat, are you going to be minded to bring in a policy that has sound evidence backing it but one that will upset the religious hierarchy?

You’ve then got the issues around women’s rights (which falls under the Government Equalities Office), and the issues around women in the media, which falls under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Finally, you’ve got issues around encouraging young women into further and higher education (Department for Business) and into employment where they won’t be discriminated against or harassed. (Department for Work and Pensions). And suddenly the policy waters look much less clear.

Back to Osborne’s plans

I’ve muted the sound on the tellybox because I can’t be doing with the ***Yah-Boo-Sucks*** coming from the green benches!

There are a number of things that some of Puffles’ followers have welcomed – such as the capital gains tax on foreign-owned homes. (Why it won’t come in until April 2015 I have no idea). Julian Huppert’s just mentioned the Cambridge City Deal and Osborne’s said that the deal is likely to be signed off in the very near future – which for me is splendid stuff as I know a number of friends in local councils in and around Cambridge have been working their socks off on that deal. Also too, the plans to toll the A14 have been dropped – something that many of Puffles’ Cambridgeshire followers have been campaigning long and hard over. There was also an announcement on advanced apprenticeships – something that I’d have expected Labour to have championed in a very big way in office but for whatever reason did not. To be fair to the Labour front benchers that came to visit Puffles not so long ago, they said that not prioritising young people that did not go to university was a mistake. (As if they come to visit Puffles rather than the local residents of Cambridge!)

Infrastructure funding in principle

Again, this is something I’m surprised previous administrations didn’t move on earlier on – perhaps stung by the huge losses investors took with the Channel Tunnel. Again, I don’t have a huge problem with the principle of having UK pension funds and insurers investing in infrastructure given that such funds from abroad are able to do the same. You only have to look at some of the signs on big construction sites or on the plaques following completion as to which funds stumped up the cash.

More cuts

This is the bit that worries me because of the impact on the front line. One of the criticisms made of the National Citizen Service program by some of you here was that it was too expensive and diverted much needed cash from existing local, successful and cheaper youth programs. Personally I don’t see it as a straight-forward either/or swap. I certainly don’t think central government should view it or ‘spin’ it that way either.

For me, local government has been caught between two negative but very different Whitehall/ministerial cultures over the past 15 years. The first under New Labour was one that had a very low regard for local government – reflected by the huge increase in targets and top-down management from Whitehall via regional government offices. (I started my civil service career in the latter in Cambridge – since closed). The other is the current regime under Eric Pickles, who made it his clear priority to roll back the activities (and funding) of local government – or ‘municipal socialism’ as he was once quoted.

Reducing statutory duties?

Because there are still lots of them – 1,335 according to the NAO in 2011. (See p4 here) Furthermore, according to the same document over 50% of local government funding is spent on social care – adult and children’s services. (P11).

One of the things that has been noticeable about not just this but previous administrations is how the division between old and young have been made more apparent by public policy choices. Free bus travel for pensioners vs more debt and few jobs for young people. Furthermore, the mood music from the media and some parts of society around young people has become absolutely toxic. Hence why more of us are speaking out in support of young people – such as Ben Goldacre here. I recently did similar at a council meeting, pulling up an elderly resident who I felt unfairly stereotyped young people as yobs.

Where is the positive long term vision from mainstream politics?

Especially for our young people? I’ve been going through some really intensive depressive mood swings of late because I’m struggling to see any light at the end of the tunnel. Not least because of my own frustrations at overcoming what feels like institutionalised apathy or resignation at a local level here. Perhaps that is why I find the gatherings of people at more ‘unstructured’ events so much more energising than death-by-expert-panellist conferences – as exemplified by this passionate take on the #ChangeHow event I was at.

This is what I want to see from politicians of all sides: A positive vision of the society you think we can become, and a coherent plan on how we’re going to get there. Irrespective of what’s contained in this document, I simply don’t think the current political systems, institutional structures and mindsets of mainstream politicians allow for them to articulate that vision, let alone set out how we might get there. Hence wanting to do something about it. Part of that challenge is working out what that something is.