On being moved by music


Following hearing/seeing one of the most powerful musical performances I’ll ever hear.

I’ve just got back from our last-but-one rehearsal before our show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange with We are Sound – so if you want to see me singing in a very small group piece to a fast-tempo electro-swing number, tickets are at http://www.we-are-sound.com/gigs – oh, and the track is in French.

When it comes to anthemic arrangements our musical director Andrea Cockerton is more than good at them. I was on stage when we sang this number in December 2014 at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge – our city’s largest concert venue which we sold out. You’ll need to play it through a decent sound system to get anywhere near the full impact of what I felt/heard/experienced in the middle of the collective.

Oh – and the loud applause of well over 1,000 people in an enclosed space all facing you is…electric.

I was going through an old DVD of ours from just before my time joining what was the Dowsing Sound Collective – now rebranded as We are Sound. They played a wonderful set in Ely Cathedral in summer 2013 – a gig I wish I was at. Will Cramer and the wonderful Cathy Elks were the lead vocalists in this clip, which left me blown away, speechless and feeling…kind of vulnerable yet inspired too. Have a listen.

I can’t put into words what it must have felt like for Will and Cathy to have been performing that to a packed out county cathedral with over 100 vocalists behind you – many of whom are your friends, booming out that anthem.

The track itself reminds me of this time a quarter of a century ago. At the time my older brother was in a band at school. I was in year 7 at the time – very emotionally dark days where I struggled with the transition from primary to secondary school. Not least because when I tried to talk about them to adults and teachers, my concerns were brushed off. I felt so strongly about it that I included it in my personal statement in my end of year report – something that my form teacher said she couldn’t see what the problem was because I got 3 commendations that term.

At that time – very late 1991 was also when the great Freddie Mercury died. My older brother and his band were big Queen fans. They covered a number of their tracks as 4-piece all-male guitar-based bands inevitably do. Funnily enough it was some of their less-played songs that stuck in my memory – one of them being ‘Save Me’ – written by Brian May.

I barely remember in 1991 what I now see as an incredibly well done music video for this song.

“Save me, save me, save me I can’t face this life alone;

Save me, save me, save me I’m naked and I’m far from home”

Given what I saw in Cathy & Will’s performance at Ely with the DSC, there’s a bit of me that would love to do the above number as a duet (assuming I don’t freak out in the quartet of us that has to face the biggest concert venue in my home city).

…And that’s my worry.

Or rather one of many given my current health which isn’t great. The biggest longer term one if I’m honest is expressed in the chorus quoted in the grey box written by Brian May. Although he was writing about a relationship break up, in my case it’s more about emotional connections that mental health problems simply suck the life out of. It also makes people like me harder to ‘read’. At a single event – whether rehearsal or council meeting for example, I can switch from being this ball of intense activity (filming or tweeting), to delivering a hard-hitting speech/intervention, to being half-asleep, to being a bundle of fun. On the first one, the solution is remembering to breathe. (I’d love for someone to do a study on people’s breathing patterns when using social media – or computers generally when focussed on the work at hand). On the feeling half asleep, for those of you who have read the Harry Potter books, imagine a dementor has just swooped into the room to feed on my soul. It’s a bit like that.

Note, I’m posting this after having decided not to post a previous blogpost which has a theme something along the lines of: “What if I told you that…?” – with one statement after another beginning with those words.

In writing it, I’m acknowledging that paradox that as personal and unique as these experiences and feelings feel, it’s just like everyone else with their own personal and unique feelings. Just as I read through the tweets and status updates of various friends, acquaintances and online correspondents posting about their own life struggles, I – like them – struggle with knowing where the balance is between wanting to call out for help but not wanting to have your social media taken over by it or being seen as a burden on others.

I’ll leave it here for now, but there’s more on the mental health/long term anxiety side of things that I’ll need to return to.



South Cambs MP Heidi Allen in mayoral bid


Five Labour candidates have put themselves forward, along with independent candidate Peter Dawe. Heidi Allen MP now joins them.

From the outset, I declare that I spoke out against the proposals for devolution when they were initially launched. Have a listen to this interview with Dotty McLeod of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire at an event in Newmarket.

I also concur with many of the concerns former Cambridge MP Prof David Howarth pointed out in this presentation in Cambridge

Ms Allen was on the radio this morning – a link to which is in her website statement here.

Cambridge tech entrepreneur Peter Dawe – who has written and campaigned about many things to do with Cambridge’s infrastructure, has also confirmed he is standing. He sold his local TV company, Cambridge TV in order to do so. Have a listen to one of his ideas below.

I still don’t know why South Cambridgeshire councillors didn’t take him up on this regarding Northstowe. Mr Dawe’s site is still under development, but expect something soon at http://www.dawe.co.uk/

Local blogger Phil Rodgers (now back in the Lib Dems fold) spotted several Hunts Labour candidates:

Cambridge housing chief Cllr Kevin Price has also put his name forward – being one of the people that negotiated the Cambridge housing element:

A more detailed interview with Josh Thomas of the Cambridge News is at http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/cambridge-city-councillor-kevin-price-12273878

At the time of posting, I’ve not been notified of anyone else standing. It remains to be seen if the Greens and the Liberal Democrats put candidates forward. Less likely with the former, more likely with the latter – simply because of the stupendously high deposit required for this election – which also rules me and Puffles out. £5,000 is just too much. A deliberate ploy to restrict it to parties and those with independent wealth. No other reason for it. (£500 would have been enough – or even £100 to have allowed crowd-sourced independents to stand without a free-for-all).

“So…are you going to boycott the whole thing?”

Quite the opposite. Hopefully through the likes of The Democracy Club we’ll be able to get a group of us together to makes sure people across the county and in Peterborough have easy access to clear and impartial information about what the elections are and are not about. (In particular the limitations – managing people’s expectations and all that). Fortunately it looks like these elections will coincide with the county council elections. I expect I’ll be filming various short videos and extended hustings as I did with the 2015 general election.

“And all candidates given the same offer?”

Exactly – just as with the general election and local elections in 2015. The way I see it especially with the short videos is that people get the chance to decide whether they want to have a conversation with the candidate concerned. Thus with each video clip I state the questions in advance so as to put them at ease, offer retakes and give them clearance before publishing should they desire it. All I care about is getting decent video footage of as many candidates as possible. The content of what they say, and what they do with the videos once they are up online…well that’s up to them.

“And you’re going to do all of that despite being opposed to the policy?”



***Because democracy!!!***

Also, no one else is going to do it. No one else would be as nice/foolish/desperate as me to give candidates such an easy ride. (Having stood for election with Puffles in 2014, I kind of have a different perspective to other community reporters, bloggers or journalists, having faced audiences able to ask questions on what is important to them, rather than what I think should be important to them. Here’s a speech from my second ever hustings, taking Qs from members of King’s College Cambridge’s politics society. They didn’t pull their punches either.

…a hustings that was also live-tweeted.

See my blogpost here on my first thoughts on being grilled.

“Have you got a wishlist of things you’d like candidates to commit to?”

Yes – but none of them will be in a position to commit to things they cannot deliver. Whereas if they had allowed me and/or Puffles to have stood, we would have talked about whatever we wanted, unencumbered by the limitations of faded and failed politicians that came up with this policy. (For the record, I’d like to see a unitary authority with significant revenue raising powers for Cambridge and the surrounding wards and districts, and a similar one for Peterborough. The Government’s policy is a fudge).

“What are the immediate challenges?”

For me the two big ones involve powers and alternative sources of funding.

Will the mayors need more powers, and if so how will they go about first of all identifying them and then secondly lobbying ministers for them?

The second is about funding: How will mayors be able to raise revenue from other sources without constantly handing out a begging bowl to Treasury ministers?

Only once those two are dealt with can you get involved in the details of which plans to back and building working relationships with other organisations. Note that the public sector is notorious for turf wars. Expect some parts of the police, health, job centres/social security institutions to try and ignore the mayors by saying their line of reporting is to their Whitehall department. This goes onto wider policy risk management. What are the things that could go badly wrong with being a county mayor and how will you manage those risks? We know this is an important question because me and Puffles gave evidence to the Public Administration Committee in 2013, and they put this point at the top of their recommendations here. That was after we had stung the cabinet minister responsible for the policy.

Finally, as with all big county-wide infrastructure, what is the historical context? These two books contain a wealth of information – even though they date from 1950.

The maps alone being works of art

Cambridge Map of Roads Holford 1950 HiRes

So…yeah…read up on your county planning history ladies and gentlemen. We’ll be asking you questions about what didn’t work in times gone by and why.

Tabled Qs for Cambs County Council on 13 December in Cambridge

Summary: The deadline for submitting tabled questions for Cambridgeshire County Council’s full council meeting on 13 December, is 1:30pm on 06 December. 

The deadline of 06 December gives council officers a week to brief the executive councillors of the responses to public questions tabled for the meeting on 13 December at Shire Hall – it starts at 1:30pm if you’re interested. The meeting details are here.
I have just tabled the following questions to democraticservices@cambridgeshire.gov.uk

1) What legal powers does the county council have, and what legal duties does the county council have regarding poor air quality in Cambridge and towns in the county?

2) What plans does the council have to bring in a smart ticketing system that works for all bus and/or public transport providers?

If you are at college and are free that afternoon, the campaign for lower fares for 16-18 year olds by the Campaign for Better Transport may be of interest. You could table a question to councillors about that. Alternatively, email them via https://www.writetothem.com/
On air quality, this stems from the bumper-to-bumper traffic in my neighbourhood that is becoming more frequent far outside of rush hours. This seems to coincide with me now having to use inhalers because it is having a bad impact on my breathing. Furthermore, the alerts in London today from the Mayor of London tipped me over.
The second one is sort of related – all day and season tickets between different bus firms are not interchangeable in and around Cambridge. Oh the efficiencies of privatised bus companies. With the Cambridgeshire County Council elections coming up in May 2017, my thinking is to get as many issues onto the public record and on video so as to help stimulate and inform debate across a number of areas that the county council has responsibility for. That might help concentrate the minds of the parties standing candidates in the elections.
Anyway, if you’ve not seen what asking questions is like, I made a guide below:
If you want to ask a question in public at the meeting on 13 December, you need to email your question to democraticservices@cambridgeshire.gov.uk by 1.30pm of 06 December.

Are big developers building in Cambridge oblivious to those of us that live here?


On the yawning gap between big developers and their agents selling ‘the city’ abroad and the residents that make the city what it is

I was keeping an eye on the UK Property Forum event being live tweeted by various people on the hashtag #Ceepf this morning. The head of the National Infrastructure Commission, Andrew Adonis addressed the meeting. In the grand scheme of things, he was one of the ministers in Gordon Brown’s administration who I rated as Transport Secretary – an indication why George Osborne appointed him to lead the NIC. (Remember Osborne and Brown didn’t get on – but did agree on Adonis).

Now, there have been numerous events, workshops, talking shops and seminars on all things Cambridge growth and the future of our city. I remain of the view that the biggest underlying root cause of Cambridge’s current and future problems is governance. The city is still governed by a large market town. Until it has the governance arrangements that can match what the money-men says it is (and it is nearly always men) – ie a small city with an international profile, it will always be subject to the whims of over-burdened low calibre here-today-gone-tomorrow ministers in Whitehall.

Having worked in Whitehall I learned that no minister or senior civil servant will ever have the information needed in order to take the decisions that cities need to take for them to run efficiently and effectively. There is simply too much going on. As a result, you end up with policy paralysis with local areas waiting for permission to go ahead with schemes and actions that really should be conceived, developed, funded and delivered locally. The way local councils are extremely limited in how they raise revenue solidifies these arrangements. Everyone in local government is looking towards The Treasury.

As far as the developers’ billions are concerned, that world of finance is light years away from the people that make Cambridge and other cities what they are. The controversial CB1 development around the railway station has made the developers a fortune. Yet despite their gushing PR in the Cambridge News in this article, scroll down to read the comments and there’s hardly a good word to be said. I remain a strong critic of the developments in and around the railway station mainly because of the missed potential. Interestingly, Historic England have offered to meet me and some local residents around the lessons learnt from this case. Note too the engineering problems as filmed by Richard Taylor below:

You’d have thought spending £1billion on the site, and £4million on the square alone they’d have got the basics right.

“How big should the voice of business be?”

Note this quotation attributed to Lord Adonis

Note recently, Sir Stuart Rose, the former M&S chief said the following after being on the losing side in the EU Referendum campaign.

“…to be honest, businessmen should stick to business and politicians to politics.”

In my experience, the voice of business is not a monolithic single voice. I’ve seen firms specialising in sustainable building and manufacturing arguing for stronger sustainability standards in the face of resistance from other firms lobbying to undermine them. Secondly, the voice of businesses that are genuinely at the heart of the communities that they operate in – ie they re-invest and spend generated profits in those communities rather than syphoning them offshore to tax havens, are more likely to have a different view of what their town/city should become vs a jet set chief executive who switches from apartment to five star hotel room to luxury villa at the drop of a hat.

Furthermore, just because someone may own or run a business does not mean that this is the only lens that they view the world through. They too feel similar emotions, passions and fears that the rest of us do. In the same way that Cambridge transport is not all cyclists vs motorists – I’ve lost count the number of times car drivers write in to newspapers in the face of someone complaining about cyclists saying that as a car driver they also cycle too.

Local residents not involved in decision-making processes early enough

Tom Foggin of the Cambridge Association of Architects gave a splendid exposition of the design and planning process at a recent event co-organised by the conservation organisation Cambridge Past, Present & Future and the business organisation Cambridge Ahead.

In the seven stages of development Mr Foggin took us through, it seemed to me that the public is only involved from the fourth – at which point it is too late. (Mr Foggin contacted me to assure me that this wasn’t the case, and that RIBA guidance for developers is to get local communities involved as early as possible).

Essentially our planning and urban design system builds in adversarial relationships rather than ones where we undertake shared problem-solving. One of the reasons I believe so many of the developments around Cambridge railway station have been so controversial locally is because developers and ministers have not been interested in framing such opportunities as shared challenges, but rather as a means for someone to make as much money as possible within whatever minimal social requirements they can get away with.

“Does this mean developers and ministers are evil?”


“Why not?”

Developers are doing what the system incentivises them to do – to make money. In the same sense, similar with career-minded ministers. Don’t rock the boat and you might get promoted. And all that. It’s not unique to Cambridge, but our governance, systems, processes and controls don’t incentivise developers to encourage and inspire local people to get involved in the designs of developments that they ultimately have to live with. Hence why all too often it feels like developers and their financiers impose big and locally unpopular developments on unsuspecting communities then run off with the money leaving communities to foot the bill when the design flaws become apparent.


Yes…in the developments by the railway station such was the poor design on all things crime and disorder that the area is now a local police priority. The area is probably stuck with this for the next half century.

And finally…

I’m still of the view that events looking at the future of Cambridge are too segregated and are lacking in diversity. (Where are all of the young people at these events?)

Until Cambridge’s governance can be overhauled (and I’m extremely sceptical about the county mayor proposals that Cambridgeshire’s councils approved this week), and until institutions start hosting events that bring together the communities that make up our city of Cambridge, we will see many more speculative developments that prioritise profit-making for investors that have no stake in local communities ahead of the needs of the people that make up our city. (By ‘the people’ I mean people who live, work and/or study in our city, along with those that need to visit regularly).


Asking questions at council meetings in Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire



Some guidance & links on getting involved in local democracy through local councils

Thank you for your continued support on all things filming & Cambridge/South Cambs community action. For those of you interested in supporting my work, please click here.

December council meetings – if you need a break from festive shopping

Cambridge City Council:

What are such meetings about? Have a listen to Cllr Richard Johnson.

Never been inside the council chamber at The Guildhall? You are more than welcome to attend public meetings here – have a look at this video below:

Any questions? Contact the council’s democratic services officers:

Read more at https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/get-involved-at-your-local-area-committee

Cambridgeshire County Council

The list of council meetings is at https://cmis.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/ccc_live/Meetings.aspx & is regularly updated.

Their rules on public speaking are slightly more restricted, meaning you have to give a week’s notice of questions (ie email them in advance (democraticservices@cambridgeshire.gov.uk) of the question you are going to ask). The public can still attend meetings. See my video below.

Any questions? Have a read of http://www4.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/info/20087/councillors_and_meetings/283/decision_making/3 or email democraticservices@cambridgeshire.gov.uk

Greater Cambridge City Deal

Events & meetings are listed at http://www.gccitydeal.co.uk/citydeal/ with contact details at http://www.gccitydeal.co.uk/citydeal/contact-us – again, you need to give notice (this time 3 days) of questions you want to ask at public meetings.

The video below is an example of public questions being asked at a city deal assembly meeting inside South Cambridgeshire Hall.

I’ve not yet found guidance notes for South Cambridgeshire District Council (I’m sure they’ll inform me in the comments below or via Twitter – several of their councillors & officers follow Puffles), but their lists of meetings is via https://www.scambs.gov.uk/services/council

[UPDATE] – South Cambs tweeted back to Puffles:

South Cambridgeshire District Council also has a youth council – while Cambridge City Council does not. Unfortunately this means Cambridge City is not represented in the British Youth Parliament that meets in the House of Commons. Cambridge residents, if you have an issue with this, write to your city councillors at https://www.writetothem.com/

Campaigning through local campaign groups

You can campaign through residents associations (declaration of interest, the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (@FeCRA2 on Twitter) financially support my filming of city deal and local plan meetings) or through local interest groups. Some that regularly ask public questions include:

Cambridge Cycling Campaign – campaigning not just about cycles but on urban design and making Cambridge & surrounding areas more pleasant to live and travel in.

Cambridge Past Present and Future – campaigning for a more sustainable future for Cambridge – and against unrestricted urban sprawl.

Unite Cambridge – The Cambridge branch of the community union, often seen campaigning on affordable housing and social justice issues in Cambridge

Cambridge Council for Voluntary Service members – have a look at their members list here.

If you don’t want to stand up and ask a public question at a meeting…

…you can always ask one of your local councillors to ask the question on your behalf. Contact them via https://www.writetothem.com/

Keep an eye on what all are doing on Facebook click on the links below:


Cambridge’s councils have sound issues


How can we improve the ability of councillors to make themselves heard, and how can we improve the audio set up in council chambers? Because I’m getting too many complaints about poor quality audio that is outside of my control.

Have a watch of the video below – which I’ve processed as a HD video rather than a standard large video that I normally do for long council meetings. (The latter means a smaller file size).

I’ve used multiple examples of the audio issues I face as a community cameraman and reporter. I’ve also provided examples of good microphone technique as well as poor technique. I’ve also commented on the limitations of each chamber in the video. The councils featured are:

  • Cambridge City Council – The Guildhall’s council chamber
  • Cambridgeshire County Council – Shire Hall’s council chamber
  • South Cambridgeshire District Council – South Cambridgeshire Hall’s chamber/function room

Both The Guildhall and Shire Hall were built in the 1930s. South Cambridgeshire Hall was built in the much more recent past. Due to the nature of the chambers, they all struggle with audibility – strange given that their prime functions is to host public debates.

“Hardly anyone watches local council videos, so why does it matter?”


Over 11,000 hits in the past three months, with spikes in early Sept and mid-Oct 2016. The first relating to a demo outside The Guildhall and the second pair relating to meetings on local planning and transport issues. People care. Note that nearly all of my videos related to local democracy issues in and around Cambridge. The videos therefore appeal to a very small geographic audience – and only a small section within that geographic audience of not much more than 200,000 people.

“What are your recommendations for councillors and public speakers?”

For the councils as institutions:

Please review your existing audio-visual facilities in your council chambers and consider upgrading your sound systems so that community reporters can record audio footage directly from your sound systems using flash drives.

Please consider upgrading your chamber audio speakers so that the frequency has a greater range and a warmer/more comfortable-sounding sound.

Please consider upgrading your chamber microphones so that councillors and speakers can extend/retract the microphones depending on whether they are standing, sitting or can adjust according to the height of the speaker.

Please consider whether you should invite new public speakers to rehearse their public questions so they get used to using a microphone and used to hearing their voice played back on a modern sound system.

For councillors

Please learn the basics of how to use microphones properly.

Please undertake regular public speaking training/coaching/mentoring – in both cases think accessibility of your constituents.

For readers/watchers/local residents

If you would like the audio in my videos to be improved, please email your councillor via https://www.writetothem.com/ – you only need to know your postcode. Because I don’t have the spare money needed for a professional broadcast standard microphone plus sound system to compensate.

Thank you.

Democracy activism begins at home…but doesn’t end there


Following the various elections in 2016…

I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of the US elections because I’m not qualified to do so. But the reactions in the feeds below speak volumes.

and via my friend Anke,

I just hope there are organisations in the US who are logging every single attack that’s reported.

Over here, Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie wrote this:

…trying to distance the official ‘Brexit’ campaign from Trump, with liberal commentator Mehdi Hassan responding in agreement below

…but then Nigel on the radio today came up with this:

I have no words.

But for those of you in shock at recent events, have a look at this Twitter stream.

Those speaking out against the hate we/they have to live through? That’s what it feels like. “Welcome”.

“And the response in the UK?”

Tabloid land on the right is a mix of welcoming it to ‘Weren’t you all shocked!” by the result. The liberal-left ones talk of dark times ahead. Understandable given the anecdotal evidence above.

You’ve got the awkward political responses from Government ministers given their previous comments criticising the president-elect during the campaign, but it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was praised for her response, re-enforcing what she believed were shared values.

“What can we do in response given that we are here??”

I’ve titled this piece “Democracy begins at home…but doesn’t end there” as a take on the saying “Charity begins at home” and “Think global, act local”. I’ve also been inviting people to consider the one behavioural change or one small one off action they will take as a result of the sense of shock they feel. I’m already talking to people about scheduling some local democracy workshops in and around Cambridge as mentioned in my previous blogpost.

At the same time, I’m continuing with filming the various council meetings happening in and around Cambridge – supported by the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations and many of you who have been kind enough to donate to help cover my costs. I’ve filmed seven meetings in the past 10 days. Democracy never sleeps. As when Norway responded to a tragic shooting of young political activists, the response from Kens Stoltenberg, their Prime Minister was:

“Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.”

Something for us to consider?

My music group has launched a musical response – see below

See also The People Are Sound Facebook Group

If you want something very small to do in response, My suggestion is to start off with finding out who your local MP and local councillors are via https://www.writetothem.com/ . You may want to:

  • send them an email introducing yourself
  • ask them about an issue in your local area that you think something could be done about
  • ask them how to get involved on a particular issue or activity locally
  • ask them their opinion on a specific issue
  • share the above link with friends/relatives/acquaintances and invite them to do similar.

Also, keep an eye on The Democracy Club & their work on improving elections. Also note this link via Dr Karolina Pomorska, a research fellow at Cambridge University.

It may not change the world, but it may be a small step in reconnecting more of us to decisions that we can influence.

So…shall we do this Cambridge democracy thing then?


Organising democracy workshops for early 2017 in and around Cambridge, noting the 2017 Cambridgeshire County Council elections are looming

But first this:

If you’ve not already seen it, Please see the video below where I explain why I need your support – including to pay for training that will allow me to work out how to make that button say ‘Donate’.


You don’t have to have a PayPal account to donate – you can use an ordinary debit or credit card.

If you have any problems, please email me at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com

Thank you for your continued support – because it also allows me to help organise things like democracy workshops!

“A democracy workshop?”

Yes – like the one we organised in June 2016 around the city deal

“How did it work?”

We brought together just over a dozen of us from across the city, which meant people were working with others who they had not met and would otherwise not meet either socially or in local campaigning. We explored Cambridge’s local institutions from the perspective of local residents rather than from the perspective of the institutions. It’s the step that many introduction courses miss when starting out: they put the institution first rather than the citizen or learner. Have a look at this new free e-learning course from Parliament (which I strongly recommend) but also note how introduce it from the perspective of Parliament first rather than citizen first.

“This free online course will introduce you to the work and role of the UK Parliament. From setting the age at which we start school to deciding pension policy, the UK Parliament makes laws that impact our lives, our work and our wider society.”

Turn the above around to: “Who decides at what age you have to start school? Who decides on the rules pension providers have to abide by? Who decides how much child benefit you get? Who brought in child benefit in the first place?”

That was the approach we went with, but built it around 2 principles:

  • Lines of funding
  • Lines of accountability

We learnt about where funding for the various public services came from – and what we defined as a public service & how they evolved over time. We also looked at what happened in return for that funding – how each different layer was responsible for the funding it received.

Once we had established the basics of services in our communities, we looked at when things broke down/went wrong and lines of redress. It was from there that we were able to move into discussions about what was happening in and around Cambridge and how we as citizens could influence proceedings.

“It still sounds very….*heavy*”

This is why I want to think now about how we make what is an incredibly complex, intellectually taxing and time-consuming subject area one that is much more digestible for people. In terms of main aims, they’d be something like:

  • For everyone to have a basic understanding of how our city functions
  • For everyone to know who to contact and how, when things go wrong
  • For everyone to have chosen one policy area that they’d want to give a bit more attention to, knowing that there are other people scrutinising other policy areas who they can contact for further advice or support.
  • For everyone to have met at least one person who they want to stay in touch with.

“Yeah – that’s a lot for a couple of hours”

That’s why I’m wondering whether to break the whole thing up into a series of workshops dotted about the city – in particular so that people can meet up more than once to talk about what they’ve learnt and found out.

Democracy Club comes to Cambridge

Some of you may have heard about the Democracy Club. One of the club’s founders, Sym Roe has just moved to Cambridge. Which is splendid for someone like me as they’ve already started building the online tools that will be really useful for voters in the 2017 elections – have a look at https://democracyclub.org.uk/projects/. They are on Twitter at https://twitter.com/democlub and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/democracyclub/ too.

Where my workshops fit in is getting as many people who are at the heart of our communities in a position where they can talk knowledgeably about both the election processes and the online tools to local residents.

“Shouldn’t the council be doing this stuff?”

My take is that until Parliament gives local councils the necessary powers and ability to raise their own funds to pay for things like this, civic society has to step in. It may be the case that some of the work we have planned, if successful, becomes something that councils or local institutions take on themselves.

Democracy being about more than voting

That’s one of the things I also want to get across to local residents: Democracy is not a spectator pastime. It requires people to take action for it to succeed. And yes, at a local level it feels that the amount of time and effort put into it does not seem to match the outcomes at the other end, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. For example:

Cambridge City Council is asking Cambridge residents for views on how to improve local neighbourhoods with funding from developers. Depending on where you live, there’s a fair amount of money available. Rock up to your area committee to find out more – or email your councillor via https://www.writetothem.com/ (for which you only need to know your postcode to find out who they are & how to contact them).

It’s not just local councils or Parliament either.

Are you a regular health service user? If so, you may want to know about Healthwatch England. (Though I detest the language of “national consumer champion in health and care”). Every county or equivalent has one, and we have one in Cambridgeshire – http://www.healthwatchcambridgeshire.co.uk/

Crime an issue? The Government brought in directly-elected police and crime commissioners a few years ago. You can find yours at http://www.apccs.police.uk/. In Cambridgeshire we have Jason Ablewhite and he is scrutinised by the Cambs & Peterborough Police & Crime Panel.

There are a host of other organisations and public bodies that have various scrutiny arrangements beyond these. I’m still trying to get my head around all of them so that at least we can start mapping it all.

Anyway, interested in your thoughts how we might go about all of this.



Councillors reject Cambridge station blocks


City councillors voted to refuse planning permission for two new buildings at Cambridge Railway Station – including a proposed replacement for the old mill silo building destroyed a few years ago in a suspicious fire.

The run up to the case is described in my Lost Cambridge blog here.

The old mill looked like as in the black and white photo above, the 2005 plan is as the drawing in the top right, and the revamped replacement the developers wanted is the brown building in the CGI (computer-generated image) in the bottom right.

The playlist of my videos from the planning committee meeting at The Guildhall are here.

Membership of the planning committee can be found by clicking & scrolling down this page.

Papers for the meeting where this case was discussed is here – look for item 5 – 15/1759/FUL – Murdoch House, 40-44 Station Road .

See also Ben Comber in the Cambridge Independent here, and Adam Care in the Cambridge News here. Ben is on Twitter at @BenComberCI, and Adam Care is at @AdamCareCN.

“Does their refusal mean that the brown building won’t get built?”

No – Cambridge City Council has a ‘Refused planning protocol’ which allows councillors to reconsider any refusals they make when they refuse a planning application.

“What does that mean?”

It’s all explained in this document which stems from from the huge bill the council received following the Wilton Terrace case.

“Which means…?”

Councillors are going to get further advice from officials – including things like possible action the developer may take if the latter stands their grounds and decides to go to appeal to a Whitehall planning inspector.

“Who are these planning inspectors?”

These are accountable to ministers and have become unpopular in local communities across the country because they have been seen to overturn a number of council decisions against  development. This was on the back of changes to the law and of Government policy where successive housing ministers (Grant Shapps MP, Brandon Lewis MP and now Gavin Barwell MP) felt that too many refusals for planning permission by local councils was making the current housing crisis worse, so effectively ‘fast tracked’ the appeals process for developers. That plus the tightening of Whitehall rules on what councils can and cannot do means it’s harder for local councils to refuse planning permission.


This case is going to come back to the planning committee one way or another. The site is too valuable financially to be left as it is. It remains to be seen what the developers Brookgate choose to do. (Their corporate contacts are here).

Involvement of Cambridge residents

My two blogposts on this issue picked up over 1,000 hits in less than a week in the run up to the planning committee’s meeting, along with lots of mentions across other social media platforms. This included coverage from the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations. They mobilised their members to contact local councillors to oppose the planning application. Furthermore, a number of residents turned up to the planning committee meeting in person to put further pressure on councillors. Furthermore, I turned up with a camera to film the whole thing. (Such meetings are not normally filmed by anyone).

Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s opposition

The incredibly well-organised Cambridge Cycling Campaign have a linked tool that you can use at https://www.cyclescape.org/ which they keep track on planning applications. Anything that in their opinion does not provide for enough cycle parking they will submit an objection. That’s what they did here.

Roxanne de Beaux of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign outlines the campaign’s objection to the planning application.

Councillors miss out the historical context

Because we didn’t get our objections in on time, councillors did not discuss the historical context. Instead they focussed on four themes as grounds for refusal, as directed by former Mayor of Cambridge Cllr John Hipkin. Those themes were:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Lack of cycle parking provision and facilities for cyclists
  • Lack of community facilities
  • Design issues

In the end, councillors went with refusing the application on all bar affordable housing grounds.

“Can we submit new objections on historical context grounds to the follow-up hearing?”

No – Cllr Kevin Blencowe, the executive councillor for planning, who sits on the planning committee confirmed this to me shortly after the committee refused the application. Any further considerations from the council have to be based on the issues that were raised at the meeting as grounds for refusal.

However, if the developers withdraw the existing application and submit a new one, objections on new grounds can be made as it is a separate planning application that will have been submitted rather than a modified one. So it remains to be seen how many – if any – modifications are made to the building that councillors and members of the public had issues with.


I have a donations page!

Even though the button says ‘Buy now’


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