What would a tour of local councils be like?


…because who else would undertake something like this?

I’ve been pondering something like this for quite some time, and sort of attempted a random tour of parts of southern England in the summer of 2000 during my university years. Me and an old school friend literally stuck pins in a map and decided to go wherever the pin landed. Hence ending up in Colchester, Portsmouth (where I found HMS Warrior to be far more interesting than HMS Victory, the latter of which had much of its superstructures & armaments replaced by tacky plastic replicas), The Isle of Wight and Chatham naval base!

In recent visits to various places locally, I’ve always found myself drawn to the town hall to ask myself the question of what the town hall tells us about the history and its people.


What does the above tell you about the port of Ipswich? (Other than they have a better town hall than Cambridge? Note at the time Ipswich’s hall was being built, Cambridge’s one was as below – the current one being a 1930s design)


Image via Fonz Chamberlain at https://www.facebook.com/fonzchamberlain79/?fref=ts

At the same time Cambridge going through monumental changes and growth – I counted fifteen cranes from one vantage point in my neighbourhood of South Cambridge on a walk recently. At the same time, there is a growing interest in local history of Cambridge the town. Fonz Chamberlain is the person to go to at https://www.facebook.com/fonzchamberlain79/ and http://cambridgehistorian.blogspot.co.uk/. See his picture albums of Cambridge in the 1970s and Cambridge in the 1980s and you get a sense of just how much history we lost with the development of both Lion Yard and The Grafton Centre.

“What would a tour of town halls achieve?”

It’s not just the town halls – which are of a personal random interest, but also of the local councils themselves. I want to get a feel for what other local councils are doing in this social media era to see if there is anything that we can use and apply in Cambridge. At the same time, I want to document it using digital video and social media. Also, it might be the chance to meet long time social media followers face-to-face while seeing other parts of the country while I still reasonably have the health for it. Also, I can bring a dragon with me. A sort of #PufflesOnTour project.

Actually, that pretty much encapsulated what I’d like to do in an ideal world. Spend a couple of days in each place, go to a community action gathering followed by a full council meeting the following day. That way, I get to meet and film both community activists and councillors at the same time. Furthermore, putting something like this together might just get one or two more people active or interested in what local democracy in their area is all about. (I’m not going to claim that the presence of Puffles will lead to the public galleries being packed out…)

It’s more likely that it’ll be the smaller things that will make the difference – such as activists seeing a meeting filmed for the first time, to me filming something that is then picked up on by councillors in Cambridge that they can apply here or to their wards.

“Being dependent on public transport”

That’s also going to be part of the fun – given the cuts they’ve had to face. How does Cambridge compare to other areas in terms of availability and prices? This compares to past visits during my civil service days when I could turn up somewhere by train and go everywhere by taxi, claiming it all back as work expenses. This, being self-funded I won’t have such luxuries – or if I do, it’ll be me paying for it. Also, where I stay overnight I’d want to not stay in one of those corporate identikit hotels but in places where people know the area. This could range from a ‘jewel in the crown’ landmark venue in a town through to a pub with a B&N to crashing out on a mattress at a friends flat.

“Could your area host me and a cuddly dragon fairy?”

Have you got anything interesting coming up that might benefit from having someone film it?  Would you like your area to feature in such a tour? If so, please leave a comment in the comments field.


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Devolution in East Anglia


Policy shambles following the Budget 2016, and rising opposition to the Government’s plans for a mayor for East Anglia.

There’s a petition doing the rounds on Parliament’s website calling for Parliament to reject the Government’s proposals on devolution for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire – https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/124849

“What’s the deal all about?”

You can read the deal at http://democracy.cambridge.gov.uk/documents/s33604/Appendix%201b%20-%20The%20East%20Anglia%20Devolution%20Agreement.pdf

Essentially it creates a new tier of government with the aim of improving infrastructure by taking powers and spending from ministers – according to Communities Secretary Greg Clark in his letter to the people of Cambridge – whose council has already rejected the deal in its current format. See Cllr Lewis Herbert’s letter here.

“Why the opposition?”

The main reasons put forward by various people, parties and groups against the deal are as follows:

  • The geographical area is too large for a total amount of funding that is too small over such a long period of time to deliver anything more than half a motorway through the region
  • The current deal ignores Cambridgeshire’s western (towards Oxford), northern (towards the midlands) and southern (towards London) links
  • We don’t need an expanded state with another tier of decision makers. People in rural areas already have a parish council, district council, county council, an MP and MEPs – why do they need to add to it?
  • The Coalition scrapped Labour’s last attempt at regional government – with the East of England regional assembly (Do you remember this?) going under Eric Pickles’ cuts – see his statement here from 2010 when he was Communities Secretary (And Dr Clark was a minister in his department).
  • The timescales in which this policy has been developed is too rushed, has had little public debate, has had no public consultation. Due process as far as sound open policy making is concerned has not been followed.
  • The inclusion of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire is party-political. The repeated failure by the Conservatives to succeed electorally inside Cambridge City means that the only way they can get their hands on the city is through this process – and the prospect of ‘Mayor Andrew Lansley’ will horrify many people who do not identify as Conservatives and/or who opposed Lansley’s controversial NHS reforms or his controversial policies on lobbying politicians. (How Lansley was trailed as a favourite in the mainstream media is a mystery to most people).

I’ll leave the party politicians to argue over Lansley – but also note the fallout at the Local Government Association that Cambridgeshire Times editor John Elworthy uncovered.

My main issue with the plans is the lack of due process – as I explain in this freedom of information request to the Government. The lack of care and attention in the main document that has ***not*** been widely circulated speaks volumes. For the creation of such a high profile post, I would expect to see a formal policy publication – such as a green paper – inviting the public to comment on the Government’s proposals. This we have not had. Indeed – the devolution offer until recently has been directed at ‘northern powerhouse’ areas – see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/radical-shake-up-of-power-puts-communities-in-control

“Is this getting bogged down in politics as Claire Ruskin of the Cambridge Network says?”

If it is, it’s because of the way ministers have handled this entire process. (Note Mrs Ruskin’s comments at http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Business-chief-warns-devolution-getting-bogged/story-28964695-detail/story.html.

“I’d like to keep emphasising that there are some good parts to the offer and that we should be considering it objectively not politically,” said Mrs Ruskin.

Are there some good parts in it? Anything that is ‘new money’ to be spent on transport and infrastructure in the region inevitably is. But where I disagree with Mrs Ruskin is that the devolution of political power – including spending and planning powers – is inherently political. Giving an individual the powers to make decisions on spending taxpayers’ money and on planning and infrastructure issues is a political action.

You cannot take the politics out of it. Where you draw the boundaries on where the new mayoral post begins and ends is inherently political. Look at how politically polarised Cambridge is with its surrounding neighbours. The Conservatives have only one councillor on Cambridge City Council, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats are barely represented on South Cambridgeshire and East Cambridgeshire district councils. Whether you run with a regional mayor, or go with (as is my preference) a unitary authority for Cambridge and its surrounding villages, the decision either way is a political one.

Ministers have not prepared the ground with councillors – they have selectively briefed audiences which always ends badly

The lack of transparency is alarming with this policy. Ministers have not created that open playing field where everyone – councillors included – have had access to the same information at the same time. That would have allowed councillors and campaign groups to examine the proposals collectively. For example the Haverhill Rail Campaign would have been very interested in a well-put-together case that links up Cambridge with Suffolk towns and villages. But by rushing their proposals, potential supporters have been missed. Instead, ministers have alienated the public unnecessarily and created the impression that they are trying to cover up their proposals or create a new role for a party political friend. Accordingly, all of the non-Conservative parties on Cambridge City and Cambridgeshire County Council have publicly stated that they oppose the Government’s proposals.

Shire Hall votes

Cambridgeshire County Council will vote on a motion at full council on 22 March at Shire Hall. This will be followed by what’s likely to be a formality at the Guildhall when Cambridge City Council approves of Cllr Herbert’s actions for Labour – scroll to the end of this document for the motion.

I have a tabled public question at each of the above-mentioned meetings…watch this space!

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Be the change Cambridge returns…


…due to popular demand for a community event all about the Greater Cambridge City Deal

…which we’re planning for June 2016 – see http://www.meetup.com/Be-the-change-Cambridge/events/229647023/

Turns out the Greater Cambridge City Deal has proved to be something of a catalyst as far as energising and mobilising community groups in Cambridge is concerned. You only have to look at the list of video playlists I have (see here) to get a feel for the level of community interest that has grown throughout 2015.


160121 MiltonRoadRA2The above two photographs, one from west Cambridge, the other from north-central shows the interest (mainly critical rather than supportive) from residents from just two of the initially proposed schemes.

Conspicuous by their absence? The views and input of young people – something I have consistently and persistently raised with the city deal authorities. So I asked a couple of Puffles’ Twitterfriends at their demo in support of striking sixth form college teachers.

…because anecdotally, teenagers and young adults in their 20s are not being included nearly as well as they could be – as this video also shows.

Big challenges lie ahead for all of us. As I mentioned on the Be the change – Cambridge Meetup page, the aims of this half-day gathering are to help people:

• To find out what the basics of the CIty Deal are

• To meet the grassroots campaign groups scrutinising the processes

• To hear about the ideas being put forward on the future of our city

• To meet and converse with people from other parts of the city that they might not have met

• To update their social media accounts so as to keep up to date with city deal developments – in particular up and coming community meetings

If you’re interested in taking part, please let me know.

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Learning about planning and building design


Some thoughts from an event organised by the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community and the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations.

I’ve inserted the above summaries of issues raised by participants at a reception the previous evening (11 March 2016) at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. We had an all-day workshop earlier today where we were taken through a detailed process of how to come up with a neighbourhood plan that hopefully will help our city improve the design of new developments – and do something to stop the more speculative developments going up.

Details of this process are at http://www.princes-foundation.org/content/enquiry-design-neighbourhood-planning, and also the toolkit is at https://www.bimby.org.uk/. By the looks of things, one of the residents associations in Newnham will be piloting this process on behalf of the rest of the city. If it succeeds, it’s something that could be adopted by the rest of the city (or communities within it) to improve the design of buildings and planning applications. We did a number of exercises on both days, another one being mapping the city in terms of areas we like, don’t like & think could be improved.

We’ve reached a stage in Cambridge where residents are becoming more active and mobilised as a result of controversial plans with the Greater Cambridge City Deal. It is these that have let to calls from some quarters for more independent election candidates to stand – such as at ‘Experiments with Democracy’ very recently.

It remains to be seen what impact the City Deal has with the local council elections – speaking of which, Democracy Club needs your help mapping every seat up for election. See https://democracyclub.org.uk/everyelection/ for details.



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Tabled question to Cambridgeshire County Council

I have a tabled public question to Cambridgeshire County Council due for spoken answer at their full council meeting on 16 February 2016 at Shire Hall, Cambridge. It is as follows:

“The Severn Place Development received planning approval on 03 Feb 2016 from Cambridge City Council councillors on the casting vote of the planning committee chair. The previous evening at a meeting of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, campaign officers stated that county council officials as statutory consultees had not raised objections regarding transport access even though in the opinion of the campaign in their submission to the planning process, there were clear concerns. 
Quotations reported from the planning hearing reported on social media indicated that councillors had concerns about transport access as well, but because the county council as the transport authority had not raised these, they as councillors had their hands tied. Refusing an application on transport grounds where the county council had not raised objections would make such a refusal straight forward to overturn by a planning inspector.
Two former city councillors – Mr Tim Ward and Mr Colin Rosenstiel posted on social media that this was not the first time the county council as statutory consultees had failed to raise objections on transport access on planning applications heard by Cambridge City Council.
I would therefore like to hear whether:
1) it is the opinion of the county council transport officers that they had no issues with transport access to that site
2) whether there are any possible procedural changes that allow for their assessment to be challenged before it is submitted/finalised as statutory consultees
3) whether transport officers feel they have sufficient capacity to carry out the functions required of them as statutory consultees – and if not whether the county council can increase their resources or perhaps move to a system where officers can crowd-source the much needed scrutiny function needed until such a time that local government resources can be increased to enable them to carry out their statutory duties.”
This relates to this planning application approved by councillors recently
Here’s the answer from Cllr Roger Hickford
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UKGovCamp 2016


Thoughts on my fifth unConference with some of the best talent in and around the UK’s digital public services.

I’m zombied out as I type this having followed UKGovCamp with a rehearsal with the Dowsing Sound Collective for our gig in Newmarket on Saturday. Which reminds me, those of you in and around London (Camden, Hammersmith and Greenwich in particular) and Brighton who want to sing on stage with lots of people at gigs like the one below, they are recruiting new enthusiasts. (No auditions) http://thedowsingsoundcollective.com/joining-dowsing/singers-wanted

Unlike past UKGovCamps, I didn’t say that much at this event – sticking mainly to filming and photography duties. (I’m uploading photos to this album – they’re all CC as requested by UKGovCamp organisers so feel free to share).

If I wasn’t very talkative on Saturday (or Sunday), it’s because of my mental health – it’s not great at the moment. The side effects of the medication kept me relatively subdued throughout the day, so apologies if I wasn’t very talkative or was more ‘cold’ than expected.

Pitching sessions

I streamlined the footage of the pitching sessions for the benefit of those that didn’t get tickets. It turns out that the video is a nice summary of the issues and concerns that people in the digital public services community have.

The sessions I went to included Dan Slee’s (@DanSlee) one on all things video – in part because hits to my Youtube account have been far higher than I had expected when I launched it – around 30,000 hits in the past 12 months and over 110,000 minutes of footage viewed (not including my Vimeo account).

The most fun session was Jeni Tennison (@JeniT) and Ellen Broad’s (@EllenBroad) open data board game – in particular on how they captured the incentives that force people and organisations to work together. In a nutshell, everyone takes on a role within an organisation and has to decide which apps to build and which of their data sets they should open. The more data sets opened and apps that are built, the more ‘points’ you get for the categories of ‘the economy, society and the environment’. At the same time, you have event cards that take points away. Such as a stock market crash. If you lose too many points, the world metaphorically ends unless people come together to open data sets and build apps that save the world from doom. Puffles and Kara Langford of the University of East Anglia found themselves in precisely that position when the stock market crashed.

Helen @SocialSoup from HMRC facilitated a thought-provoking session on what I can only describe as persistent cultural problems inside the civil service, seeking input on how to overcome these. Being first-timers and with a group of colleagues from Newcastle, it was a timely reminder that there is a world outside of London. One thing that really hit me at UKGovCamp was the growing gap between London and the rest of the country on all things digital. London seems to have ‘won’ many of the battles of 2011 that I still seem to be fighting – for example still having to make the case for social media to people and organisations. From a public policy perspective, there will be gaps in deliver if policy makers assume that the rest of the country is racing at the same speed that London is. We’re not. Even somewhere such as Cambridge with the reputation it has, the structures of our public administration is Victorian & utterly out of date for the challenges that our city faces.

Talking of all things Victorian, Tracy Green (@GreenTrac) of Parliament’s new digital service ran a workshop on how to increase the digital literacy of MPs so that they are providing better scrutiny on bills relating to digital. The problem we faced there was that we could not get away from structural problems around MPs in safe seats lacking any incentive to become knowledgeable in what can seem a new and complex subject area. As a result, we never got into some of the detail – such as exploring some of the basic data around training that MPs and their private offices undertake, or the ratio of staff of select committees to the civil servants that support ministers. (Several years ago I blogged that select committees needed to increase significantly their staffing and resources to help MPs scrutinise effectively departments of state and organisations they are charged with overseeing.

Five years of Puffles – what’s changed that’s been positive in digital public services?

I put this question to a number of people at UKGovCamp 2016. Here are their responses based on their observations and working experiences.

Any thoughts?

One final thing to add:

There were a number of regulars from past years that were conspicuous by their absence. Combined with changes at the Government Digital Service since the last GovCamp, I wonder whether this contributed to a slightly different dynamic this year. (For example I didn’t get the sense of everyone being magnetically drawn towards plans set out by individual Whitehall depts compared with one or two past gatherings). That said, the turnover/churn was at just the right level to maintain the collective memory of the Govcamps while at the same time bringing in some very interesting new people from far beyond London and the South East.

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When residents start scrutinising videos of public meetings


A growing trend in Cambridge as debate on the city deal hots up

I was asked to go along to film a big gathering of the Milton Road Residents’ Association (which, upon nearly 200 people turning up got me wondering why we didn’t have something like this south of the River Cam).

160121 MiltonRoadRA2.jpg

The playlist of the presentations (and the Q&A from the audience) is at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwEUs8UyvFATecLKy4KhL45VFT6numLkf

What was interesting to hear in the background chatter were the number of residents who had said they had been through the videos of previous meetings in detail – reflected in the stats where the longer videos are showing an average viewing time almost four times as long as my average of between 2-3 minutes.

The relationship between myself (as a community reporter/cameraman and residents

This isn’t something I’ve given much thought about until recently – general election aside. I’ve not really had conversations with local residents outside the local democracy bubble here. However, the data seems to indicate that it’s more than just those of us inside the bubble that are watching  the videos. Furthermore, I heard a couple of people in conversation saying that it was as a result of watching one of the videos that they decided to come along to this meeting. That in itself makes filming such meetings worth while.

How do you measure impact?

Difficult to say. You can have the traditional quantitative metrics such as hits, views, length of viewing, or even numbers of pieces of correspondence sent as a result. But what about the qualitative impact? These can range from the quality of contributions from members of the audience – in particular those that can give an opinion based on their specialist training. Others might involve numbers of people becoming active in political parties – Labour councillors and activists were conspicuous by their presence yesterday evening. Other parties less so – but then with much of it now on video, there’s a chance for everyone to catch up. With Labour in power at The Guildhall, issues that residents have will be turned towards Labour rather than other political parties.

Smarter Transport Cambridge builds up a head of steam

Edward Leigh has been diligently going around various community groups talking about his ideas for Cambridge’s transport. (See http://www.smartertransport.uk/)


In a nutshell, Mr Leigh has gone into a level of detail that makes things very tricky for local officials to dismiss. Furthermore, he’s done a huge amount of work to persuade not just residents but politicians and businesses to sign up to and scrutinise/improve his ideas. At the same time, city deal authorities seem to have blundered unnecessarily into schemes that have generated significant concern in a number of communities – ones that are both vocal and affluent at the same time. There remains a risk of a ‘class divide’ if Cambridge doesn’t get the transport plans right.

They got the sequencing wrong

The most compelling cases made by Mr Leigh and supporters were around the relatively unintrusive measures needed to bring in smarter traffic management, plus the lack of evidence that standard bus lanes alone have much impact on traffic levels and bus punctuality. The big missed opportunity as far as I am concerned is that the authorities did not do a big community problem-solving exercise where we all looked at the city of Cambridge as a whole to see where the traffic pinch points are. Such an exercise with the bus drivers alone would have been fascinating to have seen.

As a result, Milton and Histon Roads are being looked at in isolation, as is Hills Road, as are the roads west out of the city. There are a number of large transport studies – including the large transport access study at http://www.gccitydeal.co.uk/citydeal/info/2/transport/1/transport/10 – scroll to the end. Is there any chance someone could make that into a short video with a few animations to explain the concept to those who prefer not to wade through pages and pages of paper? We know from Transport for London that publicity and communications is essential – they told us in their evidence to the City Deal a few months ago. Yet sound publicity and communications despite early promises has been consistently below par.

Do the councils have the resources – in particular the analytical capacity to assess the contributions coming in from the public?

I don’t think they do. Furthermore, I remain to be convinced that the City Deal Assembly represents value for money for the people that attend it. There are a number of heads of large organisations that lose a couple of hours at least of their days when they attend such meetings. Yet they remain silent throughout most of it. What is the consultancy hourly-rate equivalent of having them sitting there remaining silent?

Contributions from young people are still missing

…and we’re over a year into the process. When are we going to start hearing from the young people who will be the big users of cycle routes and improved public transport routes.




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Do ministers ever face detailed policy scrutiny?


Why the current set up of ministerial accountability to Parliament doesn’t feel like MPs are able to influence policy in the eyes of the public

For those of you who are into public policy research, have a look at this extended piece by Meg Russell and Philip Cowley where they have crunched the data on parliamentary divisions over the past couple of decades to examine MPs’ influence on policy.

The main ways MPs are able to hold ministers to account are as follows:

  1. Through written correspondence to ministers
  2. Securing private meetings with ministers
  3. Asking questions of ministers at departmental questions
  4. Summoning ministers to Parliament for urgent questions
  5. Cross-examination at select committees

Media appearances and articles can put pressure on ministers, but when it comes to asking direct questions, the five above stand out.

There is one thing that is persistently missing in all bar select committee hearings: The ability to ask follow-up questions of ministers. MPs very rarely get the chance to follow-up questions, meaning that all too often ministers can dodge otherwise substantive questions. I’ve seen ministers of all parties do this – even ones that I worked for. I remember one such occasion where for one oral question to the minister I was working for many moons ago. It was what felt like a tricky question from a backbencher that led to my minister going on the offensive about the opposition’s policy, completely ignoring the point the MP made.

If ministers don’t want to answer a question, there is very little that MPs can do to compel them otherwise

As a regular watcher of BBC Parliament, it’s one of the things I find the most frustrating about ministers in Parliament. There are many tactics politicians can use – many are listed here.

Parliament is back on Tues 5 January with questions to the department of health. Then there is the much-criticised Housing Bill which gets to report stage in the Commons – where they consider the changes made in the detailed scrutiny ‘committee’ stage. For questions to health ministers, each MP (other than opposition front-benchers) gets one question to ask of the ministerial team. It’s up to the Government which minister answers which question. This means that unless MPs are incredibly well-organised and co-ordinated, there is no chance for anyone to follow-up any issue. In my experience, party whips and operators focus too much on political point-scoring rather than picking a specific issue and having their MPs working as a team greater than the sum of their parts.

“Does it mean that it’s only journalists outside select committees that get the chance to ask direct follow-up questions of ministers?”

Essentially. That’s why it’s all the more frustrating when broadcast journalists in particular fail to pin down ministers when faced with an open goal.

“Why do you think this is?”

Part of it is the need to be scrupulously impartial – which can sometimes have a dampening effect on questioning. Another is that the journalists have got such a wide subject area to cover that they can never be experts in the fields that they cover.

“What are the alternatives?”

The big one for me is for journalists to start crowd-sourcing questions from their social media followers. Channel 4, Sky and even ITN journalists have started doing this. For whatever reason, big name BBC journalists don’t seem to do this nearly as much. Is it a cultural thing within that institution?

Select committees is where it’s at, while Private Members Bills are a waste of time

Puffles’ chums Isabel Hardman and Mark D’Arcy (both of whom I rate highly) are appearing before the Commons Procedure Committee to discuss Private Members Bills (PMBs). (See Wed, scroll down). The amount of time that is wasted is incredible – and for what purpose? Philip Davies MP has got a reputation for being an expert filibusterer of bills. I sat through one of the speeches he made, which made me ponder about the processes that PMBs have to go through before they are introduced. When I look at the number and nature of them, I can’t help but feel that there are too many too ill-thought-through bills that are introduced.

I can understand why MPs table them – tabling new legislation is one of the few big levers they have. It also makes for a nice headline – though there are only so many times the likes of Caroline Lucas can re-table a bill to renationalise the railways before the process starts getting tedious – irrespective of the merits of her policy behind the bill. It’ll be interesting to see what Ms Hardman and Mr D’Arcy have to say about PMBs.

“What is the best way of scrutinising government policy?”

This for me is a question that parliamentarians need to ask themselves (and of the rest of us) now that we are in this social media age. Changing the culture of Whitehall and Westminster is one thing. Persuading a sceptical public is quite another. And why would anyone want to get involved in democracy if they can’t see how their efforts are going to have an impact?

It also means asking the question of ‘what do we mean by scrutinising government policy?’ I can scrutinise government policy in this blog…and it’ll get completely ignored. MPs can criticise government policy in the Commons and get the same treatment. What we don’t see much of are cross-party ‘blocking motions’ where MPs get together and force the government of the day’s hand on an issue. The Syria vote of a few years ago was a rare example where a government was explicitly blocked on a major policy. Would policy be improved if smaller blocking motions or even amending motions that did not lead to media storms or ministerial resignations were more common?

Given that party whips are machines of their leaderships, is there also a stronger role for parties to have their own backbench policy committees (if they don’t already have them) that provide links from the parliamentary parties to wider memberships as a whole? Otherwise – and as a number of MPs have expressed to me in the past, all too often they take the word of the whips and vote the way their leadership wants them to vote without having had any briefing/advice from outside their party’s leadership structures. The reason why this matters is because MPs have a duty to scrutinise legislation and the government of the day. If – & in particular backbench government MPs are simply taking the direction of party whips, their role in scrutinising the executive is significantly diminished.


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What will you do that’s new in 2016?


Thoughts and links for a new year in and around Cambridge

If you’ve not seen it already, have a look through https://www.cambridgeshire.net/

It’s easy to forget just how active our city is. Come along to ‘Volunteer for Cambridge’ where around 100 groups and organisations will be holding stalls at Cambridge Guildhall on Sat 30 January.


Details of participating organisations is at http://www.cambridgehub.org/volunteer-for-cambridge

Got anything that needs repairing? Jump on the No.2 Bus to Chesterton and walk round to St Andrew’s Church Hall for a Repair Cafe http://www.meetup.com/Cambridge-Repairers/events/227156850/ on the same day (Sat 30 January 2016 from 1.30pm)

“I want to get fit…but sport is like too much effort!”

I know the feeling. What’s worked with me in the past is to take up an activity that involves movement and also feels like fun rather than pounding a treadmill. Cambridge has a number of dance clubs covering a range of dance styles.

Personally speaking I’d love to see Cambridge’s dance organisations get together to put on a big dance event at one of Cambridge University’s Colleges – perhaps for the summer where in a different room or tent you had a different dance style. Here’s hoping!

“I want to do something musical!”

The Duxford Saturday Orchestra is the place to be http://www.duxfordsaturdayworkshop.org.uk/ – I’d love to see them expand and run a Saturday workshop for adults only in the centre of Cambridge. Basically a version of the East London Late Starters Orchestra or the music courses that the Mary Ward Centre hosts.

There are lots of choirs around too – the one I’m part of, The Dowsing Sound Collective in Cambridge is full to bursting, but if you commute from Cambridge-London as I once did, their Camden Collective (along with Fulham & Greenwich) are looking for new singers to join. http://thedowsingsoundcollective.com/joining-dowsing/singers-wanted

Have a look at the groups listed by the Cycle of Songs project to see which one might suit you http://www.cycleofsongs.org/choirs/  or the more formal choirs at http://www.gerontius.net/cgi-bin/member.cgi?Town=Cambridge  Others not listed include:


“I’m passionate about something local – but where do I start with politics?”

With your local area committee meetings if it is a specific local issue https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/content/area-committees where you can turn up on the night to put your questions to elected councillors.

For the 2016 Cambridge City Council elections, see https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/elections – and make sure you are eligible to vote! It takes 5 minutes -> https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote

Parties that have stood candidates in local elections in the past include:

Also active are Cambridge Women’s Equality Party – who may stand candidates in Cambridge in 2016.

“I want to make a difference in local campaigns, but I don’t want to get involved with party politics”

If you are interested primarily in your neighbourhood, find your nearest residents association at https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/residents-associations

Interested in the future of Cambridge? Have a look at:

Community action for young people in Cambridge:

  • National Citizen Service http://ncseast.co.uk/ – what they do is ***excellent*** – aimed at year 11 & year 12 students
  • The Prince’s Trust Team – another excellent programme for 16-25 year olds http://www.camre.ac.uk/school-leavers/princes-trust/ (I did this after graduating from uni before I joined the civil service, even though the course is marketed primarily at those without qualifications).

So…those are a few highlights. As for me? I want to see more comedy shows this year in these dark times.

Anyone got any recommendations?

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My social media stars of 2015


A few names with reasons who have made 2015 bearable

Whitehall and Westminster

As mentioned in video review of the year, the general election dominated the first five months of the year – and the result will linger on for a long time to come for better or worse. So my ‘Member of Parliament social media star for 2015’ is:

Heidi Allen MP – South Cambridgeshire -> @HeidiAllen75

I first met Ms Allen long before she was famous – I sound a bit like that die-hard music band fan who was like ‘Yeah – remember those early gigs when it was three men and a dragon fairy at the local boozer? They like totally sold out when they started doing those stadium gigs right?’ From that first interview I knew she was going to be a very different MP to Andrew Lansley, and that her nearest rival, Lib Dem Seb Kindserley was going to have his work cut out.

Yes, she’s a Conservative, but then South Cambridgeshire is a safe as houses Tory seat. (They returned Andrew Lansley on more than one occasion!) Out of all of the MPs that we could have got, South Cambridgeshire has got lucky: A bright, personable, accessible and hard-working constituency-focussed MP who is not worried about climbing the ministerial career pole. How many Conservative MPs would have held a series of public meetings to otherwise hostile audiences to discuss Jeremy Hunt’s plans for the NHS? (See a video of Ms Allen’s speech here).

She’s spoken out publicly against her party’s whip on a number of issues – more in the past six months than his predecessor did in his entire parliamentary career.  Ah – but it’s the vote that matters! When it’s on a knife-edge, yes. But remember that South Cambridgeshire voted by about 50% for Ms Allen, so one could argue that by going against what was in the Conservative manifesto is against the wishes of her constituents.

Shout outs also go to Daniel Zeichner MP, succeeding Dr Julian Huppert with the extremely demanding seat of Cambridge. Furthermore, Mr Zeichner has sailed his political ship with a good level of judgement given the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Mr Zeichner has taken on the role of shadow local transport minister (thus incorporating cycling policy) as part of his close friend Lilian Greenwood‘s shadow transport team.

Honourable mentions also go to Dr Stella Creasy MP  and Liz Kendall MP in the face of hostile social media attacks, coming out stronger than their attackers. Dr Sarah Wollaston MP for her work chairing the Health Select Committee, Meg Hillier MP charing the Public Accounts Committee and former Mayor of Cambridge Barry Gardiner MP for what I thought was the most powerful speech content-wise in the Syria debate. Big losses to the House of Commons as well as Dr Huppert include Jo Swinson – former Business Minister, one of the nicest people in politics that I’ve met.

A final honourable mention goes to Cat Smith MP – one of Puffles’ earliest followers when she was a little-known councillor. It’s been a pleasure to follow her rise up through the ranks of Labour, where she is now shadow equalities minister and making a positive impact in Westminster.

Beyond Westminster – young women activists

Political campaigning group of the year for me has to be the machine that was Cambridge Universities Labour Club that swept all before it. With Elinor Clapson and Imogen Shaw now heading things up, I’m expecting to see even more women activists becoming active in Cambridge.

The ‘Most inspirational young politician’ award however, goes to the brilliant Amelia Womack – deputy leader of The Green Party, who visited Cambridge on a couple of occasions this year. I think that politics generally will be a better place if she gets elected to the Welsh Assembly, in which she’s standing in her home constituency.

Honourable mentions go to a huge wave of young women political activists who I’ve met and/or had Twitter/Facebook conversations with this year – giving me (& others) hope in the face of such darkness in the political world. These include (and I’m withholding some details for obvious reasons):

Conservatives (yes – really)

Lisa @FenWench for courage in the face of adversity and for genuine niceness outside of the politics bubble


Laura @Tweetypie_Laura for her persistent campaigning on mental health, and providing a strong, sympathetic ear during hard times

Sharon Kaur @senlanoire for being selected as a first-time candidate for Cambridge Green Party in the highly-contested Petersfield ward of Cambridge in 2016.

Sophi Berridge @Firecat79 I was at college with her in the mid-late 1990s. A heart of gold who stood in her home ward for the first time, and from nowhere polled over 500 votes.



Holly Higgins @HollyJesHiggins – if Labour haven’t given her a medal for her campaigning in 2015, someone should be held accountable for that oversight.

Rachel Barker @Rachellybee is a mini campaigning dynamo who is standing for chair of Young Labour. They’ll be in very good hands if she’s elected.

Sophie Barnett @sab1985 who I sing with in the Dowsing Sound Collective and who is a welcome new face campaigning in my neighbourhood

Stef Lehmann @Steflehmann who is giving Labour a much-needed kick up the backside on all things Europe – vital in the runup to the referendum.

Cllr Emma Toal @emma_toal One of Labour’s youngest councillors active in the Tory heartland of East Anglia. Now deputy leader of the Labour group on Harlow Council

Kerri Prince @Kerri_Prince Elected a councillor ***while still doing her A-levels***. Labour activists, look and learn.

Steve Doran @GirlSteve not only for trying to explain that girls can be called Steve, but also for this video on nicer politics.

Liberal Democrats

Sophie Bell – @SophieBell2812 who when I met her at the Mill Road Winter Fair had this confidence, passion and depth of knowledge that I’ve not seen in a young activist for quite some time.

Sophia Nash – @SophiaNash_ for speaking up against bullying in politics

Chloe Hutchinson @CHutchinson96 for persistently making the liberal case despite the election setbacks

Daisy Benson @_DaisyBenson for continually setting high standards on campaigning that the rest of her party need to aspire to. An early adopter of digital video.

Millicent Scott @MissMillicent for giving up so much to stand for her party in the general election in her home constituency that was also a safe Labour seat. How many of us would do the same?

Scottish National Party

Miriam Brett @MiriamBrett from whom I learnt lots about politics north of Hadrian’s Wall. Listen to her here.

Personal supporters of the year

There are so many people I could mention here, from the Be the change – Cambridge team including David Cleevely, Anne Bailey, Ceri Jones, and friends, to those in the Dowsing Sound Collective that kept me going through tough times including Angela Jameson, Esther McNeill and Erin McAllister. Also in the political world from Cllr Anna Smith. ***Thank you for all your support***.

Also, longtime Twitter friends – Puffles is ***five years old!*** so a big thank you to those who have stuck around over the years and who I also saw this year, including Penny Homer, Frances Coppola, Sarah Baskerville, Jon Worth, Lou Woodley, Michelle Brook, Jennifer Jones & Sophie Warnes

Journalist/commentator of the year

There’s one writer whose analysis and commentary has become essential reading this year. Interestingly she’s spotted more often in the conservative press than the liberal press. Step forward Isabel Hardman of the Spectator. I can’t think of a single journalist who has consistently met the high standards she has set for herself this year. The Political Studies Association named her Journalist of the Year (see p13) – a well-deserved award.

Gig of the year

Two awards: One that I took part in and one that I was in the audience for. In terms of taking part, it was Dowsing Sound Collective’s Lung Jam event to celebrate the launch of the Cambridge Live Trust.

For the many performances that I saw, it was Fred’s House at The Junction in Cambridge

Honourable mentions for top performances go to:

Cambridge political event of the year outside of elections

Easily it was Mr Corbyn’s visit to Cambridge

The atmosphere inside Great St Mary’s was electric.

Campaigns and campaigners of the year in Cambridge

The winner here is Jim Chisholm of ‘Chisholm Trail’ fame. After about 30 years of campaigning we’re getting a much-needed north-south cycle route through the city that’s away from motor traffic. For 2016 the campaigns/campaign groups to watch are:

Both have the potential to influence the future of our city. The first on our infrastructure and the second on transforming our community groups by linking university societies with local civic groups – the latter kicking off with ‘Volunteer for Cambridge’ on 30 January 2016 at The Guildhall.

Honourable mentions go to the Cambridge Cycling Campaign and to Positive Investment Cambridge/Fossil Free Cambs for progress on all things climate change – for which The Green Party were indirect beneficiaries with the election of Councillor Oscar Gillespie, bringing a much-needed environmentalist perspective to the city council.

Watch out for the following in 2016:


There are many people I’ve missed off this post – apologies to you all. I’m very picky with who I follow on Twitter – whether as me or Puffles. If I’m following you, it’s because you’re doing something right. (Even if I may disagree with some of your policies!)

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