How should Cambridge communicate with its residents?


Collating thoughts following a short twitter exchange recently

This was a theme throughout the Be the change – Cambridge events of 2014/15 but didn’t end up taking off in the way I anticipated. Hence bringing my thoughts together here following the recent progress both on the Greater Cambridge City Deal, and my own improving skills using digital video. Furthermore, this post follows up an offer from the Master of Selwyn College, Roger Mosey who was the director of the BBC’s operation for the London 2012 Olympics.

Scoping the problem

There is a small community of us journalists, commentators and community reporters that cover local democracy in Cambridge. At a time when local newspapers and broadcast media are struggling, it’s all the more important that local public organisations are subjected to proper scrutiny. Even more so for Cambridge and surrounding villages as this is a time of huge change and rapid growth for the city. Having grown up in the city and returned twice (after university and post-civil-service), I have a unique perspective of knowing my childhood neighbourhood inside out while at the same time being familiar with a fair bit of the public policy detail given my past as a policy adviser in Whitehall on local government reform.

The problem from a communications perspective is that too many people and organisations are chasing too few reporters and publications that have that large generalist reach. Having seen the hours that Jon Vale of the Cambridge News puts in – and his predecessor Chris Havergal, I don’t know how they manage to cover all of the meetings that take place. Actually, in recent times – and with good reason, they have sourced articles based on the video footage that the likes of myself and Richard Taylor have filmed. (Naturally they sought our consent before publishing).

As well as meetings of Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council, single local government reporters also have to cover the Greater Cambridge City Deal and any community actions that are vaguely political. That is a massive remit even with the support of a friendly team of community activists/reporters to source news stories from.

Too many people relying on too few people?

This was a point former Mayor of Cambridge Paul Saunders mentioned to be about the problem with contemporary local democracy. I’ve found similar with the reporting of it too. We don’t have a resident community activist/reporter based in Cambourne, where South Cambridgeshire District Council is, and I don’t have a car. So getting to meetings there using public transport is a hassle.

At the same time, more and more people are becoming interested in local democracy and in what is happening. My Youtube channel stats since January 2015 are around 35,000 hits and 135,000 minutes of video footage viewed – which for a channel covering mainly local democracy is huge.

Yet when we look at existing output generally, there are only so many print pages that the local media can print, and only so many web pages that journalists will be able to update at the same time. Hence the growing importance now of professional journalists working with community reporters and having the two feeding off the work of each other.

How do we co-ordinate the institutions that cover local democracy?

Not being part of an institution means I do not have the gravitas to convene a gathering of participants and decision makers in organisations. Someone like Roger Mosey as the Master of one of Cambridge’s colleges and a former BBC executive however, does.

What might such a gathering look like? 

In terms of participants, the easy part is picking the local government and/or political correspondents from the local media. However, we need to go beyond just the mainstream reporters.

An executive from each of the local media institutions – ones that ‘can commit the institution’ to borrow a Whitehall phrase, in my view are also essential. The reason being that nominally some of these organisations (such as the BBC and ITV Anglia) are in competition with each other across a wider area. I don’t know nearly enough about broadcast media organisational structures to know how to navigate around that problem.

I would also want to have the communications managers from a cross-section of organisations across the city and beyond. I want to challenge them to go far beyond their standard communications strategies and press releases.

With non-mainstream media, having a mix of community reporters, bloggers, short video makers, photographers and also the student press is essential. One outcome I’d particularly like to cover is how our institutions interact with students who are either studying related subjects such as media or politics, through to those who work with media as a passion or hobby.

Easily overlooked are the politicians – representatives from political parties that regularly stand in elections and who have holders of elected public office that cover the city and surrounding villages.

Finally, I would also want there anyone who is passionate about the future of our city and could provide some constructive external scrutiny to discussions – otherwise it risks being a media echo-chamber cut off from our target audiences.

How might it proceed and what could it achieve?

I’d prefer to have such a gathering run broadly on open space principles. Although I’ve in part scoped the problem, I’ve merely touched the surface. First and foremost though, I want participants to think collectively ‘as the city’ rather than being a representative of their employer or organisation. If everyone approaches the challenge with the mindset of what can they or their organisation alone get out of this, the whole thing is dead in the water. In my view, we’ve got to demonstrate that as a diverse collective, we can think collectively about the problems we have identified.

I’d then invite people to pitch (30 seconds per pitch max) workshop sessions based on the problem-scoping session. We piloted this at Be the Change in late 2014 and the concept of moving from problem scoping to problem solving seemed to work. Following summary feedback, I would then invite/challenge all participants to commit to one small one-off action along with one small behaviour change they will make as a result of participating. For example it could be as simple as all press releases in an organisation going on an easy-to-find corporate web page at the same time as they get emailed to media contacts. (Actually, they should be sending hyperlinks rather than attachments…)

What difference might participants and the public notice as a result? 

We’d all have a much clearer picture of what is being scrutinised by whom. For example I’d like to see a clear picture or diagram of all of the public services delivered in and around Cambridge, along with who the service providers are accountable to – and how to contact the latter as well. That alone might persuade more collaborative working between our fragmented public sector – a challenge raised in the last Parliament by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge MP.

Having knowledge of which journalists or reporters were covering what meetings might also save time and effort for many – especially where there are conflicting meetings on the same day. On a couple of occasions at the last minute some of us have managed to ensure clashing meetings had at least one reporter or videographer at them to ensure that what was said/decided could be reported accurately.

The public as a result would find an improvement in the quality, quantity and curation of local politics as well. One example of this could be the timely announcement/publicity of important local meetings that arise – or even the routine publicity of regular local meetings such as area committees. Personally I think area committees need an overhaul – in particular the East and South ones. I’d love to see at some point at the start the chance for multiple conversations between councillors and residents rather than having sometimes a room with dozens of people in with only one speaker at a time. Because it’s through those multiple conversations that good things start to happen – like Volunteer for Cambridge – which has now become an annual event!


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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

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 and 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 –

“What’s the deal all about?”

You can read the deal at

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

“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

“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

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, and also the toolkit is at 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 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)

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

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


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 – 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

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

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 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 – 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.

Have a look at the groups listed by the Cycle of Songs project to see which one might suit you  or the more formal choirs at  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 where you can turn up on the night to put your questions to elected councillors.

For the 2016 Cambridge City Council elections, see – and make sure you are eligible to vote! It takes 5 minutes ->

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

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

Community action for young people in Cambridge:

  • National Citizen Service – 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 (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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