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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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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2015 – thank you for the music

Summary: A review of the year

…because let’s face it, it’s been a bit crap for lots of us – and I’m not just talking about the general election result either. That, or from the vantage point through the lens my poor mental health, it just looks that way. Yet when I produced my first draft of a video review of 2015, it didn’t seem as bad as it feels in my heart. Have a watch below.


When I look at the stats from my Youtube Channel alone, nearly 30,000 views and over 110,000 minutes of video footage viewed looks like quite an achievement given the localised and niche nature of what I film & upload.


The stat I’m noting with interest is the average view duration, which indicates the sort of length of video I should aim for. 2015 was also unique as a general election year, and also one where the constituencies in my neighbourhood (Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire) all changed MPs together for the first time in a generation.

It wasn’t all filming – it was singing too

With the Dowsing Sound Collective we had a big sing-song for the launch of the Cambridge Live Trust

I’m in a tiny bit of the above around 0m53s. We had a number of guest singers with us for that event – a few of whom I watched audition for the gig. The biggest find for me was sixth former Daisy Hill with this number below.

I also got to see the London collectives of the Dowsing Sound Collective – something I hope continues in 2016. (They’re continually on the look out for more singers to get to the size of what we have in Cambridge – see – the energy you get from lots and lots of singers on stage (plus big audiences too) is huge).

At The Strawberry Fair and the Mill Road Winter Fair I got to see a number of musicians, groups and choirs. Ditto at a number of venues across the city including The Portland Arms, The Junction and Relevant Records. A number of themes have emerged, including improving the acoustics at small venues through to encouraging more women into local music given how nearly all of the bands I’ve seen featured on the ‘up and coming’ circuit in Cambridge are all-male groups.

Elections and politics in 2015

All is not well in Cambridge, and the overall general election result doesn’t fill me with confidence that central government policy will allow Cambridge the powers & flexibilities it needs to solve our own problems. That said, Labour never looked like a government in waiting under Ed Miliband – the ejection of Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander being an illustration of this. The Liberal Democrats were always going to take a kicking, but few predicted a Conservative absolute majority – which is what we have.

One area of hope I’ve seen is the collective performance of women MPs in the House of Commons. As a regular parliamentary watcher there have been many debates where speeches by women MPs in terms of content and delivery has been consistently superior to those of their male counterparts. The abuse and threats that too many women in politics have faced though has been one of the most depressing things in 2015. Too many good people are being bullied off the internet and out of democracy. It’s got to stop.

Local democracy in Cambridge

I’ve filmed more than my fair share of it, and it’s also good to see more people taking an interest. There are new faces entering local democracy in Cambridge, and in 2016 we’ll see some of these standing for election for the first time. My intention is to apply what I learnt from the 2015 general election to the local elections in 2016.

The most interesting development for me is the growth of various campaign groups and networks about the future of our city. My biggest concern is that Cambridge’s public organisations do not have the capacity or the vision to make the best of the energy and ideas that are coming up from the grass roots. It’s a theme I’m going to come back to again and again in 2016.

Mental health

It’s not been a great year for me health-wise. The black velvet of depression plus continued mental exhaustion has put paid to various plans and activities I wanted to get going with. The outlook into 2016 doesn’t look great either. Hence being grateful for the support I’ve received from friends and family – which I continue to be dependent on.

Thank you to everyone who has been a positive part of a difficult year. Here’s to a better 2016.

Happy New Year!


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Mindweasels, Paris climate talks, and Euro2016


On events at home and abroad

I had a lot of people looking out for me on Saturday night – the first time I had properly gone out and stayed out till stupid o’clock since…this time last year. And for the first time in ages, I stopped worrying…for a couple of hours. (Which feels like a lifetime when you have a chronic anxiety disorder!)

So a *****big thank you***** to everyone who looked out for me this weekend.

The thing is, when your mind worries about everything all the time, what is a normal night out for most people on a Friday/Saturday night (and once was for me 15-20 years ago) suddenly becomes an operation that requires military planning – accounting for things that 99.9% of the time won’t happen. Yet your mind still makes you pay interest on it!

Spending Saturday catching up on sleep

…because my sleep patterns have been all over the place for ages, and my niece & nephew who stay over on Friday nights are normally up and about at 7am on a Saturday morning. Any of you who have little children know that ‘the patter of tiny feet’ is anything but. (I love them to bits though – despite the noise in the mornings). But it meant pondering how much caffeine to have to keep me awake without setting off the anxiety spiral. As a result, in my mind I spent much of the day pondering over:

  • how much to eat/drink, and what, bearing in mind I might not be back late
  • what’s the right caffeine/alcohol balance to keep me awake, relax my mind/body but not set off anxiety or nausea (or tiredness)
  • synchronising bus times to get to different places
  • working out what time I needed to be up in the afternoon to wash & change
  • dammit did I charge my phone? (turns out I did)
  • dammit did I charge my camera (turns out I did)
  • dammit did I put a memory card in camera? (turns out I did)
  • work out what my options were in terms of getting back home safely given my dislike of the atmosphere in Cambridge town centre late at night
  • which of the many outfits I’ve collected over the years & used to wear regularly but no longer do, should I wear
  • dammit I should have given myself more time to choose!
  • which shoes are best for comfort, wet weather and dancing in?
  • how much I can afford to spend
  • how much of what medication should I take given I’m not due a new prescription till next week.
  • I always forget something – what will it be this time? Not my entry ticket surely? (Turns out it was the bottle of wine – which meant having to buy another one en route – which fortunately turned out to be a better bottle).

Now, imagine all of the above going through your head over-and-over-and-over again to the extent that your mind cannot switch off. (The CBT weekly appointments I have, and the work I have to do for them are utterly exhausting in trying to combat this – hence coming around to the view that ‘distractions’ rather than confrontation of negative thought patterns are a better route for me). The point being that things that are routine for many people are anything but for people like me with anxiety problems. Your mind is constantly thinking.

“How can your heart be racing when you’re sitting still on a bus?”

My friend Hester said ‘come over for dinner & the Strictly semis’. Eventually I accepted – hesitating on whether I had enough spoons to cover two social gatherings in one evening. (See spoon theory here – the biggest usage of spoons for that evening were the bus journeys). Fortunately it also meant not having to worry about what to cook that evening. These days, meal planning is one of the things that occupies more ‘mind time’ than it should – not least because I want to have a more healthier diet & reduce food waste.

It was also a chance to catch up on all things local democracy – Hester being one of the people who runs the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. When it came down to explaining what The Dowsing Sound Collective was, I struggled to find the words to do it justice. So I played a clip off Youtube – which was streamed onto a big screen. It was then that I realised just how powerful the sound and visuals were when videos were streamed through decent hardware

Put the above through a big screen/speakers & you’ll feel the difference.

“Yeah – whatabout strictly?”

I didn’t tweet much because I had people in the same room to talk to about it.  At this stage, the judges are getting increasingly technical with their critiques – which lost the non-dancers in the room. ‘Yeah – I had no idea what Len just said then’. Fortunately we had enough floor space for me in pink shirt & silver trousers to demonstrate the footwork he was referring to. Far easier than trying to find the words to describe it.

Actually, what made things a bit easier to explain was that some of the errors the dancers made were basic technical errors that were quite easy to spot. For example too much daylight between dancers in hold (chest-to-chest) in the slow waltz. It’s also interesting to hear people with different experiences of dancing (from zero to lots) expressing similar views on how the TV programme has evolved over the years – backing dancers and too much ‘non-dancing acting’ with tacky props not going down well.

“And the party afterwards?”

It was hot, sweaty, alcohol-fuelled and filthy. And we loved it! And no, you can’t see the photos. Actually, my main camera really struggled with the low lighting in the rooms so it ain’t me with the evidence😛

Being in a venue with many familiar faces and it not being post-gig (like it was this time last year) – enough of whom were familiar with my personal battles made a huge difference too. When you’ve got a critical mass of people who are like:

“We know stuff is shite and has been for a long time – we’re going to make sure it doesn’t stay that way”

…is the sort of thing that helps change my mindset for the better – similar to the audience reactions from our Christmas gig this time last year – see here.

Basically what I’m saying is that you can make a positive difference to your friends who suffer from anxiety disorders – and so many people on Saturday night proved it to me in spadefuls. And for that I am incredibly grateful – especially given how difficult this year has been for me.

Dancing vs dancing

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to not dancing with a partner after spending most of my spare time in my 20s at partner-dance classes of various types. Just over a decade ago, me and a dancing friend were the odd couple dancing a viennese waltz to The Divine Comedy’s drinking song at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Yeah – I’m one of those types. Sorry.

Despite having not regularly danced this side of 2010 – and (as I found out last night) being horrifically out of shape physically I probably did more exercise on that dance floor last night than all of the days put together this side of the general election. Thank you DJ George for playing continuous music all the way through till 2am and Cathy for refusing to let go of my hands…even though this meant towards the end getting into a bit of a tangle when I was expecting you to let go & you didn’t!

Trouble en route back?

There were a few police cars & officers parked outside one night club – which I noticed officers tweeting about a couple of hours later. I managed to share a cab back with Alex & Paul – which meant not having to clock-watch for the hourly night buses that Cambridge has on Friday & Saturday nights. But yeah – got back safely to find the results of the Euro 2016 draw.

“Oooh! Who’s got who?”

England vs Wales is the standout tie for the traditional ‘home nations’ with the Republic of Ireland in the closest to what can be called a ‘group of death’ – Belgium, Italy & Sweden against them. Also, Northern Ireland are back – facing World Cup winners Germany. Because of repeated disappointments over the years, I’m tempted to back Puffles’ home nation of Wales in that face-to-face. Although man-for-man the pundits favour England, Wales have a much stronger team spirit plus the most influential player from the home nations in Gareth Bale.

And the Paris Climate Change talks?

Big business lobbyists got to them – but at least its something. Read it here for yourself ->

My worry is without shipping & aviation emissions included in the text – along with multinational corporations, there are too many big gaps where no one nation state will account for those emissions. Furthermore, I’d like to see something about the environmental footprint of consumption rather than just production. On paper the UK might not have all of those coal-fired power stations and factories compared to days gone by, but have we simply outsourced those polluting industries to other countries?

Next week in Parliament will be interesting as there are a number of debates in the Commons & on select committees where ministers will have to account for what was achieved at Paris, and also how Government policy will change as a result of the agreement. For example we cannot go full-steam-ahead with fracking if we need to keep some fossil fuels in the ground.

Furthermore, big oil has questions to ask itself & account for. How much of the estimated fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground to achieve 1.5 degrees C? Because reserves that have to stay in the ground are effectively stranded assets that cannot be made use of, and whose value cannot be financially realised. What impact will that have on their balance sheets and how will their shareholders react? Are those who are divesting from fossil fuels already ahead of the game?

Food for thought.


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‘Bringing mental health out of the shadows’


Parliament are debating mental health, but why am I not feeling the difference on the ground?

The debate in Parliament is at

South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen’s contribution is at

Labour MP Angela Rayner’s contribution covered the economic drivers behind mental health problems – including cuts to services and also of debt.

Nearly four years since my own breakdown…and still no visible improvement

My music director asked me earlier this week if anyone was looking out for me.

“Well…not in the way that I’d like”

…was my response.

The past few months – in particular since the general election have been extremely difficult for me. Yet at the same time I feel that I can’t talk too much about it because I don’t want to be seen as a burden on others, knowing that doing so inevitably drives people away from me.

The vicious and unbreakable circle of doom

When I was working in London, I noticed – certainly in the early days how issues from my childhood & distant past fizzled away. Compare that to now – being back here in Cambridge where I can’t seem to get away from them. The prospect of anyone who is confined to working part time having a place of their own in this housing market is non-existent. That’s assuming you can get part-time work that both matches your skills and talents while being flexible enough to compensate for the periodic mental health crises that arise every so often.

Relying on family support – grateful though I am for it (for I’d be destitute without it) solidifies the dependency that I sought to break away from when I first went to university back in the late 1990s. I remember leaving with the mindset of ‘this was leaving home’ even though my housemates at the time didn’t see it that way themselves. When I moved down to London in the mid-late 2000s I also had a similar mindset of ‘breaking free’ and standing on my own two feet. Yet I find myself not so much back to square one but not even on the board.

In the workplace

One of the things I’ve been lacking for quite some time is working with a team of people on a regular, consistent basis on something that is for the greater good. As someone said last year, I’m qualified for a job that in Cambridge has not been invented yet for an institution that is yet to be created – yet is sorely needed. (ie a unitary authority with the proper powers & funding to respond to the demands placed upon it). As a result, it feels like I’ve been fighting an ever-lonely battle against fossilised institutions paralysed by funding cuts and by inertia.

What they don’t tell you at school (well, there’s lots they don’t tell you) is just how challenging it can be moving from an institution where you see lots of people day in, day out to one where you hardly see anyone. I remember this during my year out before university when I was working in a small office in a bank, wondering what it would be like if the next 35 years of my life involved coming to a place like that every day – as it was for many of the other staff there. I couldn’t get my head around it – in particular where some members of staff held some of their fellow colleagues in complete contempt.

Impact on friendships…

When you have a limited number of ‘active hours’ during the day, there are only so many things you can do, events you can go to and meetings that you can attend. If you’ve not read about spoon theory, have a look at If I don’t have enough spoons, chances are I won’t have enough money either. I’ve lost track of the number of events & receptions in central London I’ve been invited to that I’ve been unable to make because of the two. When you’ve got to self-fund, that 2 hour reception in London leaves you with little change from £50. Obviously that’s had an impact on staying in touch with people since leaving the civil service.

Not being able to attend every other gathering with people more locally has also meant I’ve felt more ‘frozen out’ of things – whether it being having to leave early or not being invited at all. A couple of other Twitterfriends have mentioned a similar phenomenon where because they are not in a ‘primary group’ of friends, they are the ones who have to do the asking. Yet when it’s them that does the organising, people are like bees around a honey pot before the inevitable few pull out at the last minute. When you’ve put money down as deposits for events, it’s incredibly frustrating. It’s also gut-wretching having to then ask people to compensate you for being out of pocket.

…& relationships too.

I stopped looking years ago. It’s a bit sad really, because I’ve got a huge amount of love to give. But given the life situation I’m in – only able to work part-time, at nowhere near the level of health I’d like to be and know I can be at, and still living with my parents while being in my mid 30s…yeah…I’m like ‘whack that in any profile and everyone wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole’. Not that I’ve tried. I think the last time I did online dating (or dating of any sort) was back in 2010. My viewpoint is that it’s hard enough living as myself without wanting to inflict me on anyone else. Again, that’s the depression talking.

At the same time, my heart really wants to be with someone. Not just ‘anyone’ for the hell of it, but with someone who is best friend, emotional soul mate as well as lover. I’ve not met her yet. (At least, I don’t think I have).

Losing the vision of what being cured/recovery looks like

…And feels like too. After so many years I guess it’s understandable that some things can feel permanent. I’m also mindful that sporting-wise I’m also past my physical peak. Much as my heart wants me to go out & play football or go ballroom dancing again, the networks that I had that once sustained those activities (& which also made them fun) are no longer there.

Without the stability of employment, without the goal of a team project that has a tangible ending, and without the certainty that I’m going to make a recovery, there have been times where I have lost almost all hope. This comes back to the point I made at the start – not getting the sort of support I feel I want & need. There are times where I feel I need someone else to fight my battles/my demons for me because I’ve just lost all the energy to stand up to them myself. Someone to grab hold of me, look me in the eye & say something like:

“You are going to get through this because I’m going to make sure you do. I’m going to be with you every step of the way, and here’s how we are going to do this…”

…and through sheer force of personality, drag me through it.



“We value what you do, but not enough for you to earn a living from it”

In 2015 on my Youtube Channel ( <- Please subscribe!) I’ve had over 25,000 hits and over 100,000 minutes of footage viewed (plus another 8,000 hits on my Vimeo page in the same year). It’s a sector-wide problem in journalism: how do you get people to pay for well-made content to allow creators to make a living & pay their bills? I’d love to be in a position where I could reward monetarily those whose content I rate – as the notices from news sights that pick up my use of an ad-blocker continue to remind me. (Without the blockers though, their content becomes unreadable with the pop-ups).

And in part therein lies the problem not just at a personal level, but also at a macro level. The political rhetoric we hear does not match what’s happening on the ground. We heard in Parliament the importance of mental health, but see little on dealing with the things that make our mental health worse, let alone ensuring we have enough resources to help those of us in need. We hear about the housing crisis all the time, yet a generation of ministers has been unable or unwilling to deal with it. We hear the rhetoric of all things ‘big society’ only for ministers to undermine the very things that make big society work.

“You’re not going to do anything to hurt yourself, are you?”

No – I have enough safety mechanisms to see to that. That said, where I am now is not a sustainable place to be mindset-wise. How I get out of this space…that’s my challenge for 2016.IMG_2658.JPG

The side of me you don’t see – when I’ve run out of spoons and have to spend the day recovering from what was once otherwise a normal working day.


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The Oldham West/Royton by-election


Some thoughts on the media getting things wrong, and risks of Labour drawing the wrong conclusions too

The official result is from Oldham Council at

I can’t think of any media commentator or pundit who called this by-election right. I can’t think of any polling organisation that did either. Alberto Nardelli is spot on in his blogpost here. Did the media try to (deliberately or subconciously) lead the voters to deliver the news story that they wanted to write, rather than writing about what was really happening on the streets? Because for me the tweet below spoke volumes:

In Cambridge on polling day in the general election, Cambridge Universities Labour Club mobilised 100 activists to get their vote out. That alone could have been the difference between Daniel Zeichner being Cambridge’s MP and Dr Julian Huppert staying in post. Multiply that number by seven and it’s a huge army of activists.

My past visits to Oldham

Oldham was one of the places I visited during my time in the civil service. In fact it was a place I visited on more than one occasion – meeting the late, great Michael Meacher on one such visit. His niece, Chloe, was also a former colleague in a previous policy area. During that time I fought tooth-&-nail to secure funding for this community facility in an area that at the time was once one of the most 40 economically deprived wards in the whole of England. With that facility also came a new health centre – the deal being me & my team would secure funding for the community centre and the local NHS would secure funding for the health centre. There were times when it nearly fell through, but we delivered a multimillion pound centre for a ward that really needed it. Out of all of the things I did in the civil service, working on this project (& securing the funding) is the one I’m most proud of.

It was during those visits that I got a real sense of what the people were like, what the economy was like and the challenges that everyone there faced. Observing how the different projects were being run also helped shape my future thinking about how much control Whitehall should have, thinks it has and does have on programs & projects being managed from the centre-bypassing local councils.

Young activists from the south take to Oldham

Puffles’ Twitterfeed picked up lots of tweets from various young Labour activists heading towards Oldham to campaign for the ultimate victor, Cllr Jim McMahon – leader of the council there. It got me thinking about the baptism of fire some of the first-time campaigners would receive if they got things wrong – especially given what the media was spinning in the years since I had last visited the town. But campaign they did – in their hundreds.

In the end, a well-run campaign with a huge number of activists campaigning for a well-known & liked local figure ended up sweeping away all that came before – raising Labour’s share of the vote from 56% to 62% on a 40% turnout on a cold, rainy December day in Greater Manchester.

It wasn’t all good news for Labour though

Note campaigning dynamo Abby Tomlinson in the series of tweets here

The response was by no means a unified pro-Labour one. Furthermore, a few people in & around the local Labour Party also informed me that such was the scale of the operation from outside activists that local activists felt sidelined, despite offering to help early on.

Evaluating the campaign

This is one perhaps for Tom Watson to have a look at as deputy – in particular given the furore around social media and politics at the moment. (There have been a number of news items on social media abuse and politics this week on telly). It might be worth setting up a web page with a series of questions to invite activists to submit their experiences of campaigning – and perhaps going beyond the ‘how was it for you?’ type questions (or ‘what worked/didn’t work?’). I’d be fascinated to see people’s descriptions of ‘what problems did you see in Oldham that were similar/different to the ones you see in your own local area?’ for example.

Labour won’t have 700 activists from outside bussed in to help on poling day in Oldham in the next general election. Well…not unless there is a completely unexpected surge in membership in political parties. So how much can you read into the result?

“A disaster for Labour moderates!”

So said Conservative commentator Tim Mongomerie (who I otherwise reasonably rate with the caveat that he’s open about what his politics is). But then ‘Labour moderate’ Liz Kendall MP (who I also quite like) happened to be campaigning out in Oldham for Labour…

…as was Tristram Hunt MP, whose book on the history of local government in England is a masterpiece – you can get it here (again, a book that has shaped my thinking on local government).

“So…did any socialist firebrands turn up?”

If you mean John McDonnell MP, then yes, he campaigned in Oldham as well.

Note Ms Tomlinson is in photos with both Mr McDonnell and Dr Hunt! There’s also a chance that she could be studying in Cambridge next year – in which case Cambridge Universities Labour Club won’t know what’s hit it!

“So…Cllr McMahon managed to unite disparate and quarrelling strands/wings of the Labour Party in a cold, rainy miserable autumn on the back of a general election defeat?”

For me, the two most important things for Labour were that his campaign gave hundreds of activists a feeling of what it is like campaigning when Labour is united behind a single cause or person. The second is that more and more people are beginning to call out the mainstream media on what they are reporting and how they are reporting it. It’s made all the more easier for those of us calling out the mainstream media because so many commentators predict what will happen, and find themselves in an awkward situation when things don’t work out that way.

“What about the other parties?”

UKIP are leading with complaints about postal votes – a legitimate issue but one they have been accused of using it to divide communities for political ends. As it turned out, even if all of the postal votes were removed from the total, Labour would still have one with a majority of several thousand. As it was, Cllr McMahon’s majority was over 10,000 votes.

For the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron didn’t hide his disappointment in this message to activists. They got just over 1,000 votes and lost their deposit – as did The Greens with 249 and Sir Oink-a-lot of the Monster Raving Loony Party with 141 votes. The latter did manage to end up trending in the UK for a short while on Twitter though. Clouds and silver linings eh?


As it turned out, ‘Asians’ was trending not because of Oldham but because of random content featuring people from the Far East.

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