Who will have the most inspiring future vision for Cambridge & County at the local elections in May 2021?

…and how can parties, activists, campaign groups, and even the local media assist in getting more people involved in the debates, and make it more that just about day-to-day issues (bins & potholes) or things outside of local council’s remit (Brexit, immigration)?

This post looks at who has published what that might make for interesting reading as parties draw up manifestos, and prepare pledges for the electorate.

Back in ***ages ago*** (2015 to be precise) the Centre for Science & Policy at Cambridge University published a series of future visions for the Cambridge they foresaw in the year 2065. Which was a brave move. Not least because Sir William Holford had tried a similar move in 1950, predicting what he thought Cambridge back then might look like in the year 2000. You can read the Holford Wright Report here. One of the reasons old reports are worth looking at in my view is because they remind us of what proposals were put forward in the past.

Above – from Holford Wright – Cambridge Development Plan 1950 p8, we’re still waiting for a footbridge or subway to link Coleridge ward with the railway station, providing an eastern entrance and potentially reducing over-crowding.

“How do the proposals and visions from 2015 look in 2021 given the shocks of Brexit, Donald T, and the Corona Virus pandemic?”

I think this is a very good question (not because I came up with it) because two of them were self-inflicted, whether by the political establishments of the respective countries, and one is a once-a-century pandemic for which the world was ill prepared for – despite the warnings from civil contingencies experts. Therefore I think it would be interesting to see to what extent the authors of the 24 pieces would amend their visions in light of the last six or so years.

For example one thing that is missing despite the specialisms of those involved, are the concepts of lifelong learning, and retraining for new careers. Yet this is becoming a growing political issue as the Commons Education Select Committee Report of a couple of months ago made clear – see here.

I heard a comment on TV last night where one academic had said humanity had progressed about ten years in the space of one, such has been the impact of lockdown. I’m old enough to remember some of the first adverts for video conferencing facilities, where the highly paid executive is showing off photos of the places around the world he has been to, while the technician repairing his computer says he won’t need to travel to all of those places anymore because of video conferencing.

Online shopping and home deliveries have boosted the profits of supermarkets at the expense of small businesses forced to close due to the lockdown restrictions. This reflects how the economic system is hotwired to deliver supernormal profits to monopolistic firms automatically without even thinking about it. Yet nation states and regional economic blocs seem unwilling or unable to take the decisions needed to rebalance things.

It’s pointless talking about grand concert halls, underground light railways, new museums and new civic buildings unless we address governance issues first

And when it comes to grand civic infrastructure ideas, I can talk till beyond the cows come home. But none of it is going to happen while Cambridge and Cambridgeshire are stuck in a restrictive administrative structure that prevents them from raising the necessary funds to do anything interesting. ***There is no rational logic to have local property taxation rates set according to a formula based on what house prices were like in the early 1990s***. But that is what we have – that is how your council tax is calculated. It has been left in the ‘too difficult box for many years.

Governance in Cambridge – from distant past to more recent past.

I found this book a few years ago that plotted the timeline of growth and expansion in and around Cambridge that led to its present city limits being established in 1935.

Above – from 1945, would a unitary council for “Cambridge County” function as well as the present system? Would the Isle of Ely Unitary be able to support itself or would this be dependent on Central Government funding? At the moment the Conservative Majority in Hunts & Fenland has successfully blocked council tax rises from city-voting liberal/Labour councillors. Surprisingly, city and Cambridge county Tories protested in their thousands when proposals to merge the old Cambridge County (in red above) with the rest of historic Cambridgeshire in the 1960s. (See Lost Cambridge here).

As the schools funding crisis revealed, Cambridgeshire has one of the lowest per-capital funding per child – hence the recent protests. Conservative Mayor James Palmer, the first Metro Mayor commented that ministers tend to ignore Cambridgeshire because for the Conservatives the county votes Blue anyway so it is easily taken for granted, and under Labour it seldom votes for Labour so there is little political incentive to increase central funding for the county when other parts of the country that more frequently return Labour councils & MPs show greater need on multiple deprivation indices.

The City of Cambridge – twice the population of the inter-war era but with the same municipal boundaries since 1934

From the History of Local Government in Cambridgeshire publication from 1959,

Compare the population of Cambridge in 1931 (69,226 people) with the estimated population for 2030/2036 – both from Cambridgeshire Insight.

Cambridgeshire Insight Population Forecasts from 2013.

Where are all of these facilities going to come from?

Good question again – and in the mid-2010s Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council published their playing pitch strategy for 2015-31. There’s over 500 pages to read so the best thing to start on are the pictures & tables.

You then have another 500 or so pages for the Cambridge City Council & South Cambridgeshire District Council indoor sports facilities strategy 2015-31.

But there are a host of things not covered by those strategies – they can’t be covered in the face of austerity followed by Brexit and the CoronaVirus pandemic. There simply is not the analytical capacity in house, or the budget to commission outside consultants.

Shared services – town planning, waste management, and recycling

With Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council sharing town planning services – including preparations for future local plans, which are all here, it’s not hard to see why for some of us (myself included) the case for a unitary council for ‘Greater Cambridge’ / Cambridge City and [old] County / Cambridge and District seem like common sense. But overhauling the boundaries and structures inevitably is not the end of it. From my perspective it needs the sort of overhaul Unlock Democracy propose.

Unlock Democracy emerged out of the old Charter 88 Group which gained ground in the 1990s then fell back in the early 2000s before merging with a host of other organisations and evolving into Unlock Democracy. Even though society and technology has evolved and moved on significantly since the 1980s – in particular with communications technology, many of their campaign aims (some of which have been achieved in principle if not practice) make for useful reading.

  • Enshrine, by means of a Bill of Rights, such civil liberties as the right to peaceful assembly, to freedom of association, to freedom from discrimination, to freedom from detention without trial, to trial by jury, to privacy and to freedom of expression.
  • Subject Executive powers and prerogatives, by whomsoever exercised, to the rule of law.
  • Establish freedom of information and open government.
  • Create a fair electoral system of proportional representation.
  • Reform the Upper House to establish a democratic, non-hereditary Second Chamber.
  • Place the Executive under the power of a democratically renewed Parliament and all agencies of the state under the rule of law.
  • Ensure the independence of a reformed judiciary.
  • Provide legal remedies for all abuses of power by the state and by officials of central and local government.
  • Guarantee an equitable distribution of power between the nations of the United Kingdom and between local, regional and central government.
  • Draw up a written constitution anchored in the ideal of universal citizenship, that incorporates these reforms.

I’ve highlighted in bold the point that relates to local government. By enshrining it in a constitution, it means that a simple Act of Parliament to repeal any gains made would be unlawful.

The forward thinking is not about the here and now, but about the policies and actions we need to take to get to some point in the future – in particular where institutions behave differently to how they do now, where some new ones are established and existing ones abolished, where some problems are resolved and new challenges (more intense climate change) emerge.

Where. Is. The. Water. Going. To. Come. From?

This is one issue that refuses to go away.

This is a governance issue as much as anything else. There is hardly anything in current town planning legislation or guidance that requires developers and local council planning committees to consider water stress as a critical factor when deciding on whether planning applications should go ahead. There’s also nothing to stop new home owners from ripping out of all of the water-saving measures in their new homes and replacing them with swimming pools, large baths, and power showers. To what extent do ministers and councillors want/need to micro-manage people’s energy and water use?

It’s a more general point related to governance. What powers & responsibilities do local councils currently have? What are the ones they need in order to deliver not just on their legal responsibilities (ones written into laws enacted by Parliament), but also the ones needed to meet the growing challenges of the future? Which goes back to the first principles of modern local councils first set into law under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. It’s a conversation that continued to this day, but you can get a feel for what MPs between 1835-1935 thought were pressing matters by the list of Acts of Parliament they passed – and the issues they covered, in this wonderful table here.


If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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