How do we repair our fragmented and broken city?

This post follows on from the list of ideas for improving Cambridge, which in the grand scheme of things involved building new things. This one is less about building new things that you could see from the street – such as a building, and looking more at the things people can/cannot do, as well as the relationships between institutions.

Fragmented public services – The Chief Executives, and Leaders of City Councils are not in control of the levers of power that are needed to run towns and cities.

The former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament, Dame Margaret Hodge, has regularly complained about the fragmentation of public services through privatisation and outsourcing.

“The areas that the committee reviews have remained the same over the years, however, its work has become more complicated due to the growing complexity of UK public expenditure, particularly as services become increasingly privatised and expenditure becomes more fragmented.”

Dame Margaret Hodge at UCL, June 2019 by Haylie Page.

As city councils go, being the leader of a district/borough-level council is the least powerful place to be. “Responsibility without power” was the phrase one former council leader used when I visited his local authority area back in the mid-2000s in my civil service days. This is what Cllr Lewis Herbert and his predecessors have been struggling with for generations. It seems there is never enough money, and never enough legal powers to enable local councils to respond effectively to the challenges they are charged with solving. In the case of a lower tier council, their ability to raise funds is ever so limited that in the face of huge cuts from central government, revenue streams such as car parking charges inevitably are mined for more revenue. In the face of the pandemic, that funding stream has dried up, so councils have had to dig into their reserves. My take is that it is public emergencies like this pandemic that reserves were created to be used for.

 “I promised local government would have the resources they need to meet this challenge and today demonstrates my commitment to doing just that”

The Housing Secretary to local councils, 18 Apr 2020 – a commitment he has been accused of reneging on.

It’s no good Cabinet Ministers complaining about the plight of local councils if they don’t get the same blank cheques that they have given to their friends with government contracts.

Cambridge’s fragmented public services

Many of you will be familiar with this diagram from Smarter Cambridge Transport. It never used to be as complex as this. Furthermore, in times gone by the geographical area of the county council was much smaller – covering only Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire. The Isle of Ely Council was based in March at what is now Fenland Hall, which as county halls go I think is quite a nice one. In fact I quite like both of the ones in March, both of which hint at a more prosperous and prominent past.

The scandal engulfing the Cambridgeshire Conservatives.

This from the editor of the Cambs Times.

Still too early to say whether it will cost the Conservatives control of an otherwise safe-as-castles Council. And even if they lose control – as they did in 2013, it does not automatically mean the opposing Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors will have enough seats to vote through alternative budgets. Independent councillors generally have been very hostile in the past to maximum council tax rises for example.

Repairing broken institutional connections

Most residents have no idea who runs our city. Most residents don’t have the time to find out the complex detail. This is different from questioning whether residents of any given place have the intellect and aptitude to understand how their village/town/city is administered, and how local policy is debated and decided. We know the system is unnecessarily complex. It’s not helped by piecemeal changes (‘Metro mayors, elected police & crime commissioners, ringfenced funds with different reporting requirements).

In a previous era, Cambridge Borough Council’s chief magistrate was the Mayor of Cambridge, and the Magistrates’ Court was inside The Guildhall. Today, the Magistrates Courts report directly to the Ministry of Justice.

In a previous era, Cambridge Borough Constabulary reported to the Watch Committee of Cambridge Borough Council. The Chief Constable would receive grants from the Borough Council to pay for a whole host of things, and would be accountable to councillors. This accountability has moved nominally to the Police and Crime Commissioners, but in reality the budget strings are held tightly by the Home Office and The Treasury. In the run up to WW2, before the foundation of the NHS, Addenbrooke’s Hospital were in conversations with the Borough and County Councils to discuss local government representation on the board of governors given the funding that both gave to Addenbrooke’s. And bizarrely, the University of Cambridge had six representatives on Cambridge City Council up until the mid-1970s. That’s not to say the city ran like a dream – it didn’t. They had their own social and political challenges throughout the 20th Century. They also didn’t have access to the technological and social advances we take for granted. It was previous generations that built the sewage works, installed the street lighting, installed piped hot water, and so on.

What would a City of Cambridge Improvement Board look like?

We used to have one in the 1800s which was responsible for improving the physical infrastructure of the city. I’m just pondering what it would be like if Cambridge City Council and its committees had powers to scrutinise public service delivery (irrespective of which sector the provider falls within), and where the major service providers were seen to be working with each other both at a strategic level (e.g. “Cambridge will reduce its CO2 emissions by 10% over five years”) and at a service delivery level (e.g. where a GP can refer a patient with breathing difficulties living in a poorly-ventilated property to the local council with a note *requiring* the local council to undertake remedial action (whether that is directly as a council house provider, or enforcement action against the landlord of the property to undertake the work).

“This sounds a bit like a local strategic partnership from 15 years ago”

It’s a little bit like the old LSPs but without half the paperwork, and having done the review and overhaul of local government, thus consolidating a host of services and institutions.

Establishing a culture of democratic participation and civic pride

We found out through Brexit that swathes of the population were excluded from the EU Referendum – a decision that prevented hundreds of thousands of people (if not more) from having a say in something that would be life-changing. It wasn’t just EU citizens or migrant workers, but also those aged 16-18. That’s not to re-open that can-of-worms, but rather a warning that we need to take collective action in order to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again.

Do you know how your city functions?

Coz I don’t!

And I’ve been scrutinising it for over a decade!

Let’s look at some of the major public service areas:

Schools used to be part of the county council structures until Michael Gove went and ruined things by centralising things through the Department for Education while ministers in the neighbouring department, my old place at the now Ministry of Housing, were trying to convince everyone that Localism was the way forward. Don’t get me started on Lansley’s botched NHS reforms which are now in the process of being overhauled again. Because the middle of a pandemic is the perfect time to do this.

What we don’t have is a single place to go whether online or in person, that can tell us the basics of how our city is run, and who to contact for what. This is one of the reasons why the MySociety collective started creating online tools such as FixMyStreet. Smashed up lamp post? Fix My Street! Pothole in road? Fix My Street! Graffiti on wall? Fix My Street!

If you don’t tell them, they won’t know

It’s why I continually encourage people to get in touch with their local ward councillors – more than a few who have proved themselves during the pandemic with things like emergency food supplies to those in most need. Got a local issue? Write to them! Anti-social behaviour a repeated occurrence? Write to them! Youth clubs all closed down? Write to them! Want to form a new social group but don’t know where to start? Write to them!

And with elections coming up… The Democracy Club has got online tools ready to go, including Who can I vote for? which tells you who is standing for which elections in your area and for what party, just by typing in your postcode.

So part of the repair job has to be encouraging as many people to participate and cast informed votes – votes informed by the voters being able to read who is standing for election, on what policy platforms, and having the ability to put questions to, and read answers from the candidates.

Overhauling local council and activism meetings

I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve been to, filmed, and live-reported from. But anecdotal feedback over the years has been overwhelmingly positive, as it has enabled many more people to follow and scrutinise what is going on – in particular those with limited mobility. After filming a three hour meeting and uploading it to my Youtube Channel, I don’t have the headspace to scrutinise it in detail. But enough local residents have been interested and knowledgable enough to do that scrutinising – which also helps the decision-makers ensure what they say and do is consistent. Harder to play different audiences off each other if they can all see the same footage. This has come into its own with the adoption of streaming all meetings online during the pandemic.

Political and civic representation of those ineligible to vote

“No taxation without representation!” was the cry from Thomas Paine. Which is one of the reasons why Victorian and Edwardian Britain were not this democratic paradise despite “The Mother of Parliaments” rhetoric we sometimes hear – as most of the adult population was barred from voting. We only achieved universal equal adult suffrage in 1928, and only secured Votes at 18 in the 1960s.

Votes at 16

This is one of the calls from the Electoral Reform Society. Successive Education Secretaries have resisted calls for substantial democracy and politics education in schools – one of the excuses being that teachers will indoctrinate pupils with leftwing ideology. If they were worried about indoctrination, why do we still have faith schools – and why have successive ministers enabled their expansion? This is something that the British Humanist Association has been campaigning against for a number of years. The actions of a number of high profile presidents, the most recent (& current at the time of blogging), Prof Alice Roberts, has also raised their profile further.

Above – Prof Alice Roberts – also on Twitter at

Representation for migrant workers and their families

This is something that the Labour Party added to their manifesto at the last minute in what turned out to be a catastrophic 2019 general election – the fallout from which they are still dealing with at a national level. It was a policy they agreed at their party conference that year.

For me, it’s a sound policy because it supports the integration of people living and working here – and paying their taxes, irrespective of where they come from. In the meantime, the challenge for towns and cities is how to ensure their voices are heard, as all too often they are some of the most vulnerable in society, and have been on the receiving end of a toxic print press for longer than I can remember.

There are many different ways that this representation and participation can be organised – and is also something that is not without its risks. For example managing a situation where two different national communities living in a city or neighbourhood are from countries that have recently gone to war with each other, or whose nations have centuries-long animosity to each other that is otherwise completely off the radar for the rest of the city. Does the response involve supporting any existing forums? (Such as the CECF). Or does it involve starting something from scratch? I don’t know – and wouldn’t know where to start either.

The principle however is a consistent one: We have a political system that excludes citizens of other countries from voting in many of our elections. How do we overcome the challenge of listening to, and acting on their concerns (chances are which may affect many other people – including voting citizens) given there is no direct political incentive to respond? Some of you might recall the footage from the US election campaign of some US candidates & their campaigners saying “We do not talk to the foreign press” – ignorant of the fact that US citizens from all over the world cast their votes by post or at embassies. How do we avoid this sort of attitude?

Food for thought.

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