“Build bridges” said the late Mayor Nigel Gawthrope

And we’ll need to – physical and metaphorical if we are to reconnect our city and make it greater than the sum of our parts.

I think the phrase will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Above – from May 2018 at Cambridge Guildhall, Cllr George Pippas (LD – Queen Edith’s) handing over the chains off office to the new Mayor of Cambridge Nigel Gawthrope. On the wall behind are the names of the previous mayors of Cambridge, including civic titans such as George Kett (of Rattee & Kett), Alfred Tillyard the editor of the Cambridge Independent, Algernon Campkin the chemist and photograph developer, and Florence Ada Keynes, the Mother of Modern Cambridge.

I mentioned the idea of creating and endowing a new local history institute or unit at Anglia Ruskin University, and naming it after Mayor Gawthrope, and Sir Michael Marshall. Just another idea that could be financed by a Permanent Mayoral Fund for Cambridge. (If you like the idea, drop an email to the candidates standing for election in your neighbourhood in 2 months time – and tell them of your own ideas as well!)

Physical and metaphorical bridges.

We saw the installation of a new bridge over the River Cam a few months ago.

Above – from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign here on the new Chisholm Bridge linking Abbey & Chesterton wards.

I also think there’s room for another bridge over the Cam – or perhaps making greater use of an existing one.

This would open up the southern face of King’s College Chapel, and create a new alternative pedestrian route from Queen’s Road to King’s Parade, taking much of the pedestrian traffic off of the cycle route between the older colleges and the University Library off Grange Road.

Bridges over the railways

One of my suggestions from ages ago was to build bridges to connect some of the more recent developments. These have included the Mill Road Depot Ironworks and the Cromwell Road Ridgeons sites.

Above – the Mill Road Depot site – you can see Hooper Street on the right of the photo. A few years ago I pondered whether this could form part of an alternative cycle route through from Cherry Hinton to The Grafton Centre.

Others we’re still waiting for – such as a new much wider cycle and foot bridge on The Tins path – a lovely description/photo tour here clearly illustrating the issues.

Above – another long-planned footbridge we’re still waiting for, this one for an eastern entrance to the railway station and a link to the main station building which could take away some of the pedestrian traffic from a very busy (10m people per year) station building.

Building bridges between communities and the people that make them

One of the things I’ve pondered for some time is what it would be like if the civic authorities and groups brought together people from communities that don’t normally mix, and gave them a shared city issue to try and solve that doesn’t involve the issue that denominates them as different groups. So for example what would it be like if for example all of the women from the different religious communities in the Mill Road area of town were invited to take part in a series of workshops that involved…coming up with solutions to reduce air pollution on Mill Road? The point being that the institutions responsible for transport issues would get insights from people who don’t normally take part in standard consultations, all of whom would have had the chance to discuss and talk through the issues with people they may not know, without the presence of loud opinionated people (I have been known to be one of them) saying “This is my idea and all of these people agree with me! Don’t you?!? Don’t you!!!”

I still lampoon the myself of years gone by who would volunteer for everything – including going on visits to places no one would want to go to for occasions judged as unimportant. “I am delighted to be here for the opening of this front door!” I could also have seen myself in a similar position, if I had ever been ever foolish enough to stand for Parliament and get elected, offering to be the person to take part in the civic opening of new community facilities if only to get my name on the plaque! *Look at me! This is local history!*

I’m too old and ill (long term) to even think about such things these days and I can’t see myself ever getting back to a place where I can function full time. Hence being far more cautious about what I get involved in these days, and taking the view that “I don’t need to know about that!” or “That’s none of my business – I don’t need to be there!” Sometimes it might be a case of encouraging others to get involved, or taking a view that someone else has got that issue over there covered.

“How do you get more people involved in more activities?”

Nearly a decade ago I wrote about an annual Cambridge Societies’ Fair. It was taken on by Cllr Richard Johnson (Lab – Abbey) and, with the help of students and staff from the Cambridge Hub, we turned it into the Volunteer for Cambridge Fair. Although it took a bit of time to get going, the feedback from the first fair’s participants was that it was the first time that their frontline activists had got together in the same hall with their colleagues from other groups and organisations. Often it’s the managers and organisers that do this. It was going from strength to strength until the pandemic hit.

As Cambridge emerges from lockdown, I think this fair will be even more important. Furthermore, I also think that the original proposal for a Cambridge Societies Fair will also need to be developed and delivered at community centres across the city rather than at one central venue. The reason being that Cambridge’s population is still growing, and that the demand for people wanting to get involved in social activities is going to be so high following the extended periods of lockdown that a single day in a single venue simply won’t be enough.

Cambridge Societies Fair on Parker’s Piece in the summer?

Assuming it doesn’t rain, people maintain social distancing and all of the other reasonable precautions to prevent the virus from spreading, why not? The challenge our community, activity, hobby and sports groups face is that few of them know what percentage of their members will return. Some may have passed away in the pandemic. Others may have developed long term health problems and are no longer able to carry out their previous duties. Those groups and organisations that want to continue functioning will need something to help them recruit new members. If there are still restrictions on tourists and visitors, then maybe late summer (at which point more people will have been vaccinated) may be the best time to host such events.

Societies fairs across the city

For me this is essential – whether hosted on what few available open green spaces there may be, or in halls later on in the year or in 2022. Amongst other things it will enable councillors and civic society generally to find out quickly which community groups have successfully reformed, as well as using the events to find out what sort of activities people want to see in their neighbourhoods & beyond, and what contributions they are prepared to make in order to make it happen. Because local democracy and community action are not spectator sports!

Moving to an age where more people choose to get involved in the running of our city

This was something I remember discussing with another former Mayor of Cambridge, Paul Saunders the former Lib Dem Romsey Councillor.

Above – former Mayor Paul Saunders at the Cambridge 105 studios in Gwydir Street.

I was moaning about how hard it was to get more people interested in community action in Cambridge, at a time when austerity was really kicking in and people were losing their jobs hand over fist. He said that the reality we were living with at the time was that towns and cities were dependent upon a small group of people to ensure that essential services kept running. One of the things the pandemic has taught us is that in a crisis, we could not rely upon austerity-stripped public services to cope with the sudden increase in demand for help in the face of losing staff due to the pandemic and the state’s response to it. At the same time, so many people demonstrated that people could get together to come up with community responses in the short to medium term to ensure that no one was forgotten. The public inquiry will tell us how successful everyone was once we’re through this collectively.

A minority of people functioning at 120% is not a long term solution

Amongst other things, our frontline workers – including but not limited to those in healthcare settings, need a breather. They also need time and their own support in recovering from an extended and intense life experience. What are we to have in place for them?

Furthermore, what’s going to change given that the challenges not just of the pandemic, but of Brexit and the Climate Emergency are no longer things on the horizon but are here and now?

We’ve seen the council meetings on Zoom etc. But are the existing systems of consultation, debate and local policy making fit for purpose in a post-CV19 future?

A Cambridge Strategy Unit – like they have in the West Midlands

I stumbled across this last night.

The West Midlands NHS Strategy Unit is here

“Our team comes from diverse backgrounds. Our academic qualifications include maths, economics, history, natural sciences, medicine, sociology, business and management, psychology and political science.

Our career and personal histories are just as varied. Our staff are NHS employees, animated by NHS values. The Strategy Unit covers all its costs through project funding. But this is driven by need, not what we can sell. Any surplus is recycled for public benefit.”


Click on the link above to see the personnel involved.

They invited me to get in touch when I gave them an example of how not to do things as we are in Cambridge.

…to which former Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert, said that the Smarter Cambridge Transport governance diagram was an over-simplified version of the mess that we have to deal with. And he’s right! Dr Huppert is the Chair of the Governance & Audit Committee of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough NHS Care Commissioning Group, and is a former county councillor so has experience of wading through the local government political treacle.

I then asked aloud what a Cambridge Strategy Unit would be like.

…and threw it out there to see what people said. Dr William Tullett of Anglia Ruskin University got back.

So I said “Pilot it”.

This is a similar to an approach Anglia Ruskin used when they hosted a data hack day for some of Cambridge’s leisure attractions and arts facilities. It was at that event we discovered that The Junction in Cambridge had a much larger proportion of their audiences travelling much further distances to get to their shows than they had expected.

On that last point, I’m reminded of a speech my former permanent secretary said to us many moons ago. He said being a policy civil servant is one of the few jobs in the world where you can recommend a change in the law to solve a policy problem – knowing that such a recommendation has a possibility of becoming a bill before parliament. During my civil service days I was fortunate enough to spend time in the House of Commons in the officials’ box watching our ministerial team introducing a new piece of legislation into the Commons at Second Reading. It was surreal watching all of these people I had seen on the telly suddenly all in front of me in person.

“They look a lot smaller in real life than they do on the telly!”

*I dunno – how big’s your telly?*

Jack Dee from a comedy tape I got ages ago.

The House of Commons chamber is in fact very small – there are only seats for 200 people – and with social distancing that means even fewer for the duration of the pandemic.

Back to bridges

If we are going to build bridges, they have to be physical ones, and metaphorical ones. We have to build them between and within communities, and between and within institutions. That won’t happen overnight, and it will require a change of mindset – one that we can either do ourselves, or wait for something like the climate emergency to do it for us.

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