How does the city of Cambridge persuade expert researchers engage in local democracy and the future of Cambridge?

…and how can we ensure that the discussions with local residents happen all year round rather than just at election time?

This stems from this post:

…and this post by CambsLive Journalist Alya Zayed.

“Something must be done about engagement!”

Ms Zayed is quite right on both counts in her final post. Firstly, being a councillor according to officials at Cambridge City Council requires about 20 hours per week of work.

  • attending meetings,
  • reading background papers,
  • answering constituency correspondence
  • leafletting constituents/door knocking

How much do councillors get in return for all of that (which is the very basic of expectations? About £5,000 per year. You can examine the allowances in detail for Cambridge City Council here. For ease of reference,

Leader £14,328
Executive Councillor £10,420
Scrutiny Committees – Chair £2,084
Scrutiny Committees – Opposition Spokes (Liberal Democrat) £2,084
Planning – Chair £5,210
Planning – Vice-Chair £2,605
Planning – Member £782
Licensing – Chair £1,303
Licensing – Member – if they have attended 4 or more meetings £391
Joint Development Control (Chair / City Spokes) £2,605
Civic Affairs – Chair £1,303
Area Committee – Chair £1,042
Full Council – Chair £1,303
Leader of the Main Opposition Group – Lib Dem £5,210
Greater Cambridge Partnership Board Member £2,605
Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly Member £782
Combined Authority Cabinet Member * £5,210
Combined Authority, Overview & Scrutiny Committee Member £1,303
Combined Authority, Audit & Governance Committee Member £521
Police and Crime Panel Member £782

The above *are in addition* to the 20 hours per week and the basic allowances. How many of you with full time commitments could take enough time out of your work for the equivalent of about £5 per hour to undertake the roles of a councillor?

Skills and competencies to be an effective councillor

There is no ideal councillor out there that one could create in a sci-fi laboratory as in those 1980s-style movies. Not least because the needs and demands of different parts of the city will never be the same. A towering intellectual might be suitable in an affluent district populated by older, affluent University dons, but might not be suitable for one populated by working class families in very unstable employment with young families.

Furthermore, there’s strength in diversity. The complexity of some of the council planning documents require some of the councillors to have the intellectual and analytical skills at a post-graduate level. At the same time, you need people who are or have worked on the front line in the scandalously low-paid caring professions to call out the likely impact of any council cuts to budgets in those service areas, and remind decision makers that it’s not just columns in a budget line but the lives of real people who are effected – people who may then become both in need of, and eligible for help in a different part of the council that happens to be someone else’s responsibility.

Breaking out of the local public policy silos

Back in 2013 I put together some ideas into a series of slides here. How do they read 8 years later?

Above – one example of the 39 policy ideas I came up with, long before Brexit and the Pandemic changed things.

One of them included a call for Cambridge University and its colleges to be “good local citizens”.

We’ve been fortunate as a city that since then, the Cambridge Hub has expanded its activities significantly to get students working with local communities in and around the city. Recently I sponsored two groups of Cambridge students on the Hub’s Social Innovation Programme. This resulted in a dozen students working with a number of community groups, local people, and local councillors and generally learning about how Cambridge the town functioned – finishing off with a formal presentation of the issues and challenges I invited them to take on. In this case one was a Covid-proof local history project, and the second was developing a process to create a new Cambridge Late Starters’ Orchestra for adults.

Above – the front cover. You can read their proposals here.

“How do we get the experts scrutinising their specialist fields?”

This is the bit that my post referred to at the top. What’s happened in the last decade or so is that the University of Cambridge has sharpened up its public policy operations – as have a number of other universities in the face of partisan think tanks getting policies lacking in evidence implemented by central government.

One of the more recent developments championed by Cllr Ian Manning (LibDems, East Chesterton) is the Cambridgeshire County Council Policy Challenge, which is aimed at Cambridge University Post-Grad researchers.

At the party-political end, there are a number of students and academics standing for election to Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council for the first time. Some of them were featured in Varsity, the Cambridge Student Newspaper here. And don’t forget:

Above – click on and type in your postcode to see who is campaigning for your vote!

Multiple competing visions for the future of Cambridge

The Cambridge 2065 project published 24 of them. Several of them were featured at the Keeping Cambridge Special conferences. You can see the video playlists at:

At the same time you’ve got the pressure from international finance and property wanting to build and make fortunes competing against the warnings of the environmental limitations such as the water crisis that is severely damaging the upper courses of the River Cam. Can’t have your picturesque images of punting on the Cam in the summer if the water from the aquifers and chalk streams has been used up by the new developments and/or replaced with raw sewage. Perhaps some shareholders need to reappraise their investment portfolios in the utility companies and scrutinise the activities of the firms they part-own? Or maybe have a word with the regulator, the Environment Agency, whose Chair used to be a senior associate of the University of Cambridge’s Programme for Sustainability Leadership. If the University has got those connections it can use to help solve the city’s problems (which can sometimes be of their own creation), why not use them?

We know the structure of governance in Cambridgeshire is broken

Mayor Palmer’s independent review of governance really should have reported back before the election. It hasn’t. You can ask the mayoral candidates about this if it’s an issue for you.

Given that propriety and transparency are in the news of late, part of the solution to Cambridge’s challenges have to involve making far better use of the talents within our city, and also moving away from decision-makers in politics meeting different groups of people separately, and towards one where we are able to solve the problems collectively. There are some in a number of institutions and sectors who might not like this – such as those who are not used to external challenge from those otherwise far outside their fields. That could be a large family landowner, the chief executive of a powerful corporation, or the finance committee of an ancient and eminent college. Or even a politician or leader of a local authority or political movement. Take your pick. The problem at heart are the structures, systems, and processes irrespective of which personalities might be around.

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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