My Cambridge 2050 – following post-Covid19

The Century-long Victoria County Histories Project has challenged anyone interested in their local history to write a vision for what their village/town/city might be like in 2050.

Some of you may also be interested in the History Policy event Levelling up: Histories, Cultures, Challenges on 17 May at 5;30pm online. See also the British Association for Local History. Locally in Cambridge there is the Cambs Association for Local History, and the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. Furthermore there is my own local history blog, Lost Cambridge

Professor Catherine Clarke writes:

“What do we want our towns – and our other places, from cities to villages – to be in the future? What kinds of tools and resources do we need to imagine those possible futures? Help us start a conversation with a crowdsourced #VCHFutureHistory of places across the UK.”
The Towns Fund and the political controversy

The political and policy context is the Towns Fund. The problem is that the criteria for selecting the towns was not open, transparent and impartial – as it should have been. That was the conclusion of the powerful House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. The Government’s response is from p30 here.

Cambridge 2050, and the difficulty of long term horizon-scanning

Back in 2017 I wrote My Cambridge 2050 following the attempt by 24 people from across Cambridge town and gown to come up with their visions for Cambridge 2065. One anecdote about future horizon scanning I recall from my Whitehall days when I spent a couple of months in one horizon scanning unit in the run up to the 2010 general election is that Bill Clinton made a major speech in 1993 on future technologies. His speech made no reference to the Internet. (Whether it’s actually true or not I haven’t looked!)

Writing through the lens of looking back

“I’m sitting here writing my memoirs in one of Cambridge’s famous tea houses. They’ve experienced something of a renaissance of late as the popularity of coffee went into decline following Brexit and the great implosion of 2020. Coffee became too expensive so we all switched to tea.”

I had no idea that ‘the great implosion’ of the UK economy would be the result of the compulsory shut down of the economy and of society generally to stop a highly infections global pandemic that targeted respiratory systems.

Predicting the future is very difficult – in particular the timing of events and what might spark them off. We can make judgement calls on likelihood and impact through risk assessments and risk management and contingency planning. As I wrote last year:

“There has to be a political reckoning for ministers past and present for not having contingency plans in place given how prominent a pandemic was on the Government’s national risk register.”

During my civil service days I was a civil contingencies volunteer for the civil service. It wasn’t superheroes in capes stuff – rather that being young, single, and physically fit (I was doing 3 hours of dance classes per night, four nights per week in those days – unthinkable today), it meant the state could send me anywhere across the country for an extended period of time in the event of a civil contingency. Furthermore public policy has risk management at its heart. Which is why I stung a Cabinet Minister back in 2013 through Puffles.

Scrutiny: Puffles the Dragon Fairy at South Cambridgeshire Hall

Rule of the Commissars?

This was just after Theresa May lost her Commons majority in her ill-judged general election call of 2017.

“We’ve not had private schools since the Great Nationalisation Act brought in under the Commissars – oh, Corbyn and McDonnell. “

Posted a couple of months after that election upset, I speculated what the impact of a Corbyn-McDonnell left wing government might be. Note that back in 2015 in the run up to that general election, few people could have seen Corbyn elected Labour Party Leader and both him and John McDonnell, the left wing Labour MP being appointed Shadow Chancellor and both men along with Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott being sworn in as members of the Privy Council.

Furthermore, who could have predicted that one of the most right wing Conservative administrations (and Parliaments) ever would have to bring in the most left-wing policies in response to the Pandemic, the likes of which had not been seen since the Second World War? Whether it was the massive restrictions on civil liberties, the ‘rule by regulations’ or the massive borrowing and expenditure not just on state contracts but also on the furlough schemes, essentially the Government had to nationalise and shut down much of the economy.

Will we get the great disturbances?

Have we already had some of them with. the great Extinction Rebellion protests of 2019? Will the “Kill the Bill” protests escalate if the Government pushes through with the current Policing Bill before Parliament without major changes to the powers on policing protests? Will protest groups mobilised by disinformation campaigns also escalate? Mindful that the Government does not appear to have much of a clue on how to deal with them either.

Will there be protests from people who have been hit as a result of the Brexit deal? Especially those driven out of business by the paperwork that they were promised by ministers that would not be there? Furthermore, just how secure is the UK food supply – and global food supplies in the face of the climate emergency? Can the UK go on importing huge quantities of food from the huge glasshouse units in Spain and The Netherlands? In the south-eastern tip of Spain, the plastic roofs of the covered fields in and around Almería are so vast they are visible from Space.

Above from G-Maps – the white patches are the vast roofs covering the agricultural fields.

Local (to Cambridge) actions bearing fruit

“The students however, didn’t give their colleges blank cheques. In return for saving the colleges, the students demanded some very big changes on how things were done not just inside their colleges, but outside too. The work that the Cambridge Hub had been doing in Cambridge’s council estates had an impact across the colleges.”

At a local party political level, the Cambridge Labour Party has led the way in encouraging students to create video content as part of their campaigns.

Their opponents in Cambridge Green Party have been bringing some new radical ideas to local audiences, such as Universal Basic Income.

The Climate Emergency is inevitably one of the big issues in the up and coming local elections, as the Liberal Democrats explain below, going beyond local government.

Does the “Super-election” of 06 May 2021 (3x Cambridge City Council, 1x Cambs County Council, 1x Police & Crime Commissioner, and 1x Combined Authority Mayor) provide an opportunity for the sorts of radical policies needed to deal with things like the climate emergency and the inequalities across the city? Will historians look back and identify that election as a turning point?

“Will you still get your ‘heritage shopping list’?”

My heritage shopping list includes:

Above – from the Museum of Cambridge‘s photo archive, the old Assizes Court on Castle Hill – demolished to make way for the car parks. I think this design should be improved and expanded to enable an expansion of the Museum of Cambridge to tell the story of our city. But the Museum *needs your support*.

In recent weeks, the following has happened:

I didn’t see either of these things coming – they came out fo the blue as far as I’m concerned. I remain convinced of the merits of a Permanent Mayoral Capital Fund to fund these dream buildings! It was something that Dr Julian Huppert said should be explored at a recent seminar he hosted with Jesus College, Cambridge.

Working back from 2050 to try and understand the processes used and actions needed to deliver on that ‘dream vision’.

That for me is the key learning point that local history can feed into the public policy process. It’s one that the local history community has generally under-promoted itself in terms of its relevance to the public policy process. That’s not to say they are specifically to blame – there are so many other factors out there at play. One of them is the historic and institutionalised sexism in historical institutions and academia. Go into any bookshop and look at the history and historical biography sections. It’s right in front of you: Military history and political biographies of men dominate. Only in more recent times have the biographies of women become more prominent – especially in the run up to the centenary of the first Votes for Women in 2018.

Furthermore, the area where women were particularly prominent in history is in that of social and municipal progress – in spite of the legal prohibitions on their actions, such as standing for elections and in participating in voting. The achievements of the Women who made Modern Cambridge are that much more incredible and remarkable given that for much of the time they did not have the vote, and were banned from employment in the professions – whether the legal profession, medical, religious orders, or political offices. So the leverage they were able to make use of was inevitably limited.

“Today in Parliament – Victorian Style

“What shall we do today chaps? Shall we get the unemployed back to work? Overhaul public health in our towns and cities? Achieve world peace? No! Let’s ban women from doing useful things!”

Paraphrasing Ben Elton on a comedy tape from the 1980s when he commented on the removal of the ban on adverts for women’s sanitary products on television – noting that at some stage someone must have tabled proposals to have such advertisements banned from TV, and wondering who that might have been”

The lesson here is not to have a ‘tick box’ approach when it comes to developing any proposals to improve the city, but how to ensure structures, systems and processes are inclusive by default. That means for decision-makers and influential institutions to organise and take part in the community conversations in places and spaces they would not normally go to, rather than organising in their own spaces and advertising in the usual channels. That will inevitably make some people in affluent circles feel very uncomfortable – going to a public meeting in a community room on the edge of town which has suffered from underinvestment for decades. And on a cold, rainy night in November. But if we are to ‘build back better’ – and create new things that either have not been built before, or where previous attempts failed, that will involve doing things we’ve not done before.

And if we want to find out whether we have the ability to build these great civic buildings, we’ve got to be prepared to try. And fail. And return with an improved approach.

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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