Greater Cambridge Planning will need a very different sort of communications strategy for this new local plan 2030-41

The sheer volume of information contained in the online document library is so great as to be intimidating even to this old hand.

Fortunately there is enough time to put together something radical that could make this critical local plan one that has far more engagement with the people of Gtr Cambridge, and one that enables them to scrutinise and cross-examine the submissions that come from the larger and wealthier institutions that can afford to commission professional consultants and representatives.

Let’s watch the presentation of a communications strategy to councillors on a previous occasion something massive was launched in Cambridge: The Greater Cambridge Partnership – back then known as the City Deal.

Above – video of the Gtr Cambridge City Deal Board of 18 November 2014 at Cambridge Guildhall.

There might be future generations of researchers stumbling across this asking: “What’s Puffles?”

There’s a Ph.D study waiting to be commenced by someone (not me) or an MPA thesis that explores how local government organisations communicated with local residents in and around Cambridge in the subject areas of town planning and local transport planning.

Because how councils, councillors, council officers, and consultants did this was something that had to change and evolve due to continually changing conditions, whether economic (austerity and job losses), political (the rise and fall of different political parties) and technological (the decline of chat boards towards a more fluid and intense means of exchanges such as Twitter, and the emergence of [early pioneers/individual mavericks/people with too much time on their hands – circle your option] filming public meetings creating publicly available video records of who said what.

It is no longer good enough to simply list publications and broadcasters for ‘push’ messaging followed by providing a list of social media brand names to do the same online.

There are several compelling reasons for this, but the most important one is not a social media-related reason. It’s bigger than that. This emerging local plan is part of Greater Cambridge’s urgent and radical response to the climate emergency. Therefore the policies that will be in it by their very nature have to be radical by their very nature because if not, put simply people will die untimely deaths. And potentially painful ones at that. For example if we do not build in the necessary infrastructure to deal with increasingly very intensive periods of very heavy rainfall that causes flash flooding.

That is why part of the communications strategy has to be one that involves educating the public as much as it does asking them what they think of the initial proposals. They need to know how serious this process is, and how the changes to the built environment are going to affect them in future years. Again, let’s go back to what Sir William Holford & Professor Myles Wright wrote in the Cambridge Development Plan of 1950:

“Those who are called upon to tamper with other people’s houses need to approach their task with care and confidence. Proposals which may alter the physical pattern, the daily habits, and eventually the character of a town must above all be careful and informed.” 

(Holford, Wright, 1950, p5)

Which is why I rewrote it for today’s emerging local plan with the following:

“The Climate Emergency not only encourages, but *compels and requires* councillors and planners to come up with proposals that must alter the physical pattern, daily habits, and characters of our city in order to achieve the massive reduction in carbon emissions needed to stave off the worst of the changing climate.”

Cambridge Town Owl 09 Sept 2021
Communicating large amounts of very complex information to a very large and diverse audience with highly variable levels of education and ability to process and analyse that information.

My brain is still fried from all of the reading and processing I’ve done – and I’ve barely touched the surface of the content. So what will it be like for someone who left school with only a handful of O-levels or GCSEs? Some of the people I went to school with and who I still sometimes bump into today didn’t do what I did. They didn’t leave Cambridge. In fact, some of them while still teenagers in the 1990s found themselves leaving home and living in their own council houses – a few with children in tow. Today those children have grown up – and still live in Cambridge. Therefore I argue that it is those individuals and families on lower incomes, with lower levels of educational attainment (i.e. the measure of what their highest-ranked qualification rather than any judgement on intellect) who in the longer term are more likely to be disproportionately affected by the results of the local plan than the university graduate, the high-tech company founder, the property professional, and/or the international speculator.

Of course the property industries will be more than adequately represented with their consultants and QCs (senior barristers expert in a specific field with the rank of Queen’s Counsel) – those of us that followed and reported on the previous local plan (The Cambridge Local Plan 2018) met and heard many of them at the public hearings. While the public funds are simply not there to have a QC representing each individual neighbourhood, there is something to be said about organising and co-ordinating community responses to the consultations and public hearings for our residents. In particular support and a process that can help them articulate their views, analysis, and opinions that will ensure they are valid and accounted for by the analysts and the planning inspectors. And that is the purpose of that support: To ensure residents whatever their background, health, ability, or level of educational attainment can submit informed responses that can be considered in the deliberations.

Crowd-sourcing what could and should be in the communications strategy at the start

Invite the public to help shape that strategy at the very start, rather than trying to do it all in-house or farming the whole thing out to a consultancy.

It does not need to start with communications platforms. (“Do you like using Twitter to communicate with your council?”). And it does not have to start with the headlines about lots of house building either. (“Which part of your neighbourhood would you least object to seeing having a monster tower full of luxury apartments/student flats built on it?” – we went through one similar case recently that was fortunately blocked by the Planning Committee).

Part of the communications strategy could involve working with community and residential groups about what the climate emergency will mean for their neighbourhoods, and the changes they are likely to see and experience over the next few decades. Part of that will involve retrofitting. Others might see some significant changes to their built environment as properties that cannot be retrofitted to become zero carbon end up being demolished and replaced by better designs – and possibly buildings with a higher density of people living in them as well.

Breaking down the information mountain by personal interests, the area people live, and other criteria

We’ve got several years for all of this to happen in. So it does not require everyone in the city and district to read everything all at once and understand it all. Quite the opposite. You want as many people who are going to be affected to takes as productive and informed part in the processes as is reasonably possible given councils’ resources. Someone on my side of town (Coleridge/Queen Edith’s in the South-East) generally does not need to know the in-depth details of proposals for North East Cambridge. Someone in East Chesterton on the other hand living close to the site boundary more than likely will take a very different view. Not least if proposals on that site involve things like new employment and leisure facilities. It was the latter that I had a filmed conversation with Mesdames Hunt and Darton for The Junction in Cambridge in Queen Edith’s earlier today.

Above – detail from a photo by museums and heritage expert Claire Adler

Talking of experts, this was something I discussed with Claire – a specialist in the heritage sector herself, prior to the film piece. What is the process by which Queen Edith’s, and Gtr Cambridge generally, can make use of the wealth of expertise and knowledge in a way that can be harnessed for the benefit of the city? To pick one example from last night – one that didn’t require expertise, but simply being able to recall things from childhood.

Scrutinising the mass of consultancy reports

The one mentioned above was the Greater Cambridge Retail and Leisure Study published in June 2021 – so very recent. And at 122 pages, there was always going to be a fair amount to plough through. But length does not always mean what is in there is either correct, or of a very high standard. Hence the importance of scrutiny. What caught my eye was this:

Hence my immediate instinctive response was along the lines of ***Stop gaslighting me!***

Anyone familiar with Cambridge’s more recent local history will know that We literally had a riot to make the point that Cambridge’s city centre was definitely not meeting the needs of local residents (let along students from either the University or any of the other institutions – ARU being the Cambridge College for Arts & Technology back in 1985 when the riot happened). The result of that riot was the founding of The Junction on the old Cattle Market site – today’s Cambridge Leisure Park. And even then as now, young people did not consider The Junction to be in the town centre. In the days when bus services were being cut to the bone in the mid-1990s due to privatisation, for most of us teenagers in that decade a night at The Junction meant either not going into town in the first place (mindful that in that decade the land around the venue was a combination of a dimly-lit car park, industrial estate, and derelict cattle and livestock sheds), or breaking off early and making a long walk back to South Cambridge to a night where the venue was built as cheaply as possible – out of concrete blocks. We’re still waiting for further news on the proposed redevelopment of the original building.

Then there was this:

The response from local journalist Alya Zayed provided a swift riposte.

And one of those clubs has since closed permanently.

On a separate website, another friend who is of the same generation as Ms Zayed noted the following:

“People are drinking less these days, aside from the growing number of Muslims. We have less disposable income after rent. You have to really focus at uni now, to compete against the much greater number of people going. So a bigger population is needed nowadays to produce the same number of potential nightclub customers.”

I’d go further to add that as Cambridge (and other small cities and large towns) have diversified, people of different cultures and generations simply did not see the appeal of 1990s-style ‘pub+club-and-drunk’ culture. Remember it’s not just those whose religious and cultural backgrounds that forbid the consumption of alcohol – don’t forget late 19thC Cambridge had a huge Christian anti-drinking movement, it’s also the growth of EU students (since reversed by Brexit) where people from other countries have a different cultural relationship with alcohol. Something that at various times the UK has tried to emulate – even very recently.

Less disposable income after rent and bills

If we go back just over five years ago to the start of 2016, very few people could have accurately predicted what was going to follow. Leaving the EU, the US presidential elections and the aftermaths (both of them), Corbyn rising and falling, Johnson becoming PM and then being hit by the biggest pandemic the country had seen since the end of the First World War’s influenza pandemic.

Is there going to be a night time economy for us to come back to? Or are the costs of living in Cambridge now too high for people – especially young adults, to sustain even the nightlife of pre-pandemic, and of previous generations?

The CambridgeBID is one of the organisations looking to grow Cambridge’s nightlife – listen to this interview with one of their representatives on Cambridge 105 with veteran journalist Steffi Callister.

Note the interview was in January 2019. So much has changed since then

What type of night time economy should a future local plan look at sustaining? Is it time for Cambridge to start looking at a new urban centre where a new generation of night clubs can be established away from the colleges that have managed to keep to a minimum the number of post-11pm establishments in town? It could have been very different if John Parry Lewis had got his way in 1974 with his Cambridge Sub-Regional Plan.

Above – which would you have chosen? (I’ve digitised his report on Cambridge from 1974 here)

Back to the Communications Strategy

Given where the people of Greater Cambridge now are, and given what we’ve been through with both multiple consultations on transport issues along with successive elections, I’d like to think that the population collectively is more aware and more educated than where we were at the start of the previous local plan. Ditto when compared with the start of the Cambridge City Deal / Greater Cambridge Partnership.

Therefore whatever strategy the councils come up with, it has to be more nuanced and more considered than those previous. Because there is – as was mentioned at the last GCP Assembly meeting, a huge risk of consultation fatigue. How do you avoid this – especially when such a large topic area might simply result in people switching off?

With so much information – regular publicity features on different aspects

In a social media age, there is a fair amount of ‘blog-and-forget’ posting in the worlds of politics and public policy. Which is why every so often you’ll find someone in the media spotlight for seemingly U-turning or contradicting something they said or wrote some time in the past. Think Brexit and all of the pro-Remain Conservatives who predicted how badly things would turn out, only to become the ministers responsible for how badly things have turned out!

With this, rather than having a big consultation launch on 01 November 2021 as planned, followed by a period of social media silence, could the councils come up with a schedule where at the start of every week for the period of the consultation, they feature in social media posts some of the research and background documents that accompany the draft plan? They could be subject-specific, or they could be location-specific. Or perhaps both? For example managing risks of river flooding is both subject and location-specific.

Finally, I think there is also a case to be made for commissioning local history societies (I declare an interest as a committee member (unpaid) of the Cambs Assoc for Local History – which you can join!) to refresh and republish pamphlets and other literature on the more recent local histories of their villages and towns. (You can find some of them brand new in G. David, including copies of Peter Bryan’s Cambridge – The Shaping of the City. Because as we’ve seen, it’s too easy for consultants to make incorrect sweeping statements about local histories and not be called out on it. I dare say there’s a public interest that such a task is undertaken – one that I think our county’s local history community is ready to meet.

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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