Cambridge town, what is our collective offer to Cambridge & Anglia Ruskin students who want to get involved in civic action?

This follows the sad news that the Cambridge Hub’s Social Innovation Programme will not be happening this term.

If Cambridge town civic institutions can come up with a co-ordinated offer, the impact that our students could have on the future of our city could be significant – but we have to remove the unnecessary barriers and needless delays to enable the students to spend their time, energy, and intellect, on the tasks at hand.

It’s nearly a decade ago that I started kicking off about the lack of action coming from our public bodies on things for teenagers and young adults in Cambridge, getting into Twitterspats and turning up to council meetings on cold, rainy, November nights and asking lots of questions – normally involving how to get more people involved in local democracy.

Above – video by Richard Taylor of myself asking Cambridge City Council about making better use of video to get more people involved given the surprisingly high statistics from my own Youtube Channel A year before that, there were still local councils banning journalists and members of the public from filming – such as Mr Taylor here in Huntingdon which resulted in the Communities Secretary tabling new legislation explicitly preventing councils from inhibiting the work of self-styled (as we were then) community reporters.

Fast forward a few years and the pandemic forced the hand of the entire sector to make livestreaming and in-house video production a routine function for full council meetings.

It led to me making a complete idiot of myself standing for election under my old Twitter handle … (***Why didn’t anyone stop me?!?***) …that said…

…the progress the city has made on a number of manifesto points since then has been very pleasing to see. Conversations with a number of people over the years has shown how other people and groups have used part of that learning and applied it – in a similar way that I learnt from many others when putting the original manifesto together. A few years later I stumbled across the 1945 Manifesto for Cambridge by the Communist Party – which I’ve digitised here for you to read. As with my attempt, the detail in the manifesto is inversely proportional to the number of candidates they stood as well – just one, Mrs Pearl Lilley in Trumpington. Yet as with the Dragon’s manifesto, a number of demands for better public infrastructure made by the communists were delivered by councils that were full of Conservatives in what was a safe Tory borough at the time.

Since 2014, much has changed.

Politics at a national and international level has imploded in the face of the very serious collective crisis of the climate emergency, and nationally the less said about leaving the EU the better. On this blogpost anyway. In terms of interest and activity in local democracy, we’ve seen huge numbers of people get involved in the future of our city, and a swathe of newly-elected councillors with a vast range of expertise across many fields. They haven’t waited to be asked – they’ve got cracking – as I saw with Cllr Simon Smith (Labour – Castle) when city councillors scrutinised the first draft of the emerging local plan.

Above – from Part 2 of the meeting, Part 1 is here. (It was a cold, rainy night and I spent much of the following afternoon editing and processing the footage for free. So if anyone would like to help cover my costs, please feel free to support!

What should Cambridge’s offer be to this new generation of civically-interested and democracy-demanding young people?

And I don’t just mean the councils. I also mean our local charities, voluntary organisations and community groups. Because the number taking part in the Social Innovation Programme run by the Cambridge Hub has fallen in recent years to the extent they cannot run it this term – a shame given the quality of the work the students have produced.

Above – I mentored two cohorts of students, teams of six, to produce proposals on how the City of Cambridge could go about delivering community projects.

These were as much a test for myself as it was a huge learning experience for the students – their feedback was a joy to read on the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. I’ve also provided references for at least one at their request because for me that is part of my commitment to them. Note due to the pandemic, none of the groups were able to meet in person, and all of our meetings were conducted over Zoom. Yet they were all able to get to know people from across our city who, as they said they would not normally meet in their university lives. These included elected councillors, people who run museums and civic venues, local council officers and people working in the private sector. One of the other things they learnt was how local government was relevant to their lives – and relevant to the places they lived and worked in beyond Cambridge.

What should the routine, scheduled outreach for Cambridge’s civic societies involve, and what should one-off, issue-specific outreach be like?

This is something I’ve been discussing with both council officers and Cambridge Hub members & volunteers. For me, part of it should involve a combination of:

  • An introduction to local government *through the eyes of the students*
  • Guildhall and Mandela House open days (so that students can see for themselves the services that they or those close to them might depend upon later in their lives)
  • “How to engage with councils” workshops when large programmes potentially involving lots of students are being put together
  • Consultation events and workshops that enable students to work with local residents on issues affecting them, whether local planning applications (such as the looming Hobson Street Cinema proposed redevelopment/renovation) to the emerging local plan. Because some of them may become our future and much-needed council town planners.
This generation of students takes a very different view to the University’s responsibilities to both town and villages compared to past generations of college chiefs.

More often than not, the students are regularly ridiculed in less enlightened parts of our print press. Which actually makes me more defensive/protective of the students – especially those campaigning for a better city for all of us, and a better world. Just as I’ve asked what Cambridge would be like if the colleges behaved as if the whole city mattered, not just their members, what would Cambridge be like if we on the town side acted like the students – including the summer school and language students along with Anglia Ruskin’s students – were the responsibility of all of us? (And vice-versa). Starting with that highly topical issues of the safety of women out and about in town, and of our international students too – mindful of the recent arrests made earlier by the police.

One of the things the teams of students told me was that their colleges did not tell them about the decisions it was making with its investments and land holdings – and that had they known they would be more likely to take a stand. Which they have started doing already – this from March 2018.

Above – amongst their list of demands, one is for housing justice in Cambridge for local residents, and another is to open up university and college spaces to the people of Cambridge.

One of the other areas I was told that students would want to take issue with is the further delay to the proposed large swimming pool in North West Cambridge.

“The University cannot commit at this time to a timetable for the delivery of the swimming pool”

Cambridge University Amenities Delivery Strategy for NW Cambridge, quoted earlier.

I said to them that getting the new pool built was a council priority going by the response to my Qs at a full council meeting earlier this year. So if they wanted help from the town side, we’re here.

Giving students and young people the talking points

I spent part of this afternoon in the Cambridgeshire Collection with one of the undergraduates from my Cambridge Hub projects looking at and discussing the large Holford-Wright colour map of 1950. Why not put some of the maps up in places where students and also the public can see them? And perhaps have them as alternatives to the public notices while things are still moving slowly in the face of the pandemic that still has not gone away? There were so many different talking points – such as why major road proposals (such as the roads planned across Christ’s Pieces & Jesus Green, and Stourbridge Common) did not get approval. We also discussed Gordon Logie’s proposals for a new large concert hall, and a new music school for Cambridge University in the 1960s which did not come to fruition. Again the Cambridgeshire Collection holds these original documents.

My point?

Collectively let’s start talking to, and listening to the students. With Cambridge at a cross-roads in our history & future, chances are there are ideas from their home towns that the students can bring to our local planning tables that could provide for something new to future generations of children and students. Maybe their drive and dynamism is just what some of our community groups need?

It’s not just the university students either. The extended projects that further education students have done on all things Cambridge town that I’ve seen have been exceptional. The most recent one I’ve seen is this one for Capturing Cambridge by Michael Large at Hills Road.

Above – The Cambridge Corn Exchange by Michael Large.

Above – The Kingsway Flats in Arbury, by Michael Large.

Exceptionally researched as well – and in a different league to much of what we see sold to tourists in the mass-market side.

Furthermore, he provided a list of sources and references at the end of his work. It was only then that I realised two of his references were to my Lost Cambridge blog. And this is a textbook example of why I run that blog – so that new generations might stumble across it, be inspired by the content and use that content to produce their own inspirational works.

For me, the teenagers and students have more than demonstrated what they are capable of. The challenge for the rest of us is whether we can step up collectively to help more of them achieve their potential not just for themselves, but for the greater good of our city – town, gown, and villages too.

Food for thought?

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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