Cambridge must overhaul how it does consultations

Because we have several ones happening at the moment, and trying to make sense of them is not easy for a time-poor population.

“It’s almost as if the planning system has been designed by ministers and lobbyists to exclude as many people as possible to make it the play thing of only those that can afford it. “

“How do you involve people in local democracy and politics if they have very little time, and are permanently tired?” 04 Jan 2018

I spent part of today in the Cambridgeshire Collection to see if I could sit down for more than five minutes and make sense of the emerging local plan. I have the attention-span of a goldfish as anyone who has worked with me will tell you. I picked up some of these to place in various neighbourhood spots.

It would be far easier if local councils developed their own distribution networks of local cafes, surgeries, convenience stores, pubs, and places where people generally are found sitting down and/or waiting for something. Over the past decade depending on how helpful I felt at the time, I have taken piles of leaflets from council buildings and deposited them in cafes and other local places. But these things need to be done systematically and in a co-ordinated manner with the consent of the proprietors of community businesses. It can’t be down to unpaid civically-minded individuals.

“Historical local planning documents were written to be read. Contemporary local planning documents are produced to be referred so.”

Above – me from not so long ago.

I discussed the point in mid-2019 here. The emerging (and even the current) Greater Cambridge Local Plan (they are all in the Greater Cambridge Planning Services page) are dense reads. Planning documents inevitably are. Which is why Derek Senior was commissioned to write a guide to the Local Plan by the old Cambridge County Council. You can read it here.

Above – why the Council chose Mr Senior.

Who would you choose to write a similar guide to Cambridge’s emerging plans, housing and transport?

“Hang on – aren’t we already overhauling things?”

To be fair to the local councils – they are. In fact they achieved a ***huge*** milestone yesterday

Cambridgeshire County Council is now confident enough to train its own staff and councillors on social media. “And my work here is done!”

Cambridge City Council is also doing webinars on local planning – something that is still relatively new, but also one of the unexpected consequences of the Pandemic and Lockdown.

Above – from Cambridge City Council’s Youtube page. (My one is at

This post isn’t about social and digital media, but more about the separate consultations done by different bits of local government, and trying to bring them together for a ‘holistic conversation’ rather than doing things piecemeal where the public say “We can’t take a view on transport until we know how many houses you want there” and vice-versa.

More questions than answers

In 2014 I had a brain-dump of all of the questions I could think of off the top of my head during that last local plan process. Which had to be done again. You can read the list here.

Above – one of the solutions called for by former councillor George Owers (Lab – Coleridge – 2010-15). Here he is in his younger days in 2009 predicting what would happen if the Tories got into power.

Such calls inevitably fall on deaf ears in the corridors of the Treasury, where there seems to be a policy impasse between the needs of local councils vs what minsters and senior Treasury Officials are willing to concede in terms of revenue-raising powers. This was a point explored in more detail by Dr Deborah Potts, summarised by Cllr Sam Davies (Ind – Queen Edith’s) below.

So for example we cannot say the housing numbers are wrong in the local plan in our responses because there’s nowhere for such statements to be fed back towards as far as central government is concerned. The local development framework is set out in legislation and that’s what we have to work with until a future administration chooses to change it.

Some big calls to be made that will shape the next quarter of a century

We have:

  1. The Greater Cambridge Local Plan (emerging)
  2. The Local Transport & Connectivity Plan (Cambs & P’boro)
  3. The Greater Cambridge Partnership Bus Network consultations titled “Making Connections” (along with what look like much-reduced proposals for Cambridge Eastern Access).

This is why the face-to-face meetings and the online presentations are ever so important. Scroll to the end here to see the list of local plan offline meetings and online discussions

Can all of these things be dealt with separately, or do they need to be dealt with together?

This is the difference between whether something is complex or whether something is complicated. Public policy is complex by its very nature – it involves so many different factors and variables that doing something to one inevitably has knock-on effects for things you may not have been aware of. Look at Brexit – it was supposed to be ever so simple, wasn’t it? Turns out leaving the European Union was far more complex than they thought.

Now look at the map of proposed new local council areas (unexecuted) from the Royal Commission on Local Government in 1969.

Look at the thin black lines above, denoting the very small district councils that existed until the early 1970s. Ministers took the view that having so many was unnecessarily complicated, and reduced them to the local government set up we’re familiar with today, making it less complicated. My accusation of ministers past and present is their policies on Cambridge have made things *more complicated* with the additional tiers of local government. This is in part motivated by party politics (Tories not wanting a powerful Labour/Liberal-held Greater Cambridge council in charge of their aristocratic inheritance, the University of Cambridge). It is also shaped by ministers wanting a less complex method of achieving this. A nationwide overhaul of local government is far too complex for them, so they’ve gone with something that can be dealt with in secondary legislation rather than a new Royal Commission and an Act of Parliament.

“So, what’s the solution?”

To the overhauling consultations process? That has to be a collective decision, but there are things councillors and interested groups/people can look at, in particular from:

  1. – in particular their Resources
  2. – formerly the New Local Government Network

Involve were commissioned to run the first Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change for the Greater Cambridge Partnership – which you can read about here. It was not without its faults, but then few things are when you try out new concepts for the first time.

What I’d like to be able to do in a future civic workshop is to take a very large map of Cambridge & its immediate surrounding villages, and see what things look like when:

  • The proposed Cambridge Connect Light Rail map is overlaid onto it
  • A proposed Cycling and Active Transport Network is overlaid onto it
  • All of the specific [secular] community venues frequently & regularly used by communities are highlighted
  • All of the religious buildings are highlighted
  • All of the pubs are highlighted
  • All of the convenience stores are highlighted
  • All of the cycle parks (and also hopefully E-scooter docks) are highlighted
  • All of the public parks and accessible Green Spaces are highlighted
  • All of the existing bus stops are highlighted
  • All of the large sporting centres are highlighted
  • All of the swimming pools frequently used & publicly accessible are highlighted
  • All of the theatres, cinemas, and concert halls are highlighted
  • All of the art galleries and exhibition spaces are highlighted
  • All of the free-at-the-point-of-use medical centres, GP surgeries, dental clinics, outpatients clinics and hospitals are highlighted
  • All of the state schools and state further education colleges are highlighted
  • All of the nurseries and sure-start centres are highlighted
  • …and so on.

What do our neighbourhoods look like in terms of accessibility when you have those maps there, and invite people to propose new transport links and highlight potential sites for new large facilities including but not limited to:

  • A new east-west pedestrian link through the centre of town linking King’s Parade with Queen’s Road (and reducing congestion on Garrett Hostel Lane Bridge – which occurs because the colleges between them have squeezed the public off the rest of the land that centuries ago was previously theirs/ours)
  • Confirmation of the Cambridge Sports Lake proposals
  • Suggesting alternative sites for existing providers where there is over-provision in some parts of the county (Sixth Form College place providers in South Cambridge)
  • Suggesting alternative uses for existing sites where former activities have ceased (e.g Cambridge Assessment premises on Hills Road/Gonville Place/Harvey Road – a new large concert hall)

Take these proposals from the Greater Cambridge Partnership on new cycling routes being debated by the Greater Cambridge Assembly on 18 November 2021 – papers here.

Once you start putting the community venues, sports and leisure centres on the map you can start making some links for which roads might be suitable for active travel only. The same for public services. What would be the active travel network that would help parents do most of what they need to do for their children within 15 minutes of their home?

And finally: Regional facilities

It stems from this.

Cambridge is a regional centre. It has been for centuries. Has a baseline assessment been established on what we have, and what we are short of? (Yes). Having identified what we are short of, has any exercise been done to identify which plots of land will be suitable for the much-needed pieces of civic infrastructure (new swimming pools, concert halls, sporting facilities, parks, and nature reserves) before developers make detailed proposals about how many homes they want to build on them instead? What is the mechanism for acquiring the land and the funding for the facilities? Especially given continued austerity and ministerial policy paralysis?

Watch this space on the swimming pools issue.

Above – by Cllr Katie Thornburrow (Labour – Petersfield).

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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