Nearly all of the healthcare staff I met while in hospital had not heard of Greater Cambridge busway plans

When shown some of the proposals, none of them were impressed. The roots of the problem however, lie just as much in Whitehall as they do in the Guildhall, Shire Hall (old and new), and the South Cambridgeshire Administrative Facility on the edge of Cambourne.

This follows on from my post about the staff of Addenbrooke’s & Royal Papworth saving my life again. With Covid rising and the inevitable knock-on impact on staffing levels, I couldn’t really go anywhere or do anything – being strapped to the heart monitoring machine 24-7. Which is why I’ve never had a good night’s sleep in a hospital. The machine starts beeping at you as soon as an electrode comes loose. Or if the machine thinks your heart rate is too low or too high.

So I asked just about everyone who popped their head round to do something to/for me about their journeys into work. Whether a cleaner, caterer, nurse, healthcare assistant, apprentice, specialist, junior doctor, or consultant surgeon, I asked them all.

None of them had heard of the Greater Cambridge Partnership. A few knew something about a new railway station (the proposed Cambridge South) but that was about it. A few knew about Cambridge City Council, or Cambridgeshire County Council. As concepts. But that was about it. As for the Combined Authority? “What’s that?”

“Should the hospital staff have heard about all of this?”

Depends who you ask.

If you are a communications professional in one of the communicating organisations, then Yes. If you are one of the people who is being communicated at, then the answer is probably No.

“Why ‘no?'”

The hospitals are two years into a global pandemic appallingly managed by Boris Johnson’s Government, and are facing yet another wave which hits staff numbers and morale. Overworked, underpaid, badly led by ministers, and short-staffed. Who has time to read long and complex consultation documents on the future of public transport?

Which means that throwing money at comms staff – even on the ground outside hospitals will have a limited impact. The staff are just too exhausted to give the time and space needed to give the amount of detail needed in the responses. Furthermore, in the grand scheme of things the Greater Cambridge Partnership has already decided upon busways. It decided upon busways ages ago. It would have been nice if they had been a bit more honest about this several years ago about what we could and could not influence. It would have saved a fortune on consultants fees.

There were two other findings that struck me as to why whatever the authorities come up with won’t be enough. The first I wrote about fairly recently: My call for a new Greater Cambridge Unitary Council. The problem is structural. There is nothing the GCP or anyone outside of central government can do about it. The competency rests with ministers. That is the obsolete boundaries, structures, systems and processes of local government. Listening to many members of staff, it struck me how many of them commuted in from beyond Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire – meaning they were missed out completely by the GCP. Senior officers of the GCP past and present simply could not think outside of local council boundaries. (I’ve got the videos, blogposts, and diary entries). That is why the GCP proposals offer nothing to Haverhill, even though hundreds if not thousands of people from that part of the country (only 14 miles from Cambridge) commute in on the traffic-congested roads every day. St Neots? (Next door in Huntingdonshire, Cambs). Forget about it. Even though the challenge of getting staff living close to the old Papworth Hospital using public transport to get to the Royal Papworth Hospital still has not been resolved. Again, it was a problem of ministerial making with bus privatisation. But it is something that councillors and officers could have addressed had they chosen to. They did not.

No vote, no voice? No taxation without representation!

This has only become an issue because Tory ministers have chosen to bring in democracy-suppressing policies and tactics. For example depriving EU citizens of their voting rights post-leave. And when it comes to corruption in politics, the Cambridge Conservatives have got historical form. That doesn’t mean today’s local party are like their predecessors. It’s just that there’s a big stain on their local political history from up to two centuries ago. But then if you’re selecting a former slave owner as your candidate for parliament, you’re asking for trouble.

More recently, The 3-Million Campaign has been fighting to keep the rights our fellow EU citizens have in this toxic post-Brexit world where the Government is being torn to bits by select committees where its own MPs make up the majority – such as in this report on the Elections Bill by the Tory-Chaired Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. It’ll pass because ministers will three-line-whip the votes. What the Lords make of it remains to be seen. There’s up to three more years left of the current government.

It’s not just EU Citizens either. There are staff from all over the world. My take is that if you want a world class hospital on your doorstep, you need talent from all over the world to make it run.

Tory traditional thinking on the supply of labour and the nation state

Having got a degree in economics nearly 20 years ago, I’m more than familiar with people casually referring to human beings as ‘the supply of labour’ …and forgetting that they are actually talking about human beings. The supply of labour as an economic concept can hide all sorts of historical nasties and can be used to explain/assume away all sorts of human rights abuses. (You could probably say the same about command economies if they were studied to the same extent but by the late 1990s, the only thing our economics lecturers wanted to say about such systems were that they failed).

It’s not just the Tories though. Labour came very unstuck in the run up to 2004 – when the A10 Ascension states joined the EU. Only the UK, Ireland, and Sweden opened their labour markets up fully. What Tony Blair (perhaps with one eye on the catastrophe in Iraq) failed to do was to ensure there were enough public service resources to support local council areas that faced the biggest rise in populations. Its failure to do so might be judged by future historians as one of the key factors in the Leave vote in 2016.

While EU law required EU citizens to have votes at local elections, countries that do not have the legacy of Empire have far more limited options – such as healthcare professionals from say Thailand and The Philippines. Or Brazil and Venezuela. People who live here, work here, pay their taxes – why shouldn’t they have the same rights as EU citizens pre-Brexit? In fact, wouldn’t it be better to have a system where wherever you are on the planet, where you are resident and registered to pay taxes is where you cast your vote. And if you are not registered anywhere because you are a globe-trotting squillionnaire, then you are also barred from lobbying national governments whether individually or through companies that you have a controlling stake in.

The mindset of Tory thinking is the opposite of the above – and is very much rooted in a concept of voting according to your nationality. Hence the furore in some circles where UK Citizens who had spent more than 15 years outside of the UK were barred from voting in the EU Referendum. (While non-UK citizens who had spent even longer here were still barred from voting in the same referendum – which again was only an advisory result, not one that had legal consequences that the Scottish Independence Referendum had with automatic triggers in the event of a “Yes” vote. Everything done since 2016 has been a choice by ministers from the Conservative Party. They own this).

So my question here is: How can local councils systematically gauge the opinion of cohorts of people who are part of our city, but who are automatically excluded by law from our electoral systems? Don’t expect to find solutions for the whole of our city if you are going to exclude automatically entire sections simply because of nationality.

“What’s all of the above got to do with healthcare staff from abroad?”

There’s no incentive for those staff to get involved in local democracy. Why would they if they have no vote? Furthermore, there’s no electoral incentive for local political parties to engage with them as they have no vote. So it’s a twin set of barriers they face.

“So, what’s the solution?”

For a start it won’t come from the Greater Cambridge Partnership alone. Even then, by the time any substantial solution is in place, the GCP will be looking to wind down with most of its spending allocated. The best thing local councillors can do is to pass a motion directing council officers to engage directly with their counterparts in the institutions/areas they want feedback and responses from.

One possible area of development is bringing back an old concept and revamping, refreshing, and updating it: The Improvement Commissioners.

The Cambridge Improvement Commissioners

An old concept from the Georgian era that pre-dates modern municipal government, Improvement Commissioners were initially empowered by Acts of Parliament to improve the streets in a given town. A 21st Century revamp given our fragmented public services would provide for two major things that we do not currently have:

  1. A forum or board that contains all of the essential service providers needed to run a city;
  2. A means for the heads of those essential service providers to be held accountable and subject to cross-examination/public hearings by democratically-elected representatives – a full (in a unitary case) or joint (in a two-tier area) council.

This means responsible executives for water, gas, electricity, sewage, telecommunications, waste disposal, police, fire, ambulance, primary care, magistrates courts, probation, public health, pollution control, trading standards, buses/public transport and more would all have their services subject to regular and scheduled public scrutiny. No more hiding behind press releases. Furthermore, the brand “The Greater Cambridge Improvement Commissioners” automatically tells the public what they are there for: To improve the city. How can the public put questions to them? At council meetings directly or through their local councillor. Thus strengthening the role of local councillors vis-a-vis the service providers outside of the council’s remit.

But that requires some heavy political movement beyond the means of local councils

The real challenge is in that nebulous concept of Community Development. Again there is clear daylight between Tory political tradition and Progressive traditions.

With the former, such things are supposed to be done by the voluntary sector and well-meaning / civically-minded citizens, the best of whom traditionally get civic honours for their work. That is pretty much how the present honours system functions for most people. Anyone can nominate someone for a state honour – see on how you/your community can nominate someone. While a lot of bad press covers some of the notorious party political nominees (which in my view brings the system into disrepute), a reformed honours system that enables communities to nominate & celebrate those who have made a positive difference – whether a single unique achievement, or service over an extended period of time (often decades, such as local historian Mike Petty MBE) is for me a very positive thing.

With Progressive traditions, the work of community development should be something supported by paid local council officers. This is particularly the case where civic society organisations are not strong enough, or where there simply isn’t the wealth and/or infrastructure to support such activities essential for well-functioning communities. It’s one of the reasons why builders of large housing developments are often required to fund the employment of community development officers for a number of years during and after the completion of developments. For example paying for staff to manage a newly-built community centre.

The problem is austerity in local government tore the hearts out of community development functions everywhere. Such functions are like vitamins. We know they are good for us, but we only really appreciate how good they are for us when we don’t have them. It’s a bit like preventative public health, or early intervention in early years care. A fully-functioning large community centre that is buzzing with life is the sort of place where the soft outreach can take place, and where the informal conversations can happen. These things are less likely to happen if major cuts to services imposed by ministers happen. Such as the loss of over 800 libraries since 2010.

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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