Who made keeping up with local democracy so complicated?

Trying to keep up with which institution is doing what can be ever so confusing that I’m surprised they managed to keep up with each other.

Weekly/fortnightly vlogposts on local democracy in Cambridge is my latest attempt to try something new in making more people aware that local government exists and makes decisions that affect the future of our city.

Above – from my Y-Tube channel https://www.youtube.com/antonycarpen – the first of what might be many preview videos of what local public institutions responsible for things in Cambridge will be covering in their scheduled meetings. I’ve enabled comments for this post – please keep them constructive. Or I’ll turn them off again. Life’s too short.

We know local government in Cambridge is unnecessarily complicated.

The diagram below from Smarter Cambridge Transport reflects this. And that group went as far as was reasonably possible before retiring in the face of an intransigent Greater Cambridge Partnership whose officers and senior councillors insisted on busways that no one had a clear mandate for at the outset in 2014. It was only in 2021 with Dr Nik Johnson that we got anything like a politician with a pro-buses mandate, but that was about county-wide improvements rather than four Cambridge-centric segregated bus lanes.

Above – the mess that is local democracy in Cambridge.

Our local history tells us about some of the decisions previous generations of ministers made for us in terms of how our borough, then city, and county, should be governed. I put this all together with maps in my last-but-one blogpost here. Furthermore, it’s not just Cambridge & Cambridgeshire. Economist Diane Coyle and colleagues have discussed this in the face of the still-delayed Levelling Up White Paper.

We also know that Cambridgeshire County – or Cambridge County, both terms are used across the literature – once covered a much smaller geographical area, one that was even more fragmented than its equivalent area is today. William Davidge’s report (which I wrote about here) from 1934 illustrates this for us.

Above – William Davidge’s Cambridgeshire Regional Plan 1934 – Chaired by Cllr Dr Alex Wood (Labour – St Matthew’s).

Above – Cllr Dr Alex Wood – a man learned in science, religion, and local government – just the man to chair Cambridgeshire’s first ever regional plan.

“What does keeping up with local democracy for Cambridge involve today?”

Calendars – and quite a few of them. Let’s start with the district/borough level councils.

Then you have Peterborough City Council, which unlike Cambridge City Council is outside of the control of Cambridgeshire County Council, and was made a unitary council in the late 1990s, having a much larger population. (It has over 200,000 people, compared with around 130,000 in Cambridge as of about 2020 – though both cities are still growing).

Then we have:

There’s more.

“More?”

And finally…

“Finally?”

The world of town planning (i.e. individual planning cases) and development planning (long term regional plans for a geographical area). I spent over 2 years working in a regional government office in the mid-2000s and it took me ages to work out what the difference was between:

  • Planning Casework (which I did Tree Preservation Order Appeals and Listed Building Consents)
  • Development Planning (such as the Greater Cambridge Local Plan)
  • Regional Planning (which I think at the time involved big house building targets and transport infrastructure)

“Oh joy!”

Planning casework – who wants to build what, and where:

Finding out what planning applications are happening in Cambridge or South Cambridgeshire involves going to the Greater Cambridge Planning Portal here. Ages ago I wrote this guide on how to comment on planning applications. The more up-to-date guide from South Cambs District Council is here.

Everything to do with the emerging development plans such as the Greater Cambridge Local Plan 2030-41, and the North East Cambridge Area Action Plan, can be found in Emerging Plans and Guidance here.

“Keeping up with all of that lot is a full time job!”

Welcome to my world people. (Hence why – and in particular while I’m far less mobile as I convalesce/recover I invite people to support my attempts at scrutinising and highlighting who has plans for what.)

As far as local press is concerned, the official public notices are now printed in the weekly Cambridge Independent, which also retains the paid staff to write about local council issues. Although our BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter is based with the Cambridge News, the slower, more in-depth coverage of the weekly paper is more to my disposition. In the north of the county there is the Cambs Times / Archant group of newspapers that keeps an eye on the northern half of the county – also publishing the Ely Standard, Wisbech Times, and Hunts Post. Finally there’s the Peterborough Telegraph.

After reading all of that, do you think there is room for some consolidation of organisations for Cambridge and Cambridgeshire? Do town planners need to go to several sets of meetings involving Cambridge City Council on one day, and South Cambridgeshire District Council on the next? Or imagine representatives for GPs working with town planning teams to identify where housing needs to improve the most to reduce the prevalence of illnesses from poor living conditions. Or community development staff working with transport planners and the people who draw up the bus routes and timetables to work out how best to get people from their homes to sports and leisure services?

It can be done – but not while we are structured like this and not while local public service organisations are continually fire-fighting.

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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