Levelling up will fail if it is built on broken structures & fractured relationships

The chasm between the fields of biomedical science and local democracy were hard to avoid for local residents and environmentalists watching the Minister for Science & the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough take Qs from a predominantly medical science audience.

The Minister for Science, George Freeman was the lead speaker at this event in Cambridge, alongside Dr Nik Johnson, the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough. The event was chaired by Angela McFarlane, one of the vice-presidents of the company IQVIA. According to the Financial Times, the firm was one of the largest recipients of NHS data in recent years. The relationship between the individuals & their health data, the nation state, and profit-making firms remains a contentious political and public policy issue that is way beyond my expertise – but you need to know it’s there. For more, see the campaign group MedConfidential.

medConfidential believes there need be no conflict between good research, good ethics and good medical care. We campaign for confidentiality and consent in health and social care – seeking to ensure that every flow of data into, across and out of the NHS and care system is consensual, safe and transparent.”

The UK – a life sciences superpower?

This was what the event was about – noting the briefing by Savills here on the UK’s Life Science sector. The Minister spoke of the Government supporting six hubs at the event. Local residents may be aware that there will be developers that Savills may well be representing when the public hearings take place.

“The question now in the planning arena; ‘is this enough?’.  The Council’s evidence suggests that a high-growth scenario has many advantages, but it has opted for only a medium-growth scenario, which in real terms is somewhat a low-growth scenario.  There is likely to be a push for the Local Plan to better reflect the commercial needs of the City. “

Alison Wright for Bidwells, 29 Oct 2021

This is the opposite of what the MP for South Cambridgeshire and his fellow campaigners are pushing for, which is Liberal Democrat opponent at the 2019 General Election, Dr Ian Sollom responded here.

I was the biggest sceptic on the proposals from both the sector and from ministers, and the chances of the UK Life Sciences Vision (published by ministers in July 2021 – read it here) succeeding.

“This document sets out our vision for doing so, helping to regain our status as a Science Superpower by making our United Kingdom the leading global hub for Life Sciences.”

UK Life Sciences Vision.

The landing page the document is held on also states:

“This sector vision follows the publication of the Plan for Growth in March [2021], which set out how the government would drive economic growth through a focus on innovation, infrastructure and skills.”

UK Life Sciences Vision.
“What is the Plan for Growth? And given the climate emergency, don’t we need a lot less of it?”

This is why public policy is ever so complex – there are so many competing interests, challenges, and opportunities that there is no perfect policy. Sometimes the policy that a minister chooses can be which interest group they want to p*ss off the least. You can read the Plan for Growth here.

Not everyone in the Conservative Party is behind the ministerial drive for growth – certainly not in South Cambridgeshire where much of the construction is happening.

You can read the concerns from the Chair of the South Cambridgeshire Conservative Association, Cllr Richard Williams here.

What struck me at the event was that despite the article in the Cambridge Independent published yesterday (19th Jan 2021), the Minister for Science turned up to an event making the case that directly contradicted the reduced house building numbers proposed by his own local party. That’s not to make a judgement on who is wrong and who is right – it’s to raise the very real inconsistency that as a political party they will need to reconcile. The same would be the case if it were say a Labour-led government who wanted to promote its environmentalist credentials while approving exploration for drilling a new oil field.

The concerns that local residents across the Arc area – sometimes called England’s Economic Heartland (Ministers need to make up their mind on branding), is related to the paragraph below:

“There is also no single institution with the necessary competence and authority to lead a coordinated approach. This means that planning at the local level for homes, business space, infrastructure and the environment is not integrated, and is unable to take an Arc-wide view. If we want a better future, we need to plan for growth by thinking about the provision of infrastructure, housing, the environment and the needs of businesses and universities at the same time.”

Planning for sustainable growth in the OxfordCambridge Arc para 1.24

This is followed up by floating the idea of up to four development corporations – “QUasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations” – Quangos, that would be given the planning powers normally granted to local councils/local planning authorities. In such cases, the local council is stripped of their planning powers which are handed to the development corporation, which reports directly to ministers. So you can see why such things are controversial. But from a national government perspective, it ‘cuts through red tape and allows redevelopment to proceed at pace’.

The debates stayed within the life sciences bubble – and that meant the difficult questions that opponents – whether party political, local residential, or environmentalist, were not discussed.

From an events management perspective, I have no complaints. If I were a corporate events organiser I’d do everything possible to ensure ‘awkward people’ were kept away from the event and/or not invited to ask questions. But I’m not one of those – and I’d be a useless organiser anyway.

From a public policy perspective however, at some stage those difficult questions must be addressed – and the sooner in the policy-making process the better. I don’t get the sense ministers have done this. Which is why they are already getting stung now – and by people in their own party.

This also raises risks for businesses and companies if problems are not resolved in the political and democratic processes. As Extinction Rebellion and other protest groups have demonstrated, protesters can and will target corporations and firms they believe to be responsible for seriously damaging the environment – irrespective of whether the general public supports or opposes them. And furthermore, irrespective of whether the people in the workplace being protested at have anything to do with the decisions taken elsewhere that cause the damage.

It’s also no good ministers wringing their hands and promising ever tougher sentences and draconian laws (in the face of prison overcrowding and a massive backlog in court cases). Far better to come up with structures, systems and processes that lead to better policies and better solutions, than ones that simply irritate everyone and result in even more costly counter-measures.

“We scientists don’t do politics!”

And not nearly enough politicians know enough about science – in particular what goes on in somewhere like Cambridge other than it’s complicated stuff that seems to make a lot of money for the Treasury in tax revenue so it must be good! When he was MP for Cambridge, Dr Julian Huppert received a huge amount of science policy lobbying from scientific organisations – irrespective of whether they were Cambridge-based or not. This was on top of a huge constituency casework load that was in the tens of thousands over his five year term. It hasn’t gone down for his successor, Daniel Zeichner MP, who was also in the audience.

This is one of the longer term issues for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire – local political parties need to get more even more people with scientific backgrounds into local democracy. To be fair, the intellectual standard of many of our councillors – especially following recent elections in and around Cambridge is of a level that most other cities would give their best concert halls and leisure centres for – if only such councillors would build even better replacements! Furthermore, once you get genuinely contested seats involving high calibre candidates over an extended period of time, things happen. I look at Abbey Ward in Cambridge where all four councillors have degrees, of which one is a medical doctor and another has a Ph.D from Cambridge. And that’s just for one ward! What are your minimal expectations of candidates standing for election? Only the local elections are in just over 3 months time.

Given the state of Westminster politics at the moment, why would anyone want to get involved in politics if it meant having to deal with that lot? But then if “that lot” are the ones making policies and laws…

…or rather, it’s no good relying on other people to do the politics while your industrial sector maintains a ‘splendid isolation’ far above it. Having spent several years inside Whitehall and Westminster, I found out the hard way what a bubble it can be.

It needs to be a two-way thing. Civic institutions need to do more to encourage residents – especially new residents, to get involved in local democracy and civic life, and far more people working in the life sciences and tech sectors need to reciprocate too. How you go about identifying potential individuals is not straight forward. It’s why I found this study below useful. It was from my civil service days. Although dated, the principles are still worth looking at.

Engagement segmentation – how interested in community activities are the population in any society in England? From the Henley Centre for the Dept for Communities & Local Gov’t as was in 2008 –via here.

Broken structures and fractured relationships

I’ve covered many of these in previous blogposts, so I won’t repeat myself other than to list the issues:

Who gets left behind?

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson reminded the audience repeatedly of inequalities in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire. If you’ve not seen this video by Joe Cook featuring some very well known faces. (And mine too), do watch it.

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson isn’t the first politician with Mayor in his title to raise this issue. One woman who dedicated her life to improving Cambridge for the many, was Florence Ada Keynes, who I dubbed The Mother of Modern Cambridge. She had more than a few fellow women working with her – the Women who made Modern Cambridge.

Go back further to when Florence was in her teens, and we find Mayor John Death (yes really!) who laid the foundation stone for Cambridge’s Corn Exchange. He also opened the building on its completion.

“You are as much interested in it as any other member of the Corporation or any other gentleman. The Corn Exchange is part of your freehold as inhabitants of the borough, however poor you may be, as much as of the wealthy and influential. [Applause]. And I hope to live to see the building frequently filled with audiences enjoying harmless amusement.”

John Death, Nov 1875.

Mindful of how limited the franchise was back then, the idea of a new civic building being one for both rich and poor was a powerful one.

Finally, I’ll leave you with the examples of two of Cambridge’s businessmen. Sir David Robinson – ironically the venue of this evening’s event was on Robinson Way, and also Cllr Charles Kelsey Kerridge. Which of today’s individuals who are making their fortunes in Cambridge are prepared to match their examples, and re-invest some of their wealth back into the civic and leisure facilities for the communities that make this city?

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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