What can localgov learn from this powerful speech to Kensington & Chelsea Full Council from 2019?

Looking at where Cambridgeshire might be going wrong, while noting what others are learning – in particular in the aftermath of Grenfell – and this video in particular:

Have a listen to this speech from 23 Jan 2019 at the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea.

Above – from 33mins 25 seconds in.

One of the most powerful speeches from a member of the public (Mr Usama Ghanhi) that many of us will ever hear on the floor of a council chamber – whether on video or in person. And yet the minutes (item 3 of here) noted:

“Mr. Ghanhi, a resident who lost family in the Grenfell tragedy, spoke about his frustration and disappointment with the decision to close Kindred Studios, from where he had been delivering work to help the community. He also spoke of the divisions in the community.

Cllr. Taylor-Smith praised the work Usama Ghanhi had been doing but said that the Council had gone back to the drawing board and was working with the community to
co-design how the building would be used. He agreed to arrange a meeting with Usama Ghanhi to discuss his concerns and explain the Council’s position.”

Minutes of RBKC Full Council p4 Speaker 4, 23 Jan 2019.

It’s almost as if the two refer to completely separate events. It’s all the more striking and sobering because the horrific and utterly avoidable inferno took place nearly five years ago, and we are yet to hear publicly from the ministers responsible at the Grenfell Inquiry.

Only this week have we started hearing from the civil servants responsible for the policies and technical standards, a couple of whom I was acquainted with when I spent just under a year on the in-service Fast Stream in the same directorate. (You can see the hearings timetable here). I still describe the experience as having aged a decade in a year – and even now I still think I was more than a little out of my depth in one of the most heavily-lobbied areas of public policy – as recent headlines on donations from wealthy developers to the Conservative Party demonstrate. (Don’t think they won’t do the same with a future government of political colours – the money follows the power). What the Grenfell Inquiry will be looking at in the next set of hearings is the relationship between the construction firms, the regulators, the ministerial technical specialists, the senior policy advisers, and the ministers themselves. (See more on how the state regulates via @UKCivilServant‘s website https://www.regulation.org.uk/index.html ).

The Inquiry has already exposed multiple failings across multiple organisations in the public hearings. The part this blogpost looks at is what Mr Ghanhi highlights – how local government failed him, his family, and his community.

You can also see what the facilitator at the meeting, Dr Catherine Howe – now the Chief Executive of Adur and Worthing Council down the road from Brighton, wrote as she reflected, following that meeting in her blogpost here. If you are in local government, Dr Howe is one of the most pioneering thinkers-and-doers in the local government field. See her blog homepage here, especially if you are interested in increasing citizens’ participation, improving service delivery, raising the standard, diversity of backgrounds, and calibre of people who put themselves forward for election, and using new technologies to help local councils and partner organisations achieve more, better things. (I don’t like the term ‘outcomes’ because it feels too nebulous/vague/jargon-filled).

Dr Howe’s numerous blogposts will also be of interest to those of you that follow Cllr Sam Davies’ blog on all things Queen Edith’s ward in Cambridge, along with the many governance issues that we have in city and county. A couple of the longstanding issues on making democracy more accessible have been tabled as budget amendments by the Green & Independent Group of which she’s part of, on Cambridge City Council. You can read the amendments in the papers for the meeting on 24 Feb 2022 here.

“Lengthy accounting reports can be daunting particularly when you are short of time and using alternative reporting techniques can help people to access the main reports and understand the council’s work.”

Cllr Naomi Bennett (Greens – Abbey Ward)

Many of you will be familiar with my complaints about the sheer quantity of meeting papers there are for local council meetings – which makes scrutiny so much harder.

Above – 746 pages for January’s Combined Authority Board Meeting in 2022.

Above – 948 pages for Cambridgeshire County Council’s Strategy and Resources Meeting in the same month.

…reminding you that our county governance structure looks like this. So if you are a local government reporter in the county, imagine the workload of scrutinising multiple versions of those papers because ministers insist on having a local government structure for England based on what Sir Edward Heath’s Environment Secretary Peter Walker came up with in 197…2?

Above. A mess.

The paperwork, the language, the complexity of structures and issues, the accountability, and a room full of people who don’t appear representative of the people who make up your district, town, city, can all combine to put off some of the very people that local democracy actually needs in order to thrive.

Above – one response to Mr Ghanhi’s speech.

Condense, consolidate, simplify, and communicate – regularly

I remember ages ago trying to persuade Addenbrooke’s to publish infographics similar to how they used to publish essential statistics in old newspapers a century ago.

For some reason they stopped doing that so I’m hoping they can be persuaded to restart this – even if it’s only monthly. It allows us to get a feel for how much they have to cope with – and influence local politicians too. Over 2,300 A&E attendances – that’s nearly 400 people a day rocking up to Addenbrooke’s, whose A&E dept is far too small for that number.

Imagine similar for other public services – what are the essential pieces of information that ‘decision makers’ need in order to make informed decisions? Ditto for members of scrutiny committees, and further along the line, the members of the public / local residents.

“It makes it sound like an exam: ‘Can you remember the number of patients who went through A&E in the month of June?”

Which is not the purpose for publishing and publicising the headline data. It’s almost like the background music of a social media stream, reminding people every so often of what’s going on so that if numbers start rising, chances are someone is going to notice and offer additional support that it’s all too easy to forget to ask for in a crisis. Or it might be something where the data indicates a problem further up the line that is the responsibility of another institution. For example a spike in respiratory illnesses from a particular housing estate. Is the cause to do with a medical issue or the quality of housing?

This matters not just for the wellbeing of society, but also for the functioning of the economy – as Prof Diane Coyle of the University of Cambridge wrote in this paper on Healthcare as social infrastructure.

“Tangible and intangible assets of the health system should be regarded as part of the public infrastructure, that is as enabling assets that produce inputs – human capital – used across the economy and generating social spillovers.

In some of its official documentation, particularly its critical national infrastructure assessments, the UK government does treat the health system as such. However, the experience of the Covid19 pandemic made clearer than ever the costs, in terms of lack of resilience and productivity losses, of running the NHS too close to capacity.”

Prof Diane Coyle, p22

The already over-stretched NHS was – like so many of our institutions and services running at such a level that it could not cope with a massive external shock. Even though as long ago as 2008 a pandemic was one of the biggest risks identified on the National Risk Register.

Above – National Risk Register 2008 from p7

The result? As Prof Coyle concluded, the economy took a much bigger hit than it would have done had ministers properly invested into it, and had not stripped back so much of the regional civil contingencies capacity that I complained about back in 2014 during the floods of that year. And that’s before I even go into the long term health impacts of the collective trauma that we’ve all been through.

One of the reasons why public policy making is so complex is that there are so many unforeseen consequences of policy decisions – in particular service cuts. What might look good for soundbites against party political opponents has real life consequences for those who are least able to defend themselves.

How can we function as a city, let alone develop any sense of civic identity and local pride that the Secretary of State Michael Gove talks of in his Levelling Up plans, when we’re so fragmented institutionally?

Imagine being the person responsible for the whole city – even though we do not have one. The Mayor of Cambridge is a ceremonial role, and much of the essential public and civic services are done by other organisations, whether public, private, or voluntary. Which means no one can get a snapshot of the state of our city with all of the essential information they need in one single place. This is important when it comes to preparing for things like extreme weather – like the winds that we currently have, to the lengthy hot summers and the impact on our already over-stretched water resources. It’s hard to make the case for improvement if you don’t have the headline statistics on hand to back up your case.

The dreaded public sector silos that even area committees cannot break.

I’ve moaned about these for long enough, but as another round of local area committees (that Cllr Davies says are not working – see here) are coming up, let’s dig a little deeper and use the North Area Committee papers for 28 Feb 2022 just published as a case study. Unless you are familiar with both the jargon and the complicated structures of who does what, it can be very intimidating and confusing for anyone wanting to get involved. Now consider that this area committee covers some of the most economically deprived parts of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire. After over a decade of austerity, and after nearly two years of the current pandemic which the Prime Minister is trying to convince is now over, but only his acolytes believe him.

The first thing to note from the meeting papers of 28 Feb 2022 is that they contain the minutes of the previous meeting – which summarise the exchanges with the local police officers. Cambridge Police divide the city up into areas with neighbourhood officers responsible for different parts of it. They presented their latest report on crime & disorder in North Cambridge on 18 Nov 2021 – see item 4 of those meeting papers.

The papers for 28 Feb 2022 have the Environmental Reports – basically the state of the local streets as the residents see them. Potholes, fly-tipping, broken street lamps, dead trees and so on.

Furthermore, they have summaries of which community groups were successful in bids for community grants from the council. There are a number of areas that could be improved on this front.

What is missing? Who is missing?

Not everyone is included in this process. If you ask who/what is missing, there are a number of services and organisations that could be providing headline information that might inform future local decisions. The big local chasm is health statistics. Back in the day, Cambridge City Council (when it had the responsibility) produced annual public health reports – of which the Wellcome Library has kindly digitised about 80 of them for you to browse through here.

Above – Dr Bushell Anningson, a longtime medical officer for what was the Borough of Cambridge.

Dr Anningson produced reports such as this – the Report on the Sanitary Condition of Cambridge, 1897. Note how wide his responsibilities are.

One of the most frequent complaints I hear locally from local message boards is the lack of doctors’ surgeries and NHS dental practices. But there is nothing in the area committee structures that allow for such debates to happen – again due to fragmented public services. The best that such committees can do is for the councillors to direct the Chairperson to write an angry letter to the persons responsible. Public transport services? Still privatised. Over-extraction by water companies? Privatised. Even schools and adult education generally don’t seem to be covered to the extent that either community issues can be addressed or even events routinely publicised.

Yet it only seems to be when something absolutely catastrophic happens that minds are focussed. But for how long? And what are the results? I quote Mr Ghanhi again.

“I ain’t from where you’re from. I’ve never had a silver spoon in my mouth… …you see where I’m from, it’s not a nice place…you will never understand my troubles, you will never understand the life I live. You will never understand what goes through my chest or my emotions – why? Because I’m not you. You never watched a tower go up [in flames] knowing your family was in there.

Now my area is messed up. Everyone’s divided… It’s a year and a half after Grenfell and they’re still talking about it. No change is gonna come. It ain’t gonna happen. My family is dead and so is everyone else’s. They are gone. What’s Us? What belongs to us? I’m only 25 years old.”

Mr Usama Ghanhi – Full Council at the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, 23 Jan 2019.

I’ve heard individual national politicians ‘talk the talk’ but doing next to nothing to change our systems to make it easy for young adults to get involved in local democracy.

As I mentioned to the Mayor of St Neots and the Chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Ferguson, Cambridge still does not have a youth council which means young people in the city are effectively disenfranchised from the UK Youth Parliament.

It’s one thing inviting young people to get involved, but if the structures, systems and processes are so frustrating, exhausting, and time-consuming, what’s the risk that most will simply walk away? Because as we’ve seen with some of the recent consultations on housing and transport, some people have done exactly that. And local democracy cannot afford to lose the calibre of people who have been providing that much-needed scrutiny and suggestions for improvement.

When and where will change start from? Something you may want to discuss with your election candidates who will be announced in about six weeks time (06 April).

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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