How can Cambridge’s employers support civic society in improving our city and county?

This blogpost looks at practical actions that don’t simply involve handing over money to the causes that have the highest profiles and the loudest voices – but instead looks at longer term partnerships where everyone can benefit

At the Supersize Cambridge event in July 2016, the late Allan Brigham, the local historian gave this hard-hitting speech to the many of us that were there to debate about the growing inequalities and unequal growth happening in and around our city.

Above – the late Allan Brigham at Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge. 04 July 2016

Then this post appeared in my FB stream from St John Ambulance in Cambridgeshire.

Cambridge has two venues that run training sessions – one in East Cambridge on Coldham’s Lane in North Cherry Hinton, and another in North Cambridge at St John’s Innovation Centre.

…amongst other places.

Is Cambridge’s civic society less prominent today than it was in years gone by?

I think it is – and for a number of reasons

  • We’re less deferential as a society compared to previous generations
  • Our civic society institutions that pre-dated some of the state provision of public services (such as social security) never really found a new role in society post-1945
  • The public services previously run by the state (which replaced the role of civic society institutions – which could never meet the demand for their services) are now fragmented
  • Cambridge’s economy has changed dramatically over the past half-century – to one that has contributed towards a very high turnover of population
  • Cambridge’s social fabric is being damaged by the growing inequalities not just across our city, but county as well.

Cllr Sam Davies MBE spelt it out bluntly to Cambridge City Council.

Cllr Sam Davies MBE to Cambridge City Council’s Full Council, 03 March 2022.

Furthermore, she pulled out a quotation on what one of the senior Dons at the University of Cambridge, Prof Jeremy Sanders, predicted Cambridge would be like in 2065.

…which then made me wonder whether the people of Wisbech and Haverhill had been consulted about this future model and what it would mean for their towns. Only where is the democratic accountability? We could make a similar complaint about commuters to London who live in Cambridge – but then as I used to be one of them, and having been a housing policy civil servant, I found out the hard way that this is not a challenge that local councils can solve alone. It requires – as Cllr Davies said, radical, even disruptive change – the sort that at present we’re only getting glimpses of domestically.

“How do we hold large institutions accountable?”

This was a question I put to Prof Sanders way back in 2015 at the start of what is now known as the Greater Cambridge Partnership. Have a listen to what he said.

Above – Prof Sanders (with Cllr Count’s placard next to him!) at Shire Hall, 28 Jan 2015

Ensuring Cambridge University and its institutions take responsibility for, and take account of the needs of the people who make up our city – town, gown, and surrounding villages – is something I discussed in my previous post here.

“Where to local employers and local businesses come into all of this?”

First of all, we know about the likes of businessmen past who did great things for our city and left us incredible and wonderful civic legacies.

  • Sir David Robinson (The Rosie Maternity Hospital, Robinson Theatre, Robinson College)
  • Sir Horace Darwin
  • Charles Kelsey Kerridge
  • W Eaden Lilley
  • Robert Sayle
  • Harold and Cyril Ridgeon

…to name but a few.

Fast forward to today and you’ll find hundreds of examples of people who run and ran local community groups and sports clubs on top of their day jobs – and often the demands of parenting as well. Back in 1980s/early 1990s Cambridge, the junior football club I trained with were run by two men who could not have been more different. One was a quietly-spoken academic at what became Anglia Ruskin University, and the other was a plumber who was a giant, alpha-male of a figure – with a voice that (for us children anyway) had a natural authority that came with it. But it worked. Our local cub scout pack was run by the proprietor of a DIY Shop on Mill Road – Lowes, which later became Cutlacks, which is still there today.

“Our duty is to improve the city”

The then Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Sir Ivor Jennings QC could not have been more clear when he opened an exhibition on the proposals the University came up with to overhaul the centre of town.

Headline reads "Vice chancellor opens university plan exhibition - our duty is to improve city"

Above – from the Cambridge Daily News of 01 June 1962 in the Cambridgeshire Collection’s town planning newspaper cuttings file

It’s nearly sixty years since he made that announcement. It contrasts starkly with the almost complete absence of residents’ interests in Cambridge University’s Strategic Management Plan from its Estates Department in 2016 – you can read their other strategies alongside via this link.

“Who, what, when, where, and how?”

Take the annual Cambridge Half Marathon. Which for 2022 is…tomorrow (at the time of typing). 10,000 people will be running through town (I still call the city centre “town” as a phrase of speech) raising lots and lots of money for good causes. And then they go back home for another 364 days. Actually, that’s not quite the case, but the inevitable problem with annual events is it is hard to sustain new contacts made on the day unless there is something else in place to support sustaining them. Like regular gatherings and meet-ups. Over the decades I’ve volunteered to steward/help out at a number of annual events, but have always come away feeling disconnected and unfulfilled by the experience.

Having done lots and lots of pondering on this, the challenge as I see it is to get more of our employers – including but not limited to the very large ones, or the highly profitable ones – to develop long term relationships with civic society organisations, local charities, sports groups, and community groups. One of the most high profile ones many town people are familiar with is Mick George – the kit sponsor of Cambridge United Football Club. Take the press release announcing their partnership with It’s Her Game Too – supporting women in, and inclusive atmospheres for women in football – the firm’s name is clearly visible on the club tops. Not only that, the firm has been a sponsor for a number of years – to the extent it becomes embedded within the town’s civic memory. In terms of supporting charities, I’m also reminded of the case of cricketer Sir Ian Botham – whose award was also for his quarter of a century supporting and fund-raising for Blood Cancer UK.

Which then brings me back to ‘how?’

For me this is where as a city we have to do a few things first:

  1. Make the task of firms and employers finding suitable groups, causes, and charities to support as easy as possible;
  2. Schedule annual events that bring the former and the latter together so that as and when groups, firms, and people turn over, there is effectively a regular ‘refresher’;
  3. Creating the essential administrative and financial infrastructure/systems/processes that might be needed to sustain this;
  4. Create a high profile civic award that firms can display/use for marketing – and one that does not look tacky, but rather looks serious and substantial;
  5. Create a culture of investing in our people not just in terms of direct training, but indirectly in a way that will benefit both employee wellbeing and that of the communities & neighbourhoods they live in;
  6. Create a culture of expectation within business communities – especially those we regularly hear about making their fortunes in Cambridge, that part of the deal is that they contribute some of their gains back into improving Cambridge *and* our surrounding towns and villages.

Let’s take 5) for example.

St John Ambulance has a training centre in North Cambridge on St John’s Innovation Park. The firms based on the Innovation Park – and on the Science Park next door could get together and sign up to a collective agreement that they will pay for the first aid training and refresher courses for a minimum percentage of their staff, and also pay the staff that get trained up, an annual bonus for doing so.

It doesn’t have to be just the SJA. It could include other civil society roles – taking the uniformed services as an example:

It’s not just uniformed services – which some people may feel uncomfortable getting involved with, for example for reasons of conscience. Given we’re facing a climate emergency, familiarising employees with what I call active/practical sustainability is a growing area.

Above are all examples of organisations that work in the field of improving our city from an environmental perspective – in particular reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. They all have insights and/or expertise into how businesses and employers can reduce their running costs too.

Keeping healthy without revisiting nightmares – or perhaps conquering the nightmares of team sports at secondary school

One of the best examples I’ve seen in recent years is the Man vs Fat programme.

The programme has been running for several years at Cambridge United – see here.

There are a host of other sessions they run as well – see the Cambridge United Community Trust here. Are there activities that businesses you know of could support, or individuals you know who could do with the support provided?

Again, it doesn’t have to be sport-related – as the Ramblers (here’s the Cambridge group) have demonstrated. Or – for those of you who want to get your hands really dirty, volunteering with Cambridge PPF to help maintain the country parks around Cambridge that previous generations purchased and ringfenced from developers to secure green space for the public.

“Isn’t this just ‘middle class is magical’ volunteering for no cash?”

No. That mindset from politicians is one of the reasons why, from my perspective David Cameron’s ‘big society’ vision failed. The mindset was about transferring over to ‘volunteers’ the functions that were previously undertaken by local councils (hit by austerity) or the state (ditto).

Florence Ada Keynes, the Mother of Modern Cambridge gave what I thought was one of the better descriptions of the role of the voluntary sector many moons ago. She said the state should be responsible for the essential services, while the voluntary sector should use its independence to try new things that the state could not otherwise justify to the taxpayer without having first demonstrated its success. Recall that she was speaking pre-Welfare State.

Above – Cllr Florence Ada Keynes (Ind – Fitzwilliam) taken in 1915. Palmer Clark in the Cambridgeshire Collection, colourised by Nick Harris, Commissioned by Antony Carpen.

If what I have proposed above is to have any chance of making a positive impact, it cannot be done piecemeal. It cannot simply be a call for more volunteering that people may feel they have no time for. It cannot simply be a demand for more donations from a population that is feeling the pinch of rising costs of living – food and fuel in particular. This time, it has to be different.

We’ve seen what we can do collectively – we learnt this for ourselves in the early days of the Covid Pandemic in 2020. We are also seeing it in the response from our former EU partners in their response to the war in Ukraine, taking in refugees fleeing the fighting. Furthermore, both crises revealed the shortcomings and limitations not just of the political party in government here, but of the malfunctioning of longstanding institutions, systems, and conventions.

If the time to make the radical changes at a local level that so urgently need – and as Cllr Davies described, then that time is now.

It doesn’t require a big bang action to start. Start small. As a result of reading this blogpost, what one small behaviour change, or what small one-off action can you undertake? Even if it’s sharing this post on a social media page challenging a friend to undertake that one task or change. For example subscribing to a local newspaper and committing to reading the local council news items in it. Or finding out who your local councillors are, and dropping them an email to tell them (or even find out) what the top three local issues in your neighbourhood are.

Because if large groups of people in Ukraine are prepared to risk their lives by standing in front of invading tanks – and succeeding in stopping them literally in their tracks, think what your neighbourhood could achieve. (And if you’re short of ideas, see what other organisations in your area have applied for – click on the area committee items in the city council’s calendar here. And if funding is an issue, see the Cambs Community Foundation here).

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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