Common strands of Cambridge’s ‘too difficult to solve’ problems at recent council meetings

But First…This.

I’ve put my name down as a candidate for one of the Patient Governor vacancies at Addenbrooke’s (i.e. the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust Board of Governors).

…so I also recorded a video.

…Don’t all laugh at once!

I’ve posted links to my previous blogposts on local health and social care delivery here.

One of the issues with standing for election to a hospital trust board is that you have to be a member first. And even though membership is free, most people are unfamiliar with the concept, let alone the fact they are eligible as local members of the public. See the membership link at for anyone interested in becoming a member for what I still call the Addenbrooke’s Board of Governors – because #LocalHistory.

Therefore this raises more than a few issues when trying to find out who to target your campaign towards. The only alternative is to invite your friends to join as members in the hope they will then vote for you at the elections. Which only makes the case for overhauling the system to one where local residents are automatically eligible & can vote if they wish.

“No taxation without representation!”

Cllr Dr Alexandra Bulat (Labour – Abbey Division) on Cambridgeshire County Council goes a step further.

I agree. We are now at a stage in global history where so many people live and work in places different to where they spent much of their childhoods. Therefore having a nationality requirement for me is obsolete. This has been put into sharp focus with the so-called ‘golden visas’ for very rich people in return for depositing sufficient sums in national financial institutions in return – turning a ‘blind eye’ on how such wealth was made in the first place. My feeling for ages has been that people who have moved here to live/work/study/support family contribute far more to their local communities than any jet-set tycoon. Therefore they should have the vote and the incentive to get involved in local decision making in the communities whose wealth they contribute towards.

The big gaps in Cambridge’s consultations – this came up at Community Scrutiny this evening (24 March 2022)

It went on for nearly five hours so credit to anyone who sat through it all!

The two big points made by councillors and council officers at the meeting that I picked out were:

  1. Cambridge City Council is not great at publicising (and re-publicising) the things that it does actions & activities-wise;
  2. Cambridge City Council is not great at consultations.

Now, those of you who have known of my existence for the past decade or so will be familiar about my constant pestering of councillors and officers to use social media much more effectively, and to put more posters up much more frequently in places where people will see them. Such as bus stops and health clinics. The focus for both of these points really came out in two items:

  1. The proposed public art by the River Cam at Sheep’s Green;
  2. The proposed revamp of Market Square.

The former has been in the news of late – see Alex Spencer for the Cambridge Independent here. The executive councillors clarified that the vote this evening was on allocating a maximum *budget*, not a vote for the proposed public art piece itself which would go through a separate consultation and approval process. It’s in a conservation area and as Cllr Mark Ashton (Labour – Cherry Hinton) stated at the meeting, it would need planning permission.

As the debates continued throughout the evening, it became more clear to me that so many of the issues causing angst for councillors, officers, and public speakers alike were the result of broken structures, systems, and processes. And it does not need to be like that.

Above – one of the public speakers was the Secretary of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations – Jean Glasberg, a Labour councillor when I was still at school.

Having an email distribution list of 100+ residents’ associations who can then cascade things onto even more people is quite a useful thing to have if you are a local council wanting to get things out to your local residents. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen. But then at the same time Cambridge has a high population turnover, so which are the areas where the population is unstable and are less likely to have functioning residents’ associations? Are there other, more suitable networks to tap into?

“We know that Cambridge has consultation issues”

I wrote about them recently here. And it’s not just the council or the city it represents;

This goes to the heart of how we as a city, and we as a county communicate with each other – as individuals, as communities, as institutions, as a society.

And none of us has the mandate or the competency to deal with this. The fragmentation of our public services is one of the big factors that has seen to that. Why hasn’t there been any big publicity drives within local government to get members of the public to become members of their local hospital or NHS trusts? Why wasn’t there any major publicity drive in health and social care sectors to get people registered to vote in the super-elections of 2021 for local councils and the mayoralty of the county?

Furthermore, we are still in the midst of a pandemic no matter what ministers try to tell us.

As of 24 March 2022, 167 people in Cambridge died of Covid or where Covid was one of the causes of death as recorded on their death certificates


So our ability to have the community workshops that we might have had before have been out of the question, and the societal impact of what is now over two years since the first Lockdown are going to be with us for a very long time to come. I still don’t feel confident enough to go to community events in person – not least because I’m still convalescing from my December 2021 heart attack. The result? I have not been to a meaningful social gathering with familiar faces since the end of the previous decade (The 2010s). Also, don’t expect the recent statement by the Chancellor to make things better. As one of the most memorable ministerial put-downs I can remember happened earlier this evening.

The experts are also raising big concerns. Here’s Clare Moriarty, the former Permanent Secretary at DeFRA who I met during Puffles’ early days, now heading the Citizens’ Advice Bureau having retired from the Civil Service. This is what she had to say:

And I’m one of those people now on those lowest of incomes – and will be for the rest of my life. That’s my longterm outlook.

Scrutinising what local public institutions are doing is one of the few useful things I can do in my semi-housebound state.

…and if I do too much or don’t take ‘sleep breaks’ during the day, I end up like the above. Which makes getting my 30+ mins a day of being out and about with a brisk walk a bit of a challenge at the best of times! Trying to wade through so much information published without what feels like much co-ordination between institutions, and then trying to summarise and communicate that across city & county, feels like a full time job. Something I’m not capable of.

“How should we communicate as a city and as a county?”

I asked this very question back in 2016. It’s now 2022. What’s changed?”

“There is a small community of us journalists, commentators and community reporters that cover local democracy in Cambridge. At a time when local newspapers and broadcast media are struggling, it’s all the more important that local public organisations are subjected to proper scrutiny. “

A Dragon’s Best Friend Blog 29 March 2016

The question would make for an interesting problem to put to some citizens’ assemblies. Because a system of each individual institution having their own publication, and simply relying on social media posts and/or press releases simply won’t cut it.

Above – an example of Cambridge City Council’s planners and publications teams failing to align their workstreams and deadlines.

Can’t they combine publications?

We’re seeing far more integration of service delivery and planning between Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council. Note from the Community Scrutiny Committee earlier – Item 5 on Future Leisure Management Arrangements, and the paragraphs below.

With town planning services, refuse and recycling, and now the proposals on a joint vision for leisure facilities, at what point will the tipping point come where Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council merge, rather than duplicating meetings & papers all the time? And would such a move trigger the more radical proposals that many have been calling for (not without opposition it must be said) for the existing county two/three tier structure to be abolished, with two or three unitary councils created from them?

One big barrier at present is the lack of shared, common, easy to find, and well-known information sets – some of which I listed halfway down in this blogpost. One of the things that hit the ‘golden riverbank’ proposal was the collapse of our collective & institutional memories in the face of the global pandemic – completely understandable. Cllr Anna Smith (Labour – Coleridge) repeatedly made the point about how resilient the commissioned artist Caroline Wright had been in the face of so much criticism of her (the latter’s) proposals. Ms Wright was commissioned by Cambridge City Council to deliver a project called To The River – described on her website at

“To The River – a public art project on the River Cam”

The project’s website is at

And it needs updating. The last newsletter was dated August 2019 (scroll to the foot in this link). As does the Journal – noting the impact that Lockdown had on the project’s interpretation, in particular how collectively public opinion shifted on access to the countryside and to green open spaces and rivers.

Understandably, when the public first heard of the concept of the golden riverbank, none of the previous work that Ms Wright and others had put into the project pre-Covid was re-publicised. What we got was this image of a golden riverbank by an over-extracted, sewage-filled river with postcard shots of old colleges that regularly feature in property and sales brochures which – for me at least – reflected a reality of Cambridge for all of the wrong reasons.

I got a similar sense when the proposed revamp of the Market Square came up again too. What was the concept design again? Oh – it’s here.

Above – remember this?

Broken structures, broken systems, broken processes

Anyone read the Cambridge Public Art Manifesto? It’s at Item 9, page 20 of the 4MB file.

Above – a screengrab of the draft Public Art Manifesto.

“What should the sequencing have been publicity-wise?”

That’s one question, but there are a host of more fundamental issues that also arise that were raised. Note the consultation.

Above – from item 9 page 31.

Above – from officers’ analysis of the public art consultation

That is not a survey from which to base a city-wide public art strategy on – and certainly not one to be the core from which will influence how hundreds of thousands of pounds will be spent on public art.

The cascade of the breaks:

  • Only one under-18 year old responded to the consultation – and the demographics of those responding were highly skewed / not representative of the people who make up our city
    • …which indicates something went wrong with this specific consultation or that the council’s model for consultation is broken
      • …and as I’ve indicated elsewhere, the council has struggled with other consultations – but then so have other public sector and civic society institutions
        • …so moving onto the relentless decline in the local and regional print press across the western world, and the still rapidly evolving and changing environment of social media…
“…have we figured out how we as a city, and as a county communicate with each other?”

No. We have not.

And figuring out how we do this can only come about if we also examine how we are governed and administered as a city, and as a county – including the processes and mechanisms for holding those doing the governing and administrating accountable for their decisions. The problem is the current Government don’t look likely or competent enough to make the legislative and policy changes needed. That’s not from me – that’s from people far more qualified and eminent in the field of political science.

“Could things be done voluntarily? Such as getting the leaders of the critical and influential public services to meet and co-ordinate things?”

If you like herding cats. Or dragons.

Above – from 2011. What’s the collective noun for dragon fairies?

I played with the concept of regular co-ordination meetings of the heads of essential public services irrespective of ownership or legal status. I wrote up some thoughts on what I dubbed The Greater Cambridge Improvement Commissioners – a take on their Victorian predecessors on the grounds that these people would be responsible collectively and individually for improving the city & surrounding district. It’s quite a list of essential services too!

Which takes me back to that other longstanding issue…

Cambridge’s municipal boundaries have hardly changed since the mid-1930s.

Above – what the old Cambridge Borough Council applied for when we last expanded, and what we got from the Cambridge (Extension) Order 1934 (from Cambridge’s localgov history with maps).

Around the same time, William Davidge of the Cambridgeshire Regional Plan 1934 (you can read it here – it’s beautifully written) proposed condensing the large number of urban and rural districts into a smaller number of larger districts within what was a much smaller Cambridgeshire County Council area at the time.

Above – Davidge 1934

When the last major root & branch restructure of local government in the early 1970s came about, what was the old South Cambridgeshire Rural District, and the old Chesterton Rural District, became today’s South Cambridgeshire. Newmarket Rural District was hived off into a new East Cambridgeshire District Council linked up to Ely’s urban and rural districts amongst others.

As a result, those villages in the old Newmarket Rural District found themselves cut off from the Greater Cambridge Partnership when it was formed with a Conservative majority on its decision-making board back in late 2014. At the time it might not have mattered because Conservatives generally don’t like the concept of congestion charging. Fast forward to 2022 and the Conservatives have only one seat out of nine on the Assembly, and none on the Board. Which has resulted in an angry reaction from Conservative councillors on East Cambridgeshire District Council.

Above – Left: Cllr Anna Bailey (Cons – Leader of East Cambs District Council) & Right: Cllr Elisa Meschini, (Lab – Deputy Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council & Chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership)

We’ve also had issues with the moving of the HQ of the County Council out to Alconbury.

….noting that while the pandemic continues, the new building that has no public transport cannot hold all of the county councillors in the same room while the county maintains a more precautionary approach than the reckless approach from Boris Johnson’s administration. The Combine Authority is also maintaining a precautionary approach…

…which differs somewhat to the Leader of the Opposition on Cambridgeshire County Council – whose previous administration oversaw the move by the County Council from Cambridge to Alconbury. This was picked up by the former Liberal Democrat Candidate for the Police & Crime Commissioner Mr Moss-Eccardt pointed out below.

“Which reminds me – there are local elections coming up”

Expect the social media exchanges to account for this accordingly!

Just don’t expect our local democratic structural issues to be resolved by them!

If all of that has not put you off local democracy for life, and you are interested in what’s happening in local government in and around Cambridge, please support my work watching meetings, reading bundles of papers and summarising who is saying/doing what. <<– Please help feed the Cambridge Town Owl!

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