BBC blow to scrutinising local democracy in Cambridgeshire & West Anglia

The cutback comes at a time when our local democracy needs more, not less scrutiny & publicity.

You can read the news item here.

With Cambridge City, and South Cambridgeshire District Councils now having ‘super-majorities, the need to maintain higher levels of scrutiny from established broadcasters is all the more important. Cambridge people, the city council’s new executive looks like this – with several new faces. South Cambridgeshire people, your district council executive has been announced here.

Because in the grand scheme of things, people like me will never command the audiences on what remains a niche activity: keeping a roving watch on what happens in local government. It should be the role of resourced, transparent, and independent institutions which are less likely to be intimidated who do the scrutiny role. One of the many reasons why the Prime Minister so far as escaped being forced out of public office is because our print press collectively has chosen not to hold him or his MPs to account for their failures in public office. Which is one of the reasons why people are paying more attention to the broken systems, structures, processes and institutions. As I see it, if a non-Conservative administration takes power at the next general election, they are very likely to have a mandate to transform that very institutional structure that Tony Blair had in 1997 – one that he failed to take full advantage of even after the 2001 general election. Do Labour risk making the same mistake this time around?

What I mean by Blair’s missed opportunities is that although he created a series of new institutions, these were easily abolished by the incoming Coalition Government. A wholesale restructure of local government on the other hand is something far more difficult to undo – in the same way that Margaret Thatcher’s wholesale privatisation of entire sectors remains in place.

Below – arrived today and digitised here: Privatisation: Paying the price (LRD – 1987)

Above – the front page and from p28, a list of the privatisations. It’s also got tables on political links between the new contractors taking over outsourced work, and the pay rises for the bosses of privatised firms vs the real terms fall in wages for those on the front line transferred from public to private sector.

There’s a separate – even an historical debate to be had on evaluating which ones were successful and which ones were not. There will also be ones where people will understandably ask why some services & institutions were in the public sector in the first place – for example the British Rail hotels.

Saving Channel 4 – another privatisation too far?

It was established by Margaret Thatcher’s Government and part-funded by the advertising revenue from the Independent Television Networks that form ITV. You can read about its evolving history here. The debate around that and the role of the current Culture Secretary and the Government’s current policy for the channel is the topic for another discussion that’s far above my pay grade!

The fragmentation of local public services – caused by privatisation and centralisation

It’s something I’ve mentioned many times before, and shows how central government policies can have a huge impact on what we see in our neighbourhoods. Let’s take two examples with photos below that I took on my walk around the neighbourhood (despite my fatigue kicking in).

Above Left: E-scooters left on the pavement despite the continued complaints from a host of people and campaigning charities such as the RNIB about the dangers this can pose to people who are blind or partially sighted. Above Right: State of the Cambridge Leisure Park / Old Cattle Market Bus Stop. Who is in charge of the buses, the bus stop signs, the bus stop shelters , the state of the bus stop bay, and the regulation of what in law is a privatised public space?

In the case of the e-scooters, Cambridge is one of the few pilot areas selected by the Department for Transport to have an e-scooter hire-pilot scheme. Privately-owned e-scooters are still banned from public highways, cycleways, and pavements. Even though many flout that ban and it only being a matter of time before they are legalised. Essentially Brexit took away civil service and ministerial capacity to do the policy work needed to legalise this new technology and provide local councils with the funding to redesign their local transport networks.

In the case of the bus stop, it’s in a part of town that is one big missed opportunity. I wrote about it way back in 2016 and it led to a flurry of negative publicity for the developers on the back of things that they had not foreseen – including creating more work for the local police. Even further back was this blogpost by the second-last Conservative Councillor to serve on Cambridge City Council – Chris Howell, back in 2008.

It’s all contemporary local history now – some of our recently-elected councillors were still at school when all of this was kicking off. Which is even more important that we make our local history much more accessible both in terms of digitisation and publicity. And not only that, but also funding local research whether that be academic research or supporting school and college projects that students want to undertake.

Consultations – who gets to find out what is going on?

I managed to crawl my way into town after my final cardio rehab session at Addenbrooke’s – I’m unable to continue due to the waiting list – to pick up some paper copies of the Combined Authority’s consultation on its Local Transport & Connectivity Plan where they had their roadshow stop in Lion Yard, Cambridge.

Above – from the stands.

Basically bus-stop to bus-stop to bus stop isn’t that far to walk in the round trip that I made in my head. It’s how I navigated the Tube during my London days, but obviously my health condition means having to plan ahead much more on where I can & cannot get to.

The officers there told me they had not been made aware of the Cambridgeshire Collection or its files of past transport studies and old maps with abandoned proposals. So I asked them to raise this with their senior managers to ensure everyone working on the future plans of our county gets the chance to go into the Collection – and their equivalents in Huntingdonshire & Peterborough, during work time and arrange in advance with the archivists which are the most suitable items for them to see that can enable them to take in the most amount of information in the shortest period of time. I said I’d raise this at the other end with councillors. This matters because some of the people working on this, although highly talented, are straight out of college/university so won’t necessarily have the corporate or local historical memory that (for me at least) is essential to such major projects.

Co-ordinating, consolidating, and even combining future consultations

Something for all local organisations to think of from the autumn onwards is teaming up with other local organisations doing big projects, and coming up with a co-ordinated calendar of who is going to be releasing which publications on which day of the year, so that the communications managers of all of the other partner organisations can see what is coming up.

In the grand scheme of things it shouldn’t need to be much more than a password-protected calendar that Comms staff of the organisations involve have access to. And it doesn’t need to contain huge amounts of sensitive information either. Or make staff panic if someone finds out and leaks screen shots of it. It’s not as if there’s this massive politically-informed audience out there that’s going to have a riot if they find out about your consultation before you’ve announced it. (Some of the things I stressed about 15 years ago in Whitehall now look laughable today!) Fewer, better consultations asking more informed questions and more targeted questions to a wider audience at more suitable places and events could go a very long way. Especially if it involved different organisations working towards similar aims.

Take Addenbrooke’s headline on the housing crisis from 11 May 2022

I wanted to pick them up on this but I lost the patient governor contest by just 100 votes a week or so ago so can’t. Not directly anyway.

Above – by Gemma Gardner – you can read the article here.

Ms Gardner quoted the trust’s director of workforce:

“It is a problem and currently we have no solution to it,” said the trust’s director of workforce, David Wherrett.

He added: “Particularly for international recruits, we have to provide accommodation and we are having a hard time finding that accommodation in Cambridge.

“The university of course built a whole new community in Cambridge to meet its needs, but we just don’t have that capacity.”

Cambridge Independent, 11 May 2022

To which my line of questioning would have been along the lines of conversations his organisation had been having with the local planning authorities and the transport organisations.

  • Cambridge City Council & South Cambridgeshire District Council
  • Cambridgeshire County Council (along with Suffolk and Hertfordshire County Councils)
  • The Greater Cambridge Partnership and The Combined Authority
  • Registered Social Housing and Keyworker Housing providers/associations
  • Organisations – in particular charitable trusts who might be willing to invest in new housing on behalf of the hospital in return for future rental income.

Let’s also look at Addenbrooke’s Catchment (or rather, that of the Cambridge University’s Hospitals Trust – this map from their Governors pages here).

Above – Addenbrooke’s Catchment.

One question for those running the Local Transport and Connectivity Plan is what plans they have to enable easier public transport access to the site from these local government areas. Not necessarily for the patients arriving by ambulance, but for visiting friends, relatives, and employees.

There are then questions about engaging with the local councils beyond Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire on their local plans for future housing, and whether any of the proposed sites can be allocated for keyworker housing and/or the design of developments that would be suitable for, and provide easy access to/from the hospital.

Finally, there are the large long term financial conversations to happen with potential investors – noting the hospital can be up-front about not being able to provide massive financial returns, but will be able to provide stable returns over the very long term. And is looking for those sorts of investors. I can imagine one or two trusts would be delighted to have their logos on the side of boards advertising their financial backing for essential healthcare workers on construction projects. Furthermore, this is the sort of investment that local councils might also look to put some of their long term reserves into when refreshing their treasury strategies.

Helping with the ‘now’

As I may have mentioned before, Addenbrooke’s and partner hospitals could be providing high level anonymised postcode data to transport planners to indicate which areas have the highest volumes of staff driving in from beyond walking/cycling distances. As well as ensuring reliable bus services start before, and end after shift changes. That conversation does not happen with major leisure providers like The Junction and the Corn Exchange (I asked the regional director of Stagecoach a few years back, and he confirmed this to me).

It’s all very well having the face-to-face consultations, but what does the data say on where people are travelling in from? Which areas of the region could do with 1) new high quality transport links and 2) the housing investment in medium-density housing that might also provide 3) a much-needed local economic boost to that local area beyond overheating Cambridge?

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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