International economic opportunities cannot be managed by enfeebled councils designed for market towns

Yet that is what successive governments have expected from Cambridge. The results make few people happy – financiers & developers complaining about the planning system constraining their opportunities, while local communities watch helplessly, unable to act as their homes are transformed into something they had no influence over. So, what can be done?

TL/DR: With a general election looming, campaigners need to be very specific in their demands on what policy changes are needed – and what changes to the law are needed, when it comes to cross-examining candidates. Oh – and bring video cameras with you. You’ll need to get responses on public record.

This post follows Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s) on Cambridge City Council who wrote about South Cambridge being squished again by big business.

“That means reading and research and stuff!”

For some people, yes. But then the next bit involves multiple conversations about what specific questions to put to candidates and politicians in order to get them into manifestos, local and national. For this I’ll have a look at some of Cllr Davies’ previous blogposts.

Development: not even a level playing field

From 13 March 2022. How do you rebalance the system to stop unscrupulous and speculative developers from simply grinding down local communities until they get their way? Furthermore, with environmental limits becoming far more prominent, how do you radically reduce the financial incentives for large organisations to make fortunes from such practices? Policy and law changes could include:

  1. Changes in planning law – such as requiring planning permissions to be re-submitted whenever a site is sold on (enabling someone to profit from the planning uplift)
  2. Changes in financial law – including taxation, who can own property, and making investment in productive capital in areas under-invested more attractive than investing in property in places where the economy is already overheating
  3. Changes in local government law enabling councils to charge developers and applicants however much is required for councils to have planning teams that can match what developers can bring to bear
  4. Changes in transport law enabling local transport authorities to get on with improving their transport networks without having to bid for funding from/get permission from ministers all the time
  5. Changes in adult education law enabling the financing of bursaries for mature students switching to careers where there is a chronic under-supply of workers – such as town planning
Why reading up on political history matters – and why producing summaries is important in our time-limited world

Not everyone is going to be an expert in every field – but then not everyone needs to be. During my civil service days I learnt (but never became particularly good at) how to draft short briefing content for ministers. But I absorbed the principles like a sponge with water and they seem to have stuck with me in one sense. It involves being able to pick out the essential information that someone can absorb in a very short period of time. And also understanding that people prefer to analyse images than read reams of text. I see this every time I bring along a big historical map to a public meeting. Such as the Holford Wright proposals from 1950. It’s bigger than A1 size. It’s also why when meeting papers are released, I look for the files that are large – they are more likely to have images and diagrams than the small ones.

Devolution in England? We’ve been here before

It was a big thing in the 1960s when we had very small district councils – even smaller than today. It was also a time when Penguin were publishing successive cheap and accessible books on public policy issues.

  1. The Devolution of Power (1968) – which I’ve digitised here
  2. The Property Machine (1975) – some old 2nd hand copies on ABE Books here
  3. Town Planning – by Thomas Sharp – who published many books on the subject, including one from 1931 on Town and Countryside – digitised here.

Regionalised England – we’ve been here before?

When we had nationalised utilities, England was divided into regions.

From pages 75-83 in The Devolution of Power.

Above – diagrams for the Gas Boards, NHS regions, and proposals from The Economist in the late 1960s.

Regional policy Mark II

In the 1990s and 2000s there were also Government Offices for the Regions – I started my civil service career in the one in Cambridge that covered the East of England. One big criticism was the lack of transparency & accountability in decision-making. It was at a time of targets and indicators for a whole host of things that the Coalition scrapped in 2010.

Part of the problem with the regional structures in my experience was that few in local and regional government could articulate clearly both how and why the structures existed, let alone the lines of accountability. Part of my first job in the civil service was in the communications team – every so often we got phone calls asking what we did. All too often we were dealing with a public – and working with colleagues who did not have even a basic understanding of the political and administrative system we were working in. Ours is a generation not taught democracy at school. In the 1990s the tabloid newspapers were of the view that teaching children things about this involved teaching them how to claim benefits and live delinquent lives off of the state. Combined with Section 28, and massive cuts to education budgets over nearly two decades, ours was a generation educated to be ignorant.

Which is why this publication from Canada at the end of WWII makes a very important point

Above – Canadian Democracy in Action, from early 1945

I’ve digitised my copy here.

“The greatest danger which faces democratic government in the modern world is that the peoples of the democracies themselves may not understand their own institutions. This has always been true, but today the problems of government are not only national, provincial, and municipal; they are international.

As the range of democratic government widens, the need for an understanding of its aims and principles becomes more pressing. It is with the hope of making some contribution to this understanding in Canada that this book has been written”

George W. Brown, University of Toronto 1945 for the Minister of Education for Canada

This is as relevant to Cambridge as it is anywhere else – perhaps even more so given the multinational corporations that are establishing premises here, and the sources of finance that are behind it.

“If firms are multinational, their regulators must be – and those regulators must be democratically accountable to the people”

A Dragon’s Best Friend – Nov 2012 – my old blog.

At the moment, we have multinationals being regulated by lower-tier councils that have no support to call upon when faced with the financial and lobbying firepower of multinational corporations. This is unsustainable – even more so in the age of a climate emergency, a global pandemic, the toxic culture of misinformation, and state-sponsored disinformation the results of which we are only all too well familiar with.

Food for thought?

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