Why Cambridge’s climate resilience forums need democracy-in-action resources to go with them

It’s a cross-party initiative on Cambridge City Council in response to the Climate Emergency and the Heatwave 2022 – but before these start, the councillors need to run workshops explaining how our city functions. And they need to involve everyone – not just those with the right to vote

Seven years ago, I made this video for the Be The Change Cambridge project in 2015

Above – from Be The Change – Cambridge in 2015

In that project, we defined the people of Cambridge as anyone who lives, works, and/or studies in our city, or visits frequently. i.e. People who contribute towards, and/or are dependent on what our city provides and has. Even the super-wealthy are dependent on our city’s roads and waste/recycling services. With the climate emergency, this really does involve us all.

Proposals for cross-party climate resilience community forums in autumn 2022

You can read the full press release from Cambridge Labour here. It also has support from the Cambridge Liberal Democrats and the Cambridge Green Party. (See end note on Cambridge Tories*).

“Cllr Katie Thornburrow, Labour’s Executive City councillor for Planning Policy and Infrastructure, has announced a series of public forums looking at the pressures faced by Cambridge City and the surrounding area as a result of the climate and biodiversity emergencies and development plans, which was confirmed at the Full Council meeting on 21st July.”

Cambridge Labour Party 26 July 2022

It’s good to see this won’t be restricted to Cambridge City’s 1935-era boundaries.

“Cllr Thornburrow has also emphasised the need for them to be cross-party and cross-boundary events, with all political parties from the Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council invited to participate”

We need to learn about democracy and how our city functions before we look at how to make our city more resilience to the climate crisis

There are two reasons. The first is to do with the increasingly international nature of our city – driven by world class industries as well as the University of Cambridge brand. The 2011 census (we’ve not got the data yet for 2021) shows us that nearly 30% of people in Cambridge are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

That does not automatically translate into that percentage being citizens of other countries or not having the franchise. Any statistician looking at me would put me in the minorities box even though I was born in, and spent my entire childhood in Cambridge give or take a summer holiday. Thus anyone who has ever tried to suggest I might be from somewhere else is something I have taken as an insult. And I’m not the only one.

When you look at my school photographs from the 1990s, there are just a handful of us who look visibly from minority ethnic backgrounds, Fast forward to today and school cohorts are much more diverse. The city and society that today’s generation of children and teenagers are growing up in is not the same as the one that I grew up in. And that’s before we’ve mentioned technology.

World class healthcare, world class academia, and world class industries require some of the best in the world from across the world to make them function.

Cambridge is also their city – even though many might be recent arrivals given our population turnover rates. The same goes for those in low paid but essential jobs in industries like social care and catering. Cambridge is their city too. But our systems of governance automatically exclude people without the franchise from participating. And yet they pay taxes and use the same public services. What ever happened to “No Taxation Without Representation!”? That’s also an argument for Votes at 16. That or all 16-17 year olds in work should pay no income tax or national insurance contributions on the grounds that they don’t get a say or vote in how those taxes they hand over are spent.

My generation was never taught about democracy, citizenship, and the concept of the rule of law.

And the less said about what limited sex and relationship education we had in the 1990s under Section 28, the better! Actually, both are examples of the massive public interest in providing adult education courses, classes, and workshops for our generations who were ‘educated to be ignorant’ by previous governments. Hence wanting a new bespoke adult education college for Cambridge. In the short term, we’d have to make use of existing community centres.

Learning how our city functions – and the lines of accountability

At the moment our structures are a mess – which makes this task much more difficult. I wrote about this recently here. Hence for me the best way to start is talking about people’s neighbourhoods with the participants taking part in any workshop/class/course and work outwards until you come across a public service/facility. Which might be a pavement. A street lamp. A bus stop. A litter bin. Then a school, a pharmacy, a health clinic, a community centre, a library. And so on.

Once you’ve got those basic pillars of a settlement in place, then you can start talking about who needs to do what in order to deal with something as huge as the climate emergency.

Now after the recent two days of extreme hot weather, which is clearly an effect of the climate crisis we are facing, we have decided that these two forums [on rivers, and sewage respectively] should be part of a 6 forum series that address the broader question of ‘How Resilient is Cambridge? ‘”

Cllr Katie Thornburrow

My take on the above is we cannot have an informed discussion about Cambridge’s water crisis without understanding 1) where Cambridge gets its fresh water from, 2) how waste water is removed, processed, and disposed of, and 3) what the lines of accountability are – whether to people who pay the bills, or to regulators, Government, and Parliament.

The first cross-party forum of this type we had was before CV19 broke out. Here is the Cambridge Schools Eco Council giving evidence to councillors from Labour, Lib Dems, and Conservatives.

Above – at Cambridge Guildhall 05 Nov 2019

If you want to make representations on how the next set of forums might function, email your councillors -> https://www.writetothem.com/

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:


*For all of my issues with the Tories, I also think some of the very few active individuals they have in the Cambridge Conservative Association should also be involved because over 8,000 Cambridge voters voted for them at the 2019 General Election – even though they stood a candidate who was a councillor in Harlow, and as a party did minimal campaigning. That’s just under ten percent of the electorate – the residents eligible to vote. (Turnout was just over 67% – not great but the high population turnover makes it harder to work out what the actual electorate is at any given moment in time). They should not leave it to their rural-based supporters and councillors to represent the views of their party voters and members who live in the city, and may well have different lived experiences of the climate impact.

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