Imagine the future of your city. What things stop this from happening? What changes to the law are needed to remove existing barriers?

While I have my own grandiose ideas for what a future Cambridge should include, I think it’s even more important that we make it a routine action to involve children and young people in a meaningful way on future decisions about our city.

For they have to live with it longer than us oldies do. Furthermore, there is a huge public interest in educating our city on those processes, and how they can go about getting them changed if they decide they are not functioning for the common good.

Yesterday it was People, City, Planet for the Core Site in North East Cambridge

…and today it was The Imaginarium with the ESRC

…and Stagecoach managed to screw up the buses big time that the post-exertional malaise is going to kick in later this evening and spend Monday thumping me while I lie in bed like a zombie.

Every so often there will be community events or public meetings that come up one-after-another that I feel I have to make an attempt to go to – if only to get something on the written record (in the face of under-funded local media) knowing that I’ll take a hit the following day or so – sometimes longer (it can be up to a week that I’m out of action and effectively house bound.)

Facing the next lot of local media cuts are the BBC’s local news outputs.

Again, ministers jabber on about how important Cambridge is, while their actions result in cuts to the very things that are needed to sustain that ‘jewel in the economic crown’. BBC East covers a very wide geographical area – from Milton Keynes in the west, to the east coast ports of Great Yarmouth and Ipswich. But does that feel like a region in any meaningful sense? They’ve been arguing about it since the end of the Second World War.

“What’s the point of going to these things if ministers stubbornly maintain the broken system that allows powerful interests to bypass community interests?”

That’s why people need to start lobbying their elected representatives and local political parties, mindful of a general election due within the next two years. Also, I don’t know how many votes there are in promising to clamp down on tofu-munching pro-woque luvvies.

“They won’t be any good clamping down on tofu-munching pro-woque luvvies if they can’t even stop them boy-racers whizzing up and down the road like that, waking up the babies and frightening old ladies!”


Also, the closure of ***over half of England’s & Wales’ Magistrates Courts*** (2010-20) can’t have helped deal with the backlog of cases, nor helped with the concept of local access to justice either.

You can view the constituency data from the House of Commons Library here.

Personally I think we are capable of better than that, as are our towns and cities along with the people who make them. Hence the event on the 30th Oct 2022 (earlier today) where a fair number of children and young teenagers were invited to write their demands and have them filmed making speeches about them.

Above – from Hilary Cox Condron

“Computer says “No!””

Some of you will be familiar with the now excruciating clips from Little Britain from the early 2000s by Walliams and Lucas. All too often it can feel like the only explanations people get are why we cannot have nice things. But today I had a number of conversations with people from the next generation (early 20s) as well as a few who were older than me about some of the really big things that need to change in order to free us up – and paradoxically take away some of the freedoms to mess things up that big institutions currently enjoy. Or rather to put this into economics-speak: forcing the producers of negative externalities to account for those externalities in their costs of production and in the prices of their goods and services.

In a nutshell. But the legal power is all vested in Parliament, and all of the policy initiative is vested in Ministers of the Crown. Should Labour win the next election outright or as head of a coalition, it will need to consider whether it will stick with an existing broken system that at the same time keeps power with ministers, or whether they dare to devolve revenue-raising powers (and create new independent revenue raising powers) for local councils that ministers then cannot touch.

The point about independent revenue-raising powers comes up time and again. The Combined Authority continually waits, cap-in-hand for ministers to be ‘Lady Bountiful’, handing out grants (as Eglantyne Jebb described about Conservative thinking on charitable work over 110 years ago in Cambridge) before it can do anything substantial.

Take another example – the e-scooters thrown all over the place.

“The Voi trial is overseen by the Combined Authority, but it’s the County Council, as ‘highways authority’, which would need to give permission for parking bays of the kind I’m requesting. And in the city centre, there’s a further complication because the City Council, as ‘planning authority’, has to give its blessing. This ensures that any parking infrastructure is compatible with Conservation Area status.”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE, 30 Oct 2022.

Who invented the Combined Authority? Which political party in government rushed through the legislation creating what has been Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council as we know them today? As I concluded at the end of my previous blogpost, it is Conservative ministers that are the block on progress – ‘the blob’ to use Michael Gove’s own phraseology against him. Noting that he is now back as the Secretary of State responsible for local government – having now re-committed to a 300,000 homes per year house building target that was dropped by the previous Prime Minister Liz Truss.

There is almost zero chance of his party in government reaching those house-building targets in the next two years. Trust has been shot to pieces by the revelations (such as this one) at the Grenfell Inquiry. Furthermore, neither the building industry (due to material and labour shortages) nor local councils (due to austerity imposed by governments of which Gove was and is a senior cabinet minister in), have the capacity to complete the actions required of them to ensure those houses are built and to a high enough standard, let alone the bare minimum standards required by both planning law and the Building Regulations.

Students and early career researchers asking the right questions

It’s now up to us older generations to create those opportunities for decision-makers to be cross-examined by them, and challenged for their shortcomings.

I was particularly impressed by the Cambridge medical students working on homelessness in and around Cambridge, trying to break some of the local public service silos.

Above – photo by Cllr Hilary Cox-Condron

I encouraged them not only to present their research to local public organisations, but also to ask their local MPs ( to present copies of their reports to ministers, inviting ministers to comment on any specific findings and conclusions that the students and researches have come to. (That way the Minister has to familiarise themselves with the essentials of the research, and sign-off any responses that are sent back to MPs – as in this example.

I think there is much more the University of Cambridge (and also Anglia Ruskin University) could be doing to facilitate contacts between students & researchers with the public policy world – actions that don’t require a huge amount of effort. There are at least two former permanent secretaries who are now Masters (or equivalent) at Cambridge University colleges. The number of current and former civil service policy advisers living and working in Cambridge who could be running workshops on the essentials of democracy in the UK and the essentials of public policy open to both town and gown. (I ran one several years ago which received good feedback, but I lacked the capacity to take things further).

Getting schools and further education colleges involved as a routine action

For me, there is a strong public interest in educating the cohorts of young people who don’t go onto university away from Cambridge. Anecdotally are more likely to stay reasonably close by in their adult years. What we don’t have is a comprehensive set of teaching materials based on the contemporary changes that are happening in our city. That is something that as a city we need to put our collective minds to, in order to enable local schools and colleges to use those materials for their students and young people to run with in extended projects of their own. Furthermore those materials could be used for mainstream subjects, whether learning the basics of plotting data on maps and spotting correlations, to reading transcripts of debates and political speeches in drama and performing arts.

“Have we done this before?”

Yes – and on a regular basis. We used to have a local curriculum development centre – long since vanquished in previous generations of austerity. There are a number of examples in the Cambridgeshire Collection in Cambridge Central Library in Lion Yard. (Arrange a visit via here). I got permission to digitise one of the examples they have, which you can browse through here. Inevitably it is very dated, but the principles are still sound – and has a nice mix of local history, geographical mapping, data mapping, numeracy/mathematics, and more – even a board game!

Above – Journey to work – courtesy the Cambridgeshire Collection

In a race to the workplace – we had a few sizeable factories (such as the PYE works that used to bus workers in from the villages) in those days. And we still had the same traffic problems too – as the penalties for landing on a numbered square tell us!

  1. Traffic turning right – miss two goes
  2. Traffic lights – miss one go
  3. School crossing – miss two goes
  4. Congestion – miss three goes
  5. Accident – go back & take alt. route
  6. Bad parking hold up – miss two goes
  7. Pedestrian crossing. -miss one go
  8. Roundabout – miss one go
  9. Bridge crossing wait – miss one go

Above – do those hold ups sound familiar?

Which also explains why I concluded so many of Cambridge’s problems are caused by an utterly broken structure of governance. What was particularly of note was multiple issues came back to that same broken governance structures and the lack of substantial legal and revenue-raising powers that would enable local institutions to carry out those all-important enforcement functions, local research, and local policy-making functions that are currently running on shoestring budgets.

“What could we ask of opposition political parties here and now?”

There’s no need to ask for immediate comprehensive answers. Just give them advanced warning that come the general election you will be expecting those answers to your questions and concerns to be forthcoming either in manifestos or public policy commitments. At a very basic level they should be able to confirm that they have given your suggestions due consideration and, if they’ve rejected them, should be able to explain why. In Cambridge the local parties who are in opposition in Parliament are:

What questions you put to them…well, that’s none of my business. But it’s worth starting the conversations now if you want to find out more.

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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