“Multiple shared interests, multiple shared experiences” – and the challenge of community building

There have been two article that caught my attention this week – one US-based, and one Manchester-based. Cambridge – and national politicians need to pick up on the lessons before the existing financial, planning and urban development systems repeat the same mistakes of the past.

To summarise, the two articles are

Class-based friendships

This article from Reeve and Fall in Aug 2022 cites work from Raj Chetty in the USA using social media data – which brings a host of caveats to be aware of when trying to extrapolate the US experience to the UK experience – not least when it comes to the structure, funding, and financial independent of local government institutions. (The UK being far more centralised and without the constitutional barriers that prevent Federal/National levels of government intervening with devolved competencies).

Above – from Reeve and Fall, Aug 2022

Anecdotally, the phrase: ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is a familiar to many – especially in what you could call the graduate professions where competition is fierce and where historically the diversity of the decision-making classes has been somewhat limited – or skewed towards privately-educated white males who went to Oxford or Cambridge Universities.

Given that Cambridge (UK) is the most unequal city in the country, and given that the University that dominates the city is one of the most sought-after in the world, it’s an easy place to pick for trying to dig into the problems of social mobility and polarised communities.

The more difficult ones to pick – and the ones that get less attention unless something violent happens, are the economically deprived cities – often de-industrialised ones, where there is further segregation that has happened over a period of decades, and can be the result of political as well as economic factors. I found this out during my civil service days during my time working on the New Deal for Communities Programme in the late 2000s – where the lessons were emerging from what was a decade-long programme that came to an end in 2010. One place I became familiar with was Oldham – which was the site of horrific riots in 2001, which had a knock-on effect in the general election campaign there.

The findings from Chetty’s study in the US.

I’ll list them:

  1. ‘Friendship networks are strongly class based‘ – I saw this for myself at its most pronounced in the civil service fast stream, noting that rank and file civil servants did not like the fast stream as a concept (One of my old trade unions, the PCS calling for its abolition), and noting how quickly the privately-educated oxbridge intakes seemed to settle in far quicker (especially at social events) than those of us not from that background. At the same time, I found the emerging UKGovCamp community to be far more friendlier and accessible – where building digital things or making better use of existing digital things to serve the public was the underpinning value rather than who could climb the career ladder the quickest. (Again, I left the civil service in 2011, so much has probably evolved).
  2. Rich people make friends of college classmates, poorer people make friends of neighbours‘ – note how much more ‘mobile’ the friendships from college/university can be compared with working class communities where disproportionately fewer people from those backgrounds go to the top universities. This has further knock-on implications when it comes to policy-making in central government; wealthier people with higher levels of qualifications are more able to move elsewhere and maintain connections compared with those without those qualifications & educational experiences – in particular those who suddenly find themselves removed from their childhood neighbourhoods in say London, and dumped in a far-away town due to the council housing shortage.
  3. ‘One part of the US is friendlier than another’ – is the same true for the UK? I remember visiting Wales a couple of decades ago and noted how much more friendlier people there seemed to be than Cambridge in 1999/2000.
  4.  ‘Economic connectedness is the only form of social capital that boosts mobility‘ The article by Reeve & Fall states three types of ‘social capital’
    • economic connectedness (EC), based on the extent of friendships across class lines
    • social cohesion, based on measures of the thickness of social ties within communities
    • civic engagement, for example as expressed by rates of volunteering.
  5. For upward mobility, it’s better to live in a more connected place [where people had friendships across class lines] than a richer place‘. Think the town-gown divide in Cambridge over the centuries.
  6. Friending bias and economic segregation contribute equally to lack of connectedness‘ …and the 21st Century Cambridge version of that where developers in their literature have on more than one occasion plotted out on the maps of Cambridge where the private schools are and where one of the private hospitals is.
Now let’s see what Manchester is learning

The article’s headline is a contradiction in terms – I guess it’s meant to be?

“It’s Europe’s most successful new neighbourhood. So why is there so much tension?”

New Islington Ancoats by Joshi Herrmann in The Mill, Manchester, 15 Jan 2023

If there is so much tension, it can’t possibly be the most successful new neighbourhood unless the people doing the measuring are missing out some of the most important metrics. One of the hard things to measure is social trust. Phil Rodgers found a questionable example earlier today.

In my civil service days, the Government tried to measure this in their then new performance framework for local government – abolished by Eric Pickles after which local government has been left to rot on meagre rations.

Local Area Agreements – what things council performance would be measured by and assessed. All 198 indicators – you can read them here.

Above – one of the outcomes that ministers wanted to achieve in villages, towns, and cities across the country, was ‘stronger communities’. So they negotiated with representatives from local councils, and researchers a series of suitable indicators that might reflect success/failure in this. Some would be based on government funded surveys, others would be numerical data from people walking through doors/buying tickets and community venues. (You can see where the controversy arose as to which should have been in the 198).

The concept of these agreements is that out of the 198, local councils would negotiate up to 35 which would have targets to meet. Hit the targets, and the local councils get extra funding to spend on their own priorities. The principle being that local communities would have a better understanding of what solutions they needed rather than central government dictating from the top and releasing small-pot-after-small-pot of funding approved by ministers. For example in the 1990s the issue of how to reduce the frequency of teenage pregnancies was both a media and political issue. As a teenager at the time, the debate adults seemed to be having was whether my generation should have more SexEd, or less – the latter on the principle that if we didn’t know about it we wouldn’t do it. It was similar to the Just Say No! campaigns of the 1980s – see Grange Hill here. By the late 1990s following the general election. policy makers were making the links between early pregnancy and factors such as poverty, economic deprivation, and low educational attainment. See this study from 2020 looking at the impact of Labour’s policies 1999-2010. (And also this one from Argentina from 2017 covering the impact of increasing the number of years of compulsory schooling from seven to ten years).

If you want to anger an existing local community facing comprehensive regeneration, call the place ‘New Islington’

Or worse, new Oxbridge.

One of the reasons it sounds familiar is that we have seen similar things happening in Cambridge that the longer term residents of Ancoats describe to Joshi Herrmann.

“They say we’re destroying the area. It’s like Shameless sort of thing. Some of the comments — oh yeah, the Ancoats riff raff come on the marina and spoil it all…. It’s like we’re intruding on their territory. We are original Ancoats people.” 

Herrmann 2023

As one of the interviewees stated, the new development feels like it was given the name as a marketing ploy to attract a certain cohort of people to the area – I guess mainly based on what the media myths of what Islington in London is like vs what the reality is like for different groups of people who actually live and work there. There’s a similar phenomenon with Cambridge and how it is marketed globally vs what our reality is like. Recall A Choice To Look on homelessness produced by Joe Cook. Housing affordability has been a chronic issue in Cambridge for years – recall the buy-to-leave scandal reported by ITV Anglia in 2014. Fast forward to 2020 and we have the marketing of Darwin Green (NW Cambridge) in the Far East by one of the big UK volume housebuilders. Again, the underlying issues of inequalities are similar – and replicated in towns and cities across the world. At what point does the current economic and financial system become socially and environmentally unsustainable to the extent that governments cannot keep a lid on the pressure building up?

With Cambridge’s expansion, we are not looking at the gradual (or even rapid) gentrification of a neighbourhood: we are dealing with the creation of new urban areas from scratch.

Whether Darwin Green, Eddington, The Accordia, North East Cambridge, and the Airport site, all of these new neighbourhoods are being built from scratch. And Eddington was slammed by the city council for not providing any council housing. What does that say about Cambridge University’s attitude to our city residents?

Yet hasn’t that been the case for almost all of Cambridge over the past few hundred years? (Both University indifference to all new neighbourhoods being built from scratch). Draw a line along the main railway line and you’ll find much of East Cambridge being suburbia – most of it built since the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. There are very few publicly accessible community landmark buildings of distinction where people would choose to be. (Furthermore, few people choose to be in hospital – for those of you suggesting the biomedical campus – and furthermore, the public health messages at Addenbrooke’s encourage people not to go onto the site unless they have an appointment or are accompanying someone there!)

Does Cambridge risk becoming a mosaic of exclusive communities that seldom interact?

That’s my worry. In fact in my case, that is my reality. Cambridge has become – for me at least, a lonelygenic city. (A phrase coined by Xiaoqi Feng, & Thomas Astell-Burt in The Lancet, December 2022)

“Over decades, our cities have become sprawling low-density agglomerations. Many places are too far to walk from home. Short errands are routinely done by car, erasing opportunities to stop and chat with locals.

What is a lonelygenic environment? Me citing Feng & Astell-Burt in December 2022

One of the similarities between the Ancoats vs New Islington experience and the low income Cambridge vs Cambridge phenomenon experience is how people on lower incomes are ‘designed out’ of their home neighbourhoods. For example:

  • The privatisation of public spaces where private security guards can eject people (brought in as a means of ‘moving on’ anti-social behaviour, but has gone far beyond that)
  • Only making provision for paid activities rather than having free-to-access and safe open spaces
  • Not making provision for key groups of people who have the greatest need – for example young people to the elderly, to people with limited mobility (I’m one of them)
  • Having only expensive shops that people on low incomes cannot afford to frequent

“Cambridge City Foodbank recently reported record demand between April and September 2022, with the Foodbank providing food support for almost 7,000 people”

Cambridge City Foodbank, December 2022

That designing out [of the use of such regenerated areas by people on lower incomes] has been and is a Political choice – not just by politicians but also of the lobbyists and their paymasters who have lobbied for the financialisation of land and housing markets on a global scale. Furthermore, it was Political decisions to cut back on state functions of building council housing, to have your local council as your landlord of choice, and the outsourcing to the private sector of various standard-setting functions – such as the old Building Research Establishment.

“Following 75 years as a building research agency of government, BRE was privatised in March 1997 by then Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine in the last days a conservative government.”

The BRE Trust

In May 2022 the Fire Brigades Union demanded the renationalisation of the BRE following revelations at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

“How do you unite a fragmented city?”

First of all by acknowledging that we are fragmented?

And then understanding and analysing the ‘who, what, when, where, how, and why?’ of how we got to here. That’s one of the reasons why the 1935-era municipal boundary of Cambridge is one of our biggest barriers to changing things: Cambridge City Council and its councillors only have competency to deal with things inside our city – and even then they have few powers and even fewer resources. While shared services makes financial and functional sense for services like town planning, the structures still require duplication of meetings for council officers. Hence my repeated calls for a unitary council that can integrate a host of public services beyond existing local government, and one that can function across a geographical, economic, social and environmental sphere of influence.

Take Saffron Walden & its historical relationship with Cambridge through the prism of the Saffron Walden Weekly News as presently digitised in the British Newspaper Archive here.

Above – from around 5,700 newspaper editions, the word “Cambridge” comes up nearly 200,000 times! (And that’s just the keyword search on the words it can detect!) That’s a lot of mentions per edition (over 35 per newspaper) given that Saffron Walden is in Essex, not Cambridgeshire. (And thus sits outside the Greater Cambridge and Combined Authority boundaries).

Co-ordinating if not uniting more of the institutions is one thing, but uniting and co-ordinating communities is quite another.

The problem facing Cambridge City Council is it has neither the resources nor the legal powers to raise the revenue needed to employ the community development workers that are essential to integrating new residents into our city. Note the criticisms from Cllr Sam Davies MBE at an event late last year that we both attended.

“Isn’t there a responsibility on the new arrivals – especially the affluent and privileged ones, to start building the bridges first? Especially with our more economically-deprived communities?

That’s one view expressed in Manchester.

“What has received less attention is the thing I always think about when I come here – that line; that sense of two communities not interacting in a kind of voluntary apartheid. Lots of people have noticed it, too. “It’s a strange environment,” says Mike Burgess, a radio DJ who used to live in Ancoats and saw the New Islington development emerge.

Burgess thinks the responsibility should be on the new residents to bridge the divide – they are the ones moving into a new neighbourhood, after all – and he thinks the council could be more creative about installing spaces that appeal to newcomers and old timers. One very noticeable thing about this area is the lack of amenities beyond the lines of New Islington – it’s mostly housing and the youth clubs, cafes and pubs of the past are almost all shut.”

Joshi Herrmann 2023

Note the one very big difference between Manchester and Cambridge in terms of administration: Manchester is effectively a unitary council within a combined authority area. Cambridge is a district/borough level council in a two-tier area within both a county council, and a combined authority area. Things get very messy when you have political parties of different colours with different priorities. Hence the long delays with East Barnwell in Cambridge – one of the most economically-deprived communities in Cambridgeshire. (Fortunately we should see some progress this month).

One starting point has to be a city-wide societies fair – like the Freshers’ Fairs universities have for students, but mainly for town and county groups, organisations, and charities.

I‘ve written about this many times. (My first article about a Cambridge Societies’ Fair was over a decade ago in 2012!!!) If sponsors can be found for the Cambridge Big Weekend 2023 (there’s a big risk it could be dropped due to austerity) then this would be the occasion I would pitch for a Societies Fair to take place on one of the days. It’s important that the Big Weekend goes ahead as part of efforts to rebuild our city following the lockdowns. (The pandemic isn’t over – neither is the crisis in the NHS). In 2022 we lost one of our community fairs – the Cherry Hinton Community Fair. We cannot afford to lose these free events for our city.

And finally

Back to the title: If we want to break down the barriers within our city and even within our communities and neighbourhoods, we have to get to a situation where more of us are having multiple shared life experiences and are able to develop multiple shared interests. When I first left home to go to university down in Brighton back in 1999, I very quickly sussed out that whatever my new uni friendship group would become, it would be one with multiple shared interests and multiple shared experiences. But as I wrote just over four years ago, I never found my tribe. And following my heart attacks and my chronic fatigue diagnosis, I’m reconciled to the fact that I never will.

It doesn’t mean that I won’t stop fighting for a city to ensure it provides those opportunities for those multiple shared experiences over time. Like Cllr Sam Davies here, I’ll still be reading those meeting papers on my laptop crouched on an armchair and tabling public questions as and when. The difference is they may well be making the case for things that I’ll never had the strong enough health to take part in or make use of for myself. But I guess I’m OK with that – it’s something that sort of comes with ageing, isn’t it?

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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