MPs politely disagree on GCP transport proposals as Cambridge labeled “a city in name only”

…which was a more realistic headline of the exchanges (and afterthoughts) that were broadcast on Sunday morning (05 Feb 2023)

You can read the report here. I went along because various people told me I had to be there, even though I was planning to give it a miss. Mainly because I am too familiar with the whole thing. But then I also needed to get out of the house too. Although that meant I couldn’t go anywhere today because Post-Exertional Malaise kicked in so hard that my normal Sunday routine walk to Mill Road stopped me half way down the road.

“What was the debate like?

As above – very heavily curated – although people turning up will have seen just how much planning and resources are needed to put on a slick BBC production that looks effortless when you watch it on telly.

No historical background

This for me was something that needed to be covered at the start: how did we get to here in terms of our local governance structures? As no one else had made a video about it, and because blogposts only get you so far, I made a video monologue with a few screengrabs and links in the description box.

Above – my monologue which I also uploaded to FB here

Again, ploughing through a fair amount of brain fog to get it done means it won’t have the professional feel to it! Just me with a smartphone on a selfie stick!

Catching up with the usual suspects

The most useful bit was probably being able to catch up with dozens of people who I had not seen face-to-face since the first Lockdown, and people from multiple different dispositions regarding the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP)’s proposals. For me, it reflects badly on the GCP as an institution that it has managed to polarise a city unnecessarily through both the actions of a succession of senior executives (officers) and the failure of a succession of board members (councillors – politicians) to provide clear and consistent leadership and direction.

People who might have been critical friends and supporters of the partnership have been alienated because they/we got the sense that the projects the senior officers wanted to get built had already been decided in the mid 2010s and they were not going to be swayed by anyone. Time and again political history shows that if institutions don’t actually undertake meaningful consultations and public engagement, you end up with an utterly disengaged public that views politics with cynicism. And who can blame them?

Cambridge CINO – a City In Name Only

This is my slogan/starting point for an overhaul on how Cambridge should be governed. The first thing is to understand how we got to here, and the second is to work out where all of the major decisions that affect the future of our city are taken – and if they are not taken by ‘the council’ – i.e. the legally constituted municipal and democratically accountable public authority, then where are they taken and why?

Cambridge was granted ‘city status’ by King George VI in 1951. But it has never had unitary council status despite multiple attempts to secure it since the late 1880s when county councils were invented. As a result, Cambridge has experienced a two-tier existence ever since the formation of Cambridgeshire County Council. Much of it was to do with money – Cambridge having ‘county borough’ status would have deprived the rural districts around the town of revenue to pay for things – even though moaning rate payers were the reason why Cambridge couldn’t have nice things that would look splendid today. Actually, it wasn’t so much that as a lack of central government grants from revenues of the very wealthy at times of extreme inequality – in particular in Edwardian times. When we look at key services, we have:

  1. Bus policy decided by the Combined Authority in Huntingdon
  2. Local highways policy decided in Alconbury by the County Council – wanna have a street party? You’ve got to get it processed by someone in Huntingdonshire!
  3. The city’s archives – stored in Ely, East Cambs
  4. Only a last ditch protest saved Cambridge Magistrates Court from closure
  5. Cambridge’s main police station moving outside of the city to Milton, on the other side of the A14.

How is democratic accountability maintained if local residents cannot easily access the decision makers responsible for public services when holding public meetings?

Basically my point is:

We are Cambridge. We can do far better than this.

And by Cambridge I don’t mean the people who live in the 1935-era boundaries – which themselves were only an extension to the 1911 boundaries and which those ones were only an extension to the original ickle borough boundaries that, with the exception of Castle Hill did not go north of the River Cam! (Chesterton being its own Urban District until just before the First World War).

Hence my repeated point about our city of Cambridge is that our city is made up of the people who make it. And that includes those that have to commute in from far away places – the fact that they have to being a reflection of broken governance systems where municipal authority cannot bring in major policies to deal with things like the various property-related bubbles. That is something Chancellors of the Exchequer past and present have denied to towns and cities everywhere. If Cambridge could tax the wealth supposedly being generated here to cover the costs of new green infrastructure, public & active transport infrastructure, zero carbon housing, and funds for improving sports, leisure, and healthcare infrastructure – and then pay the people working there a decent wage, we may not even need to consider congestion charging.

“Local Government Finance isn’t exactly the most exciting subject in the world though”

That’s one of the reasons the overhaul of local government cannot be a technocratic exercise alone, but one that inspires people to imagine what could be possible, and figure out collectively the principles and high level things that need to be in place to get us to that better future. Then you let the details people do the details.

Anyway, there are local elections coming up again for Cambridge City Council

Which of you are going to stand as candidates and get press coverage for whatever it is that you are passionate about improving in our city?

See the details from Cambridge City Council here.

“Almost anyone can stand for election to the city or county council. As long as you meet the criteria below, and can find ten people to support your nomination, you can put your name forward and become a candidate. You do not need to pay a deposit to stand in a local election, submitting a nomination is free!”

Three months and counting as Phil Rodgers, now a columnist at The Cambridge Independent writes.

There are a couple of new names on Phil’s spreadsheet here, but the risk is that South Cambridge will be fairly quiet (which means a lower turnout) unless more people get involved.

“The Greens are defending Abbey; the LDs are defending Queen Edith’s and Trumpington, where they should be OK, and Castle, which might be trickier; Labour are defending the other 10, though 6 of those are pretty safe – the battleground is Market, Newnham and the two Chestertons.”

Phil Rodgers – 04 Feb 2023

The most recent successful independent candidate in recent times in Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s). Read her blog here and get a sense of what the issues are in South Cambridge. Also have a listen to her interview with Trevor Dann on Cambridge 105 with Phil Rodgers from Sunday 05 Feb 2023 here.

There is also the ‘novelty option’ which can work in some areas but will inevitably generate ridicule in others.

Nearly a decade ago, I filled out nomination forms and got the 10 signatures at a time when my old social media account, Puffles the Dragon Fairy had a bit of a cult following. Hence Puffles stood in Coleridge. A year later the council rewarded the 89 voters with a brand new dragon slide at Coleridge Rec for the local children.

Above – Vote dragon, get dragon: Gatecrashing Lewis’s Labour rally and photoshoot in 2014

Yet in 2014 me and the dragon did what no other candidate in Coleridge has done since – or has done for years; we faced public audiences at hustings. In my case it was events organised by the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, and the King’s College Cambridge politics society.

If you don’t want to stand for election, could you organise a local public debate/hustings in your area for local residents to meet and question the candidates?

Chris Rand who produces the Queen Edith’s Newsletter wrote a guide on how to organise an election event here. It still reads well today.

“If it’s an early May election, I’d suggest starting to plan the event in early March.”

How to organise a local council hustings event

It’s now early February. Time to start having those conversations with your friends, acquaintances and fellow campaigners? If you want to make a difference, pick the wards that currently have the lowest turnouts or which are the safest politically. (For example see the 2019 results here and look at the turnout for each ward). You never know, it all might be useful in the general election due in the next 18 months or so.

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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