The cancelling of The Big Weekend represents a collective failure of Cambridge’s wealthy business sectors to support our city

And not just that. It reflects the complete breakdown of the functioning of our city and wider surrounding districts, from civic culture, governance structures, vision, and political leadership in both local and national government. A new Government must follow the recommendations of several House of Commons Select Committees so we can overhaul our obsolete institutions

[Updated 01 March 2023 to add]: One reader has been in touch to say that several firms are in touch with Cambridge City Council to see if they can reverse the decision – offering to contribute substantially to the costs of hosting The Big Weekend 2023 so that it can go ahead. I hope that they are successful as our city needs events like this that, for me are an important part of our civic calendar.

If you don’t know what The Big Weekend is about, have a look at Heart FM’s medley video from 2016 below

You may have read the reports in the news – this one was the most read on the Cambridge Independent’s website on Sunday Evening. Some of you from the science, technology, and property sectors might feel a little hard done by with my statement above – perhaps you had no idea this was an issue. That in itself reflects the failure of our city and its institutions to communicate with the people who make up our city, and with themselves. This is not a new problem – I wrote about this back in 2016 calling for a conference on how to deal with this. It never happened. What’s worse is what Reach PLC has done to our local stable of newspapers – along with Newsquest with its stable of papers covering Ely, March, and Wisbech – two of which are now digital/clickbait only.

“The Big Weekend is rubbish anyway, what with its ageing rockers and has-beens on the line up!”

Actually, as vocalists go, Heather Small – formerly of M-People who were ***huge*** in the 1990s was a decent booking for 2022. Some of you may recall her song Proud from the London 2012 Olympics.

My favourite M-People track from nearly 30 years ago is Search for the hero – one that for me is timeless, even though it reminds me of a horrible time at school for many of us that lived through it in the mid-1990s.

Also, with up to 10,000 people in the crowd for the Friday night set of headline performers, that’s a potential audience that should interest far more musicians and performers than those which normally get booked.

The Big Weekend isn’t just an event for the people who live inside our city – it’s an event that brings people from across our county and over the county borders too.

Just because they may not be events to your taste, when you’re making decisions for a city that has a big influence in the surrounding towns and villages, we have a responsibility to them as well – in particular those that cannot afford to pay the entrance fees to the corporate festivals that are popping up again.

One of the biggest losses resulting from the cancellation is strangely one of the parts of the weekend I’m the least interested in.

“The Cambridge Mela takes place on the Sunday of the Big Weekend each year and is a celebration of Asian culture, including music and dance. It also includes arts and crafts, delicious food, workshops, and performances from the local community.”

Cambridge Live 2022

It still surprises people when they find out how little I know about Asian culture until I tell them that the South Cambridge I grew up in was on the border of a White Working Class and White Middle Class communities – i.e. Coleridge and Queen Edith’s. Combine that with primary school teachers a few of whom did their teacher training during the Second World War, and nuns at our church a couple of whom must have started their service before the Second Vatican Council, you get the idea of what it was like being often the only non-White child in class at primary school, or one of just a few at secondary school. So I never had the chance to learn anything about it.

The Cambridge I grew up in didn’t have anyone who looked like me playing professional football on the telly regularly. The number of British South-Asian footballers in the Premiership was still only five in 2021. And seeing someone from the same background on music programmes like Top of the Pops was a rarity – Apache Indian (who appeared at the Mela in 2022) making a rare appearance in 1993 here, and the highly-acclaimed Norman Cook remix of Brimful of Asha by Cornershop / Tjinder Singh in 1998. Hence why visible role models in local as well as national public life, matter.

Have a listen to Nathan below on fitting in.

Given how society has changed over the past few decades, there are now more of us who are of a mixed heritage background. In my case I’m still fascinated by the photograph of my great-great grandfather in his legal robes in Edinburgh, and his wife, my great-great grandmother who was born in Manchester.

“The notion of a standalone mixed-race identity that is not an offshoot of one of the more familiar identities such as black, white or Asian is not something monoracial Britain and the wider world takes seriously yet.”

Remi Adekoya – Associate Lecturer in Politics, University of York, 11 Feb 2021

Note that over 7,400 people in Cambridge identified as being from mixed/multiple ethnic groups. (I’m one of them!) And while all cohorts showed a rise (Cambridge’s population grew by the around the size of a town like Haverhill as it was in 2001), note the rise in “White – other”, reflecting many people from continental Europe – in particular Eastern Europe for example. It was only in 2004 that the former Warsaw Pact countries that joined the EU gained full access rights to the UK.

Above – from Cambridgeshire Insight’s Census 2021 pages

So therefore having an annual civic event or day that brings out people and groups from across the world who have made our city their home, is (for me at least) important for our city, even though it’s not something I’d think of attending myself. Furthermore, people who have recently moved here may not have had experiences of living in a society where you have people from all over the world living and working here. The point I sometimes make in relation to healthcare is that if you want the best healthcare in the world, you need to be open to the best talent in the world. (Which is one of the reasons why I think the Conservatives in Government have treated our healthcare staff despicably – having seen it first hand as a patient more times than I’d like to!)

People are more than just the supply of labour. Employers, politicians, and policy makers need to show they understand this.

Which might sound strange for someone who has a degree in economics, but I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of people being this monolithical mass in the economic models of the era that we had to study. Environmental economics in my uni-days was still in its infancy and for radical tree-huggers who complained about crippling international debts of countries in Africa and South America, (i.e. me), and Feminist economics wasn’t even acknowledged as a thing. How times have changed with Doughnut Economics now being embraced by local councils some 20 years later.

One big employer that needs to understand this is the University of Cambridge (and by definition its member colleges, institutions, and organisations that it has a financial stake in). This ranges from the lowest-paid employee working for an outsourced contractor to the highest paid splendid chap in cap-and-gown. And everyone else in between. We know things are really bad at Cambridge University right now because the industrial action tells us that. How the University treats its academics, staff, and students inevitably has an impact on the wider city. Hence students forming Cambridge Land Justice.

“Is social impact funding one solution?”

This is one thing Cambridge City Council is looking at, having commissioned consultants to write a report on it. You can read the report Coming Together, here.

Above – Coming Together, by Dominic Llewellyn, Emily Christou and Jack Scriven

This is part of their wider Our Cambridge transformation programme that incorporates a new consultation platform for residents that is being hosted by CitizenLab.

Cambridge City Council says *Have your say – Online focus group workshop*

Another one?

This set is based upon a ‘rich picture’ that they commissioned – you can view it here but it’s best to download the file to make the zooming in easier. Failing that, click on the pictures below.

“Why is it the fault of businesses for not sponsoring the Big Weekend?”

Like I said, it is a *collective failure* – even more so when you see things like the redevelopment of the site around and including the Flying Pig Pub, where the developer is more than likely to have made a significant profit from selling the site to RailPen, while leaving Cambridge City Council to pick up the costs of the appeal. Socialising the losses onto the city, while banking the profits from it. Again, if it wasn’t this firm doing it, it would have been another one. The problem is the system that minister-after-minister is and has been unwilling to change. When residents see actions like this in the face of ever-more cuts to local council and public service budgets, is it any wonder that they get angry? Or worse? Despondent and cynical about local democracy and politics generally?

“Would this have happened in the olden days?”

It probably did – but in times gone by it was the wealthy that periodically contributed towards huge feasts in the 1800s for things like winning wars (see 1814 here) or coronations.

The other thing to note is those that owned successful larger businesses lived in and/or worked in the city, so were familiar with its local institutions. The structure of global financial institutions means that the personal link between investor and municipality is broken where the financial institution is headquartered abroad, or where the line of accountability from service-user to shareholder is a long and complicated one. For example Stagecoach’s parent company – why would a German infrastructure company care about anything other than the bottom line? Six months after the takeover, the firm announced huge cuts to bus services in and around Cambridge that were only rescued by, and can only be continued by the Mayor raising a precept on local council tax bills. Again, privatising the profits, socialising the losses. (Hence why I’d nationalise/municipalise the lot).

“Can the Big Weekend be rescued?”

If someone is willing and able to stump up the cash, but as things stand the council has pulled its funding from it for this year at least. Which demonstrates that there was no civic-minded individual or firm/s willing to step up and make good the shortfall.

It’s not just the loss of the big stage and the Mela – but the loss for all of the other community stalls and small traders too

For me, this year should have been the year that one of the days should have been set aside for community groups and activities – inviting them all to participate on what might have been a trial run for a societies fair for Cambridge – like a freshers’ fair that the students have but for ‘town’ societies and those based in surrounding districts. It is also a missed opportunity for the smaller performance and music stages too. That publicity – especially for the teenage musicians and performing artists is a huge boost for them, as not only does it introduce them to a much wider audience, but also provides the opportunity for them to have their performances recorded by friends and family, for sharing on social media.

So the solution is…?

One that involves the public contacting their councillors and MPs about how broken our city is, and how its governance structures need a radical overhaul that can only be done with the consent of national government. Furthermore with the local elections coming up in May 2023, voters need to raise these issues with their candidates (few took that opportunity last year) and urge them to get the overhaul of local government in their manifestos – local and national. Otherwise we’ll continue with the same problems over-and-over again because the structures and incentives work so strongly against the wellbeing of our city and the people that make it.

That’s my take anyway. Let your local councillors know what you think via (It’s pointless moaning about me – I’m just a middle-aged Mr Angry with too many opinions!)

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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