The contrast between the corporate report on Cambridge University’s Economic Impact written by consultants London Economics (which I wrote about here) shows the difference that going out to where people are to listen to them, can make.
TL/DR? Read pages 8-9 of the PDF here.
You can read the full report here. It was researched and written by Cambridge Ahead’s Young Advisory Committee, all of whom are under 35.
“Is 35 young?”
Dennis the constitutionally-aware peasant from Monty Python says 37 is not old. So when it comes to other age cohorts, 18-35 is younger than many you might see at future-of-Cambridge events. The significance of this cohort is that this is the first generation of people in the workplace (those that grew up in the UK) who grew up with the internet being the normal way of doing things. i.e The Internet would have been the norm for them at secondary school at the latest in the same way it was for me when I started university in 1999.
The event launch
It was at the C-3 Church by the Coldham’s Lane Sainsbury’s on the Romsey-Abbey boundary – a less-well-known but state-of-the-art auditorium that’s outside the city centre. Previously it St Stephen’s Church, as this photo by Keith Edkins shows, and was an outpost of the old St Phillips Parish.
Above – the old St Stephen’s Church on Coldham’s Lane by Keith Edkins here.
I spent the previous night going through the report. It was significantly different to what I had been expecting in a corporate report – and positively so.
Above – from the executive summary
From the first four recommendations, you get the sense that this goes beyond ‘the needs/wants of the business community’ (which the speakers acknowledged is not a monolithic entity but a diverse community of communities with separate and sometimes conflicting wants), and that what they Young Advisory Committee researchers (and the people they interviewed) goes beyond the standard – or even best practice of that dreaded phrase: ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. (One much abused by big corporations that the public are becoming wise to – and cynical towards attempts at greenwashing/reputation-laundering through seemingly charitable acts).
This is where younger generations are more familiar with some of the more recently-developed online tools that were either still in their infancy or simply not around when I was working in community development policy under the last Labour Government in the late 2000s. There’s a strange irony about this recommendation given the news about the Cambourne-Cambridge busway because there’s a strong sense from those engaged in the debate on this (and who have been for almost a decade now!) that the parameters of some of those deliberative methods of consultation were framed in a way to lead towards the outcome that senior officers were already supporting. For example at no point was there any meaningful debate about using light rail and exploring whether it was possible for local councils to go back to ministers and negotiate either extra funding, or new powers to tax the wealth being generated in the Cambridge sub-region.
This is where things started to get really interesting because this – as I mentioned to some of the report’s authors, gets into some of the really difficult public policy issues that few outside the public policy or politics world get to work on. This is why in the Q&A session I asked the panel what laws they would change to ensure they could deliver on their ambitions. A couple of people noted that only one speaker really took on the challenge – mentioning how the tax system treats people working in offices differently from people working remotely/from home. In the grand scheme of things, Q&As are hard going with large audiences – and for me having an audience listening passively to a panel of experts is also something that doesn’t work for me. Given the people in the auditorium it might have been nicer to have had some smaller interactive discussions – multiple conversations on people’s preferred areas. But that’s just my personal preference.
If we look at recommendation 6 in purple above-left, how do you go about introducing more diverse mixes of housing types when the land and property bubbles are hotwired towards what is the most profitable for the financiers behind each scheme, rather than what is best for our city. And we have seen more than enough examples of developers appealing to national planning inspectors and getting refusals for planning permission from councils overturned – leaving councils out of pocket. (This was part of Eric Pickles’ and Grant Shapps’ reforms in the early 2010s).
One other issue that was raised was why house builders in Cambridge are not already building zero carbon homes and buildings with solar panels and other renewables as standard. To which I wanted to shout: “The Home Builders’ Federation!” – one of the biggest lobby groups in Whitehall! In the examination in public of the current Greater Cambridge Local Plan that was signed off in 2018, the representative for the HBF stated clearly that his organisation would strongly oppose any sustainability standards that went beyond what was in national planning policies. i.e. they would lobby hard to prevent Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire from bringing in higher sustainability standards even if this was something that local residents had voted for in local elections.
The other question on how to retrofit a city (I discussed this in an earlier blogpost here) brought in the big solutions such as district heating and power schemes – something I’ve often wondered about having grown up in a neighbourhood where every house has its own boiler. Isn’t there a more efficient way of doing things?
With all of the above, again the problem of community consent comes in. For example in Queen Edith’s, the densification that is happening is not taking place as part of a plan, but is happening in a manner that is resulting in homes with large gardens being bought up, demolished, and replaced with poor quality flats designed in a manner to minimise payments towards community infrastructure. This means developers can export the wealth from the city while leaving the local community having to deal with the burden of increasing population densities *without the community facilities needed to cater for them*. And that is Cambridge’s problem with its current system of governance. Successive ministers have made it all too easy for the wealth created by our cities to be extracted and exported elsewhere, leaving locals to pick up the pieces. That’s not right – and the writers of this report have most definitely called this out in their vision for the Cambridge they want to see our city become.
“So, what happens next?”
In partnership with other groups of similar-aged people including early career researchers and recent graduates and young adults who did not go to university, what changes are needed in public policy, local governance structures, and the law, to enable their vision of Cambridge to become real?
One of the things my old Permanent Secretary told me shortly after I arrived in London and straight into a white-hot policy team that was burning on all cylinders, was that as a policy adviser you have a very rare privilege that few others have. And it is this: For any problem that you face in your policy area, you have the power to recommend to a minister that they need to change the law. Not only that, there is a very high chance that your recommendation will be followed through, and that in the following session of Parliament your minister will be introducing a piece of legislation into Parliament for the latter’s consideration.
As for that policy-making process? That would be for another time.
Food for thought?
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