Cambridge elections – how can we hope to improve our city if we don’t know how it functions?

And if we don’t know how it functions, what hope is there for anyone in the think tanks or in Westminster who don’t live the problems that we as residents (and everyone else that makes up our city) live with on a day-to-day basis?

“My city [Cambridge] is not particularly typical. It seems to sit near the top or bottom of just about every figure of merit this report [by the Centre for Cities – Outlook 2023] analyses.”

Prof Athene Donald DBE – 21 Feb 2023

I’ve stumbled across the Centre for Cities in previous blogs – including this one from 2020. I also went to an event that the institution hosted about the future of Cambridge – one that Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s) wrote about here.

“Much emphasis was laid on the importance of ‘a single powerful voice’ and an overarching narrative representing ‘Cambridge’ to government and to potential investors. But the voice and the narrative only serve the interests of the organisations represented in the room: the global high growth, high tech organisations based here.”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE – 06 Nov 2022

One thing conspicuous by its absence in all of the debates about the future of Cambridge as far as business circles are concerned is how our city should be governed. Despite their huge lobbying power, few publicly have stood up to ministers publicly to tell them that our system of governance is not fit for purpose. Furthermore, the present structure is one that only seems to confuse, and blur lines of accountability.

“However, our roads are choking us, public transport is still woeful into the city centre – although the council wishes to introduce a congestion charge along with improved transportation links – but cycling is available to anyone fit enough, including students, who happens to have the luxury of living close enough to their place of work to make that feasible (but beware that pollution).”

Prof Donald – Feb 2023

I’ve emboldened the phrase “although the council…”

…because it’s not clear which one she’s referring to. Furthermore, none of the component members of the Greater Cambridge Partnership component councils have had mandating votes at their full councils committing their institutions to a congestion charge. Furthermore, one of the arguments by opponents of any congestion charge is that no politician stood for election on a mandate of bringing in a congestion charge. Or busways for that matter.

Above – by the now retired Smarter Cambridge Transport.

“If a professor at Cambridge doesn’t know who in Cambridge is responsible for congestion charging policy, what hope do the rest of us have?”

That’s one way of looking at it – but I don’t blame/accuse Prof Donald over this in the same way I don’t blame our local MP Daniel Zeichner (a graduate of King’s College, Cambridge) for saying he was still trying to work out the power structures of the University of Cambridge even though at the time he had been our local MP for several years.

If we want our city (including Cambridge University) to become greater than the sum of our parts then consolidating, condensing, simplifying, and making far more transparent & accountable our structures, systems, processes and institutions are a must.

I’m leaving all things Cambridge University to the student campaigners at the Cambridge Land Justice Campaign. They will know far more than I ever will about how their colleges and their university functions. Furthermore, it’s their future and are in a better place inside the system to shape it. Me? I’m just a chronically ill middle-aged bloke who blogs a lot and am now appearing on a ballot paper for my neighbouring edge-of-town ward because people asked me to. Amongst other things.

“So…how does the city of Cambridge function – and malfunction?”

That was something a few of us explored in a workshop I ran at St Philips in the People’s Republic of Romsey Town (on the other side of Coleridge to Queen Edith’s) about a decade ago. The concept worked but we did not have the organisational structure or resources to take it to the next level.

Essentially we looked at our city from the perspective of local residents rather than any institutions responsible for government or public services. By doing so it allowed us to pick up on who was responsible for the essential services we take for granted – until they cease functioning. Like street lighting and traffic lights. We also looked at the history of who installed them, how they were installed, why they were installed, and who paid for them. That gave us an insight of how the city – then a town, used to be run, and what the problems were. It also highlighted how over-complicated the post-privatisation structures had become since the 1980s. Not something that was high on the list of issues by the politicians promoting it then, or defending it today: the diseconomies of scale of the increasing number of services associated with communications that are now essential to access a growing number of existing public services.

“How do you educate the people of a city in how their city runs?”

Good question – one I’ve thrown out to local residents. Could we try some workshops in the future to explore this in Rock Road Library’s community room?

Above – outside Rock Road Library, Cambridge: built by Cambridge Borough Council, transferred to Cambridgeshire County Council via the swift stroke of a ministerial (or monarchial?) pen.

If we as residents don’t know how our city functions, how can we hold those responsible for the individual services accountable? The formation of new ‘Integrated Care Systems’ make for an interesting case study. I wrote about our one here. The humber of institutions involved is eye-watering.

The ICS will incorporate:

  • Two upper tier local authorities:
    • Cambridgeshire County Council and
    • Peterborough City Council
  • Five district councils:
    • Cambridge City Council,
    • East Cambridgeshire District Council,
    • South Cambridgeshire District Council,
    • Fenland District Council, and
    • Huntingdonshire District Council
  • Three hospital providers:
    • North West Anglia NHS Foundation Trust (NWAngliaFT),
    • Addenbrooke’s – Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH) and
    • Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (RPH)
  • Two community providers:
    • Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT) and
    • Cambridgeshire Community Services NHS Foundation Trust (CCS)
  • East of England Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (EEAST)
  • 85 GP practices  
  • Cambridgeshire Local Medial Committee
  • Healthwatch Cambridgeshire and Peterborough
  • The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Health and Wellbeing Board
  • Other partners, including parish councils as well as voluntary, community and faith organisations



And at the same time the retiring head of the Cambridge BID [What’s a Cambridge BID?] wrote an article in 2022 about how surprise he was at how little knowledge Cambridge’s residents have of our city centre. Cllr Davies responded asking whether anyone had ever asked why this was. I had a look into it here. I concluded

  • “In the face of an economic crisis, I can understand why the Cambridge BID is trying to encourage more people to visit the city centre and buy things (and in their position I’d probably do the same thing)
  • “We don’t know nearly enough about the people who make up our city to know whether the needs of tourists and visitors are the same as those that live and work in our city
  • “We have not analysed in depth the impact that powerful decision makers have had and continue to have on our cities, or the weaknesses in our governance institutions. in regulating them *for the collective good of our city*

Some of the issues will have local solutions, some will have regional solutions working say with partner local councils, while others will require firm, bold, long term actions from visionary and competent ministers. The last of which I can’t see happening.

Food for thought?

As mentioned, my name is on the ballot paper for the Queen Edith’s Ward for the Cambridge City Council Elections 2023. Do look out for my fellow candidates across our city and read their party manifestos. See and type in your postcode to see who your candidates are for the local elections across England in May 2023.

I’m collating blogposts, videos, and articles at If you’d like to help with running costs (I want to print a few things out) please see marking ‘”Election” in the message box. Please ensure you are a permissible donor.

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