Cambridge elections – ensuring young people count

Because as a teenager in 1990s Cambridge, there was very little going for us. The challenge today is the polarisation of opportunities – particularly comparing private vs state schools with the advertising of the former being much more intrusive and public-facing

One of the things that comes with boomeranging back to your childhood home is that you get to compare it not only to the other places you have lived in, but also between the different historical eras. You also begin to pick up on your metaphorical ‘blind spots’ – things that you are either unsighted to today (in my case what it’s like to raise children in Cambridge today) as well as from yesteryear (what was it like growing up north of the River Cam?) Therefore listening and reading matter even more than the public speaking. Hence why more than a few of my videos I’m making of this period will contain more questions (for collective responses) than answers.

“How do you make young people’s voices count if they don’t count at the ballot box?”

“Well I called my Congressman and he said quote:

“I’d like to help you son, but you’re too young to vote”

“Summertime Blues” – Eddie Cochran

This sort of puts recently-arrived residents who are interested in standing as candidates for election at something of a disadvantage when it comes to learning the social and contemporary history of a place, which is why the British Newspaper Archive’s continued digitisation of its collection is ever so useful in helping level the field. For Cambridge there’s 30 years of newspapers that have been digitised (1969-1999) meaning that people can read for themselves what the impact of the Conservative Governments of Thatcher & Major had on our city – a period pretty-much spanning my entire childhood too.

Cambridge Labour’s proposed youth strategy

You can read their manifesto here – scroll down to p6. (The opposition Lib Dems have published their vision for Cambridge, but at the time of writing don’t have a full manifesto)

“Make sure young people’s voices are heard and their needs provided for – young people under 25 years old represent over 35% of the City population. In order to achieve this, we will work with partners such as the County Council and Cambs Youth Panel, as well as designing a dedicated youth strategy.”

Cambridge Labour Manifesto May 2023, p6

Nearly a decade ago when I stood as an Independent candidate in Coleridge, Cambridge under my social media nom-de-guerre Puffles, I wrote an extensive manifesto that a number of people also commented on & contributed to. The main thrust of that manifesto was to persuade politicians to use social media much more, and to get young people much more involved in local democracy with a view to shaping the future of our city. You can see what I wrote at the time, and judge for yourselves how well/badly it has aged.

“Why does what Labour have matter?”

Because they are the party in political control at the Guildhall, and even if they lost every single seat in this election to the Conservatives over congestion charging, they would still remain in nominal control as the largest party on the council. Only 1/3 of seats are up for re-election (plus two by-elections for the city) and Labour are not defending every single seat. (Note the LibDems are taking a fair share of heat from this too). You can see the state of the parties on the city council at

At the moment, no one outside of the local party knows what will be in the proposed youth strategy. However, by their nature as long term policy documents it will have to go out to public consultation. With their local election campaign in full swing, now is precisely the time to get in touch with your election candidates to make the case for children and young people in our city. Even better for those of you with children/teenagers/young adults living with you, invite them to put their questions directly to the candidates via and compare the responses. The more that people do this, the greater the incentive for those that get elected to address that issue.

There’s (contemporary) history in all of this that sets the context.

I had a series of exchanges in early 2014 with former Cllr (now Dr) George Owers (who has since stepped back from frontline party politics some time ago) in the comments pages of my old blog. (We caught up earlier this year at a book sale he was helping run.) Have a read of our exchanges here – noting he was in his early/mid 20s at the time, and me in my early/mid 30s. Ten years on, neither of us are carbon copies of the people we were back then. The other thing to add was that in 2013/14, Cambridge Labour *were in opposition* to the Liberal Democrats, who only had a majority at The Guildhall by virtue of the Mayor’s casting vote. Our exchanges took place within six months of a city council election that would see Labour win political control of the council – and 12 months after that, the Parliamentary seat in one of the closest contests in Cambridge’s modern Parliamentary history.

I recall it being quite an intense debate – but it showed both sides were informed by life experiences over an extended period of time and actually gave a damn about the place we were in. By standing up to me he helped educate what was quite a significant niche readership at the time of how demanding the task of a local councillor was and is, while at the same time indicating where the structures and systems were broken – and still are. One of them was about the role of young people.

“…schools and young people are a County not a City issue. It’s not a blurred line, it’s the most unblurred demarcation in our two-tier local government system.”

Former Cllr George Owers (Labour – Coleridge, 2010-15)

Constitutionally he was – and still is correct. At the time I and others felt the city council could be doing more – hence pushing them further on it.

As the 2010s progressed and a new round of cuts started to bite hard, the natural turnover of councillors resulted in a new wave of younger activists getting involved, selected as candidates, and elected as local councillors for Labour. Hence they are the ones who should take the credit for securing that new manifesto commitment. All I might have done in that 2014 campaign is to have encouraged councillors and council officers at the time to review what the city council was providing for younger residents. And sometimes that’s all that’s needed to get the ball rolling.

“What should be in the youth strategy?”

I’m too old to be making such judgement calls. Ultimately the content has to be shaped by the young people themselves – along with parents, carers, and those with specialist/frontline knowledge of working with young people. I’m none of these. In terms of the process of putting one together, that’s been part of my public policy background. Hence:

Make sure your target group knows what a strategy is

Because 16 year old me wouldn’t have had a clue about what a youth strategy was, let alone what was going to result from it.

Get hold of and collate your research and data sets

Which institutions are most likely to hold anonymised data sets that might inform your strategy? This is where you get into the things that can smash stereotypes of what Cambridge’s perception is. Where are the micro-pockets of poverty and deprivation that fall through the gaps in larger studies? How are they being kept track of?

Ask if the emerging local plan is designing out or designing in problems of the future

Building new developments with mixed housing types has long been the planning policy of successive government. This was on the back of the social problems that arose where entire neighbourhoods of housing monocultures combined with flawed housing policies because exclusive one class of people or another. Whether council housing (the so-called ‘sink estates’ of the 1990s) or a gated communities of luxury apartments or detached mansions that followed in the 2000s. What’s good for the profit margins of developers is not necessarily good for cities.

Design surveys for young people that get a child’s/teenager’s eye view of our city

Which are the parts of town that feel safe? Which are the parts that don’t feel safe? Why? To what extent is safety to/from venues a barrier for you taking part in activities aimed at your age group? If you had the power to make changes, what would you change and why?

School and college audiences are easier to find than those who leave at 16 – how do you go about finding out the views and needs of those who are more likely to have the greatest needs?

Noting that several of the charities that work with young people have also been hit hard by austerity and a fall in donations – in the face of rising demand

Just because some young people will be from affluent backgrounds with wealthy parents does not mean they don’t have their own needs

The mistake that institutions made with my generation was that if we were performing well in our exams, all was well. It wasn’t. Furthermore, if we weren’t doing well in our studies, the fault was seen to be with us/our attitude, rather than a broken system of teaching to the test at arbitrary points on a school calendar.

What are the barriers that adults and institutions put in the way?

The “No Ball Games” sign is the classic example of where the wants of adults are put ahead of the desire of children to play. “Why don’t you go and play in the park?” we were often asked. “Because it’s not safe there!” We would respond. Our group played on a small patch of grass in the mid-1990s, aged between 9-14. Austerity was by that time so extreme that there wasn’t anyone to keep a look out for us. We played where we did because a handful of the children lived down the road – one almost across the road, so we knew there were responsible adults nearby.

Ask university students from both Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin about what worked for them in recent years

– especially those that have moved from other towns and cities. Quite often, other local councils will have mapped out the processes that, when applied elsewhere and done well, can produce something that adapts well to the needs of the neighbourhoods. One group historically missed out in this part of local public policy? Teenage girls – hence the campaign group Make Space for Girls.

Challenge the wealthier institutions that target the international market (private schools, and language schools) what their contributions will be – financial or otherwise

Furthermore, accept that those institutions may not be as co-operative as we might like because their commercial incentive is to ‘sell Cambridge as an exclusive place’ rather than an inclusive one.

That last one will be a very difficult barrier to overcome.

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