Pilot democracy & citizenship workshops in South Cambridge

A ‘thinking out aloud’ piece on what it could include, how it could be run, and what pitfalls to avoid.

As I mentioned in my previous blogpost:

Democracy workshops – what I wrote five years ago: is it relevant to today?

This is what I wrote in April 2018 – some four months after coming out of hospital in my first heart scare.

“Shall we put on some ‘how to scrutinise your council’ style events in/around Cambridge?”

ADBF 03 Apr 2018

Some of it is hopelessly out of date – which shows how quickly our age is evolving on so many fronts.”


Have a look at the Cambridge Resilience Web to see who is already doing what in and around our city.

Or sign up to and have a browse of the events listings from Transition Cambridge here Alternatively, have a browse of the methods and case studies archived by InvolveUK that other towns and cities have tried.

At a city level, could Cambridge aspire to something similar to the Wigan Deal? Or would this be best piloted by surrounding towns and villages? What Wigan has done looks very similar to what Oldham pioneered in the Mid-2000s with their Neighbourhood Agreements. Politicians, councillors, and council officers/civil servants may be interested in the 2012 evaluation of the Home Office pilot here.”

I’ve also mentioned old books that cover familiar-sounding issues

Such as Penguin Specials

I’ve also pondered social ‘read-ins’ – bringing in lots of magazines that I seem to have collected into a social space in different neighbourhoods across town and beyond our city boundaries, invite people along, read, browse, and talk. They can be on themes like public transport…

…or more general issues about the city we could become – borrowing ideas from elsewhere

…or be a little more wide ranging. Some could bring things back to the essentials that the present generation of adults aged 30+ were never taught at school – and could be pitched at a much wider spectrum of reading levels.

Above – don’t cuss’ it until you’ve read it! Text-heavy books written by people embedded in the world they are writing about often run the risk of assuming the reader has similar levels of knowledge & awareness – when actually they don’t. Hence it’s all too easy to miss out the very basic questions about “Why?”

Furthermore, don’t forget the old stuff – haven’t we been here before?

Above – old stuff that’s still relevant – even though the technology has changed.

Above. -deciding how we want to learn. Not everything needs to be online-only

Starting local – in my case on the Queen Edith’s / Coleridge boundary

This matters not just to me but also to our wider city given that while Queen Edith’s ward has an active community forum, the Coleridge Community Forum is still in its very early stages. The latter (of which I’m a member) simply does not have the capacity to organise the things that the former does. Therefore a shared event at a venue that geographically covers both wards is a good starting point in principle.

Originally built as the New Cherry Hinton Free Church in the early 1900s, the recently revamped Community Hall at St. Athanasios (formerly the United Reformed Church on Hartington Grove) which got a generous grant from Cambridge City Council is somewhere that I’d like to try such a workshop. (But also not be the only person doing the organising!)

The venue is within walking distance of much of the northern half of Queen Edith’s ward and the southern half of Coleridge ward. Hence it has the useful feature of breaking the administrative barriers that come with electoral boundaries. Furthermore, the hall is large enough and affordable enough to host something like this either as a one-off workshop or something a little more regular.

“Where can I find a list of community venues in Cambridge?”

Cambridge City Council has a list here and also one here that covers the recently opened one on Mill Road, and the soon-to-open revamped one in Cherry Hinton.

Embedding local history – and encouraging new research too

Histories of the last quarter of a century to the last half-century of Cambridge are yet to be written. One of the lessons I learnt from the voters of Queen Edith’s ward at the 2023 local elections was how much they valued my explanations of how local politics was shaped by local and national history – or rather controversial political decisions taken a very long time ago that still affect us today.

Contemporary local history – and the recording, researching, and writing of it is all the more important in a city that now has a high population turnover because the collective memory of neighbourhoods and of institutions because it makes it harder to hold decision-makers to account over things tried in the past that failed. One of the reasons I am calling for the abolition of the Greater Cambridge Partnership is because on at least two occasions in response to public questions, their officers have told me they have not undertaken even the most basic of local historical research when coming up with their controversial transport proposals.

Part of any activities moving forward have to include (in my opinion anyway!) boosting our local history communities – whether:

…to the localised ones in villages and longer-standing communities such as:

“What happens after that?”

That depends on the people who turn up and what they decide to do. As I mentioned in this blogpost, few of us know how Cambridge as a city functions. In fact, I don’t think anyone does in reality given how unnecessarily complicated the governance structures are not just for public sector organisations and privatised public services, but also those of Cambridge University and its member institutions. This inevitably means holding decision makers accountable is all but impossible because the decision-makers themselves are blocked by the actions (or inactions) of other organisations from not only doing what they would like to do, but from fulfilling the functions that the public (and even sometimes legislation) expects and/or requires of them.

“Will this be party-political or anti-party-political in any way?”

Not at all – my proposal is that it starts off at a level where other than the existence of a political party, people have little more than a cursory knowledge of politics as a concept or political parties as institutions. One of my aims is that throughout the process, the learning of local history will enable residents to find out the basics of why the local political parties came into being (which embeds what the main principles of the local and national parties are), and then leave it up to them if they want to do any further research or even get in touch with them.

“I’m not looking at ‘theory-heavy’ classroom type courses with these”

Personally I think this is something that the Combined Authority (with its remit of lifelong learning) should be looking to provide for any politics/political theory courses. I scraped a pass in the University of Cambridge’s Undergraduate Certificate in Politics on a part-time course at Madingley Hall a few years ago. 20 year old me would have done far better than that, but by the time I had applied my health was already not in the best of shapes and furthermore the experience convinced me that formal academic study is now sadly beyond me. Which given my abysmal experience at university at Sussex 20+ years ago is something that is soul-destroying because it confirmed that there’s no further prospect of closing the painful emotional and mental health wounds that will now never heal.

“Is the Certificate in Politics worth doing as a local mature student?”

Yes because it gives you access to the University Library! Just don’t expect it to cover local government or local history – which is a gap that I would like to see Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge filling, only it is a course that its predecessor institutions have run before in the 20th Century. But that’s not the purpose of what I’m proposing. I’m looking at something much more informal that gets people talking to each other, and having multiple conversations about *how* to solve local problems and issues. Because at the moment the local area committees in Cambridge (Which return in June – see the calendar of meetings here) are not working judging by the number of people that tune into the online meetings.

Interested in either going along to such a workshop and/or willing to help organise one in Coleridge/Queen Edith’s?

Instead of getting in touch with me, please let the Queen Edith’s Community Forum know (scroll to the foot of the webpage for the email address). If you live in Coleridge Ward, please let the Coleridge Community Forum know (Again, scroll down to find their email address). If there is sufficient demand, we can get wheels moving.

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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