Sam Davies

Behind Closed Doors

You may be familiar with the saying “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. It originates in the business world, but is at least as relevant to local government. And for this reason, the release of the first 2021 Census data on Tuesday was a red letter day in helping us understand what’s actually happening in our city.

What the data confirmed is that the rate of population growth, which at 15% was already one of the fastest in the country for the decade 2010-2011, has accelerated still further between 2011 and 2021, to a staggering 17.5%. That makes it the fifth largest increase out of 331 districts in England and Wales in the last decade.

This graph nicely illustrates that in the context of a longer historical perspective:

It’s worth reflecting on this: of the four local authorities which have experienced faster growth over the last decade – Tower Hamlets (22%), Dartford (20%), Barking & Dagenham and Bedford (both 17.7%) – only Tower Hamlets has experienced faster growth than Cambridge over the period since 1981.

Quality of life is diminishing

For me, these numbers underpin the daily experience of many residents, that their quality of life is diminishing. I think there are two elements to this:

  1. It simply is not possible to argue that our infrastructure has kept pace with this expansion. To take just two examples of the impact, the City Council’s 2019 ‘Making Space for People’ consultation report acknowledged that “locals” felt squeezed out of the historic city centre; and BBC journalist Mark Williamson has been highlighting the lack of increase in capacity at Addenbrooke’s over the last two decades, despite the growth of the city and the wider region during that period;
  2. This increase in population is coupled with an increase in population transience – 20% of the population of the city changes each year and around half of households are now in private rented accommodation, with all the potential insecurity of tenure that brings.

All the rhetoric in the world about the benefits of being a welcoming, diverse global city will not compensate for the anxiety induced by a scarcity mindset (driven by competition for inadequate resources) or a sense that, for many residents, their city no longer works for them. They no longer have confidence in the complicated dysfunctional governance structures which have allowed this situation to occur.

Where’s the representation?

Moreover, it’s becoming increasingly clear that ward councillors are not in a position to represent their residents’ interests because key decisions are being taken in spaces where we are simply not involved. For example:

  • Cambridge Biomedical Campus has been involved in a ‘masterplanning’ exercise, launched in April, which has inevitably sought ‘engagement’ from a wide range of ‘stakeholders’ …but there has been no attempt to bring Queen Edith’s or Trumpington councillors into that process. I attempted to seek confirmation at this week’s GCP Executive Board meeting to a principle of involving local members, but my question wasn’t accepted. Instead I was told by an (unnamed) correspondent that “GCP officers meet with colleagues on the Campus regularly and will continue to do so as the Masterplanning phase further develops”. Great – but not an answer to the issue I was describing;
  • Papers for a meeting of the Combined Authority Skills Committee on Monday identify – as a priority proposal – the development of a community wealth building approach and physical regeneration in Abbey ward. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I’ve checked with the three Abbey city councillors and none of them were aware this proposal was being developed;
  • Cambridge BID has published its next five-year plan which refers to proposals to develop ‘sustainable’ tourism under the umbrella of a Development Management Organisation (DMO). There is a City Councillor, Gerri Bird, on the BID Board, but it will be a council officer rather than an elected member who represents the Council on the DMO, alongside representatives from the BID, Cambridge University and King’s College.

These are three issues with huge implications: the expansion of the Biomedical Campus; the best means of nurturing of our disadvantaged communities; and the growth of the tourism sector. The involvement in them by City Councillors seems to be minimal. And how many other decisions are being taken behind closed doors that we don’t even know about?

Sam Davies


  • This is indeed a sad reflection on Cambridge. I sometimes find that people say how lucky I am to live in Cambridge! But am I? I begin to doubt it. In fact I feel very insecure living here because I sense that much that I should/and have the right to know, isn’t being told. I find that the only way I know what is happening, particularly on the planning front, is when I read the weekly Independent Newspaper, somehow manage to extract it from whomever??

    As the Guildhall now looks like a prison, and there is now no means of contact except on line (as far as I know). The very place where the population used to go to find much much needed information has distanced itself from the City people. You’d think they would want to help us, to be engaged with the citizens of Cambridge.

    This makes me concerned as I cannot believe that this is the way it should be. It certainly wasn’t when we came to Cambridge – in the seventies and for many years, we were happy with the services. But things have changed

  • The city’s Councillors, as a body corporate of elected representatives, are the local authority.

    Chief executive Robert Pollock is beholden to the council, not the other way around.
    Director of planning and economic development Stephen Kelly is beholden to the council, not the other way around.

    The constitution of the council sets out the mechanisms by which, for example, delegated decision making powers which would otherwise be taken in default by Mr Kelly, could ordinarily be brought before the council itself.

    That might not be useful in all instances, but could be for controversial matters, where public interest and oversight are greater and more necessary.

    I’m far from certain that all councillors understand the powers at their disposal…

    Please, read The Constitution.
    (I’m sure you have, Sam)