My first bit of campaigning was back in about 2011 when I organised a petition asking the County Council to improve the shared use paths on the stretch of Long Road over the railway and guided busway bridges. I did that long before I had any mental models about ‘community engagement’ or any real understanding of how local government was structured in Cambridge.
I just knew that I experienced a problem on a daily basis and so did many others and I wanted to get it sorted.
The petition was successful, and about £150,000 was made available to widen and resurface the path. At the time that seemed like a huge sum of money and – more importantly – a response which gave me the sense that residents could use the tools of local government to make the positive changes they want to see in their neighbourhoods.
From that point on I became a regular attendee at the City Council’s ‘South Area Committee’, because it offered a logical step in helping my understanding of how this process of change could work.
The opportunity to give your views
The public Area Committees are the most accessible tier of democracy in the city. Held four times a year, they are intended to “provide the opportunity for you to give your views and ideas for improving community life in your neighbourhood”.
There are four Area Committees covering the 14 wards of the city. The South Area is for Cherry Hinton, Queen Edith’s and Trumpington. The Committees operate under powers delegated by the full City Council, and are attended by the three City Councillors for each ward, plus the relevant County Councillors, with a public audience.
Pre-Covid, they met in person, with venues rotating between the relevant wards. Some meetings were better attended than others, very much influenced by what was on the agenda: back when I first started going, Area Committees dealt with local planning applications and some of those drew large and vocal audiences. Meetings could run on late and a firm hand was required by the Chair, but it was clear that people found it provided an immediate and relevant mechanism though which they could voice their concerns.
Attending with your neighbours
Obviously there were also downsides to an in-person format, which makes it harder for those with mobility problems or who are hesitant about coming out in the dark. In-person formats can also be challenging for people who are less confident public speakers. But I can also remember Scout groups, skateboarders and other young residents coming along to make their case on issues which mattered to them and it was great to see them begin to get involved in their area. There’s also a confidence which comes from attending with your neighbours or interest group and operating as part of a collective.
One really important advantage of the Area Committees are their unique position as a truly local forum – everyone involved is familiar with the places and issues under discussion even if they don’t necessarily all reach the same conclusions about the right way forward. Once planning was removed from the remit of Area Committees in 2015 (and I’m not denying there were valid reasons for doing so), the central, city-wide committee which replaced them lost the immediate local knowledge and the ability to represent views through your elected representative.
When I spoke at the centralised Planning Committee about the GB1 Outline Planning Application earlier this year, it was very apparent that the lack of local knowledge of its members compromised some of the decisions being made.
This is clearly not working
Why am I re-hashing all of this ancient history? Because the most recent South Area Committee on Monday left me keener than ever to devise a form of participation which is meaningful and works for residents. What we’ve got is clearly not working.
Post Covid, Area Committees have been turned into an online-only format. The theory was that this was safer (which is clearly true) and would enable greater participation. The second hope has not been borne out in reality. For previous meetings this year, I’ve attributed this to the fact that the agendas really haven’t had enough substance to encourage people to tune in. That was definitely not the case this week, as the meeting included presentations and Q&As on two of the most significant proposed changes to the city that it’s possible to imagine – the Greater Cambridge Local Plan and the GCP’s plans for a congestion charge.
Yet despite that only 29 viewers across all three wards (total population around 25,000) tuned in. And only two members of the public asked questions.
So, did people not know the meeting was happening? Possibly; advertising for these events is erratic. As far as I could tell the City Council’s social media accounts did not promote it in advance, nor did any of the other councillors taking part. Details are not pushed out to local newsletters, although some like Queen Edith’s News do bother to find out. A ‘lack of publicity’ explanation would be disappointing, but at least it could be addressed through a more concerted effort to publicise it in future.
An alternative would be more concerning – that people are either so disengaged from what’s happening or feel so little power to change it, that they simply don’t see any point in watching. To be honest, I wonder if some of that is rubbing off on councillors too – five out of the twelve members sent apologies for Monday’s meeting. Technology issues meant others joined late. And although on the call, some didn’t make any contribution to the proceedings, despite the importance of the topics under discussion.
However, Mark Ashton (Labour, Cherry Hinton) demonstrated the contribution and passion which a councillor can add to these events. Have a listen to what he said when responding to the presentation from the Planning Service on the Local Plan proposals. It touches on the points I’m making here.
As ever, I’d love to hear what you think. How can we make Area Committees more attractive to the public?
I add to this blog weekly if there’s something important to report. Get these posts by email by adding your name to the list, using the form on this page.
” Personally I think area committees need an overhaul – in particular the East and South ones. I’d love to see at some point at the start the chance for multiple conversations between councillors and residents” Me in March 2016. https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/how-should-cambridge-communicate-with-its-residents/
We in Cherry Hinton are blessed with 2 of the best councillors in the city, with Queen Edith’s having the third.
But you have captured the issue perfectly. Most residents have no idea these virtual Area Committee meetings are taking place, and if they did, why bother to attend? Would the councillors who themselves bothered to turn up take any account of residents’ views, (esp any challenging, forthright views) and if they did, would it make any difference where it matters, at full council or at the powerful planning committee?
For example, 48 families who will be moving into the new flats in CH High St will be fighting (or, “negotiating”) over 29 parking spaces, while councillors from other wards explain to us that “cars are bad” and “buses are great”. (There is a lively discussion about the development on the CH Community FB page, few mentions of councillors or council policy!)
Thank you for doing what you do, and God Bless your energy.
Thank you Sam for all your hard work and for keeping us informed.
I absolutely agree with everything Mark Ashton said and has covered the pertinent points. Estate agents selling local housing in the far east; destruction of the natural habitat; expectation of water board to ‘find’ the water required. London areas are reducing the amount of driveways that can be paved over due to risk of flooding, Cambridge is concreting everywhere ignoring problems of drainage.
Representatives I have met at consultations have been from out of town and ignorant of the local area. How could they suggest a safe route for children attending school when they were unaware of the location of the schools?
Cambridge is changing too quickly and I fear will no longer be a safe place to cycle with the increasing number of speeding, irresponsible drivers. Is there any consultation with Addenbrooke’s Hospital, regarding the ability to cope with such extensive expansion of residential areas?
Local government, particularly in South Cambs / Cambridge, is one of the more obvious examples that the rule of law doesn’t really obtain in the UK. I think of the councils as little more than gangs: that mayoral chain would not look out of place at the BET Hip Hop Awards.
Residents are engaging rationally: they have concluded the whole thing is largely kayfabe and just ignore it. The sensible thing to do is to get one’s assets as far away from local council’s ability to influence as possible.
If councils were serious (which they are not) about engagement, they’d publish a Google Calendar of the key meetings, allow RSVP on Eventbrite, put the meetings as Facebook events, allow people to subscribe by email to be notified of the events. There’s nothing special about local government that means that it gets to opt out of the reality of how large numbers of people organise their attendance at events in the 2020s. It’s just meetings. Advertise them like meetings. The skillset for doing so is trivial to pick up in less than an hour.
There is a set of brilliant comments by others before me. Let me endorse comments about the lack of knowledge that the committee is taking place, the lack of technical knowledge and equipment to participate and the lack of trust that any views will make any difference. The start of my loss of trust in localisation was overhearing a senior councillor talking to another that it did not matter how many people objected to the ‘building’, it would still go ahead. Tick box surveys/consultations that councils send out rarely create trust. The shere amount of paperwork ensures that the report is created by (computer?) counting of the number of ticks for each question. A few key questions can then be biased to get more ticks e.g do you want safer roads? Road closures classed as a measure that would help Covid was a clear example of dishonest argument.
Thanks Sam for all you’re doing to publicise these issues and thank you Mark Ashton for representing the frustration so many in Cherry Hinton especially feel over the failure of consultation exercises to have much if any impact.
At the moment local people are snowed under with various consultation surveys and meetings regarding planning and transport in the Greater Cambridge Area.
Since past experiences shows our voices don’t much matter, it’s no surprise that just at the moment when a huge new local plan is out for consultation people are giving up and tuning out. Only the most motivated: ie the developers and landowners are likely to have the time and energy to make their views known.
Your work on our behalf Sam is so welcome and so necessary: keep prodding us all to get involved too- and everyone please fill in at least the local plan consultation!
Did not know it was happening went to last one
From my (limited) experience of these meetings, new attendees are rarely made to feel welcome or unfamiliar processes explained, they are seldom publicised in places where the average person would see them (such as local Facebook groups) and when local people do make the effort to speak or bring an item to the agenda they are sometimes shut down quickly by those leading the meeting. It would also help to perhaps mix up the times of the meetings – parents may be more likely to attend if they didn’t fall at kids’ bedtime for example.
Thank you for this useful insight , Sam. Well done to Cherry Hinton residents and their local councillor for voicing these concerns.
I fully agree with all the comments and feedback that have been made. I would also add that apart from the efforts of a few worthy souls, the bluster and lack of a straight forward approach from the Council leaves me cold about the “system”. I recognise that a positive approach is needed but there is a need to accept that there are problems and not all Council sponsored activities are a success.
Keep up the good work.
I do care for my community but this bureaucratic system does not engage with the wider public or me in an easy, accessible and understandable way and demands too much time.
“Given that just under half (49%) of the general
public surveyed told the Rural and Town Planning Institute that having the ability to respond digitally would make them more likely to
get involved, digital engagement might just be the key to unlocking participation from a larger, younger and more diverse cohort.” but this does not mean putting the same system on line and continuing committee structures with long winded meetings where the local persons issue is 2 hours in for 2 minutes, it is finding more streamlined, locally focussed measures that are accessible to everyone.
Link to interesting report I quoted from
A 2020 YouGov poll highlighted that 69% of respondents had never engaged with a local plan consultation, rising to 80% for 18-34 year olds.
I give a lot of time and energy to my home area, community and Cambridge but must admit I do not want to attend meetings/committees in my own time, I did enough of that in my paid work role! A more streamlined question and answer less time consuming way of consulting with me would interest me more.
Co-production work is starting to have some success. Co-production tells us that studies using qualitative approaches (e.g., interviews/surveys) have mainly interpreted people’s answers from the perspective of the body collecting data or consulting on developments. Very few studies, if any, appear to work alongside the people being consulted with to develop research questions, plan data collection methods or interpret the findings. This means that the picture that is been built up fails to include the voices of all those in the community supposedly being consulted with. The consultation can develop all sorts of hypotheses as to why people are not engaged – but without including the community in the discussion about how consultation can be carried out it may not be fully effective.
This comment weirdly tracks the language of an article posted (presumably by someone else) a few weeks previously:
“studies using qualitative approaches (e.g., interviews) have mainly interpreted young people’s answers from an adult perspective. Very few studies, if any, appeared to work alongside young people to develop research questions, plan data collection or interpret the findings. This means that the picture that has been built up of young people’s reading experiences fails to include the voices of young people themselves.”