Sam Davies

Does Cambridge Have A Democratic Deficit?

This week I gave a short presentation to the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations meeting on the topic of Cambridge’s democratic deficit. 

If you’re not sure what a democratic deficit is, or why it’s an important concept, this definition is a useful introduction:

“The expression democratic deficit may be used to denote the absence or underdevelopment of key democratic institutions, but it may also be used to describe the various ways in which these institutions may fail to function properly (e.g., lack of transparency and accountability, technocratic decision making, inadequate participation of citizens in policy making). Evaluations of the level of democratic deficit focus on the procedural aspects of democracy, reflected in the mechanisms of representation and decision making. Therefore, the notion of democratic deficit encompasses distortions in the flow of influence from citizens to government. As such, it is closely associated with the issue of democratic legitimacy.”

The criticial importance of the current GCP Making Connections consultation and the ongoing work on the next Greater Cambridge Local Plan to the future of our city means it’s a very good time to think about how robust our democratic processes are and how well they are working. Set alongside the announcements in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on Thursday that:

  • he intends to “fire up our country to be the world’s next Silicon Valley”
  • government policy to promote Investment Zones will now focus on the “highest potential knowledge intensive growth clusters” (para 3.25)
  • East West Rail will be going ahead (p3.18)

…then we should all be paying even more attention to how decisions are being made and whose interests are being promoted.

With all that in mind, I hope you find the presentation thought-provoking.

I refer in the presentation to this (even-briefer) talk on ‘An employment-led housing strategy in the next Local Plan: what difference does it make?’ which I gave to FeCRA’s AGM in 2021.

Finally for this week, I’d note that it’s very easy, but also potentially very dangerous, not to interrogate what’s really meant when the ‘Silicon Valley’ aspiration is invoked. This prize-winning paper from Cambridge University academic (and Queen Edith’s resident) Professor Mia Gray explores the ‘dual crisis’ of Silicon Valley’s economic and environmental performance over the last two decades and concludes:

“One of the clearest messages from the financial crisis is that the current model of economic growth is fundamentally flawed, and a key argument on climate change is that changing our theories of growth is an ecological necessity.”

Is Silicon Valley really the model we should be aiming for?

Sam Davies


  • Silicon valley is also enormous! You simply can’t compare Cambridge or South Cambs to a geographic area that includes several very large cities (San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland etc.) and countless highly populated towns. It has three international airports, a world-famous tram system in San Francisco and is one of the few areas of the US that has a passable railway system. It also has a GDP that most countries would desperately covet.

    In short, it’s a hopelessly false comparison.

  • Sobering stuff. Reading between the lines, it would appear that the average citizen has really little effect on improving the democratic deficit in the face of all the vested, commercial, private and political interests in a jumble of authorities mostly vying with each other for an upper hand.
    It is so easy in this day and age, to dismiss any views and opinions that ask difficult questions, as being too middle class and or wealthy to be in any way meaningful. Cambridge must be one of the most middle class place in the land … doesn’t mean we need to be patronised like that but it does indicate that these sorts of consultations are merely window dressing as shown by how slanted the questionnaires are and how difficult it is to find a.l the information needed to get a reasonable overview of the proposals. The last thing the GCP wants is hoards of reasonable, well informed middle class residents making too much noise, asking awkward questions that might have embarrassing answers. What you haven’t said Sam and probably shouldn’t either- but I shall: follow the money! Find the fingers in all too many pies! ‍♂️‍☠️