Sam Davies

Leading and listening – we have to do better

I’m writing this on the eve of the publication of the next report from the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This has been widely trailed as offering a ‘stark warning’ about the likelihood of exceeding the 1.5 degree warming target set at the Paris Climate Conference, and will set the context for November’s COP26 Climate Conference, to be held in Glasgow.

COP26 will bring together politicians and policy makers to take headline-grabbing decisions. But what I’m interested in is how these commitments at an international or national level feed through to meaningful change at the local level. After all, our local councils have already declared climate emergencies and biodiversity emergencies, but so far it’s difficult to detect any real change from their ‘business as usual’ agenda of the last several decades, let alone a response which meets the degree of urgency and scale of reimagination circumstances now demand.

One problem is that, as I’ve highlighted before, without a major change to the funding settlement for local government, it is going to be well-nigh impossible for councils to do what’s required. I discussed a couple of weeks ago the City Council’s dependence on revenue generated by its city centre car parks.

But more than funding, it’s also going to need not just councils but all other decision-makers, including those in the private sector​, to take residents with them as changes are made, changes which otherwise run the risk of being misunderstood and resisted. That will require a far better performance on both the leading and listening fronts than we’ve managed to date.

Take just one example close to home from the transport sector – Network Rail’s plans for Cambridge South station. If you haven’t already seen the excellent submission from Smarter Cambridge Transport to the planning application, explaining the fundamental problems with the current proposals, backed up with detailed evidence, it really is worth a read. But, as you might have heard me explain on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire this week, what’s really infuriating is that none of the objections raised are new; they’ve been flagged time and again over the last two years or more. Yet Network Rail steadfastly refuse to admit the need for change.

During my academic studies, I’ve come across multiple references to the successful collaborative approach taken in France to planning major infrastructure consultation, led by the Commission Nationale du Débat Public (CNDP). This seems to me to be a much more effective way of not only getting public buy-in but also delivering better practical outcomes. Yet here there seems to be little appetite for harnessing local knowledge and building goodwill.

Sustainability is defined as having three equal components – economic, ecological and social – but too many shiny new transport and development projects are content to proclaim their ‘sustainable’ credentials even while ignoring valuable local input, failing to deliver on promises …or in the worst case actually making it harder for people to walk around their neighbourhoods.

For example, Histon Road residents have been providing photographic evidence of how the GCP’s ‘improvement’ project has actually reversed the well-established urban transport hierarchy, instead of placing pedestrians at the top:

Trumpington Residents Association have published their latest update on the saga of getting the City Council and the master developer, Countryside, to finish the ‘Clay Farm Strategic Cycle Path’, a mere 10 years after planning permission was granted.

And a Hills Avenue resident has written to me this week to document the impossibility of even an accompanied wheelchair user being able to access Addenbrooke’s, less than a mile away, without resorting to a car, because of the lack of drop kerbs and safe crossing points:

One of the points the resident mentioned – the lack of a safe crossing over Queen Edith’s Way on the odd-number side of Hills Road – was specifically raised with the GCP back in 2016, when they were redesigning the Hills Road/Long Road/Queen Edith’s Way junction as part of the Hills Road cycleways project. Several of us asked them to add a signalled crossing on that leg of the junction because it was a gap in the walking network, and because the shared-use pavement on the even-number side was going to see more use by cyclists in the future.

In response, the GCP refused to make the change, not because they didn’t have the funds, but because it would impede vehicle flows;​ and told us that an acceptable alternative was already available to pedestrians, who simply had to cross the other three legs of the junction​…

So I await the IPCC report with pessimism, not just because of what the report itself will likely say, but because we don’t currently seem to have any of the tools – funding, appetite, aptitude, attention to detail or collaborative mindset – required to make the necessary changes.

Leading and listening – we have to do both better.

Sam Davies


  • While disappointing in content, I am heartened to know you are doing your best to campaign on our behalf. Thanks again for going a grand job.