I had the pleasure of being interviewed this week by Trevor Dann, who presents the Cambs Politics show on Cambridge 105, the volunteer-run community radio station which broadcasts across the city and South Cambs. You can hear the interview here, starting at 9 minutes in. It’s fair to say I got a thorough grilling on life as an independent city councillor, the GCP congestion charge proposals, and much more.
I’m a great supporter of Cambridge 105 – I used to present the business programme ‘In Your Company’, and I do a monthly news review slot on Alex Elbro’s morning show. It provides space for a great diversity of local interests, at a time when the trend in both broadcast and print media is to reduce local content – see for example the ending of BBC Look East news broadcasts from Cambridge and the growth of generic clickbait on the social media pages of Cambridgeshire Live (publishers of the Cambridge News), like this:
The Cambs Politics show also includes a fascinating extended interview with John Elworthy, the highly-respected ex-Editor of the Cambs Times and Ely Standard newspapers, who has recently launched a new news outlet, Cambs News Online, which is applying detailed, consistent and knowledgeable scrutiny to developments at the Combined Authority, the County Council and beyond.
In my interview, I talk about how important it is that people understand the role and responsibilities of local government, and the context in which it operates. On that note, I’ll leave you to consider the significance of these numbers in the context of a rapidly-growing city with global aspirations:
Trevor Dann: Our special guest this week is Cambridge’s only independent councillor, Sam Davies. Hello, Sam.
Sam Davies: Hello, Trevor.
How much can you achieve, for the people of Queen Edith’s, who you represent as an independent and not one of the parts of political power blocs?
I tend to think about this in terms of having three kinds of spheres in which one might try and achieve some influence. The first is casework for individual households in my ward. And I can see no reason why an independent would be any less effective in that role. Because what it is, is advocating the needs of that particular individual or household helping them navigate through some fairly byzantine, local government systems, pointing them in the right direction, sometimes helping them find the right language, which will unlock doors and being persistent. And that’s something that an independent can absolutely do very effectively and very rewardingly.
Forgive me butting in. But does that mean that the officials on the council, the officers, pay as much attention to you as they might do from somebody from one of the bigger parties?
All of the discussions I’ve ever had indicate that officers will not be influenced by party politics. That is what I’m told. Certainly, I don’t detect any party political preferences. At that level, I am very lucky to work with some really responsive officers; the Housing Offices for Queens Edith’s are fabulous, I have a good relationship with planning compliance officers, across the board, really. So I don’t feel at any disadvantage there. And I don’t feel any sort of party political leanings there. Nor should there be. So on that level, I’m quite happy with how it works.
I remember talking to Heidi Allen, when she was an ex-MP, and asking her about the extent to which and in the Commons, she’d had any relationship at all with people who were in other parties. And she said that actually, it was rather more convivial than she’d expected. At at the City Council, do you have people who you genuinely call friends in other parties?
Yes, I do. And I think, you know, I’m in an interesting position, aren’t I? I’m no threat to anybody. I’m just me. So they have no reason to be anything other than cooperative. And, of course, my background was as a community, doer, an activist, and I established a lot of relationships with politicians through that period, when I was not quite political, which I think have provided a really solid background and national politics and the way it’s played out, and the sort of performative elements of it can easily give the impression that things have to be hostile and tribal. They don’t. It’s a choice. We’re coming up to the budget setting meeting of full Council at the end of February, that does tend to get quite heated and hostile along party lines. And I have to say, I find that a total turnoff, you know, it’s not consistent with what I think I’m there to achieve. But hey, that’s why I’m not a member of a party.
Okay. So just because you brought up the subject of national politics, I was wondering, from your perspective, how much you think that the national political story plays out in local politics, the politics of a city like Cambridge?
Well, I think Cambridge has a politically aware and sensitised population on the whole. But I think there’s a big gap between that and a widespread understanding of local government, local government responsibilities…
You can’t blame anybody, can you, because it’s so complex?
…No, and I, you know, many of the emails I get are about issues which are Can I see Council responsibilities and the county councillor for Queen Edith’s division, Alex Beckett, who’s a Liberal Democrat, receives I’m sure what he’d regard as a depressing number of emails from me simply forwarding on residents comments and requests, because they’re mostly highways issues, and they sit with the County Council. So no, I don’t blame anyone for not understanding how it works or where they’re supposed to go with their issues. But I think that blind spot about what local government can deliver, should deliver, then means that maybe national politics does have the sort of dominant influence on how people think about it. I think also, again, why am I not a Party politician? Because at a local level in Cambridge, which is a Liberal Democrat – Labour marginal, actually, what is the difference between them?
Well, you pose the question, what’s the answer? Not much, probably I think?
I think so. And that’s, I guess why I find things like the budget debate so frustrating, because my expectation is that we will spend a lot of time going backwards and forwards about really quite trivial sums of money in the overall scheme of things where the big issue on which we all agree, is that we have been shafted for, you know, a 12 year stretch. And if we can pull together a little bit more on helping people understand that and helping develop constructive responses to that, that would seem to me to be a much better use of everybody’s time.
The point you’re making is that the government hasn’t been chipping in in the way that it should have.
And you would blame the Conservative Party for that, as you just said, 12 years. So that’s the period of austerity.
Yeah, I think if you if you look at the contraction of finance available to local government over that period, and simultaneously the stepping up in workload that local government has acquired as austerity has bitten at an individual level, that inevitably generates more work for councils. So, you know, at the County Council, you know, adult social care, children’s cases, all of that safeguarding activity, has necessarily increased because people’s personal circumstances have got harder. And all of that’s being done in a context of (a) Cambridge’s and the wider areas growth in population, but (b) a contraction in local government finance, and I find that inexcusable.
Now, you famously went back to university, years ago. And you made a study, which even you perhaps may not realise how relevant it was gonna turn out to be, because you were talking about urban space and the development of towns and cities. Cambridge, we are told is getting bigger. Nobody’s voting for this, by the way. But we’re always told we need more houses, because we’ve got more businesses and universities are expanding and all the rest of it. Do you think that expansion is being well handled?
Yes, I did go back to university to study for a master’s in what’s called Sustainable Urbanism. Because – this was sort of back in 2017/2018 – I was disquieted by what I saw going on in Cambridge, and I wanted to understand if it was being done better elsewhere. And I think the key piece of learning from that study is contrary to my thinking when I went into the course which was all about, you know, how you make space. Actually, the determining factors are about what powers you have in terms of governance, and where the money is coming from. And I have this way of describing Cambridge, where I talk about a kind of democratic deficit. So you have a really toxic combination of weak local government, it’s weak in terms of its funding, as we’ve discussed, it’s structurally weak because of these different tiers that cut across each other. And it’s weak because it doesn’t have the right powers. Facing that across the table is a very strong, very well motivated and incentivized and funded pro-growth lobby. And then you have this somewhat detached populace, who, as you say, have never had the growth of the city put to them as an electoral issue. Growth is managed through the local plan process, which is, you know, a very detailed, technocratic set of arguments backed by thousands of pages of modelling.
It’s very interesting, just to interrupt you on that subject to growth, if I may. It’s one of the sort of givens of a lot of political conversation, isn’t it? Even in news bulletins, you know, that the fact that the economy has grown is always perceived to be a good thing? Growth is good, it’s almost a kind of Wall Street 80s thing? Is growth always good? And should it be always searched for, you know, on the backs of ordinary people’s lives and cost of living?
My personal take on this, I think, is that growth is neutral. GDP is a number, you can have good growth, you can have bad growth, you know, if you think about it, having a very unhealthy populace, who then pay for private health care, looks like a positive tick in your GDP numbers, but it’s not telling you anything good about what’s going on in your society. If you’re going to have growth, for me, you need two things, you need it to be adequately funded in terms of putting in not just houses and not just transport, which are the two things we only ever hear about here, but also the whole raft of community spaces to bring people together to enable them to live healthy and positive lives. And you also need a very clear redistribution process. So where are the benefits of growth going? Who is benefiting from them, and I think we are quite lazy about interrogating that second side of it as well. So I’ve been in Cambridge since the late 80s. And it feels to me very much as though the city is far more unequal, not just in terms of hard measures, like income, but also access to what’s here. So, you know, my example would be the Botanical Gardens, the university’s Botanical Gardens. Now, when I came here, there was one day a week when it was free for local residents. That got dropped. There is a charging regime now, there are no discounts for local residents. There are no discounts for people on benefits, you can either pay or you can’t. And the cost is at a level where it would definitely be a disincentive for many Cambridge residents, I think. There’s a commercial event planned, sounds very lovely, in the Botanical Gardens, I think later in February, where they’re opening at night and they’re putting on a lighting show and what have you 20 pounds a ticket. So that space has gone from being somewhere that was accessible to anybody or be on a limited basis to somewhere which is completely unaffordable for many people, hence inaccessible, unknowable, and delivering no benefit to them whatsoever.
We can’t let you go without hearing your views on the most contentious issue of the moment, which is, should we have an extra tax to pay for buses? Should we have congestion charging? What can we do? Do we need to do anything about the problems on our roads? As an independent where do you stand on this?
I think I’m probably in the position where more people know my views on the subject than pretty much any other politician in the city because I wrote an extended piece on my blog about that which has probably been read by getting on for 7000 people now, and then that got picked up by the Cambridge Independent newspaper who published it in the edition between Christmas and New Year, which prompted another round of discussion. I do not support the GCP’s proposals as they have been put to us. I’ve been told that it is a consultation, and they are listening. I would like to know which bits of this puzzle are actually negotiable, because for my residents, to bring it back to my ward, if there is a question mark about whether the hospital cluster on the Biomedical Campus is inside or outside the charging zone, that would make a huge difference to the volume of traffic that we could continue to expect to see coming into our area. You know, 23,000 people have answered that consultation in good faith. What’s the next step? Will there be further scope for input, if the parameters of that scheme change so much as a result of the consultation, that effectively it bears no resemblance to what it has been consulted on?
How have they done this the right way round, do you think? Has the focus come to be on the congestion charge, and not on the improvement of publicly funded infrastructure? In London, Ken Livingstone could bring in the congestion charge quite easily, because there were a lot of buses and tubes. And our problem in Cambridge is that there aren’t. So when this proposal comes out, and it says we’ll do all this, do all this. And then finally, we’ll have a congestion charge pay for it, that’s the only thing that gets picked up. And that’s what the demonstrations are about. People haven’t understood that there’s a long game.
Some people haven’t understood that there’s a long game, some people have understood that there’s a long game, but are sufficiently au fait with the timeframe that it would take to set franchising up and also have questions about the credibility of some of the propositions in the GCP’s proposals that their very good understanding leads them to be sceptical. You know, this notion that we can deal with a shortage of bus drivers, by paying them more, would work if Cambridge were an isolated island in terms of pay structures, but it’s not. I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking. I think there’s been a lot of bad communication. My background is in communications, and I think the GCP communicates very badly. I would have preferred a lot less messaging around ‘there is no plan B’, which I think was profoundly unhelpful, and has pushed a lot of people who would have been open-minded and willing to engage in a discussion into a much more militant take on it. I think telling people that ‘they must be Tories, if they don’t support it’ is again, you know, a pronouncement which has backfired spectacularly. And I know that those didn’t come from GCP officers, but one of the problems is the confusion around who is speaking with an official position and who is expressing their own private views. And I think the waters have been very muddy in that regard.
And clearly the opposition who are Tories, and wouldn’t mind being described as that, are going to work on this as hard as they can, blaming the situation that you’ve just described as the fault of this joint administration. And they’ll lay all the blame at the coalition won’t they?
But isn’t that depressing? Because what we want is a city that works and a Greater Cambridge that works. And that’s it, we’re right back to the beginning of this conversation. That’s why I have no truck with party politics at a local level. I just don’t think it helps. But yes, I’m sure your prediction is correct.
So you’ve been in your current role now for a little over a couple of years. Will you stand again next time?
I got elected in May 21, so I’m not actually up again until May 24. I think, you know, for me, the point has always been to see what I can achieve. And to bring us right back round to the beginning of the conversation you asked about influence, and we had quite an extended conversation about casework. I think there’s also the work a councillor does to represent their ward, and Queen Edith’s is this strange ward where we’re in the city, but we’re part of the South Cambs constituency. And I think that sometimes has worked to our detriment and left us out of conversations that are going on. And I try very hard to make sure that we are right at the heart of conversations that are going on. But the third thing is strategy. And no, I have no hard power whatsoever. You know, we have a well entrenched leading group in the shape of Labour in the City Council. And because of the size of the majority they have they, in terms of the mechanics of local government, they absolutely have the whip hand. However, there’s a whole load of stuff you can do with soft influence, with helping to inform the public discourse, give people questions that they can then put to the party politicians. And if I feel like I’m doing something useful on all of those three levels, casework, board representation and the kind of bigger narrative about the city, then I’ll be very happy. And I will, yes, willingly put myself to the public vote again.
Just before I let you go, Sam, this document pops through my letterbox this week. It’s from Anthony Browne, who, as you said is your MP. And he’s managed to do this entire document without using the words Boris or Liz or Rishi. But he has pulled out all his achievements within his constituency and broken them down into wards. And one of them of course, is Queen Edith’s. Have you read this?
No I haven’t seen that, do tell.
OK. This is what he says, a pay rise for our NHS staff. I am leading, he says, a major campaign alongside unions and hospital leaders to get a pay uplift for local NHS workers to reflect the high cost of living in our area. That’s what Anthony Browne MP has been doing in Queen Edith’s.
Yes, so I do talk to Anthony every couple of months or so. Because, again, in a spirit of getting the best outcomes, regardless of party, he is our MP, I think it’s really important that there’s a conversation going on there. And when I last spoke to him, which I think was last week, he did mention that he was leading, he said, that campaign, because it’s recognition of the fact that in terms of expensive places to live, Cambridge is right up there. And if we acknowledged the need for London weighting, then a Cambridge weighting might also be appropriate. I don’t know any more about it than that.
My guess is he didn’t have a lot to say about Queen Edith’s. And that was the only thing that he could put in this document and have something to say because I doubt he spends a lot of time thinking about your ward does he? He hasn’t got many voters there.
No, I suspect not. I think for Anthony, the bulk of his constituency is the villages. And we are an anomaly. And that’s why, you know, it’s so ridiculous that Queen Edith’s, the ward which hosts the city’s biggest employment site, and most rapidly growing employment site, and the region’s hospitals, is not part of the city constituency.
That is a very good note to end on. If I may say so. Sam, thank you for giving up so much time.