At Thursday’s Cambridge City Council meeting I spoke in response to the presentation of the new Corporate Strategy to cover the period 2022-27.
You can now read the strategy, the vision on which it’s based, and the metrics by which achievement will be recorded. You can watch my response below, starting at 59:15 (two minutes long). My comments prompted an unsurprisingly passionate defence by the new Leader of the City Council, Councillor Anna Smith (starts at 1.11.15).
As I hope is clear from the recording, I was not making a party-political criticism. If I’m honest, the debate both this Thursday, and the previous week when this year’s budget was under consideration, left me more convinced than ever that party politics is not for me. Good people, who could and should be working together for the benefit of residents, instead spend time and effort knocking verbal lumps off each other to demonstrate how much better they are than the other side and to generate fodder for election material.
As the saying goes: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
I also wasn’t denigrating what’s in the Corporate Strategy. Of course provision of some somewhat ‘affordable’ housing is better than nothing; of course we should be trying to cushion the impact of successive economic shocks for those most in need.
But I stand by what I said: at the moment, all we can do is pick up the crumbs left over to try to deal with the challenges caused by growth and inequality, even as the real money made in Cambridge is pumped elsewhere.
Not exceptional enough
We keep getting told that Cambridge is an exceptional place, but this only ever seems to apply in one direction. It is exceptional in its importance to the national economy. Exceptional in its rate and scale of growth. Exceptional in circumstances which are then used to justify development of its green belt or over-abstraction from its chalk aquifers.
But, to take just two examples, it is not exceptional enough to justify varying the Treasury’s ‘Green Book’ rules so that we can build Cambridge South station in a way that is actually fit for purpose. Nor is it exceptional enough to raise Cambridgeshire above 137 out of 151 local authorities when it comes to school funding.
What I was asking for on Thursday is that our leaders should be both more direct about the reasons why we are facing such acute pressures, and more radical in their vision of what the alternative might be.
For me, that alternative should focus on prioritising and measuring wellbeing as the Welsh government have done: the 50 metrics they’ve identified obviously include anti-poverty measures but also go far further in promoting wellbeing across the whole community. I particularly like the emphasis on the importance of neighbourhood life, as recognised in numbers 23 to 27.
Lack of engagement
And there’s also a wider political (small ‘p’) dimension to this. In the 2019 local elections, voter turnout in one Cambridge ward was 28%, and the average across all wards was 36%. That’s a lot of people disengaged from local democracy.
What are we doing to understand and address that lack of engagement?
Is it related to the statistic I quoted on Thursday that 42% of the city’s households now live in private rented accommodation? And what other implications does that statistic have for how people feel about the city, and their role in it?
The Corporate Strategy adopted on Thursday covers the period to 2027. The climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the ‘crisis of belonging’ which I mentioned will continue to accelerate through that period, and will make their effects increasingly obvious.
And that’s why more of the same is not enough.