On Wednesday morning I did my monthly local news review slot with Alex Elbro on Cambridge 105* radio, the community broadcast station for the city and South Cambs.
It’s become a standing joke between Alex and me that I struggle to find good news items to balance out the bad ones we discuss. But this week was the hardest yet. Reading the headlines in the local papers before going on air provided a whistlestop tour of how our public services are under immense strain:
- “Judge criticises Anglian Water as it is fined £1.2m over sewerage”
- “Fire stations ‘may close’ warns chief”
- “Concern at £28.5m funding gap in county council budget”
- “Staff cannot afford pensions” – Addenbrooke’s
- “Only phone if you have to, says force, after 390,000 calls” – police.
There was also copious evidence of fiercely divided attitudes to two of the big transport interventions being proposed for the region, in the shape of East West Rail and the GCP’s Sustainable Travel Zone. In both cases, quotes made clear a real sense of disenfranchisement and disregard which is now part of the opposition to these proposals:
- “The business case isn’t being shown to us. If anything, it’s driven by large property developers pushing for the OxCam Arc, pushing for a million homes to be built in this area”
- “It breaks my heart that I am being pushed out to make way for only the well-off people who can afford to pay these costs”
Of course, savvy journalists will always use a vivid quote and what gets printed is only a tiny sample of the full range of views expressed. But I think the summaries point to a fundamental problem with trust in the organisations charged with making these decisions, and in whose interests they are acting. There’s also a problem with trust that any promised benefits will materialise.
They’re not helping themselves
Along the same lines, I suspect public concerns might have been further compounded by an episode at Thursday’s meeting of the City Council. During the formal ‘Oral Questions’ section of the agenda, the Leader of the Council, Cllr Anna Smith, replied to this question from Cllr Tim Bick:
“One of the surviving initiatives of the government’s abandoned economic strategy is the creation of Investment Zones, where financial incentives and light touch planning controls are offered to developers. Has this council supported a formal Expression of Interest to the government for any area within Cambridge to become an Investment Zone, and if so, where?”
Cllr Smith confirmed that the Council “has given very cautious support for some expressions of interest which we think would benefit the city”. This came with the caveat of a number of conditions about environmental protections, planning regulation, workers’ rights, etc. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be such a potentially significant development that it should have been announced proactively, rather than giving the impression that the admission was being shared unwillingly and under duress.
There’s an interesting article in the latest edition of the Town & Country Planning Association journal about two concepts which are increasingly recognised as being critical to our understanding of the relationship between planning and public health:
- Sense of place, i.e. the emotional bonds that people form with places over time and with familiarity with those places; and
- Solastalgia, i.e. the feeling of distress that people experience when their sense of place is at risk.
The article highlights the wellbeing benefits of maximising sense of place and minimising solastalgia, benefits which are experienced not only by the individuals directly concerned but also wider society, in the form of less ‘dis-ease’.
Those promoting the breakneck growth of the Cambridge economy would probably argue that we can’t afford to pay much attention to that. But the level of public disquiet and distress now being vocalised suggests to me that we can’t afford to ignore it. Because we live in a society, not an economy.
*If you haven’t come across Cambridge 105, do take a look at their shows and see what takes your fancy. It’s a great operation, entirely volunteer run, and covers a huge range of musical genres and slices of community life – sport, business, science, literature, food, you name it – all with a local twist. Much of their programming is available to download and listen at your leisure. They say: “Our brief is to give a voice to those sometimes excluded from traditional media. And the presenters you hear on air are all volunteers themselves who give up their time for free. We do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.”