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.”
I add to this blog weekly if there’s something important to report. Get these posts by email by adding your name to the list, using the form on this page.
Sam, I was interested by your comments on the possible investment zones.
You frequently point out the mismatch between the amount of planned and wished for lab development around here and the lack of affordable housing. While I think it would be wrong to stifle one of the very few growth sectors in the economy I’m wondering whether investment zones might give a way to plan it better.
Travelling around the local area during the summer trying to get to know it I was struck by how the feeling of prosperity frequently disappears as you move away from Cambridge. Could we, should we, think in terms of an investment zone to the north or west of Cambridge that would establish a CBC-2 ‘daughter campus’ linked to CBC and with the new research facilities plus infrastructure and housing? Clearly the money for the infrastructure would have to be provided by some outside sources and money is going to be very tight and this is probably all wishful thinking. But I thought it worth putting the question.
Thank you for your always interesting blog.
“Judge criticises Anglian Water…” – privatised industry privately owned, so no AGM to or public forum to hold the firm accountable
“Fire stations ‘may close’ warns chief” – local government austerity
“Concern at £28.5m funding gap in county council budget” – local government austerity (50% county council cuts since 2015 on top of 2010-15 reductions)
“Staff cannot afford pensions” – Addenbrooke’s – NHS funding and staffing crises combined with costs of living crises
“Only phone if you have to, says force, after 390,000 calls” – police – Home Office froze their contributions to Cambs Police – the only funding rises are coming from council tax precepts.
No wonder people feel their voices are not heard – especially in the face of continued ‘economic growth’ and the reports of how wealthy Cambridge’s economy is. Ministers have chosen to keep the systems in place. They could allow one of Cambridge’s local government institutions to tax that wealth but they refuse. They could compel Anglian Water to appear before city or county councillors on a routine basis. But they refuse. They could compel EWR and Network Rail to do the same. But they refuse. Advisers advise, ministers decide. The buck stops with Central Government.
With political parties likely working on manifestos given the chances of a snap general election, might be worth challenging councillors who are party members to ask what policies they will have in their manifestos that will overhaul structures, systems, powers and funding of local government in Cambridge & Cambridgeshire – if not the whole of England.
Trust is the biggest loser in the modern day and ordinary people feel powerless. Consultations and promises are some of the biggest losers of trust. This is illustrated only too well by the consultation that the Greater Cambridge Partnership have issued on their proposed congestion charge (the title does not mention congestion so that search engines do not immediately find it). It is clearly designed as a tick box exercise to get the answer that GCP want. It asks if you want the benefits. Who for example is going to say they do not want better bus services? It does not ask if you want to have the cost of living increased by additional charges for family visits, for food deliveries, for workmen repairing your house, for carers helping you, for visits to the hospital and so on. It is not just £5 per day but £10 pd for light commercials, £50 pd for heavy goods. The consultation clearly dislikes exemptions. Your are not told if exemptions are made or indeed if the charge successfully reduces congestion then less money comes in and the charge has to rise. You cannot trust that the financial sums will add up in their flood of information.