A long time ago, when I was just starting to turn up at Council meetings to ask why things were the way they were (and whether we could do better), I expressed some frustration in public about the attitude of a particular officer.
I was taken aside by council leader Lewis Herbert, for whom I have great respect, and told this wasn’t the right approach. Officers were speaking or acting on behalf of an organisation, a system and a culture, and should not be singled out individually.
I took that on board and have abided by it since. Tempted though I am, I’m not going to break that approach today.
But what I am going to do is query what kind of an organisational culture allows or encourages or facilitates an officer to treat a serious question, from an elected councillor, on a matter of great interest to many residents, with contempt.
What kind of an organisational culture… facilitates an officer to treat a serious question from an elected councillor… with contempt?
And I want to ask whether that organisational culture is in fact a root cause of why the whole Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) project has now run so spectacularly into the sand because almost nobody – whichever side of the debate they sit on – trusts a word the organisation says.
What working collaboratively looks like
First though, as a comparison, here’s an example of the attitude and relationship which all of our local government bodies should be nurturing and demonstrating.
I’ve had dealings with week with the Cambs & Peterborough Combined Authority. I submitted a public question, through the online portal, to be asked at the Skills Board on Monday. To my surprise and annoyance, the question didn’t appear on the agenda and wasn’t asked. So I emailed CPCA officers, asking them to look into what had happened.
I received a more or less immediate and extremely apologetic reply. The portal had had problems, questions hadn’t been retrieved as they should have been. What I would like to happen now? Would I like it submitted as a supplement to the September agenda, with a written answer, or to ask it in person at the next Committee meeting?
Subsequent correspondence confirmed that, as I requested, my question had been uploaded and a written answer is now being prepared. This was accompanied by a further apology and feedback that CPCA has changed its process as a result of the problem, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.
Wouldn’t we all stand a better chance of solving the most challenging problems we face as a city if this was the normal way of doing things?
What Queen Edith’s wants to know
Now let’s turn to the Greater Cambridge Partnership. On the agenda for the GCP Joint Assembly on Thursday were two items of particular significance to Queen Edith’s:
- Next steps in the progress (or not) of the Sustainable Travel Zone proposals, also known as the ‘Congestion Charge’
- A proposal to ‘pause’ the CSET busway proposals, an off-road route between the A11 and the Biomedical Campus (CBC).
My question to the Assembly (p.12 of the public questions pack) was intended to get some sense about what these changes might mean for the number of private vehicle trips being made to the CBC, given its huge anticipated growth to 2031.
Based on my own knowledge and many conversations with the local people that I represent, this is what Queen Edith’s residents want to know.
Why this matters
The growth of the Biomedical Campus has always been justified as being ‘sustainable’ on the basis of three big transport interventions providing alternatives to driving to the site:
- Cambridge South rail station;
- The CSET high-quality public transport corridor; and
- The ‘City Access’/Sustainable Travel Zone measures (the combination of stick and carrot to get people using buses).
The contributions that all of these need to make to managing vehicle access to the Campus was explained in great detail in the three volumes of the Campus Transport Needs Review published in 2019, which emphasised the critical importance of all these measures being delivered on time.
Cambridge South station is still due to open in 2025 but if the other two elements are delayed or simply not happening, that will create massive implications for Queen Edith’s residents.
There will be 27000 people working on the Campus by 2031. Astra Zeneca alone will be installing 2500 staff in its new HQ between now and the end of 2024. If these people have to drive to the Campus because there are no credible alternatives, our roads will be gridlocked, with all the inevitable consequences for our quality of life.
In other words, this stuff matters.
So watch the video to find out what happened.
— Antony Carpen (@ACarpenDigital) September 7, 2023
That reply from the GCP to all the carefully-worded issues I’d raised on behalf of Queen Edith’s residents?
– “We haven’t revised the forecasts”.
Now, maybe I provided an easy way out for officers because of the way I phrased things. It allowed a brief negative response.
End of discussion, even when prompted by the Chair to expand the answer.
I should have known better: it’s not as if they don’t have form on this. Over three years ago, I asked the GCP for an update on progress and got a cursory reply which seems quite elaborate in comparison to this time. I wrote back then: “(Their) statements took 76 seconds and told me absolutely nothing I didn’t already know. They were in fact totally content-free, an achievement which the two officers seemed to congratulate themselves on with a dismissive conspiratorial wink and smile at the end of the exchange.”
However, surely any organisation which feels even the smallest sense of obligation to serve residents and work with them, as opposed to playing games and stitching them up, would elaborate by volunteering some information about when and how they were going to revise the forecasts. Or even just indicate some understanding of why a councillor might ask such a question on behalf of their residents?
That appears to be an unreasonable expectation of the GCP.
Barely concealed contempt
My core mantra is that ‘progress moves at the speed of trust’. And the thing is, it’s instinctive. You don’t have to be an expert in local government structures or highways projects or human psychology. Everyone can see and feel the difference between an organisation which wants to bring people with it, and one which doesn’t give a damn, or to which ordinary people are frankly an inconvenience.
So this is the GCP. Going through the motions of democratic interaction with members of the public but treating the whole exercise with barely concealed contempt while the real business goes on behind closed doors.
People of Queen Edith’s, you and your concerns are worth five words.
Get used to it.