Sam Davies

Sheer contempt from the GCP

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:

  1. Cambridge South rail station;
  2. The CSET high-quality public transport corridor; and
  3. 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.

That reply from the GCP to all the carefully-worded issues I’d raised on behalf of Queen Edith’s residents?

Five words.

– “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.

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Sam Davies

11 comments

  • The GCP continues to show a disgraceful attitude. Having ‘seen off’ initiatives ranging from the previous CaPCA Mayor’s ‘metro’ to Smarter Cambridge Transport’s excellent set of ideas, its main players seem to think they’re untouchable.

    What I would advise ALL local residents to be aware of is that the GCP may not be directly elected but it is NOT some independent body outside of local democratic control. It is actually the creation of the three local councils. Do not be fooled by the biggest political parties in the region (Conservative, Labour and Lib Dems) rapidly pretending to distance themselves from this organisation’s attitudes or plans. The local councils designed the cash sinkhole that is the GCP, and the GCP represents these councils that the three political parties control or have controlled.

    However, the councils also get the ultimate say on how (and whether) it should continue.

  • Behaviour breeds behaviour. So dismissive; but unsurprising. When you watch the prickliness of Cllr’s at meetings/cabinet when asked to explain or validate a point it is quite depressing to watch. A pithy point-scoring political exercise with residents being the last people on their minds. Unsurprising to see civil servants follow their lead, despite their codes of conduct, standards of behaviour expectations, and responsibilities. Utterly demoralising. I don’t know how you do it.

  • I agree 100% – this is appalling.
    The whole congestion charge and improved bus services project has been a fiasco from the start. Instead of starting with two genuine problems and seeking consensus on solutions, we started with an “answer” to a single ill-defined problem.
    Whilst it is reasonable to expect officers to have views on possible outcomes in order to steer debate, such views must surely, from the start, recognise these was two potentially contentious projects, requiring skilled management of change.
    We were presented with from the start with a divisive paper incorporating very basic omissions that could have been resolved through good early work with communities and key individuals. Maybe ask a representative sample of about 50 their thoughts on the proposals and hold discussions behind the scenes to work out ways of achieving consensus?
    Instead, the GCP managed to alienate 15,000 people from day one – once alienated, how could they hope to get back their support?
    I could go on…

  • Wow! Your frustration is palpable, all the more noticeable because of your genuine open and honest approach to everything, and your dedication to the residents in your ward.

  • Is there a prize for guessing who this was about before the end of your first sentence? Dispiriting as it may be, you do a wonderful job of being a thorn in the GCP’s side. Please keep going.

  • If cancelling these projects doesn’t affect traffic flow forecasts, why were they proposed in the first place?

  • Let me echo that remark – ‘please keep going’! The frustration you must feel will be most dispiriting but anyone who has been following your actions will be supporting you to the hilt.
    The GCP needs abolishing or a complete revision. The problem as I perceive it is that the money goes to the GCP who then think up ideas of how to use it. This is extraordinary when we hear how local councils are cash strapped. Is Cambridge immune? They are wasting money on 20 mph speed limits that are unnecessary and will not be enforced, they are trying to waste money on building a vast concrete busway, they are proposing to waste more money on revisions of Hills Road and Addenbrookes roundabout that will cause chaos while any revision is executed – nullifying any marginal improvement that might be gained. They are clearly failing to plan properly for the vast traffic increase into the BioCampus. When will more Councillors wake up, like your good self?

  • I appreciate having access to your experience and analysis. I’m saddened by it, yet heartened by its truth. Thank you for upholding the values of truth, trust and the right to question.

  • Possibly not the forum for addressing this question, but as I am not sure there is here we go:-

    Q. How could we rid ourselves (*) of this useless, money and time-wasting, self-serving organisation that, as far as I know, has achieved absolutely nothing from day 1. In the words of the immortal (?), this organisation should have been strangled at birth

    A. On a postcard please or to my email

    Sam – what can we do in the interim (*) to help you to take these people to task?

  • GCP is entirely unelected so we have absolutely no way to make them do anything or hold them accountable. What an we do, practically, to stop the fooleries of the GCP and to get some sensible transport structure in our city, as some notable residents have tried to do?
    Some really simple solutions:
    Build the exit to south M11 onto A428 (ok, not our area, but removed need for expensive guided busway);
    Add proper bike paths to the sides of the roads, separate lanes from pedestrians;
    Sort out awful bike routes around station;
    Safe bike routes through Addenbrookes;
    Separate paths for pedestrians and bikes;
    Some actual thought about lower impact routes – CSET was always too expensive for what it was trying to do.
    I could go on…

    But my main problem w GCP is it’s utter lack of accountability to us, the residents.

Sam Davies

Sam Davies was elected to Cambridge City Council in May 2021 as a representative for the Queen Edith's ward, and is the city's only independent councillor.
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