What is Town’s offer to Cambridge’s undergraduate students when it comes to community and climate action?

By Antony Carpen
Posted on 1st December 2023

I popped along to a town/gown gathering on a cold November evening to find out what the post-Lockdown generation of students were looking for from local councils and town-based climate organisations. Turns out there is more that Town could be doing (without a huge increase in spending/resources) to help newly-arrived undergraduates hit the ground running – and getting stuck into some long term challenges.

Some of you will be familiar with the Cambridge Hub

“We know that working with local partners in the community makes the impact students can have even bigger and better. With our partners we create magic moments of social action which have a true double benefit for both community members, and students.”
Cambridge Hub’s message to potential community partners

I sponsored a couple of projects pre-CV19 and the outputs from the students on local history and on exploring options for music teaching for lifelong learning were excellent. That said, they need local community institutions/groups/organisations to work with them on meaningful challenges that have students engaging with residents on equal terms. (Something no individual, with the best will in the world, could provide).

How do you make ‘local’ look just as interesting in an institution with a global reach?

This is question I keep coming back to – one first put to the town back in the 1930s when the Cambridge and County Folk Museum (now the Museum of Cambridge). One of the key messages I took from the students was that in terms of actions with town, they don’t want to be lectured at – they have more than enough of that with their courses. They want to be involved in the very real problem-solving. And with good reason – the statistics about the University of Cambridge’s climate emissions and their continued relationships with fossil fuel firms make for sobering listening – even though I’ve grown up (and now am growing old) with the headlines of students’ protests against what the University is and isn’t doing.

Joining us online was Izzie McIntosh of the campaign group Global Justice Now. While I was aware of the concept of climate reparations, I hadn’t kept up with developments of campaigners – or indeed the quantification of the bill racked up by industrialised countries – the UK being the 5th biggest historic polluter. Which then makes this old digitised copy of The Middle East Crisis from 1957 – and the opening chapters that summarise the 20th Century growth of the oil economy all the more interesting, not least how it drove the UK’s foreign and colonial policy. The same goes for William Plowden’s history of politics and the motor car written in the early 1970s.

I asked her about her thoughts on *how* to get students involved in some of the campaigns on the decisions being made about the future of Cambridge, and ensure they can hold local government, ministers, and their own universities to account. (Accounting for Anglia Ruskin University – whose historical roots date back to the mid-1800s as a Cambridge town institution, as well as the University of Cambridge). This is where Ms McIntosh highlighted the need for some sort of civic education on how local government functions to be incorporated into campaigning – just not in the form of a dry lecture, but in the context of the issues they are campaigning on. This aligns with the aims of the Cambridge Land Justice Campaign – also student-led and focusing on the power of the University of Cambridge and the wealth of the colleges in the face of residing in the most unequal city in the UK.

The Town participants included several experts with decades of experience between them, including Carbon Neutral Cambridge and Transition Cambridge. This included a quick crash course on government policy failures on air source heat pumps with Nicola Terry (See also her short presentation here to Cambridge Carbon Footprint).

“How can students ‘hit the ground running’ on local campaigning when our local government structures are so fragmented?”

It was really useful to have the perspective of students from outside the UK because they looked at the structures and laughed!

One of the things Ms McIntosh reminded the students about – along with one of the Town speakers whose name escapes me, was their ability to invite representatives from influential institutions with the high probability that such invitations would be accepted. A decade ago, I recall an event at the now former Emmanuel United Reformed Church on Trumpington Street where an eclectic mix of mainly town and gown Christian campaigners along with an assortment of environmentalists and activists watched Prof Sir Brian Heap chair a debate about food justice where a couple of big food executives got absolutely rinsed by the audience over the policies and records of their industry – the people asking the questions clearly having done their homework beforehand. In a nutshell, an invitation from a knight of the realm and a visit to Cambridge was not something easily turned down! (Tip: invite politicians – especially ministers (target the junior ones), to events on Thursday evenings. The latter have the authority to speak on behalf of Government but don’t have the same commitments as Cabinet Ministers/Secretaries of State).

Preparing materials and real world case studies for students to work with

This came up in both town planning and public transport contexts. The problem is that both policy areas are fiendishly complex. And that’s before ministers of successive generations decided to make them *even more complicated*, doing things for ideological reasons (privatising the buses) and/or party political reasons (banning councils from forming their own municipal bus companies to get round the privatisation). In the case of buses, franchising was briefly mentioned (See this guide from the Cambridge Area Bus Users Group).

On the future of Cambridge/Gtr Cambridge, some of us briefly discussed *who* has the authority to commit The University of Cambridge as an institution, and *how* does the University of Cambridge formulate its policy positions that they feed into meetings that affect all of us in/around Cambridge, not just its members? This is something the Cambridge Land Justice Campaign is focusing on. It matters because of the fallout from the rejection of the proposed Workplace Parking Levy by the GCP in favour of the now-abandoned Congestion Charge. (See Smarter Cambridge Transport from December 2019 here).

Because there are so many big planning and transport applications in the pipeline, along with the ongoing emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan 2031-40, it shouldn’t be beyond the means of the local government and the University of Cambridge’s institutions to commission and fund some working materials that students can then apply to new and existing applications – ones that could then be extended to the wider city.

The fine balance of assumed knowledge vs boring people to tears

A more targeted approach could involve finding out what climate-related issues the students are interested in, and then explore how they apply to Cambridge and Cambridgeshire. For example electricity generation, energy conservation, transport emissions, consumer consumption, waste production and so on. (The discussion guides from local publishers IEP, although aimed at teenagers, are very useful quick introductions for students to decide what they want to focus on – and can also be used by any students wanting to run debates as part of volunteering in local schools via the Cambridge Hub and University-run schemes). Then deal with the institutions responsible as and when they get to them. For example:
Who has legal responsibility for regulation/oversight?
Who has what enforcement responsibilities?
Do the institutions have enough resources and strong enough powers to ensure
The existing law is enforced?
That existing laws are strong enough to meet the requirements of the climate emergency?

In the case of the final point, are we accusing the Government of being weak on law enforcement or on having set low standards that do not meet the climate emergency as is?

Cambridge Town institutions need to build in mechanisms that account for the annual turnover of students.

This blogpost features some videos of previous cohorts of student campaigners. One of whom, Elise Nyborg is now a policy adviser to the UK Chamber of Shipping.

In response to asking what success would look like in three years time, I suggested having a rapid induction on how our city functions/malfunctions, in place for each cohort of new undergraduates arriving in the first term of the first year. This would give more students the maximum length of time to see a campaign through before they inevitably move on.

Every year town feels the loss of some incredible student campaigners – such as Dr Julia Simons and Rhiannon Osborne from several years ago, the former stinging Boris Johnson in the run-up to the 2019 General Election, and the latter having a significant influence on the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Climate Review – something that swayed several more sceptical councillors in the north of the county. (Questions for students: Are those commitments good enough for you, and are their targets being met?)

Elections and the importance of voting was also raised – as was the importance of hustings and students cross-examining the candidates at both local and general elections. I still think that local government in the UK has huge problems making itself relevant to the lives of the people it is meant to serve – the biggest barriers in my view being lack of resources and powers provided for by central government, and an utterly obsolete and over-complicated structure that creates more work, confusion, and makes it harder for the general public to identify where power resides and hold it to account. If a critical mass of Cambridge students could pick up on these points as significant barriers to local government action in response to the climate emergency, they could make all the difference. Especially if they can raise it every time a minister or someone senior from Westminster pops up for a visit.

Food for thought?

Read the complete version of the article