So the Cambridge Conversations project is starting to feel like ‘a thing’.
Five of us volunteers took ourselves out of our comfort zone and went to meet a brilliant group of women, the Grovebury Ladies, a social group of women who meet at the Arbury Community Centre. Many have lived in the same houses in Arbury since they were built in the 1960s.
Our goal was to listen and engage with the women about their experiences of Cambridge, what they felt were the big challenges to making it a fairer city and how we could change that.
Why are you asking that question?
We were ably led by Janet who introduced us to the group as a whole and explained that we were a campaigning group that was challenging the levels of inequality in Cambridge, the most unequal city in the UK. She said we don’t think that situation is fair or right, and that it negatively impacts on everyone – including the millionaires among us.
We then divided ourselves among the groups and joined in their conversations. There were two questions: what is unfair in your life and that of your friends and family? And secondly, what one thing would you do to change that? We spent about 15 minutes talking through these questions on our tables – each table comprising 10 – 12 women.
The first response I received was, why are you asking that question. How am I supposed to answer that? Why are you asking it? There’s nothing unfair in my life – I have a roof over my head, a family and friends. I’m doing OK.
On reflection this was a very sensible response to the question. How would I respond to the question if asked it? Probably the same. Maybe the second question was a stronger bet – what would you change about Cambridge, and why?
At one point I was asked to give some examples. So I mentioned council statistics that showed gaps in life expectancy. The response came back, well we don’t know about statistics. I needed to step back and listen.
Houses, doctors, crime and safety
The discussion did get going in my group though.One of the first responses was about homelessness. Then the topic of food banks and of poor public transport compared to a city like London. “I never go into town,” one of the group said.
I then switched to the other side of the table where a long list of discussion points was waiting for me:
Chinese and Japanese buying houses in Cambridge and letting them at very high prices.
Not enough doctors in Cambridge for the amount of patients.
Not building affordable social house council homes
Town centre is so dirty.
The A14 is a disgrace. Prisoners should be chained and made to collect the rubbish like they do in America.
Street lighting dangerous for older people to go out in the evenings.
More police in Cambridge. No parking in pavements or outside school.
The discussion really got going at this point. One person talked about her daughter providing free hair cuts at the homeless shelter. Another mentioned the challenges faced by her daughter in the police.
One member of the group was particularly vocal on social homes. She said that many in the group bought their own council homes under Thatcher in the 80s with 100% mortgage, but that wasn’t available any longer to young people and it was very difficult for them to buy their own home in their neighbourhood.
Socially progressive views on housing and health mixed with socially conservative views on crime and immigration. The prevailing view seemed to be that we were not tough enough on crime and there was not enough discipline in school. The word ‘inequality’ seemed an abstract and distant concept.
What can we do to change Cambridge?
The central argument of The Equality Trust that inequality itself leads to poorer health outcomes, more crime, rising asset prices etc. did not come through in the group discussion I joined. Instead we focused on public services and community assets. On the latter, it was really clear that people felt the benefit of local amenities for creating well-being in their lives.
The group listed:
- More police
- Lack of activities for young people
- Swimming pool
- More doctors
- Sports facilities
- Shopping village outside of city
It was refreshing not to hear mention of politicians or Brexit. There was a sense we could choose our own destiny, and a strong belief that the council should work closely in our interests.
What did we learn? This was a trial after all.
One observation was that I felt very comfortable to listen and explore these topics with a group of people who felt in their comfort zone and at ease with each other. I think it validated the idea that you have to go and engage with people to discuss fairness – on their turf. Whenever I’ve tried to do this with close friends or neighbours, I’ve felt nothing but awkwardness.
There was clearly a question about who we were and why we were asking these questions. One of the volunteers suggested we should be really up front with the group at the beginning about who we were as people and why we were involved in The Cambridge Commons. I like that.
I also think we have to answer the question of how we would use the discussion beyond the meeting. On one level, this gave me such a better understanding of my own community (I live just round the corner) and of how other people think about the issues that matter to me. But that doesn’t seem enough to take their time – I think instead we need a very clear outlet, whether that be in a local newspaper or elsewhere.
We are clearly not just canvassing views. We want to influence and raise awareness of the issues that we think are created by rising inequality. This meeting showed that housing, cuts to public services and also disability issues such as street lighting are critical for our city.
How would I ask the question in future? I feel clearer on that now:
“We believe Cambridge could be a fairer and better place to live for all the community. What would you change about Cambridge, and why?”