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Saving the River Cam

Summary: Our river is struggling due to over extraction and the climate emergency – and the proposed level of house building isn’t going to make things any better.

Tony Juniper, the Chair of Natural England posted the following:

The article by Donna Ferguson for The Guardian is here.

At the same time, our county has an ambition to double the geographical area of rich wildlife areas and natural open spaces from 8% to 16% by the year 2050. One of the reasons it is so low is because so much of the county is used for food production.

Having read Donna’s report, one of the first things I thought of was why so many of our buildings in Cambridge & county were not incorporating things like rainwater harvesting, and greywater harvesting – something I remember being discussed in civil service circles in the early part of my career in the mid-2000s.

I also picked up on the point musician Feargal Sharkey (yes, that one) made about the poor enforcement of privatised water companies over-extracting from chalk streams. This was something that came up in a debate in the House of Commons two months ago when the MP for Broxbourne Charles Walker in an adjournment debate – which unusually had contributions from other MPs. Watch the debate here.

So I cycled down to my nearest chalk stream in Cherry Hinton – Cherry Hinton Brook. I made a video on what I saw:

Cherry Hinton Brook – a struggling chalk stream

It’s not just Cherry Hinton Brook – which flows into the River Cam.

Mr Sharkey quotes local poet Rupert Brooke.

This was also the same Rupert Brooke who spoke in favour of nationalising the land in a lecture in Cambridge in 1910 on Democracy & the Arts.

180829 Rupert Brook on democratizing the land 1910

…and in the same year after campaigning against the Conservatives in the general elections of 1910…

“I have cut off the only man in Rugby I know at all well, for he was a Tory and very wicked just now.” Rupert Brooke in “Letters of Rupert Brooke” edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes [younger son of Florence Ada Keynes]

which made this choice of VIP a controversial one to unveil a statue of him in Granchester!

***Roooopert, you communist!!!***

But as one of the MPs in the Commons debate alluded to, it doesn’t really matter what your political persuasion is when it comes to responding to the climate emergency. We’re all going to be doomed by it if we do nothing. Also, nationalising water companies by itself won’t automatically save the chalk streams. (Much as I quite like the principles on the grounds that water is a natural monopoly and also essential to life). The mechanisms for preventing over extraction – and also reducing demand, need examining.

“So, what are we going to do to save the Cam?”

One of the things that I’m due to post in a future blogpost is how we do not have the institutions to respond to the climate and political crises. Governance sinkholes if you will. Whether it’s burning rainforests in the Amazon – (and yes I want the President of Brazil hauled before an International Court to answer charges of Crimes Against Humanity and Ecocide) to the state of the River Cam (the authority for the river I’d incorporate into an expanded & empowered unitary council for Cambridge), we don’t have the structures, systems or processes.

“Is that why you went on that protest bike ride through town?”


This is Cambridge – cycling is what we do.

Environmental activism over the past 12 or so months with XR Cambridge has grown a life and a dynamism of the like I’ve not seen before in Cambridge. The next few months will be crucial with the climax of the Brexit shambles, further scheduled climate protests following Greta Thunberg’s call, and a general election all happening.

Commons Science and Technology Committee calls for a ban on petrol/diesel motorcars by 2035 – including hybrids

In a nutshell, collectively we haven’t a clue about the huge changes that we will have to make to our villages, towns and cities to cope with the changing climate. Have a look at the recommendations here. If MPs are recommending to ministers that no new petrol or diesel cars should be on sale by 2035 – just over 15 years away, then think about the huge infrastructure changes we will have to make. It’s not just about where charging points might go. Replacing like-for-like the UK’s motor car fleet with electric cars will require two-thirds of the world’s cobalt supply.

And ministers want to go ahead with a new Oxford-Cambridge motorway to open in the year 2030? Madness.

Retrofitting existing buildings.

Look at New York’s approach to glass and steel towers that we’ve become familiar with. What will the approach be to retrofitting homes and offices? Note that one of the most prominent of glass towers in Cambridge is the Mills and Reeve one – which won an award in 2013…while also being featured as a piece of ‘hideous’ architecture in Hideous Cambridge by Jones and Hall.


Botanic House at the corner of Hills Road/Station Road – photo Cambridge Network.

Just by looking at it you can see it will need a major retrofit in the next decade or so should we get much tighter energy efficiency requirements on existing buildings. Furthermore, on the brick-faced south side of the building, there are no solar panels even though they have a huge canvass on which to fit lots of them on – and many buildings surrounding it that could benefit from that renewable power – not least the greenhouses of the Botanic Gardens next door.

“Isn’t it all too late?”

It feels like it – and Laurie Penny wrote an interesting thread on the mental health impact of the climate and ecological crisis.

…It’s worth reading her posts on the thread in full.

One of the saddest things from my perspective was that successive ministers (as well as the rest of us) knew about this from 1990. It was when Blue Peter on Children’s BBC published their Green Book. This was in the day of no internet and only four channels on TV – channels that also closed broadcasting overnight. Therefore the publicity this book got was massive.

We knew what was happening. But it’ll only be future generations who can know whether humanity succeeded in preventing an environmental catastrophe. And at the moment things are not looking good. Not looking good at all.

“This is Cambridge – we deserve better!”

Summary: In 1892, local councillors on Cambridge Borough Council criticised proposals from architect William Milner Fawcett for a new guildhall. Their comments are striking in that not only did they state that Cambridge deserved better, but also that they were prepared to spend more ratepayers money on a grander design.

The problem was that six years later when such a grand design was put to them, they bottled it and put the decision to local ratepayers who naturally refused to vote for what would have been a tax rise.

I’ve covered the story at Lost Cambridge here. This in part is the story of indecisive councillors bickering over designs before Florence Ada Keynes came in and solved the problem by finally getting a guildhall built – unfortunately one which in my view had the ugliest outside design. Thousands of townfolk took her to task over this. But as they had no united alternative, we got what we currently have. It could have been different.

181009 Guildhall unbuilt etching 1857

Peck and Stephens in the late 1850s was only partially accepted – we got the large assembly hall, opened in 1862 (and still there), but the powers that be didn’t approve the rest of it.

In the late 1880s/early 1890s, a series of proposed designs were submitted to councillors. Below is one design from local architect John Morley. There are others out there – but I’m awaiting the county archives to re-open.

350222 John Morley Guildhall 1890s

Above – from the Cambridge Daily News 22 Feb 1935 in the Cambridgeshire Collection – at a time when the controversy of the current guildhall was at its peak.

Below – William Milner Fawcett’s design of 1892.


Fawcett’s design was regarded as not grand enough. Alderman Deck, from the family of pharmacists was quoted as:

“He did not think that the elevation was of sufficient Importance for such a town as Cambridge. He believed the only thing they could do was to increase the grant and let the people have something worthy to look at. Towns of less size than Cambridge had far more handsome buildings.” (from earlier blogpost)

Councillor Young agreed:

“…he would rather the Council should pay an additional £5,000 for a better looking building, because it was to last for all time. It was not nice to see dormer windows facing a magnificent square they had.”

What struck me reading through the article and the minutes was how there was a real sense of civic pride from the councillors, and that they wanted the architecture to reflect this. So when one such design came along…

181009 Colour Photo Belcher Unbuilt Guildhall Horace Darwin 1898 Cambs Collection1.1

…John Belcher’s design for Mayor Horace Darwin, they couldn’t persuade the rest of the council nor the rate payers to agree to fund it. Such was the disappointment that it doesn’t seem like much more was made of guildhall designs until Florence Ada Keynes made it clear that the problem of the guildhall needed to be dealt with. Until then, our guildhall was this

Cambridge old guildhall - note to the left is old Petty Cury

Above – Cambridge’s old guildhall from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Below: Charles Cowles-Voysey’s design of 1935.

350108 CambridgeGuildhallCambridgeIndy1935

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The design became a target for political satire, so unpopular it was.


I can visualise Puffles now:

***Hai! We iz here to use your guildhall for target practice!***

DORA in this case…possibly the Defence of the Realm Act?

“Why are you so obsessed about civic architecture in Cambridge? Leave our poor architects alone!!!”

Messrs Jones and Ellis wrote a book about it. And given one of the newest local council buildings being the anonymous South Cambridgeshire Hall where the acoustics of the main debating chamber/conference room are awful for such a new building, I think the architecture world can do so much better. Furthermore, I think they won’t have any choice. They will have to. Because climate change is going to make them.

“Forced to?”

Yes – this from RIBA:

“RIBA declares environment and climate emergency and commits to action plan”

Over a decade ago when I was working on climate change policy in the context of new homes policy in Whitehall, one of the things that struck me was how different the design of our built environment was going to have to be if we were to adapt to the changes that even limited climate change would bring. Given the forest fires from the Amazon to Siberia, and the unprecedented melting glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, and further weakening of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf (we have the Scott Polar Research Institute and the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge), those changes might come far faster than we previously anticipated.

One of the things more than a few people in and around the building industry have mentioned to me is that the era of the glass-and-steel tower is over. The only reason why we were able to build them in the first place was cheap energy to pay to heat them. Hence why one of the conversations we’d often have inside Whitehall during my time there was on what was going to happen with renovation of buildings. One of the few good things that can be said about the buildings in Cambridge with large glass surface areas is that changing their facades does not need to involve the complete demolition of the buildings themselves – which have solid steel frames at their cores. Important when considering the lifecycle of buildings and embedded carbon.

“We can’t build Belcher’s Guildhall”


Actually, doing that would be a silly idea – not least because that design only has three stories on it, while the current guildhall has at least five. Furthermore, the interior of the main office buildings doesn’t need huge amounts of structural work done to it. And I think it’d be nice to have something similar to Belcher’s facade in place if not for Eva Hartree’s centenary as our first woman Mayor of Cambridge, then perhaps for Florence Ada Keynes’ centenary in 2032.

“No. We can’t have Edwardian Baroque.”

Ultimately architecture is about opinions – and money. Kenneth Robinson in 1964 was full of opinions in his video piece, slamming lots of town architecture left, right and centre. But no one can convince me that the accommodation for St Edmund College below, and featured here, is a credit to our city. Bland, lazy, minimalist and an architectural crime against our city for them to have forced through such a design on such a prominent location.


“I do share concern about blandness”

And I regularly hear such comments from councillors on planning committees, but the current system means that they have to approve bland applications less they lose on appeal and have to bear the costs at a time of austerity.

As I said at the top: “This is Cambridge – we deserve better”. Perhaps what’s interesting is that over the past century and a bit, I’m not the only local resident who has said this – and I can imagine similar has been said by others for their villages, towns and cities. And rightly so.

World Photography Day – nice things from my photo archive

…because let’s face it, everything else is more than a little bit sh_te. 

So…here are some with descriptions below.

Cambridge medallions

1873 Cambridge Working Mens Club Medal_2

I found this medal going online and recognised it as being something more significant than it is. It was from the first Cambridge Workmen’s Club Industrial Exhibition from the early 1870s, awarded to a local man who was a colleague of David Parr. I’ve gifted it to the David Parr House off Mill Road so that you and the general public can see it.

Satirical cartoons

350316 STDMoon cartoon motorists road signs and fines

This is Sid Moon in the Cambridge Daily News in the Cambridgeshire Collection. He was the Saturday satirist for the paper until Ronald Searle of St Trinian’s fame took over. This is Sid Moon in the mid-1930s lampooning the new national standard road signs named after the Minister for Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha.

They don’t make railway posters like they used to

181017 Cambridge Colleges MuseumofCamb Poster

This was a ***huge*** original railway poster by the artist Kerry Lee. I love the riot of colour in this poster, again which I acquired from an antique dealer on the south coast, and gifted to the Museum of Cambridge.

The old Shire Hall Assizes Court on Castle Hill

Shire Hall Court House 28543 Photo

Photo from the Museum of Cambridge. Built in the early 1840s, this was demolished in the 1950s as the building was full of dry rot and the county council were looking for an excuse to build a car park. My plan is to rebuild the court house down to the last moss-covered roof tile and have the building hosting an expanded Museum of Cambridge.

One of the guildhall’s we didn’t get

181009 Colour Photo Belcher Unbuilt Guildhall Horace Darwin 1898 Cambs Collection1.1

Designed by John Belcher for Mayor Horace Darwin – who was later knighted for his services to industry in WWI, the story of why we didn’t get this is here. Again I consider this design to be ‘work in progress’ which just requires a few amendments to make it suitable as a new facade for the guildhall in time for the centenary of Florence Ada Keynes’ centenary as Mayor.

Florence Ada Keynes – Mother of Modern Cambridge

Florence Ada Keynes Dissenting Forbears NevilleBrown

One of the greatest public servants in Cambridge’s history, she devoted her adult life to our city as soon as her three children were out of infancy. Our first woman councillor, in the group of our first women magistrates, and Mayor of Cambridge in 1932 after standing down as national president of the National Council of Women. She got our current guildhall built – against huge opposition, but as the latter could not agree on an alternative, we got the one in Market Square. Possibly the only major civic decision that I think she got wrong. But she got it built in time for World War 2. And in that regard, we cannot be fussy.

Books about how the country is run

I’m picking up quite a few of these – things that really should have been refreshed, published and publicised en masse years before we even thought about an EU Referendum.

A partly-built guildhall but we didn’t get the fancy stuff

181009 Guildhall unbuilt etching 1857.jpg

Peck & Stephens had this masterpiece planned in the late 1850s. We got the large hall in their design but not the things around it which would become fashionable as ‘Edwardian Baroque’ – often seen in London & built at the time of peak British Empire. It’s a style that (as with Belcher’s further above) that divides opinion. Personally I quite like it because there is something ‘magnificent’ about it – and furthermore it looks like the architects enjoyed drawing it up. I cannot say the same about many of Cambridge’s new buildings.

Hobson Street Cinema, built in 1930.

160607 OldBingoHallPerspective

It’s been unused for nearly a decade after initial plans to turn it into a jazz club were rejected on advice of the police and from the pressure of the college opposite. Many local groups have called on the owners to allow the building to be used for community groups – only to be rebuffed. Which makes these proposals from Labour all the more interesting.

The old Playhouse Cinema on Mill Road


Photo from the Museum of Cambridge – if anyone has a colour photograph of this, please let me or them know – I’d love to see a copy of it and cannot find one anywhere!

Sir William Holford’s motorway flyover plan from 1950


The Cambridge Development Plan of 1950 is worth studying in detail because the analysis is actually very good. I just disagree with more than a few of their plans – in particular their spine road that ploughs through Christ’s Pieces & Jesus Green, and this flyover that was planned to go over the river at Stourbridge Common – a classic case of a traffic-generating road. But townfolk protested strongly and the plan for both were dropped. Interestingly construction has started on a new cycle bridge for the “Chisholm Trail” that will link north and south Cambridge alongside the railway line, taking thousands of cyclists off main roads onto a segregated cycleway.

The people voted for a dragon, the people get a dragon


A year after Puffles beat UKIP in Coleridge ward in 2014 at the Cambridge City Council elections, the city council installed a new dragon slide at Coleridge Rec. Result.

I need to get back into music again – but health is preventing me at the moment

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds – Photo by Mike Oliver (

I am absolutely petrified at this point – a couple of months after the city council elections of that year, this gig clashed with the World Cup Final of 2014. But this was my first group musical performance since…secondary school. And that was in 1992!

It’s still home – even though for years I hated the place


Cherry Hinton Hall – the Cambridge Folk Festival.

Cambridge’s old gasworks and sewage pumping station – by Howard Palmer from a local Cambridge Facebook Group.


A wonderful old colour photo from Mr Palmer from the latter part of the 20th Century, I always associated the two structures with each other because they appeared as tall as each other. But the gasometer is in fact a completely different building to the gasometer at what was the Cambridge Gas Works. The site became derelict as the country switched to North Sea Gas – this facility converted coal into coke and coal gas – going onto become one of the city’s largest industrial sites.

Cambridge Gas Works via Britain From Above

Cambridge Gas Works

You can see just how large this site was for a town that didn’t have a reputation for heavy industries. I still think we should have made a go of preserving the large gasometer, but the site was heavily polluted – as was the brickworks at the top of the photo. Hence why the site is mainly used for car-park-based retail. It requires far less land remediation work – which is incredibly expensive. Think of the costs of the Millennium Dome. The cost at the time was thought to have been at least £750million. The cost of the dome structure itself was only £50million. Most of the expense was in removing the highly polluted land – having to dig down to 15m into the ground. Where they dumped all of that material I have no idea.

Sylvia Pankhurst by Jerome Davenport


See here for details. I want some of these for Cambridge for our own local heroes.

Proposals for new council boundaries in Cambridgeshire

Cambridgeshire 1945

From 1945 – I’d be quite happy for these to be approximate boundaries for a new unitary council for Cambridge & beyond. The state of local government at the moment is a mess.

Cambridge Connect Light Rail


Can we have this please?

And finally…Cambridge controversies in the mid-1930s as vegetables

360919 Ronald Searle road signs as vegetables

Cambridge traffic problems dominating as motorists struggle with these national standard road signs and streetlights – and also Florence Ada Keynes’ guildhall plan.

If Cambridge evaluated previous phases of its growth over time, what lessons could we apply over the next half century?

Summary: What would a critical look at the past couple of hundred years tell us about how to proceed – combined with what we know about a changing climate and research on mental health, green spaces and urban design?

It was three years ago almost to the day that I started a short project making short video clips using a smartphone about Cambridge the town and how it grew.

Cambridge – shaping our city

The inspiration behind this (other than taking my mind away from the EURef fallout) was a book by Peter Bryan called Cambridge – The Shaping of the CityIf you live in/around Cambridge, pop into G. David booksellers by the Guildhall, they have a stack of updated copies going for about £7.

The growth of Cambridge is not a new phenomenon

Eglantyne Jebb told us this 110 years ago. And local historian Allan Brigham who runs the Town not Gown history walking tours reminded us of what happened in the 1800s that Eglantyne so succinctly wrote about.

Allan Brigham to the Federation of Cambridge Resident Associations, Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge.

The history of Cambridge housing

A year ago, historian Dr Tony Kirby of the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History gave this talk on Cambridge’s housing.

Cambridgeshire Association for Local History – join us here!

How big should Cambridge be? How big could it have been?

One of the things to remember paradoxically is the stuff that’s easily forgotten. Can you think of some roadworks that seemed to go on forever, but that once complete everything was forgotten about? I can! Over a decade ago Hills Road Bridge – on the main road into Cambridge from the south, was the site of some major road works to build a new archway for the then new guided busway to go under. I knew about it because it interrupted my commute to the railway station and into London. Have a read here. Such battles are easily forgotten.

Other battles include the periodic attempts throughout the 20th Century to expand the borders of the borough of Cambridge, as well as the powers of the borough council.


From a History of Local Government in Cambridge 1835 – 1958.

You can view the rest of the maps here. It’s a cracking read. If you are a local government history geek like me. The map above shows ickle Cambridge just after WWI, with Cherry Hinton and Trumpington outside the borough boundary, the huge area councillors applied for, and the slight expansion they got in 1934 – at which point the boundary of the borough and later the city has largely remained the same.

Expansion of Mill Road in the late 1800s

The residents of the cramped, terraced streets of the People’s Republic of Romsey in Cambridge (you can get the t-shirts here, kids) where properties now go for at least half a million on a good day, was the subject of many a squabble at council meetings in the late 1800s because the homes were not built with modern sanitation even by Victorian standards. The remedial work cost a fortune and a huge amount of inconvenience.

950118 Improving Romsey roads and sewers

Cambridge Independent: 18 Jan 1895 from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

“The work would be done to the satisfaction of the surveyor and it would be found afterwards who must pay in Romsey Town…”

Remember this was a year after the very expensive pumping station – today the recently re-opened Cambridge Museum of Technology, was built. And with good reason – our infant mortality rate was stupendously high, and poor sanitation was one of the primary causes. Eglantyne Jebb quotes a figure of 1:8. Today it’s about 4:1000.

From slums to sunshine

271130 Cambridge Housing Soc new homes.jpg

Above – some early council housing in the interwar period, this from 1927 on Green End Road. One of the recommendations from Eglantyne Jebb amongst others was to reduce significantly the density of population in homes, and to give people access to fresh air and green spaces – something notably lacking in Romsey and Petersfield in Cambridge. The various estate plans also were aimed at a new affluent middle class.

350316 new Woodlands Park Girton estate housing.jpg

Cambridge Daily News, 14 March 1935, in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Today, such estates are garden-grabbing developers paradise – such properties are easily snapped up by firms who replace them with a larger number of smaller apartment blocks in the face of our own housing crisis – one in a large part caused by developers manipulating the market to keep house prices (and profit margins) high, combined with a refusal of successive governments to intervene.

Housing density too low to sustain community facilities – too many estates lacking even the basics in post-WW2 Cambridge.

Many of the families living in the central slums were moved out to the new housing estates that became Arbury and King’s Hedges wards.

650325 Arbury and West Chesterton desert estate no facilities

Above – 25 March 1965, Cambridge Daily News in the Cambs Collection

Note these concrete ‘pre-fabs’ in Coleridge, Cambridge from 1946, which would be replaced in the late 1970s.

461018 Lichfield Rd prefabs Neville Rd Nissan huts

You can still see the wartime Nissen huts on the right, only hinting at the former site of the WW1 VD hospital. Prior to that, these were open fields. Today, the main rectangle block of land has back gardens full of trees, and a small recreation ground too.

That said, in this part of town there are not the community facilities that there are in other parts of Cambridge – and in part this is due to the lower population density of the homes built in the 20th Century. It’s worth noting that the residential developments around Cambridge Railway Station – both social and market housing, are built at medium densities, with low-rise blocks of flats up to four stories high. The 20th Century Housing in much of South Cambridge is semi-detached homes.

The post-war housing growth didn’t get rid of the homelessness problem in Cambridge – which was surprisingly vulnerable to economic shocks as the rest of the country. The growth in technology firms and the tourism boom had yet to take effect.

740110 Young homeless people on rise

Above – from 1974 in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

And housing problems in Cambridge haven’t gone away today either:

The Cambridge Community Branch of Unite, in November 2015. The organisation is calling for a large council house building programmes, and a policy of rent controls – recalling that in Cambridge house prices are 16x median salaries.

The interaction between councils, developers, residents, and new arrivals.

I’m a little bit sensitive about Cambridge as it’s the only real home I’ve ever known – hence I’m prepared to fight for it, campaign for it and improve it. I don’t buy the ‘like it or leave it’ line. One early group of civic campaigners were the Cambridge Preservation Society, founded in 1928.


Today, known as Cambridge Past, Present and Future, they continue to manage the landholdings that the early campaigners fundraised and purchased nearly a century ago, as well as scrutinising planning applications.

“What are the lessons learnt?”

The first one is the impact that housing has on public health. Again, Eglantyne Jebb told us that – only she did the research and pulled out the data. This had not been done before, which is why she is a civic hero in Cambridge.

180730 Eglantyne Jebb Cambs Collection_2 Small Pic

Hero: Eglantyne Jebb – who later founded Save the Children. Photo: Palmer Clarke in the Cambridgeshire Collection 

It also forces us collectively to examine what social infrastructure we used to have, why we built it in the first place, and why we either kept it or lost it. For example why did we lose so many community halls and venues in the latter half of the 20th Century, and why are we not building ones of utterly outstanding quality and beauty in the 21st Century. (Or rather, why are we building ones that tick the ‘bare minimum’ box, such as the tiny community rooms on the CB1 estate, the very small Signal Box on the other side of Hills Road, through to the Clay Farm Community Centre in Trumpington which having been there as well is far, far too small. And although not a religious person myself, I find the fact that various religious groups have to hold their gatherings in multi-purpose featureless bland rooms on new estates to reflect very badly on developers. This stands in contrast to the new Cambridge Central Mosque.

Why we need to repeat Eglantyne Jebb’s ground-breaking work over a century later

Along with Margaret Keynes – later Mrs Margaret Hill CBE (daughter of Florence the Mayor, and sister of Maynard the Economist), and Gwen Raverat (the woodcut printer, grand-daughter of Charles Darwin), Eglantyne carried out a rent survey of Cambridge and interviewed people all across the town.

One big challenge we all have to face is the impact of climate change. Put simply, our towns and cities are not nearly resilient enough to deal with more extreme ‘weather events’ – storms, droughts, high winds, heatwaves and mega downpours. At some stage the country is going to have to do an audit on the state of its built environment to work out what work needs to be done and how much it will cost to mitigate the worst of what will hit us.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard from many residents and councillors of the problems they have had with newbuild homes in terms of poor quality build. Given how high house prices are, this cannot be good. The problem at the moment is we have no system of post-construction evaluation – i.e. what are properties like after the first year of living in them?

And finally

The new developments we build need to have large open green spaces in them – not ‘pocket parks’ or concrete squares.

Although there is some acceptance in Westminster of the importance of access to nature in improving people’s mental health, we’re yet to see substantial changes in the planning system, and the new development plans put forward by developers and architects. I remain to be convinced.

Cambridge folk festivals of the future in a much bigger City of Cambridge


The festivals of the past few years have been with the backdrop of ever darkening political times.

Over the past couple of years we’ve had both the turmoil of post-EURef Britain combined with the climate emergency very much here and now. Interestingly, politics at the festival generally passed me by until Imelda May mentioned the impact that the EU referendum had had on everyone at the 2016 festival.

Imelda May on the Cambridge Folk Festival 2016, by 7Digital Creative.

I’m not going to pretend this year was one of the least enjoyable for me for a very long time – but that wasn’t because of any fault by the organisers or the musicians. It was mainly due to the ongoing poor state of my mental health more than anything else. And there’s still no solution in sight.

Walking thru the Folk Festival site on Thursday evening – you can see the bags under my eyes as I gritted my teeth to film this piece. 

The one from 2016 is here. Although I picked out Ralph McTell as the artist of note, buying a ticket this year was a relatively last minute decision, in part based on the slow ticket sales. Hence posting online messages that there were still tickets available. It’ll be interesting to see what the results are, but box office staff said that competition from other festivals had had an impact. Other acquaintances and friends also said that the festival had a lower budget to work with so could not compete on price.

I was also blessed with the bad luck of not finding my musical gang so give or take a handful of extended conversations with some familiar faces, I sat there listening to some songs from the sound track of Forrest Gump, which reminded me of this time 20 years ago when I was getting ready to leave Cambridge to go to university.

“I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining….because I’m free…nothing’s worrying me…”

Diversifying to incorporate the spoken word was the right thing to do

The Index on Censorship had a stall there, as did Extinction Rebellion who ran some public talks. As I mentioned in a blogpost about past festivals, folk music is about people and their lives/stories. The back catalogues of big names in the folk music world tell you this – such as The Levellers and Oysterband. I cannot remember a time when the general public has been so politicised on any issue – and dare I say it knowledgeable too.

In terms of lower – or rather slower than usual ticket sales compared to other years, I think there will always be peaks and troughs – often aligned with economic cycles. So in that regard I don’t think the downtimes will last into the distant future to the extent that the festival ceases while everything else carries on business as usual. Climate change means there is no more business as usual: The mega-heatwave that made Cambridge the hottest place in the country ever also resulted in unprecedented ice-melting in Greenland. The previous summer was that extended drought that made the ground at Cherry Hinton Hall rock solid – to the extend that spilled drinks would not drain away into the soil.

“So…how do you help make the Folk Festival more sustainable financially?”

In the grand scheme of things the organisers are doing pretty much everything right when viewed from the perspective of a local. They made a special effort to reduce their environmental footprint – especially with plastic this year. For me the bigger opportunities are with longer term sponsorship and support with local firms and businesses – especially given the limited funding to book more higher profile acts. That said, you only need two or three – one for each day, as your main draw. Personally I wanted someone of the calibre and profile of The Levellers or Oysterband as headlining bands. But that’s just a personal preference.

In my experience, the quality of the musicians I’ve not heard of before tends to be very good – nearly always I will come away having discovered someone or something new. Which is how it should be: the festivals should be an opportunity for new artists to showcase their talent to an audience of thousands.

190806 CamFolkFest supporters

While not wanting the festival to become overly commercialised – it simply isn’t that sort of event, I was surprised to see so few firms and organisations mentioned. (See above).

The Co-operative Group used to be one of the longer term sponsors of the Folk Festival. They are expected to open another convenience store at the old Budgen’s store when the renovation is complete. Which means there are ***three*** such stores on the walk from the railway station to Cherry Hinton Hall. (Clone town Cambridge anyone?) One group who could – should even – be jumping at the market of festival goers is the Cambridge Sustainable Food Group. Simply because there is a critical mass of people who go to the festival who are affluent, environmentally aware and share similar values.

The Cambridge Folk Festival as an event on the civic calendar

For me it’s one of the biggest civic events on the ‘town’ calendar. It always has been – how can it not be when 10,000 people descend on your neighbourhood, with people from all over the world? That said, as the city of Cambridge has diversified over the past couple of decades, I’m not entirely sure the same can be said for the local regulars. For some reason it really struck me that I was one of the few non-White faces at the festival – one in a part of town where I’ve spent over three quarters of my 40 years on this planet in. Which makes me think that part of next years publicity drive could involve encouraging local residents who have not been before to come along for the first time.

One of the reasons why having a steady, regular stream of local residents involved is that it reduces the likelihood that we’ll complain about some of the inevitable problems that arise with such a big event: parking, little, noise are all inevitable issues. The second is that some of those local residents are also potential future sponsors. A number of the new stalls and spoken word attractions new this year came about because of local links and friendships.

Supporting local music and arts generally

Last year I signed up to become one of the supporters of The Junction in Cambridge. It’s local to me, I go to events there, I’ve been going to events there ever since it was first built in 1990. Generally these days I take the view of supporting a smaller number of things and doing it well/make it meaningful. Otherwise I burn out. With the fallout of austerity since 2010, the number of good causes to support is not small.

Structures, systems and processes preventing Cambridge from making the most of its global brand.

The Cambridge Folk Festival is mentioned in the corporate sponsorship brochure tucked at the bottom of this page. It’s not been an easy time for Cambridge Live of late with the failure of the move to turn it into an independent trust that could apply for grants. It’s now back ‘in house’ with Cambridge City Council. Town activities are the poor relation to the money that flows into Cambridge University – which passed the £1billion mark ages ago. Part of the challenge here is persuading the university to invest in the wider city.

Again, my take is that Cambridge Town has an incredible history, and many stories to share. Collectively we’ve just not invested in it. I remain convinced that as a city we underrate and undervalue all of this.

Growing our local musical grass roots

For centuries, Cambridge’s musical culture has been one where we’ve been blessed with world class musicians playing in settings which people travel from all over the world just to be in. The acoustic in some of the ancient chapels are incredible. (The less said about some of the more modern spaces, the better!)

In terms of our folk music scene, the Cambridge Folk Club was founded around the same time as the festival – in the mid 1960s. Certainly growing up in 1980s & 1990s (south) Cambridge we didn’t have a culture of supporting music instrument learning outside of classical music and exams. Fortunately we have far more and far greater resources online to help these days. I remain convinced that the model of the East London Late Starters Orchestra is one that Cambridge can adopt and make a success of – and apply it not just to classical or folk, but to music generally.

Music making for adults – the East London Late Starters Orchestra, which also makes learning musical instruments accessible and affordable too.





Cambridge loses two civic titans in the same year

Summary: The untimely passing of Mayor Nigel Gawthrope in January 2019 came as a shock to our city. Today, we received the sad news of the passing of Sir Michael Marshall, president of the Marshall Group, one of Cambridge’s largest employers. 

The sudden passing of Mayor Nigel Gawthrope came as a shock to many of us in Cambridge, passing as he did while on holiday scuba diving in South Africa. Today, we learnt of the the news that Sir Michael Marshall passed away, also on holiday, in Spain.

Championing young people

One of the first things Mayor Nigel Gawthrope did was to appoint a civic cadet for civic ceremonies in Cambridge.

This was something I had not seen done before. The reason I picked this out is because both Mayor Nigel and Sir Michael were passionate supporters of our cities children and young people – in particular our cadets, Sir Michael being a former member of the Air Cadet Council.

Staying up late for long meetings

I first met Sir Michael when he was a member of the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly – he attended more than a few soul-destroyingly long meetings which the Federation of Cambridge Resident Associations commissioned me to film. Here is Sir Michael speaking at one at The Guildhall, Cambridge back in December 2016.

Sir Michael Marshall was speaking about the problematic Girton Interchange following the announcement that ministers wanted to press ahead with a new motorway linking Oxford to Cambridge – the OxCam Expressway. The Girton Interchange has been a problematic junction on the west of Cambridge for some time – and as Ella Pengelly for the Cambridge News wrote in May 2019, it still needs a significant upgrade to reduce the impact of HGVs on the local road network. Not surprisingly, the wider Oxford-Cambridge Motorway project is being opposed – particularly strongly at the Oxford end by the Expressway Action Group. Much of the infrastructure at the west-of-Cambridge end has already been built.

It goes without saying that being Mayor of Cambridge involves chairing meetings of the full council of Cambridge City Council. Again, these can be depressingly long meetings as any local democracy reporter can testify to.

Party politics aside, towns and cities need people like Mayor Nigel Gawthrope and Sir Michael Marshall to help make and shape them into what they are.

“Build bridges”

The message I took away from Mayor Nigel’s memorial service at Great St Mary’s was this.

I wasn’t the only one.

As a local historian, I can only think of two previous Mayors of Cambridge who were known for their attempts to build bridges between communities in Cambridge – and these two were civic titans in their own time:

321230 FlorenceAdaKeynesTheVoteFrontPage

Mayor Florence Ada Keynes, 1932-33


180710 Mayor Horace Darwin 1896.jpg

Mayor (Later Sir) Horace Darwin, 1896-97

One thing that both Sir Michael and Mayor Nigel had in common with the above-two mentioned civic titans Florence Ada Keynes and Sir Horace Darwin, is that they all believed Cambridge could be better than it was for the many – and to that end they all worked towards that aim. For those of you interested, you can see an exhibition of the work of Sir Horace Darwin in Cambridge at the Museum of Technology by the Riverside off Newmarket Road. I’d like to see a similar exhibition somewhere for Florence Ada Keynes…but see that as ‘work in progress’.

“How should Cambridge commemorate not just Mayor Nigel Gawthrope and Sir Michael Marshall, but our past civic heroes generally?”

Two ideas came to my mind this morning. The first one was specific to Sir Michael. Given his extensive track record of championing charitable causes in and around Cambridge (the list is considerable as the Cambridge Independent describes here), he set an incredible example to successful business men and women across the city and beyond.

One must remember that Sir Michael went to school in Cambridge – St Faith’s, before heading to Eton and then returning to study at Jesus College, Cambridge, as the article in the Cambridge Independent states. Interestingly, Sir Michael followed in the shoes of the eldest son of Florence Ada Keynes – the economist John Maynard Keynes, who also went to St Faith’s and Eton, before returning to Cambridge. It’s worth noting that Cambridge’s infrastructure of state secondary schools was not built at the time both men were at school. Which shows how far as a society we have come in such a short space of time.

Talking of successful and wealthy men who supported charitable causes in and around Cambridge, let’s not forget that John Maynard Keynes was the founder of the Cambridge Arts Theatre. He tried to persuade King’s College Cambridge to fund it but despite Keynes being the College Bursar, he couldn’t persuade his fellows to support him. So he paid for it himself – building work taking place at the same time his mother, Florence Ada Keynes was building our new guildhall. And not without controversy either! Mayor Florence succeeded where Mayor Horace did not – even though in my personal opinion I prefer Mayor Horace Darwin’s scheme to the one we got some 40 years later. Have a look here.

An annual award/set of awards in Sir Michael Marshall’s name for the individuals in the business sector who have contributed significantly to improving our city for the many.

One of the things that I’ve learnt over the years since my return to Cambridge from London nearly a decade ago, is that supporting local charities and causes is not simply a case of asking rich people to throw money at things. In fact, that’s possibly the least appropriate form of support for a city like Cambridge because it ceases to be a relationship of civic equals, and creates a dependency culture on one side, while creating one of absolving responsibility for the other so long as the latter group donate enough money.

I’ve learnt that the personal face-to-face involvement, something that Mayor Nigel Gawthrope taught us all in bundles, is just as important as financial contributions. It can be as simple as personal introductions, advice on how to pitch an idea or proposal, and also where best to do so (thus saving time and effort) that can be just as crucial. And that involves meeting people, going to events, and getting stuck in when perhaps one would rather be at home relaxing.

Mayor Nigel and Mayoress Jenny getting their hands messy at Cambridge FoodCycle

For me, such an awards scheme would help encourage Cambridge’s wealthier businesses to remember the city their firms are based in, as their businesses inevitably have to look outwards in this globalised economy. This is even more important given that Cambridge is now a place to live for people from all over the world – and also somewhere that has a relatively high turnover of population as well. Hence there’s an interest in making it easier for our city to make new firms and new arrivals to get involved in the life of our city.

A permanent Mayor’s fund for civic capital projects

Given the high profile given to the wealth generated by businesses in and around Cambridge, and some of the huge amounts paid over when successful startups are floated in share offerings, the people of Cambridge has not gained nearly as much as it could or should have done. As I’ve said on a number of occasions, one big reason for this is the over-complicated structure of governance.


Above – diagram by Smarter Cambridge Transport.

But changing this requires significant movements by Parliament and Whitehall – which is not going to happen in the short to medium term. So in the meantime…

…A permanent Mayor’s fund is something that I’d still like to see founded as a means to focus the attention of larger donors, and to complement the annual nominated Mayoral charities that each new civic mayor is empowered to appoint by Cambridge City Council. My initial proposal – the one I blogged about here was initially declined by Cllr Lewis Herbert, (Lab – Coleridge), the Leader of Cambridge City Council). You can read Cllr Herbert’s response in the minutes of the Full Council meeting of 19th July 2018 – item labelled 18/44/CNL “Public Questions”. Again, there’s no criticism of Cllr Herbert’s response from me. He was undertaking his role as Leader of the Council having to make a decision based on very limited council resources, and I was undertaking my role as an active citizen to find out what is and is not feasible in the current climate.

That all said, I’d like to think that someone out there who is in a better position than me to make either the Mayor’s Permanent Fund idea (note the ideas for large capital projects that we could raise money for here), or the civic awards in the name of Sir Michael Marshall, or both, a reality. Because one of the ideas I have – a new museum building that tells the story of Cambridge, is a place where we can tell and share the stories of how our city was made and by whom. That way, the names of our civic giants and legends are far less likely to be forgotten. Instead, it increases the chances that future generations will celebrate them.


What happened to people-friendly planning publications?

Summary: Cambridge’s local councils used to publish many useful things in paper form – including summary guides to major policies. Given the scale of the changes and developments to Cambridge & surrounding areas (Greater Cambridge if you will), is it time to revisit this tradition?

I discovered this publication today:


I’ve not found the Cambridgeshire version – noting that the above publication pre-dates the 1974 restructure of local government, so the planning functions will not align with present day county councils.

It got me thinking about the new local plan for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire – do we have any summary guides for residents?

As former city councillor Clare King states above, the issues in the Essex design guide of the early 1970s is now covered in the local planning process.

The Cambridge Local Plan

The fact that the two councils now run a joint planning service is for me an indication/example of the case of Cambridge needing its own single unitary council, rather than having a situation where our ‘city with a global profile’ has a large number of its policies decided by representatives that do not represent city wards or divisions inside Cambridge City. The problems of Cambridge were highlighted in a recent article by Ben Hatton here. Mr Hatton refers to a document called Making Space for People, item 5 appendix 2 of this meeting.

The map from the Cambridge Local Plan illustrates how Cambridge has already expanded beyond its administrative boundaries to the north, and has communities that fall within the remit of South Cambridgeshire District Council.

190720 Cambridge Local Plan_north-map

As the map below shows, South Cambridgeshire District Council is responsible for an area that surrounds Cambridge City like a badly-formed doughnut. It can’t be easy for Lib-Dem-run (and previously safe-as-houses Conservative-run) SCDC to govern with a city in the middle of it whose policies it cannot influence, and it cannot be easy for both Labour-run Cambridge City and SCDC to influence a Conservative-led Cambridgeshire County Council. Thus we’re in a situation where we have three councils run by three different political parties, and all of the fun that entails. Why have three councils when you can have just one?

190720 South Cambs DC Area Map

From G-Maps – the area that South Cambridgeshire District Council is responsible for. The settlements ending in -bourn according to various etymology sources indicate origins of small chalk streams. 

Cambridgeshire 1945

As an historical note, there have been numerous attempts over the past century to turn Cambridge into a unitary/county borough council. All of these have failed. The above is a map dated from 1958 which shows the 1944 proposals for reorganising Cambridgeshire. You can read the full history of local government in and around Cambridge 1834-1958 here.

Long reads

Including appendices, the Cambridge Local Plan main document is over 500 pages thick. Furthermore, the recently published Making Space for People document is 100 pages thick. This is all combined with the consultations for the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Local Transport Plan which county mayor James Palmer is consulting on over the summer. At the same time there is the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Local Industrial Strategy too. Are all of the people working on these things talking to each other, let alone co-ordinated with each other?

“What did summary documents and publications look like?”

Derek Senior was the author of a guide for citizens to the Cambridge Plan, published by the old Cambridgeshire County Council in 1956.


Five shillings? Bargain! Senior’s introduction sets out what I think is missing in the planning documents of today as far as local residents and the general public are concerned. See his introduction in Chapter 1. (The link to the full digitised document is here)


A print on demand public library of local publications?

Given that there are a number of firms all over the world that now offer this on legacy/out of copyright books, I’d like to think it wouldn’t be beyond a place like Cambridge to have something set up covering both the history of Cambridge the town and also its future plans.

Furthermore, given what’s happening with the future of Cambridge & Cambridgeshire, I can’t help but think the authorities need to be doing far more to engage not just the educated and ‘time-affluent’, but also young people (it’s their future) and those who didn’t go to university. Dense planning documents are hard work as it is even for those who are used to wading through large documents. How much of an extra barrier is it for people who struggle with reading? Cambridge is their city too.

Coffee table books and waiting room reading

One thing I’ve pondered about all things local democracy and community action is where the best places to put notice boards are. My general conclusion is to have them in places where people are naturally waiting for something – a health or dental clinic, a bus stop, a cafe. That’s where some of these publications (if published) should be deposited. But then for that to be successful it would need the consent of a whole host of organisations. Hence the onus on councils is to come up with not just a one-off series of actions, but an agreed system and process of what gets sent out/distributed, and where. Otherwise it risks becoming a community spamming operation!


Britain’s brainiest cemetery needs a bit of help


The lack of support from the University of Cambridge and its member colleges to various city and civic functions & schemes is something I’ve long moaned about, but the state of the resting place of many of its famous sons and daughters reflects a deeper, cultural malaise.

It was Castle Hill Open Day today – a day of fun stuff put together by Kettles Yard, The Museum of Cambridge and the Churches at Castle amongst others. I did wonder why the roads had not been closed off for the day.

Which made me wonder whether Extinction Rebellion might have something to say about this for next year’s event. Given the county council’s recent climate emergency resolution, I expect the decision for 2020 to be fully reconsidered. Personally I’d have the streets at the crossroads by the Museum of Cambridge & St Giles’ Church closed for the day.

Cemetery-hunting – and noticing the completion of a very ugly building

Histon Road Cemetery was on the list of places but the Ascension Parish Burial Ground around the corner (sort of) was not. It also meant jumping on the Citi6 bus (I’m making the most of my membership of the Cambridge Area Bus Users Group!) to head to a place once known as ‘mount pleasant’.

280404 Mount Pleasant Roman Town

…and I guess back in the day it had quite a nice building at the top of it. Not a palace, but not a monstrosity either. But then post-WWII someone came up with the idea of replacing it with something that made the site more ‘Mount Ugly‘… and then recently a new set of developers came in and succeeded in making the site even more bland than its predecessor.


When the councillors looked at the plans for the above, they were not impressed.

…which given their ultimate approval for the scheme shows how screwed up the planning system is. In fact, even one of Cambridge’s biggest developers/land owners, Grosvenor Estates is complaining about lack of public trust in the planning system!

Which makes me want to respond with:

“U. G. L. Y. Architecture I don’t like – it’s ugly! It’s – it’s ugly!” (to the tune of this horror from the millennium).

Interestingly, I’d stumble across the early consultations for the future of Shire Hall at the Castle Hill Open Day – where architectural quality and design were up for discussion.

The Histon non-conformist massiv


I wandered into the cemetery having got to the right place. This is one of the main resting places for the Victorian and early 20thC non-conformists in Cambridge.

“Ah – antidisestablishmentarians again?”

No – these were the disestablishmentarians who wanted to disestablish the Church of England and also remove the religious discrimination that the University of Cambridge once had back in the early 19th Century. We had some proper squabbles over this back in the day.

Many of the people resting permanently in the cemetery (see some of them here) won’t be familiar to lots of people, but they were huge names for their time in civic life. One of them was this chap.


Herbert George Whibley – leader of the Cambridge Liberal Party. You can read about him here. It’s easy to forget but there were more than a few nonconformist preachers who also went into party politics – such as Dr Alex Wood for Labour.

Ascension Parish – the brainiest cemetery in Britain


So wearing my permanent frown and a dodgy camera angle making me look balding in the bright but white-cloudy daylight, I made my way through to where Horace and Ida Darwin rest.

I was surprised to see the site so overgrown

So if you’re interested and are reading this before 20 July 2019, do go along to the next working party to give them a hand.

If you want to find out more about Sir Horace Darwin – Mayor of Cambridge 1896-97, head to the Cambridge Museum of Technology where they have an exhibition.

One real treasure for me was discovering that Lady Caroline Jebb – aunt of Save the Children founders Dorothy Buxton and Eglantyne Jebb – had her ashes returned from the USA to be buried alongside her husband, former MP for Cambridge University Sir Richard Jebb.


One of the most politically significant speeches Sir Richard Jebb MP made as the member for Cambridge University was his call for Votes for Women. I’ve transcribed it here.

180817 Richard Jebb Caroline Jebb Wedding.jpg

Above – Caroline and Richard Jebb in a biography written by her great niece Mary Reed Bobbitt. Caroline Jebb was one of the most socially influential women in late-19th Century/early 20th Century Cambridge. Bobbit’s book that I discuss in this post gives us an insight into this incredible woman – the first of several American women who would have a big impact on Cambridge – followed by another niece, Maud Darwin in the early 20thC, Lella Secor Florence in 1920s Cambridge, all the way through to the present day with Anne Bailey of Form the Future.

The state of Sir Arthur Eddington’s grave

The Eddington development in North West Cambridge has been much-reported in the education and architectural media, with the cost of the development reported to be as much as £1billion. So you’d have thought that the University of Cambridge and the colleges and institutes that Sir Arthur Eddington is associated with, would have taken a little bit more care and attention when looking after his grave – not least giving support to the hard working, hard pressed group of mainly volunteers that have the task of maintaining the cemetery.


You can get a sense from the lighting and shading just how overgrown this part is.

“Maybe this cemetery is supposed to be like this?”

Maybe it is. But compared with the Histon Road Cemetery that I was at earlier in the day, and also the Mill Road Cemetery that I regularly pass through (I used to be scared of graveyards because of church tales of ghosts but now find them quite peaceful places. Also dragons beat zombies every time. So there.

Actually, it’s wrong to compare the Ascension burial ground with those of Histon Road and Mill Road. The latter two are by two of Cambridge’s busiest roads and are also popular walking through-routes in their part of town. That human movement alone helps keep more people aware of it, tread back some of the vegetation, and help with maintenance. As the map below shows, Ascension isn’t a thru-route.

190713 Ascension Burial Ground Map

It has a popular thru-route next to it, but as this BBC article from 2010 states, the ground is so hidden that blink and you’ll miss it.

Castle Hill Open Day

We have a hill but not a castle. There’s much I could add to the WikiP article on Cambridge Castle but in the grand scheme of things, the castle that we used to have is no longer there. Various colleges ran off with the stone.

“You mean there was a stone castle there?”


Yep. ***Give us back our castle stones you scoundrels!!!***

I also asked county council officers to make the set of images that the above board is part of, available prominently online.

As part of the open day, on the green in front of Castle Mound a number of organisations had gazebos and meet-the-public sessions, including the Museum of Zoology, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and some early consultations on what Brookgate are going to do with their 40 year lease of Shire Hall. So my pitch to the consultants representing Brookgate (no one from the firm seemed to be there) was to support the creation of a boutique hotel using the existing main building, and to expand the Museum of Cambridge on the site as I wrote here.

Not all university outreach staff had visited our civic museums

They told me the biggest barrier in their opinion was having to pay on entry to the Museum of Cambridge, the Cambridge Museum of Technology, and the Computing Museum. In my opinion, the limited size of the Museum of Cambridge is a huge barrier, while decent transport (and public transport for that matter) access are two massive barriers for the latter two. Personally I’d like to see the inductions for new staff and volunteers of Cambridge University’s museums to include visits to local museums in Cambridge outside of their remit. That would help reduce the communications and understandings gaps between the two sectors.

Not being supported by University of Cambridge’s Museum’s Service means that those museums are run on a shoe string. I went off on one back in late 2017 when I found out the Museum of Cambridge was at a risk of closure. And was in hospital with a suspected heart attack a few days later. Not something I want to repeat.

The culture change that I would like to see in Cambridge is one where the University of Cambridge and its member institutions adopt a new value where *the whole of the city of Cambridge matters to their institution – not just its members or even just its very senior members*. It’s something I’ve mentioned before, but the presentation given by the Anderson Group on the prospects of a new urban country park east of Mill Road at the East Romsey Lakes (the flooded quarry) really nailed the point home about one of Cambridge University’s most prominent colleges not playing its part as a land owner for the benefit of the whole city. The City Council, the Anderson Group (who are the project lead – see here) and Peterhouse Cambridge – the oldest college in Cambridge University, are the main land owners.

Unpleasantly surprised to hear Peterhouse has not been nearly as co-operative as it could have been.

With a corporate value that the whole city mattered, Peterhouse might have prioritised getting this site back into safe public use rather than the annual game of cat-and-mouse trying to keep trespassers out of the site especially in summer months.

So again, I call on the University of Cambridge (of which this academic year I have been a member through and its member colleges & institutions to adopt a new corporate value of one where the whole of Cambridge City matters, not just the university and its members.

Could Cambridge go car free for the day?



On the Streets for Life action by Extinction Rebellion in Cambridge, the role of public authorities, and the media coverage of it.

Journalist Josh Thomas, then the Local Government Correspondent for the Cambridge News asked the question in the headline.

It probably comes as little surprised that it was former Green Party Councillor Oscar Gillespie who made one of the early calls for a car free day in Cambridge.

…though chances are his predecessor councillors the much missed Simon Sedgewick-Jell and Margaret Wright, may well have suggested such things in the past. It was as leader of Cambridge City Council in the early 1990s that Cllr Sedgewick-Jell brought in the Cambridge Green Bike Scheme – a time when a certain Cllr Barry Gardiner was Mayor of Cambridge. Today Mr Gardiner is Shadow International Trade Secretary and often on TV discussing Brexit. Back then, he was a Labour councillor for Romsey ward. Mr Sedgewick-Jell would leave Labour shortly after Tony Blair became leader, and would later join The Cambridge Green Party. Tony Juniper, today the Chairman of Natural England, wrote this obituary of Mr Sedgewick-Jell in 2015. Although much-ridiculed at the time, Mr Sedgewick-Jell was ahead of his time with the scheme – all that was missing was the technology to make it work – something London was able to do two decades later.

In the last few years – in part on the back of ever-worsening traffic congestion and with it, air quality, calls for car-free days have increased.

One of the other sparks for some car free days on specific streets have been driven by the success of Mill Road’s annual winter fair.

Above – the calm before the storm.

Above – car free Mill Road in 2016, give or take some interviews at the Mill Road Winter Fair.

The Cambridge Commons launches a petition for a car free day – 2018.

The Cambridge Commons is a collective fighting inequality in our city. They were also the organisers of the highly successful Imagine 2027 series of high profile talks and lectures in Cambridge, on how the world could be better in 2027 – which was 10 years away from the launch. Their petition stated:

We want to enable people in Cambridge to join Londoners in holding a Car Free Day on Saturday 22 September 2020

One of the East of England’s Green Party MEP candidates, Jeremy Caddick backed the call.

…as did Cambridge Green Party’s MP candidate, Stuart Tuckwood.

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner for Labour also indicated his support too.

…as did Labour’s MP candidate for South Cambridgeshire, Dan Greef.

…noting a pushing forward of the date too.

Although we never got the full car-free day on 22 Sept 2018, local MP Daniel Zeichner did go car-free for the day, switching to an electric bike.

As well as being MP for Cambridge, Mr Zeichner is also a member of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee – a policy area that he specialises in, having also previously served as a shadow transport minister.

Extinction Rebellion start blocking roads in Cambridge

They made themselves known in Cambridge with a series of actions in December 2018, starting with a die-in at The Grafton Centre, followed by speeches and a rally outside The Guildhall.

Above – Extinction Rebellion outside Cambridge Guildhall on 15 Dec 2018.

This was a few days after Madeleina Kay’s pro-Remain-in-the-EU campaign had arrived for a rally and sing-song in Cambridge.

Note one of the concerns of pro-Remain campaigners is the threat to environmental regulations. Will they be watered down outside the EU?

A couple of months later, Extinction Rebellion Cambridge carried out their first street blockade – of Mill Road.

Two weeks later, Cambridge school children held a climate march in town.

Followed quickly by a Fund our Schools march in April 2019 a couple of weeks later.


As I blogged earlier, Cambridge is not a happy city.

One of the wards in Cambridge that reflected this dissatisfaction with all things road traffic was Queen Edith’s, where a new independent candidate, Sam Davies – then chair of the Queen Edith’s Forum, came second in the annual city council elections with over 800 votes.

Sam is also a high profile transport campaigner in South Cambridge.

Extinction Rebellion Cambridge plan a street occupation

Having gotten nowhere through the standard channels, and perhaps boosted by the successes of the street occupations in Central London over Easter 2019, local activists started organising a new occupation focussed on the Grand Arcade car park in Cambridge’s city centre. With so many people turning up to their regular meetings, it was clear to anyone that had been to them that Extinction Rebellion Cambridge had the numbers to block more than just one road. Furthermore, inside Cambridge City there was a critical mass of public sympathy if not public support for what they wanted to achieve regarding traffic and transport. You only have to look at the cycling numbers.

Above – turns out the County Council ultimately did not give permission, which meant it became a policing issue.

Note this also revealed one of the persistent historical divides in Cambridge ever since the invention of the motor car: the dependence of regular shoppers in Cambridge who live outside of Cambridge city who have also experienced huge cuts to public transport budgets. So much so that the previously rock solid South Cambridgeshire Conservatives were crushed at the district council elections in 2018, reduced to a small rump on South Cambridgeshire District Council by the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, followed shortly by the resignation from the national Conservative Party of their MP Heidi Allen. In 2019 this was followed by the loss of a number of seats in previously safe-as-houses East Cambs District Council – again to the Liberal Democrats. (Other factors were also at play in both elections).

The initial plan was as below:

From the map above, and as it turned out, protesters only needed to block five road junctions to stop car access to the Grand Arcade Car Park. Note this left the large car parks at The Grafton Centre and Queen Anne Terrace open.

Note the authorities also did not give permission for the whole of Regent Street to be blockaded for the whole day – mainly due to The Big Weekend event on Parker’s Piece taking place. The protesters stuck to their agreement, waiting patiently outside the big Catholic Church until midday before moving.

The published plan was as below:

And it was lampooned too.

Which reminds me of this song. Sing up kids.

Talking of young people – who often have the best imagination:

Putting up a temporary tennis court on Tennis Court Road. Because.

How did the authorities respond? How should have the authorities responded?

That’s up for debate. The short-notice appearance of the County Police and Crime Commissioner at Lion Yard enabled some to challenge him on the police’s proposed response, such as former Cambridge Conservative Party candidate for Coleridge, Andy Bower.

Now, I disagree with Mr Bower on many things – and him with me. But given his political disposition, his position on the demonstration is perfectly understandable to me. I just don’t agree with it because I have a different political disposition. Furthermore, it doesn’t help his party’s cause (the Police and Crime Commissioner elected a few years ago was the Conservative Party’s candidate for the county), that it was their party in central government that significantly cut the policing budgets, tried to close Cambridge’s magistrates court, and put Chris Grayling in charge of prisons and probation as Justice Secretary (before moving him to Transport) with the inevitable results. Basically the public services have been cut so far to the bone that there is no capacity for the state to clamp down hard on such street occupations. We learnt that with the London occupations.

“So what happened?”

That depends who you ask.

This is what the Reach PLC-owned Cambridge News, published daily had to say.

No – sorry, not that one.

That’s the one. “Traffic chaos”. Versus the Cambridge Independent, published weekly, had this to day.

“So…who was right?”

Depends where you were. If you were a motorist taken by surprise having missed the repeated announcements in the news and on social media about the plans, or perhaps were on a visiting day trip from far away, it can’t have been much fun being stuck in traffic.

“How is that different to Cambridge in the summer time on any other weekend?”

350222 Cambridge Traffic

Cambridge: Traffic problems ****Since 1935**** (This from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

You can just make out Christ’s College in the background.

“What did the politicians say?”

One of the senior councillors on Cambridge City Council, and one of my local ward councillors, Cllr Rosy Moore (Lab – Coleridge) quite enjoyed it.

…and was called to account by a number of people. Ditto Cllr Dr Dave Baigent (Lab – Romsey).

Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats seemed to be relatively quiet on the demonstration, although former MP Dr Julian Huppert was co-hosting a climate ethics event at the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College on the same day.

“Was there any trouble?”

According to Cambridge Police, none.

The main reason for this was the incredible level of training and organisation by Extinction Rebellion Cambridge of their stewards and stewarding operation. Trained individuals in hi-vis and clearly labelled vests equipped with literature and information with “We’re Sorry” typed on the front were at every junction that was blocked by protesters. Where there were disagreements, people reacted quickly.

“Surely there were some angry people?”

Of course there were.

“The only irate drivers are on Hills Road, where one burns rubber in his efforts to make his point – it is always a ‘he’, isn’t it? A few sound their horns – but some of them are clearly supporters. An Extinction Rebellion steward blocking the road tells me: “It’s been good so far, it’s a nice day, we’ve had a lot more support than anger.””

Mike Scialom in the Cambridge Independent.

And not everything went smoothly. With such demonstrations and actions, nothing ever does. The most important thing is that all concerned learn from it. One oversight was not having a consistent approach or briefing for how to deal with blue badge holders, and people with mobility restrictions.

“So…what happens next?”

Rock up to the next meetings of the city and county councils and ask them what they learnt from the Streets for Life action, and what they plan to do now to facilitate official properly planned and resourced car free days in Cambridge. The main responsibility is with Cambridgeshire County Council as the highways authority.

Alternatively, residents of Cambridgeshire can write to their county councillors at or the county police and crime commissioner at



Cambridge and South Cambs ratepayers subsidising large developments?


On why ministers need to remove (or at least relax) the restrictions on local council planning fees for medium and large developments.

I pulled this from a recent ministerial speech.

It was from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government at the annual conference of the Local Government Association, the organisation that represents local councils across England. (Minus a handful of non-conformists!)

You can read the transcript of the speech by the Secretary of State here. Essentially there’s going to be a new green paper on planning.

“What’s a green paper?”

In central government, there are two types of policy paper: green papers, and white papers. Green papers are discussion documents. This is where the government of the day raises issues to do with a specific policy area and invites comments from anyone (though in practice it is interested in influential people and organisations) on scoping the problem out and/or how to respond to it.

White papers are government policy documents that are a statement of what a government intends to do about an issue or policy area. Quite often these will include announcements of any new legislation it intends to table before Parliament. The publication of announcements tend to be big occasions for a government because it gives the impression of a government doing something and being in control of a policy area. They can also act as a sort of comfort blanket  – easy to refer back to repeatedly because of the significant amount of research that has gone into creating them. Individual pieces of research often costing £tens of thousands will go into individual chapters and on impact assessments.

I think it’s a shame that more of these research papers are not more widely publicised because they get into the real detail of issues and cut out much of the party-political bluster. Interestingly, this is also where MPs who might come across as buffoons on political telly can show themselves to be far more well informed on a specific issue, and may sometimes seem at odds with the party-political line to take from their party whip.

“What is an ‘accelerated Green Paper’?”

It’s like a normal green paper but one where ministers are panicking because they’ve spent far too much time and far too many resources being distracted by something else and in the meantime, the monster has grown.

“What did the Secretary of State have to say?”


“The Green Paper, will invite proposals to pilot new approaches to meeting the costs of the planning service where this improves performance, including whether local authorities could recover a greater proportion of these costs.

If such reforms were then introduced, local authorities would be expected to invest the additional revenue in their planning services and demonstrate measurable improvements within their performance – not just in terms of speed but very firmly also in terms of quality.”

“Which means?”

‘Local councils will have to raise revenue from somewhere other than central government, council taxes and business rates. Any ideas, chaps?’

So I asked two of our local councils (Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire – who now run a joint planning service) whether the income from planning fees covered their costs in terms of running it.

With thanks to Hannah at South Cambridgeshire District Council, at the moment the planning service needs to be subsidised by the local council tax & business rate payer.

“So that means the big developers are being subsidised?”

In effect, yes. They are not paying for the full cost of the planning service that they use.

“Ouch – that hurts – especially given the controversial nature of some of the planning applications and developments we’ve seen and sat in on over the past decade or so!”

Exactly. I can see the merit of local council tax and business rate payers working on small developments not being hit by the full cost, but for £multi-million developments where the beneficiaries are large institutions or corporations, or wealthy individuals domiciled elsewhere, I can’t see why they should be subsidised – especially given the extra resources that their developments inevitably take up.

Furthermore, I also think there’s merit in local councils running a function that helps local residents and community groups comment on planning applications. It may sound like this is helping nimbys (Not In My Back Yard types!) block planning applications, but I reckon it would have the net effect of reducing the amount of time and resources spent on handling such objections, increase the public’s understanding of the planning system, and encourage more responsible developers to engage with local communities at a much earlier stage so as to design out any contentious issues at a very early stage.

“Contentious issues?”

Take a proposed development on a fairly large open undeveloped site that backs onto an existing row of houses. When deciding where to place the new houses, the existing residents are more than likely to put in an objection where new homes right next to their property boundary overlooks onto a back garden or directly into a property. A privacy issue. In which case at a very early stage coming to an agreement on having say some allotments bordering onto the existing property boundary might be a better solution. This is what happened in one development in Cambridge a few years ago. The same number of homes were built, it was just that at design stage they were located on alternative parts of the site. Far better to do that now than to get to the planning permission stage and having to pay extra for your consultants to fight an organised campaign against your development.

Local planning and property professionals are not happy with the local authority planning system either

I found myself sitting in on a meeting with members of Labour’s planning commission recently with developers even though I had only asked to be with the community representatives. (Hence not live-reporting because that felt like bad form). The conclusion I came away with on both sessions is having some joint workshops between local organisations such as the Federation of Cambridge Resident Associations and RIBA Cambridge so that both sides can get a stronger understanding of where the other is coming from, and perhaps to agree some protocols on developments on when and how prospective developers should engage with local community groups.

But as things stand, the planning function of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire District Councils is not in a great place.

…and as you can see, it’s an issue that I’ve firmly placed at the door of ministers to resolve – as they are the ones with the powers to do so.