Supporting my community reporting

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If nature reduces stress, how can we green our cities and make existing spaces open to the public?

Reappraising our towns and cities in an era of climate mitigation and no more ‘business as usual’

I’m reminded of this scene from Dr Zhivago, where he returns from the Eastern Front towards the end of WWI to find his family town house having been seized by the new communist authorities to house some of the homeless.

Dr Zhivago (1965)

South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen (Ind) often tells how it was when she saw footage of the London riots that she felt the impetus to get involved in politics. I remember watching on – it happened just after I left the civil service – thinking just how thin the blue line was between ‘business as usual’ and a complete breakdown of the existing system. I’m also of the view that climate change and the continuing of austerity will put further pressures on economy, society and ecology that something will have to give. The state of both the Conservative and Labour Parties on the back of recent elections reflects this, in my view. Society – as we have seen in the past, has split along two broad lines. Today we see this with the rise of BXP and on the liberal-left with the rise of the Greens and the resurgence of the Lib Dems. That plus the short-lived existence of whatever Change UK/Independent Group want to call themselves now.

Trees and green stuff

There were a few reports published recently

…plus this below:

…following an extended exchange between myself and Sam Davies on the RSA’s report and that of the UK 2070 Commission.

One of the first blogposts I wrote was back in 2011 and it was on the privatisation of public spaces. The expert in this field is Anna Minton – see her work here. Now Cambridge is full of privatised green spaces – the college gardens and playing fields. In 2016, I made a short video about playing fields that I once had access to as a child, but no longer do.

On gated playing fields in South Cambridge.

Playing fields at risk

At the Cambridge & South Cambs Local Plan hearings we found out about the various ambitions colleges had to build on playing fields they owned.

Cambridge City Council were batting for the city to keep the spaces green.

For those of you who are interested there is 85mins of debate on Cambridge’s playing fields with some ‘interesting’ statements on usage and need. Also note page 199 of the Cambridge Local Plan 2018 on playing fields here

Should the state have the right to tell individuals or private institutions how they should use their land?

That ultimately comes down to your disposition. In a legal system of complete private property rights, legally purchased or inherited land is yours to do as you feel. At the other end of the spectrum, all land belongs to the Commonwealth whether through a centralised state or a series of autonomous collectives – and everything in between.

Back in 1995 George Monbiot wrote about Land Reform (See here). Fast forward to June 2019 and he and his team were commissioned to write a policy paper on land reform for the Labour Party. His Guardian column on this is here. You can read the full policy paper here.

Bringing planning back

As with many things in history, things come in cycles. In one generation ‘laissez-faire’ economics is popular, in another generation it’s planning. With the Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire Local Plan 2018, have a look at the policies map. It’s interesting to see how the Grafton Centre/Kite and Newmarket Road east of it is shaded as an area of redevelopment.

190613 Cambridge Local Plan East Road Kite190613 Cambridge Local Plan key

The lack of large public open spaces for North Cambridge is striking

Though some have questioned the accuracy of the map. But the point remains.

Which bits of Cambridge could be opened up to the wider public?

Cambridge on G-Maps looks like this.

In the centre of Cambridge, given what the colleges said about the lack of use of playing fields by their students, I’d like to see the fields of St John’s College turned into a public park.

190613 Cambridge Map StJohnsCollege playing fields as a park

There’s enough space to maintain sports pitches for their use, but given the congestion in town, it’s somewhere that’s about the size of Parker’s Piece and could provide another area of parkland taking some of the pressure off Parker’s Piece, Jesus Green and Midsummer Common. It would also serve as a new public park for West Cambridge.

“Would the Master and Fellows of St John’s College agree to such a move?”

****Heeeelllllllllll No!****

Not in my lifetime anyway (unless that college gets some civically-minded fellows and a such-minded college master). But it provides for an alternative project should they attempt to build on it.

Opening up South Cambridge near some of the new developments.

This is the view on G-Maps of the sports and tennis centre behind the Faculty of Education between Hills Road Sixth Form College and Homerton College.

190613 HRSFC tennis courts as new park

Back in 1924 Homerton College looked like this, with the land the Faculty of Education is now on just behind it.

EPW009790 Homerton College 1924

At the top-left corner is one of the old playing fields of Hills Road Sixth Form College – now built all over. That area that looks like wasteland would become both an industrial unit and a playing field itself before the sports centre & tennis courts were built. At primary school we played football on that open space before it was transformed while I was at secondary school.

Coming back to the existing space…

190613 HRSFC tennis courts as new park

At the bottom left is a ‘tiny little pocket park’ – the concept of which I am against – far preferring larger open spaces that people can play team games on. I’d be tempted to put four of the outdoor tennis courts on the roof of the indoor tennis courts next to them, move the Faculty of Education’s car park underground, and convert that whole space into open park land.

190613 Homerton College Map photo view.jpeg

…the reason being that you have a series of medium-high density blocks of flats (the ‘Magna’ development) plus a private cram college just north of them – by the popular Cambridge Cookery School.

At a more distant view just south of the railway station, you can see more playing fields on both sides of the railway line. These are Cambridge’s ‘southern lungs’ and no, you are not building on them! You can see Homerton COllege at the top right, and just below it a private language college. The road running along the bottom right west-east is Luard Road. A cycle bridge over the railway line could link up with Porson Road and Trumpington Road in the west, taking a fair amount of cycle traffic off of Long Road.

190613 Homerton College Map photo view2.jpeg

The playing fields at the bottom-centre were the ones in the video I referred to as being publicly accessible in my childhood. No longer. Given the development of flats and the private language colleges, plus the expansion of Hills Road, I’d like to think some urban designers could come up with a solution to open those up to the public as public parks without compromising the security of the institutions or those in them.

Replacing real grass with fake grass

One of the institutions at the Local Plan hearings was The Perse Upper School (one of the oldest private schools in the area) – have a listen to their representative here. While making the case that it wasn’t in their interests to reduce their sports facilities, she was questioning the designation of its playing fields as open space (thus barring development).

190613 Cambridge Local Plan Long Road

…but the open space was designated anyway, council planners successfully making the case. Note in recent years there has been the conversion of a large amount of that open grass space into all weather/artificial sports pitches, incorporating about 20 tennis courts.

190613 Perse Map photo view.jpeg

One of the things that has been a persistent public policy issue in Whitehall and Westminster is the role of private schools and the huge problems of inequality in the UK (noting this article from the start of the year). That debate is outside of the scope of this blogpost. What for me is definitely within it is the role that all of Cambridge’s institutions have to play in *increasing* the wellbeing of all of those who make up our city.

In answering that question, I think George Monbiot’s paper for Labour is very timely as it calls on politicians to reappraise the issue of land reform, and to consider land as a collective resource. With the pressures of inequalities, the uncertainties of Brexit and an already-happening climate and ecological crisis, I can’t see how the hoarding of land (especially land with high financial value in urban areas) is going to be sustainable. That then creates a further challenge on how to manage and preserve the high quality landscapes such as the college gardens and The Backs that form part of the Cambridge Conservation Areas.

Everybody hurts

You may have heard the song from 1993.

I’ve tried to avoid the album for years as all too often it takes me down a very depressive spiral that’s emotionally very difficult to get out of. I heard it in a charity shop a couple of days ago having not heard it for over a decade.

And this year’s been difficult

Not just for me – this from Today in Parliament on Men’s mental health.

…and I’ve kinda lost the will to fight the system, so am sort of bumbling along like a bassline riff. Completing assessed essays have been a bit of a challenge to say the least though.

The background mood music is not good – especially in politics

The homophobic attack in Camden, London has upset & unsettled a number of people I know. I wanted to get to the Cambridge Pride event but only managed to get to the end of the road before leg cramps stopped me from going any further. When my spoons capacity falls during mood troughs, my body seems to throw very physical barriers in the way to stop me from moving anywhere. It was the same thing that stopped me from going to the public meeting at an inaccessible place on the future of Cambridge’s Parkside Police Station. (See the report here). Basically I used up all my spoons preparing for a presentation at an all day session at my ICE course at Madingley. I haven’t done much more than sleep for the past three days.

Fighting on too many local fronts

…amongst other things.

On not finding my tribe

I wrote about this back in October 2018. There are a number of events/incidents going back decades where I wonder what the outcomes would have been had there been proper professional help to intervene at times when I didn’t even know such treatments or support existed. This is one of the reasons why some of the comments from some of the leadership candidates for the Conservative Party are so worrying – taking us to some very dark places that involve people being denied knowledge – in particular on sex and relationship education.

On local institutions not growing with me – or our growing population

What I’ve observed in Cambridge in particular since austerity, is the degradation of our civic institutions. This was something Simon Burall mentioned in a monster Twitter stream at a democracy conference earlier. The reason why it matters to Cambridge is that since the year 2000, Cambridge has grown in population by 30,000 – a town the size of Haverhill. It’s due to exceed 140,000 by 2021, and be close to 160,000 by 2036. (Have a look at the data at Cambridgeshire Insight). Hence my persistent calls for:

If anything, we’ve gone backwards.

When I look at our civic institutions, I can’t think of many that bring together town, gown and village all together in one city. Or rather, town, gown, village and visitors. Given the recent and projected growth, we should be doing far better than we currently are. It’s normally at this point I get sand kicked in my face by local politicians, but I guess I have stupdendously high standards and think our city can do far more and far better to get closer to them.

Picking up learning points from my course

I’m now on the psychology element of the sociology/politics/psychology undergraduate module at Cambridge University’s Institute for Continuing Education. One was on being disconnected to a wider community and the impact that has on an individual. It reminded me of this blogpost from last year when I stumbled across some photographs of people I never really got to know during my first year at university. It’s nearly 20 years since I left Cambridge for the first time to go to university.

What if I told you…?

was the theme of this blogpost that sat unpublished for a year before I uploaded it. It cuts through the waffle. I’ve got a ‘to do’ list of things for this summer but something else always seems to crop up that demands my attention. That plus not having the support of local health services doesn’t help. But these days I find being around other people very exhausting, and I can also see that them being with me can also be very draining. Hence retreating into my shell somewhat. Part of it also is not wanting to be hurt again and not wanting to be a burden on others because I’ve lost too many friends and acquaintances in the past during mental health troughs.

Wanting to do something different other than ‘talking about it over coffee’

Strangely enough when I’ve had a really good counsellor (on that very rare occasion) it has worked. But with family, friends & acquaintances all too often I come away feeling like a burden, or rather that the listener hasn’t understood whatever it is that I was supposed to get across. (I waffle too much!)

These days I’d rather do something/go somewhere different – a local historical or visitor attraction – something that has nothing to do with party politics! (The numbers signed up to my Lost Cambridge Meetup Group don’t reflect the numbers who actually turn up to events). At the same time I’m mindful that most other people (esp those of a similar age to me) have got more than enough commitments without wanting to take on any more. That’s why the fight for Cambridge’s future seems to be between the corporate suits and middle-aged to elderly people when you look at who attends which meetings. People under-40 who are not paid to be there are very seldom there because of work and caring commitments. Even in the evenings.

I still don’t really know what recovery looks and feels like – it’s been so long yet time has gone so quickly. It’s been eight years since I left the civil service in the bonfire of austerity. The really sad thing with the continued austerity and inequality – esp on the streets of Cambridge is that we can see so much that needs to be done to improve things, but we can’t access the resources to make the improvements. Such a contrast to when I first moved down to London with the civil service with a real sense of purpose. And I still miss:

  • Music-making in large groups
  • Dance
  • Team sports

Maybe I’ll have fully recovered if/when I’m back doing all of these.




Parkside Police Station, Cambridge to close


Consultation on moving Cambridge’s central police station outside of the city boundaries goes out to formal consultation.

The consultation from the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is here.

“I didn’t know we had a police and crime commissioner!”

We’ve had one since 2012.

“I thought we had chief constables!”

We do, but Theresa May brought them in when she was Home Secretary in 2012.

“She did?”

Yes – and in the first set of elections for said commissioners, the turnout was a massive 15%

“So…who did we get for Cambridge?”

Sir Graham Bright.

“Never heard of him”

Fortunately Richard Taylor and Phil Rodgers were keeping an eye on things. This is Phil’s assessment – note 16% of voters voting for Bright, the Conservative candidate.

“What did Mr Taylor do?”

Chase after him because he didn’t like being held accountable by him.

Outside in the pouring rain – one of the few places Richard Taylor could get hold of the first police and crime commissioner for the county.

“Is he the best the Conservatives could come up with?”

Apparently. He was one of the politicians who got stung by Brass Eye in the 1990s.

Graham Bright via Richard Taylor – when the former was MP for Luton South before being defeated by Margaret Moran, who later featured prominently in the MPs’ expenses scandal which led to her downfall.

“Who have we got now?”

Jason Ablewhite – again for the Conservatives. See Phil’s assessment here. This was shortly before the EU Referendum in a particularly toxic atmosphere.

“So why do they want to close Parkside?”

A mixture of cost-cutting and the growth of Cambridge, but ultimately the current plans mean Cambridge City (on its existing boundaries) will not have a police station.

“Cambridge, the glorious jewel of the academic crown, the dynamic engine of the UK economy, the seat of the heir apparent the Duke of Cambridge, the splendid name known throughout the world…without a police station?!?!?!”


And remember the Tories wanted to close Cambridge’s magistrates courts too.

“What is it with the Tories?!?! Are they pro-crime or something?”

Careful now.

190609 Tories and drugs


And remember when the Tories restructured local government in the 1970s, the libraries and archives previously run by the city council were transferred over to the county council – meaning that the City of Cambridge’s archives are now held at Ely. And their move of the county council’s HQ from Shire Hall, Cambridge to Alconbury with next to zero public transport continues apace.

“The Tories properly hate Cambridge, don’t they? Why?”

Because the voters regularly discriminate against Tory candidates similar to how this chap complained about how he thinks Cambridge University discriminates against splendid chaps.

“Whooah! Serious case of Brexit Broflake-ism!”

I couldn’t possibly comment having never met the man.

“Cambridge voters don’t really discriminate against Tory candidates do they?”

I was teasing. Or rather, making the point that the Conservative presence at a local council level in Cambridge City wards and divisions is now non-existent. It collapsed in the 1990s. Tony Blair’s Labour thumped the living daylights out of them (along with a resurgent constituency party movement – which itself took a hammering in the run up to the Iraq War).

“Yes – took them a decade to recover from that”

With the Lib Dems now recovering – especially in the face of Labour’s confused message on leaving the EU, both parties are now campaigning hard against the move by Mr Ablewhite. So we have:

Take your pick as to which one you sign, and do read their notices on what happens to your data lest you find yourself on the receiving end of tailored political messages – especially given the strong likelihood of a general election in the near future. Because Parliament itself cannot go on like this.

Smart Cambridge with stupid governance structures


Unless the next general election brings in a government willing to undertake significant reforms to local government, Cambridge won’t be the only city that suffocates from politically-motivated governance structures.

I’ve been on a bit of a Twitter rant-fest of late, tearing into political decision-makers at various levels over the state of Cambridge – with ministers in particular getting a kicking, not least for imposing this model of governance on a city with global brand recognition.


Above – by Smarter Cambridge Transport

“You’ve moaned about this before”

I know. But it makes me feel better

“And it makes you sound like a stuck record”

Stuck records aside, Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire are heading towards a crashing halt as political governance structures become unworkable. Several of us found this out at an event co-hosted by CambridgeBID and Cambridge Network.

Dan Clarke on Smart Cities

Mr Clarke gave what I thought was the most comprehensive and impressive presentation on the future of Cambridge that I have ever seen. Set in a future tech context,

See also their online slides here.

The problem Mr Clarke faces is that the calibre of politicians on the ruling Conservative group on Cambridgeshire County Council is not functioning at nearly the same level that Mr Clarke and his colleagues are, and that they are working within a local government administrative structure that creates extra unnecessary barriers for him and his team. I have sat in county council meetings where a couple of councillors announced that ‘they didn’t do social media’ as if their ignorance was something to be proud of. (This is different from choosing not to use a specific platform but still educating yourself on the impact that social media and technology is having on society – good and bad).

At the end of his presentation I sort of wanted to ask him when he was going to stand for election because on the basis of that presentation, I was like “Yes – that’s the calibre of person I’d want running my city”. Remember though that Mr Clarke is a very technically literate civic administrator rather than a politician – and what may come easy to one doesn’t necessarily come easily to the other. Hence those with talents in both fields are very very hard to find.

Difficult conversations

It’s not just a local level that we have issues with political systems and processes. The Institute of Directors was scathing of the Conservatives and Labour over Brexit, stating businesses had lost faith in the political processes. Other business federations have said similar.

Part of the problem for me is that too many businesses for decades have been very vocal about specific policies, but very passive on supporting the institutions that have to take difficult decisions. Compare this to 50 years ago when it was the norm for people who were successful in business to get involved in civic affairs, stand for election, and raise substantial funds for large civic projects. We didn’t name the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre by Parker’s Piece after Cllr Kelsey Kerridge for nothing. Part of the local family building firm, he was a longstanding Conservative councillor. Cyril Ridgeon, George Kett, Arthur Negus, Sir Horace Darwin, Eaden Lilley – they all ran their own businesses, all were local councillors and all contributed greatly to civic life. One or two of them may have been scoundrels at times ***but at least the locals had heard of them*** because they shopped in their shops, bought their products and/or worked for their firms.

360919 Ronald Searle Alex Wood Carrott vegetable show Cartoon

Leader of Cambridge Labour Party Dr Alex Wood (physicist at Emmanuel College and preacher at St Columba’s on Downing Street) satirised by cartoonist Sid Moon as a carrot in the Cambridge Daily News in the mid-1930s. 

It’s hard to imagine that a modern day equivalent would be one of the directors of Brookgate – the controversial developers of Cambridge Station – standing for election, getting elected and being a very popular civic figure.  What I’m trying to say is that employers – especially firms with many employees – need to encourage their staff to take a stronger interest in local democracy. Not least because it helps reduce the risk of decisions about the longer term future being taken by groups of predominantly older people.

Difficult conversations II

I thought Ian Sandison’s presentation for the Cambridge BID was interesting in that he exposed where some of the gaps were in Cambridge’s decision-making processes, and also showed that actually all was not well beneath the headlines and stereotypes of Cambridge. What follows isn’t a criticism of his presentation – rather the opposite: these are things that as a city more of us need to know about.

What is Cambridge BID and who is the target audience of Cambridge BID?

Best answered at it is funded through a levy on the business rates by the larger rate payers within a geographical area – in their case mainly the city centre & railway station. Note it includes The Grafton Centre & Anglia Ruskin University, but does not include Mill Road. For local residents, it‘s the funding of things like the Christmas lights and the City Ambassadors that will be more familiar. Personally I’d like to see more City Ambassadors employed – especially at bus stops and public transport interchanges. That alone would make a significant difference to unfamiliar visitors.

Local people shopping less in Cambridge

Feedback from Mr Sandison was that spending has fallen, and it feels like people are no longer shopping in Cambridge. The challenge for his organisation was how to respond to this. There are a host of trends that are far beyond the influence of even the best BIDs in the country – for example the rise of online shopping. Other things out of his direct control and influence also include:

  • Shop rents charged mainly by the land owning colleges
  • Asset-stripping by private equity firms buying up national store chains
  • Business rates generally
  • Large scale transport infrastructure – such as my pet favourite, Cambridge Connect Light Rail Underground. (My take is we need to crack on with this now if we are to have a functioning transport system to cope with projected growth over the next few decades, and to avoid the connectivity problems Cambourne faces).
  • Day trippers not spending money in the city, but contributing to congestion in the centre.


From Mr Sandison’s presentation: Is the existing high turnover retail model permanently broken? If so, what should town centres be for? (FHSF = Future High Street Fund)

This was the Grafton Centre last week – lunchtime in the late May half term on a dry but overcast day.

When this section opened in 1995 I was a teenager and this place was buzzing. The BHS Dept Store was the anchor store, and (the view from the top-left photo with the main open space) alongside was Heffer’s Children’s bookshop (which the Landlords should have pulled out all the stops to have kept it there), a branch of a national chain of record shops, Mothercare (now closed) and a host of others.

“Why did they all close?”

One thing I think the Cambridge BID should commission some early career researchers (i.e. not me) to undertake is an in-depth historical study into Cambridge retail past and present. Or far better, offer to contribute funding towards a joint-funded programme on the history of Cambridge the town, which provides answers to the question of how Cambridge got to where it is today (And what mistakes we made along the way). One can speculate, but I think specialist studies would help answer the question as to

“Don’t you have a vested interest in such a programme being funded?”

Yes –

But I’ve already done more than a little of the groundwork. There have been a number of studies done in decades past that examined the options for future Cambridge. The most stupendous one is Professor Parry’s one from the 1970s.


Could you imagine all of the land west of the A11, east of Cambridge Airport, south of Bottisham and north of Fulbourn being turned into housing? That was one of Prof Parry’s suggestions.

Land for the Many

The Labour Party commissioned journalist George Monbiot to lead a team on the issue of land reform in England. Very recently they published their report. It’s worth reading in detail irrespective of political persuasion. This caught my eye too.

190606 Land for the Many Compulsory Purchase.jpeg

On Compulsory Sale Orders.

I put this to Mr Sandison regarding this masterpiece unused for what feels like over a decade now.160607 OldBingoHallPerspective

Hobson Street Cinema – a civic masterpiece.

Assuming we get a Cambridge underground light rail, my plan for Hobson Street is to pedestrianise it and persuade Christ’s College to build Gropius’s planned building from 1937. Get rid of the walls and open up new court yards and walkways to the general public.

“And while you’ve got their attention?”

Cambridge’s population is due to be over 140,000 by 2021. When I left home in South Cambridge to go to university in 1999 it was 100,000. Therefore we should have built 40,000 people’s worth of leisure facilities. But we haven’t. Cambridge’s population is due to be nearly 160,000 by 2036. This is the population inside the existing city boundaries.

Hence my calls for a concert hall for over 2,000 people.


Expanding the Museum of Cambridge onto the Shire Hall site – preferably before Brookgate ruin it for everyone, as I fear they will do. Their record at Cambridge Station and their incredibly dull and unexciting architecture proposed for Cambridge North Station doesn’t fill me with hope.

Still, the vision seems to be positive

This from Dan Clarke of Smart Cambridge again.


But…conspicuous by its absence was climate change.

The Q we all need to answer is what in our existing plans is going to change (specifics please) as a result of Parliament and our local councils accepting that we are now in a climate emergency?

Cows about Cambridge.

CambridgeBID is funding this project delivered by Wild in Art. At first I was like:

“Norwich got dragons! Why can’t we have dragons?!”

Norwich Dragons , Rosie By Illona Clarke

Norwich’s dragons. 

But we’ve had cows grazing on common land in town for centuries – and it saves on the lawn mowing bills too. Today they have a Twitter account.

Seahorses about Cambridge 2025?

Below is an example of Cambridge’s civic coat of arms.

1873 Cambridge Working Mens Club Medal_2

Cambridge Workmen’s Medallion which I presented to David Parr House.

It will be their 550th birthday in 2025, so maybe we could have a similar project in six years time? The story of how Cambridge got its horses of Neptune is told here.

And finally…

Not everyone was content with all things smart.


Presentation from Jon Lewis of Cambridge firm Telensa 

It was this screenshot that was a little disturbing – seeing every single figure with its own unique identifier on the screen. Thus concerns about surveillance society and surveillance capitalism remain. Hence the importance of things like civic data trusts. For those of you interested and/or concerned, have a look at the Open Rights Group campaigns.

My point remains that one of the weakest links in all of this is the suitability of the county’s governance structures. Just as we’ve found with Brexit and national government, local government doesn’t feel fit for purpose in this technological data-driven age we’re living in.


Cambridge and South Cambs turn out in the European Parliament elections

Summary: Some very surprising results as voters turnout in and around Cambridge was far higher than average – at 48%.


South Cambridgeshire:

A grim night for Tories and Labour nationwide.

In East England, Nigel’s BXP replaced UKIP MEPs like-for-like. Expected given the nature of the campaign. But the Conservatives lost two of their three MEPs and Labour surprisingly lost their MEP Alex Mayer.

Results: Labour’s vote collapsed, leading to the surprising loss of Alex Mayer who at times had to cover for many absentee MEPs in the European Parliament as voters returned Euro-sceptic MEPs in 2014.

Greens and Lib Dems gain significantly in Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire

– leading to one new Green MEP (Prof Catherine Rowett) and two new Liberal Democrat MEPS, Cllrs Barbara Gibson and Lucy Nethsingha – the latter currently a councillor in Newnham for both councils in Cambridge.

Professor Catherine Rowett MEP (Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia) polled over 200,000 votes for The Greens in the East of England on the back of a very strong showing in the local government elections earlier this month. (She’s on Twitter at

Alongside her are Cllrs Barbara Gibson and Lucy Nethsingha for the Liberal Democrats

In 2017 Cllr Nethsingha stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Candidates next door to Cambridge in South East Cambridgeshire. This was my interview with her following the hustings in Waterbeach – standing room only despite the pouring rain outside.

Above – Cllr Lucy Nethsingha on Brexit and local issues raised by residents.

“Why did Labour’s vote implode in Cambridge City? I thought that was becoming a safe Labour seat?”

Cambridge is a safe seat for no one – over the past 30 years the constituency seat has been held by MPs from each of the main parties, including the Tories. Majorities can be misleading. Dr Julian Huppert’s majority in 2010 was nearly 7,000 but that was wiped out in the 2015 general election in a very tightly fought election. Daniel Zeichner MP beat Dr Huppert in the rematch in 2017 with a majority of over 12,000. But that is no guarantee that he’ll keep hold of the seat in the face of such policy uncertainty and inconsistency from the top of the Labour Party.

Statement by shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry MP indicating internal polling showed it was going to be a very difficult night for Labour.

“Are Cambridge Labour doomed?”

Not at all.

“But they got fewer votes than Nigel-Club-Party!”

This was the result of the residual UKIP and Conservative vote which together at a general election is over 10,000 votes. At the EU Referendum in 2016, 15,000 residents (26%) voted to leave the EU. So given the implosion of the Conservative vote in this election – they did no significant organised campaigning – over 5,000 people voting for the new leavers’ on the block isn’t that much of a surprise.

General elections are very different beasts compared with European elections and local council elections. For a start, First-Past-The-Post / winner takes all nature of parliamentary elections means that votes in ‘safe seats’ effectively don’t count – and voters in those areas soon learn this. Take Saffron Walden who, between the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the EU Referendum have only ever had three members of Parliament – all Conservative. Furthermore, the turnout in these EU elections was in the 30-50%, while in general elections it’s generally 60-70%.

What will be of concern to Cambridge Labour is that their strong message on being pro-Remain at a local level did not prove to be reassuring to nearly enough voters in pro-Remain Cambridge. Expect some difficult internal conversations and feedback from local constituencies to party HQ.

“Thumpingly good results for the Lib Dems and The Greens?”


Again I voted Greens in these elections (I think I’ve always been a tree-hugging eco-warrior at heart, ever since I got hold of the Blue Peter Green Book in 1989) – I had assumed Labour had a strong enough loyal vote for Alex Mayer to keep her seat for Labour. As it turned out, such was the swing towards The Greens and The Lib Dems that the final seat in the East of England was a battle between what was left of the once mighty Conservatives and Labour.

The Lib Dems are ecstatic with two MEPs following the loss of longtime MEP and former Cambridge Councillor Andrew Duff in 2014 – effectively to UKIP. The lonely experience of the Coalition years makes their recent successes all the more satisfying for those that went through that experience and stuck the course. Note we are also starting to see the Lib Dems deploying the talents and skills of party members  who joined after the 2015 implosion.

Victories like this don’t happen by accident – it’s the result of a lot of hard work on cold, wet evenings over an extended period of time.

“So…does that mean Cambridge will become a Lib Dem seat at the next general election?”

Not automatically – the Lib Dems will have to move very quickly on the back of this result to increase their chances. The reason being while they have a very strong ground operation in the seats that they hold on Cambridge City Council, it is also almost non-existent in safe Labour seats such as Coleridge, Cherry Hinton and Romsey. In each of those wards, Labour have a slate of hard working councillors with very deep local roots from which to draw from. At the same time, Labour’s NEC will need to move quickly to stem the losses by coming up with a much more clear policy position on the EU. There’s no point in trying to out-Brexit the Brexit Party. The Tories tried that and now look at them. The longer Labour at a national level prevaricates over their EU policy in the minds of the public – and that includes having shadow ministers presenting different policies as party policy in the media, the more votes they will lose to other Remain parties.

“What about Change UK?”

Over 1,300 in Cambridge, nearly 4,000 in South Cambridgeshire – Heidi Allen’s constituency. Which means the Liberal Democrats will need to decide whether they come to an electoral pact (i.e. Change UK recommending a vote for the Lib Dems in Cambridge in return for not standing against Heidi Allen in South Cambridgeshire – knowing that those 1,300 votes might be the difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge), or see Change UK as a movement that needs crushing in its infancy in order to sweep up their members.

Essentially the party made far far too many unforced errors. They got caught by doing the opposite of what Nigel did with BXP. They should have gone with “Remain UK” or similar as their brand, and focused on that stating they would develop other policies in more detail once Brexit was sorted. They also could have adopted a line of “We’re not interested in what the other parties are saying or doing, our audience is [insert description of their target audience] and concentrated on opposing Brexit rather than getting into spats with other pro-Remain parties. Furthermore, their branding was incredibly weak despite the resources they were able to put into it.

“Disappointing – disastrous even for Change UK?”

This was the message they should have gotten out at the start – and repeated it:

Above – Neil Carmichael (Change UK No.2 candidate in East England) – three reasons on why their party exists.

It’s also worth noting that a significant social media spend by Change UK did not pay dividends – see the thread here. They will need to discuss between them why.

My take is that a lot of people showed a lot of courage to stand up and be counted to get involved in a new political party – especially given the relative fizzling out of the likes of Renew Party and the Women’s Equality Party in progressive circles in recent times. Take a look at the results in London.

190527 London region EU votes 2019.jpeg

Over 23,000 votes across London is a lot of votes, but it was still 2,000 fewer than the Animal Welfare Party. Nearly 120,000 for Change UK is a huge amount of votes – but they needed double that to get an MEP seat where they had a number of high profile supporters and a handful of very strong candidates. Can they hold things together there?

“What should/could they do now?”

As a very new party they need to convene a party conference and commission expert group facilitators to thrash out their agreed values and the new policies that stem from them. Because if it descends into a big political in-fighting event, it will make those who wanted to get involved in a ‘new’ way of doing politics even more put off than they were before.

“Will there be any changes on local democracy in and around Cambridge?”

Part of it will depend on what sort of presence the new MEPs want to have. With three MEPs noting the very large number of votes their parties got (nearly 18,000 for The Greens, and over 37,000 for the Liberal Democrats on a 48% turnout – compared with 7,000 for Labour & 6,000 for Conservatives) there’s a big incentive to have a higher media presence for a start. Given the resource and financial support that the European Parliament gives to MEPs, they’ll want to get their operations up and running as quickly as possible knowing that there’s a chance that it could all disappear by 31 October if the UK ends up crashing out without a deal. And as things stand, that is the legal default – the ultimate destination if whoever replaces Theresa May as Prime Minister sits back and does nothing. If a pro-No Deal Brexiteer takes office, the only thing that can stop them is a Vote of No Confidence and a general election returning a pro-Remain government prepared to revoke Article 50. Given that turnout in the EU Parliament elections in England was noticeably higher in pro-Remain areas (plus those EU citizens who were able to vote – aside from the scandal of those not able to vote), there is no guarantee that a second EU Referendum would result in a victory for the Pro-Remain side.

“Like millions of others, I was fed the myth…It’s bollocks, mate.”


“On the back of Dr Jessica Eaton’s blogpost on council estate academics, how things looked in late 20thC Cambridge”

Dr Eaton’s blogpost is here – do read it first. The indented paragraphs are quoted from Dr Eaton’s blogpost, bar a separate blogpost towards the end.

Have a listen to this:

Lippy Kids by Elbow.

“In conversation with the magazine Q , singer Guy Garvey told about the song that was written to defend the British teenager. He said about this that they are victims of “the anti- hoodie shit that’s in the media, the thought that if you hang around the corner of a street, you’re a criminal.”” (See here)

It was only later on that I found out the above was the reasoning behind it. At school in the 1990s, my response to said lippy kids who disrupted our learning was a desire to have the lot of them put up against a wall and shot. I was a very angry teenager that internalised everything to the damage of my mental health. In many regards I still am that same angry teenager who still hasn’t processed the impact of what I see as those lost years, trying to reconcile the contradictions of life in conservative and Conservative South Cambridge.

“I was desperate to escape my council estate. I used to dream of the day that I ran away and lived somewhere ‘nice’. I fantasised about becoming rich and successful so I could afford the things I needed to live. I hated that council estate so much by the time I was 18, that I continued to be ashamed and embarrassed of my roots until I was at least 26 years old.”

The above was me aged 16 in my GCSEs year, and then again aged 20 just before I left Cambridge to go to university – something that I assumed would be a permanent departure with few return journeys.

“I want to share my 5 reasons for pride and the way my thinking has changed over the last few years; which has transformed my thinking from hating my roots to loving and respecting them.”

In my case, I’m still trying to figure out what my roots are. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that the part of Cambridge I grew up in was a very mixed community. This didn’t necessarily make mixing easy. We had a couple of small council estates mixed in with traditional inter-war semi detached houses through to the large detached houses around and off Hills Road. In a couple of minutes you could go from one friend’s home which was a council house to another friend’s house which was a large detached house.

How television in particular drove the message of consumerism – which with hindsight fractured more than a few year groups on income lines.

Have a look at this advert.

I vaguely remember my late grandfather doing some grocery shopping at the local continental stores and when given a choice of margarines, I was like

“You’ve gotta get that one because on telly they said it’s got no artificial ingredients!” 

I was about five. Such adverts even persuaded primary-school-aged me that we needed things that we absolutely did not. Like toothpaste for dentures.

Muuuuuuum! Telly says we gotta get dentu-creme because ‘Brush fresh, brush clean, all you need is dental cream!’

It was only in 1999 at my first lecture at university our first lecturer said if there was one thing to remember from the entire degree, just because something is in print or on TV, doesn’t mean that it’s true; question everything.

And newspapers…

…and soft drinks in particular.

Now, imagine living in a world where all the images of people in the media – in adverts, art, music and sport (for me it was football) had pretty much no one who looked like you.

“It’s the music that sells it, isn’t it?”

Yep. And the message that I got was:

“Good little boys like me did their violin practice and went to church every Sunday – they didn’t play football!”

I still remember a former parish priest ranting that he couldn’t recruit enough altar servers in the mid-1990s because all the boys from church-going families played football on Sunday mornings, and he thought that such activities should be banned. Thus my experience of classical music were repeated exams between 1989-1992 and what must have been one of the worst church choirs in the city. Which explains why I recoil in horror at even the prospect of listening to choral music. And that was before the various scandals now associated with said institution hit the newspapers.

Combine that with a message of ‘You have to be good like White Jesus’ – this was before the Millennium – all the churches in Cambridge had depictions of the bearded one with blue eyes and fair hair. Even my grandparents had a couple of the portraits that were mass-produced at the time.

South Cambridge in the face of a decade and a half of austerity

Civic and social institutions everywhere were struggling. It’s only as a result of going through the past newspapers of the time that I now appreciate just how difficult it was for some of the adults at the time to deal with such uncaring ministers in Whitehall. And South Cambridge got off lightly compared to the mining towns and coastal towns that were crushed. The 1980s was also the first decade when schools in Cambridge would have more than just one child or family from minority ethnic &/or mixed heritage backgrounds. Even in the 1980s there were still teachers who had started their careers around the end of the Second World War. I don’t think any of those teachers could have imagined the world that we’re living in today. One of the results of all of this was that things like oppression and racism were never discussed at school – or college even. This was despite the fact that there were too many incidents of it happening. Again, not so much the random angry man or woman shouting in the street. It was more subtle than that.

“We convince ourselves that we can leave our poor pasts behind and reinvent ourselves as these new, successful, educated, accomplished people.”

One of the songs in the charts around the time I left school to go to a different separate sixth form college was this one.

…which is quite a depressing song really.

But such was the antagonism between different groups of us in our specific year group – something that a number of the teachers at the time and since then in subsequent years in our adult lives have commented on, that it was as if we couldn’t wait to see the back of each other.

It was only after university that I realised how ‘institutionalised’ we had become by an education system that was not fit for purpose – something that Baroness Kennedy’s reforms to teaching in 1997 would later make very clear. The rigid segregation children of year groups – something now done away with, is something that still lingers with me in my mindset that I can’t get away from. As a result – particularly in the mid-1990s I don’t have much memory of socialising outside our year group cohort. Even after completing my A-levels a little bit of me felt guilty at not having gone straight onto university because that was ‘the next thing to go onto’ – even though I tried to justify my decision at the time of not following the crowd. The reality was I didn’t think I was ready for it, and this was my first very close brush with failure – crashing and burning with exam results. And in late 1990s Cambridge, exam results were what we were judged by. Even the theoretical concepts of ‘failing’, pulling out or even having a ‘second chance’ was never discussed.

“One of the things that hit me the hardest when working in practice and academia is the way communities and individuals in poverty or oppression are perceived as a bit stupid, unable to become anything and destined for a life of shit.”

This was another myth we were sold, and I didn’t have the courage at the time to challenge it because we were all on that same hamster wheel. It was only when I joined the civil service in the mid-2000s that I bumped into a couple of people I was at school with, but who were streamed in lower academic ability sets, was I pleasantly surprised to find that they had later on gone to university and graduated successfully. Which then made me even more angry at ‘the system’ (and the Conservatives who were in government at the time) that their system of schooling did not allow for children to progress at different rates. It still doesn’t now.

“But generally, these kids that we are sidelining and ‘predicting poor outcomes’ for, will go on to be happy, healthy, successful parents and/or employed people in thousands of different roles in our communities.”

The one thing that really struck me – something I’ve only recently been able to make sense of, is how the entire culture was so incredibly judgemental. Church, with its unattainably high standards – set up almost as if they want everyone to fail, was a big driver behind this. Remember this was the days of Section 28. Shame was – and still is a very powerful weapon as we’ve seen with the recent news about morning daytime TV shows.

“I was always told by teachers and others that us kids on the estate we ‘never going to be anything’ – and why wouldn’t we believe them?”

In my case it was either the opposite – or rather it was something stereotypically ‘respectable’ – and for me it was ‘scientist’. I was going to become a scientist. I didn’t become that scientist because as with so many in my generation we had neither the facilities nor the qualified, passionate and enthused teaching staff. Furthermore, it was a time where only a few brave souls inside Cambridge University were prepared to do something for local school children with science outreach.

“So many of us dreamed of the perfect life away from the estate. We fantasised about how nice everything would be once we had enough money to pay the bills. We imagined our nice new cars that worked. We dreamt of friends and family around our posh houses. We thought about all the amazing jobs we could do when we were big.”

It was similar with me – in particular during my ‘year out’. (I never called it a gap year at the time – I think it was because there was a company at the time with that brand name that sent post-A-level students on placements to other countries, and I wasn’t on that programme but knew people who were). My passport to ‘success’ was to be this economics degree that I was due to start – with ‘development studies’ tagged on so I kept a conscience.

“Money solves some of your problems, like being hungry or having debt collectors trying to force their way in to your house all the time. But it doesn’t necessarily give you the emotional and social things you wanted. The higher you climb, the more you’ll notice how cut throat it is. How individualistic everyone is. How materialistic everyone is. How people are comfortable fucking over the little guy to step up the ladder.”

When I moved down to Whitehall and got to see, experience and live the bright lights of London, I very quickly found out that it wasn’t nearly as glamorous and wonderful as I had been led to believe. The class divide in the civil service fast stream was massive – and I had gotten in during one of the years it was being particularly poorly managed. Such is my luck. Fortunately it has been overhauled – not necessarily to the way I think it should have been done, but it is being properly managed and co-ordinated from the centre in a way that it wasn’t in my day.

“How unfair the world is, even when you think you’ve ‘made it’ to the upper echelons. How much you will be discriminated against in the academic world once they figure out that you’re not one of them.”

It was the ‘networking’ that was where the class divide was most prominent. The private school/oxbridge stereotype that I wanted to pretend didn’t exist turned out to be something that very much did. The one thing I persuaded Cabinet Office do to with my trade union hat on was to refocus its outreach activities towards those universities and colleges that have a highly diverse student body. It was interesting to see that bear fruit with an outreach programme of events hosted at many of the 92-group of universities.  Funnily enough I did find a niche in all things digital government but by that time it was too late – I had already decided to leave in the face of the Coalition’s huge job cuts.

“You have no idea what it feels like to be oppressed by a powerful group of people who see you as inferior and non-human, until you have been the oppressed people. You have no idea what it means to be forced to do things you don’t want to do because you owe someone money or someone is exploiting you.”

One of the reasons I never forgave my first university for my three ‘lost years’ was housing. A student from a wealthy family is less likely to struggle in a difficult housing market than someone who is from abroad or who visibly looks like they are from a minority ethnic background. I know what it’s like to have a racist prospective landlord slam the door in my face because he thought I was this nice well-spoken White student because of the accent he heard on the phone, only to see me rock up and tell me the room was ‘taken’. The place I ended up in was actually being run by the son of a family friend who happened to be studying at the same institution as me, but who I had not seen since I was at primary school. It was a sh-t hole and ended up being condemned as unfit for human habitation by Brighton and Hove Council.

“However, there is something about poverty, crime and oppression that no one can ever understand until they have lived in those environments and situations. You cannot possibly imagine what it is like to have no food and no way of getting any food, if you have always been fed.”

One of the reasons I went into housing policy in the civil service was because I was one of those people living a hand-to-mouth existence in and out of a fortunately friendly travellers hostel in Brighton while struggling with mental health issues in the face of an academic institution demanding tuition fees up front (I still haven’t forgiven Labour for that) while leaving everyone for dead in a very competitive housing market that inevitably caused tensions with locals who were also struggling. Labour might have had a chance of solving the housing problem if it hadn’t spent all that money on the Iraq war, and if they had stability in the roles of ministers for housing and local government. But Blair and Brown squandered both with their annual ministerial reshuffles.

“Like millions of others, I was fed the myth that if I worked hard and went to university, I could escape my social class and I could move up the ladder in society. It’s bollocks, mate.”

Have any of you played this game before?

I get that all too often.

As this article from 2010 explains, “it may not be racist but it’s a question I am tired of hearing.” By Ariane Sherine.

That article goes on further:

 “It’s partly down to exasperation at people thinking I’m less British than them because I’m brown; but it’s mainly down to extreme boredom. The rundown of my convoluted four-continent-spanning genealogy takes ages unless I lie”

My niece and nephew are the first children of our family’s new generation to have been born on the same continent as their parents since the late 1800s. On one side of my family we can trace our ancestry back to Tudor England.

The ‘where are you from?’ Q came up recently again, my interrogator being surprised that I hadn’t been to India because that’s where I was told I look like I am from – before being asked about which specific part of India I was from. I confess I’ve not studied the geographies – human and physical in detail so *would not have a clue* about where the side of my family that has lived in Mauritius for generations, was originally from.

Cambridge, Brighton and London – and six weeks in Vienna in the middle of my civil service career, are all I’ve ever known. In the end I could not afford to settle in either Brighton or London. Hence returning to Cambridge where, because of health I had no choice but to move back into my childhood home – for which I’m incredibly grateful. At least I have a roof over my head, in the face of Cambridge’s homelessness problems.

Going back to Dr Eaton’s blogpost and her conclusion:

“Loving my council estate. Loving what it taught me and what it gave to me. Respecting the people I grew up with and their potentials and abilities instead of seeing us all as broken and poor. Loving my accent. Loving my dialect. Being patient with myself when I can’t pronounce a word I read in books. Fighting the corner of every person living in poverty and oppression – making sure they are not written off or stereotyped. Raising the issue of classism in our research, policies and practice. Being damn proud of who I am, where I come from and what I can offer the world.

In my case, the South Cambridge that I grew up in no longer exists. Too much of it has been demolished, too many of the families that I grew up with have moved on or have been priced out of the neighbourhood due to house price inflation. Furthermore, the employment practices of Cambridge University and other firms has led to a significant rise in population turnover, which has destabilised the city and made it harder for neighbourhoods to fight against speculative development. This has been made even worse by central government’s misguided planning policies that have all-too-often only benefited the wealthy.

“So…what now?”

I think one of my internal drivers for studying the history of Cambridge the town (see my blog on this at ) was trying to work out ‘how I got to here’. Why did things turn out as they did? What chances did I have to change the course of my own personal history? To what extent was I sitting in the railway carriage following the tracks that someone else had laid down?

In one sense I got lucky and stumbled across many long-forgotten civic stories that are essential not just to understanding the past that Cambridge went through, but also in terms of shaping its future. And as I found out the hard way, if we’re not prepared or willing to shape our own futures and destinies, someone else more powerful is going to do it for you – and not necessarily in your own interests.





Cambs County Council names preferred bidder for Shire Hall site

Summary: Councillors name controversial Cambridge Station developer as their preferred bidder to redevelop the historic site – but on a 40 year lease rather than a site sale.

I found out via Phil.

…followed by a link to Olly Wainwright’s article from 2017. The official announcement is below:

I could make this blogpost a complete hatchet job about Brookgate ( and go on a cliched moan on about “…how they’re all ‘orrible parasitical capitalists who think nothing better than to build something that maximises their company profits for their shareholders and financial bonuses for directors while leaving local residents to make the best of a bad job and that when Jeremy Corbyn comes in he’ll sort things out when he overthrows capitalism.” But what would be the point?

“Yeah why do the Tories hate Cambridge?”

Because we won’t vote for them anymore? Or rather, the polarisation of Cambridge vs rural county Cambridgeshire has resulted in Conservatives on Cambridgeshire County Council using their majority on that council (and in Westminster in recent years) to impose their will on a city that continually refuses to return Conservative councillors. The polarisation between Conservatives and their Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents all too often gets nasty on the floor of the council chamber. Much of this has been to do with the cuts imposed by central government, and the impact that these cuts have had on local communities.

When the decision to dispose of Shire Hall was first tabled, I noted that this was the culmination of a series of attempts to dispose of civic and municipal infrastructure in Cambridge City.  Given the big losses of council seats in the local elections last month, and the hit they are expecting to take at the European Parliament elections next week, at a national level the Conservative Government is in the process of trying to transition to a new leader, but trying to work out how to do so without crashing out of the EU with a ‘no deal Brexit’.

There’s even more uncertainty in Cambridgeshire now that the Leader of Cambridge City Council has resigned from his portfolio on the hastily-created Combined Authority for Cambs and Peterborough.

I’ve stopped going along to the meetings of the CA because I can’t bear the toxic atmosphere in them.

“Back to Shire Hall, what reasons did councillors give for their choice?”

“This potential lease arrangement looks likely to exceed figures outlined in our business case, and see the value of our asset enhanced, but still retain ownership of the site for future generations – which strengthens our original decision to vacate the site.”

…Said council leader Cllr Steve Count in an article by Alex Spencer, who has written a detailed account in the Cambridge Independent.

“And what do people posting on social media think?”

See for yourself:

The motion by Cambridgeshire Conservatives to hold the decision behind closed doors (and not to release the news until Friday afternoon) was also controversial.

Cllr David Jenkins (Lib Dems – Histon) wrote a blogpost about the secrecy of the decision and lack of debate. He also published a transcript of his speech – which needed clearing by county council officers.

“So…what do you think will happen if the county council sign the lease?”

First of all, it’s worth looking at some of the history of the Cambridge Station redevelopment and ask why Brookgate seem to be so unpopular going by social media comments. There was great excitement when it became clear Cambridge Railway Station and surroundings would be redeveloped. And lots was promised:

Then the original development company Ashwells went into administration, were quickly taken out of administration by a new firm called Brookgate – which contained a number of former directors, and the promises for things like a health centre and a heritage centre to house the County Archives (now moved to Ely – so the City of Cambridge archives are now there too) were scrapped. Richard Taylor blogged about this at the time in 2010. This was before my time being active in local government – I was still based in London.

There was then the Wilton Terrace fiasco. A large Victorian building was scheduled for demolition in the outline masterplan. Local residents did not realise this until it was too late, and fought a rearguard action to try and save it. See the old twitterfeed here, and the letter from Save Britain’s Heritage here. Yet because the outline planning permission had already been given several years prior, there was very little in law that empowered councillors to refuse permission to demolish Wilton Terrace. Even though the residents put huge pressure onto councillors, persuading enough of them to refuse planning permission, developers appealed to the planning inspector who ruled in favour of them, leaving the city council with a legal bill of a £quarter of a million.

Soulless architecture?

“Functional” is an understated way of describing these blocks of student accommodation south of the main railway station building. A similar block is opposite it, with the main bus stops a bit of a walk from the station. But worse for the developers, was this social media post by the Housing Minister Kit Malthouse.

Applying for public funds to correct mistakes it had made

Sam Davies – now Chair of the Queen Edith’s Forum, tabled a question to councillors just over two years ago regarding an application by the developers to use money allocated through S106 money to pay for further works on the CB1 site.

The above was in the face of the firm being very successful and profitable for its shareholders and directors, as the screengrab below from its 2019 accounts on Companies House’ website shows.

190518 Brookgate profils

Above – from Companies House for Brookgate Ltd.

In 2018 there were further complaints from residents who had recently bought newly built properties on the site – in particular traffic and pollution.

Hence complaints such as the one below from a local residents’ association for the developers to show a much greater sense of civic responsibility.

Further context to the above comes from the residents who moved into new homes on the CB1 estate, and have faced numerous difficulties to try and build their community in an area that has thousands of people walking through it every day, and a large transient population due to the student accommodation. The notes of public meetings going back to early 2018 are here. As I’ve said before, now that people have moved into those homes, there is a big responsibility on existing communities and residents (myself included) to help them settle into our city and make them welcome.

“What’s all this got to do with Shire Hall?”

Everything. It shows why the preferred bidder has more than a few reputational issues with residents and local councillors inside Cambridge City. Note that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have stated their opposition to the disposal of Shire Hall.

Above – from the deputy leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Anna Smith (which was also supported by Cllr Lewis Herbert). Note their concern – as with Cambridge Liberal Democrats, is the provision of county public services in Cambridge currently delivered at Shire Hall – such as the Registry Office.

“So, if Brookgate and Cambridgeshire County Council do sign an agreement, what will happen?

The worst case scenario for the city is some huge glass/steel/concrete tower blocks towering over the city, increased car traffic congestion as commuters try to get into work by car (the site is poorly served by buses as it is), along with a further increases in taxi journeys to-from Cambridge railway station ferrying passengers to the new hotel planned for the site.

“Hang on – didn’t you want offices and a hotel for the site to pay for an expanded Museum of Cambridge?”

I still do – having assumed that the Conservative county councillors want rid of Cambridge City completely. Having been to so many county council meetings over the past five or so years, I’ve seen more than enough for me to conclude that Conservative county councillors have no love for the city, whether in their statements or their voting actions. As with others, I’ve assumed that at some stage there will be an overhaul of local government – whether for Cambridgeshire or nationwide. Why waste energy trying to keep an institution that doesn’t want to be here, here? My preference is for a unitary council for Cambridge & South Cambs – give or take a few villages and towns on the borders.

“Can Brookgate deliver that expanded Museum of Cambridge?”

In principle, yes. I just don’t trust them as an institution having seen their behaviour over the past decade or so. Hence posting this:

Personally I’d love to have seen an expanded Museum of Cambridge in a re-built and improved Assizes Court (where the car parks at the front of the site now are) that should never have been demolished.

Cambridge Castle Hill from air southwardsShire Hall Court House 28184

I’d be delighted to be proven wrong and that Brookgate could deliver a hotel/office/heritage offering that also safeguards the free public access to the green spaces and to the historical monument that is Castle Mound. I just don’t have confidence in the institutions involved, and no longer have the strong enough physical or mental health to manage going head-to-head with some of the most powerful businessmen in the region. Whether the county council has the number and calibre of staff to go into detailed negotiations with the same group is something that opposition councillors and activists may want to question executive councillors and senior council officers on. The next Full Council meeting is on 23 July at Shire Hall.





Cambridge Airport owners to move out of town

Summary: A huge site in East Cambridge will be freed up for development. But before we cover the runway and grasslands in concrete, there are many things Cambridge needs to consider before the developers move in.

The story was announced not so long ago.

A historic firm moving out

This isn’t just any old firm moving out. Marshall of Cambridge has been around for over a century – read about their history here. The company has been run by successive generations of the family that has borne its name. Cambridge is also no different to other towns and cities with individuals from successful family businesses playing a role in the civic life of the city – Sir Michael Marshall being an example in Cambridge. This is why wherever they choose to move to they keep a strong link with the city – including a high quality public transport link to their new premises, one of which could be at Duxford.

“Right! Let’s get building those luxury apartments for those nice international investors and that student accommodation for cram colleges! Oh the profits for Broken Brexit Britain – we might make a success of it yet!”

Not quite.

For a start, Extinction Rebellion protesters rocked up to Shire Hall yesterday (a little dragon tipped them off) to persuade councillors it would be a good idea to pass a motion declaring a climate emergency.

Note campaigners from Extinction Rebellion Cambridge demanding that the term ’emergency’ be used in the motion from the council leader Cllr Steve Count, in the clip below.

One of the things that perhaps concentrated the minds were events in London, and recent non-violent direct action protests in Cambridge, including blocking one of the main dual carriageways in Cambridge only three days before.

“Tree-hugging communists – bad for business!”

Out of control climate change and ecocide are even worse for business. Can’t make profits on a dead planet.

On why the new communities built on the site have to be of the like that Cambridge has not ever seen before.

There are a host of housing developments coming to completion in and around Cambridge – think South Cambridge (Great Kneighton / Clay Farm), Eddington and Cambourne being three examples. On top of those, there is the CB1 Community where new residents are working their socks off to make the best of bad design by Brookgate who have made a fortune.

On top of Cambridge Airport, there are also very big plans at:

Add all of those together and you’ve got…

“A lot of houses – and a lot of people?”

Developers gamed the planning system for a series of developments in and around Cambridge Railway Station. An area with such huge potential – that could have become like King’s Cross in London with its successful redevelopment (see Dave Hill here – note it’s not without its problems), ruined because of the prioritisation of profits. (In my opinion – I can’t claim this as absolute fact).

Cambridge cannot be allowed to make the same mistakes again

How do we go about ensuring this? It would be easy to say “Ban Brookgate and cronies” but the way the building industry operates, such development companies are all too often formed as limited companies and are dissolved once the building work is complete. Also, it’s not like anyone can go around arbitrarily banning individuals. There are enough dark political forces emerging without opening that can of worms. So how do we get design excellence, environmental and sustainability excellence that create places where people want to live, and can make living healthy and sustainable lifestyles ‘the easy choice’?

Cambridge has to decide what sort of city it wants to become

– because it has far outgrown the vision that Holford and Wright had in 1950 of the compact university city with a maximum population of 100,000 people. Mindful that this also involves overhauling our system of local government.


By Smarter Cambridge Transport – how not to structure local government.

The above is an example of party political gerrymandering – trying to set up a system of governance that keeps political control of a ‘jewel in the crown’ out of the hands of opposing political parties that won’t vote for your party.

Before we start unpicking the structures of local government, Cambridge also needs to look at the civic essentials of what makes a city. I wrote about some of these things in this blogpost. This is why the report released today (15 May 2019) on Hitting Reset – the case for local leadership, is ever so important.

A city of over 200,000 people will have a very different feel to it compared with a city of half of that size. 

Ditto when comparing villages of a few thousand vs towns of 15-20,000. One of the discussion points about new housing developments in the towns and villages around Cambridge is working out at what point a village or town can become a self-sustaining community that can sustain its own community facilities, rather than being a dormitory development.

One of the first people to pick up that an expanding Cambridge would be very different from the stereotype that many at the time had, was Lost Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb.

180730 Eglantyne Jebb Cambs Collection_2 Small Pic

Eglantyne Jebb (early 1900s) by Palmer Clark, Cambs Collection

Eglantyne, in her groundbreaking study of Cambridge the town in 1906 wrote about how the character of Cambridge had changed throughout the 1800s when its population grew from 9,000 to over 40,000 – a four-fold increase. The communities that grew up along Mill Road, East Road and Newmarket Road were significantly different to the dreaming spires of Cambridge University and its colleges. She was the first to study these communities in the manner that would become the norm for social scientists. It was her work here that informed much of what she would do when her and her sister Dorothy Buxton founded Save the Children in 1919.

Fast forward to the 1970s and the limitations of post-war plans were beginning to be felt.  Professor Richard Parry in his study of Cambridge in 1974, understood that Cambridge could not grow much beyond 100,000 without an alternative civic centre. As we’ve seen, Cambridge’s town centre gets swamped by tourists and visitors every summer. Successive governments have not ensured Cambridge has had the funding to accommodate all of these visitors who bring in the much needed spending and foreign exchange. And his plans were radical – so radical that they were rejected.


East Cambridge as proposed by Professor Parry in 1974

To give you an idea of just how much development Professor Parry had in mind, have a look at the map below. The light red line is the railway, the blue line is the river.

190515 Cambridge Map Contrast

Above – Cambridge 2019 from G-Maps

Things to note from the above map:

  • The historical north/south of the river divide is visible. North being the Castle Hill side, the South being the Guildhall side. As Cambridge’s colleges grew, they swallowed up much of the south side of the old town.
  • West of the airport (light blue dot) is Coldham’s Common, just south of which is Romsey Town and Petersfield. These were two of the parts of Victorian and Edwardian Cambridge that Eglantyne Jebb writes about in her book – and it was around her time that Cambridge incorporated Chesterton into its council boundaries
  • Post-war development of Cambridge to the year 2000 created the wards of Arbury, King’s Hedges, Coleridge and Queen Edith’s. Cherry Hinton, Trumpington and Fen Ditton, all previously separate villages, effectively became part of Cambridge as housing grew.
  • Fen Ditton and Abbey wards, some of the most economically deprived in Cambridge, are physically separated from the rest of Cambridge by the boundaries of:
    • The River Cam to the north
    • The railway line to the west
    • Coldham’s Common to the south
    • Cambridge Airport to the south-east
    • The A14 to the north east
  • The Eastward development model proposed by Parry was for a level of growth far greater than the redevelopment of Cambridge Airport and North Cherry Hinton contain – his proposals stopping at the A11 so incorporating the villages of Teversham, Fulbourn and the two Wilbraham villages.
  • The two north-west triangles on the map have been filled in by the North West Cambridge development

“So…we’ll need a new civic centre then?”

Yes – and the next question is to decide what to build that civic centre around – something beyond retail. Furthermore, the model of land ownership will shape how successful that alternative centre will be. One example of where the model of land ownership has utterly failed the local community (given what it could have been) is the Cambridge Leisure Park, owned by Land Securities. As I mentioned earlier here, the developments are cash cows for the property owners – targeting a market of London commuters, short-medium stay foreign students from affluent families, and short-stay visitors. Without the local government structures, systems and processes to allow local councils and the police to tax the business functions to provide resources to deal with what are negative externalities of the developments, developers were accused quite understandably at a local council meeting of designing in crime.


Once civic centre at risk

Shire Hall on Castle Hill – the Cambridgeshire Conservatives have voted to move the HQ to Alconbury in a controversial move.

190515 Cambridge Map Alconbury.jpeg

Alconbury – NW of Huntingdon is far away from Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire – where populations are growing. The Conservative Group on the County Council voted yesterday to exclude the press and public from the debate where councillors were informed of the preferred bidder of the site.

“So we won’t get our expanded Museum of Cambridge on the Shire Hall site?”

At the moment the proposal here is not looking good… Which is a shame given that the site where people first settled to create the settlement we know today as Cambridge. The advantage of creating an historical attraction on the Shire Hall site is that it extends the tourist trail up to the top of the hill – one that could have one of the few planned light rail underground stops, thus spreading out where tourists get off.

“What could an alternative civic centre be built around other than retail?”

Given the struggles of the high street and the rise of internet shopping, combined with the very real environmental problems of over-consumption, there are other things that civic centres can be built around. The big one is the arts. This was something I discussed here on Cambridge’s need for a new concert hall with a capacity of at least 2,000 people. Otherwise growing Cambridge will be limited to the genre of acts that the Cambridge Corn Exchange as our largest indoor venue can host. While in the 1990s the Corn Exchange hosted what became some of the biggest bands of the Britpop era as they were on the rise, today it feels like the venue can only host groups and musicians that were big 20-40 years ago, repeat visitors (welcome as they are – they fill the place, give people a good time and help fill the venue’s coffers), or niche acts that happen to have a strong following locally.

The importance of Cambridge’s green lungs

The Cambridge Preservation Society was founded in 1928 with the purpose amongst other things of preserving Cambridge’s green lungs. This was in the context of restricting urban sprawl, in particularly westward and south-eastwards. Hence the existence of Coton Farm and Wandlebury. Local residents from all backgrounds, from wealthy college types such as John Maynard Keynes through to the congregations of local parish churches all raised money to buy up plots of land and take them out of the reach of developers.

Given the proposals of The Anderson Group for what they are calling Burnside Lakes at the foot of the photo above, there is also the opportunity to build some first class sporting facilities and much-needed playing fields to serve the congested communities of Romsey Town, Cherry Hinton, East Coleridge, and Abbey. The far left of the photo above shows how little publicly accessible open green space there is – ie Romsey Rec on Vinery Road.

But if we are to ensure we’ve learnt the lessons of the past, Cambridge needs to decide what sort of city it wants to become so that those values inform the decisions people and institutions take. And as Cllr Joan Whitehead said at Shire Hall yesterday, that means re-visiting recent decisions and having to reverse them in light of those new values and circumstances. In this case reversing the move out of Shire Hall because it is no longer consistent with the declared climate emergency.

By ignoring the EU leader hustings in 2014 & 2019, the BBC broke its charter.



By choosing not to feature the public debates featuring the lead candidates for the European Commission – ***debates that were in English*** – the BBC fundamentality broke its charter and values. We’re still living with those consequences.

In 2014, the EU made history by hosting the first ever EU-wide hustings for the lead candidates of the groups in the European Parliament. The group who got the most MEPs would become the Head of the European Commission. Remember it? Of course you didn’t (unless you were one of those people like me who spends too much time following politics). But because it was being live-streamed online, you can watch it all over again!

Above – video of the 2014 Spitzenkandidaten debate – in English.

“Spitzenkandidaten? That sounds awfully foreign! And they all look German! And remember we won World War 2 without any help from anyone else ever!”

The above was the impression I got that both David Cameron and Ed Miliband and teams had of the mood of the public in the run up to the 2014 EU Parliament elections!

We know that Ed Miliband was hostile to being seen with Martin Schultz, the lead candidate for the Socialists and Democrats in Europe – Schultz being formally rejected by both Mr Miliband in 2014, and by his Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander. Mr Alexander as a politician visited Cambridge a year earlier and I found him to be one of the least impressive politicians I had ever met, both in the media and as a public speaker. So I was utterly delighted for Mhairi Black – then a final year student and SNP candidate who soundly defeated him at the 2015 general election.

Mhairi Black MP would go onto become one of the finest parliamentary speakers since the Millennium. In my opinion anyway – given the hours I spend watching the Parliament TV broadcasts!

David Cameron quits the Conservative mainstream group

He said he’d do this as part of his leadership campaign, taking the Conservatives down stream towards the rapids and ultimately the political rocks. In 2009 he pulled the UK Conservatives out of the European People’s Party group and formed the ECR Group. That group refused to put forward a candidate for the 2014 hustings.

The Liberal Democrats if I remember correctly were nervous about the prospect of Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, campaigning in the UK in the run up to the 2014 elections. Which contrasts with 2019 being out and about in London at the invitation of Sir Vince Cable.

Note the very different framing to the 2014 debate – going to the UK to campaign with their sister party in the UK.

The first European lead candidate I am aware of to campaign in the UK in the run up to the European Parliament elections was Ska Keller of the European Greens.

So Puffles went along to meet her in London.

“Did Westminster politicians put pressure on the BBC to limit coverage of the EU lead candidates hustings?”

I can’t prove it, but they must have done. Remember this was pre-Chilcott (Iraq Inquiry) and the BBC was still stung by conclusions of the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Review – widely regarded as flawed by critics and opponents – and with good reason. Then fast forward to 2010 and – as Ken Clarke revealed in 2017, Cameron came to a deal with Rupert & co which inevitably weakened the BBC further.

BBC stands accused of helping create ‘monsters’

This by The National in Scotland is just one example of where the BBC stands accused of giving a disproportionate amount of air time to a politician from a political party that has never had a directly elected Member of Parliament who was never previously a member of another party. (Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless were both former Conservative MPs before switching).

The BBC’s treatment of The Green Party – and later by OfCom in the run up to the 2015 general election was also a cause for concern in centre-left circles given that Caroline Lucas made parliamentary history in 2010 by becoming the first Green Party MP elected to the House of Commons – a very difficult feat given the first-past-the-post voting system. The Green Party also had MEPs – of which Caroline Lucas was one, in the years before 2010. Critics – myself included, felt The Greens had just as much of a case for more political air time as some of the other smaller parties.

On the BBC’s Charter

The 2006 report by the House of Lords reviewing the BBC Charter (See here) re-stated the BBC’s mission to inform, educate and entertain.

“The BBC’s first Charter (effective from January 1927) was simple: it tasked the BBC to entertain and educate by the means of broadcast. This work was to be overseen by a Board of Governors with the licence fee in place to provide funding. The next Charter added “inform” and this simple imperative—inform, educate and entertain—became the BBC’s mission.” (para 21)


“The BBC’s 2006 Royal Charter and Agreement set out the six Public Purposes of the BBC, listed in Box 1. The Charter states that the BBC’s main object is the promotion of its Public Purposes. These outline the values the BBC holds when striving to achieve its mission to “inform, educate and entertain.” The Charter sets out the activities the BBC should undertake to deliver its Public Purposes in broad terms.” (Para 23)

Those six public purposes are:

  1. Sustaining citizenship and civil society;
  2. Promoting education and learning;
  3. Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence;
  4. Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities;
  5. Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK;
  6. In promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.

By not publicising and broadcasting the EU lead candidate debates – something that the EU seemed to go out of its way to make as UK-friendly as possible, the BBC failed to meet the standards on at least half of the above six public purposes.

“What would have happened if the BBC had publicised and featured the EU lead candidate debate in 2014? Could it have stopped Brexit?”

No. It would be far too simplistic to hope that a single TV programme could undo decades of flawed and biased reporting coming from some of the UK print press. A certain Mr Johnson is identified as one of the individuals responsible for setting that tone – and for repeating ‘Euromyths’ in the run up to the referendum.

It might however, have set a tone of encouraging the public to find out more about the EU institutions and sister parties of the UK political parties – things that we’re only learning about now as a result of finding out that leaving the EU is a damn sight more complicated than the lead campaigners of the Leave campaign in the Conservative Party set out.

“You’re just a bad loser! We won, we’re leaving, Brexit means Brexit and once we’ve left, we’ll be signing trade deals everywhere and everything will be wonderful! It’s time the Prime Minister listened to heroes like Iain Duncan Smith and Dr John Redwood of All Souls College, Oxford and just got on with it!”

Could happen.

Or rather, it could have happened if the Prime Minister did not call that ill-advised general election in 2017. She’s only got herself to blame – as have her MPs for not voting her out in the recent leadership vote.

“So…now what?”



The campaigns for the European Parliament elections are now in full swing. I’ve got my voting card. And if you missed the 2019 lead candidate hustings, you can watch them below:

Above – Lead candidate debate 2019 for the European Parliament elections

“Who should people vote for?”

Whoever they want – it’s not for me to tell them.

My case has always been for making it as easy as possible for as many voters to cast informed votes:

  • ensuring it is easy for voters to find out in what elections they are voting in,
  • what powers they as voters will be delegating to politicians,
  • who the candidates are that are standing for election in their area,
  • reading what the candidates have published
  • hearing/listening to what the candidates have to say in their own voices
  • knowing how to vote and where to cast their ballot
  • ensuring voters can find out shortly after the results are announced, who the winner was.

And people can do that via by simply typing in their post code. Which was created by the Democracy Club.

So please help them too!


Nearly 30 years on from the Blue Peter Green Book


Successive governments were warned about pollution & climate change ages ago.

This was the book that got me interested in the environment in 1990. I was at the supermarket with my parents and am sure the book said it only cost £1 but it turns out it cost £5 – which was a huge amount of money for 10 year old me.

Many of the items in there are as relevant today as back then. The historian in me finds it interesting to see what others thought the future would look like in times gone by. Electric cars get a mention, the internet does not. The one area where there has been progress is with the ozone layer, the late Caron Keating sitting by a table full of hair spray – many of them with ozone-destroying CFCs in. Second hand copies of the book are still available online – and is for me a potential campaigning item to show the public that politicians and society generally knew about these issues for decades. Remember when the book was published, there were only four television channels and no internet. Society was a different place back then. The clip below, from the end of 1987 with the late Caron Keating shows.

“The top highlight of our year was our expedition to the Soviet Union”

Cambridgeshire County Council’s climate change motions

Have a look at the county council’s meeting calendar here. The motions are in the meeting papers here. It’s tabled by the Conservative group that has political control of the council. Quotations from the motion include:

“Explore what steps can be taken to bring this work together into an Environment and Climate Change Strategy that targets progress towards reducing carbon emissions, reducing pollution and protecting biodiversity”

“Proactively engage the community, purposefully including the engagement of young people in the development of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy, ensuring their voice is heard in shaping and influencing the future.”

“Request officers to report to Full Council within six months with a climate change and environmental strategy and a clear action plan that the Council will follow to achieve progress in reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment.”

The above paragraphs are from item 16a. In 16b the council’s focus is on schools.

“…it is important to look at and understand what we can do much more rapidly in terms of protecting our vulnerable children from air pollution.

This Council recognises that work is being undertaken to tackle poor air quality around schools, including working with schools to reduce congestion through promoting safe active travel, park and stride, as well as considering air quality as part of Regulation 3 applications for new Schools, and developing a pilot for a “no car zone” around a Cambridge School.”

The motions will be debated on 14 May 2019 at Shire Hall from 10.30am, which is open to the public. If you want your county councillor to raise any points on your behalf, email them via

More people getting involved in Extinction Rebellion in Cambridge

Which contrasts with this gathering in Peterborough, reflecting on just how polarised even the county is.

Locally I’ve not seen a movement like this in Cambridge – one that encompasses town, gown and village, and one that seems to have gone far beyond individual political parties. Furthermore, despite the loss of Market Ward by the Greens in last week’s local elections, over 5,000 people voted for Green Party candidates inside Cambridge City. This was noted by the Leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert, who said the council would need to look again at climate change.

In the meantime, further local protests and events continue to be organised by Extinction Rebellion Cambridge. There are elements of other social movements that have been adopted here – after all, why re-invent the wheel? One of the things that’s really good to see on such a serious an issue as climate change (and the ecological crisis too) is trying to avoid activist burnout. Have a look at the different working groups – each of whom has a different co-ordinator.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom on the environment front though:

But two-thirds of electricity generation is still coming from natural gas and nuclear. A long way to go, and part of that solution has to involve reducing consumption.