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As Cambridge colleges expanded along with Cambridge University, so the space available for townfolk and visitors shrank


How spaces, buildings and facilities previously open to Cambridge townfolk has been reduced over the decades as a result of colleges and Cambridge University expanding its functions. Is it time they gave some back to allow for wider pavements?

In my studies of Lost Cambridge, one thing that comes up time and again is the loss of buildings and spaces that were previously available and open to the public.


From the Cambridge Seven Hundred by David Poole, the above is a map of Cambridge prior to the foundation of the colleges. Professor Helen Cam’s authoritative History of Cambridge the town covers the violence that characterised the early conflicts between town and gown – one the King ended up favouring the latter, as Professor Cam writes in the medieval Cambridge chapter.

The period of history that most interests me is the period from when Florence Ada Keynes arrived in Cambridge – in the late 1870s. Fortunately for me, Charles Henry Cooper wrote the excruciatingly detailed Cooper’s Annals of Cambridge (volume 1 digitised here) which came to an end in the 1856 as it hit the present day of the author (the final volume, 5, digitised here).

The importance of hotels and inns as public meeting spaces

The story of three important hotels in central Cambridge that are no longer with us reflect what has happened over the past century or so.

  • The Hoop Hotel
  • The Bull Hotel
  • The Central Hotel

Clockwise from top left, the Hoop Hotel (via Cambs Cricket History), The Bull Hotel (in Spaldings 1913 via the Cambridgeshire Collection) & the Central Hotel (via the Museum of Cambridge).

The Hoop Hotel in the first half of the 19th Century held numerous political meetings and candidate selection meetings, as the report via the British Newspaper Archives, below shows.

320629 Meeting Hoop Hotel candidate selection 1832

In the early 20th Century we find the Cambridge Labour Party holding a meeting at the Central Hotel on Market Square.

130314 Cambridge Labour at Central Hotel

….which would also become an entrance to the central air raid shelter completed in 1939.

390915 Air Raid Shelter Cambridge Guildhall Central Hotel

I’m assuming that wine is still stored in there!

390915 Air Raid Shelter Cambridge Guildhall Central Hotel_2

In the case of the Bull Hotel, it became popular with US servicemen in World War 2. It later became a college to train service personnel – as page30 of this Alumni Cambridge publication shows.

Shortly afterwards, the building was incorporated into St Catherine’s College next door, and ceased to be accessible to the public.

The old County Hall – now part of Christ’s College

One road that has huge potential to become something wonderful is Hobson Street. I can’t see that happening until we get underground tunnel mass transit that would enable the pedestrianisation of more of Cambridge. At the moment the road is mainly a bus and taxi thru-route.

Yet as this post shows, in 1913 the old county hall was completed to give the Cambridge County Council a new home. After the First World War they would find that these premises were too small as the demands of wartime increased the scope of the shire councils. Prior to the construction of County Hall, a methodist chapel stood on the site.

St John’s College clears the west side of Bridge Street

St Johns College Bridge St 1903

The above map of Cambridge in 1903 shows St John’s College and the town buildings to the north/north-east of it.

The main road running north west to south east is Bridge Street. The Western Side of Bridge Street used to contain homes, workshops and a pub or two. In the late 1930s it was all cleared to make way for the large 1930s-style buildings that are there today.

391007 StJohnsBridgeStreetNewBuildings

Thus another part of Cambridge that was part of the lives of townfolk was taken out of their access for ever.

Crowded Cambridge

One of the things that I’ve pondered in the face of Cambridge’s transport issues and the ‘tourist hell’ of the summer that makes the place not a nice place to go to with the crowds, is how to expand the pavements.

What many residents and those of us that grow up here tend not to see is the inside of the colleges. With all of the old, high walls out of habit you just walk past them and not take much notice because until very recently, the culture of Cambridge University and its colleges was that townfolk were as welcome as the bubonic plague. If you were not a member then you were not welcome. (Yes, I have had that said to my face and over the phone in my late teens/early adult years). But that’s nothing compared to all of those small businesses that got their businesses repeatedly trashed by badly-behaved undergraduates over the centuries. Turning around centuries of ill-feeling is not going to happen over night.

Should the Greater Cambridge Partnership and other transport funding pots be used to buy up some of the college and private land aside the main routes into town so as to widen the pavements?

Below is one of the gardens of Sidney Sussex, which I took upon leaving a talk hosted there.


On the other side of the wall on the right hand side is Jesus Lane, and on the left is Sidney Street where Sainsbury’s is. 

Given how crowded the other side of the wall is, and how narrow the pavement is on Jesus Lane, I can’t help but feel that the pavements could be widened and these walls moved back without significantly reducing the beauty of this space.

Opening up some of Cambridge’s hidden gems through pavement widening

The high wall on Jesus Lane puts off people from walking down the pavement that actually leads onto one of Cambridge’s finest historical buildings – All Saints Cambridge decorated by William Morris. I wrote about it here. Would wider pavements and better signposting help sustain a masterpiece that, fifty years ago was at risk of demolition as church congregations collapsed? (Something I wrote about here).

There are other areas that can be considered – Emmanuel College’s front gardens and the walls either side of Emmanuel Street. Jesus Colleges walls on the north side of Jesus Lane. Widening the pavement on the King’s College side of King’s Parade by narrowing the area of the grass lawn – parts of which used to have buildings on them! Even the land clear by St John’s mentioned above could be used for pavement-widening.

When I look at it from an issue of fairness, I compare how many people benefit from the existing set up vs how many would benefit from the pavements being wider. Take the wall of the garden of the Master’s Lodge at St John’s that backs onto Bridge Street. Would it be more fair for the public that walk up and down Bridge Street to widen the pavement and move the wall back, or more fair on the Master of St John’s to keep the wall where it is?

My take is that as Cambridge continues to expand – in a large part driven by Cambridge University and its colleges, the greater the pressure there will be on existing landowners to free up some space for the widening of pavements.




Mental Health Awareness Week in and around Cambridge


Some thoughts on last week’s social media posts, and more, from a number of local institutions on all things mental health and their Stop Suicides campaign. (Naturally, TW: Suicide).

Cambridgeshire County Council posted this:

…and Cambridge City Council had this:

…with a separate Twitter account set up for the campaign below

…with the statement below from Cllr Richard Johnson of Cambridge City Council

…and the reminder of NHS 111 option 2.

“What was achieved?”

So long as one life has been potentially saved, it was worth it. It’s one of those campaigns though where you can’t really measure or quantify the impact of (or attribute the impact to) a specific campaign.

Trying to make sense of such a campaign when in an extremely low point

…which is where I still am emotionally. (In part explained by this, because I really don’t want us to miss this incredible opportunity for local town history).

Actually, my own issues are long in the making and are very deep-rooted. No week long campaign in anything is going to make any difference. I wrote this blogpost five years ago, and in the grand scheme of things from where I’m looking locally, fuck-all has changed. Hence having a sceptical, if not cynical mindset through the lens of a depressive trough of late.

“Well, I’d ask”

“Fuck-off would you!”

“No – really, I would”

“And then what?”

“Well…we’d make sure you got the help you needed”

“If the help that I needed was available and accessible, I’d have gotten it by now. But we haven’t. Because Andrew Lansley, Jeremy Hunt and austerity.”

“Well…I’m still here to listen”

“No – you really are not – no one is, because you all have your own lives to live, jobs to do, bills to pay, and other people to look after. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver – it’ll only make it worse.”

And thus we go around in circles

Given the repeated underfunding of the NHS by Conservative and Conservative-led administrations, and having seen the impact first hand inside one of the best units in the world for its field of medicine, responsibility on that side lands with ministers. Which means that conversations on that front with me go nowhere.

As I said to a friend last week, part of my problem – and dare I say it for others, is the structure of our economy. I remember pondering in my final days at sixth form college – wondering what life would be like without having to go to this big place surrounded by lots of people – more than a few who I had known for over half of my life. Six months later and working in an office with the same 18 people day-in-day-out, I asked myself whether I could survive such an environment for my working life – to which the answer was ‘No’.

The lack of mental health provision (and other indirect support) has very real impacts on our lives

I can list in my mind the various points in my life where the lack of provision in something by an institution had a catastrophic impact on my life’s path. One of the big ones was housing – and how as students in an over-heating housing market in Brighton full of substandard housing, my old university just left us to it while the then vice-chancellor was making speeches about how tuition fees needed to rise. I’ve never forgiven Labour for what they did on higher education policy. I still haven’t now. The other two parties in England have gone on to make things even worse. So who do you trust?

I’ve lost too many friends and potential friends over my mental health issues, so actually I don’t want to risk talking about things incase I lose any more.

This is another impact of the lack of mental health services locally. For all of their adverts, my local NHS mental health trust simply referred me to a six week course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy because their organisation rules said that this was the only treatment on offer. This is also where what might be stated on an organisation’s website doesn’t match the reality out there. In particular:

  1. I don’t have a named GP despite the promise by Jeremy Hunt in 2014 here. At my surgery you see the next available one – which over the past 18 months has often been a locum/cover GP.
  2. I never had a named co-ordinator when I was with the local NHS mental health trust, even though their website says everyone treated by them does.

Again, having been inside ‘the system’ in the civil service, I throw all of my blame at ministers who brought in such disastrous policies for our health services. Most of the people on the front line are doing the best they can in the face of very poor political leadership.

“So…don’t you talk to anyone about mental health?”

I try not to – it’s easier that way. And to be honest, I’d rather not spend quality time with people talking about miserable stuff – I’d rather have us doing something that for example takes advantage of the wonderful sunshine that we’ve been having of late, as opposed to ‘meeting up for a coffee to talk things through’. I appreciate the offer & the sentiment behind it, but I’d rather go to something like a comedy, theatre or music performance/concert somewhere.

Also, the impact of mental health on my physical health means travel and transport are huge barriers – far more than perhaps people realise

The most exhausting bit of anything I do is the getting there and getting back. For whatever reason, using public transport is draining. Part of it is the sheer noise of the bus engines. (This is despite using noise-cancelling headphones). Something I hope the new Cambridge Bus Users Group will be taking on at their meeting on 02 June, amongst other things (their FB page is here).

A sense of “It’s too late to turn things around” for me

It’s been over six years since I was last able to work full time. A recovery should have happened by now – shouldn’t it? All those articles in the papers about how people ‘recover’ from mental health crises says so – doesn’t it? It’s one of the reasons a week before the mental health awareness week, a post from a similar campaign on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome struck a familiar chord.

I still have much of my formalwear from my dancing days – though I fear the trousers no longer fit. I tried a pair that I thought would fit but they felt unfamiliarly tight around my waist. 15 years ago I took part in a ballroom dance event at the London Southbank Centre that lasted from about lunchtime through to very late in the evening – a good 12 hours. It felt like we were all dancing for most of that time give or take an outdoor picnic. I ended up with bruised feet for the next two days. I can’t see myself ever matching the levels of fitness I had in my early-mid 20s. (Though if anyone’s interested in the Madingley Hall Summer Ball, grab me).



Leisure and climate change absent from Cambs economic review


On some worrying absences in the interim report from the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review.

The interim report is at the little white and orange icon at the bottom right.

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review (CPIER) gets its remit from the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, This was created by the then Department for Communities and Local Government – now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Their Plain English guide to the combined authority is here.

“Who are the commissioners?”

They are listed here.

“Why are they asking for our views?”

See here – the deadline is 08 June 2018.

“Why Cambridgeshire and Peterborough?”

It’s slightly out of scope, but they put this map into the document.


Now, the LEP is pretty much defunct after an investigation by the National Audit Office over how public money was being spent. I’m still not clear what this means for the areas outside of Cambridge given the smaller boundaries of the Combined Authority. Now, past historical studies on Cambridgeshire’s economy have been done *using different county boundaries*.

This is why consultant writing such documents really need to look through the history books.

Cambridgeshire’s administrative county boundaries are not set in stone (these differ from the ceremonial boundaries here). Over the past 150 years in particular, they have ebbed and flowed depending on the political circumstances of the age. 1889 is an important year because it was the foundation of the modern county councils. The thing is, Cambridgeshire as an administrative county did not include Huntingdonshire until the mid-1970s.

Cambridgeshire 1945

The above, from the Cambridge History of Local Government 1834-1958 was a proposal for reform of local government in 1944. Note how small some of the district councils were. There were several attempts to make Cambridge what we would call a ‘unitary authority’ over the past 100 years – starting in the run up to the First World War. The main reason why this didn’t happen was because politicians outside of the city feared that this would impoverish rural areas. Given recent votes on Cambridgeshire County Council, the fear from councillors inside Cambridge City is that the rural votes are impoverishing everyone with repeated votes for cuts to services inside Cambridge City despite city residents repeatedly returning candidates calling for council tax rises in every single city division. Hence why in late 2017 I stated that Cambridgeshire County Council should be abolished.

Cambridge and the Isle of Ely Council

Just before the last reorganisation of local council boundaries and responsibilities, this interesting document was published. The following images are from the Cambridgeshire Collection.IMG_7064


What makes this interesting – and links it through to today, are their assessments on all things leisure.


In the CPIER interim report, Leisure, Sport and Recreation is pretty much absent – surprising given how large a part of our economy it is, and how essential it is to the living, wellbeing and health of people.


The above is also an interesting map given the increasing demands on water, and also because of the plans submitted for both the North-of-Cambridge Rowing Lake here, and also more locally to me, the opening up of the East Cambridge lakes.

The above used to be a major cement works in Cambridge until the late 1980s.


It’s all very well having the economic growth, but where can people get away from the incessant noise of multiple internal combustion engines and electric motors?

“Why should the lack of content on climate change (in an urban context) and leisure be a concern?”

On climate change, because we risk building houses and industry that are not fit for purpose in the face of a changing climate – one where we already have water stresses, in particular in the north of the county.

Looking at the images firms use to ‘sell Cambridge’ to the world, open green spaces feature prominently. Ironically many of those open green spaces are off limits as they belong to one college or another. Given the very high land prices, there is a huge incentive on developers to build on every single blade of grass. Hence in my view the invention of the term ‘pocket park’ – things that I despise as they are too small to really enjoy – being in too close proximity to buildings to relax and having no space for games.

Pocket parks versus Cambridge’s parks from previous generations.

Let’s list some of them in South Cambridge:

  • Cherry Hinton Rec
  • Nightingale Avenue Rec
  • Coleridge Rec
  • Romsey Rec

All of these were 20th Century creations with civically-minded politicians, locals and businesspeople who made these happen. The earliest of these, Romsey Rec, was in part the result of the work by a very prominent businessman, Arthur Negus. This by local historian Allan Brigham explains. What was the industry that Mr Negus was involved in? That’s right, he was deeply involved in the building trade. Yet despite the pressure to build on the land in East Romsey – and you can see just how closely built together the terraced houses were, he and others managed to secure a large piece of land for a park – as at Coleridge, Nightingale and Cherry Hinton.

“Which businessmen and businesswomen are going to make the case for large open spaces for free public parks?”

Or do we risk building the slums of the future with all of this growth?

Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb (who founded Save The Children) told us of the impacts of poorly planned and designed housing in her ground-breaking study of social issues in Cambridge.

EglantyneJebb in MahoodLinda

Hero: Eglantyne Jebb who wrote the first social scientific study of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge’s history – followed up with a progress check two years later. We got improved quality housing in Cambridge because of her.

It wasn’t just Eglantyne either – it was these women as well. I’m looking around Cambridge and beyond to see where the next generation of women are who will transform city and county for the better – and for the many, not the few. Because the shutting out of social housing from the Eddington development by Cambridge University is a slap in the face by Cambridge University dons to the people of our great city. This is why it is essential that governance and civic essentials are not forgotten in the push for growth.

Questions for further consultation

They are on P27 of the document

CPIER Qs.jpeg

Looking at the questions above, a few things stand out:

  • On 2) Does the target of doubling ‘Gross Value Added’ have any civic legitimacy?
  • On 3) How will the north of the county avoid the risk of unharvested crops rotting in the fields due to a shortage of seasonal workers? What investments will they have to make to improve wages and living conditions to attract more people, and what impact will this have on food prices?
  • On 4) My anecdotal experience of The Grafton Centre was that it was Stagecoach’s removal of the bus routes down East Road that killed it. Because of poor signage and having to cross a busy road, the bus routes from South Cambridge to The Grafton are much less visible. 20 years ago, it was ‘the place to be’.
  • On 4) continued, long term sustainable, reliable and affordable transport are essential for existing and new leisure facilities. Bus transport will make or break the Cambridge Ice Rink due to open at the end of 2018. Who has leverage on buses in Cambridge to ensure that they properly serve leisure facilities – including country parks?
  • On 5) One easily missed area is the retraining of adults who are switching careers. The review needs to cover this group of people (of which I am one) whose skills refreshers may need to involve far more than a specific job, but adapting to a world that has moved on in leaps and bounds since they/we left school.
  • On 7) Again leisure seems to have been missed out. Is it better for firms to club together to pay for and subsidise leisure facilities that are open to all, or for each office block to have its own private gym? Does membership that is not open to all create resentment in local communities? (For example the Frank Lee Centre at Addenbrooke’s that, as a child I used to go to due to parents working at the NHS, but today I am no longer eligible).
  • On 8) Lack of available premises – and affordable premises is a huge problem for small scale community enterprises. Take one of the finest women’s sports clubs in Cambridge – the Rollerbillies – who need a large indoor space to train in. The old warehouse space they used to have access to has since been demolished. As a result, they have to fight to book the over-subscribed large hall at the Kelsey Kerridge – the result of another builder who became a councillor.
  • On 9) The wealthy have to get involved in community events and campaigns just as Florence Ada Keynes, Mayor of Cambridge and the Mother of John Maynard Keynes did. Florence got our guildhall built after 80 years of failure by the men on the council, while her son Maynard was building the Cambridge Arts Theatre. When will we see more civic-minded actions from those making their fortunes from brand Cambridge re-investing some of their wealth into the civic heart of the city just as John Maynard Keynes did? It wasn’t just an act of charity either – their works provided employment for many too.
  • On 10) see Smarter Cambridge Transport, Cambridge Connect Light Rail, and the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Short-medium term gains are from segregated cycle routes and electric buses. Also, consultations with young people going to college on increasing service provision is essential. Ditto consulting those who don’t use buses but who could be persuaded. What are the barriers? Information? Reliability? Safety? Affordability?
  • On 13) all of the powers are with the Treasury, and due to Brexit there is not nearly enough policy capacity or political imagination to devolve funding and tax-raising powers to a competent municipal council the likes of which we see across the EU & North America. Do visiting politicians and dignitaries think the ceremonial mayor has far more power than s/he actually has?

That’s enough for now, but I may come back to some things before the deadline.

Do Cambridgeshire Conservatives want to sell off the Castle Hill site?


Is it theirs to sell off in the first place? (No).

“Shire Hall would be sold off, but the report does not specify a future use. Previous ideas for the site include turning it into a hotel.”

So writes Josh Thomas in the Cambridge News here.

I tabled this public question to county councillors recently on the future of the site on the back of this blogpost on expanding the Museum of Cambridge.

Cambridgeshire County Council full council 17 Oct 2017 – my Q is at the start.

Cllr Paul Raynes (Cons – Soham) is quoted as saying:

“I will make sure Mr Carpen’s suggestion is taken into account [regarding the possibility of expanding the Museum of Cambridge onto the Shire Hall site where the old court house that the city council didn’t want demolished in the 1950s, once stood”

The problem is that the county council’s papers for the commercial and investment committee:

  • Excluded the general public (so even if I could have made the meeting, I wouldn’t have been allowed in)
  • Make no mention of my proposals despite the promise at a public meeting of the full council recorded on video by Cllr Raynes.

Personally I’d have preferred it if executive councillors had told me where to go, that they were going to sell off the site to the highest bidder who had committed to employing the popular Brookgate team, demolish everything and allow the new owners to build luxury apartments to buy-to-leave foreign investors and have the towers painted royal blue. At least that would be being honest that money is the only thing that matters in the 21st Century. It’s the dashing of the hope that hurts.

“Who paid for its acquisition?”

It’s a spurious argument but I’m going to make it anyway: The site used to be a prison, and before that, a castle. A few of the older colleges ran off with the castle stone before the county gaol was built – and where we used to have public hangings. We know this ***because I have read the transcripts*** and have summarised the last one that took place before the law was changed. (I read proper old newspapers so you don’t have to!)

When the Home Office decided it didn’t need the prison anymore, the old Cambridgeshire County Council (based on smaller boundaries) bought the site and built Shire Hall on it in the 1930s.

Cambridgeshire 1945

From a very old Cambridgeshire County Council publication made for the boundary review of 1964 (there was one in 1944, and 1973/4 as well – so we are ***long overdue one***) historic Cambridgeshire contains the red and blue shaded areas – Cambridge County, and the Isle of Ely. (I’ve digitised the whole book for you to read here). Essentially the ratepayers of Huntingdonshire did not pay for the site when the county acquired it, so therefore councillors from that part of the world shouldn’t get a vote disposing of the site.

“That’s a spurious argument”

I know.

But just as Conservatives regularly accuse Labour governments of running out of other people’s money to spend, Labour activists accuse Conservatives of running out of public assets to sell off or privatise.

My point is that the site could not only provide a stable revenue stream for county council services, it could also meet some of the business demand for hotel rooms, provide a heritage attraction on an existing heritage site – which could help protect an existing historical monument (Castle Mound), and help create a buzzing food/restaurant quarter by adding at least two new establishments to the ones already there, and at the same time help extend the tourist trail over the River Cam over the Great Bridge to the top of the hill.

“…Which is a much more compelling argument”

Precisely. What annoys me is that despite having gone through all of the proper processes, my suggestions haven’t even been dismissed, just ignored. It makes me wonder what the point of it all is.



Can Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats work together to solve Cambridge’s transport problems?


And not just the city, but in the districts that surround Cambridge as well

The Liberal Democrats won two thirds of the seats on the new South Cambridgeshire District Council last week. The scale of the collapse of the Conservatives was huge, and makes the next few years more than interesting for those of us local democracy watchers.

New mandates

It wasn’t just South Cambridgeshire that had elections, Cambridge City Council had elections as well – but only for a third of their seats. See the results here. Castle Ward went from Independent to Liberal Democrat (by 25 votes) while Labour snatched Trumpington (formerly Mayor Jean Barker/Baroness Trumpington‘s ward) by four votes. I can imagine there are a few people in those wards kicking themselves over not getting out to vote.

Cllr Lewis Herbert was re-elected without the distraction of Puffles around – and interestingly the total number of votes cast in 2018 was lower than in 2014. But unlike South Cambridgeshire, Cllr Herbert didn’t face any opponent campaigning over City Deal/Greater Cambridge Partnership issues.

Multiple mandates for single projects?

The new representative for South Cambridgeshire District Council on the City Deal/Greater Cambridge Partnership Board is Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer. South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats sent out the press release as below.

So that’s at least one major project that will need a complete rethink by the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership. The first meeting of the joint assembly is on the 14 June at The Guildhall, Cambridge. All welcome.


South Cambridgeshire Conservatives collapse at the council elections


The scale of their collapse, and the size of the victory by their Liberal Democrat opponents in South Cambridgeshire caught many – myself included – by surprise

The eleven councillors that remain standing on top of the pile of political rubble that was the great institution of South Cambridgeshire Conservatives might well be wondering what hit them at the elections on 03 May 2018 – a set of elections that saw all council seats up for election under the 4-yearly model of elections they have. In Cambridge City, we have council elections in three of every four years – and a further election for the county council in the gap.

Overnight, the Conservatives went from having 36 councillors to their opponents’ collective total of 21, to having just 11 councillors to 30 councillors from the Liberal Democrats, with 2 for Labour and 2 independents. Note the restructure of South Cambridgeshire District Council meant there were fewer wards, and more multi-seat wards.

And it was all over the local papers

…with much more yellow/orange political paint spilling out everywhere – and even a dash of red added to the new purple patch in Cambourne, west of Cambridge City. The red blob is the seat of Bassingbourn, held by Labour – which also has a strong and politically stubborn Green Party contingent too.

“So Prime Minister, how much of an impact did your racist Go Home vans and your unlawful deportations of Windrush citizens and the shambles of your Brexit policies play in the collapse of your party’s presence in the glorious economic and intellectual powerhouse of South Cambridgeshire?”

This incident a week before the polls didn’t help matters.

Accordingly, the local media couldn’t ignore it.

The candidate concerned was immediately suspended and denounced by his fellow Conservatives, and in the end did not get elected. But this combined with the headlines around Jeremy Corbyn in my view only sought to drag democracy through the mud to the point where no one wins. Labour activist Rachel Megan Barker in London spells out in raw and sobering detail how the Labour vote was understandably hit.

The problem for all political parties in this era of social media is they are unable to control social media pages and blogs that proclaim to be aligned to one party or another, yet still get tarred by it. I’ve seen examples from across the political matrix. No established political party has got a completely clean pair of shoes when it comes to foul and abusive language online – or worse, in politics.

“Woz it Brexit wot lost it?”

It certainly had an impact. 2 years ago, Heidi hosted a number of packed out meetings with hundreds of concerned constituents. The below was one of them.

Heidi Allen MP at South Cambridgeshire Hall, Cambourne. 02 July 2016.

But it was not the only issue – and it’s lazy political reporting to assume this was the only issue. As with local elections, the ‘surprising results’ indicate something much more local as an issue. In this case, it has been a series of controversial developments from the Government-sponsored Greater Cambridge Partnership – the former ‘City Deal’.

Protests against the proposed Cambourne-Cambridge busway by residents from villages on the western edge of Cambridge, and Newnham ward in Cambridge.

With the majority of the voting seats on the Greater Cambridge Partnership Board and Assembly going to Conservative councillors, they are the ones who can outvote everyone else. Hence they have gotten the blame. The leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert, representing the Labour Party, don’t have councillors in any of the wards in and around Cambridge that are negatively affected by some of the proposed big infrastructure projects in South Cambridgeshire, so there is no political price for them to pay.

A textbook ground operation by the Liberal Democrats?

In party political circles, opponents of Liberal Democrats accuse them of playing very dirty in their campaigning tactics. The internet is full of accusations from even a simple online search. Not being close to the ground this time around, I can’t comment on what happened in the villages. However, although the headline from last year’s county council elections was the Conservatives regaining their political majority, in the South Cambridgeshire area, it was the Liberal Democrats that got the most votes.

…which was true, though the margin of their lead was under 80 votes!

Yet given how the Conservatives were tearing each other to bits over Brexit, and furthermore in complete political turmoil over the Windrush cases that ultimately led to the fall of the Home Secretary, the background music for the Conservatives nationally was not good.

Furthermore, the print press was making a very big deal about potholes in the road. This was despite the launch of the county council’s ‘dragon patcher’.

But not everyone was convinced

And with the Conservatives running the district council, county council, county mayor, county police & crime commissioner and being in office in Westminster & Whitehall (with DUP parliamentary support), there was literally no one else to take responsibility for the state of the roads.

Sarah Cheung Johnson, who came close in 2017 was victorious in 2018 for the Liberal Democrats. Furthermore, they had the people on the ground to deliver party literature.

“Didn’t Labour do anything?”

They did – but for whatever reason it didn’t seem to pay dividends despite a noticeable increase in campaigning in Waterbeach, Fen Ditton, Fulbourn, Histon, Impington and Cambourne. Only the last of the three returned a Labour councillor.

Working out what the seat spread would have been under proportional representation is not so straight forward due to the presence of multi-seat wards – where each ward can have more than one seat representing it. For example ‘Fen Ditton and Fulbourn’, and Cambourne respectively had three each. But bundling all of the votes together and dividing them by percentage share gives this:


Compare the above with the actual results of:

  • Lib Dems – 30
  • Conservative – 11
  • Labour – 2
  • Independent – 2

In Cambridge, both the Greens and Conservatives took 20% of the vote at Cambridge City Council. Neither polled any seats.

With elections every four years, the Liberal Democrats have the chance to sink some very deep political and community roots – but there are some traps ahead

With political power comes political responsibility. The Liberal Democrats will also have to select representatives for the boards of the Combined Authority (part of the county mayoral infrastructure – which they opposed on principle), and the Greater Cambridge Partnership (which their counterparts in Cambridge City when in power, along with former MP Julian Huppert helped negotiate). That means – as is likely – that Cllr Bridget Smith becomes leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, she will also become a board member of the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership and will be much more influential on what future infrastructure projects get built.

It also means that Cllr Smith and Cllr Lewis Herbert can *outvote* the now lone Conservative on the Partnership Board. It’s been a bit of a poisoned chalice with very few Conservative councillors on the county council seeming enthusiastic participants on the Board. Former Councillor Francis Burkitt who stood down from his seat on South Cambridgeshire District Council at the elections, was much more proactive both as a member and a chairperson. From a ministerial perspective I can imagine that there is a massive political incentive for them to scrap the partnership in its entirety and fold it all into the administrative infrastructure of the county mayor – currently held by Conservative James Palmer. I can imagine Mayor Palmer would welcome such a move – not least it would get rid of another tier of local administration. However, the systems of accountability for the county mayor are far too weak. It remains to be seen what the Mayor’s review of local government infrastructure recommends.

Supporting people not just in the bad times, but in the good times too


A campaign that came 20 years too late for me, but is worth pondering if you know of someone in a similar situation struggling with mental health problems


Via this and other tweets from the campaign. Nearly 5 years ago, I wrote an article that asked:

“So we’ve raised awareness about mental health, what’s next?”

The article is here.

The past few weeks have been a big struggle, something that I’ve tried to keep at arms length from everyone. It’s become easier that way. Otherwise all you become known for is being that depressed kid. Or so it has been on my side for the best part of a quarter of a century.

‘Is there a mate missing around this table?’

At a close relative’s wedding recently, we put up lots of photos from the past of the bride & groom. With the latter, there were guests who he’d known from secondary school, college, university and work. In a couple of the photographs there were a group of people in it who also were around the same single table that day – spanning that 20 year time gap. All bar one person. That one friend of theirs who I knew in childhood was always the quiet one of the group. A few years later I discovered he suffered from depression, & seemed to withdraw into his shell. The last time I saw him was many years ago, still just as quiet, working part-time as a delivery driver for the same store that the best man had worked at for again, a quarter of a century.

With the joys of social media, a long lost friend from school who I recently bumped into at a local gig I was filming at, had one of those automated posts/photographs posted on her timeline for all to see. It was of a similar event as above, only the missing person from that group of friends was me. At first I wondered what it would have been like if I was there, but then I realised that such was the passage of time that had passed, and the life experiences, that the people we were 20 years ago were not likely to be the people that we are today. Even more so when at that same gig, one other lost friend from that time said there were many things from the mid-late 1990s that he really regretted. He’s not the only one.

Why I wouldn’t – nor couldn’t walk back into people’s lives from my past

Essentially too much has changed – certainly on my side, to make the assumption that I or anyone could simply waltz back into people’s lives like that. Also, there’s a part of me that wants to let sleeping demons on all sides remain undisturbed.

Devastating consequences of not having the institutional mental health support in place when I needed it.

College, year out, university, post-graduate years, inside the civil service and beyond the civil service, I can think of at least one specific instance where I needed comprehensive support from the NHS and local agencies, but didn’t get it. On each occasion, friends at the time understandably took big steps back, and in the end we all went our own ways. When you’re going through such crises the experience is incredibly energy sapping for the person experiencing it directly, and also those who are there supporting, or caught up in the metaphorical crossfire. Furthermore, we can’t expect those perhaps closest to us to provide that support network when they are involved in, or perhaps worse, part of the cause of an individual’s mental health problems.

When your poor mental health becomes a real disability

Which is where I have been for quite some time, made even worse with my heart problems since Christmas. I’m back in hospital on 01 May to find out what the full diagnosis is – something I should have had ages ago but had to be postponed due to waiting lists. I can’t pretend to have been the greatest fans of the current and former health secretaries but my time in hospital made it clear to me that the buck stopped with the pair of them, in office since 2010.

When you can only function properly for a few hours a day

Every so often you might hear me post ‘am running low on spoons’ which relates to the concept of Spoon Theory. (Also explained on video here by Christine Miserandino who coined the concept). Basically it means that all the stuff that you’d like to do becomes impossible. It has become even more acute this year while I am on so much medication and am in this weird sort of ‘heart limbo’.

Although it might look like I’m out and about doing stuff, what people don’t see are those random pains in and around my chest that have me panicking as to whether this is another possible heart attack coming on. My GP assured me it was much more likely to be muscle pain from somewhere else. But what’s causing these dull pains that I hadn’t otherwise been experiencing. The worrying alone is exhausting.

How much coffee can one drink?

Another day, and another coffee shop opens in Cambridge. Or another convenience supermarket. Much as I like the Co-op, I think it’s sad we don’t have the old large co-op of old. But having done my first bit of work experience with them, the historical values of the movement were completely absent from the place I spent two weeks in the mid-1990s in. But then, meeting up for coffee with friends is always good, isn’t it?

Well, up to a point.

A couple of very longstanding Twitterfriends put this far more succinctly than I have ever done, and was based on their own experience. They both said they always found it was them doing the organising for things that they went out and about to, but, for whatever reason never really found that reciprocated by others. Essentially they said, they were ‘outside’ the immediate inner circle of friends of the people they socialised with. Thus were never automatically on the ‘invite list’. This has been my experience for most of my adult life. It was only when I was doing the same shared activity with the same group of people over an extended period of time (evening classes in the mid-2000s) that this was not the case.

Becoming a part of each other’s lives through automated processes?

I stumbled across this article recently about an academic study from the USA on friendship.

“Hall found that it took roughly 200 hours to achieve best friend status while it took 50 hours to move from acquaintances to casual friends and 90 hours to progress from casual friends to friends.”

Now, given the number of hours I’m up and about is curtailed by poor health, you can see one of the challenges I face. Furthermore, having spent the past 7 years in freelance world and not working with the same group of people on a shared task with common goals has also had a huge impact. At a macro level, the rise in both self-employment and zero hours contracts was discussed in this Trade Union Congress paper.

Again, with the exception of the mid-2000s, I’ve not been in a position to be able to do anything on a regular basis with a large group of people for many years. Even less so now with the state of my health. It takes me back to when I was doing my A-levels which was probably the last time I was interacting with lots of people on a daily basis. My biggest regret from those days being choice of A-level subjects. I should have done politics and history rather than geography and maths.

The problem I find is that the only time I ever see people out and about (i.e. the time I have enough spoons to use) is in a ‘working’ context. Normally at a public meeting of sorts. Therefore conversations are all too often ‘work’ related, or in my case ‘political’. And politics is draining. Political activists at the best of times can be very intense people. (I should know – I have to live with myself!) For everyone else, such people are best dealt with in small doses – mainly at election time!

“So, don’t you want that coffee then?”

Much as it’s always nice to talk, I’d rather do something else with more than one other person that involves leisure – something that makes life worth living. Also, something where you know you’re being invited because people want you there, not because they are doing you a favour by putting up with you because you’re going through a bad time. At the same time though, I’m also realistic enough to acknowledge our collective social patterns of work simply don’t allow for that sort of living.

We’re all busy people!

Actually, by the time you hit your late 30s, people the same age are settling down and having children. Having seen how much work is involved bringing them with close relatives every weekend if not more, I know in my heart of hearts that health-wise I could never bring up my own. On 3 hours a day? You must be joking!

In the meantime…

I spend my daylight hours continuing what I can with all things and at the same time sort of saddened that I’m not in the place healthwise to take the project forward in the way that I’d like to. Because there’s so much more to it I’ve yet to discover. Today’s discovery was this front page from the British Newspaper Archive.

321230 FlorenceAdaKeynesTheVoteFrontPage321230 FlorenceAdaKeynesTheVoteP2







The Stephen Hawking Telescope – a proposed monument to the late great professor


Developing an idea that came up at Cambridge City Council’s full council this evening

So the next question is ‘where would we place such a telescope?’

Because in Cambridge, we have light pollution issues – which seem to have gotten worse with the new LED street lights, something Public Health England picked up on recently as being a health hazard. The question then is, where to site the telescope that is both accessible and avoids light pollution?

The only place I could think of was at the top of Castle Hill. Existing tall buildings in Cambridge are generally off limits. The only place in the city centre where such a public telescope could be built is on the Shire Hall site on Castle Hill.

“But isn’t the Castle Mound a historical monument?”

It is – and with good reason. See the official listing here. Yet with Cambridgeshire County Council’s Conservatives wanting to move out of Shire Hall anyway, this leaves the door open for part of the site to be used for a new monument and memorial to Stephen Hawking.

“Doesn’t it get in the way of a proposed expansion of the Museum of Cambridge?”

I wrote about this recently here – and a public telescope could easily complement such a plan: Simply put the telescope on the roof of the expanded Museum of Cambridge modelled on the old Shire Hall Court House, demolished against the wishes of Cambridge City Council in the mid-1950s.

Shire Hall Court House 28543 Photo

From the Historic England Archive – the old Shire Hall Court House. 

530122 Shire Hall Courts Castle Hill Preserve Facade call

From the Cambridgeshire Collection 22 Jan 1953: Note the commitment to rebuild the facade elsewhere.

Historic England’s photo archive.

There are a whole series of photos from their archive on Cambridge the town here. Two that caught my eye included these lost models of the old court building, which show two court rooms behind the facade.

Shire Hall Court House 28184Shire Hall Court House model no roof 28183

From Historic England, models of the old court house at Castle Hill

As I’ve mentioned before, I’d love to see the facade rebuilt and incorporated into an expanded Museum of Cambridge.

Cambridge Castle Hill from air southwards

From Britain From Above – the Shire Hall site just before the demolition of the old courts, with Castle Mound behind it.

The added bonus of having a Stephen Hawking telescope on the roof of the rebuilt/improved court building is that it would bring in visitors to an expanded Museum of Cambridge, extend the ‘tourist trail’ northwards to the top of the hill, and potentially help protect the Castle Mound assuming the roof of the telescope was built to a height that gave similar views. Furthermore, it brings in a degree of protection and security for the telescope from any vandalism as the site can be easily secured. Note historically there also used to be a police station in the building next to the old courthouse – today the home of the Cambridge branch of Unison!

In terms of access, I envisage anything from lifts, escalators, stone/concrete steps to even an extended ramp and/or wide footpath over earthworks along the side of the rebuilt building giving the public access without having need to pay for access. At the same time, I’d like to see a cafe or restaurant around the back of the building open till late that could also be both a meeting point for people and provide a built in human/security presence at the same time. Because access to the telescope late on into the evening goes without saying.

Any thoughts?


Shall we put on some ‘how to scrutinise your council’ style events in/around Cambridge?


No need to restrict it to councils given the dead hand of Whitehall and the results of years of outsourcing to the private and voluntary sector either.

In terms of really big picture things, that work has already begun locally with the Imagine 2027 series where a number of high profile expert speakers have been giving talks on what they imagine the world in 2027 might look like from a positive perspective, and how we might get there. I’ve been part of the recording team filming the events, so do have a look at who said what. See also who has posted what on Twitter here. A similar group headed by Sarah Nicmanis of Cambridge Green Party has been running the Changing Conversations series – one open to all discussing different topics and providing a space for activists from other (mainly progressive) political parties as well as those of none, to exchange views and share learning – often following a presentation from a (non party-political) expert speaker.

But what about discussing what local institutions do?

It’s more complicated.

For those of you who live in Cambridge, have a look at – how easy is it for you to navigate and make use of? For those of you in South Cambridgeshire, see and ditto. Working out how these function is essential to keeping tabs on the planning applications that have an impact on our communities.

The same goes for meetings:

Who’s got the time and resources to go to all of the above? (Especially in this era of repeated cuts to local press?) Does anyone have an overview of all that’s happening in our city? A sort of ‘dragon’s eye view’? Furthermore, who are the people who can ‘breathe the fire of a dragon’ onto those organisations dragging their feet so to speak?


Diagram by Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport

“Sounds like you need a masters degree just to make sense of the structures!”

Feels like it, doesn’t it?

One thing I’ve never got my head around is how all of these organisations talk to each other, and let each other know what is going on. Or do they? Do the train companies have conversations with the bus companies about synchronising their services like they do in Switzerland? So that when you step off your train and exit the railway station, your bus is waiting there for you? It’s something I’ve moaned about for some time but nothing seems to be done. The more we moan and the less that gets done in the face of such a fragmentation of public services, the more it makes me want to just say

“Sod it – nationalise the lot of them and bring them back under the democratic control of the people”. 

“That will cost a lot of money”

Not if we declare an emergency under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and pass regulations under Section 22(3)(b) of said Act and confiscate the lot without compensation. Job done.

Actually, it doesn’t work like that in real life, but it’s a reminder that there are a number of pieces of enabling legislation already out there that confer a huge amount of power on Ministers of the Crown.

Enabling legislation – too much power to too few people

It was an enabling provision that Labour passed in 2003 – only with the support of Labour’s Scottish MPs (it would have fallen if it were English MPs voting – as is the system today) that enabled Tony Blair to bring in top-up fees for students in England. It was this same provision that enabled the Coalition to bring in the even higher fees with a couple of debates in Parliament in 2010 – to the crocodile tears of the Labour MPs that voted through the 2003 provisions.

All three parties are to blame for the imbalance in the treatment of students and young people since the introduction of tuition fees in the first place in 1998. My school cohort was the first generation to face fees, and I’ve still not forgiven the politicians involved.

“Why is politics so complicated? Why shouldn’t the public know more about what’s going on?”

“You can be open, or you can have government!”

In the grand scheme of things, you are only going to get a small proportion of people in any given community really involved in what goes on at a political level.

HenleyCentreDCLGCommunities Research2008 Slide 109

The above – Commissioned by DCLG, created by The Henley Centre/Headlight Vision, by Andrew Curry, Joe Ballantyne, Becky Rowe, Anouk Van Den Eijnde. 2008.

The above was from one of the most substantive pieces of social research I’ve seen commissioned for public policy during my civil service days, but for whatever reason the civil servants at the time really didn’t want it released. It was only a few years after I left the civil service that they finally let me have a copy. Whitehall is full of expensive commissioned studies that would actually be very useful to the public’s understanding of politics and policy – the release of which wouldn’t embarrass anyone. The cultural inertia of an organisation is something that has a very long half-life, and changing that culture is like trying to turn around an oil tanker. I’d like to think that social media use has helped change some of that in Whitehall.

Somewhere like Cambridge should be looking at having 11% of its population involved in local democracy, politics and civic life. How does that compare with the situation on the ground?

I’ll leave that to the councillors to answer – they are the ones who are most likely to go door-knocking so will have a better feel for this than me.

Note the subtle difference between community-focused versus the democratically-involved

You can be a helper at a local school fair yet have nothing to do with local democracy. And vice-versa.

What this research doesn’t tell us is the impact of social media – this work effectively pre-dated Twitter, while Facebook was still seen as a young people’s thing back then. It’d be fascinating to see a “Ten years later” piece of research to see what has changed and what has remained the same.


Classroom or workshop-based learning on local democracy

I’ve not seen this done locally before – others may have better experience of how something like this may work. Is Cambridge at that stage where enough people would turn up say to a Saturday workshop/crash course on the basics of local democracy? By that I don’t mean “This is the guildhall, this is the mayor, these are the parties” as if from a textbook, but starting off from where the participants are starting from. That could be their first interaction with this institution called the state (eg being born in a maternity hospital) through to one of the first things you’d notice if the local council disappeared: bin collections. (Or lack of).

That first session say on a one day event may well involve thrashing out who wants to learn what – done in an unconference style as we did with Be The Change Cambridge in 2014-15. It was at that event that the first gathering of the tour de force that is My Cambridge was held.

Another option is using the framework of evening classes, and having a series of say six evenings where we look at a different institution, finishing each session with an action that involves each individual sending a piece of correspondence to said institution, and then reviewing at later sessions the responses we get back. i.e. that way we ‘normalise’ the concept of lobbying public bodies, and also talking to each other about local democracy beyond moaning about the bad stuff. (i.e. coming up with ideas for further actions or possible solutions).

Moving beyond old models of communications

Comms model pre social media AC2011

The above is from a study I worked on in the dead-end days of my Whitehall career in 2011 that I took with me when I left, and gave back to Cabinet Office a couple of years later when I had worked up a few more things outside the system. It’s from this presentation/slide show. The point being that the above model is very discrete and ‘one way’ as far as citizens are concerned.

Fast forward to today…

Comms model pre social media AC2011_2

…and all of the grey dots have been turned into yellow dots, indicating people active on social media, taking part in multiple conversations. That doesn’t make a judgement on the quality of the conversations – as the whole furore around conspiracies and ‘fake nooze’ has demonstrated.

“But who has time for all of this civic engagement?”

This comes back to the engagement segmentation. On those most likely to become involved, how much of it is because no one has invited them to get involved? Had Cambridge Labour Party had a buzzing system of recruiting under-18s in the run up to the 1997 general election, they would have had me not just as a member, but also as a street volunteer in their campaigns because I was solidly pro-Labour at the time – all the way up until the whole tuition fees mess.

For all of the talk around the impact of social media on elections, part of me thinks that there is huge potential for more regular face-to-face engagement like in the days of old as described in the newspaper archives. I keep on having to remind myself that in those days there was no TV or radio, and there also seemed to be a police constable on every corner who could be summoned to carry out an arrest of a local rapscallion or rascal  who had somehow been detained by two splendid chaps for some sort of an affray.

This is one of the reasons why I favour a small number of regular big set piece events that allow community and campaign groups to set out their stalls – for example the Mill Road Winter Fair, or the Strawberry Fair in Cambridge where the public can have relaxed conversations with campaigners and activists outside Political spaces. I also think there’s huge potential for set piece party political debates given the popularity of the hustings at the recent general elections. Here’s one clip where in Waterbeach, Conservatives and Labour went head-to-head in 2017 at a standing-room-only event.


There’s no one single solution that will bring about a world where we have more people involved creating a better society – certainly at a local level.

At a personal level, I get the sense more of us are looking for new faces to get involved and take on some of the burdens of just keeping an eye of what is going on. For those of you interested, come along to the talk by the former Mayor of Bristol on what Cambridge can learn from them. It’s hosted by the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations.

“Can’t I be one of the passive ones? I lead a very busy life!”

The trick here is setting up your online world to update you automatically when new things are posted. For example:

I’ve also learnt the hard way that no one person can cover an entire city and do it really well. Following my stay in hospital I’ve tried to scale back what I do, and make the call in my mind at least that another group has got that one covered. Campaigning on climate change & lobbying the universities? Cambridge Zero Carbon Society has more than got that one covered. Scrutinising new transport schemes? Smarter Cambridge Transport is on it. Better cycling provision? Cambridge Cycling Campaign have got that sorted.

I’ll finish linking to this article: Do you have a cause that is worth joining?


Commenting on planning applications


With so much money to be made from property in and around Cambridge, over-stretched and under-resourced planning officers and councillors find themselves on the receiving end of a planning system imposed by Central Government that ties their hands and enables developments that are either of poor quality, poor design, irritate local residents, destabilise communities or a combination of all. 

[If you’ve not read it, How developers game the planning system – a Cambridge case study]

“Hideous Cambridge – a city mutilated” was how the book by David Jones and Ellis Hall described what has been going on in Cambridge of late. (You can buy the book here). Old tweets from the book’s account are at and still make for interesting reading.

We see it time and again in Cambridge where the planning system railroads planning committees into approving planning applications which are not nearly as good as they could be. I’ve lost count the number of times developers and their agents have referred to schemes they are representing as ‘acceptable’. I’ve also lost count of the number of times councillors on planning committees have torn applications to bits, only to approve them at the vote because they know developers will appeal to Conservative ministers (who tabled the legislation) and planning inspectors acting under their authority, who will overturn refusals and award costs against local councils. In an age of austerity (where councils are also barred from raising revenue to compensate for central government cuts), it’s no wonder councils approve such poor and speculative schemes that store up problems later on.

Most recently I was filming at Cambridge City Council’s planning committee on an unpopular scheme that had over 100 objections to it

Despite the pleas from Dr Andy Clarke & Cllr Dr Dave Baigent, the scheme was still approved.

I’ll look at the history of the site in a different blogpost, suffice to say that the Romsey Labour Club was built with voluntary labour, had a foundation stone laid by a former Labour Prime Minister, and was opened by a then future Labour Chancellor.

“Do people know where to look for planning applications?”

It’s one of many things that doesn’t get nearly enough publicity as it should. But we’re in an age of clickbait where Z-list celebs being photographed forgetting to put on clothes, or that video of cute baby animals at the zoo are required viewing. And I can’t complain about baby cat photos given that I did a photoshoot of a litter of them recently.

Cambridge kittens

Cambridge kittens

“Look into my eyes – my eyes – not around my eyes – look into my eyes!”

Floofballs with claws.

Basically the place to search for planning applications is

In order to comment, you need to register. In part at the planning hearings, there has to be a public record of who objected to what. Lest some secretive group try to undermine local democracy. Personally I’d like to see the Land Registry data made public and searchable so the public can find out who owns what as a means for reducing corruption. (The Tories tried to privatise it recently, but such was the backlash they backed down).

The opening page of the portal looks like this:

Planning Portal 1

The keyword search is a bit temperamental – especially with road names as there are some which require further refining. Normally the postcode search is your best bet if you cannot find the reference number for the case concerned.

For an open case – ie one the public can comment on, let’s take this example of a change of use that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter today.

Planning Portal 2

Locals have issues with this because Cambridge has a huge affordable and social housing shortage – not helped by developers wiggling out of requirements to build such housing. So when these student flats were first proposed, it caused a bit of a storm. As Keith Edkins noted below, the planning permission granted came with conditions.

Keith Edkins Planning Condition


It will be interesting to see if Cambridge’s planning officers hold firm on the issue of lack of parking, or whether they will relent. Ditto for Cambridge’s planning committee.

“Which are the important documents to look at?”

Planning Portal 3

If you click on the documents tab (as above) you’ll get a list of things such as the above. The most important ones to look at from a general public’s point of view are the drawings. These are the ones highlighted in yellow and labeled ‘drawings’. Click on the ‘paper and magnifying glass’ symbols on the right and you can see the drawings as PDF documents.

“What if I want to make a comment?”

You can do so by clicking on the comments tab.

Planning Portal 4

…but you must register with the site in order to have your comments accepted. Alternatively, you can write to your Cambridge City Councillors (see and type in your post code) to let them know your views – do include the planning case reference number). If enough of you write to your local councillors, they may be persuaded to attend and speak on the planning application concerned. Below is one example where a big developer had their case thrown out following interventions from local residents who had recently moved in and spent a lot of money on their new homes, when they found out said developer was trying to get out of a planning condition on noise and pollution.

The above case made the local news – see by Tara Cox of the Cambridge News. (She was sitting with me on the press desk at this hearing).

“What do other people write as comments?”

Here are two examples of objections with the Royal Standard case.

Planning Portal 5

When objecting to a planning application, it’s best to be specific as to why – and to stay within what the law allows. Otherwise the planning committee will throw your objection out. To quote from Martin Goodall’s blogpost, reasons for refusal include:

  • “Adverse effect on the residential amenity of neighbours, by reason of (among other factors) noise*, disturbance*, overlooking, loss of privacy, overshadowing, etc. [*but note that this does not include noise or disturbance arising from the actual execution of the works, which will not be taken into account, except possibly in relation to conditions that may be imposed on the planning permission, dealing with hours and methods of working, etc. during the development] 
  • Unacceptably high density / over-development of the site, especially if it involves loss of garden land or the open aspect of the neighbourhood (so-called ‘garden grabbing’) 
  • Visual impact of the development
  • Effect of the development on the character of the neighbourhood
  • Design (including bulk and massing, detailing and materials, if these form part of the application) 
  • The proposed development is over-bearing, out-of-scale or out of character in terms of its appearance compared with existing development in the vicinity
  • The loss of existing views from neighbouring properties would adversely affect the residential amenity of neighbouring owners
  • [If in a Conservation Area, adverse effect of the development on the character and appearance of the Conservation Area]
  • [If near a Listed Building, adverse effect of the development on the setting of the Listed Building.] 
  • The development would adversely affect highway safety or the convenience of road users [but only if there is technical evidence to back up such a claim].”  

The above from Martin Goodall here.

Going by this blogpost from Ellisons Solicitors, it looks like the relevant issues to raise in objections in the case of the Royal Standard application in the screenshots, are the ones that relate to parking and traffic – ‘material conditions’ in planning language they state.

“You’re just a tree-hugging NIMBY who hates development!”

I boomeranged back into my childhood home because housing is so unaffordable – I’d love to have my own place but cannot afford it. Therefore a stop on house-building is the last thing that I need if I want my situation to change.

My issue is that the entire building, planning and development control system is working against, not with communities. Personally I think the quality of developments that are being and have been built in Cambridge have been substandard, and the people who are the first to lose out are those that buy those properties with a view to making their home here. Cambridge is their city too.

One thing I find interesting when speaking to people in the planning and building industry – the ones who have an interest in keeping Cambridge a nice place to live and work, are their off the record criticisms of developments that have been unpopular locally. It’s one thing for criticism to come from an affluent middle-aged property owner, but quite another to come from a planning or property professional who can list the faults with some of the more controversial and higher profile developments.

“What do the new residents say?”

This is one of the surveys I’d love to see commissioned and made annual – a survey of the people who have moved into new build homes in and around Cambridge for the medium to long term. What bas been their experience? What teething issues have they had? Which are the features in their neighbourhood that work really well? Which ones do not?

I get the sense that as a city we’re not good at collecting and sharing the evidence and experiences of this rapid development. It’s just ‘build-build-build’ and for investors and markets far away from Cambridge, with little benefit for the city as a whole.

Planning Portal 6

But with the property market being as it is, it’s not surprising that estate agents are more than happy to sell properties abroad at the expense of local residents in the face of a huge waiting list for social housing amongst other things. There’s nothing councils or councillors can do about this. The buck stops with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on international property sales. With Brexit taking up so much of Whitehall’s policy capacity, I’m not expecting any changes soon. Not under the existing government.

Young adults too are struggling to find somewhere affordable to live where they are not spending huge chunks of their earnings on rent. And as Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian states here, couples are putting off having children because of the precarious nature of employment and housing.  Or in my case, I’ve abandoned any ideas about settling down, buying a house and having children. I refuse to run in the rat race.