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Do ministers have a positive vision for local government in England?


According to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, the picture doesn’t look good.

190207 LGC localgov finances unsustainable

The headline in the Local Government Chronicle – one of the specialist sector publications covering local councils. (Read the article here).

Meg Hillier MP, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee – and thus one of the most influential MPs in the House of Commons, didn’t hold back her criticism.

Conclusions and recommendations from the House of Commons Spending Watchdog

Which is effectively what the Committee is – the National Audit Office reports to it. Have a look at the Committee’s recommendations and come to your own conclusions.

A broken system between central and local government

Picture this: You’ve spent years – decades even – working your socks of for your political party. You’ve pounded the streets in all weathers, stood for election in utterly unwinnable wards for local elections, and have done more than your fair share of late night committee work on your local council. At the nth time of trying, you get elected to Parliament representing your home constituency/a safe constituency ages away, and have plugged away on the back benches defending the indefensible and generally keeping the party management happy. Finally you get promoted to the dizzying heights of a junior ministerial post in local government policy, where you have a team of officials and a budget on which you can spend on what you like in your new policy area.

“Central government financial support for local government continues to be characterised by one-off, short-term initiatives, which do not provide value for money, rather than a meaningful long-term financial plan for the sector.”

Above – the first recommendation from the committee: Get rid of all of those short term initiatives. But then what is there for a junior minister to do other than to defend legislation during committee scrutiny sessions that the TV news never covers, but are essential for scrutinising new laws. You can get a feel for what life is like on these committees on Parliament.TV that only policy geeks and highly paid lobbyists keep an eye on. I’ve written ministerial speaking notes during my time – it’s extensive work for a very short amount of lines that end up on the statute books. In my case it was 100 pages of speaking notes for about 3 pages of clauses being scrutinised.

Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Over a decade ago during my civil service days, I joined one of the teams responsible for delivering a new local government White Paper [Communities in Control] when the Local Government Secretary was Hazel Blears MP, and Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. This was a very different time politically compared to anything that happened after 2010. One of the things I recall from the time was that a whole host of different schemes and ideas were being supported by a significant program of funding (over £100m over three years) taking place all over the country to find out what worked, and to share that learning. This was also supported by a heavily-staffed network of regional offices (long since closed by the Coalition).

Both this approach – the offer of lots of funding but with lots of strings attached, along with the huge cuts that followed causing many councils to reduce their functions to little more than what the law requires them to provide (i.e. “statutory services”) demonstrate a lack of confidence in local government as a concept.

Has central government always distrusted local government?

One thing to remember about the pre-2010 world is that in the grand scheme of things, it predated the arrival of social media in public policy. So in one sense we’re not really comparing like-with-like as far as scrutiny by the general public is concerned. Technology has been a huge driver.

Technology was also a huge driver in the growth and development of modern municipal government in the Victorian era as politicians struggled to deal with the symptoms and fallout of rapid population growth and rapid industrialisation. The mindset – even as late as the 1860s was that the urban poor should take responsibility for themselves to improve their condition. Even enlightened minds such as Professor Henry Fawcett, the Postmaster General, made this point in his opening speech to the newly opened Cambridge Workingmen’s Club on East Road, Cambridge. It was in the 1890s that we really started hearing about some radical policies for universal public services, such as Rollo Russell’s case for a National Health Service.

One of the things that enabled the growth – including the management and funding – of municipally run public services, were improvements in technology, in particular communications. While the railways get the historical headlines, around the same time huge leaps were being made in the development of the telegraph. Successive pieces of legislation throughout the 1800s passed by Parliament empowered local councils to take on new responsibilities and charge rate payers for the costs – hence the growth of local ratepayers associations to provide a check on the growth of local taxes.


Zapped by a referendum of Cambridge ratepayers, John Belcher’s painting of his guildhall design for Mayor Horace Darwin (son of Charles the botanist) 1896/97.

World wars and big state

The growth of ‘big state’ very much happened as a result of the state’s response to the demands of wars – and then the calls to provide ‘homes fit for heroes’ and so on. Continual improvements in communications technologies made it easier for civil servants to manage things from the centre – not without its critics.

261013 Liberal Socialist farming spoof

The Cambridge Chronicle (strong Conservative supporters) of 1926 lampooning the rise of state-employed inspectors. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.

In the battles between Labour and Conservatives in the decades that followed the war years, there were ongoing battles as to what functions should be provided for by the state, and what should be provided for by the private or not-for-profit sectors.

Technology changes again

One of the earliest examples of automation – of modern technology taking over the role previously done by people – is that of the traffic police officer directing traffic at major junctions during rush hour. I still remember seeing the sight of one poor police officer in Athens stuck in the middle of a busy Athens intersection in Greece in the year 2000 when I was there for a student conference. Blue police boxed also came and went in the post war years. How many younger Doctor Who fans can recall seeing an operational police phone box?

It’s not just social media when we talk about technological changes. Automation is another one. Just as typing pools of officials who would turn written manuscripts into typed up papers pre-personal computers are now a thing of the past, it remains to be seen how a new wave of automation can improve public services. Will the long-publicised self-driving cars lead to self-driving ambulances?

Members of Parliament slam the “unacceptable lack of ambition for the sector, with no aspiration for improving local finances beyond merely ‘coping’. “

Across the country the desperate images of people sleeping in the streets were on the front pages of Britain’s national newspapers this week.

The responsibility for dealing with homelessness rests with local councils, but given the state of the housing market bubble combined with perilous local government finances resulting from the cuts in central government support, the symptoms of the lack of funding for public services is there for all to see.

The Treasury’s iron-fisted control of local council finances

Following the huge revolt against Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax of 1990, John Major brought in a new system of property-based taxation to help fund local councils. The amount each householder pays in England is based on the value of the property as of 01 April 1991, and the band that it falls into. Which gives more than a hint of the temporary nature of the policy at the time, and reveals that local government revenue raising has been put in the “too difficult to deal with” pile by successive governments and ministers ever since.

This leaves local councils with very little flexibility to raise money elsewhere. In Scotland, Edinburgh wants to try out a tourist tax. Which is all well and good if you have lots of tourists staying overnight, but useless if you are somewhere like Cambridge, Stratford Upon Avon or Bath, where a very large proportion of tourists are ‘day trippers’. Finally, the idea of an income-based levy to fund local services was thrown out in the 1980s because if I recall correctly, the Conservatives did not want to run the risk of having a far left Chancellor of the Exchequer in every other town hall in the country – remember that in the early 1980s this was the Labour Party of Michael Foot – remembered now more kindly as a journalist and an intellectual, but who was monstered in the print press of the day.

“So…who has a positive vision for local government?”

In my opinion not the current administration because so much of their policy capacity has been diverted to deal with the self-inflicted wound called Brexit – of which we’re going into the final straight that runs the high risk of destroying both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party as we know them. I can’t recall a time when high profile MPs from both parties have threatened to resign over the same policy issue at the same time.

With Brexit dominating the media political discourse, there simply isn’t the media space to have what probably is a much-needed discussion not just on how to fund local councils in the 21st Century, but how to tax multinational corporations and large digital companies who may be domiciled elsewhere.

Local government is complicated

But it also has huge opportunities for national politicians who feel they may have hit a dead end. Look at the likes of Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester for Labour. Both were senior ministers in Gordon Brown’s administration. Mr Burnham left Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in 2016 to stand for Labour as their candidate for executive/metro mayor, while Mr Khan resigned his seat in Parliament the same year, after not taking a shadow ministerial portfolio in 2015.

One thing that both mayoral politicians have been able to do is to take political viewpoints not always in line with the leadership in Westminster. This is because being outside of Parliament and having their own direct mandate from the voters as mayors, they can argue that they are not directly politically accountable to the leader of their party for every move they make or word they say. (Whereas both Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet run on the convention of collective responsibility).

A short blogpost isn’t the place to set out a complex vision for local government that deals with things like providing public services in the face of both climate change and an ageing population – while trying to take on the low levels of trust voters have with the political class generally. (Again, are the levels unprecedented historically or have they always been low?)

The challenge from the Public Accounts Committee for me goes far beyond just admonishing ministers, but goes for all of us. We’ve got to get serious about deciding what services we want our local councils to deliver/provide – and even more so get real[istic] about how we ensure they are provided with the funding, powers and resources to do their jobs.


Tapping into Cambridge’s economic wealth to support local heritage


What can town institutions and archives learn from our larger University-backed cousins?

The Fitzwilliam Museum has posted details of how to support it on its website here. The much smaller Museum of Cambridge has details here. The Cambridgeshire Collection – despite repeated prodding by me (and through no fault of the over-stretched staff, I’m laying the blame at the feet of the executive councillors who are the decision-makers) haven’t got anything on their landing page on how to donate financially to support it or our archives. (The Cambridgeshire Collection’s landing page is here).

Back in September, I had a look at the figures for additional income from Libraries from the County Council. It’s not great.

Phil Rodgers picked up on the Library Extra membership. The thing is I’ve not seen any evidence of a huge communications effort by councillors and the council to promote this to constituents.

“Isn’t there a ‘donation’ button”

There is – but it’s hidden away and you’ve got to look for it. (See the link here). Given the financial problems the council faces, and the talk of further cuts to library services, I’m surprised that Conservative councillors have not been far more vocal about getting more support for our libraries, and that this isn’t reflected by the county council’s social media activity. Given the number of Facebook likes Cambridgeshire Libraries has, it really should have links either to Library Extra membership, and/or to the donations page. For all its fees and critics, a simple Paypal button may also go a long way. Note the County Council is on Instagram here.

Patrons of Cambridge and County local history – could the Fitzwilliam Museum’s model work?

The Fitzwilliam Museum sources donations from very wealthy people and organisations through its Marlay Group. Benefits for that include:

  • Private Views of major exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam and selected exhibitions in London and across the region
  • Exploration of the Fitzwilliam collections with opportunities to see the curators and conservators at work and learn more about the works of art
  • Visits to private homes, country houses and gardens
  • Annual Director’s Dinner at the Fitzwilliam
  • Study trip abroad including exclusive private visits
  • Annual Marlay Lecture at the Fitzwilliam
  • What’s On guide delivered termly, allowing you advanced booking for all public programme events

Now, in the grand scheme of things you won’t get visits to London exhibitions, study abroad trips and glamorous on-site receptions with local heritage – not least because we don’t have the big premises that we could have if we got our old Assizes Court on Castle Hill rebuilt.Shire Hall Court House 28184

A model of the old Assizes Court on Castle Hill, inexplicably demolished in the 1950s to make way for a car park. 

What could a patrons network offer in return for ‘expensive membership’? 

Well – that plus how would you split the funds raised? The Cambridgeshire Collection is hosted in the Cambridge Central Library, the County Archives have been moved to Ely – not without controversy, and the Museum of Cambridge is a separate organisation altogether. Ditto the Cambridge Museum of Technology.

For me, part of the backing could come from local historic businesses – or businesses that occupy historic buildings. The University Arms Hotel, the soon-to-be-opened hotel at the Old Police Station, and the Old Addenbrooke’s (i.e. the Judge Institute) are all places that have important civic histories – and that’s before we even look at The Guildhall and Shire Hall themselves. There’s also scope for teaming up for joint fundraisers with institutions such as the Arts Theatre at an older end, and The Junction at a more contemporary end – not forgetting the old theatre now part of the Cambridge Buddhist Centre.

It’s not just about the money with a patrons’ network

It’s the influence far beyond the day-to-day things that can make a difference on some really big things, and can be as simple but effective as a personal introduction. I’m also of the view that Cambridge still isn’t functioning anywhere near to its potential. We could be so much greater than the sum of our parts, but all too often we fall short. From my vantage point watching local democracy, local institutions fighting against each other is one of the biggest problems. But how do you persuade the current lot of ministers that local government reform would be a good idea in the face of the political crises of this era?

Making local history relevant to the people who live and work in Cambridge – and vice versa

I’ve sometimes wondered whether people in major decision-making roles – whether for public, private or not-for-profit sectors ever see themselves as makers of local history. It’s something that can quite easily be forgotten. During my civil service days, one of the things I fought tooth-and-nail to secure funding for was this neighbourhood centre in Oldham. I didn’t see myself in anything like the role of a ‘history maker’ for that neighbourhood, and still don’t now. Yet for the thousands and thousands of people who are in and have been in the civil service, they all have their equivalent projects that they championed that made a positive difference to a local neighbourhood. This just happened to be my one.

The break of the links between capital and neighbourhood I believe is one of the reasons why we see far too many unpopular development schemes getting the go-ahead. The institutions that put the money up in the first place are not the ones that have to live, eat and breathe in the developments that provide them with the financial return. The system we live in provides a much stronger incentive for developments that provide a greater financial return for the financier than for the people who spend their lives either living or working there. The developments around the railway station in Cambridge is a classic case of developers being accused of gaming the planning system for such purposes. In his article in The Guardian, Olly Wainwright pulled out some pretty scathing quotations on the CB1 Development. All of the recent developments around the railway station could have made someone’s name (or the names of a number of people) go down in local civic legend for the right reasons. Instead all we have left is some vague memories and photographs of buildings that should have been preserved.

181211 Rattee and Kett Station Road Buildings.jpg

Rattee and Kett’s buildings on the corner of Station Road, Cambridge – long since demolished. From the Cambridgeshire Collection. (See why local archives are important?)

Prioritising local heritage in an era of long-term austerity

Why should we spend an extra penny on local heritage when there are homeless people sleeping outside in the cold in front of all those old buildings? The same could be said for the Government’s wine cellar. Or nuclear weapons. Or controversial Cambridge University graduate Prince Edward. (Controversial because of his grades vs entry requirements). I can’t pretend to be a huge fan of the Royal Family, but even their visits to Cambridge are part of our heritage, just as much as our former Member of Parliament, a certain Mr Oliver Cromwell is – noting that the Lord Protector used King’s College Chapel as a military parade ground during bad weather. (Which is why the stained glass windows are still there according to the tour guides that took me round just after Christmas – his soldiers wanted to keep warm so didn’t smash the windows. The other college chapels were not so fortunate).

Making it easy to for people to stumble across our local heritage

That’s one of the reasons for having a local blue plaque scheme – run for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire by Cambridge Past Present & Future. (I sit on the committee that assesses the nominations). This scheme was founded by former mayor of Cambridge John Durrant, who sadly passed away only a few days ago. A further loss following the tragic passing of Mayor Nigel Gawthrop only a couple of weeks ago. That’s two huge civic presences we’ll be missing, and both local history makers in their own right. Who will be inspired by their examples and step forward to fill their shoes whether in local democracy and/or civic society in general?





40 this year? Where did all the years go?


Personal ageing in an era of [political] hopelessness

An ad for Dodie Clark’s new album was thrown across my screen a few days ago, with a description that she’d become famous through posting self-composed online music videos plus a cover-version or three. I stumbled across this song she performed with her younger sister Hedy, some years ago.

For those of you with children, don’t let them do this challenge that the two of them did.

Every so often you stumble across a musician and artist who is able to work in a way that was just not possible even a decade ago. Dodie’s video Freckles and Constellations is one such example – where she crowd-sourced the entire track from her followers and spliced it together. While I’ve seen the concept of individuals recording separate parts of a track in their own rooms and sending over the footage to a central composer for the latter to put together – such as Eric Whittaker’s Virtual Choir  – which did the rounds in the run up to the 2010 general election as an example of what this new social and digital media world of pioneers was doing while the mainstream media danced along to Bucks Fizz here – innocent times indeed.

Almost a decade since the 2010 General Election

Sometimes it feels like yesterday, sometimes it feels like a lifetime away in another world somewhere. And how politics has changed. I remember during my civil service days our permanent secretary at the time telling us that Parliament would matter much more in the day-to-day work of the civil service than under Blair and Brown. Compared with today, I’m almost embarrassed for Labour that they allowed their backbenchers to become little more than rubber-stamping machines for an all-powerful executive in the decade from the start of the new Millennium. For all the complete clusterfuck that politics currently is at all levels, at least the House of Commons is now dominating the news agenda on policy, rather than the press releases from Downing Street plus a bit of gossip. Not that many of us could explain what “No Deal” actually means – nor “May’s Deal”, nor “The Backstop” either.

My lost decade since 2010

For want of another term, I burnt out in 2011 around the time I was due to leave the civil service anyway, and spent the whole of August 2011 with late mornings and early nights before finally having a mental health crisis of early 2012. Work-wise it was a lost decade – not being able to work full time. There’s no other way to describe it.

I never recovered

I’ve also not seen much improvement in the availability of mental health care to the extent it gives people the genuine chance of making at least a half-decent recovery. My first mental health crisis that I went to see a doctor about was almost two decades ago, in the year 2000. I lost too many friends and acquaintances in the course of my mental health crises that followed. Then there was my time in hospital with a suspected heart attack just over a year ago – which we never found the cause of it. But what no one else could possibly see was the impact, the mental and emotional impact of going through something like that had on me. The anxiety that’s brought on from every single minor internal itch, ache, pain – and the fear that it could be something major is something that is so utterly and grindingly exhausting that it is difficult to put into words.

So…where next?

Last October I wrote how I never found my tribe. Even if it were standing right in front of me with a big *Welcome* mat, chances are I wouldn’t have the mental headspace/spoons to interact with them anyway. For some reason it has become all the more harder to get motivated to do stuff during the winter months. It didn’t used to be a problem, whereas now the exhaustion feels permanent.

Having to pull out of some activities

The hardest one is pulling out of my singing group as they move things up a gear (so if you are a tenor vocalist in/around Cambridge, do give them a go!) They are doing more ‘In the dark’ performances this year – in Suffolk, London and Cambridge – although the Cambridge tickets sold out on the day they were released. Again.

I think I sang in 19 of the 20 performances in the Round Church, Cambridge, as well as two further performances in Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel between late 2017/early 2018.

The rehearsing, memorising, more rehearsing, and the travelling lined up is going to be too much for me – especially given the increase in some of my academic commitments following enrolling on a p/t undergraduate course in politics & sociology at Cambridge University as a means to retrain my mind before applying it to my research in local history – hopefully within the University’s academic framework. Not enough people signed up for the local history course this academic year – hence launching a new Lost Cambridge Meetup Group where I host monthly talks at the Cambridgeshire Collection – still being run on a shoestring of a budget by county councillors. My frustration is that Cambridge has got such a rich collective history within its city boundaries but for all the wealth we’re told we have, we’re unable to use even a small fraction of it to tell and share some of the most incredible and inspiring stories I’ve ever heard.

Out with old books, in with even older books

Seems to be the order of the day of late – and not because the Kondo effect has been in the news. Periodic clearouts are normal for me where books are concerned. Mainly it’s the books that I bought with the intention to read but never did – finding out a few years later that they are obsolete or have just aged big time. Like the 2007 era book on using SPSS to introduce statistics. Because it looked like a reasonably fun-yet-powerful program at the end of my first degree and I’d need to get more statistically competent in future, wouldn’t I? So I’m replacing many of those academic books with some long lost books from Cambridge’s distant and more recent but forgotten past.

…as well as some more recent numbers

One person who has caught my eye is John Cornford, who I wrote about here. He’s the third Cambridge hero I’ve read about who went to Spain to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, after Leah Manning and Frida Stewart/Knight. Hence doing some background reading on the conflict.

“We were only waving to the crowds – honest!”

At no point during my childhood were we ever told about the atrocities committed by the clerics of the same institution that I had to go to as a child – it was only something I would find out about in my study of history. Hence seeing images such as the above make me sick to the stomach. The war is still a hotly-contested era of history to this day. John Cornford’s surname lives on in my neighbourhood because John’s younger brother, Hugh, trained as a medical doctor. In the late 1950s he returned to Cambridge and bought a house on the corner of Wulfstan Way in South Cambridge. Rather than acquire separate premises for a surgery, he set one up in his house to serve the still-being-built housing estates of Queen Edith’s Ward. Today we call that surgery Cornford House.

A repeat of politically hopeless times?

Last summer I went through every single copy of the Cambridge Daily News from 1935-39 while doing research on the artist and author Ronald Searle – another town hero. The grinding hopelessness of political headlines – in particular the international ones, are something that resonate with me today. How many of you can name the lead politicians of Neville Chamberlain’s Cabinet? How many of you could name who his predecessor as Prime Minister was? The Labour names of 1945 might be more familiar – Attlee, & his ministers Bevan, Bevin, Morrison – they may have been socialists but at least you’d heard of them. Today’s equivalents in ministerial office? Non-entities. It’s lucky there isn’t a very hot war on that’s approaching our doorsteps – but then the historical record shows governments making the mistake of preparing for the last war rather than the next one, which arguably has already broken out and is one where the weapons are information and disinformation.

And that’s the hard bit: every gadget that gives us access to the internet is also a potential battlefield over which today’s geo-political battles are being fought. My challenge as I tread my solitary path (in a realistic rather than a *woe is me!* mindset, because the latter won’t get essential stuff done) is dodging those negative thought-spirals and mind-weasels that all-to-often leave me emotionally flawed. Unfortunately this level of historical researching (i.e. for Lost Cambridge) is not a group activity or a team sport. It is a deeply intense, and time-consuming slog through a huge amount of information. And sometimes the little engine inside your soul tells you to plough on through it.

In the meantime, if anyone can think of any unwilling potential political heroes who look like they might be able to get us out of at least one of the political quagmires that we’re in, I’m all ears.






Can we commission a giant Cambridge women’s suffrage mural like East London did?


The mural for Sylvia Pankhurst is huge and magnificent. Cambridge is full of bland walls on new buildings that could host something like it, celebrating the women who made modern Cambridge. 

It’s quite impressive, don’t you think?

190118 East London Sylvia Pankhurst Mural.jpg

Picture credit – Inspiring City

The artist behind the above mural is Jerome Davenport

It’s not like Cambridge has a shortage of candidates – you can read all about many of them in Sue Slack’s book Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote <<– Click on link to order your copy.

In the Palmer Clark archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection we have all of the glass plate negatives that we’ve had developed that artists and muralists can work with.

Above – Eglantyne Jebb and Clara Rackham – from the Palmer Clark Archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection, colourised by Photo Restoration Services.

There are also enough scenes from their lives that can be incorporated into such murals. Dr Deborah Thom gave an interesting lecture about the life and times of Clara Rackham at Anglia Ruskin University.

Cambridge Public Art Grants

Cambridge City Council has guidance on these here. That said, I’d like to think that for something really big we could get further sponsorship and crowd funding to top up anything that the city council was able to contribute.

Additional to the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire Blue Plaque Scheme

In 2018 we unveiled civic plaques celebrating Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Clara Rackham.

Cambridge’s first woman MP, Anne Campbell, unveiling a blue plaque for Millicent Garrett Fawcett at Cambridge Guildhall’s large hall. The scheme for blue plaques for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire is run by Cambridge Past, Present and Future. You can find details of how to nominate individuals here. [*Declaration of interest – I sit on the committee that decides on who gets plaques and who doesn’t. Please note the criteria – which includes the nominated individual must have been deceased for at least 10 years before a nomination can be made. Furthermore, the cost of the metallic plaque alone is several hundred pounds. Hence the fundraising requirement of £1,000.

“Where would you put such murals?”

I have more than a few ideas, but then I don’t want them to be only in the places in Cambridge that I’m familiar with. That said, Addenbrooke’s has more than a few empty walls that ***lots of people*** walk past every day – so that sort of site is ideal for something like this. Where would you have such murals created? Got ideas of your own? Let your city/district/borough councillor know – drop them an email via


Encouraging more diversity in our local theatres – a case study with The Junction, Cambridge.


Spring 2019 shows a welcome improvement in diversity in their lineup for this season.

Because I’ve complained about the lack of women in their line ups in the past – and that’s before mentioning other protected characteristics on all things diversity.

…as well as trying to encourage those inside the industry to book shows and guests at a venue built to support young and new talent in the arts.

…because in 2013 if I recall correctly there may have been only one woman on the line up.

Recalling The Junction’s history

In the post-war era, venues were closing one-after-another as the town declined economically, leading to large areas becoming very run down. Castle End by Shire Hall, The Kite where The Grafton Centre is, the old Cattle Market by the railway station, Newtown between Hills Road and Trumpington Road, Mill Road too all experienced at various stages this blight that affected the city.

It’s still something I’m trying to get my head around today in the face of Cambridge being in the eye of the international property bubble. Cambridge lost a number of venues from 1945:

  • The Masonic Lodge (Under Lion Yard Car Park)
  • The Alley Club (Under Lion Yard Shopping Center)
  • Dorothy’s (Now Waterstones)
  • The Lion Hotel (Somewhere under Petty Cury/Lion Yard Shopping Centre)
  • Beaconsfield Hall (now houses)
  • The Kinema
  • The Tivoli
  • The Victoria Cinema (now M&S Food Hall)
  • The Playhouse (now Sally Anne’s).
  • The Co-operative Halls (now Primark)
  • St Andrew’s Hall
  • The Rendezvous at Magrath Avenue (now housing)
  • The Drill Hall on East Road

In the grand scheme of things, very little of note has taken its place other than The Junction. Since the Millennium, we’ve grown by the size of a small town (30,000 or so) but haven’t had the growth in leisure facilities nor the transport infrastructure that gets people to and from said venues. By the 1980s, with the threat of the closure of the Cambridge Corn Exchange and the non-delivery of a new concert hall, young people joined an occupation in a squatted warehouse on East Road – then experiencing major planning blight with the protracted regeneration involving the Grafton Centre.

Riot police were involved, and various councillors demanded that something must be done. It was into this mix that three Labour councillors were at the start of their political careers. One of them was Cllr Anne Campbell – who became our city’s first woman MP in 1992. It could have been Shirley Williams at the 1987 election but in the end the left-liberal vote was split and historian Robert Rhodes James kept the seat for the Conservatives. Today, Conservatives in Cambridge tend to be a) old and b) rare. Therefore you can get a decent price for them on the Antiques Roadshow.

Another new councillor – like Anne, on the county council, was Melanie Johnson for Cherry Hinton – who got elected to Parliament in Welwyn/Hatfield in 1997 and became a Treasury Minister. The final new arrival to local government – this time on the city council, but next door to Melanie, serving the People’s Republic of Romsey Town, was a certain Mr Barry Gardiner – today the Shadow International Trade Secretary for Labour and a regular on telly. (See all their names here, along with their terms of office).

It was as a result of young people campaigning to get a new youth venue built that they finally settled on The Junction by Hills Road Bridge/Cherry Hinton Road – in my childhood neighbourhood.

That’s not to say other ideas weren’t tried out – the proposal for the East Road flying saucer was thrown out by the Tories on the County Council who were the transport authority.

A breeze-block-box in the middle of an old livestock sales site with half-demolished buildings and a make-shift car-park

You wouldn’t think that the old Park and Ride (south) site was on what is now Cambridge Leisure Park, but it was. A few car parking spaces were given up for the new venue to be built, and it opened in 1990. My first visit on the outside was in 1993 when they hosted a drive-in cinema for that summer. Two summers later I went to my first club night. Yet since the regular club nights of the 1990s, the number of events aimed at young people has fallen back from its heyday – mainly because of the failure of national politicians to work out how to deal with the centuries-long issue of children and youths drinking alcohol.

Adding additional stages and expanding

In 2005 an addition to the complex – The Junction 2, was added on the back of a Lottery grant. Although various stand-up comedians have said it looks like a prison inside the main auditorium due to the liberal use of metal, it has a better acoustic than the minimal-cost breeze-block-box next to it that, if we’re honest is more than showing its wear and tear. That extension has also meant that a more diverse range of entertainments can be put on. But – as the tweets above show, the diversification of artistic types represented hasn’t always extended to those headlining.

Addressing diversity in the arts world.

In some seasons gone by, you’d be lucky to find a comedy event not headlined by a White male from an affluent background. Even the comedy cabaret nights with multiple short acts struggled to book a slate of acts that weren’t simply a line up of men doing stand up comedy. I remember asking some acquaintances about why this was such a problem. Part of it was that The Junction is simply a venue that independent production companies book, rather than having the in-house production company that can decide for itself. In stand up comedy, especially in the world of political satire, the lack of diversity is still a big problem. I gave up on Mock the Week ages ago.

190116 mocktheweek diversityfail tweets

I think I got bored of Cambridge graduate Hugh Dennis making one-too-many genital-themed private-school-oxbridge type jokes. Hence a few years ago making the decision to go and support more local acts breaking the negative sterotypes. Thus I’m particularly pleased that Ellie Taylor has been booked for this autumn.

Even Madonna is a fan.

Also appearing this year are:

We’re also seeing a few more young women musicians at The Junction’s monthly “Fiver” nights – a showcase for young local bands in and around the city. This is another area that has been difficult to get gender equality on line-ups. Pubs, cafes and small bars can be seen hosting more than a few women singer/songwriter musicians but all-women four+ piece bands are still rare compared with the boys. That said, this year there have been a number that were on January’s line up and are on one or two of the future ones, but many of these musicians are still at school. The outstanding act from January’s show was 16 year old Gabby Rivers.

…who – now with backing band, commanded her audience like a veteran of many years.

There’s still a very long way to go though. And with the Cambridge Live Trust having to be brought back in house by Cambridge City Council, along with continued austerity from central government, financial room to experiment and take risks feels more limited. Yet in an era of social media, I’d like to think as a city we could be building some new, bigger venues, and improving some of our existing ones too, in order to make them more financially sustainable and create the space for more diverse line ups to flourish.

Anne Campbell (Lab – Cambridge, 1992 – 2005) speaking to Mill Road History Society. 08 Jan 2019.


Listening and learning from Mrs Campbell’s time as our MP. But before that, my own experiences of Cambridge in the 1990s as context.

Let me take you back to a time when the main Cambridge was a very different place politically and socially.

Chesterton was a Conservative stronghold, Labour ran the council but with a wafer-thin majority, and the Liberal Democrats as a political party had only just been invented. The Member of Parliament was the Conservative Historian Robert Rhodes James. And I was at primary school, making the transition to go to Secondary School. It was this Cambridge that former Cambridgeshire County Councillor for Petersfield division (in the news today) Anne Campbell secured the nomination for Labour at the 1992 General Election.

According to school and church, sex was something not spoken about in polite society, and was something only parents did if they wanted to have a baby. Sex outside marriage didn’t exist – and neither did anything outside the strict teachings of the church because of Section 28. Hobbies were things that you had to take exams and medals tests in, or perform in front of parents and their friends. And this chap was responsible for the system of social security.

The whole of my childhood up until a few months before my 18th birthday were spent with The Conservatives in Government.

And as I became more politically aware, the more I began to hate the Tories. Because at school our buildings were so bad that even the Tories had to find money to replace all of the buildings lest any of the students got killed by crumbling pieces of glass and masonry.

Hedonism being one of the few escapes

That summer of 1995 was the one where I started drinking with friends – just before we went into year 11. Think teenage drinking and drug taking is a new phenomenon? It isn’t. This generation, my generation, the ones of the 60s & 70s (See Warren Dosanjh’s book about Cambridge music in the 1960s) through to Cambridge during WW2. Even Eglantyne Jebb in the run up to WWI talks of a Cambridge with so many pubs down its main roads that it’s a wonder that we got anything done or made given how drunk we all must have been!

The irony for me is that Labour councillors in the 1990s were put under huge pressure from the college masters to do something about underage drinking – especially with pubs serving teenagers, that it drove many teenagers into the hands of drug dealers. It got to the stage where it was easier for teenagers in the 1990s to get hold of controlled narcotics than it was alcohol (because dealers don’t ask you for ID).

Caught between two worlds.

I was caught between two very different worlds – ones which contributed to my mental health problems of today and the fallout of which are some things local councillors have to deal with today whenever I rock up to a council meeting to ask questions. There’s decades of baggage behind some of the questions – baggage that could have been dealt with had successive governments provided proper mental healthcare for teenagers and young adults at the time, amongst other things.

The two worlds were the sort of fantasy that some Remain campaigners accuse some Brexit campaigners of wanting to take Britain back to – where the church was much more prominent in public life, along with its strict morals, where Britain had an empire and where fiction books in schools were full of dashing young White boys on colonial adventures while girls knew their place. The other was a world backlashing against authority, one full of cigarettes, alcohol, dope and music. Oh – and all the portrayals of the figures of Christianity were of White Jesus and White disciples. Like in this spoof.

“I was born in the Middle East 2000 years ago – it’s pretty clear about that. It should be pretty obvious I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes.”

Yes – the Cambridge I grew up in was very White Middle Class, socially conservative, and politically fragmented, as reflected in the election results in those two decades. Which was a strange place to be as one of about a dozen or so children from mixed-heritage backgrounds in a year group of 250 children at secondary school.

And finally: No internet.

“Why is all of the above important?”

Other than my blog, my rules, the city that Anne Campbell became politically active in during the early 1980s was a very different place to the city of today.

Cambridge under the crushing thumb of Margaret Thatcher’s Government. 

One of her most vociferous critics from within her own party according to Mrs Campbell was her predecessor, the historian Robert Rhodes James – who apparently couldn’t bear to be in the same room as the former Prime Minister on some occasions.

A big economic problem Cambridge faced in the 1980s was unemployment – and alongside that, low pay. The colleges were notorious for low salaries for working class Cambridge residents – and this was in the days before the national minimum wage. It was this lack of a national minimum wage that meant my first wage was £2.65 an hour at the local Budgen’s Supermarket – since closed, on Cherry Hinton Road. I am just old enough to remember what it was like working under what was an incredibly unpopular government – one that ultimately delivered the worst general election result for the Conservatives since the Great Reform Bill of the 1830s.

Tuition fees part 1

Not long after Labour turfed the Tories out of power, Tony Blair brought in up-front tuition fees. My year group was pencilled in as the first year to pay them – along with the scrapping of maintenance grants.

Tony Blair himself admitted to being taken aback by the hostility over the introduction of tuition fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants, one of the first major decisions of his new administration in 1997.”

This meant that my older brother – who had just started university – received a grant and didn’t have to pay fees, while me, a couple of years younger than him, got no grant and had to pay fees. I still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair for this. The question I put to Mrs Campbell was about the impact this had on young people and the Labour Party. Because my experience when I went down to Brighton in the late 1990s to go to university myself was that it made brand Labour absolutely toxic. The long term impact of this was that it turned the newly designated city of Brighton and Hove Green – politically. The then Cllr Keith Taylor made a breakthrough with the largest Green vote in the 2001 general election with over 4,000 votes, which doubled to 8,000 in 2005, before Caroline Lucas finally took the seat in 2010.

Yet according to Mrs Campbell, there was strong working class support for fees because as far as workers could see, students were simply drinking away taxpayers’ money on their grant. A follow-up point from local historian Allan Brigham, a council roadsweeper for many years, showed that there was a massive class divide even back then between students and working class communities. (I wonder to what extent this was driven by TV sitcoms as well as a failure by universities to bring together students and local residents for joint events and activities).

In the 2004 when Labour brought in higher but deferred fees, it was (along with the Iraq war) that cost Anne Campbell her seat when she abstained rather than voted against the legislation – a bill that needed the support of Labour MPs in Scotland to bring in fees that only affected students from England. The Tories at the time opposed the rise in fees, only to do a tyre-screeching U-turn a few years later in the Coalition of 2010-15, the effects of which still plague the Liberal Democrats. (My blogpost from ages ago on University fees covers the history of the policy that none of the political parties that should shame all political parties). Mrs Campbell said that they knew a long time in advance that Labour was going to lose Cambridge from information in the canvass returns.

The Iraq War – and Mrs Campbell’s resignation from the Labour Government

Mrs Campbell was asked a couple of questions about this and international intervention. In the initial run up to the war in autumn 2002, local peace campaigners presented a petition to her with over 2,000 signatures on it. She also received a similar amount of correspondence arguing against going to war.

“What persuaded her to resign as an aide to Patricia Hewitt in Government?”

Mrs Campbell explained that compared to other MPs, she was effectively a loyalist – very very rarely rebelling against the Labour whip. Voting against a Labour Government on anything was a very big deal for her. She said that it ultimately came down to the United Nations and the second UN resolution. If the United Nations explicitly authorised military action to get rid of the Weapons of Mass Destruction, she would vote with the Government. No resolution, she would not, and would resign. Which is ultimately what happened. (I’ll try and dig out the front page of the Cambridge News of this). One person she spoke very highly of when discussing whether to resign or not was the late Robin Cook – one of the first Labour politicians I remember from childhood because he was always on TV.

I remember at the time being furious with Patricia Hewitt for criticising Mrs Campbell over her considerations and ultimately her decision to resign, describing it as “self-indulgent.” But note the language Ms Hewitt used as a minister is identical to that of the current Prime Minister Theresa May on ‘working flat out’ to achieve an otherwise unachievable policy objective that everyone knows is unachievable. And thus dismissing hypotheticals that they don’t want to get drawn into – no matter how likely said hypothetical is. Today, Ms Hewitt has a role at the University of Oxford, and is on Liam Fox’s new Board of Trade – which feels very far removed from the Labour Party of today led by Jeremy Corbyn.

Back to 1992 – a front row seat on some huge political moments

Robin Cook made this speech on the Arms to Iraq Inquiry debate following the report published by Sir Richard Scott.

“Ministers changed the guidelines on defence sales, and did not tell Parliament or the court.”

The big accusation – which should have led to the fall of the government of the day, was that ministers were prepared to allow innocent men to go to jail to save their faces.   This not long after Mrs Campbell’s maiden speech in the Commons. Note how few women MPs and MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds there are in that 1992 House of Commons.

Campaigning against inequality – comparing the early 1990s with today

Mrs Campbell said that unemployment and low pay were two of Cambridge’s big problems, and that Cambridge University and its colleges were one of the major forces dragging down average pay across the city. It was only with the growth of supermarkets – Tesco in Milton and Fulbourn in particular opening in that period – that put upward pressure on pay with Cambridge University because they were paying more than the colleges were. I remember a number of people from my local supermarket moving to Tesco in Fulbourn because it paid over £1 an hour more – which was the equivalent of a 50% pay rise for some of them just for switching employer. Could you blame them?

You saw the demonisation of single parents by the former Secretary of State for Social Security. One of the things Mrs Campbell she campaigned on was to make work financially worthwhile for parents – especially single parents. She gave the example of a former county council employee who had to give up her job in the early 1990s after a relationship breakdown which meant that she was spending more on childcare than she could afford staying in her job. It was more affordable for her to be on benefits even though she wanted to stay in her job. The policy that Labour brought in on Working Family Tax Credits would ultimately result in nearly 100,000 fewer workless families with children, and no doubt had a positive impact on reducing poverty across more low paid families too.

Yet we still see homeless people on the street today as we did in the 1990s. So what has gone wrong? The big problem is not unemployment, but high costs of living and a lack of affordable housing – as one homeless person in Cherry Hinton was recently quoted in the Cambridge News. In retail, catering and other low paid but essential jobs needed to keep cities functioning, Cambridge has shortages. Yet employers say they cannot afford to pay more because of things like high rents and business rates. Given Cambridge’s ‘clone town’ reputation, franchise fees may also be an additional cost.


So how was your 2018? This was mine.



Writing a blogpost because creating a video medley feels like too hard work.

Remember that a couple of days before the start of the year, I was in a hospital bed recovering from exploratory surgery at Papworth Hospital (now Royal Papworth) following a suspected heart attack.

…hence starting this with a thank you to all who looked after me during that trial of life.

I wrote about it in this blogpost, which in the grand scheme of things says you come out a very different person from the one before. As a result, I ended up dropping things like hot stones – in particular anything political and community action.

Keeping Cambridge Special in the face of massive expansion – but special for whom?

Filming at a joint event at the start of the year – I wonder how these events will look to future historians in say in the year 2065 or 2200? Or will future historians be more interested in what delegates are wearing, the accents they speak in, and the set up of the conferencing facilities?

More Qs on the proposed metro system for Cambridge

When I tabled this question, I had no idea how controversial things were to become in the year ahead. From my perspective looking at things over a 100 year+ time horizon, Cambridge’s future transport has to involve tunnels along with something other than buses transporting people around and beyond town: i.e. it has to connect surrounding towns and villages too. Just before the end of this year, the Greater Cambridge Partnership *finally* published a video that should have been launched at the start back in 2014.

Had something like the above been commissioned and published back in 2014, they would have saved themselves a huge amount of work and aggravation.

Top economist Kate Raworth visits Cambridge for Imagine2027

An important series of events this was – Imagine 2027 by the Cambridge Commons & the Equality Trust brought together a number of top progressive thinkers to get them to set out their visions for life in 2027.

The centenary of some women being given the vote

Surely the politicians of the day were told that this would be a ***really rubbish headline*** in a hundred years time. But we’re stuck with it. The leader of the non-violent law-abiding suffragists, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was honoured with a civic blue plaque, unveiled by Cambridge’s first woman MP Anne Campbell (Lab – Cambridge 1992-2005).

Anne Campbell at the Cambridge Guildhall.

I was also invited to film a large conference on Women’s Suffrage in February 2018 – the videos are in this playlist with a number of top researchers and institutions in a field that hasn’t had nearly the attention its achievements deserve.

2018 began with protests too

The University and Colleges Union on pensions, which became something far greater than they had expected – turning into a wider campaign about imagining a better university that serves the many, not the few. Cuts by the Conservative-run county council were opposed by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors. The structure of local government remains a sore point as it has done for over a century.

Clashes between developers trying to wriggle out of legal requirements on air quality versus new residents who quite understandably wanted to hold them to it

The ever-controversial CB1 development led to this confrontation at The Guildhall making the developers and their agents even less popular than they already are.

This made the Cambridge News in March, at

We had more familiar faces from politics TV (and the centre left/liberal press) in Cambridge with Imagine2027 including

The history of Cambridge the town had its profile raised

Not only through my efforts but those of others too. Tony Kirby gave a crash course on the history of housing in Cambridge.

For the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History

..while in South Cambridge, locals protested against the loss of one piece of local history. Queen Edith’s doesn’t have the grand historic buildings of the centre of town so we need to be careful with what we have. But ‘the market’ as structured works differently.

The County Council announced it wanted to sell off Shire Hall.

So I enquired about turning part of the site into an expanded Museum of Cambridge.

Governance issues

In the meantime things got heated between the county mayor James Palmer and the leader of Cambridge City Council Cllr Lewis Herbert and the newly elected leader of South Cambs District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith. This would only be the start of an eventful autumn.

In the meantime, the protests continued – this time on climate change.

While experts in the local building industry asked what sort of communities Cambridgeshire should be building.

The CFCI (who gave me a grant for a new camcorder) hosted this event which gave a series of scenarios that politicians really should have included in their consultations and publicity to local residents.

The Pro-EU campaign rocked up to Cambridge

…and TV and radio comedian Mitch Benn opened fire. Politically.

…Followed by Sir Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats, along with short summaries from county reps across East Anglia.

Spending a long hot summer in an air conditioned archive

It was the only way to cope I found. Turns out the archives is full of historical gems. The public may complain that they don’t know who their councillors are, but in the 1930s people were so familiar with them that they were easily caricatured. Here’s Dr Alex Wood of Cambridge Labour Party (PPC 1931 and 1935 in Cambridge) depicted as a carrot, and Albert Stubbs as an onion.

360919 Ronald Searle Alex Wood Carrott vegetable show Cartoon

…as Ronald Searle illustrated in the run up to WWII.


Turns out they had heatwaves in the olden days too.

Talking of olden days, Clara Rackham also got a blue plaque. This is her re-dramatised during the 1926 General Strike.

Above – Clara Rackham dramatised at a celebration event at ARU. Below, a colourised photo of Clara Rackham by Palmer Clark and Photo Restoration Services that I commissioned the latter to undertake from an image in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

181010 Clara Rackham Palmer Clark HiRes colourised Low Res.jpg

Clara Rackham, original image the Cambridgeshire Collection from the Palmer Clark glass plates

My favourite image from the glass plates, although a damaged negative, is the one below of Eglantyne Jebb, co-founder of Save the Children, and former local resident.

Eglantyne Jebb Palmer Clarke High Res_1.1 colourised before after

Eglantyne Jebb, original image the Cambridgeshire Collection from the Palmer Clark glass plates. Restored by Photo Restoration Services.

Finally, I purchased a wonderful vintage British Rail poster from the 1950s and gifted it to the Museum of Cambridge.


I presented some of the images from the archives, and the poster above, to Cambridge City Council’s full council.

Cllr Anna Smith (Lab – Romsey) for Cambridge City Council.

I also gave my first presentation on the Women who made Modern Cambridge for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Around the same time I launched a new local history Meetup Group.

Finishing the year with more protests.

Climate change again, followed by the anti-Brexit bus

Extinction Rebellion forms in Cambridge

A big yellow bus arrived in Cambridge.

Anti-Brexit campaigner Madeleina Kay in Cambridge, with Boris lookalike @FauxBojo.

And finally…

Cambridge Live – the local civic entertainments charity taken over by city council


Outsourced a few years ago, the charity could not make ends meet so the civic entertainment and events function will now come back ‘in house’. But a £750,000 bail out is not cheap. There are also some wider issues with revenue streams – including transport.

The story is covered by the Cambridge Independent here.

The charity was launched to a big fanfare at the Cambridge Corn Exchange with a massive sing-a-long session called Lungjam. I remember it well – precariously perched at the top of one of the stage blocks wearing that red blazer that caused a mini-storm when Question Time came to town.

Spring 2015 – Lungjam at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

I wrote about the event above at the time in an earlier blogpost.

Signs of trouble – a request for half a million

This came about at the meeting of Cambridge City Council’s full council back in July 2018. (See the minutes here). I went along to that meeting to test what sort of mood executive councillors were in regarding raising money for some big heritage projects. I asked about:

  • Establishing a permanent ‘Mayor of Cambridge’s Fund’ to raise money for large civic infrastructure – like a permanent museum of the city’s history, a concert hall even bigger than the Cambridge Corn Exchange, and so forth,
  • The costs of commissioning two statues on the plinths either side of the main entrance to the existing guildhall
  • The cost of repairing the old music organ in the large hall

to which the answers weren’t exactly positive

It was only when I started finding treasures in local archives, and spending my own money on acquiring visually striking historical items such as this vintage British Rail poster from 1957 below, that I have gifted to the Museum of Cambridge, that I started seeing some movement from local politicians.


Above – an original British Railways poster advertising Cambridge that I bought from an art dealer and I donated to the Museum of Cambridge in mid-2018.

Above – Cllr Anna Smith (Lab -Romsey) on seeing examples of large scale prints from glass plate negatives of the women who made modern Cambridge, that I took along to the county council in Autumn 2018.

“£750,000 … could have gotten an expanded Museum of Cambridge on Castle Hill for that money.”

That depends on what happens with Castle Hill – which the County Council (separate to the city council, the former being under Conservative control) want to dispose of. This is the latest on the Shire Hall site. Personally I hope they can come to some agreement with the existing Museum of Cambridge – which in the grand scheme of things still functions as Enid Porter’s Cambridge and County Folk Museum, rather than a place that tells ‘the history of a city’. As a sum though, they’d need more to rebuild the old courthouse that I think should be rebuilt to house an expanded museum on such an historic site.

Shire Hall Court House 28543 PhotoCambridge Castle Hill from air southwards

Above – the old Assizes Court House on Castle Hill – from the Museum of Cambridge’s archives and Britain From Above.

“Has Cambridge Live told anyone yet?”

Not at the time of blogging – 21 Dec 2018. But with the city council as guarantor, it’s business as usual for the rest of the financial year by the looks of it.

The next full council meeting is not until 21st February 2019 when the opposition Cambridge Liberal Democrats will be throwing more than a few questions as indicated by their group leader Cllr Tim Bick (LD – Market).

The Charities Commission registration for Cambridge Live, including documents and submissions, is here. Their Companies House registration and documents are here. Make of them what you will. The Board, Trustees, and staff of the organisation are here.

“Are Heritage, Arts and Civic Entertainments always loss-makers?”

They don’t have to be. But it’s no different to other sectors that have proportionally small number of well known people & institutions who make fortunes, while everyone else scrapes on by. Even in a city like Cambridge, the leisure offering has simply not kept pace with the growth in population. In fact, in some parts it feels like it has gone in reverse – The Junction used to put on a number of club nights aimed at teenagers, students and young adults in the 1990s, but these have all but disappeared. Both the Kelsey Kerridge and the Cambridge Corn Exchange used to have club and disco nights, but no longer do. Warren Dosanjh’s book on Cambridge in the 1960s shows what we’ve lost.

It’s also not the first time that the Corn Exchange has been called into question over its finances. Over the decades there have been cases where expenditure on it has come into question. It was only overhauled and turned into an arts venue in the mid-1980s after all of the other attempts to build a new concert hall in the Lion Yard fell through. Both the Masonic Lodge and the YMCA – as Warren’s book shows – were live music venues that were lost. Ditto the old Alley Club.

Buildings need maintaining, and that doesn’t come cheap

Ditto running costs. Go into any cathedral and you’re more than likely to see a donations bowl (and/or smart screen for card donations) stating how much it costs to keep such a place open daily. Trying to get local councils to set up facilities for online donations (such as Cambridgeshire Libraries here – it’s work in progress) has been more of a struggle than it should have been. For that I lay the blame at the door of the politicians that run the organisations, esp given the financial pressures.

“Are Cambridge’s civic venues too small?”

In 1996/97 I went to a number of gigs around the time of ‘peak Britpop’, and the Corn Exchange was one of the venues that a number of groups in the music charts would visit and play at. If you go backstage you can see the timeline of groups that have played at that venue. Funnily enough, the most famous person ever to headline at the Cambridge Corn Exchange wasn’t a musician or a professional artist. He was a politician. Winston Churchill – in 1939.

When you take a look at recent line ups as far as popular and contemporary non-classical music is concerned, there are three themes that stand out:

  • Tribute acts to huge but long gone names
  • Partially reconstituted groups that were once famous
  • Individual performers who are on their way down after peaking several years ago

In 2012 both The Junction and Cambridge Corn Exchange made it into the UK’s top 100 venues for the PRS. Or rather, scraped into the top 100 behind The Apex in Bury St Edmunds (which as I found out is a splendid compact concert hall with a razor sharp acoustic) and the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage, and The Square in Harlow. I’ve named those as they are geographically the closest of those listed to Cambridge.

If we look at capacity in this otherwise incomplete list on WikiP, to break out the themes that now seem to make up much of what’s on offer at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge needs an even bigger venue – and just as importantly one that has a public transport interchange. Hence why the redevelopment of Cambridge Railway Station and the old Cattle Market were two huge missed opportunities for Cambridge’s art & music scene.

“Getting to and from venues – is one of the secrets to the sustainability of Cambridge’s entertainment venues a decent transport plan for the city?”

In the 1990s I was astonished at some of the distances some of my fellow gig and nightclub goers would travel to get into Cambridge – in particular those that came from out of the county. Party politics has failed generations of public transport users. In an ideal world you’d want your public transport access for large entertainment venues to be ‘across the square’ or a very short walking distance from the exit that didn’t involve walking past aggressive drunk people en route. (The state of UK housing policy being for another blogpost).

It’s one of the things that’s ever so easily forgotten by all concerned – even councillors with teenage children who tell me about life as a taxi for them. But as the public transport function does not sit with the city council, it’s not straight forward to synchronise their leisure and entertainments functions with a county council/combined authority function based even more remotely than ever before.










Greater Cambridge Partnership step it up a gear


This is what they should have articulated back in 2014.

The new video from the Greater Cambridge Partnership/City Deal.

…even though some things can be easily lampooned by those of us who have followed the rollercoaster for the past four years.

Now, a lot of credit has to go to local campaigners and campaign groups who have spent a huge amount of time and effort on getting the partnership to this place. Although the map below is a later iteration, Dr Colin Harris of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail Project did a huge amount of research before presenting a map that included where stations could be, and examined comparative costs and methods of financing with other light rail schemes in Europe and beyond.

181214 Cambridge_Connect_Light_Rail_Map.jpg

See for more details.

There was also the Smarter Cambridge Transport campaign, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, Rail Haverhill, the Federation of Cambridge Residents Association, and an alliance of campaign groups in and beyond West Cambridge amongst others who kept on campaigning and persisting – demanding something far better than what was being presented to the city and county.

A very rocky first two years

To be honest, it was painful. I won’t go into details in this post, rather I’ll leave it to the Smarter Cambridge Transport campaign who articulated the issues back in summer 2016.

Part of the frustration I had with everything led me to launch something called “Be The Change Cambridge” in early 2015 to try and articulate some of the issues and get a critical mass of people together to start finding solutions to those problems. One of my biggest criticisms of the general approach to local government in the county was the very weak use of social and digital media in the face of the budgets that they had – and the access to some of the best practitioners of it that I tried repeatedly to introduce them to.

It’s a little painful to watch now, but one chap and a 2010-era mini-camcorder and some very very basic training later and I made the video below.

From February 2015 – Be the change Cambridge. 

With a far bigger budget and professional specialist communications brought in, you can see the difference in impact the most recent Greater Cambridge video has, even if you may have issues with the content and schemes they are promoting.

One slick video and documents pack won’t solve the problems of content

Two years ago, campaigners in and beyond West Cambridge were protesting against one of the more controversial schemes, the Cambourne-Cambridge ‘expressway’ for want of another term.

All these people turned out on a cold December day to protest in 2016.

They had cross-party support as well.

Julius Carrington (Cambridge Conservatives), Cllr Bridget Smith (South Cambs Lib Dems), Stuart Tuckwood (Cambridge Green Party) in December 2016.

They were back again in the autumn of 2017

Another protest against the West Cambridge plans – a video medley..

The party political fallout was brutal – the following year in the 2018 local council elections for South Cambridgeshire, which happen once every four years, the incumbent Conservative Group was crushed by the Liberal Democrats, who took three quarters of all of the council seats on the back of disquiet with the Greater Cambridge Partnership of which at the time the Cambridgeshire Conservatives had the majority of voting seats on the GCP Board. And thus the blame that went with it. Today the seat for South Cambridgeshire now rests with the Liberal Democrats, & Cllr Aidan Van De Weyer.

Closer alignment between the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority

You can see that some incredibly difficult conversations have been had between politicians and officials over the past year – and the working relationships remain as tense as ever given finance and personnel issues with Mayor James Palmer that have been in the news recently. That was before budget issues with Cambridgeshire County Council exploded onto the front pages a couple of days ago.

Finally getting the Greater Cambridge Partnership to agree on the concept of tunnels under the city of Cambridge as part of solving the congestion problem

Originally the message from the early team of officers seemed to be ‘more buses’ was the solution. When the Conservative Government pre-EU-Ref came up with the concept of a county mayor first for East Anglia, and then for Cambridgeshire, there were more than a few concerns on how this would align with the GCP. There still are. But what is a relief from my perspective is that the GCP have come round to agreeing to the concept of tunnels under the city as proposed by Mayor James Palmer during his election campaign of 2016.

With the above, it was the Cambridge Connect Light Rail plans that finally caught the imagination of the people of Cambridge & District (I’m more comfortable with that term as I grew up with it) when it came to ideas for solving the congestion problem. For a lot of us, myself included, we were like: ***Yeah – we want *That* [pointing to map of proposed light rail network]***

I’m still behind Dr Colin Harris’s concept of a light rail underground for Cambridge – one that ultimately extends out to the market towns of Haverhill, St Neots, Newmarket, Ely, St Ives, Chatteris, Sawston, Comberton, and so on within the next 75 years or so – thinking along much longer timescales than many politicians and officials. That’s the historian in me. I’ve examined the history and have noted where decisions taken decades/centuries – even a millennia ago still affect us today.

The financial deadline from The Treasury approaches

Back in June 2018 at a time when political relations were still tense, the Communities Secretary James Brokenshire warned that the next and vital tranche of funding – £400million of it was “Not Guaranteed”, in the face of political disagreement at a local level. (See the report here). I’d like to think that this helped concentrate the minds of all involved. But my criticism remains that historically, Cambridge and actually the whole of England is long overdue a restructure of local government. They used to happen once every decade or two, but we’ve not had one for over 40 years, and many towns and cities have changed significantly since then. In the case of Cambridge, it continues to do so at a very fast pace to the extent that in my view, a unitary authority for Cambridge and District/Greater Cambridge is justified. The party political disagreement is where to draw the boundaries. Conservatives will want enough rural districts that traditionally vote Tory to be included so as to swamp the Labour/Liberal majority that dominates in and around Cambridge.

The Oxford-Cambridge-Arc

Too much of the marketing of both the ancient university cities of England pretends that you’ll have views of the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College Cambridge or the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Private educational institutions in my experience tend to be the worst, pretending that Cambridge has this magic pixie dust that gets sprinkled on you if you just happen to do an expensive course within a given distance of Senate House and King’s College Chapel. But I have to say that this is probably the most laughable example of trying to jump onto ‘brand Cambridge’ – not even in the same county (Clue is in the IP – Ipswich postcode) and taking no account into the traffic jam that is the A14. So once the planned Oxford/Cambridge motorway is built and/or the much needed East West Rail (which I hope goes beyond Oxford westwards to South Wales, and onto Norwich and Great Yarmouth beyond Cambridge), expect to see things like “Oxbridge/Camford college is ideally placed between the two great university cities and benefit from both of them – we’re based in Bedford/Milton Keynes…”

“You’re a cynic you are”

I know. It comes with age. I’m 40 next year.

Note that in the next couple of years, a number of important schemes – in particular cycleways – will have been completed. The Chisholm Trail for me is the big game changer, which I think will not only take more cyclists off the main roads and onto a much safer segregated cycleway travelling north-south through Cambridge next to the railway line, but also generate a far greater number of cycle journeys currently not taken. So it is essential that as soon as the cycleway is opened that the evaluation process is begun very shortly afterwards.







Isabel Hardman at the Cambridge Literary Festival 2018


National politics far too early for a Saturday morning. But I wasn’t going to miss a masterclass from one of my contemporary political heroes.

Several years ago, my jaw metaphorically hit the floor when I got a notification that Isabel Hardman of The Spectator had started following Puffles on Twitter. I had been keeping an eye and ear out for her journalistic output as one of the top political journalists and commentators on the circuit in Westminster.

Political journalism isn’t easy, but to be honest a number of mainstream journalists and institutions have been getting their reputations called into question of late – and understandably so. My persistent call has been for media organisations to be far more transparent about which stories they select to run with, and how they select them. The BBC, given the accountability via the licence, comes in for particular criticism on this front. Interestingly I have found that support staff and journalists the commercial broadcasters have been far more interactive with their viewers than their BBC counterparts.

Too much testosterone in politics and the media

In recent years I’ve started automatically switching off from the long established programmes and personalities in the field. Messrs Humphries and Marr for example are two that I will switch radio or TV channels over. Never having ever been positively disposed towards alpha male aggression in life generally, those sort of confrontations put me off politics – whether at a local, national or international level. Party-political phallus-waving and faux outrage is particularly tedious. Cease with this oxygen thievery!

At the same time, subconsciously I’ve gravitated towards women politicians and journalists in terms of reading their output and listening to their reports – and watching their contributions in the Commons and council chambers. (I’m one of those sad people who goes to council meetings…someone’s got to keep an eye on things).

Stage presence and the ability to ‘command’ an audience or ‘hold the room’.

Very few develop this ability to command the attention of an audience just by being there, or just by speaking a few words. Stella Creasy (pictured below with Puffles in Trafalgar Square several years ago) is one of them.


I’ve seen Stella speak at conferences, in the Commons (on TV) and also at a local workshop she ran in Cambridge a few years ago. There’s something about her tone of voice, pace of delivery, body language and content of what she’s saying that when put together can be extremely powerful and moving.

There are others in the field of politics who also have that presence – Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party is another – I’d love to see her get elected in the not-too-distant future. Her party co-leader, Sian Berry is another – and she’s finally getting some of the national recognition in politics that her hard work over the past couple of decades has merited. Caroline Flint, when as a minister I worked for her in the civil service, was another excellent public speaker who could hold an audience. Jo Swinson for the Lib Dems is another – someone who, for the sake of the Lib Dems in my view needs to step up to the leadership of their party.

Three men and a lady

The lead sponsor of the event was the New Statesman Magazine, which meant half the spaces on stage went to them. For the other two spaces, both David Runciman of the University of Cambridge, and Isabel, are recently-published authors.

Isabel’s book called Why we get the wrong politicians is of particular interest to me because I still haven’t figured out what the best methods are locally of encouraging people to get involved in local democracy, let alone stand for election. I set up the Democracy Cambridge FB page as a means for local people to receive ‘passive updates’ on things that are happening in the hope that people will pick up on things of interest to them, but in the grand scheme of things even a city like Cambridge has huge room for improvement. My take still remains that Cambridge needs to adopt a city-wide approach on a whole host of things. But given how fragmented our public institutions are – all too often for party-political reasons, it’s difficult to see how this will change in the near future.

“What did Isabel have to say?”

Lots – and with good reason. I live-tweeted the event so you can pick up some of the quotations here.

University tuition fees are a classic example of the above. In 1997 the Dearing Review that led to the first tuition fees (that were up front – my A-level cohort being the first generation to pay them) is something that I still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair and New Labour for. (I can carry grudges for a ***very long time*** – and financially at least this was particularly painful). The 2010 Browne Review which brought fees up to the level they are now was a continuation of the theme. Everyone knew what was going to happen: Minister (in this case David Lammy on behalf of Gordon Brown) commissioned Lord Browne of BP-fame to do a ‘review’ – or rather, provide cover for a political decision to raise fees significantly further, and report back just after a general election so that there is maximum time for the electorate to get used to it. Which is what happened. Only the Tories and Lib Dems implemented it.

Having seen one of my younger Twitter followers posting a snapshot of the total amount she owed to her old university being over £50,000…if that were my old undergraduate university sending me such a bill, I’d probably have gone back and burnt the place down &/or had a complete mental breakdown, such was my experience there.

MPs get sent emails from their party whips offices telling them the votes that are happening on a given day, and which way to vote. When the voting bell rings, they trundle through the voting lobbies in Parliament, many without a clue on what they are voting for or against.

…with the inevitable consequences. When in 2010 furious Labour MPs complained about the rise in university tuition fees was being done through a statutory instrument – a much faster procedure, too many of them forgot that they were the ones that had passed the enabling power in an earlier Act of Parliament enabling their political opponents to act in this way in a sleight of hand by Tony Blair’s government in 2004 – one which they used MPs representing Scottish constituencies to get the majority in the Commons to push the vote through, even though Scotland was not affected.

The nature of the system which is so archaic and crafted in language beyond the reach of most people. The rules of Parliamentary procedure – Erskine May is not even available online for free. You need to pay over £300 for your own copy. An attempt to get it published through a Freedom of Information Request failed.

The politicians who have been at the forefront of getting this system changed, from my viewpoint have predominantly been women – in particular Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavillion) and Stella Creasy above.

Isabel has some answers

But you’ll need to read her book to find out what they are.

One thing I’d have liked one of the speakers to have done at the end was to have challenged all of us in the audience to do one small one off action or small behaviour change to help make a difference to the situation that we all find ourselves in. The reason being is that we weren’t the most diverse audience in the world, to put it mildly. It certainly wasn’t a reflection of Cambridge the town, that’s for sure. It was more…

Middle Class is Magical

Because the thing is, if no actions stem from events where we explore a given set of social problems, no difference is made. All that happened is that a group of people from an affluent/connected/academic background had a nice morning session at one of Cambridge’s colleges. And I’d like to think that one of the reasons Isabel wrote her book and took part in the session in Cambridge was to inspire people to take action of some sort to make things better.

Anyway, Puffles is a happy dragon with a signed copy of Isabel’s book – noting that back in 2014 city council elections in Cambridge, 89 people decided that Puffles was not the wrong politician for Coleridge Ward in Cambridge, vanquishing UKIP in the process. (They said they would stand in every city ward, but didn’t. So got zero votes in Coleridge. And got beaten by Puffles).


My DIY results poster for the Coleridge Ward, Cambridge 2014 local council elections