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

Summary

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?

Summary

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 https://idox.cambridge.gov.uk/online-applications/ – how easy is it for you to navigate and make use of? For those of you in South Cambridgeshire, see https://www.scambs.gov.uk/content/search-planning-application 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?

Local-authorities-2b

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

Summary

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 https://twitter.com/hideouscbg 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 https://idox.cambridge.gov.uk/online-applications/

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

Furthermore…

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 https://www.writetothem.com/ 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 https://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/cb1-cambridge-station-traffic-noise-14380499 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.

 

Democracy for those that have no voting rights in the UK

Summary

How do those without voting rights – whether under 18s or migrant workers not eligible to vote, get involved in local democracy?

Just as we ask how it was that Women didn’t have the vote on the same basis as men pre-1928, My guess is that in 50 years time, people will be asking how it was that the Tories managed to push through an EU referendum that involved barring groups of people whose lives would be disproportionately affected by a vote to leave the EU – non UK EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens outside the country living and/or working in the wider EU.

There have been a number of posts I’ve seen recently of people describing in heartbreaking terms the impact that the referendum result had on them, even though they were barred from voting themselves. Hence the formation of the 3 million campaign.

‘No taxation without representation’ and all that

The phrase comes from James Otis just before the War of American Independence and was in response to the Stamp Act 1765. Which reminds me of this scene from a computer game I played lots about 20 years ago.

“Do you pay the Stamp Act or hold the Cambridge Food Party and refuse to pay the tax and never trade food with England again?”

If I recall correctly I was a rebellious type and threw overboard whatever they wanted to tax a la Boston tea party stylee on the grounds that we had no vote. I was 17 at the time.

“What democratic rights do citizens from other countries have?”

In terms of who can register to vote, the official line is here.

But it got me thinking about democratic engagement locally in Cambridge given all of the fun and games that is happening with house building and growth. They are covering in with the County Mayor on 28th March. See

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Strategic Spatial Framework (non statutory)

The full set of papers is here and the meeting is in Peterborough. A good hour by train from Cambridge. It’s a chuggington service. But at least there is one – Wisbech, Haverhill and Saffron Walden are all ‘off grid’ as far as decent rail services go.

CambsRailARoads

From the meeting papers. Rail lines and major roads in Cambridgeshire.

In many a long discussion with people like Jon Worth , I can’t help but feel that migrant workers on low incomes have a much stronger right to vote (and participate in civic and democratic life) than say…picking out at random… offshore/foreign-domiciled tax exiles who happen to own large media organisations. The former pay tax, they work in our economies, they live in and are part of our communities. The latter? Russell Howard said this and it still applies.

“Bad stuff is happening and YOU”RE paying for it!!!” Read it in the papers so it must be troo.

In the run up to the local council elections across England in May (register to vote here), the Liberal Democrats are going after the votes of EU citizens from outside the UK, who can vote in local elections. It’s difficult to say whether it will make a difference – remember that the EU was a core part of the 2017 general election campaign for the Liberal Democrats and it failed to catch on with the voters. Local elections, while spun as giving an indication of the national picture by the London media, are notoriously complex and, ward-by-ward / council-by-council can be unpredictable and throw up more than a few surprises.

It’s not as if the barriers aren’t large enough as they are

I can’t recall ever having enjoyed a 3 hour meeting whether in local government, Whitehall or in the voluntary sector. The longest one I ever sat in was for a local trade union branch AGM which went on for nearly five hours. Stupid-crazy-stupid.

Spoofed by Monty Python.

…and that’s before we’ve read all of the papers in advance – and checked that meetings don’t clash. The county mayor’s meeting clashes with the city council’s planning committee that has over 600 pages of meeting papers in it. (Read them here if you can bear!) <- Yet to specific local neighbourhoods, particularly those on Mill Road (Romsey & Petersfield), Milton Road, and Newmarket Road, there are some very significant cases being decided at that meeting. But by the time locals find out about the Mill Road and Milton Road cases, it’ll be too late to comment on them.

A fence as an art project planned for new student accommodation in Newmarket Road. The cost of the project? About £110,000.

The dragon wasn’t impressed.

So…really an open question to everyone:

What good examples are there of towns and cities encouraging people without the right to vote but who are legally resident there, of participating in community, civic and democratic life? What can Cambridge and other places learn from them?

On public art in Cambridge

Summary

Can we do better than random lumps of metal looking abstract?

Okay, so I’m stereotyping, but this blogpost stems from this planning case related to a controversial development of student flats on Newmarket Road, Cambridge. Now, let’s not pretend that Newmarket Road 100 years ago was this beautiful rural woodland. It as an industrial site of the old school.

Cambridge Gas Works

From Britain From Above, Newmarket Road just above the row of houses just above the four circular gasometers of the Cambridge Gas Works.

In the photo above, you can see the River Cam at the bottom, and a pit full of polluted water near the top – the site of a brickworks.

Today, Tesco has a supermarket on the site of the gasworks, and the site of the brickworks is now a car park and a bland retail park. With such huge land remediation needed before building, the road has become the site of large, bland, designed-on-an-Etch-a-sketch buildings.

Now, Cambridge City Council recently published this notice on spending of money that comes from developers through Section 106 of the Town & Country Planning Act – see here. This funding mechanism is being phased out, replaced by the Community Infrastructure Levy, for which Cambridge City Council’s position is here.

Educating local residents on the local planning system

Patsy Dell, formerly of Cambridge City Council, gave this presentation to the Be The Change Cambridge event I organised (With the help of lots of others) back in 2015. We filmed it too.

 

Cambridge City Council’s online planning portal is at https://idox.cambridge.gov.uk/online-applications/ but it takes a bit of time to get used to it. The other thing is that it takes a bit of time to find the documents that incentivise people to find out more – ie the drawings, pictures and architect illustrations of what a building should look like.

The above – which got thrown out by councillors, developers attempting to turn a former cinema and then large pub into luxury apartments following a fire.

It might be worth having either as a standard workshop in the Cambridge Art Network‘s annual conference, or having annual workshops in different parts of Cambridge to introduce people to both the planning system and how to contribute to the debate on what public art should go where. Because all too often the time people start getting involved in these things, it’s already too late.

“Do we have some high quality examples of public art to get inspiration from?”

Art by its very nature is subjective. Personally I prefer the art to be incorporated/integral to the design of the buildings concerned, rather than being stand alone lumps on plinths.

Above – from numerous local archives and my own photos, some unbuilt, some knocked down, some still around – buildings that I take inspiration from.

What examples do you have of pieces of public art that might be suitable for somewhere like Cambridge? (Because if all developments only had my taste of art in them, the town would become boring very quickly!)

Barbara Castle – Red Queen

Summary

On one of the most significant political figures in UK politics in the 20th Century (you wear seat belts in cars, and vehicle drivers are breathalysed because of her) – and how online video is bringing her oratory back to life.

One of the things that I love about online video from a historical perspective is how it brings back to life historical figures that you can hear in their own words. The reason why it’s so significant for me is that we are in an age where we don’t really have the great political orators of the past, the people who can hold an audience mesmerised. I know a number of people who used to say that Tony Blair had that quality when he was Prime Minister. But he’ll never be able to avoid the shadow of Iraq – when hubris became his nemesis. Ditto his Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Jack Straw, before becoming an MP worked as a researcher for one of the most significant political figures of the 20th Century. If Margaret Thatcher was the most significant woman in Whitehall and Parliament in that century, then Barbara Castle, a Labour Cabinet Minister and Transport Minister (effectively the Secretary of State for Transport) under Harold Wilson, has a strong claim to the number2 spot. Anne Perkins wrote this obituary of Castle in 2002. Perkins, also Jack Straw’s wife, wrote a wonderful biography of Barbara Castle titled ‘Red Queen’ – reviewed here by Dennis Kavanagh.

Going through the British Newspaper Archive, I spotted this photograph of Mrs Castle as one of the women MPs elected in 1950.

Barbara Castle in 1950 Illustrated London News BNA

Above – Barbara Castle. Below, the women elected to the 1950 Parliament.

Elected Women MPs 1950 Illustrated London News.jpg

It wasn’t until 1997 that we saw the breakthrough in the number of women going beyond the number in the above paper. It was a similar picture with local government in and around Cambridge, where numbers grew in the inter-war period, then seemed to stagnate.

But it’s her oratory and clarity of thought that sets her apart from so many politicians of today.

A well-known and long-time Euro-sceptic from the Left, this speech by her is one I find more powerful than any of the ones delivered by Leave campaigners in the 2015 referendum. Utterly unflustered by hecklers and people intervening in the debate.

Listening to her it’s almost as if she is Eglantyne Jebb, Frida Stewart/Knight and my late aunt Jennifer combined into the same person. (I don’t hand out that sort of praise lightly!) And that’s coming from someone who voted to remain in the EU. I imagine she’d be scathing of the mess that the three brexiteers, Messrs Davis, Fox and Johnson are making of the process of leaving the EU.

A note on the content, the European Parliament had not been set up back then as it is now. In fact, one of the safeguards that a Cambridge University student, Colin Rosenstiel put to a conference of young liberals in Cambridge was on the democratic deficit. See the article at the foot below. Mr Rosenstiel is still around in Cambridge having been a councillor in Cambridge’s Market Ward for most of the years between the early 1970s-early 2010s.710412 C Rosenstiel on Europe.jpg

Barbara Castle was dramatised in the film Made in Dagenham with this particularly powerful scene in her fight for gender equality. Note the 1970s was the decade that saw significant new legislation passed in the areas of equalities – notably the Equal Pay Act 1970, Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and the Race Relations Act 1976.

 

Barbara Castle also had a tremendous media presence – I can’t think of footage of any other politicians from the time on the Left who could get anywhere near to how she was able to communicate at a time of huge social and technological change.

We also know that she had a tough relationship with the media – perhaps ironic given that her and her husband, Ted Castle, were originally journalists themselves.

 

On equal pay

One of her final acts as a minister in Harold Wilson’s first government was to bring in the Equal Pay Act 1970 through Parliament. This was an issue she had been campaigning on for decades, as this video shows.

It’s strange to think that in the space of 20 years, news went from the reels as above, to the much more slicker versions in comparison in the 1970s. Cambridge was at the forefront of that change in technology with the firm PYE Ltd which specialised in making broadcasting equipment as well as TV sets. But then, think of comparing 1998 with today. The jump from the few extra channels that Sky, or cable TV that we had here in Cambridge is a world away from being able to watch TV over a wifi network on a smartphone.

The Humber Bridge decision – a scandal?

One of the things that we take for granted today is that the government of the day should not make any announcements of new policies, programmes or spending during a general election campaign. With by-elections, ministers should not make announcements likely to have an impact on the constituency in said by-elections either.

As Transport Minister at the Ministry of Transport, Barbara Castle made an announcement that the Humber Bridge would be built. This announcement was a week before the Hull North by-election of 1966 – the Government’s majority being four at the time. Labour won that by-election by a larger-than-expected majority. This also allegedly influenced Labour leader, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson to call a general election for that year. It paid off – his majority increased from 4 to 96. It’s featured in this radio show on Radio 4. Was it Wilson’s decision or was it Castle’s? The controversy rumbled on in part because of the debts incurred in building the bridge – not resolved until 2012.

Barbara Castle the documentary maker

She presented this documentary on William Morris, artist, designer and social reformer, in 1995.

She mentions that the May Day bank holiday was introduced as a bank holiday by a previous Labour government – something William Morris would have approved of. She also quoted her mentor and onetime lover William Mellor as the person who introduced her to the works of Morris.

“Politics should be full of sensual beauty – art is socialism and socialism is art.”

She quotes.

The reason why William Morris stands out is because one of Cambridge’s lost gems, All Saints Church opposite Jesus College, Cambridge, was decorated by William Morris. I wrote about it in this blogpost, & is well worth a visit.

Cambridge – we need to talk about our civic essentials. Again.

Summary

Because developers are weaselling out of their commitments and Cambridge/South Cambridgeshire planners all too often are missing the impact on the big picture.

Two years ago, I posted this on the demise of Cambridge’s social venues. At the time I had no idea that looking at photos of long lost buildings of Cambridge the town would lead me down the route to some of the finest women who have lived and worked in Cambridge. Ones too many of us have forgotten about. It’s work in progress to change this.

Cambridge Business Leaders being at the forefront of Cambridge’s civic infrastructure.

In the days when we knocked down far too much nice stuff alongside the slum clearances, at least our predecessors as recently as the 1970s made it their business to ensure that the town had civic facilities that served the people – all of us – town & gown alike.

In early April 1971, Douglas January, one of the most well known businessmen in the city, (property boards bearing his surname used to be everywhere) wrote this letter to the Cambridge Evening News. (His firm merged with http://www.dernford.co.uk/about-us/)

710403 Douglas January appeal for funds Kelsey Kerridge Sports.jpg

(Half a century later and we find the building has structural issues!)

In the days when most people post-war could not afford to buy household goods, David, the son of Cambridge car retailer Herbert Robinson, set up a firm called Radio Rentals. It was through that he made his fortune. In the early 1980s, he secured a deal with Margaret Thatcher’s government to build the Rosie Maternity Hospital in Cambridge. The deal was that he would pay for the hospital if the builders built it far faster than originally anticipated. This they did, and he handed over £3m (around £10m in today’s prices) to cover the cost. He also founded Robinson College, which bears his name.

The hospital was named after David Robinson’s mother, Rosie – below. I have a very distant family link to Rosie, in that one of her several grandsons married my mum’s sister. Hence my first recollections of the Robinsons was through snatched memories of conversations in my childhood.

RosieRobinson.JPG

Rosie Robinson, via the Addenbrooke’s Archive.

“Where are the Douglas January’s and David Robinson’s of today?”

The case of Douglas January is interesting in that his business was primarily concerned with property. But the example of January and Robinson stands in stark contrast to the board of Brookgate, responsible for the developments in and around Cambridge Station, who got torn to bits in The Guardian here.

Brookgate reported £10m in pre-tax profits last year, but it has no plans to provide a health clinic, heritage centre or enhanced transport interchange in CB1.

Essentially the people commenting in Olly Wainwright’s article above accuse Brookgate and their investors (listed here – including AVIVA and Jesus College, Cambridge) of wasting a wonderful opportunity to create what has been achieved at London King’s Cross.

It’s been a similar story around Cambridge Railway Station of developers gaming the planning system for private profit at the expense of the people who move in, and the resident community already there. See my blogpost here.

It’s easy to say “Oh, it’s what the system incentivises and what the chaps are doing is perfectly legal!” but there was something about the scale that the likes of January and Robinson – and before them W Eaden Lilley and Robert Sayle, were doing in Cambridge the town that I’ve not seen anyone replicate in the way the above four did. I still think John Lewis in Cambridge should be branded as “Robert Sayle – part of the John Lewis Group” as it was before the redevelopment of Lion Yard/Grand Arcade.

“How do we persuade the people supposedly making all the money in Cambridge to contribute towards civic infrastructure?”

In part it requires people to come up with ideas. I’ve got at least three:

But it also requires the large institutions to set a good example in the first place. Looking at you Cambridge University.

“Cambridge University ‘shutting out’ low-paid staff from new housing, says council boss”

The problem the university and the colleges have is that the students and academics have found out what is going on.

“Oooh! This could be interesting!”

One of the side-effects of the Universities and Colleges Union strike over pensions is that lots of academics, students and townfolk got talking to each other on the picket lines and started helping each other out. When the students needed a PA system for one of their protests, the local branch of The Unite Union stepped in. The result was this:

Cambridge Defend Education students and protestors demanding Cambridge University helps deliver on housing justice for town and gown alike, to open up its closed spaces to residents of the city and to undertake educational and social projects to reduce inequalities across our city.

But the problem remains – too few of our developments are building enough suitable civic infrastructure for our growing city

I went along to the CB1 Community’s open day recently – see my blogpost here. In my mind I’ve written off Brookgate. The firm makes me too angry at what they’ve done. Now that people have moved in, they are my area’s new neighbours. Therefore we have a shared interest to make the area work for each other. Hence my call for a big societies fair at The Junction open to all and targeted at all of those who have moved into the new housing. The Cambridge News has all of its CB1 stories here. I really hope we can see some substantively positive news stories in the future – not least for the people who have moved in and made their homes here. Because this is damning.

Noise complaints – and a bid by developers to avoid taking responsibility for them, was rejected by Cambridge City Council planning committee. The developers now have to reduce both noise and pollution that previous councillors and campaigners long warned them about.

“Yeah – what about community rooms?”

In terms of community rooms built on the developments around the railway station, for me they are far too small. You can’t really do much in there or have anything larger than a committee/board meeting if you are looking to use the rooms on the CB1 blocks I saw. Over the road at The Signal Box, my view is the same – the rooms are too small. The social rooms in the student accommodation are (quite rightly) for residents only. One thing that would help alleviate some of the problems is the much-planned bridge over the railway station direct either to Rustat Road (a short walk to Coleridge Rec – a reasonably large park with a dragon slide on it (because Puffles stood for election in Coleridge ward in 2014), properly planned in the interwar period) or to Cambridge Leisure Park (another badly planned cash cow for landlords Land Securities).

We know that Cambridge has a lack of large hall space for evening classes and sports. I’ve not seen anything new that has been constructed that can meet the requirements of say the Cambridge Dancers’ Club, or the Cambridge Rollerbillies rollerderby team. Given that these are two large clubs with many women in the former, and pretty much all women in the latter (men can only skate to become officials as it’s an all-women competitive team – and one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. It’s because of them I can rollerskate backwards and can fall over properly!)

Privatised facilities for the wealthy/privileged few?

Whether it’s Amazon’s new office on Station Road to Microsoft’s lecture theatre in the building opposite, to the private shuttle bus provided by ARM in Fulbourn that spews out diesel fumes down my road on its journey between the railway station and its offices in Fulbourn, I’m increasingly concerned about the increasing levels of segregation in Cambridge with these things. In the long term it just increases resentment all round.

Why isn’t ARM paying for the new Fulbourn railway station to replace the one abandoned in Beeching’s cuts? (Or for that matter contributing to the Cambridge Connect light rail project?). Why does it need its own private shuttle bus that always gets stuck in the traffic it helps create? Why not subsidise the existing bus services instead?

Why didn’t Amazon and Microsoft negotiate with the developers about having a shared open-to-all conferencing centre and perhaps an open-to-all sports and leisure centre given all of the people who were going to be moving there? Or are we in a world where each firm has their own gym/club and each employee has their own individual fitness machine tailored to their needs? As the developers found out with the students, there’s nowhere for people to play team sports outside.

The system for spending money allocated for community facilities doesn’t help

This is Cambridge City Council’s latest call. My ward – Coleridge, has £105,000 available. Queen Edith’s over the road, and southwards, has £270,000 (of which over half must serve the area around the Bell Language School…which is primarily a residential area).

Part of the problem is that Cambridge City Council does not have the officer capacity to deliver its existing projects funded by such funding. We’re still waiting for a new pavilion in Nightingale Avenue.

Fault for these states of affairs lies purely with central government who imposed lots of cuts but gave no means of raising alternative funds, leaving councils stretched to the limit. It was only a matter of time before one snapped. It was Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire County Council. And it went all over the news. The problem we have with this is Cambridgeshire County Council has a shared services agreement with Northants. Exactly.

“Got any ideas for the community resources money?”

Grants for public arts are also available – see https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/public-art-grants. I’m not a fan of much of the public art that has gone up around Cambridge – but that’s just a personal view. Lumps of expensive metal or polished stone that for me don’t inspire or don’t immediately relate to what the artist says they relate to. There are some great ones though. Mill Road Bridge is one, this project in Chesterton another – and one easily replicated in other areas too.

Personally I’d like to see a greater level of community interaction – in particular setting the themes and styles that people might want to see. Set the framework then let the creatives work within that. With such engagement I’d love to see people invited to suggest existing pieces of public art that they like, and whether something similar would be suitable for Cambridge.

And finally…

For all of our civic facilities, we need a city-wide calendar that looks something like the Isle of Wight’s “On the Wight at http://events.onthewight.com/ which I’ve long admired. Secondly our public transport services need to synchronise with our leisure services. Bus services that stop outside venues, and that leave giving people good time to get from venue back to the bus for the last service in the evening?

Otherwise…

I still want a big concert hall/conferencing centre named after Florence Ada Keynes

Birmingham Symphony Hall as Florence Hall Cambridge

Interior of Birmingham Symphony Hall which holds over 2,000 people. Can we have this please?

…and an expanded Museum of Cambridge with a new castle attached, called Cam Castle named after Professor Helen Cam.

norwich_castle_keep2c_2009

Norwich Castle – can our one have more windows and a cafe/bar up top with the expensive drinks & splendid views of the city keeping everything afloat?  

…and a revamped Guildhall inspired by John Belcher.

Guildhall1898

Raise the existing council chamber to roof level, put a glass dome on top, build a rooftop cafe (I detect a theme), under the council chamber have a state-of-the-art lecture theatre, and build the above-facade and everyone’s happy!

OK, not everyone. But those are a few thoughts.

East Cambridge Romsey Lakes Open Day 11 March 2018

Summary

Nearly 1,000 local residents turn up to a trial open day on a site hidden away from public view for decades.

The site concerned is shown below

EastCambridgeLakesGMap

From G-Maps, the lakes are at the eastern end of Mill Road. (Where few students dare to venture!)

You can see that the lakes are in the neighbourhoods of Cherry Hinton (to the east), Romsey (to the north-west) and Coleridge (to the south-west, where me & Puffles stood for election in 2014).

“Who put those lakes there?”

The lakes are man-made, as this detail from the photograph at Britain From Above, here, shows.

EPW025477 Cement works Coldhams Lane

The building at the bottom is the Atlas Concrete Company – today it’s Sainsbury’s on Coldham’s Lane. 

Just prior to the site’s demolition, Geoff Kitchen went along to the site to take some photographs – digitised here in the Cherry Hinton Community Archive.

The lakes have been maintained by one of the Cambridge angling societies, but over the years (and especially during hot summers), people have broken into the otherwise fenced off site. Since then, one of the landowners, the Anderson Group, has come up with plans to redevelop the site – see here. One of the things to note is that one of the pits was used as a dump/landfill for the town’s waste. Hence redeveloping it isn’t straightforward.

“Redeveloping it will take ages – what’s happening in the meantime?”

Regular open days, of which the one on 11 March 2018 was the first.

And in came the visitors in their hundreds!

Cllr Dave Baigent (Lab – Romsey) and Guy Belcher from Cambridge City Council were the duo behind getting the site opened up for the day.

“So, will there be another one?”

Looks like it – Cllr Baigent said they needed over 100 volunteers to get it open every Sunday on a permanent basis. But given the feedback and the offers from people to get involved (without prompting) it looks like they’ve got the evidence base to make the case for more frequent openings. There was a visitors book where people left comments and contact details.

Diverse Cambridge

One of the other things that struck me is how diverse the backgrounds were of the people coming to visit. There were people who had only recently moved here, along with people who I went to school with who stayed in Cambridge to bring up the next generation of their families. Young and old, long-term resident to contract worker, people from all over the world to those whose families had been here for generations.

The one thing that I also noticed was how all of these people coming along to the open day contrasted with those of us who get involved in local democracy. While we can’t deal with the structural barriers to people getting involved in local democracy, events such as these seem ideal to encourage people to get involved – even if it’s as simple as liking/following a social media page. Because I got the impression that locals were genuinely pleased that councillors and the council had managed to get the site opened up for the day. And when people are in that mood, they are more likely to want to find out more, rather than when they are complaining about something.

 

How do we make the planning system for new buildings more accessible to the public?

Summary

On the National Planning Policy Framework announcement on 05 March 2018

There are a series of consultations going on (see here) following the speeches by the Prime Minister (see here) and the Secretary of State for what is now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government. (See here).

Four years ago, I wrote the following:

“It’s like I have more questions than answers:

  • Who owns which bits of land?
  • What are the land values of the various bits of land?
  • What are the current uses for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current demands for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current protections for the various bits of land?
  • Which bits of land need more protection?
  • Which bits of land are suitable for development?
  • What is the spread of housing demand across the country?
  • Who needs what types of housing in which parts of the country?
  • What are the financial gaps between the types of housing people need and the types of housing they can afford, and how does this vary across the country?
  • Who doesn’t have decent access to housing?
  • Who has too much housing and is under-using it?
  • What are the policies that can tackle under-use of housing and relieve excess pressure?
  • How would those with the housing assets try to ‘game’ the system to ensure they kept all of their properties at the expense of everyone else?
  • How does transport fit into all of this?
  • How does resilience to/adaptation to climate change fit into all of this?
  • What are the costs associated with improving the above-two points?
  • What are the likely future trends with housing demand and supply?
  • Which components cost what when building a house?
  • Which specialist labour types cost what?
  • Who do we need to be training in and in what levels in the future?
  • Where is the investment going to come from?
  • What are the international factors that impact the housing market?
  • Is what people need and what people want the same thing? (How do you manage expectations?)

The above are just a handful of questions. See what I mean by housing policy being complicated?” 

The full text of the blogpost is here.

Filming planning committee meetings in Cambridge

The lovely people at the Cambridge Forum for the Construction Industry gave me a grant to upgrade my kit to deal with v poor acoustics in committee rooms 1 & 2 of the Guildhall. The agendas are often huge, the meetings very intense and are also very long. Take the meeting for 08 March 2018. The reports pack alone is 326 pages long with another 48 or so pages of drawings.

Yet the decisions taken at those meetings affect our city for generations. Thus it is in the public interest for people to know who is saying what, and why developments get approved.

The above highlights are from a joint planning committee for a hotel at North Cambridge Railway Station – 15 Nov 2017 at Cambridge Guildhall.

“How do you even begin to scrutinise a planning application?”

Exactly.

Yet without proper scrutiny, and by having a planning system loaded in favour of large developers backed by big finance in the hands of distant, disinterested institutions who care for nothing except financial returns, all too often you end up with the sort of architecture that people write books about – such as Hideous Cambridge – a city mutilated. Cambridge Railway Station area is one area that comes in for huge criticism (see here). I wrote this blogpost in late 2016 on how developers gamed the planning system in their favour.

We have a number of voluntary organisations that try to scrutinise planning on behalf of the rest of us – such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, but it is a huge commitment for activists and volunteers to take time off work to attend planning hearings in the daytime to make the case in person. And in a city like Cambridge where housing costs are so stupidly high that you’re either spending half your income on rent, or like me you’ve moved back in with your parents, who has the time and the resources to be that civic presence in the face of multinational finance? And even then, what chance do they have?

“No – really. Where do you begin?”

Cambridge’s planning portal is at https://idox.cambridge.gov.uk/online-applications/

South Cambridgeshire’s planning portal is at https://www.scambs.gov.uk/content/search-planning-application

The national planning portal through which you can find your local council if it’s not one of the above, is at https://www.planningportal.co.uk/ – the great thing about the portals is that you can track planning applications.

For those of you who cycle everywhere, do keep an eye out on the https://cambridge.cyclestreets.net/ application.

“What should I do if I find a planning application I do not like the look of?”

You can object in person via the planning portal – which will require registration, or you can contact your local (district/borough/city) councillor to ask them to make the case on your behalf. (See https://www.writetothem.com/). This can be particularly useful as elected councillors get extended speaking time at planning committee meetings when speaking about applications in their constituencies.

Cllr Dr Dave Baigent (Lab – Romsey) speaking about a planning application following representations to him from local residents.

Note this guide from the planninglawblog. This is because there very specific reasons considered valid in planning law as grounds for a refusing planning permission. “I don’t like the look of that building” is not considered a valid reason for a planning committee to refuse a planning application

“What are these valid reasons?”

See below from https://www.iobject.co.uk/what-are-valid-reasons-for-objecting-to-a-planning-application.html

“Negative effects on amenity (neighbours and community) – particularly due to: 

  • Noise
  • Disturbance
  • Overlooking & loss of privacy
  • Nuisance 
  • Shading / loss of daylight

Over-development or overcrowding of the site – particularly where the proposal is out of character in the area. 

Negative / adverse visual impact of the development – particularly on the landscape and or locality

Detrimental effect of proposed development on the character of the local area

Design issues – including:

  • Bulk / massing
  • Detailing and materials
  • Local design guidance / policy ignored
  • Over-bearing / out-of-scale or out of character in terms of appearance 

In Conservation Areas – adverse effect of the development on the character and appearance of the Conservation Area or heritage assets within it.

Effect of the development on the setting of a Listed Building 

Highway safety – only if supported with detailed and technical evidence.”

Note in the full article your objections will be ignored if you don’t provide evidence to justify your reasons. And much as some applicants might be ‘controversial’ ones – such as the owner of a chain of toxic waste dumps, that in itself is not a reason for objecting to a planning application. Given the state of London-based newspapers and their headlines, negative impact on your house price is also not a valid reason to refuse a planning application.

“But scrutinising all of this is ever so exhausting!”

Exactly. Hence why I get annoyed with ministers who speak about how wonderful neighbourhood planning is while not providing local communities with anywhere near the resources & civic infrastructure needed for local communities – in particular urban ones (who don’t have the local government infrastructure that parish and town councils in rural areas have) to prepare one. The level of intellect needed, and the time and effort needed to prepare a neighbourhood plan is immense.

I’m also sceptical about the minister’s comments about good design

This is because I’ve seen so little evidence of it in and around Cambridge. Ditto build quality. I was horrified to hear from newly arrived local residents a few weeks ago that the newly built flats were suffering from things like leaking pipes and broken lifts. Really basic things that you’d not expect from a new and expensive home. My question for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire councils is whether they are doing any evaluation or surveys of issues that the first residents of these new-build homes are facing.

How can we train up more local residents and activists to take a more active part in scrutinising planning applications?

Any ideas anyone?

 

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The 2018 local council elections in and around Cambridge – time for something different?

Summary

Turns out there is quite a big restructure around Cambridge which could make things interesting – if Labour and the Liberal Democrats choose to divert some of their resources from Cambridge City to South Cambridgeshire.

South Cambridgeshire District Council has been a safe-as-houses Conservative Council since the middle of the last decade, and historically has been true blue Conservative to the extent that the councillors there prior to the 1990s didn’t even need to register with the political party, it was just ‘assumed’ they were Conservatives! Actually that’s not true. I don’t know why there were so many independent councillors in South Cambridgeshire in the 1970s & 1980s. The council itself is a relatively new one – formed out of the old Chesterton Rural District Council, South Cambs Rural District and Newmarket Rural District in the last major restructure in the mid-1970s. Have a look at this map.

From 57 to 45 councillors in South Cambridgeshire

According to the South Cambridgeshire Conservatives here, the council is moving to elections every four years rather than the annual ones we have at the moment. Cambridge City Council for the moment is staying as it is. The current political control of South Cambs looks as follows:

  • Conservative = 36 councillors
  • Liberal Democrats = 14 councillors
  • Labour = 1 councillor
  • Independent = 6 councillors

The new ward map is as below – weblinked here.

SouthCambs Ward Map 2018

What makes the looming elections potentially interesting is the slightly different boundaries – villages that were previously teamed together being so no longer, while others that were previously separate (such as Fen Ditton and Fulbourn) now find themselves merged together despite a very busy main road (the Cambridge-Newmarket old A45 road) separating the two villages.

“Why should Cambridge’s political parties help their counterparts in South Cambs – haven’t they got their own battles to fight?”

They do, but over the past few years it has become more and more apparent that what happens inside The Guildhall doesn’t really count for much in the Conservative-dominated county. Because let’s not forget, up until the early 1980s, Cambridge was regularly returning Conservative-led councils and Conservative Members of Parliament. Cambridge was such a safe Parliamentary seat in the 20th Century that only four politicians in the entire century were elected representing other parties. Have a look at Colin Rosenstiel’s charts here and compare and contrast the political distribution in the late 1970s with the late 1990s.

But post-1992 the Conservatives collapsed in Cambridge – as described in this blogpost. Since the Millennium there have been just as many Green Party councillors (who have had a much higher profile) as there were Conservative councillors as this chart shows.

“Why aren’t the Conservative County Councillors listening to the people of Cambridge?”

Why should they? No Tories got elected there, Tories are in office nationally and they’ve managed to get further powers for a county infrastructure mayor and a county police and crime commissioner. Given that Cambridge historically has been something of an aristocratic inheritance for the party, the fact that there are no Conservative councillors on Cambridge City Council is something of a constitutional outrage if you are so attached to your old college colours. Let’s also not forget that Cambridge was one of the places where the Conservatives had a very active group of Conservative Suffragists – yes, they did exist.

Having seen the exchanges inside Shire Hall over the past five or so years, I can’t pretend that the group of councillors collectively have covered themselves in glory. Anything but. Yet given the very partisan nature of politics there and the huge cuts forced upon councils by central government, it’s completely understandable why the anger has boiled over. At the moment I can think of at least four campaigns where Labour, Liberals and community activists are campaigning against the latest cut by the Conservatives – whether children’s centres, a proposed move out of Shire Hall, education support services, through to Whitehall’s proposal to close Cambridge’s Magistrates Courts, you can see why town dwellers are wondering what the County Conservatives have against Cambridge while ministers wax lyrical about how Cambridge is this economic powerhouse and this small global city…while its civic infrastructure is reduced to that of a glorified market town. But while there are no local electoral consequences for such decisions, there’s no incentive to change things. This is exactly the same with the safe-as-houses Labour wards in the inner city districts of the large cities where Conservatives sometimes don’t even stand for election due to a lack of volunteers to be candidates.

The medium term risk the Conservatives face is the prospect of a Labour government under the most left-wing leadership since Clement Attlee. Just as Thatcher was quoted as saying Labour governments always run out of other people’s money to spend, some Labour activists have started retorting with:

“The Tories always run out of public assets to sell off”

Prior to the 2017 general election, few could have imagined the Financial Times running a Weekend headline as they did for this one:

“Corbyn’s hardly a vote-winner in affluent, rural South Cambridgeshire – and who’s leading the Lib Dems these days? We hardly ever see them on telly!”

Strong local issues play a much stronger part in council elections than the London media like to give credit for. Furthermore, local elections are not the sort where you can rock up shortly before the deadline for nominations and expect to win first time around as a brand new candidate in an area where you have previously had little presence. The one thing that struck me about the 2017 general election in the South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire constituencies was the credible results the opposition parties got in the face of the otherwise landslides that both Heidi Allen and Lucy Frazer received respectively. Although both the Conservative women received over 30,000 votes each (and thus over 50% of the vote), the highly-populated constituencies gave over 10,000 votes to each of the Labour and Liberal Democrats candidates. In Labour’s case, it was over 17,000 for each of their candidates. Even on a much lower turnout, they should be doing far, far better than the single lonely Labour councillor on South Cambridgeshire District Council.

“What will the Brexit effect be?”

That is the very big unknown. In one sense, Heidi has been able to raise her concerns much more publicly than Lucy Frazer, who is now minister for the courts at the Ministry of Justice – and was given the job of overseeing the consultation for and planned closure of Cambridge Magistrates Courts.

It’s easy to say that the very angry pro-Remain vote in South Cambridgeshire will be switching their allegiance to the Liberal Democrats, but that didn’t happen in 2017. There were a host of other factors in play that became apparent as I followed the candidates at the various hustings and public debates that I filmed.

The other thing is that the Conservatives have a number of new, younger women candidates who in the grand scheme of things just come across as more competent and approachable than some of their predecessors. You won’t find these women boasting proudly about how ignorant they are of social media and new technology on the council chamber floor.

“Moving lots of activists out of Cambridge and into South Cambridgeshire is a logistical task and a half – and won’t locals resent these ‘outsiders’ coming into their village telling them who to vote for?”

If you look at the commuting patterns, you’ll find that many people who live outside of Cambridge travel into the city every day for work, study or other activities. Why go out to the villages when the people from the villages are coming over to you every day? Why not schedule your activists to be at the places where the most number of people are either coming or going? This means targeting:

  • Major bus interchanges such as Drummer Street, Emmanuel Street and St Andrew’s Street – and the Park & Rides out of town as drivers come into park their cars
  • Railway stations and guided bus stops
  • Traffic lights where major cycleways pass through – for example by the science parks
  • Entrances and exits to large workplaces that employ lots of people – such as Addenbrooke’s.

Although the local elections won’t be covering transport specifically – it’s a county council and mayoral competency – it will cover housing and planning, which are big issues in particular for younger generations. There’s also a huge opportunity to target the sixth form and further education colleges – whose students will be casting their votes for the first time in the next couple of years.

“What about a Conservative revival in Cambridge? Any chance of that?”

Everyone thought the Tories were dead and buried after the 1997 general election. Anyone who remembers the darkly comical days of William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership of the Conservatives in the early 2000s can testify to that. But never say never.

In the case of Cambridge, the pattern at the last series of elections did not match house prices. The could of wards where they were active in Cambridge were the ones where they got the lowest votes (despite having the highest house prices), and the ones where they got some of their highest vote totals were the wards with some of the highest levels of relative poverty. Remember that 15,000 people in Cambridge voted to leave the EU with around 45,000 voting to stay. The total number of leave voters in principle should be enough for the Conservatives to claw back one or two councillors, but at present they don’t have a concentrated vote – it’s spread out all over the city.

Furthermore, they no longer have the blogging and social media operation they had at the end of the last decade -> http://cherryhintonroad.blogspot.co.uk/ (ironically in my neighbourhood) is actually an excellent example of pre-Twitter local blogging by Andy Bower and Chris Howell amongst others. Given the number of recent arrivals – in particular in Trumpington ward (where Conservative peer and former Cambridge Mayor Jean Barker takes her peerage title from), again there could be potential voters and new activists for the Conservatives.

In the run up to the 2018 local elections, expect Phil Rodgers to give his ward-by-ward analysis as he does every year – here’s 2017’s example.