Local council buildings as civil spaces


Do modern council buildings reflect the castration of modern local government when compared to their Victorian foreparents? Some thoughts on a key pillar of Tristram Hunt’s book Building Jerusalem: The rise and fall of the Victorian City

I took Puffles to South Cambridgeshire District Council for a seminar on Twitter and social media today. (A big thank you to all involved for organising & for allowing Puffles and I to participate). This post stems from some thoughts I had, having read Tristram Hunt’s book mentioned above.

For a large part of my childhood the Council had offices on Hills Road in Cambridge before its move out to Cambourne – a name which for me is now forever associated with the trainer of Cambourne Exiles Rugby Football Club.

The comparison between Cambridge’s Guildhall and the offices of South Cambridge District Council’s new home in Cambourne are striking. The Guildhall “is” Cambridge City Centre. As well as the council chamber it also has a huge hall and a smaller hall next to it – places where events are held regularly. I’ve even been ballroom dancing there. The district council’s offices on the other hand are stuck out at the end of a business park in the in a place that’s not on a ‘natural’ transport route – buses have to take a noticeable detour in order to get to the offices.

Tristram Hunt’s take in his book is that the architecture of modern council offices reflects the ‘administrative’ purposes of modern councils rather than the pioneering decision-makers of days gone by – where councils were more than just the local administrative arm of a centralised state.

Yet just as technological advancement made the centralisation of the state an easier task to carry out with industrialisation, social media is making the decentralisation of the state seem like a more logical step across a number of areas. At the time Hunt’s book was published (2004), the direction of travel towards centralisation was only just coming to a halt. In the years since then, Whitehall began to appreciate the limitations of centralisation and top-down target setting, leading to Local Area Agreements via Labour’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act in 2007, and in the Coalition’s Localism Act 2011. How long it will take for this decentralisation to reflect in municipal architecture (especially given the ratcheting up of energy efficiency regulations)?

Okay, so where do you locate a district council in an area of villages and small settlements?

This post isn’t about giving the people or the councillors of South Cambridgeshire a kicking – anything but. The district envelopes many of the settlements and villages that dwell in the rural sea that surrounds Cambridge. Many parts are beautifully picturesque too, with churches, pubs and houses that in some cases are hundreds of years old. Hence the importance of parish councils as an essential link between people and local government.

I’ve never lived in an area that was ‘parished’ – the closest level of civic/political representation I’ve ever had is where I am now – at district council level. It was only during my time in the civil service that I got a feel for the diversity of parish and town councils. Some are described as a couple of people and their dog maintaining responsibility for maintaining grass verges and the village green, while others – such as Shrewsbury Town Council, that deliver a far wider range of services to far more people.

Perhaps it was only with the development of Cambourne that a decision was taken to move South Cambridgeshire District Council out of Cambridge and into what was hoped would become a beating heart of a rural district. Perhaps it reflected the mindset of the time to have a building of that nature located where it currently is when the Council relocated. I invite those with greater knowledge of the deliberations at the time to submit comments to enlighten me on this.

Update – minutes of the deliberations & the final decision can be found here – wingtip to Holly Adams.

Some of you may also be aware of the proposed development at Northstowe, in the same district but north-west of Cambridge. It was originally proposed as an ecotown several years ago but never materialised for a variety of reasons. The criticisms have not gone away – not just of the eco-side of things, but comparing the concept of the original post-war “New Towns” to what’s planned for Northstowe. Does it risk becoming a commuter village full of executive housing? I’ll leave that one for those closer to the ground to respond to the points made in that article in The Guardian.


3 thoughts on “Local council buildings as civil spaces

  1. See minutes of South Cambs District Council 27 September 2001: http://scambs.moderngov.co.uk/Data/Council/20010927/Minutes/$Minutes%2027%20September%202001.doc.pdf

    Buildings on Hills Road were more expensive to run and the cost of retrofitting them exceeded the cost of selling and moving to a new location. Cambourne was selected from 12 sites in South Cambs following advertisement. Also a will to demonstrate commitment to Cambourne as a success story. No one anticipated the economic downturn: land around the office all has outline permission for development to fill in some of the gaps – new home of Elms Motors shows things are starting again.

    Decision was taken just before my time, though, but was present at lots of subsequent meetings about design of the building, early site tours and so on. Hope I’ve capture reasons accurately.

  2. When South Cambs was based in Hills Road, did that therefore mean that it was based actually in Cambridge City?

    I grew up in Scotland, where currently everything is unitary authorities, with no parish councils (there are “community councils” which don’t even have power over flowerbeds). There was a surplus of council buildings created in the mid nineties- when the entire country went from two-tier authorities to unitary. In that case, generally most “new” council headquarters were fairly obvious, with quite a few of the authorities having roughly the same boundaries as the preceding District councils

  3. Yes, prior to 2004, South Cambs’ headquarters were actually in a different local authority area – although not the reason for the move, finding a location in South Cambridgeshire was one of the criteria during the site selection process. South Cambs completely surrounds Cambridge City and there was a two- or three-year study done in the mid-90s to look at amalgamation, but eventually it was concluded that the characters of the two areas were just too different for it to be an equal partnership, likely to the detriment of the rural areas.

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