Has leisure & entertainment in Cambridge kept pace with the growth of our city?

Summary

No.

(That’s not to say nothing has happened since the Millennium).

I’m writing this shortly after news that demand to see Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to Cambridge on Monday has exceeded the capacity of the largest indoor venue in Cambridge. Cambridge Corn Exchange holds 1,400 people, with Great St Mary’s Church holding 1,200.

“Is there any evidence that Cambridge needs bigger venues?”

It’s a bit ‘chicken & egg’ because if bookers know that the biggest venue in Cambridge has a capacity of 1,400, then anyone looking for something bigger that’s indoors will automatically look elsewhere. That said, during my civil service days in Cambridge a decade ago, I remember event organisers saying that the city had a distinct lack of four-star-hotel-and-conferencing facilities the type that are the norm in larger cities. It remains to be seen whether new developments by Cambridge railway station and in south Cambridge meet some of this demand.

The scandal that remains the old Mecca Bingo building

The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

The continued lack of use of the above-building is a civic disgrace. It makes me angry even thinking about it. See here for some photos inside, and this blog by some former squatters who briefly turned it into a community centre. This is something I’m tempted to bring up at future Greater Cambridge City Deal meetings given the people & organisations that sit on its boards.

No new nightclub venues of note since my teens

By that I mean venues the size of The Junction or larger. There have been a few smaller venues that have cropped up, or others that are former pubs with extended licenses to allow dancing & late serving of alcohol. Other than that, there’s been a lot of rebranding of existing venues. That said, the actions of Cambridge’s colleges, the police and the council have been incredibly restrictive over the years – the old bingo hall being one such victim.

The question inevitably is where to put such new venues. Local residents inevitably won’t want new venues close to where they live. Having The Junction in my neighbourhood has been  over the years both a convenience and a curse. I remember 20 years ago going to a night out and meeting a couple of people who had come all the way from a village just outside Stevenage – and was astonished there was nothing better closer to them. It was only during my sixth form college days that I learnt just how dependent on transport friends from far outside Cambridge were – especially when it came to missing last trains!

We can’t talk about venues without talking about transport networks to get people to and from them.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been out with friends and had to bail out early in order to catch the last bus home. It leaves just before 11pm. I’m not expecting services to get any better as The Chancellor looks to cut local government & transport budgets even further later this year. (Something The Campaign for Better Transport are campaigning against). Transport matters in particular for sport – take Cambridge United’s mens & women’s teams. For me, it’s the poor transport provision that restricts numbers at The Abbey Stadium more than anything else. As for the women’s team, they play their ‘home’ games in Ely – over 10 miles north of Cambridge and on the other side of the small city to where the railway station is. That Cambridge cannot host the women’s football team that bears the city’s name is also a disgrace. Cambridge’s women deserve better.

Are Cambridge’s housing & tourism-retail bubbles harming the city’s provision of leisure facilities for residents?

I’ve looked at the history of some of our buildings in the town centre & have noticed how former leisure facilities have become retail outlets. A former ballroom and two former cinemas are now high-volume retail. A number of former warehouses used by a variety of community groups have now been given over to cramming-college-type en-suite student housing – the sort that Anglia Ruskin University (the supposed target market) has said is not suitable for its students. Cambridge City’s former ground at Milton Road was sold off for housing as well.

“What about Cambridge Leisure Park? And North West Cambridge?” 

For me, the old Cattle Market site was a big lost opportunity. The whole site was a lost opportunity. Essentially the site was redeveloped to cater for two non-residential markets: language school and short-stays, and the extended north-north-London railway line. After all, why would a part of the country with very low crime rates need three high-rise tower block gated communities? The property owners made it very clear to councillors they had no interest in renting out units to independent firms. That’s why so many of the shop units in and around the railway station are made up of identikit clone brands. North west Cambridge is still under construction, so it remains to be seen what this delivers and how accessible it is. As far as I know, Cambridge still awaits the construction of the proposed Cambridge University swimming pool. Hopefully that will ease some of the pressure on Parkside. In an ideal world, that pool would be expanded to make the main pool longer and/or add a couple of extra lanes & a bigger toddler pool.

A city-wide approach to…?

You’ve heard me say this before on many occasions across the piece. It’s not the fault of the local politicians – the way our local institutions are structured means that politicians are unable to deliver on many of the things I’ve listed above. Some changes require an Act of Parliament (such as a single council for the city, and/or powers to raise revenues beyond local council taxation), others require central government grants and others require different institutions to behave more civically, more collaboratively and less narrow-mindedly than they currently do.

The same goes for improving our existing venues. Things such as more, better & bigger dancefloor space for the many dance groups that are in Cambridge is something that regularly comes up in my circles.

Remember the above from Be the change?

For me though, the ultimate challenge comes from getting more people involved & active in local democracy. This is why things like Jeremy Corbyn’s visit that seems to be attracting the interest of thousands, through to next year’s volunteers fair are ever so important. If we want Cambridge to have an improved entertainment & leisure offer, more of us local residents need to become more active in local democracy to push for this.

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