Cambridge’s history meets contemporary local politics


When some of Cambridge’s campaign groups met some of Cambridge’s local historians – sparks flew!

Before I begin, an appeal from me asking you to support my work both filming and publishing videos on local democracy on my Youtube channel at, and also (as this blogpost will explain) my local history research on my Lost Cambridge blog at

If you are able to contribute (and a ***big thank you*** to everyone who already has), please see my appeal for support page here.

A day of two public meetings

The first event was hosted by the local campaign group, The Cambridge Commons, which researches and campaigns on issues around economic and social inequalities. It is affiliated with the Equality Trust.

And it was packed:

Held at Cambridge Central Library next door to the excellent Cambridgeshire Collection (on the 3rd floor) it was standing room only in a room buzzing with both energy & opinions. We were there firstly to hear from the former energy editor of The Guardian, Terry MacAlister. (@TerryMac999 on Twitter). I filmed his speech, which you can watch below.

This was followed by a more extended debate/discussion about what people thought of both the Greater Cambridge City Deal, and of recent housing and construction developments in Cambridge generally. You can watch that video (45mins) here, which also features contributions from Smarter Cambridge Transport*, The Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations*, Save the West Fields* and more. (*See transparency note at the end). One contribution worth listening to is that of John Preston, the former Environmental Heritage Manager at Cambridge City Council.

My contribution to the meeting (other than to point everyone to the Cambridgeshire Collection around the corner – like I said, do have a look),  was to suggest a joint ‘teach in’ event on local democracy and the future of Cambridge. The reason was that a number of people in the room were not aware of some of the basics/essential knowledge on how local democracy and the planning system functions. And why would they given how complex the system of local planning is? It was one of the reasons I posted this archive video of a presentation by former planning manager Patsy Dell at the Be The Change – Cambridge event I organised nearly two years ago.

Above: Planning workshop with Patsy Dell, then of Cambridge City Council.

Having seeded the idea of a ‘teach in’, I hope Cambridge’s civic and campaign groups will gather together to help put this on. Not least because combined with the likes of Cambridge PPF, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign and others, there is a huge amount of expertise in those campaign groups that local residents seem now both aware of, and willing to learn from – and contribute.

Note I don’t see this as a weakness or a criticism of councillors. Actually I see this as a strengthening of local democracy. If all the local political parties are mature in their approaches to this growing awareness and desire to get involved, they could find themselves with new members, new activists, new candidates and in future years, new councillors.

Local activists meet local historians

I very deliberately linked my online publicity for the Cambridge Commons event with the monthly meeting of the Cambridgeshire Association of Local Historians that just happened to be meeting a couple of hours after the end of the former event. The afternoon presentation was topical – all about the history of the Cambridge Preservation Society – now Cambridge Past, Present and Future. It covered primarily how we got the Cambridge Green Belt – have a read of the City Council’s official history.

Although due to the lighting of the slides means that Antony Cooper giving the presentation is barely visible, the audio is clear enough to hear and the slides to view. It is an extended presentation but it covers comprehensively how Cambridge got to where it is in terms of being a compact city, why and who were the key players between the First World War and the 1970s.

View the talk here – it’s 1 hr 08 mins but it’s worth persevering. 

As with my Lost Cambridge project (which I first launched as a Facebook page here), what Mr Cooper’s presentation does is to give an historical context to the issues that the City Deal (also on FB at is now having to deal with.

Sparks fly between Cambridge PPF and FeCRA

One thing that is becoming clear to me is the fault lines between the different community and campaign groups over the future of Cambridge. Some of the fault lines are superficial and arise mainly because someone hasn’t presented something clearly, while others are much deeper and more substantial. The sparks flew between Mr Cooper and Wendy Blythe of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (and also Stephen Coates of the Save the Westfields Campaign) because Mr Cooper commented that we had not seen a grassroots response to the threats to the Cambridge Green Belt. Mr Coates made the point about the very recent anti-busway march – saying it was the biggest political protest in Cambridge in 2016.

A timelapse of the Save the West Fields protest, December 2016.

Mrs Blythe commented that FeCRA members and member organisations (such as Milton Road Residents’ Association) were focused on issues at a neighbourhood level in response to Mr Coopers statement about Cambridge PPF now focussing on issues at a more strategic level.

What I took away from the exchanges was the growing gap between those of us who follow local government very closely (plus those who follow us on social media) and those who perhaps don’t follow as closely and/or who do not use social media to stay informed on what’s happening in local democracy but who very clearly have a wealth of knowledge and talent to contribute. It re-enforced my view of needing a teach-in event – perhaps along the lines of Be the change – Cambridge, where we can also re-visit what we learnt in two years ago and what has changed since then. This I hope will allow everyone to smooth over what the small differences are and have a safe open space in which to explore where there are real and substantial differences of opinion between the various community and campaign groups. Because they are there.

The exchanges had the effect of galvanising some of the regulars to find out more – they found the exchanges incredibly interesting and exciting, while one or two of the other regulars couldn’t wait to find the door! Understandable if you only came along to listen to a history talk only to find yourself in the middle of a political debate. Yet what made me come away really pleased at the end was that this was the first time I had seen our community of Cambridge local historians face the fact that what might seem like local history is in face contemporary local politics.

I’ve said regularly that the City Deal has lacked an historical context, and that Lost Cambridge is my attempt (amongst other things) to bring that vital historical context not just to the City Deal but to contemporary local democracy and the watching public as well.  There are other sites worth looking at in detail in this field too – longtime former councillor Rosenstiel’s Cambridge Elections site and Phil Rodgers’ elections and data visualisation blog are two that stand out. At a neighbourhood (to me) level there is also Chris Rand’s Queen Edith’s blog.

Going back to the original historical documents

I deliberately brought along original copies of three important historical documents to the afternoon meeting:

  • The Cambridgeshire Regional Planning Report 1934 by WR Davidge (hi-res maps here)
  • The Holford Wright Report 1950 – with maps (hi-res digitised maps here)
  • A guide to the Cambridge Plan 1956 – by Derek Senior

The books and guides clearly caught the imagination of a number of people there – just as they did at the Museum of Cambridge a couple of months ago.

Yes – that is a copy of Tramways and Urban Transit magazine you can see on the table! My take is that as I’m backing Dr Colin Harris’s Cambridge Connect light rail project (I run the project’s Facebook page) I may as well be informed about all things trams and light rail.

One final thing on digitisation

Cambridge has a number of local history groups and activists around. Honor Rideout who is at the start of the video of Mr Cooper’s talk runs the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History. We also have:

As you can see, lost going on – but digitisation is proving to be a very big challenge to all of us. The huge amount of material to be digitised is utterly daunting, hence tabling a question to Cambridgeshire County Council on this. Read their response to me here.

All of this and that’s before we’ve even looked at the new kid on the block – mobile video. I spent part of summer 2016 experimenting with video clips with ‘Cambridge – the shaping of our city’ in the series below.

The concept works, but is there anyone out there wanting to make their own? In particular people younger than me! Because continually conspicuous by their absence (with a few honourable mentions), are young people – and young historians. In an exams-driven era, how do we encourage young people not just to become interested, but to make, record and write their own histories too?

Comments on a metaphorical postcard please.

(Transparency note – members of Smarter Cambridge Transport, The Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations and Save the West Fields have commissioned me to film at a number of local events over the past 12 months including local council meetings and events they have organised).


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