Can Parliament impose a ‘duty to co-operate’ on Cambridge University’s colleges?


How can we persuade Cambridge University’s colleges who own much of the land in Cambridge to co-operate with local councils when it comes to their financial decisions?

The story in the Cambridge News over independent shops going out of business has a depressingly familiar feel to it. Joshua Taylor, Eaden Lilley, Galloway and Porter, Browne’s books on Mill Road, and now the Cambridge Toy Shop along with Ben Hayward Cycles and Arthur Shepherd…it has a depressing feel as they have been replaced by shops that more and more sell to either the mass tourist, (Buy your Cambridge t-shirt souvenir – made in a sweatshop in the far east) or the affluent tourist market (Buy your Cambridge souvenir jewellery mined from a deathtrap of a mine that is also an environmental crime!). I jest…sort of. Cambridge University Press stopped printing books a few years back – a loss to the city.

Compare and contrast with The Shambles in York or Marylebone High Street in London where the land owners have chosen to exclude big brands and artificially lower the rents so that independent shops with a lower financial turnover can afford to run businesses, creating a much more vibrant, interesting and exciting area compared to their bland, identikit clone town cousins. Remember Cambridge was labelled as the worst clone town in the country in 2010. This ‘anti-award’ encouraged a group of people to set up Independent Cambridge.

“Yeah – what’s this got to do with imposing stuff you freedom-hating tree-hugging eco-communist?”

Abstract theoretical concept of ‘the right to breathe clean air’ without having to take extra medication for the purpose – an issue I took to Cambridgeshire County Council very recently.

Above: Tabled public Q on @CambsCC legal powers & duties on air quality

My point is this: If all of the colleges that own land with retail units on them decide to charge the highest rents possible, this has the knock on effect of letting their premises to the shops that have the highest financial turnover – which either means eye-wateringly expensive trinkets, or regular delivery of goods that require frequent lorry-loads of goods to replenish the shelves. Lorries – not good for the roads, and not good for the buildings of our ancient city. Oh – and diesel fuel emissions are not good for public health either. The thing is, writers living in Cambridge have complained over the centuries about the poor air quality in Cambridge.

***Why are we still having to protest this sh-te?!?!***

You only have to look at some of the very old buildings that haven’t been given a good clean to notice just how bad pollution used to be before the construction of central heating. Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb wrote about the impact of poor air quality inside people’s homes on their health and life expectancy. Just because you can’t see the black smoke doesn’t mean that the pollutants haven’t gone away. And bazmobiles with loud engines don’t help either. (Not least because they disturb my sleep patterns).

The thing is, if the people who sit on the college finance committees are not, or don’t feel that they are affected by any of these things, or don’t feel any sense of duty or responsibility to the people who make up the city of Cambridge, why would they have an incentive to behave in a manner as if the wider city mattered? The only incentive they seem to have is the bottom line – sweat their assets as much as possible to get the greatest possible return. I make this point not to criticise those on college finance committees, but to criticise the institutional structures.

That is just one example of the unforeseen consequences of colleges not co-operating with other organisations – in particular the local councils – in the administration of our city. I’m sure there are other examples of large/wealthy institutional land owners who are not necessarily putting the interests of the city they own land in – i.e. putting short term financial returns first. The developments around Cambridge railway station are an example of this.

“Can’t you just ask the college finance committees to change their culture?”

Changing the culture of large, old and wealthy institutions is like turning around an oil tanker. After all, why change anything if the existing cultures and practices have served your institutions very well indeed?

Funnily enough, this was something I was planning to ask Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz at his lecture at Homerton College next week. After all, as the current (but soon-to-be-retiring) Cambridge University Vice Chancellor, surely a quiet word from him to the committees over dinner would sort things out? It turns out not, due to the culture of colleges protecting their independence from Cambridge University fiercely. Or so I was told very recently by someone inside the system who is far more knowledgeable about the inner workings of Cambridge University and its colleges.

“Ah – hence legislating!”

Legislation is always a last resort. The bit that I need to figure out first is what are all of the actions that we (as a city) need to take first, and in what order before we start turning our eyes towards Parliament and ministers. That could range from asking local councillors to investigate first, MPs writing friendly letters, discussions with student activists studying at Cambridge University, and petitions in the first instance.

At the same time, we’d also need to come up with, for want of another phrase, ‘a vision’ and how the culture change and behavioural change would help achieve this. That would also need to be quantified along with risks, opportunities, and cost-benefit analysis. (On the last, how much extra rental income would the colleges forego, and what would the impact be on their activities as a result of changing their policies?)

“If we do all of that, can make the case for the changes – and they still don’t budge? Then what?”

That’s when you start looking towards ministers, MPs and peers to examine the issues. Note too that we are also in an era where Parliament rarely passes legislation that affects only one city. In centuries gone by you would find Acts of Parliament specific to towns, cities, roads and minor railway lines. (ie different to major projects such as HS2).

“Can Parliament force an institution to co-operate in this way?”

Yes – there is precedence in the Local Gov’t & Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 (S106 (3)) as a concept – in this case the duty applied to other partner organisations in the creation of the old ‘Local Area Agreements’. This is where local councils negotiated with central government on what targets they had to hit from a suite of 198 indicators – see all 198 listed here. Although ultimately scrapped by the Coalition a couple of years later, the principle of organisations having a legal duty to co-operate with each other (in recent times) for given aims/outcomes was established.

“Would it be a specific bill for Cambridge?”

Very unlikely for reasons mentioned above. That plus there’s no way a Conservative government would bring it in simply on the grounds of ‘red tape’. Quite understandably they’d say it’s a local issue for local organisations to sort out – why does Parliament need to get involved? But my take is that colleges and their finance committees can play a much more positive role in improving the city not just for members of Cambridge University but also for the rest of us.

Furthermore, going back through the archives, Cambridge used to have a tradition where wealthy and influential members and fellows would contribute their time and money towards the civic good of the city – whether it was through being on the Cambridge Organisation of Charitable Societies (see halfway down here), to the likes of Mr Sedley Taylor paying for the dental fees for all of the children of the borough in 1907, to John Maynard Keynes founding the Cambridge Arts Theatre, through to Sir David Robinson (of Robinson College fame) funding the construction of the Rosie Maternity Hospital in 1983/84. Can Cambridge University revive that tradition? I’ve got 3 projects line up if they are interested!

Chances are there are better ways to get the colleges to work for the greater good of the city. If so, I’m all ears.


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