Responding to online comments on a new concert hall for Cambridge


In defence of my idea and vision for Cambridge 

The blogpost I wrote on a new concert hall for Cambridge was picked up by David Bartlett of the Cambridge News.

The newspaper’s reporter Josh Thomas then wrote an article, seeking comment from the Cambridge Live Trust.

…and in print too

(Note – I run both @Puffles2010 and @ACarpenDigital – the latter account I tweet far less frequently – perhaps a few times a day at most)

“Who said what? ‘Don’t read the comments’ and all that? It can be a bit of a bear pit even at the best of times!”

I tried to respond to every comment on Facebook here and also on the newspaper’s site scrolling to the end here. In a nutshell I tried to avoid the confrontational exchanges that you normally get with some of these things – either referring people back to my original blogpost (which was not originally linked in the article) or to clarify things that might shine a different light on people’s comments. The main themes that stood out were:

  • There are other more pressing priorities (eg homelessness)
  • Cambridge already has the Corn Exchange
  • Town/gown splits
  • It won’t get built there

More pressing priorities – housing

On the more pressing priorities, others stated that as a city we are not restricted to doing only one activity at a time. i.e. it is possible to deliver on both. With homelessness, I said that the origins of the problem are in Whitehall – ministers not giving local councils the funding and powers needed to deal with the problem of providing enough social homes and stopping developers weaselling out of commitments on social homes. (That plus banning councils from building enough council homes in the first place – housing minister Gavin Barwell MP saying on Newsnight to Emily Maitlis that councils could not borrow to invest because of the impact it would have on the total government debt figures – forgetting that by borrowing to build, you are creating an asset that is worth more than the original amount borrowed. Do watch from 16 mins in here (available till early March 2017).

I also said that given the lifespan of such venues – the Corn Exchange will be 150 years old in 2025, the sort of very long term investment we’re looking at for a big concert venue is the one large institutional investors – such as Cambridge University and its colleges should be interested in.

Cambridge already has the Corn Exchange

I quoted figures in my previous blogpost about Cambridge’s projected population growth. When the Corn Exchange was converted into a modern concert venue in 1986/87, the city’s population was hovering around 100,000 people. In 2031, that population is likely to be 150,000, with further growth expected. Therefore my case is to plan for the city we are likely to become rather than simply say that today it might not be needed. Furthermore, the local councils have already stated there is a growing demand and need for such a facility – again in my previous blogpost.

Town/gown splits

I left this one for others to take on primarily, though I did post links to Cambridge University’s outreach programmes and their list of public talks. I’m as much a critic of Cambridge University and its colleges in terms of a closed decision-making culture so it’s incumbent on me to support those trying to open up the institutions.

Furthermore – and I’m grateful to those that posted, we saw a number of examples of public events hosted by Cambridge University for the good of the city. Remember though that for my generation and older, we grew up in a Cambridge where Cambridge University and colleges didn’t want to know us locals if we were ‘non-members.’ The change of culture in my experience only really started after the Millennium.

It won’t get built here

This is probably the most compelling challenge, not least because the commercial pressures are so great. The site is such a prime spot for buy-to-leave luxury apartment developers that they would throw a huge amount of money to acquire the site that would make it almost impossible to turn down. For all we know, the whole thing may already be wrapped up. I sincerely hope not. It it is, then it would just go to re-enforce concerns over the lack of transparency around decisions that affect the people of our city.

Note that at the Greater Cambridge City Deal meetings – another gathering with transparency issues, assembly member Sir Michael Marshall (of the Marshall Group) said that Cambridge is ‘at capacity’ in terms of its ability to function with one city centre, and that consideration needs to be given (not sure by whom) for an alternative centre. 50 years ago that debate was happening with talk of creating a new centre in the east of the city in The Kite – the area that the Grafton Centre was built at in the early 1980s.

Today, as I posted in the FB comments, such an alternative centre needed to be planned for and built either in the North West Cambridge development, or in Trumpington Meadows. Both those opportunities thus far have been missed. Personally I’d have made the case for the latter around a proposed Addenbrooke’s railway station with a Cambridge Light Rail and guided bus interchange. In fact, I’d have had all three underground (along with bus station and taxi rank – planning on all buses and taxis being electric by the time of completion). This would have allowed for a pedestrian-friendly civic square anchored by a further education and evening class college, a health centre, a sports leisure centre, and perhaps facilities for startups/ an incubator. (ie somewhere central that’s not stuck out on the edge of town like the Cambridge Future Business Centre.

The problem as always?

Cambridge’s institutions are unable to think and function like a city – acting in the collective interests of the people that make up the city rather than for their own financial bottom lines first and only. We see this in the examples of all of the independent shops that are forced to close. Hence why I wrote this blogpost.

“Will the concert hall get built?”

It will at some stage because population numbers will simply make existing facilities unsustainable. The question for our city is whether we want to do like we’ve always done, and wait for that unsustainable point to arrive before acting, or whether we can do things differently and start planning now before panicking when things get too crowded.


One thought on “Responding to online comments on a new concert hall for Cambridge

  1. Sigh. Antony, the problem with this entire post – and the tenor of a lot of your posts, if I’m honest – is that it’s all magical unicorn sprinkles. It’s all ‘will our city do this?’ and ‘should we build it here?’ without any mention, anywhere, in your blog or in the clearly desperate CN’s story, about who you intend to pay for it, and why they should.

    If it’s the Council, where on earth do you imagine they’re going to find the money, given their 40% budget cuts, and how on earth would they justify it at a time when we are in the middle of a genuine housing crisis? If it’s developers, why would they spend all this money on a facility which, as you underline yourself, is not actually needed right now, and which nobody is clamouring to run?

    I don’t want to spoil your fun, but it is, really, just fun you’re having right now. It’s playground fantasy stuff. If you want to be taken seriously, look seriously at the genuine barriers to getting this sort of thing done – generally money, planning law, people not wanting stuff in their backyard, and money – and come up with realistic solutions to them.

    I do enjoy your local history stuff by the way.

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