Reach for the stars – because even if you don’t get there…

…you might just reach the tops of the trees – and the view from there is just as wonderful

The former deputy leader of Cambridge City Council – and someone who I see as a potential future MP for Cambridge (I’ve not told her this yet), Cllr Carina O’Reilly responded to my post about a concert hall for Cambridge. In fact, she’s one of three women who I respect immensely who have commented on the specifics of the whole concert hall idea – and getting the debate going.

“Are you saying we won’t get this concert hall then?”

I’m saying at the moment, the chances are somewhere between nought and zero – esp in terms of the site that I have identified. What I want to do in the first part of this post is explain some of the principles behind my thinking – and how my life experiences shaped me to think as I do. Bear with me.

Let your heart decide the destination, and let your head figure out how to get there – never ever the other way around.

Up until I graduated, my thought process was head first, heart second. In part because of my biggest moral failing: Lack of courage. I always let fear get in the way of achieving my dreams or desires. This was made worse by messages from church every week that destroyed my self-esteem. Really I should have told the clerics and everyone around them where to go (as others did at the time) rather than believing them. The problem is that when many of the adults you are surrounded by are part of that ‘faith community’ it’s incredibly difficult to break away from it. Hence my view that the state should be comprehensively funding activities along the lines of given that they fund faith schools.

“What’s this got to do with a concert hall?”

If I followed my head on the concert hall idea, I’d be like? ‘Oh – hardly any chance of that happening, why bother?’

It’s the dreamers, radicals, renegades, misfits and free thinkers who come up with the ideas that inspire rather than committees of men

If the Millennium celebrations taught us one thing, it was this:

I visited the Millennium Dome (I still call it that) in the year 2000. Architecturally it is wonderful. The inside attractions…the less said the better bar Peter Gabriel’s excellent show. (If anything the stage was too big – me and my old friend from school, Raymond ended up actually sitting *on* the stage for the whole of the show because the seats were too far away and only realised – along with other people in the audience – that we were on the stage when the acrobats landed from the top of the dome. But they handled it beautifully). Each zone though managed to be the advertising showpiece for whoever the sponsor was. There was no unified message unlike say Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening show for London 2012. Which is probably the best opening ceremony I will ever see.

“It still ain’t gonna happen!”

Until it actually does – at which point you see tyre-screeching U-turns from people (normally the cynics who post negative social media posts regularly in newspaper columns) who say they were fully supportive all along.

The comments from Carina and friends don’t fall into that category – rather their comments are precisely the questions people should be asking.

“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.

My emphasis on the bold fourth line down. To which my response was as below in the blogpost:

The bit that I needed to expand on was “Why?” Why should Cambridge University, its colleges and private investors pay for it given (as I’m assuming) the government won’t (whether due to ideology of right wing governments, or more pressing priorities on things like housing for a left wing government), and local government cannot simply due to a lack of money and legal powers.

“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?”

This is a more challenging question for me and anyone else who wants such a facility.

“I don’t want to spoil your fun, but it is, really, just fun you’re having right now. It’s playground fantasy stuff.”

At this stage, for me it has to be. When I look at too many of the buildings going up in and around Cambridge, I don’t get the sense that the designers had even a minute of fun coming up with their designs. I get the feeling that their commission was to design something that would get the maximum revenue from the minimum of expenditure. The architecture around Cambridge Railway Station reflects this. If you can’t ‘play’ with such a concept, how can you expect anyone to be creative ever? Why is it that some of the highest paying creative organisations have offices full of playful things? Compare their offices to the offices you get elsewhere.

“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.”

Now we’re really talking – and this comes back to the ‘head vs heart’ separation I referred to above. From my perspective, I assume that my heart is telling me it can – it will be done. It’s just not the responsibility of my heart to work out ‘how’ it will be delivered. That’s the responsibility of my head. It’s not the responsibility of my head to say ‘It cannot be done’ – only my heart can decide, after looking at what my head has come up with, whether it can or cannot be done. Now, that may be because after crunching the numbers, the figure that my head comes up with is one that is hopelessly unrealistic. The single thing that would torpedo a concert hall scheme on the site I identified is land acquisition costs. If the land is owned by another organisation not willing to have such a grand facility built on it (and take the rent from it), then the scheme is dead in the water. The land prices are too high. Very high land prices have scuppered many a community scheme in and around Cambridge. Developers and their financiers have an insatiable demand for all things Cambridge. The way the system is structured, the most likely thing that will happen is that a new Marque building will get built on it – despite the presence of the Catholic Church.

Imagine this building below…

…being built next to this one below…


…because that is what the planning system incentivises them to do. And that is the fault of Conservative ministers. It’s a political decision, even though they might have issues with the consequences of it. But that is what happens when you allow your policies to be driven by one every well-resourced interest group funded by huge profits. Few other voices can get a word in.

“Rant over?”

So…that’s the money and planning barrier. But there are more, as raised by two more friends on other private exchanges. I won’t name names but the comments are as follows:

Concert halls don’t come cheap therefore needs to be on a) council owned land or b) cheap land. Secondly they need to have multiple function i.e. Use for much of the day as possible so hear me out on this:
1 Location
A number of places spring to mind but all around the north and south train station. To the north – old City Council Park and Ride side or (very very very controversially) there is 5 acres of Green Belt (you would never know) at the cycle bridge next to Milton Tesco known as the triangle site/land – sometimes used for a travelling circus. To the south – some of the Babraham Park and Ride or the County land south of the biomedical campus 
As mentioned earlier, the land needs to be already owned by one of the colleges or Cambridge University. That’s the easy bit if it is. The next bit is convincing the landowner that for the sake of civic pride it would be magnificent to build such a facility there. But ‘civic magnificence’ is not a good enough reason to build such a facility.
  • Will the venue break even?
  • Will the venue provide a revenue stream in the very long term? (Note the lessons of the New Theatre that went bust in the 1960s despite having a seating capacity of over 1,500 at the time).
  • Will the venue be useable during the day – what’s the worst case scenario?
This then underlines the need for financial feasibility and technical studies – similar to the Cambridge Connect Light Railway.
2 Multiple uses
Firstly what a great facility also for public meetings, with good acoustics (god forbid you might actually hear a meeting) and also for conferences.
Both individuals concerned mentioned this.
***Now we’re talking*** – because we are now getting into specifics. For me, this needs to be informed by detailed surveys of industry need and community need as well as academic needs. Evidence-based policy and all that. Anecdotally over the past five or so years of community action in Cambridge, I’ve noted:
  • An under-supply of musical rehearsal space
  • An under-supply of dance floor rehearsal space
  • An under-supply of venues with first class acoustics – whether for conferences or for concerts
  • An under-supply of very large theatre style tiered seating space
  • An under-supply of community art space – we don’t have a community arts centre.

“Haven’t we got another candidate for a community art space?”

photo (3)
The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible
….Yes, but the landlord is not civically-minded
“So sell off the other assets for housing or offices or other uses, regenerate the market square and fund a totally new 2,000 seater facility with offices near either science park or biomedical campus for conference venue. Very large marquee’s are very expensive – £30k a time!” 


The above is in the context of the council selling off assets – big ones such as The Guildhall or Shire Hall. That in itself would require changes of local government structure. The problem I have with the selling off of the Guildhall is that it belongs to the people. I would hate to see it privatised, knowing that the developers would want to give us something cheap and skanky like South Cambridgeshire Hall in Cambourne as a replacement – which is a bland office block of an administrative building in the middle of effing nowhere rather than a vibrant buzzing civic centre.

If there was to be local council restructuring, Shire Hall would be the better candidate for selling off and turning into a hotel, with some of the surrounding land being turned into that concert hall space. Alternatively – and this really is talking unicorn magic sparkling dust, you could ***rebuild the castle*** and have it as a civic historical centre. You could have things like jousting tournaments and medieval fairs in front of the old castle mound! And instead of people walking up the mound (which would damage it even more), you could have a castle near it at the same height that they could clime up instead!

Yeah…one fantasy scheme at a time, Puffles!



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