So…how is the current planning and political system going to provide Cambridge with the civic amenities it needs?


…and if the current planning and political system can’t provide it, what changes to both need to be made?

Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb wrote about the problems Cambridge’s municipal authorities faced in the 19th Century in her book about Cambridge’s social problems – I transcribed part of one of the chapters covering it here.

In terms of what Cambridge needs as a rapidly growing city, Eglantyne’s analysis and conclusions are worth studying, not least because her writing on 19th Century Cambridge was at a time when no one was really in control of how Cambridge ‘the town’ expanded, least of all with a very strong sense of public interest. For the first half of the 19th Century Cambridge was a proper stinking rotten borough as far as democracy was concerned. Another Cambridge hero, Professor Helen Cam of Girton described just how rotten we were in her history of Cambridge – see the final two paragraphs here.

“In July 1852 the Conservative candidates were returned by an exceedingly narrow last-minute majority, and a select committee of the House of Commons after a brief investigation declared the election void. In response to an address from both Houses a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the existence of corrupt practices in the Cambridge elections.”

Note this corruption by the Conservatives happened before the Labour Party was even invented. It was the Liberals that lost out at a time when the franchise was still very limited. But if we get the expanded Museum of Cambridge that I want for the city, the Rutland regime will inevitably feature!

“Yeah – how are you going to pay for it?”

…is the inevitable question that always applies to any civic idea. Because at the moment it feels like local councils have absolutely no money to pay for new amenities – whether through raising money through any form of local taxation or government grants.

“Have local councils ever had sufficient powers to raise such funds?”

In Eglantyne Jebb’s time in Cambridge, the biggest restraint was that of ‘rate payers’ – what would ultimately become council tax. The WikiP page on local government rates and their history is here. Then as now, ‘the rates’ were based on property. Thatcher made a disastrous attempt to have a single flat rate – the dreaded Poll Tax, which brought her down. It wasn’t just the principle of ‘the Duke paying the same as the dustman’ that people opposed, but also that the first bills ended up being far higher than politicians had anticipated. Finally there was the boycott.

It was the backlash from the rate payers that meant Cambridge did not get:

Personally I think it’s a shame we got neither, but having some sort of democratic oversight was not wrong in principle. I can’t help but wonder whether Sir Horace, given how prominent he was in society at the time, could not have launched an appeal fund to help reduce the burden on rate payers.

Revamping The Grafton Centre – again

This will be the third revamp it’s had since it was completed in 1984. See Josh Thomas in the Cambridge News here. Why another revamp? And are architects to blame?

They’re right about the demolition of the Victorian slums. You only have to read what Eglantyne wrote about Wellington Street and surrounds, or what local teacher Leah Manning (who later became a Labour MP), wrote about New Street School on the other side of East Road to know what a hole that part of town was 110 years ago.

My comment on the design failures was more to do with people’s walking route into and out of the centre rather than on whether it looked nice or not.

170928 Existing GraftonPlan

The current plan of the site shows too many ‘dead end’ or underused routes – essentially everything with a thin dotted line. Stagecoaches reduction of services over the past couple of decades has not helped at all – the purpose-built bus-stop of 1995 is now hardly used. In part because East Road is one big traffic jam for several hours a day.

The massive historical context with The Grafton 

I wrote about it here. Politically it was a very controversial move to turn the area into a major regional retail area, one that had first been discussed by the Holford Wright report in 1950. It took 35 years before it was completed. Imagine living under the shadow of that much insecurity in your neighbourhood for such a length of time. One former councillor attributes the decision to the decline of the Conservative Party in Cambridge in the 1980s & early 1990s – something from which they show no signs of recovering from locally.

1980 was also when the Co-op sold their iconic building on Burleigh Street to Grosvenor, which also entailed the loss of the co-operative hall.

“You’ve identified a massive concert hall & conferencing venue, a revamped Guildhall, an expanded civic museum, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and leisure centre and a metro system/light rail-underground as major needs for Cambridge”


“Who pays?”

Somebody else.

“Such as?”

****Tourist day trippers. Buy to leave property buyers, foreign investors buying property pricing out locals, people who drive loud, noisy polluting vehicles, the 1%, cram colleges, multinational corporations and generally anyone I don’t like.****

Therein lies part of the problem proponents such as myself face on the ‘who pays’ front. You can’t design a structure of payments based simply on people one individual (me) happens to have issues with. In anycase, those on the receiving end of such charges one way or another find their way around them.

Even under the existing regime for business rates and council tax, Cambridge has to surrender the vast majority of what it collects to be redistributed to other parts of the country that could never hope to raise the sorts of sums Cambridge can raise from its local economy. So even though Cambridge can raise the money nominally, the current system doesn’t allow Cambridge to keep what it collects. Despite rhetoric from Conservative ministers about allowing local councils to do just that, they never answered the question of what happens to those local areas that would struggle to raise revenue to pay for services the law requires them to – especially in the face of ministers planning to scrap central government support for local services.

Thus we’re back to relying on the goodwill of developers and/or pleading with the use of Section 106 developer contributions. Or through private philanthropy. Just because The University of Cambridge is nominally a state institution does not automatically mean it and its member colleges & institutions act in the interests of the whole of the city. For example they have effectively shut out the low-paid staff they employ from living on one of their newest, biggest developments.

“But Cambridge is such a great city!”

No it’s not.

Great cities have powerful, competent municipal authorities that run public services, administer planning and manage the city’s transport. Cambridge’s current structure of local government designed by Conservative ministers currently looks like this.


Yes, I’m giving Tory ministers a kicking but given that they have been in office for the past seven years, the buck stops with them. That does not absolve the previous Labour administration from their failure to overhaul local government structures in particular in Gordon Brown’s years. Also, if it was a Labour (or Lib Dem) administration that had overseen the above mess, I’d have given them both metaphorical barrels too. As far as I can tell, there is no ideology that underpins the diagram above, constructed by Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport.

Thus not only is Cambridge City Council extremely restricted on revenue raising and borrowing, it cannot even:

  • influence, let alone run its own hospitals
  • have full oversight of the local police and other emergency services
  • run its schools and colleges
  • run the transport system

Cambridgeshire County Council run the transport system, and most of the schools are en route to being run direct from the Department for Education via the academies system. The gripe Cambridge has on transport is that the Conservatives have a majority on the county council (thus complete political control) yet don’t have a single county councillor representing anywhere inside Cambridge city itself. Thus the model of local government completely disenfranchises residents that live within the city.

One example of how this split materialises on public services is with nurseries – the county council planning on big cuts. Yet the residents of Cambridge City in their entirety elected councillors from parties that are against said cuts.

One of the two parties protesting above. Thus Cambridge is in this strange position of having cuts imposed on services such as libraries and nurseries which not a single city-based councillor stood on a platform for election supporting.

Re-discovering some of the useful things we did in the past


I found this on Cambridge Market recently. I wonder why we stopped producing them because having such an official guide for the city – in particular for new residents (esp given the increased level of population churn) would be really useful for people. This version from the 1960s now reads as a really useful historical document.


For me this page is brilliant: These are the people that run Cambridge.

This was before the restructure of local government in the mid-1970s that took schools & libraries out of the city council’s hands. Who are the equivalents of these officials today? What are the structures that hold them to account?

“So…who has that grand vision for municipal government then?”

I can tell you who doesn’t – Eric Pickles

Recall this in 2010 – certainly a controversial appointment following the 2010 general election. After four years, Lawrence Hardy of the University of East Anglia had this to say about the impact of Pickles’ planning policies. Note his point about the spread of standard corporate developments. That’s not to say previous eras didn’t have their own identikit designs. But then as Sid Moon sketched in the Cambridge News in the mid-1930s, with design there is no pleasing everyone.

350105 Guildhall designs cartoon pleasing everyone

Sid Moon in the Cambridge News via the Cambridgeshire Collection’s Newspaper Microfiche Archive – on the furore of designing a new guildhall in Cambridge.

One name mentioned in the history books is Joe Chamberlain for his work in Birmingham. The reason why having positive ambitions for local councils and cities matters is because of the challenges of things like climate change. In the USA it’s particularly acute as some states and cities find themselves diametrically opposed to the policies of the incumbent in the Whitehouse. But cities have unique responsibilities – in particular on emissions. Hence why that question is now a global one. As far as Cambridge is concerned, what’s the point of Cambridge City Council having climate targets when it doesn’t have the powers to achieve them? Because some of those civic amenities such as a light rail underground will be needed to deal with greenhouse gas emissions – especially if it is to grow at the rate ministers and senior politicians want it to in these very uncertain times.


One thought on “So…how is the current planning and political system going to provide Cambridge with the civic amenities it needs?

  1. Just on the topic of city guides, I think a web site would be more useful. Books can rapidly become out of date as people move jobs or systems change slightly. (How often do Councils go through yet another reorganisation? Exactly.) A website could help people find out who to contact about planning or abandoned bikes or cars parked on pavements or whatever and would be easier to update. Fix My Street and Write to Them help so far but I think some are still a bit unsure about how it all works [not those web sites but councils generally] and given how complex the whole baggy structure is, it’s not surprising.

    I’m assuming you mean that there aren’t any *Tories* representing the city in the County Council? Not that there are no County Councillors representing the city.

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