On the Oxford-Cambridge Arc – a gathering with the CFCI in Cambridge.


Some thoughts on the challenge set out by Prof Sadie Morgan of the National Infrastructure Commission in an event hosted by the Cambridge Forum for the Construction Industry.

You can watch Prof Morgan’s speech below:

You can watch Tom Holbrook’s talk below:

Both were guest speakers at a meeting of the Cambridge Forum for the Construction Industry, who provided me with a grant to upgrade my filming equipment to film events such as these that improve people’s knowledge of all things planning, development and construction. Have a look at their grant programme to see if you/your group are eligible for a grant.

You can follow them on Twitter at @CFCICambridge.

Dealing with the politics.

We’re living in a time when our political institutions are much more unstable than in times gone by – ironically Prof Morgan stated in her speech that for huge long term projects like East West Rail (which will re-link Oxford and Cambridge) to succeed, they need the sort of political commitment that goes beyond a single term of political office. This is one of the reasons why projects like The Olympics require sign-off by both ruling and opposition political parties before they can be considered. (The Lib Dems had to sign up to London 2012 all the way back in the mid-2000s as part of the official bid!)

Remember the Northern Powerhouse announced to a huge fanfare by George Osborne? One by one, the funding for the various projects got cut, and cut, and cut. One of the problems with the polarisation of political parties (and in this case, within a political party) is the risk that big expensive programmes get their funding pulled unexpectedly – which then makes organisations outside of government less willing to get involved. During my Whitehall days I saw this happen with a change of ministers where funding for some programmes were pulled because the new minister (despite being in the same political party) had different views on how policies should be delivered. At a massive scale, the story of the Steel industry in the UK post war era is one extreme example. Attlee nationalised the industry, Churchill then privatised it, Wilson then renationalised it, and Thatcher re-privatised it. (This is why studying the history of a given policy area is ever so important!)

When speakers outside of political parties talk about ‘taking the politics’ out of things, what they mean is ‘taking the worst aspects of party political behaviour‘ out of things. The reality is that having a major piece of infrastructure built in/near a neighbourhood suddenly becomes incredibly political. Or more generally, perhaps the threatened closure of a school or a hospital.

Why interested professionals in the construction industry need to get involved with party politics. 

We have a qualified architect as one of our councillors on Cambridge City Council.

Cllr Katie Thornburrow MRIBA (Lab – Trumpington) got elected a few months ago at the Cambridge City Council elections, representing Trumpington ward which has experienced a huge level of house building in recent years. Given the huge interest in what’s happening in Cambridge, local communities need people who are experts in the field to represent them. We can’t live in a world where the only elected politicians and political advisers that matter are the ones who did PPE at Oxford. Furthermore, there also needs to be a willingness to learn about the pressures politicians face from those within industry – because all too often politicians get a kicking over their failure to stop large developers behaving in a manner that enrages local communities. This case study is one regularly cited by politicians and campaign groups in and around Cambridge. It was also featured in an extensive article in a national newspaper that generated 1,400 comments. This is in comparison to what was talked about early on – a project similar to the widely-praised King’s Cross development.

The role of professionals in educating and informing local communities

Mr Holbrook’s talk covered some very important analysis on the types of development that we might see built across the arc – have a watch here. One of the things Cambridge organises every so often are events for the great and the good that discuss things like this – for example Keeping Cambridge Special here. The next step for me is going beyond the networking between the professionals and ‘the connected’ to bringing these things out to residents who might be positively disposed to getting involved. By that I mean people who serve as tenant representatives in social housing developments/housing associations, through to young students studying A-level geography or sociology. Or at a vocational level, those who are training to work in the construction industry.

Re-learning our history

In the Q&A session I picked out the following historical reports and studies:

  • Eglantyne Jebb’s study on social questions in Cambridge (digitised here). Written in 1906 and followed up in 1908, the Founder of Save the Children had a number of policy recommendations on new housing and communities – ones which are reflected in the low densities of interwar and post-war housing estates. This matters given comments by both Mr Holbrook and Prof Morgan on the need to increase densities. They and we need to know what the reasons were for reducing density in the first place.
  • WR Davidge’s regional planning report for Cambridgeshire – published in 1934.
  • The Holford Wright Report – the Cambridge Development Plan of 1950. Some of you may be able to access the maps I have digitised here.

The Cambridgeshire Collection contains all of the above and also the post-war development plans throughout the rest of the 20th Century. Go into the Central Library in Lion Yard and head to the third floor – staff will show you the section with all of the plans of the future from years long past. Because it certainly gets the mind thinking – especially when you look at maps and diagrams. Here are a few examples from previous blogposts that got me thinking

Cambridgeshire 1945

Should Cambridgeshire be split into four unitary authorities similar to this map from 1944?


Is this the best structure of local government ministers can come up with to deliver the infrastructure projects Cambridgeshire needs?


If we build new infrastructure, how long will it last for? Above – the choices of railway stations 1834-64. Nearly 2 centuries later we are still shaped by decisions taken in almost pre-industrial times.


What current plans are on the table that could be developed? This from Dr Colin Harris and Cambridge Connect.


Do we know which facilities are where, and which sites have the greatest potential to benefit from new transport infrastructure? For example public transport stops at country parks, sports stadia, hospitals and schools as well as shopping centres and places of employment?

Can we have buildings that demonstrate both civic pride and that the architects and designers looked like they had some fun with, rather than bland grey things designed on an etch-a-sketch? (The Tivoli on the left is being restored after local community groups rose up to oppose plans to turn a community facility into student flats, and the old Playhouse on Mill Road inexplicably lost its wonderful front to become first a supermarket, and today, Sally Anne’s). 

Can we make better use of existing historical buildings – even where they get burned down in suspicious circumstances rather than doing what happened at the railway station?

Why were previous plans thrown out? (Gordon Logie’s underground tunnels on left, Holford’s trunk roads over Jesus Green and Christ’s Pieces on the right).


Why didn’t we get this segregated cycle network planned in the 1960s that imagined completion in 2011?

What ideas did we have in the past for better, wider streetscapes and can these be re-visited? On the left, Hobson Street, on the right, Emmanuel Street.


What motivated Cambridge’s first civic society to deal with with the risk of urban sprawl and the sort of growth that Oxford saw in the interwar years? (Today’s Cambridge PPF)


What opportunities are there to spread the wealth of Cambridge far beyond the city? This being my proposal for a rail link to RAF Mildenhall (where the base is due to close), through to Norwich to link up with both the University of East Anglia and Norwich Airport, before terminating at the seaside, Great Yarmouth, one of the most economically deprived towns in the whole of East Anglia. 

How do you diversify a male-dominated industry?

I first impression was how male-dominated the room was when I first arrived – ditto in terms of diversity generally. (I stood out like a sore thumb not just because I wasn’t wearing a suit (it was very hot outside! That plus suits and filming kit are not a good mix)). This was something I picked up also in this article tweeted by Puffles.

This got me thinking about how to get people who live in social housing involved in the design processes – and even to consider careers in the field of the built environment.

The CFCI replied positively. My take is that for events such as the one I filmed at, there is a role for local councillors to promote them to their communities – even suggesting individuals go along and perhaps putting them in touch with organisers before hand so that when they arrive, they are enthusiastically welcomed and are not made to feel awkward in what can feel like a hostile corporate environment to people unused to it.

One thing I’d be interested to find out from such a gathering is where there is shared common ground between the professionals and ordinary residents. Prof Morgan mentioned the impact of consultation fatigue. While consultants may get paid handsomely for repeated consultations, in the grand scheme of things I think most professionals would rather see exciting and inspiring plans coming to fruition – ones that benefit local residents and where they get praised, rather than slammed for selling out to those with the deepest pockets.

Personally I’d like to see a roadshow of events to start things off, followed up perhaps with some evening classes or a group-based online course organised by one of the local colleges or universities. Basically something that gets local communities interacting with professionals in the field, and the latter getting more of a sense of what might work better with local communities in future projects so that they can advise developers and investors accordingly.


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