Cambridgeshire Conservatives to sell off Shire Hall, Cambridge


What will become of this very historic site in Cambridge City, where the Conservatives have no councillors?”


Please note the clarification from the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Steve Count:

The Conservative Party seems to have a love-hate relationship with the City of Cambridge in recent decades. Historically, Cambridge Borough used to be a safe Conservative seat – so safe that they were able to parachute Sir Eric Geddes in as our MP a century ago without so much as a grumble. The high point for borough Conservatives was in the interwar era when the number of people turning up to their summer fete at the Gog Magog Hills opposite Wandlebury near Addenbrooke’s would easily exceed 10,000 people.

380802 Cambridge Conservatives Fete The Gogs Crowds.jpeg

From the Cambs Collection, over 10,000 people rock up to the annual Cambridge Conservatives’ Summer Fete. Note back then, Cambridge County was administratively much smaller – encompassing what is now South Cambs today.

The Implosion of the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Party

In the late 1970s, Cambridge Conservatives ran Cambridge City Council with 24 councillors. By the Millennium this number was down to two. (See the decline in this diagram by the late Colin Rosenstiel). There is a Ph.D thesis/mega research project waiting for a political historian to study and conclude how and why this happened.

In more recent times, a number of public buildings and services have come under threat –

…despite ministers telling anyone who will listen about how important Cambridge is to the national economy. (90% of business rates collected by the city council are surrendered to The Treasury for redistribution to more economically deprived areas – one of the sticking plasters from the early 1990s to deal with the mess of the Poll Tax policy that has stuck with us).

Cambridgeshire archives

The decision to move the archives out of the city was met with much anger in local history circles – not least because of the way plans to move the archives to a new heritage centre by the railway station (that article from 2005) were abandoned in very controversial circumstances – ones that hit the national news not so long ago. The decision to move the county archive out of the county town caused some problems for Cambridge City Council, who moved its archive into the county’s after the restructure of local government in the 1970s meant libraries and archives moved from district to county councils.

Cambridge Magistrates Courts

The Conservatives in government have tried to close Cambridge’s Magistrates Courts – something that South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen opposed (See here) and ultimately abandoned by the Courts Minister, Lucy Frazer MP for South East Cambridgeshire who found herself with this particularly tricky item on her table shortly after being appointed as Courts Minister.

Cambridge’s Crown Post Office

Now privatised although threatened with renationalisation under a prospective Labour government, Cambridge’s main post office (which always seems busy and full of tourists whenever I need to go in there for anything) is under threat. With a strong trade union tradition in the postal services, Labour MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner has backed the campaign to save it. Given that it is such a short distance from nearly all of the major bus routes into the city centre, the accessibility point is well made.

And now Shire Hall

While I think it reflects extremely badly on the Conservative Party as a whole to be moving the county council’s HQ outside of the county town as a matter of principle (the same would apply to any other political party doing the same), my main concern now is what happens to the Castle Hill site.

I’ve made the case repeatedly that the site should remain in council ownership, but if they really wanted/needed the income, to sell a long term lease to a hotel company to create a historically-themed hotel along with additional office accommodation.

[Updated to read:]

As per the clarification here and at the top, it is still the intention to lease the site – though a complete disposal of the site has not been ruled out.

However, there is nothing on official Cambridgeshire County Council’s website, or social media feeds clarifying that it was a long term lease available. Ditto on Strutt and Parker’s website – the agents appointed by the County Council. Hence making it harder for anyone to know the difference – all the public are seeing is the risk that a very historical site where Cambridge was near as dammit founded, is being privatised and turned into student flats or something that will bar off the general public – irrespective of whether it is true or not. Read the Cambridge Independent here for more.

“Who’s interested in the sale of the site?”

One firm is already getting excited about the prospect of more student flats.

…which would be the effective privatisation of another public building. The above reaction from Puffles was one of the more polite and muted ones compared to others I’ve seen.

Museum of Cambridge Castle Hill Satellite

The one thing to note is that the two car parks at road side of the site, plus the green, are now protected open spaces in the new Local Plan. Any new owner would be barred from developing/building on them. Then there is the Castle Mound listed historical monument which they cannot touch.

“Does this mean a possible heritage attraction won’t happen?”

For me, the worst case scenario is turning the site over to an ‘apart hotel’ operator – which, along with one web-based brand have become unpopular with local residents as guests are not supervised and can become hotspots for anti-social behaviour. But it would be a minimum cost, maximum profit operation for an unscrupulous developer. None of the hassle of running a hotel, but the benefits of being able to charge per night rather than per term. Note that the Castle Park building – formerly council offices, are already student accommodation.

“What should be done about Shire Hall?”

I’m not going to go into the politics behind the decision – that’s for a separate post at some future date. Note a couple of years ago I made some experimental videos exploring some of the history of the town – and started off outside Shire Hall.

The full playlist of videos is here

For me, it’s perfectly viable to combine a new heritage attraction – in my case an expanded Museum of Cambridge, along with a boutique hotel aimed at the upper end of the market rather than the mass market or student accommodation, while having office and restaurant accommodation incorporated in part of that redevelopment. This could include a rooftop cafe/bar with even better views than The Varsity’s Rooftop Terrace. The views are splendid but unfortunately at huge cost to the privacy to local residents in the centre of Cambridge, and also the terrace ruins the view of St John’s College from Jesus Green.

“Where would the museum expansion go?”

Where the car parks are

“Hang on – aren’t they now protected?”

They are, but it’s easier to make the case for the car parks to be designated for a heritage development in a future local plan if it involves rebuilding something that was already there in the first place. In this case it is the old magnificent Victorian Assizes Court build in the mid 1800s.

Above – models and photos of the old Assizes Court on Castle Hill, Cambridge. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.

“What will decisions come down to?”

For me, it’ll be purely rational and cold-blooded – for all of the emotion that could get thrown into it. Which one guarantees the county council the most money based on the criteria that they come up with for the sale. One of those criteria is about the heritage aspect of it – as they confirmed in a response to a public Q I tabled earlier this year.

“Who in their right mind goes to meetings of the Commercial and Investment Committee of their local council during the working day?!?”

“What might a solution look like that will placate all concerned?”

For me, a partnership between Cambridge City Council, some of the colleges, and a crowd-funding campaign targeting those firms and organisations that have been in Cambridge a long time, along with any philanthropists, would be ideal. That way, both town and gown have a financial stake in one of the most historic sites in the city – from where the Romans and the Normans rocked up, to where much of the river trade passed,  the place where the Great Suffrage March in 1913 marched past – (Sat 19th of July 1913 to be precise – read the report here), and the place where the Cambridgeshire Regiment was to make its final stand against an invading army during the dark days of the early 1940s.

Cambridge Defences WWII

Above – from the County Archive, the WW2 defence plan for Cambridge against the nazi invaders.

Note the boundary between E and A company of the 5th Btn Cambridgeshire Regiment (Home Guard), with A Company guarding the section between the railway line and Newmarket Road. Now you know why the ice rink being built there got delayed.

“Can the heritage be protected and even enhanced?”

My heart says ‘yes but’…and my head says ‘no…but…’

To give such a bid any chance of success, a consortium led or chaired by someone credible (i.e. not me – because Puffles) who can command the confidence of local government, the colleges, the local historical community, and beyond. How we go about putting that group together… I am all ears. Email me if you have any ideas and/or want to be involved in a response – antonycarpen [at] gmail





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