Cambridge Live – the local civic entertainments charity taken over by city council


Outsourced a few years ago, the charity could not make ends meet so the civic entertainment and events function will now come back ‘in house’. But a £750,000 bail out is not cheap. There are also some wider issues with revenue streams – including transport.

The story is covered by the Cambridge Independent here.

The charity was launched to a big fanfare at the Cambridge Corn Exchange with a massive sing-a-long session called Lungjam. I remember it well – precariously perched at the top of one of the stage blocks wearing that red blazer that caused a mini-storm when Question Time came to town.

Spring 2015 – Lungjam at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

I wrote about the event above at the time in an earlier blogpost.

Signs of trouble – a request for half a million

This came about at the meeting of Cambridge City Council’s full council back in July 2018. (See the minutes here). I went along to that meeting to test what sort of mood executive councillors were in regarding raising money for some big heritage projects. I asked about:

  • Establishing a permanent ‘Mayor of Cambridge’s Fund’ to raise money for large civic infrastructure – like a permanent museum of the city’s history, a concert hall even bigger than the Cambridge Corn Exchange, and so forth,
  • The costs of commissioning two statues on the plinths either side of the main entrance to the existing guildhall
  • The cost of repairing the old music organ in the large hall

to which the answers weren’t exactly positive

It was only when I started finding treasures in local archives, and spending my own money on acquiring visually striking historical items such as this vintage British Rail poster from 1957 below, that I have gifted to the Museum of Cambridge, that I started seeing some movement from local politicians.


Above – an original British Railways poster advertising Cambridge that I bought from an art dealer and I donated to the Museum of Cambridge in mid-2018.

Above – Cllr Anna Smith (Lab -Romsey) on seeing examples of large scale prints from glass plate negatives of the women who made modern Cambridge, that I took along to the county council in Autumn 2018.

“£750,000 … could have gotten an expanded Museum of Cambridge on Castle Hill for that money.”

That depends on what happens with Castle Hill – which the County Council (separate to the city council, the former being under Conservative control) want to dispose of. This is the latest on the Shire Hall site. Personally I hope they can come to some agreement with the existing Museum of Cambridge – which in the grand scheme of things still functions as Enid Porter’s Cambridge and County Folk Museum, rather than a place that tells ‘the history of a city’. As a sum though, they’d need more to rebuild the old courthouse that I think should be rebuilt to house an expanded museum on such an historic site.

Shire Hall Court House 28543 PhotoCambridge Castle Hill from air southwards

Above – the old Assizes Court House on Castle Hill – from the Museum of Cambridge’s archives and Britain From Above.

“Has Cambridge Live told anyone yet?”

Not at the time of blogging – 21 Dec 2018. But with the city council as guarantor, it’s business as usual for the rest of the financial year by the looks of it.

The next full council meeting is not until 21st February 2019 when the opposition Cambridge Liberal Democrats will be throwing more than a few questions as indicated by their group leader Cllr Tim Bick (LD – Market).

The Charities Commission registration for Cambridge Live, including documents and submissions, is here. Their Companies House registration and documents are here. Make of them what you will. The Board, Trustees, and staff of the organisation are here.

“Are Heritage, Arts and Civic Entertainments always loss-makers?”

They don’t have to be. But it’s no different to other sectors that have proportionally small number of well known people & institutions who make fortunes, while everyone else scrapes on by. Even in a city like Cambridge, the leisure offering has simply not kept pace with the growth in population. In fact, in some parts it feels like it has gone in reverse – The Junction used to put on a number of club nights aimed at teenagers, students and young adults in the 1990s, but these have all but disappeared. Both the Kelsey Kerridge and the Cambridge Corn Exchange used to have club and disco nights, but no longer do. Warren Dosanjh’s book on Cambridge in the 1960s shows what we’ve lost.

It’s also not the first time that the Corn Exchange has been called into question over its finances. Over the decades there have been cases where expenditure on it has come into question. It was only overhauled and turned into an arts venue in the mid-1980s after all of the other attempts to build a new concert hall in the Lion Yard fell through. Both the Masonic Lodge and the YMCA – as Warren’s book shows – were live music venues that were lost. Ditto the old Alley Club.

Buildings need maintaining, and that doesn’t come cheap

Ditto running costs. Go into any cathedral and you’re more than likely to see a donations bowl (and/or smart screen for card donations) stating how much it costs to keep such a place open daily. Trying to get local councils to set up facilities for online donations (such as Cambridgeshire Libraries here – it’s work in progress) has been more of a struggle than it should have been. For that I lay the blame at the door of the politicians that run the organisations, esp given the financial pressures.

“Are Cambridge’s civic venues too small?”

In 1996/97 I went to a number of gigs around the time of ‘peak Britpop’, and the Corn Exchange was one of the venues that a number of groups in the music charts would visit and play at. If you go backstage you can see the timeline of groups that have played at that venue. Funnily enough, the most famous person ever to headline at the Cambridge Corn Exchange wasn’t a musician or a professional artist. He was a politician. Winston Churchill – in 1939.

When you take a look at recent line ups as far as popular and contemporary non-classical music is concerned, there are three themes that stand out:

  • Tribute acts to huge but long gone names
  • Partially reconstituted groups that were once famous
  • Individual performers who are on their way down after peaking several years ago

In 2012 both The Junction and Cambridge Corn Exchange made it into the UK’s top 100 venues for the PRS. Or rather, scraped into the top 100 behind The Apex in Bury St Edmunds (which as I found out is a splendid compact concert hall with a razor sharp acoustic) and the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage, and The Square in Harlow. I’ve named those as they are geographically the closest of those listed to Cambridge.

If we look at capacity in this otherwise incomplete list on WikiP, to break out the themes that now seem to make up much of what’s on offer at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge needs an even bigger venue – and just as importantly one that has a public transport interchange. Hence why the redevelopment of Cambridge Railway Station and the old Cattle Market were two huge missed opportunities for Cambridge’s art & music scene.

“Getting to and from venues – is one of the secrets to the sustainability of Cambridge’s entertainment venues a decent transport plan for the city?”

In the 1990s I was astonished at some of the distances some of my fellow gig and nightclub goers would travel to get into Cambridge – in particular those that came from out of the county. Party politics has failed generations of public transport users. In an ideal world you’d want your public transport access for large entertainment venues to be ‘across the square’ or a very short walking distance from the exit that didn’t involve walking past aggressive drunk people en route. (The state of UK housing policy being for another blogpost).

It’s one of the things that’s ever so easily forgotten by all concerned – even councillors with teenage children who tell me about life as a taxi for them. But as the public transport function does not sit with the city council, it’s not straight forward to synchronise their leisure and entertainments functions with a county council/combined authority function based even more remotely than ever before.











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