Cambridge Airport owners to move out of town

Summary: A huge site in East Cambridge will be freed up for development. But before we cover the runway and grasslands in concrete, there are many things Cambridge needs to consider before the developers move in.

The story was announced not so long ago.

A historic firm moving out

This isn’t just any old firm moving out. Marshall of Cambridge has been around for over a century – read about their history here. The company has been run by successive generations of the family that has borne its name. Cambridge is also no different to other towns and cities with individuals from successful family businesses playing a role in the civic life of the city – Sir Michael Marshall being an example in Cambridge. This is why wherever they choose to move to they keep a strong link with the city – including a high quality public transport link to their new premises, one of which could be at Duxford.

“Right! Let’s get building those luxury apartments for those nice international investors and that student accommodation for cram colleges! Oh the profits for Broken Brexit Britain – we might make a success of it yet!”

Not quite.

For a start, Extinction Rebellion protesters rocked up to Shire Hall yesterday (a little dragon tipped them off) to persuade councillors it would be a good idea to pass a motion declaring a climate emergency.

Note campaigners from Extinction Rebellion Cambridge demanding that the term ’emergency’ be used in the motion from the council leader Cllr Steve Count, in the clip below.

One of the things that perhaps concentrated the minds were events in London, and recent non-violent direct action protests in Cambridge, including blocking one of the main dual carriageways in Cambridge only three days before.

“Tree-hugging communists – bad for business!”

Out of control climate change and ecocide are even worse for business. Can’t make profits on a dead planet.

On why the new communities built on the site have to be of the like that Cambridge has not ever seen before.

There are a host of housing developments coming to completion in and around Cambridge – think South Cambridge (Great Kneighton / Clay Farm), Eddington and Cambourne being three examples. On top of those, there is the CB1 Community where new residents are working their socks off to make the best of bad design by Brookgate who have made a fortune.

On top of Cambridge Airport, there are also very big plans at:

Add all of those together and you’ve got…

“A lot of houses – and a lot of people?”

Developers gamed the planning system for a series of developments in and around Cambridge Railway Station. An area with such huge potential – that could have become like King’s Cross in London with its successful redevelopment (see Dave Hill here – note it’s not without its problems), ruined because of the prioritisation of profits. (In my opinion – I can’t claim this as absolute fact).

Cambridge cannot be allowed to make the same mistakes again

How do we go about ensuring this? It would be easy to say “Ban Brookgate and cronies” but the way the building industry operates, such development companies are all too often formed as limited companies and are dissolved once the building work is complete. Also, it’s not like anyone can go around arbitrarily banning individuals. There are enough dark political forces emerging without opening that can of worms. So how do we get design excellence, environmental and sustainability excellence that create places where people want to live, and can make living healthy and sustainable lifestyles ‘the easy choice’?

Cambridge has to decide what sort of city it wants to become

– because it has far outgrown the vision that Holford and Wright had in 1950 of the compact university city with a maximum population of 100,000 people. Mindful that this also involves overhauling our system of local government.


By Smarter Cambridge Transport – how not to structure local government.

The above is an example of party political gerrymandering – trying to set up a system of governance that keeps political control of a ‘jewel in the crown’ out of the hands of opposing political parties that won’t vote for your party.

Before we start unpicking the structures of local government, Cambridge also needs to look at the civic essentials of what makes a city. I wrote about some of these things in this blogpost. This is why the report released today (15 May 2019) on Hitting Reset – the case for local leadership, is ever so important.

A city of over 200,000 people will have a very different feel to it compared with a city of half of that size. 

Ditto when comparing villages of a few thousand vs towns of 15-20,000. One of the discussion points about new housing developments in the towns and villages around Cambridge is working out at what point a village or town can become a self-sustaining community that can sustain its own community facilities, rather than being a dormitory development.

One of the first people to pick up that an expanding Cambridge would be very different from the stereotype that many at the time had, was Lost Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb.

180730 Eglantyne Jebb Cambs Collection_2 Small Pic

Eglantyne Jebb (early 1900s) by Palmer Clark, Cambs Collection

Eglantyne, in her groundbreaking study of Cambridge the town in 1906 wrote about how the character of Cambridge had changed throughout the 1800s when its population grew from 9,000 to over 40,000 – a four-fold increase. The communities that grew up along Mill Road, East Road and Newmarket Road were significantly different to the dreaming spires of Cambridge University and its colleges. She was the first to study these communities in the manner that would become the norm for social scientists. It was her work here that informed much of what she would do when her and her sister Dorothy Buxton founded Save the Children in 1919.

Fast forward to the 1970s and the limitations of post-war plans were beginning to be felt.  Professor Richard Parry in his study of Cambridge in 1974, understood that Cambridge could not grow much beyond 100,000 without an alternative civic centre. As we’ve seen, Cambridge’s town centre gets swamped by tourists and visitors every summer. Successive governments have not ensured Cambridge has had the funding to accommodate all of these visitors who bring in the much needed spending and foreign exchange. And his plans were radical – so radical that they were rejected.


East Cambridge as proposed by Professor Parry in 1974

To give you an idea of just how much development Professor Parry had in mind, have a look at the map below. The light red line is the railway, the blue line is the river.

190515 Cambridge Map Contrast

Above – Cambridge 2019 from G-Maps

Things to note from the above map:

  • The historical north/south of the river divide is visible. North being the Castle Hill side, the South being the Guildhall side. As Cambridge’s colleges grew, they swallowed up much of the south side of the old town.
  • West of the airport (light blue dot) is Coldham’s Common, just south of which is Romsey Town and Petersfield. These were two of the parts of Victorian and Edwardian Cambridge that Eglantyne Jebb writes about in her book – and it was around her time that Cambridge incorporated Chesterton into its council boundaries
  • Post-war development of Cambridge to the year 2000 created the wards of Arbury, King’s Hedges, Coleridge and Queen Edith’s. Cherry Hinton, Trumpington and Fen Ditton, all previously separate villages, effectively became part of Cambridge as housing grew.
  • Fen Ditton and Abbey wards, some of the most economically deprived in Cambridge, are physically separated from the rest of Cambridge by the boundaries of:
    • The River Cam to the north
    • The railway line to the west
    • Coldham’s Common to the south
    • Cambridge Airport to the south-east
    • The A14 to the north east
  • The Eastward development model proposed by Parry was for a level of growth far greater than the redevelopment of Cambridge Airport and North Cherry Hinton contain – his proposals stopping at the A11 so incorporating the villages of Teversham, Fulbourn and the two Wilbraham villages.
  • The two north-west triangles on the map have been filled in by the North West Cambridge development

“So…we’ll need a new civic centre then?”

Yes – and the next question is to decide what to build that civic centre around – something beyond retail. Furthermore, the model of land ownership will shape how successful that alternative centre will be. One example of where the model of land ownership has utterly failed the local community (given what it could have been) is the Cambridge Leisure Park, owned by Land Securities. As I mentioned earlier here, the developments are cash cows for the property owners – targeting a market of London commuters, short-medium stay foreign students from affluent families, and short-stay visitors. Without the local government structures, systems and processes to allow local councils and the police to tax the business functions to provide resources to deal with what are negative externalities of the developments, developers were accused quite understandably at a local council meeting of designing in crime.


Once civic centre at risk

Shire Hall on Castle Hill – the Cambridgeshire Conservatives have voted to move the HQ to Alconbury in a controversial move.

190515 Cambridge Map Alconbury.jpeg

Alconbury – NW of Huntingdon is far away from Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire – where populations are growing. The Conservative Group on the County Council voted yesterday to exclude the press and public from the debate where councillors were informed of the preferred bidder of the site.

“So we won’t get our expanded Museum of Cambridge on the Shire Hall site?”

At the moment the proposal here is not looking good… Which is a shame given that the site where people first settled to create the settlement we know today as Cambridge. The advantage of creating an historical attraction on the Shire Hall site is that it extends the tourist trail up to the top of the hill – one that could have one of the few planned light rail underground stops, thus spreading out where tourists get off.

“What could an alternative civic centre be built around other than retail?”

Given the struggles of the high street and the rise of internet shopping, combined with the very real environmental problems of over-consumption, there are other things that civic centres can be built around. The big one is the arts. This was something I discussed here on Cambridge’s need for a new concert hall with a capacity of at least 2,000 people. Otherwise growing Cambridge will be limited to the genre of acts that the Cambridge Corn Exchange as our largest indoor venue can host. While in the 1990s the Corn Exchange hosted what became some of the biggest bands of the Britpop era as they were on the rise, today it feels like the venue can only host groups and musicians that were big 20-40 years ago, repeat visitors (welcome as they are – they fill the place, give people a good time and help fill the venue’s coffers), or niche acts that happen to have a strong following locally.

The importance of Cambridge’s green lungs

The Cambridge Preservation Society was founded in 1928 with the purpose amongst other things of preserving Cambridge’s green lungs. This was in the context of restricting urban sprawl, in particularly westward and south-eastwards. Hence the existence of Coton Farm and Wandlebury. Local residents from all backgrounds, from wealthy college types such as John Maynard Keynes through to the congregations of local parish churches all raised money to buy up plots of land and take them out of the reach of developers.

Given the proposals of The Anderson Group for what they are calling Burnside Lakes at the foot of the photo above, there is also the opportunity to build some first class sporting facilities and much-needed playing fields to serve the congested communities of Romsey Town, Cherry Hinton, East Coleridge, and Abbey. The far left of the photo above shows how little publicly accessible open green space there is – ie Romsey Rec on Vinery Road.

But if we are to ensure we’ve learnt the lessons of the past, Cambridge needs to decide what sort of city it wants to become so that those values inform the decisions people and institutions take. And as Cllr Joan Whitehead said at Shire Hall yesterday, that means re-visiting recent decisions and having to reverse them in light of those new values and circumstances. In this case reversing the move out of Shire Hall because it is no longer consistent with the declared climate emergency.


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