Cambs County Council names preferred bidder for Shire Hall site

Summary: Councillors name controversial Cambridge Station developer as their preferred bidder to redevelop the historic site – but on a 40 year lease rather than a site sale.

I found out via Phil.

…followed by a link to Olly Wainwright’s article from 2017. The official announcement is below:

I could make this blogpost a complete hatchet job about Brookgate (http://www.brookgate.eu/about) and go on a cliched moan on about “…how they’re all ‘orrible parasitical capitalists who think nothing better than to build something that maximises their company profits for their shareholders and financial bonuses for directors while leaving local residents to make the best of a bad job and that when Jeremy Corbyn comes in he’ll sort things out when he overthrows capitalism.” But what would be the point?

“Yeah why do the Tories hate Cambridge?”

Because we won’t vote for them anymore? Or rather, the polarisation of Cambridge vs rural county Cambridgeshire has resulted in Conservatives on Cambridgeshire County Council using their majority on that council (and in Westminster in recent years) to impose their will on a city that continually refuses to return Conservative councillors. The polarisation between Conservatives and their Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents all too often gets nasty on the floor of the council chamber. Much of this has been to do with the cuts imposed by central government, and the impact that these cuts have had on local communities.

When the decision to dispose of Shire Hall was first tabled, I noted that this was the culmination of a series of attempts to dispose of civic and municipal infrastructure in Cambridge City.  Given the big losses of council seats in the local elections last month, and the hit they are expecting to take at the European Parliament elections next week, at a national level the Conservative Government is in the process of trying to transition to a new leader, but trying to work out how to do so without crashing out of the EU with a ‘no deal Brexit’.

There’s even more uncertainty in Cambridgeshire now that the Leader of Cambridge City Council has resigned from his portfolio on the hastily-created Combined Authority for Cambs and Peterborough.

I’ve stopped going along to the meetings of the CA because I can’t bear the toxic atmosphere in them.

“Back to Shire Hall, what reasons did councillors give for their choice?”

“This potential lease arrangement looks likely to exceed figures outlined in our business case, and see the value of our asset enhanced, but still retain ownership of the site for future generations – which strengthens our original decision to vacate the site.”

…Said council leader Cllr Steve Count in an article by Alex Spencer, who has written a detailed account in the Cambridge Independent.

“And what do people posting on social media think?”

See for yourself:

The motion by Cambridgeshire Conservatives to hold the decision behind closed doors (and not to release the news until Friday afternoon) was also controversial.

Cllr David Jenkins (Lib Dems – Histon) wrote a blogpost about the secrecy of the decision and lack of debate. He also published a transcript of his speech – which needed clearing by county council officers.

“So…what do you think will happen if the county council sign the lease?”

First of all, it’s worth looking at some of the history of the Cambridge Station redevelopment and ask why Brookgate seem to be so unpopular going by social media comments. There was great excitement when it became clear Cambridge Railway Station and surroundings would be redeveloped. And lots was promised:

Then the original development company Ashwells went into administration, were quickly taken out of administration by a new firm called Brookgate – which contained a number of former directors, and the promises for things like a health centre and a heritage centre to house the County Archives (now moved to Ely – so the City of Cambridge archives are now there too) were scrapped. Richard Taylor blogged about this at the time in 2010. This was before my time being active in local government – I was still based in London.

There was then the Wilton Terrace fiasco. A large Victorian building was scheduled for demolition in the outline masterplan. Local residents did not realise this until it was too late, and fought a rearguard action to try and save it. See the old twitterfeed here, and the letter from Save Britain’s Heritage here. Yet because the outline planning permission had already been given several years prior, there was very little in law that empowered councillors to refuse permission to demolish Wilton Terrace. Even though the residents put huge pressure onto councillors, persuading enough of them to refuse planning permission, developers appealed to the planning inspector who ruled in favour of them, leaving the city council with a legal bill of a £quarter of a million.

Soulless architecture?

“Functional” is an understated way of describing these blocks of student accommodation south of the main railway station building. A similar block is opposite it, with the main bus stops a bit of a walk from the station. But worse for the developers, was this social media post by the Housing Minister Kit Malthouse.

Applying for public funds to correct mistakes it had made

Sam Davies – now Chair of the Queen Edith’s Forum, tabled a question to councillors just over two years ago regarding an application by the developers to use money allocated through S106 money to pay for further works on the CB1 site.

The above was in the face of the firm being very successful and profitable for its shareholders and directors, as the screengrab below from its 2019 accounts on Companies House’ website shows.

190518 Brookgate profils

Above – from Companies House for Brookgate Ltd.

In 2018 there were further complaints from residents who had recently bought newly built properties on the site – in particular traffic and pollution.

Hence complaints such as the one below from a local residents’ association for the developers to show a much greater sense of civic responsibility.

Further context to the above comes from the residents who moved into new homes on the CB1 estate, and have faced numerous difficulties to try and build their community in an area that has thousands of people walking through it every day, and a large transient population due to the student accommodation. The notes of public meetings going back to early 2018 are here. As I’ve said before, now that people have moved into those homes, there is a big responsibility on existing communities and residents (myself included) to help them settle into our city and make them welcome.

“What’s all this got to do with Shire Hall?”

Everything. It shows why the preferred bidder has more than a few reputational issues with residents and local councillors inside Cambridge City. Note that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have stated their opposition to the disposal of Shire Hall.

Above – from the deputy leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Anna Smith (which was also supported by Cllr Lewis Herbert). Note their concern – as with Cambridge Liberal Democrats, is the provision of county public services in Cambridge currently delivered at Shire Hall – such as the Registry Office.

“So, if Brookgate and Cambridgeshire County Council do sign an agreement, what will happen?

The worst case scenario for the city is some huge glass/steel/concrete tower blocks towering over the city, increased car traffic congestion as commuters try to get into work by car (the site is poorly served by buses as it is), along with a further increases in taxi journeys to-from Cambridge railway station ferrying passengers to the new hotel planned for the site.

“Hang on – didn’t you want offices and a hotel for the site to pay for an expanded Museum of Cambridge?”

I still do – having assumed that the Conservative county councillors want rid of Cambridge City completely. Having been to so many county council meetings over the past five or so years, I’ve seen more than enough for me to conclude that Conservative county councillors have no love for the city, whether in their statements or their voting actions. As with others, I’ve assumed that at some stage there will be an overhaul of local government – whether for Cambridgeshire or nationwide. Why waste energy trying to keep an institution that doesn’t want to be here, here? My preference is for a unitary council for Cambridge & South Cambs – give or take a few villages and towns on the borders.

“Can Brookgate deliver that expanded Museum of Cambridge?”

In principle, yes. I just don’t trust them as an institution having seen their behaviour over the past decade or so. Hence posting this:

Personally I’d love to have seen an expanded Museum of Cambridge in a re-built and improved Assizes Court (where the car parks at the front of the site now are) that should never have been demolished.

Cambridge Castle Hill from air southwardsShire Hall Court House 28184

I’d be delighted to be proven wrong and that Brookgate could deliver a hotel/office/heritage offering that also safeguards the free public access to the green spaces and to the historical monument that is Castle Mound. I just don’t have confidence in the institutions involved, and no longer have the strong enough physical or mental health to manage going head-to-head with some of the most powerful businessmen in the region. Whether the county council has the number and calibre of staff to go into detailed negotiations with the same group is something that opposition councillors and activists may want to question executive councillors and senior council officers on. The next Full Council meeting is on 23 July at Shire Hall.

 

 

 

 

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