Smart Cambridge with stupid governance structures


Unless the next general election brings in a government willing to undertake significant reforms to local government, Cambridge won’t be the only city that suffocates from politically-motivated governance structures.

I’ve been on a bit of a Twitter rant-fest of late, tearing into political decision-makers at various levels over the state of Cambridge – with ministers in particular getting a kicking, not least for imposing this model of governance on a city with global brand recognition.


Above – by Smarter Cambridge Transport

“You’ve moaned about this before”

I know. But it makes me feel better

“And it makes you sound like a stuck record”

Stuck records aside, Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire are heading towards a crashing halt as political governance structures become unworkable. Several of us found this out at an event co-hosted by CambridgeBID and Cambridge Network.

Dan Clarke on Smart Cities

Mr Clarke gave what I thought was the most comprehensive and impressive presentation on the future of Cambridge that I have ever seen. Set in a future tech context,

See also their online slides here.

The problem Mr Clarke faces is that the calibre of politicians on the ruling Conservative group on Cambridgeshire County Council is not functioning at nearly the same level that Mr Clarke and his colleagues are, and that they are working within a local government administrative structure that creates extra unnecessary barriers for him and his team. I have sat in county council meetings where a couple of councillors announced that ‘they didn’t do social media’ as if their ignorance was something to be proud of. (This is different from choosing not to use a specific platform but still educating yourself on the impact that social media and technology is having on society – good and bad).

At the end of his presentation I sort of wanted to ask him when he was going to stand for election because on the basis of that presentation, I was like “Yes – that’s the calibre of person I’d want running my city”. Remember though that Mr Clarke is a very technically literate civic administrator rather than a politician – and what may come easy to one doesn’t necessarily come easily to the other. Hence those with talents in both fields are very very hard to find.

Difficult conversations

It’s not just a local level that we have issues with political systems and processes. The Institute of Directors was scathing of the Conservatives and Labour over Brexit, stating businesses had lost faith in the political processes. Other business federations have said similar.

Part of the problem for me is that too many businesses for decades have been very vocal about specific policies, but very passive on supporting the institutions that have to take difficult decisions. Compare this to 50 years ago when it was the norm for people who were successful in business to get involved in civic affairs, stand for election, and raise substantial funds for large civic projects. We didn’t name the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre by Parker’s Piece after Cllr Kelsey Kerridge for nothing. Part of the local family building firm, he was a longstanding Conservative councillor. Cyril Ridgeon, George Kett, Arthur Negus, Sir Horace Darwin, Eaden Lilley – they all ran their own businesses, all were local councillors and all contributed greatly to civic life. One or two of them may have been scoundrels at times ***but at least the locals had heard of them*** because they shopped in their shops, bought their products and/or worked for their firms.

360919 Ronald Searle Alex Wood Carrott vegetable show Cartoon

Leader of Cambridge Labour Party Dr Alex Wood (physicist at Emmanuel College and preacher at St Columba’s on Downing Street) satirised by cartoonist Sid Moon as a carrot in the Cambridge Daily News in the mid-1930s. 

It’s hard to imagine that a modern day equivalent would be one of the directors of Brookgate – the controversial developers of Cambridge Station – standing for election, getting elected and being a very popular civic figure.  What I’m trying to say is that employers – especially firms with many employees – need to encourage their staff to take a stronger interest in local democracy. Not least because it helps reduce the risk of decisions about the longer term future being taken by groups of predominantly older people.

Difficult conversations II

I thought Ian Sandison’s presentation for the Cambridge BID was interesting in that he exposed where some of the gaps were in Cambridge’s decision-making processes, and also showed that actually all was not well beneath the headlines and stereotypes of Cambridge. What follows isn’t a criticism of his presentation – rather the opposite: these are things that as a city more of us need to know about.

What is Cambridge BID and who is the target audience of Cambridge BID?

Best answered at it is funded through a levy on the business rates by the larger rate payers within a geographical area – in their case mainly the city centre & railway station. Note it includes The Grafton Centre & Anglia Ruskin University, but does not include Mill Road. For local residents, it‘s the funding of things like the Christmas lights and the City Ambassadors that will be more familiar. Personally I’d like to see more City Ambassadors employed – especially at bus stops and public transport interchanges. That alone would make a significant difference to unfamiliar visitors.

Local people shopping less in Cambridge

Feedback from Mr Sandison was that spending has fallen, and it feels like people are no longer shopping in Cambridge. The challenge for his organisation was how to respond to this. There are a host of trends that are far beyond the influence of even the best BIDs in the country – for example the rise of online shopping. Other things out of his direct control and influence also include:

  • Shop rents charged mainly by the land owning colleges
  • Asset-stripping by private equity firms buying up national store chains
  • Business rates generally
  • Large scale transport infrastructure – such as my pet favourite, Cambridge Connect Light Rail Underground. (My take is we need to crack on with this now if we are to have a functioning transport system to cope with projected growth over the next few decades, and to avoid the connectivity problems Cambourne faces).
  • Day trippers not spending money in the city, but contributing to congestion in the centre.


From Mr Sandison’s presentation: Is the existing high turnover retail model permanently broken? If so, what should town centres be for? (FHSF = Future High Street Fund)

This was the Grafton Centre last week – lunchtime in the late May half term on a dry but overcast day.

When this section opened in 1995 I was a teenager and this place was buzzing. The BHS Dept Store was the anchor store, and (the view from the top-left photo with the main open space) alongside was Heffer’s Children’s bookshop (which the Landlords should have pulled out all the stops to have kept it there), a branch of a national chain of record shops, Mothercare (now closed) and a host of others.

“Why did they all close?”

One thing I think the Cambridge BID should commission some early career researchers (i.e. not me) to undertake is an in-depth historical study into Cambridge retail past and present. Or far better, offer to contribute funding towards a joint-funded programme on the history of Cambridge the town, which provides answers to the question of how Cambridge got to where it is today (And what mistakes we made along the way). One can speculate, but I think specialist studies would help answer the question as to

“Don’t you have a vested interest in such a programme being funded?”

Yes –

But I’ve already done more than a little of the groundwork. There have been a number of studies done in decades past that examined the options for future Cambridge. The most stupendous one is Professor Parry’s one from the 1970s.


Could you imagine all of the land west of the A11, east of Cambridge Airport, south of Bottisham and north of Fulbourn being turned into housing? That was one of Prof Parry’s suggestions.

Land for the Many

The Labour Party commissioned journalist George Monbiot to lead a team on the issue of land reform in England. Very recently they published their report. It’s worth reading in detail irrespective of political persuasion. This caught my eye too.

190606 Land for the Many Compulsory Purchase.jpeg

On Compulsory Sale Orders.

I put this to Mr Sandison regarding this masterpiece unused for what feels like over a decade now.160607 OldBingoHallPerspective

Hobson Street Cinema – a civic masterpiece.

Assuming we get a Cambridge underground light rail, my plan for Hobson Street is to pedestrianise it and persuade Christ’s College to build Gropius’s planned building from 1937. Get rid of the walls and open up new court yards and walkways to the general public.

“And while you’ve got their attention?”

Cambridge’s population is due to be over 140,000 by 2021. When I left home in South Cambridge to go to university in 1999 it was 100,000. Therefore we should have built 40,000 people’s worth of leisure facilities. But we haven’t. Cambridge’s population is due to be nearly 160,000 by 2036. This is the population inside the existing city boundaries.

Hence my calls for a concert hall for over 2,000 people.


Expanding the Museum of Cambridge onto the Shire Hall site – preferably before Brookgate ruin it for everyone, as I fear they will do. Their record at Cambridge Station and their incredibly dull and unexciting architecture proposed for Cambridge North Station doesn’t fill me with hope.

Still, the vision seems to be positive

This from Dan Clarke of Smart Cambridge again.


But…conspicuous by its absence was climate change.

The Q we all need to answer is what in our existing plans is going to change (specifics please) as a result of Parliament and our local councils accepting that we are now in a climate emergency?

Cows about Cambridge.

CambridgeBID is funding this project delivered by Wild in Art. At first I was like:

“Norwich got dragons! Why can’t we have dragons?!”

Norwich Dragons , Rosie By Illona Clarke

Norwich’s dragons. 

But we’ve had cows grazing on common land in town for centuries – and it saves on the lawn mowing bills too. Today they have a Twitter account.

Seahorses about Cambridge 2025?

Below is an example of Cambridge’s civic coat of arms.

1873 Cambridge Working Mens Club Medal_2

Cambridge Workmen’s Medallion which I presented to David Parr House.

It will be their 550th birthday in 2025, so maybe we could have a similar project in six years time? The story of how Cambridge got its horses of Neptune is told here.

And finally…

Not everyone was content with all things smart.


Presentation from Jon Lewis of Cambridge firm Telensa 

It was this screenshot that was a little disturbing – seeing every single figure with its own unique identifier on the screen. Thus concerns about surveillance society and surveillance capitalism remain. Hence the importance of things like civic data trusts. For those of you interested and/or concerned, have a look at the Open Rights Group campaigns.

My point remains that one of the weakest links in all of this is the suitability of the county’s governance structures. Just as we’ve found with Brexit and national government, local government doesn’t feel fit for purpose in this technological data-driven age we’re living in.



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