On the Streets for Life action by Extinction Rebellion in Cambridge, the role of public authorities, and the media coverage of it.
Journalist Josh Thomas, then the Local Government Correspondent for the Cambridge News asked the question in the headline.
It probably comes as little surprised that it was former Green Party Councillor Oscar Gillespie who made one of the early calls for a car free day in Cambridge.
…though chances are his predecessor councillors the much missed Simon Sedgewick-Jell and Margaret Wright, may well have suggested such things in the past. It was as leader of Cambridge City Council in the early 1990s that Cllr Sedgewick-Jell brought in the Cambridge Green Bike Scheme – a time when a certain Cllr Barry Gardiner was Mayor of Cambridge. Today Mr Gardiner is Shadow International Trade Secretary and often on TV discussing Brexit. Back then, he was a Labour councillor for Romsey ward. Mr Sedgewick-Jell would leave Labour shortly after Tony Blair became leader, and would later join The Cambridge Green Party. Tony Juniper, today the Chairman of Natural England, wrote this obituary of Mr Sedgewick-Jell in 2015. Although much-ridiculed at the time, Mr Sedgewick-Jell was ahead of his time with the scheme – all that was missing was the technology to make it work – something London was able to do two decades later.
In the last few years – in part on the back of ever-worsening traffic congestion and with it, air quality, calls for car-free days have increased.
One of the other sparks for some car free days on specific streets have been driven by the success of Mill Road’s annual winter fair.
Above – the calm before the storm.
Above – car free Mill Road in 2016, give or take some interviews at the Mill Road Winter Fair.
The Cambridge Commons launches a petition for a car free day – 2018.
The Cambridge Commons is a collective fighting inequality in our city. They were also the organisers of the highly successful Imagine 2027 series of high profile talks and lectures in Cambridge, on how the world could be better in 2027 – which was 10 years away from the launch. Their petition stated:
One of the East of England’s Green Party MEP candidates, Jeremy Caddick backed the call.
…as did Cambridge Green Party’s MP candidate, Stuart Tuckwood.
Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner for Labour also indicated his support too.
…as did Labour’s MP candidate for South Cambridgeshire, Dan Greef.
…noting a pushing forward of the date too.
Although we never got the full car-free day on 22 Sept 2018, local MP Daniel Zeichner did go car-free for the day, switching to an electric bike.
As well as being MP for Cambridge, Mr Zeichner is also a member of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee – a policy area that he specialises in, having also previously served as a shadow transport minister.
Extinction Rebellion start blocking roads in Cambridge
They made themselves known in Cambridge with a series of actions in December 2018, starting with a die-in at The Grafton Centre, followed by speeches and a rally outside The Guildhall.
Above – Extinction Rebellion outside Cambridge Guildhall on 15 Dec 2018.
This was a few days after Madeleina Kay’s pro-Remain-in-the-EU campaign had arrived for a rally and sing-song in Cambridge.
Note one of the concerns of pro-Remain campaigners is the threat to environmental regulations. Will they be watered down outside the EU?
A couple of months later, Extinction Rebellion Cambridge carried out their first street blockade – of Mill Road.
Two weeks later, Cambridge school children held a climate march in town.
Followed quickly by a Fund our Schools march in April 2019 a couple of weeks later.
As I blogged earlier, Cambridge is not a happy city.
One of the wards in Cambridge that reflected this dissatisfaction with all things road traffic was Queen Edith’s, where a new independent candidate, Sam Davies – then chair of the Queen Edith’s Forum, came second in the annual city council elections with over 800 votes.
Sam is also a high profile transport campaigner in South Cambridge.
Extinction Rebellion Cambridge plan a street occupation
Having gotten nowhere through the standard channels, and perhaps boosted by the successes of the street occupations in Central London over Easter 2019, local activists started organising a new occupation focussed on the Grand Arcade car park in Cambridge’s city centre. With so many people turning up to their regular meetings, it was clear to anyone that had been to them that Extinction Rebellion Cambridge had the numbers to block more than just one road. Furthermore, inside Cambridge City there was a critical mass of public sympathy if not public support for what they wanted to achieve regarding traffic and transport. You only have to look at the cycling numbers.
Above – turns out the County Council ultimately did not give permission, which meant it became a policing issue.
Note this also revealed one of the persistent historical divides in Cambridge ever since the invention of the motor car: the dependence of regular shoppers in Cambridge who live outside of Cambridge city who have also experienced huge cuts to public transport budgets. So much so that the previously rock solid South Cambridgeshire Conservatives were crushed at the district council elections in 2018, reduced to a small rump on South Cambridgeshire District Council by the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, followed shortly by the resignation from the national Conservative Party of their MP Heidi Allen. In 2019 this was followed by the loss of a number of seats in previously safe-as-houses East Cambs District Council – again to the Liberal Democrats. (Other factors were also at play in both elections).
The initial plan was as below:
From the map above, and as it turned out, protesters only needed to block five road junctions to stop car access to the Grand Arcade Car Park. Note this left the large car parks at The Grafton Centre and Queen Anne Terrace open.
Note the authorities also did not give permission for the whole of Regent Street to be blockaded for the whole day – mainly due to The Big Weekend event on Parker’s Piece taking place. The protesters stuck to their agreement, waiting patiently outside the big Catholic Church until midday before moving.
The published plan was as below:
And it was lampooned too.
Which reminds me of this song. Sing up kids.
Talking of young people – who often have the best imagination:
Putting up a temporary tennis court on Tennis Court Road. Because.
How did the authorities respond? How should have the authorities responded?
That’s up for debate. The short-notice appearance of the County Police and Crime Commissioner at Lion Yard enabled some to challenge him on the police’s proposed response, such as former Cambridge Conservative Party candidate for Coleridge, Andy Bower.
Now, I disagree with Mr Bower on many things – and him with me. But given his political disposition, his position on the demonstration is perfectly understandable to me. I just don’t agree with it because I have a different political disposition. Furthermore, it doesn’t help his party’s cause (the Police and Crime Commissioner elected a few years ago was the Conservative Party’s candidate for the county), that it was their party in central government that significantly cut the policing budgets, tried to close Cambridge’s magistrates court, and put Chris Grayling in charge of prisons and probation as Justice Secretary (before moving him to Transport) with the inevitable results. Basically the public services have been cut so far to the bone that there is no capacity for the state to clamp down hard on such street occupations. We learnt that with the London occupations.
“So what happened?”
That depends who you ask.
This is what the Reach PLC-owned Cambridge News, published daily had to say.
No – sorry, not that one.
That’s the one. “Traffic chaos”. Versus the Cambridge Independent, published weekly, had this to day.
“So…who was right?”
Depends where you were. If you were a motorist taken by surprise having missed the repeated announcements in the news and on social media about the plans, or perhaps were on a visiting day trip from far away, it can’t have been much fun being stuck in traffic.
“How is that different to Cambridge in the summer time on any other weekend?”
Cambridge: Traffic problems ****Since 1935**** (This from the Cambridgeshire Collection.
You can just make out Christ’s College in the background.
“What did the politicians say?”
One of the senior councillors on Cambridge City Council, and one of my local ward councillors, Cllr Rosy Moore (Lab – Coleridge) quite enjoyed it.
…and was called to account by a number of people. Ditto Cllr Dr Dave Baigent (Lab – Romsey).
Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats seemed to be relatively quiet on the demonstration, although former MP Dr Julian Huppert was co-hosting a climate ethics event at the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College on the same day.
“Was there any trouble?”
According to Cambridge Police, none.
The main reason for this was the incredible level of training and organisation by Extinction Rebellion Cambridge of their stewards and stewarding operation. Trained individuals in hi-vis and clearly labelled vests equipped with literature and information with “We’re Sorry” typed on the front were at every junction that was blocked by protesters. Where there were disagreements, people reacted quickly.
“Surely there were some angry people?”
Of course there were.
“The only irate drivers are on Hills Road, where one burns rubber in his efforts to make his point – it is always a ‘he’, isn’t it? A few sound their horns – but some of them are clearly supporters. An Extinction Rebellion steward blocking the road tells me: “It’s been good so far, it’s a nice day, we’ve had a lot more support than anger.””
And not everything went smoothly. With such demonstrations and actions, nothing ever does. The most important thing is that all concerned learn from it. One oversight was not having a consistent approach or briefing for how to deal with blue badge holders, and people with mobility restrictions.
“So…what happens next?”
Rock up to the next meetings of the city and county councils and ask them what they learnt from the Streets for Life action, and what they plan to do now to facilitate official properly planned and resourced car free days in Cambridge. The main responsibility is with Cambridgeshire County Council as the highways authority.
- 18 July 2019: Cambridge City Council – 6pm Cambridge Guildhall
- 23 July 2019: Cambridgeshire County Council – 10:30am Cambridge Shire Hall
Alternatively, residents of Cambridgeshire can write to their county councillors at https://www.writetothem.com/ or the county police and crime commissioner at https://www.cambridgeshire-pcc.gov.uk/contact-us/