Britain’s brainiest cemetery needs a bit of help


The lack of support from the University of Cambridge and its member colleges to various city and civic functions & schemes is something I’ve long moaned about, but the state of the resting place of many of its famous sons and daughters reflects a deeper, cultural malaise.

It was Castle Hill Open Day today – a day of fun stuff put together by Kettles Yard, The Museum of Cambridge and the Churches at Castle amongst others. I did wonder why the roads had not been closed off for the day.

Which made me wonder whether Extinction Rebellion might have something to say about this for next year’s event. Given the county council’s recent climate emergency resolution, I expect the decision for 2020 to be fully reconsidered. Personally I’d have the streets at the crossroads by the Museum of Cambridge & St Giles’ Church closed for the day.

Cemetery-hunting – and noticing the completion of a very ugly building

Histon Road Cemetery was on the list of places but the Ascension Parish Burial Ground around the corner (sort of) was not. It also meant jumping on the Citi6 bus (I’m making the most of my membership of the Cambridge Area Bus Users Group!) to head to a place once known as ‘mount pleasant’.

280404 Mount Pleasant Roman Town

…and I guess back in the day it had quite a nice building at the top of it. Not a palace, but not a monstrosity either. But then post-WWII someone came up with the idea of replacing it with something that made the site more ‘Mount Ugly‘… and then recently a new set of developers came in and succeeded in making the site even more bland than its predecessor.


When the councillors looked at the plans for the above, they were not impressed.

…which given their ultimate approval for the scheme shows how screwed up the planning system is. In fact, even one of Cambridge’s biggest developers/land owners, Grosvenor Estates is complaining about lack of public trust in the planning system!

Which makes me want to respond with:

“U. G. L. Y. Architecture I don’t like – it’s ugly! It’s – it’s ugly!” (to the tune of this horror from the millennium).

Interestingly, I’d stumble across the early consultations for the future of Shire Hall at the Castle Hill Open Day – where architectural quality and design were up for discussion.

The Histon non-conformist massiv


I wandered into the cemetery having got to the right place. This is one of the main resting places for the Victorian and early 20thC non-conformists in Cambridge.

“Ah – antidisestablishmentarians again?”

No – these were the disestablishmentarians who wanted to disestablish the Church of England and also remove the religious discrimination that the University of Cambridge once had back in the early 19th Century. We had some proper squabbles over this back in the day.

Many of the people resting permanently in the cemetery (see some of them here) won’t be familiar to lots of people, but they were huge names for their time in civic life. One of them was this chap.


Herbert George Whibley – leader of the Cambridge Liberal Party. You can read about him here. It’s easy to forget but there were more than a few nonconformist preachers who also went into party politics – such as Dr Alex Wood for Labour.

Ascension Parish – the brainiest cemetery in Britain


So wearing my permanent frown and a dodgy camera angle making me look balding in the bright but white-cloudy daylight, I made my way through to where Horace and Ida Darwin rest.

I was surprised to see the site so overgrown

So if you’re interested and are reading this before 20 July 2019, do go along to the next working party to give them a hand.

If you want to find out more about Sir Horace Darwin – Mayor of Cambridge 1896-97, head to the Cambridge Museum of Technology where they have an exhibition.

One real treasure for me was discovering that Lady Caroline Jebb – aunt of Save the Children founders Dorothy Buxton and Eglantyne Jebb – had her ashes returned from the USA to be buried alongside her husband, former MP for Cambridge University Sir Richard Jebb.


One of the most politically significant speeches Sir Richard Jebb MP made as the member for Cambridge University was his call for Votes for Women. I’ve transcribed it here.

180817 Richard Jebb Caroline Jebb Wedding.jpg

Above – Caroline and Richard Jebb in a biography written by her great niece Mary Reed Bobbitt. Caroline Jebb was one of the most socially influential women in late-19th Century/early 20th Century Cambridge. Bobbit’s book that I discuss in this post gives us an insight into this incredible woman – the first of several American women who would have a big impact on Cambridge – followed by another niece, Maud Darwin in the early 20thC, Lella Secor Florence in 1920s Cambridge, all the way through to the present day with Anne Bailey of Form the Future.

The state of Sir Arthur Eddington’s grave

The Eddington development in North West Cambridge has been much-reported in the education and architectural media, with the cost of the development reported to be as much as £1billion. So you’d have thought that the University of Cambridge and the colleges and institutes that Sir Arthur Eddington is associated with, would have taken a little bit more care and attention when looking after his grave – not least giving support to the hard working, hard pressed group of mainly volunteers that have the task of maintaining the cemetery.


You can get a sense from the lighting and shading just how overgrown this part is.

“Maybe this cemetery is supposed to be like this?”

Maybe it is. But compared with the Histon Road Cemetery that I was at earlier in the day, and also the Mill Road Cemetery that I regularly pass through (I used to be scared of graveyards because of church tales of ghosts but now find them quite peaceful places. Also dragons beat zombies every time. So there.

Actually, it’s wrong to compare the Ascension burial ground with those of Histon Road and Mill Road. The latter two are by two of Cambridge’s busiest roads and are also popular walking through-routes in their part of town. That human movement alone helps keep more people aware of it, tread back some of the vegetation, and help with maintenance. As the map below shows, Ascension isn’t a thru-route.

190713 Ascension Burial Ground Map

It has a popular thru-route next to it, but as this BBC article from 2010 states, the ground is so hidden that blink and you’ll miss it.

Castle Hill Open Day

We have a hill but not a castle. There’s much I could add to the WikiP article on Cambridge Castle but in the grand scheme of things, the castle that we used to have is no longer there. Various colleges ran off with the stone.

“You mean there was a stone castle there?”


Yep. ***Give us back our castle stones you scoundrels!!!***

I also asked county council officers to make the set of images that the above board is part of, available prominently online.

As part of the open day, on the green in front of Castle Mound a number of organisations had gazebos and meet-the-public sessions, including the Museum of Zoology, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and some early consultations on what Brookgate are going to do with their 40 year lease of Shire Hall. So my pitch to the consultants representing Brookgate (no one from the firm seemed to be there) was to support the creation of a boutique hotel using the existing main building, and to expand the Museum of Cambridge on the site as I wrote here.

Not all university outreach staff had visited our civic museums

They told me the biggest barrier in their opinion was having to pay on entry to the Museum of Cambridge, the Cambridge Museum of Technology, and the Computing Museum. In my opinion, the limited size of the Museum of Cambridge is a huge barrier, while decent transport (and public transport for that matter) access are two massive barriers for the latter two. Personally I’d like to see the inductions for new staff and volunteers of Cambridge University’s museums to include visits to local museums in Cambridge outside of their remit. That would help reduce the communications and understandings gaps between the two sectors.

Not being supported by University of Cambridge’s Museum’s Service means that those museums are run on a shoe string. I went off on one back in late 2017 when I found out the Museum of Cambridge was at a risk of closure. And was in hospital with a suspected heart attack a few days later. Not something I want to repeat.

The culture change that I would like to see in Cambridge is one where the University of Cambridge and its member institutions adopt a new value where *the whole of the city of Cambridge matters to their institution – not just its members or even just its very senior members*. It’s something I’ve mentioned before, but the presentation given by the Anderson Group on the prospects of a new urban country park east of Mill Road at the East Romsey Lakes (the flooded quarry) really nailed the point home about one of Cambridge University’s most prominent colleges not playing its part as a land owner for the benefit of the whole city. The City Council, the Anderson Group (who are the project lead – see here) and Peterhouse Cambridge – the oldest college in Cambridge University, are the main land owners.

Unpleasantly surprised to hear Peterhouse has not been nearly as co-operative as it could have been.

With a corporate value that the whole city mattered, Peterhouse might have prioritised getting this site back into safe public use rather than the annual game of cat-and-mouse trying to keep trespassers out of the site especially in summer months.

So again, I call on the University of Cambridge (of which this academic year I have been a member through and its member colleges & institutions to adopt a new corporate value of one where the whole of Cambridge City matters, not just the university and its members.


Could Cambridge go car free for the day?



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:

We want to enable people in Cambridge to join Londoners in holding a Car Free Day on Saturday 22 September 2020

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?”

350222 Cambridge Traffic

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.””

Mike Scialom in the Cambridge Independent.

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.

Alternatively, residents of Cambridgeshire can write to their county councillors at or the county police and crime commissioner at



Cambridge and South Cambs ratepayers subsidising large developments?


On why ministers need to remove (or at least relax) the restrictions on local council planning fees for medium and large developments.

I pulled this from a recent ministerial speech.

It was from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government at the annual conference of the Local Government Association, the organisation that represents local councils across England. (Minus a handful of non-conformists!)

You can read the transcript of the speech by the Secretary of State here. Essentially there’s going to be a new green paper on planning.

“What’s a green paper?”

In central government, there are two types of policy paper: green papers, and white papers. Green papers are discussion documents. This is where the government of the day raises issues to do with a specific policy area and invites comments from anyone (though in practice it is interested in influential people and organisations) on scoping the problem out and/or how to respond to it.

White papers are government policy documents that are a statement of what a government intends to do about an issue or policy area. Quite often these will include announcements of any new legislation it intends to table before Parliament. The publication of announcements tend to be big occasions for a government because it gives the impression of a government doing something and being in control of a policy area. They can also act as a sort of comfort blanket  – easy to refer back to repeatedly because of the significant amount of research that has gone into creating them. Individual pieces of research often costing £tens of thousands will go into individual chapters and on impact assessments.

I think it’s a shame that more of these research papers are not more widely publicised because they get into the real detail of issues and cut out much of the party-political bluster. Interestingly, this is also where MPs who might come across as buffoons on political telly can show themselves to be far more well informed on a specific issue, and may sometimes seem at odds with the party-political line to take from their party whip.

“What is an ‘accelerated Green Paper’?”

It’s like a normal green paper but one where ministers are panicking because they’ve spent far too much time and far too many resources being distracted by something else and in the meantime, the monster has grown.

“What did the Secretary of State have to say?”


“The Green Paper, will invite proposals to pilot new approaches to meeting the costs of the planning service where this improves performance, including whether local authorities could recover a greater proportion of these costs.

If such reforms were then introduced, local authorities would be expected to invest the additional revenue in their planning services and demonstrate measurable improvements within their performance – not just in terms of speed but very firmly also in terms of quality.”

“Which means?”

‘Local councils will have to raise revenue from somewhere other than central government, council taxes and business rates. Any ideas, chaps?’

So I asked two of our local councils (Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire – who now run a joint planning service) whether the income from planning fees covered their costs in terms of running it.

With thanks to Hannah at South Cambridgeshire District Council, at the moment the planning service needs to be subsidised by the local council tax & business rate payer.

“So that means the big developers are being subsidised?”

In effect, yes. They are not paying for the full cost of the planning service that they use.

“Ouch – that hurts – especially given the controversial nature of some of the planning applications and developments we’ve seen and sat in on over the past decade or so!”

Exactly. I can see the merit of local council tax and business rate payers working on small developments not being hit by the full cost, but for £multi-million developments where the beneficiaries are large institutions or corporations, or wealthy individuals domiciled elsewhere, I can’t see why they should be subsidised – especially given the extra resources that their developments inevitably take up.

Furthermore, I also think there’s merit in local councils running a function that helps local residents and community groups comment on planning applications. It may sound like this is helping nimbys (Not In My Back Yard types!) block planning applications, but I reckon it would have the net effect of reducing the amount of time and resources spent on handling such objections, increase the public’s understanding of the planning system, and encourage more responsible developers to engage with local communities at a much earlier stage so as to design out any contentious issues at a very early stage.

“Contentious issues?”

Take a proposed development on a fairly large open undeveloped site that backs onto an existing row of houses. When deciding where to place the new houses, the existing residents are more than likely to put in an objection where new homes right next to their property boundary overlooks onto a back garden or directly into a property. A privacy issue. In which case at a very early stage coming to an agreement on having say some allotments bordering onto the existing property boundary might be a better solution. This is what happened in one development in Cambridge a few years ago. The same number of homes were built, it was just that at design stage they were located on alternative parts of the site. Far better to do that now than to get to the planning permission stage and having to pay extra for your consultants to fight an organised campaign against your development.

Local planning and property professionals are not happy with the local authority planning system either

I found myself sitting in on a meeting with members of Labour’s planning commission recently with developers even though I had only asked to be with the community representatives. (Hence not live-reporting because that felt like bad form). The conclusion I came away with on both sessions is having some joint workshops between local organisations such as the Federation of Cambridge Resident Associations and RIBA Cambridge so that both sides can get a stronger understanding of where the other is coming from, and perhaps to agree some protocols on developments on when and how prospective developers should engage with local community groups.

But as things stand, the planning function of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire District Councils is not in a great place.

…and as you can see, it’s an issue that I’ve firmly placed at the door of ministers to resolve – as they are the ones with the powers to do so.




On award-winning journalist Alex Crawford’s comments on citizen journalists


Alex Crawford raises some very difficult issues that the media and politicians have been struggling with for years. The problem is too many senior executives [‘decision makers’ as I often call them] in the mainstream media have not done enough to help themselves or their industry over trust issues.

You can read Alex Crawford’s blogpost here. It was published following her appointment as the first patron of the National Council for the Training of Journalists. The part James Walker for the Press Gazette picked up on was Crawford’s comment on ‘citizen journalists’. You can read that article here.

Declaring my interests

I have to. I run a local Cambridge-based Y-Tube account at where I film various things including extended council and political meetings. Sometimes local community groups and campaign groups pay me to film meetings. It’s not glamorous work even at the best of times – but it is very important in a place like Cambridge with so much building work going on and money being spent.

Despite the TV dramas, real journalism involves long hours, attending multiple often mind-numbing meetings, and holding those making decisions to account. This is why for all its flaws, the BBC’s local democracy reporter scheme is ever so important. How do I know this? We’re often at the same meetings locally. Furthermore, my video record on several occasions has been used as the source for a number of print and online articles in local media where a professional journalist has not been able to attend. This for me is one of the reasons why it’s better for local councils and public sector bodies to have their own in-house teams to do the filming as a matter of routine.

“Doesn’t that mean in part you’re subsidising what should be being done by paid professionals?”

Of course it does. But if I didn’t do it, nothing would happen. With the rise of new generation of automation, the case for a form of citizens’ or universal basic income in my opinion becomes stronger and stronger. The fact is that at the moment, the media market cannot meet its costs covering all of the institutions that need to be covered. In my experience, the communications plans for many of these institutions – especially when it comes to press releases, has not acknowledged the changed media environment.

“Sounds like the world Alex Crawford is talking about is a very different one to local council sub-committee meetings that no one really wants to go to on a cold rainy November night”

It is. But then that’s why she’s an award-winning journalist with extensive training and experience of working in very hostile environments. I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near such places with my anxiety and mental health history!

“Does your work need to come with a health warning?”

Why shouldn’t it? I’m not trained. Hence why I prefer to use the phrase ‘community reporter’ rather than ‘citizen journalist’ because for me the latter implies some sort of professional training and qualification. The problem Crawford argues is with this new wave of partisan operations, mainly online-based, that are outside the remit of the existing measures of regulation – in particular the very strict ones for the broadcasters when compared with the print press.

But then here’s the problem: The internet, and more importantly, online video has blurred the line between what is published by an ‘audio and moving picture’ broadcaster such as the BBC as was, and a traditional print press operation such as your red-top tabloids in the 1980s. Both The Guardian and The Telegraph have been producing short video clips for some time now. At what point does such coverage fall into the remit of OfCom, and the rules about party political neutrality?

Broadcast media setting a poor example to the rest of us

Here’s Laura Kuenssberg – mentioned in Crawford’s blog on the receiving end of a critic who has asked her to analyse a comment/statement made by one of the candidates to become Prime Minister.

In the run up to the EU referendum, not enough of the broadcast media were robust enough in fact-checking and holding politicians to account for untrue statements that they made. In late 2018, Robert Peston of ITN criticised the BBC for this very point.

“The problem with the BBC, during the campaign, it put people on with diametrically opposed views and didn’t give their viewers and listeners any help in assessing which one was the loony and which one was the genius,” he said.

“I do think that they went through a period of just not being confident enough. Impartial journalism is not giving equal airtime to two people one of whom says the world is flat and the other one says the world is round. That is not balanced, impartial journalism.”

So…where did that lack of confidence come from? The roots go all the way back to the Iraq War, and the Hutton Review of 2003. It cost Greg Dyke, then the highly regarded Director General of the BBC, his job. Anti-war protesters were furious and called the whole thing a whitewash. A year later when I joined the civil service I would find out that as an institution a number of the senior civil servants were furious with themselves over failing to give the late Dr David Kelly the necessary support in the face of one hell of a media firestorm. Award-winning investigative journalist Tom Mangold’s extended account here is worth a read.

Since then until just after the 2017 general election when Jeremy Corbyn did unexpectedly better, and Theresa May the Prime Minister unexpectedly far worse than anticipated, (combined with the US presidential elections shortly before), I’ve felt that the lines of questioning from BBC Politics as an institution, along with the tone, has been unnecessarily timid. It’s only been as the reality of trying to deliver Brexit has hit the Conservative Party – and the failure of the official opposition that is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to take advantage of this (as reflected by the local council elections and the European Parliament elections in 2019) that has given the likes of Emma Barnett, Emily Maitlis and Mishal Hussein the opportunity to make some of the highest office holders of state look very, very small in political stature and utterly unfit to hold the office that they do or once did hold.

“It’s not true! It’s simply not true!” Emma Barnett to a backbench Tory MP.

Above – one-too-many interviews like that.

Above – Jenni Russell of The Times tearing into Theresa May and Boris Johnson

Emily Maitlis in ferocious form against blundering former Cabinet Minister Damian Green MP who doesn’t seem to know what has hit him. Excellent cross-examination.

Is it enough to undo the damage of the previous decade or so?

That can’t be ‘undone’ as such because we’re in very different technological times. The danger here are the echo chambers – and the Pro-Leave Right has been far more effective at producing slick media operations than the Pro-Corbyn Left, but the latter has got enough online media outlets to produce enough content for some of its online readers to ignore the mainstream. The problem then is what happens when two very different realities of the same event are presented to different audiences? (Obama discussed this in late 2018 here).

Separating professional journalist from media institution that employs them

One of the things Crawford raised was the criticism and abuse that she got for being an employee of Sky News, part of Murdoch’s empire. What’s easy to forget is just how important UK broadcasting laws are on impartiality at the other end. Here’s Murdoch Sr back in 2007 on impartiality rules to the House of Lords. It’s what allows very talented journalists to maintain their reputation at ‘controversially-owned’ media organisations. Given Labour’s troubled history with large media organisations over the past century, it wouldn’t surprise me if a Corbyn-led Government brought in much tighter rules around media ownership.

The rise of fact checking

One thing that has helped not just the public but broadcast journalists in live interviews is the rise of independent fact checkers, such as the charity Full Fact. (Again, I declare an interest in having worked voluntarily with a couple of people in their team in years gone by). They now live-fact check events such as Prime Minister’s Questions and programmes such as Question Time. Channel 4 has its fact checking team here, and the BBC has a more in-depth Reality Check on specific stories as opposed to stats alone.

On journalists not fighting each other, but on taking on those that spread disinformation

One of the most significant issues Crawford takes on are the editors (and indirectly their proprietors). In the case of regional newspapers, too many historical brands have been ruined by the drive for clickbait – Trinity Mirror, now Reach PLC being one of the worst offenders.

The problem for new career journalists in particular with the above model is articles such as the above end up staying on their record.

190519 CambsLive Clickbait.jpeg

I don’t know what their obsession is with sex, poo, and mouldy food but it inevitably means that public interest reporting (as opposed to clickbait-for-the-public uploading) gets drowned out. This matters because it makes it harder for people to stay informed about decisions taking place in their local area. In Cambridge, one of the most important functions local newspapers carry out is informing the public of large planning applications. Very few people otherwise have the time to find out how to work the council’s planning portal. Hence my attempt at a guide here.

Training for citizen journalists?

The Centre for Community Journalism at Cardiff University is here. There are a number of people I bounce off in the community journalism field. One of the reasons it took off in Cardiff is because the London-based media all too often ignores news happening in Wales (and outside London generally) or doesn’t understand how the application of some policies announced in Westminster will have a different application in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The border issue in Ireland over Brexit is one such symptom of England-based politicians being ill-informed of the implications.

Yes, I’d love to do some training, but as with more than a few hyper-local types like me, we’re single people operators. Hence applying for funding or support isn’t so straight forward. Not least with zero self-confidence in my case, extensive application processes don’t feel like they are worth the effort.



After the climate emergency declarations, what next?


“A number of local councils and organisations have declared climate emergencies. What happens now? What’s going to be different?”

tl:dr version: If you want to see what actions and gatherings are happening in and around Cambridge on all things sustainability, see Transition Cambridge’s regular newsletter & calendar of events here.

Friends of the Earth had their Groundswell event in Cambridge earlier today. There were people from all over East Anglia plus London there, though fewer people from Cambridge than I had expected. It was heatwave weather outside though. The Junction’s J2 seemed to have all the seats occupied when I rocked up after the lunch break. I struggle with all day events health-wise, and had a very intense university study-day at the University of Cambridge’s Madingley Hall the day before.

Cllr Pippa Heylings of South Cambridgeshire District Council and Nathan Williams of Extinction Rebellion Cambridge were giving some home truths to everyone in the room on the scale of the challenges ahead, along with Cambridge Cleantech’s Cinthya Anand. It’s not often that you get a panel covering the private sector, local government and out and about environmental campaigning all making the case on the same issue.

Cllr Heylings on the importance of the planning system and climate change

More local councils are declaring climate emergencies – and recently the Royal Institute of British Architects – better known as RIBA, declared one too. So…now what? Will it make any difference to the planning system and future planning applications? We will soon find out just how much of a big deal the Government’s 2050 zero carbon announcement really is when (as they surely will) Stansted Airport appeal a refusal of planning permission to expand following the collapse of Uttlesford Conservatives at the recent local council elections 20miles+ south-east of Cambridge. New councillors will be relying on the new statutory instrument tabled by ministers will be judged as a material factor by a planning inspector and strong enough grounds for councillors to act in the way that they did.

My question to the panel was on educating activists and the general public on how the planning system functions (and malfunctions) as part of the campaign on climate change. Because it’s very complicated. (I tried explaining Cambridge’s planning pages here). And when things are complicated in public policy, all too often it means only the very wealthy interests can afford to buy in the specialist knowledge and advice to make it work – for them. In and around Cambridge, all too often it feels like we’re left with exceedingly bland designs.

Above – on the Cambridge Station North Hotel from Nov 2017.

Can architects work with local communities at design stage to improve design standards and deliver inspiring buildings that are also more sustainable?

The above response from the national charity Civic Voice was welcome. Perhaps this is something a number of other national organisations can contribute towards, with event organisers drawing in contributing speakers and panelists from the local communities around the venues that they book. I also touched on the issue of community consent by briefly raising the case of the Flying Pig pub – at risk from developers, something that has attracted over 12,000 signatures to a petition to save it.

…along with a lot of media coverage too.

We’ve still got a lot of things to thrash out collectively as a city

The Cambridge collective of Extinction Rebellion (XR) has organised a large street occupation for the morning of 06 July 2019 in central Cambridge. Interestingly, the message coming from Cambridge City Council is for people attending the events on Parker’s Piece that day is to use public transport. Protest organisers have been in discussions with the authorities which makes me think that there will be contingencies in place to enable bus services to continue.

One thing I’ve not seen with protest movements before is extensive programs of workshops and training. The ones XR have organised have been incredibly well attended. The de-escalation training has been very interesting to see because transitioning from a high waste, high consumption throwaway society that we are into something far more sustainable is not going to be easy. And as we’ve seen, it generates resistance and anger in some fields – for example with some in motoring circles. Hence it was interesting to see how the new BBC Top Gear chaps coped with a new range of electric cars.

At the moment, we don’t have the institutions or the civic space to thrash out the things that we need to as a city or a ‘sub-region’ for want of another term. We can all think of events and actions where we can think of someone ‘who should have been there’ but didn’t know before hand. Or we can think of institutions that need to start having conversations with each other, or would be ideally suited to providing something that the city doesn’t have, if only someone would do something about it.

At the last XR meeting I went to (there are many neighbourhood-based ones listed here) people discussed some of the teething problems that inevitably rise as a result of bringing lots of people (who’ve never met/don’t know each other) together to solve shared issues. The climate challenge is so all encompassing that there’s no such thing as ‘sitting on the fence’ because ‘sitting on the fence’ or doing nothing is a choice in itself that has an impact. Furthermore, the process of meeting and listening helps break down some of the negative stereotypes that people may have about each other. I admire those activists who have taken on the mentally draining task of responding to the negative and abusive comments on social media left by too many people out there. The patience one needs for such a task of trying to persuade someone to change their mind in the face of abuse is huge. Yet it is such an important function in a world of disinformation.

An open [green] space event (or series) to create organising space for wider civic action?

My take is that at some stage, Cambridge is going to need to host what is effectively a big open space gathering for the specific purpose of organising actions for people, groups and institutions to take in response to the climate challenge. At the moment we’ve got too many disparate groups who are not co-ordinated with each other, and furthermore the structure of local government means too much effort and resource is wasted when it could make a difference.


Where would you start lobbying if you went down the local political route?

On top of all that, Cambridge has a very high population turnover – especially with young adults, students and early career researchers. People stay for a few years and then move on. This phenomenon is not new. Eglantyne Jebb, Lella Secor Florence, and Baroness Trumpington are but three examples of women who moved to Cambridge, achieved great things for us, and then moved on to pastures new. At a contemporary level, Astronaut Dr Jenni Sidey-Gibbons is one of our modern heroes. An expert in combustion engines before being selected to become Canada’s first woman astronaut, in conversation she told me all about the hidden dangers of one of the environment’s most dangerous pollutants – shipping fuel. (As with aviation fuel, it is not taxed – which is a scandal in itself).

As a city we should have learnt by now how to get the talent that arrives pretty much every autumn, up and running without said individuals having to put in a huge amount of groundwork time and again to do it themselves. From my perspective, integrating our international talent into our systems of governance (and improving said systems) is essential. Not an easy sell with existing voting systems and restrictions.

“How might a large open space event work?”

Have a look at the pitching session from UKGovCamp from a few years ago.

“Hi, I’m me. I want to talk about ABC – it’s important because DEF. Come along to my session!” 30 seconds to pitch your idea before the whistle sounds.

Such a pitching session alone would also scope out what is happening across the city as well – something that is not nearly as clear as it could be. Again, the fragmentation of our public sector and local government institutions is one of the major causes of this. Just off the top of my head, here are some strands that come to mind:

Again, this is not new – in 2013 I wrote about the number of environmental groups and networks in and around Cambridge.

Interestingly, I’m not aware of a local pedestrian or walking group in Cambridge, even though there has been talk of setting one up every so often. A month before I was hospitalised in late 2017 there was a Cambridge hack event looking at solutions to improve the journey by foot from Cambridge Railway Station to the city centre. I don’t know if this was followed up. I’m aware the Cambridge Cycling Campaign has expressed an interest in supporting a pedestrian/walkers group to carry out the functions it does for cycling in Cambridge, but for walkers and pedestrians. This might be something people in existing community groups might be interested in taking on, forming a local group of Living Streets and drawing on the latter’s resources. The recently formed Cambridge Area Bus Users’ Group did similar when they formed – and are now a constituted membership organisation (I’m one of the founder members – see here if you’d like to join).

“Yes – but what about specifics? What needs to change and how do we achieve it?”

The most up-to-date place to go to is the regular newsletter/calendar from Transition Cambridge which goes far beyond what its members do.

For me, the big game-changer was Dr Colin Harris’s idea of a Cambridge Light Rail Underground.

181214 Cambridge_Connect_Light_Rail_Map

I could spend all day looking at maps and things. See Cambridge Connect here. Also, history matters. How did Cambridge get into this transport mess in the first place? I had a look on Lost Cambridge here. Yes, we could have had an electric tram network.

Improving things at a much smaller scale – such as improving street cycle parking in residential areas is something that the Cambridge Cycling Campaign is leading on.

And finally … Politics matters

With the system that we live in, someone’s got to stand for election to ensure that local councils can pass budgets and get waste collected and recycled. That means getting to know some of your local councillors. You can start by finding out who they are at (you only need your postcode) & dropping them an email. Or alternatively, see what individual parties have to say:

(They are responsible for the content of their sites – not me!) Note too that a number of parties have calls for evidence on future policies. One of the most high profile of late is Labour’s Planning Commission that held one in Cambridge very recently. The public can still send in their views – see

One of the things that has been missing in all of this are the party political exchanges on public forums (face-to-face as opposed to online) so that the public can meet politicians and also so that activists can find out first hand what some of the political barriers to further actions on climate change are from those inside the institutions. (You get to find out why I bang on about local government reform – because without it local councils will struggle to make an impact not just on climate change but on a host of other areas too).



When Cambridge redevelopments enhance historical buildings


Not all developers and their associates are the easily-portrayed scoundrels, knaves, rogues and money-chasers that they are all-too-often accused of.

Even I get bored at the sound and sight of my negative words describing uninspiring planning applications. But then we live in a system where compromised and/or disinterested ministers lacking the talent and the passion to resolve the problems have kept in place a planning system that serves the few, not the many. Thus it brings into disrepute not just a system but the people that work in it. It doesn’t have to be like that.

Cambridge Museum of Technology – reopened after a £1million Heritage Lottery Grant

One of my favourite restorations (so please go and visit it!)  There’s also a new cafe/bar called Othersyde that is standing room only on a sunny day – most of the outdoor benches being under the shade of trees.

Considering the site was one of the most polluted in the area, the transformation is quite something.

But we needed the pumping station due to the state of the river.

The chimney of the old pumping station was once the tallest structure in town.

…and today the Museum hosts Cambridge Steampunk gatherings.

Cambridge’s old police station on St Andrew’s Street (not Parkside) reopening as a boutique hotel

You can read the report in the Cambridge Independent here.

Now, when the building was completed it looked like the image below (in The Cambridge Graphic in the Cambs Collection).

011012 Police Station Opening St Andrews Street 1901_1

Mindful that the old police station prior to it had the cursed Spinning House on it.

Cambridge Old Spinning House_1.jpg

The above was from Dr Philip Howell’s presentation to Mill Road History Society

When the modernised police station opened in 1901, the Cambridge Graphic also published photos of the drill hall around the back.


The plan for the cafe & hotel is to bring it into full public use. At the moment it’s a car park.

190627 Hobson House Police Station Drill Hall.jpeg

A nice venue for a Sunday tea dance for Cambridge Dancers?

This then sets a nice high standard for other developers – as we still wait for news on the long disused Hobson Street Cinema.

160607 OldBingoHallPerspective

…and I hope that it sets a marker down for Cambridgeshire County Council and its proposed developers for the Shire Hall site.

Favourite lost buildings.

Part of me wants these rebuilt up to the last moss-covered roof tile.

The old Assizes Courthouse at Shire Hall as an expanded Museum of Cambridge

Above – from the Museum of Cambridge

Post Office on Petty Cury/St Andrew’s Street Corner

181006 Petty Cury Post Office 1900


The old Spillers Mill silo, destroyed in a suspicious fire

Old Mill Silo


The old Norwich Union building where John Lewis now is on the corner of Downing Street.


Above -from the Museum of Cambridge

The old Co-op store on Burleigh Street – I’m still trying to work out why its demolition wasn’t opposed. The Primark store is now there.



The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel – where Strutt & Parker now are on Hills Road. Locals found out too late to save it.


Above – from the Museum of Cambridge

The Mill Road Playhouse – the front demolished after central government raised the cinema tax in the late 1950s, making this and the Tivoli uneconomical to run.


Above – from the Museum of Cambridge

Below – the Playhouse with its heart ripped out. It became Cambridge’s first supermarket before Sally Ann’s took it over for several decades. 


The site is presently available for rent as a shop.

Below – Rattee and Kett, formerly on the corner of Station Road. This really should have been saved.

181211 rattee and kett station road buildings

That doesn’t mean to say that everything should be preserved and not have anything done to it.


One of my least favourite buildings – the old guildhall of which councillors and burgesses spent a century squabbling over what to replace it with. (From the Cambridgeshire Collection)

I’ve got a Facebook page for Lost Cambridge where I post blogposts and more on local history – including links to other local historians. I also run the linked Lost Cambridge Meetup group.

£3million price tag for Romsey Labour Club with new planning permission yet another example of a broken planning system


Having finally succeeded in getting planning permission, the developer has now put the property up for sale – to the fury of local residents and campaigners.

As Sam Davies, Independent candidate for Queen Edith’s reported earlier,

Local historian Allan Brigham wrote this in response. Something feels wrong that time and again developers can bludgeon local council planning officers and local communities to get planning permission for a site only to sell the site on at an inflated price once permission has been granted on the back of what the original developer/applicant said they wanted to do with the site.

…which led to some exchanges on if and how such land value gains should be taxed. (The concept of planning gain is discussed here – and Land Value Capture is one of the principles Mayor James Palmer of Cambs & P’boro plans to use to help fund a new Cambridge Metro. There’s also another locally historic property nearby also on the market – the old Bolton’s Warehouse on the market for nearly £2million.

I filmed some of the planning hearings. The full hearing is here. From a previous hearing, two public speakers and one local councillor (Dr Dave Baigent (Lab – Romsey)) spoke against a similar development plan for ‘rabbit hutch’ type units.

“What did the developers say at the planning hearing?”

As is often the case, they commissioned professional representation – in this case Peter McKeown of Carter Jonas who is a familiar face at planning hearings. In cases like this, professionals here are acting similar to how a solicitor would representing a client. You can hear what Mr McKeown had to say about the application to Cambridge City Council’s Planning Committee here.

“Was the developer telling the truth?”

I had a look into the principle of a developer or applicant being accused of misleading a local council planning committee. This was considered back in 2003 by the then Labour Government during the then Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill (now Act 2004) during the Commons Committee stages – the line-by-line scrutiny.

The line from the Minister at the time – Yvette Cooper MP, today in opposition the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee., was that local councils had the option to go to court. But this is an incredibly expensive option and leaves local councils with the risk of large legal bills. There is no recourse for local councils (as far as I am aware) to zap the planning permission on change of ownership.

Something that Al Storer above said should be an automatic function as soon as a developer having gained planning permission and seeking to sell on the site puts it up for sale and/or disposes of it.

“You just hate capitalism you freedom-hating socialist!!!”

Talk to me about the freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from injustice alongside ‘freeze peach’ when you’re ready.

We know the planning system is broken – it’s why we’ve seen a number of commissions trying to repair it and local government generally, including:

Developers behave like developers because that’s what the system incentivises. Of course with the Romsey Labour Club being a unique building in Cambridge’s town history, more than a few local people (myself included) are sensitive to what happens to it. (Read about its history here). In which case why don’t we have a whip round to buy it? Simple reason is that land prices are so out-of-line with people’s average earnings. Such an argument doesn’t hold water.

A Mayor’s Civic Fund could have saved the building for the city

I made the case for such a fund here. It’s too late now, but the purpose of such a fund is to encourage large donations for large civic projects to protect and enhance our heritage and civic buildings and facilities in Cambridge. The decline of the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Party also makes me wonder about the two remaining Conservative club buildings in South Cambridge which are historic buildings in their own right. Again, such a fund could be used to protect them should they be required.

That said, it should not require acts of charity or people asking for donations to compensate for a broken planning system.

Cambridge 2030 under a new governance structure?


In and around my old policy stomping ground, there are some big moves about the future of government and public administration. What impact could this have on somewhere like Cambridge?

The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) was spun out of the old Department for Media, Culture and Sport, having been given a huge sum as an endowment from the National Lottery to invest in innovations not just in science and tech, but also in public administration – thus able to take risks that central government could not. That’s what I remember it as anyway. It was where a lot of the fun stuff was happening about a decade ago.

Earlier this year (2019) they launched a new project on the radical visions of the future of government – and are due to publish their findings in September. They threw out the challenge to anyone who was interested and one of the shortlisted teams was the OneTeamGov collective.

So me and the dragon volunteered given that governance structures in Cambridge have been something we’ve been wrestling with for years.

Most recently I’ve called for the abolition of Cambridgeshire County Council, and have identified the mess that is the county’s governance structures as a big risk to the future success of the county and regional economy.

“Is it that bad?”


Yes – Cambridgeshire’s governance is *that bad*

“So…what has OneTeamGov come up with so far?”

Have a look here.

Jenny Vass of Cabinet Office writes:

“Public servants of 2030 are held to account with radical transparency. Truly building trust and working collaboratively involves working in the open; they publishing thinking, data and decisions as a default.”

How does this look at a local government level? At a city, town, village, neighbourhood level?

I remember about a decade ago being shown the concept of a ‘city dashboard’ that city managers have giving them live up to date news and data feeds of essential services and functions. I was quickly convinced by the concept but knew it would not work in the existing set up in England because of the fragmentation of public services – whether through privatisation or repeated mini-restructures of government.

“What does a city dashboard look like?”

This one for London is a basic level one. There’s also this one for Dublin. Think of the things that disrupt cities on a day-to-day basis. That gives you an indicator of the sorts of information streams a city manager is likely to need to know about.

  • Road traffic congestion
  • Functioning of public transport/mass transit systems
  • Air quality
  • Weather – current and looming
  • Power supplies (electricity, fossil fuels etc)
  • Any health trends (eg flu)
  • Incidents
  • Organised events – big civic festivals?
  • Resilience/capacity/staffing levels of emergency services

The above list is not exhaustive. It also begs the question: “what does it mean to be responsible and accountable for the above?” In particular when considering contractual vs democratic accountability?

Now, when you think about somewhere like Cambridge…well…what do you think?

“Ex-public schoolboys reading Rupert Brooke poetry while punting on the river passed King’s College Chapel on a sunny day – oh, and highly advanced science and technology that is far too complicated for me to understand but it makes lots of money for The Treasury!” 

Which also explains the current mess of the system of governance for Cambridge: The people of the city stubbornly refuse to vote for Conservative councillors and, bar a few notable exceptions have not done so since the 1990s – prior to which the city was a safe Conservative council and Parliamentary seat. Have a glance at the last 15 years of electoral history on these charts by the late Colin Rosenstiel. The only way the Conservative Party can maintain a close political control of Cambridge City is by using its county majority over its political opponents. Hence Cambridgeshire and Peterborough being the only combined authority aside from the very recently created ‘North of Tyne’ that has a large rural hinterland. The remit for ‘metro mayors’ and their flawed combined authorities was that they were mainly for joining up urban areas. In the case of Cambridgeshire, the remit was very much party-political. (Also, historical note, Rupert Brooke campaigned against the Conservatives in the 1910 general elections – he was a radical liberal!)

“Why does all of the above matter for 2030?”

Because it forces policy makers to reappraise the structure of local government and public services across the piece – not just for Cambridge or Cambridgeshire. This will have big implications for the private and not-for-profit sectors, in particular those that deliver state contracts.

Furthermore the system of metro mayors and combined authorities is more than likely to be found wanting. In my opinion.

Now let’s apply something else that Jenny Vass wrote:

OneTeamGov sees a radical future for public services where politicians are accountable for a life stage: birth, early years, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, middle age, elderly and death. Services are delivered as a ‘one stop’, joined up across life stages, taking the model of the ‘Tell Us Once’ service.”

“Senior public servants are responsible for maintaining the foundations of human life beyond the political cycle: education, health, security, sustainability, etc. They gain cross-party steer for long-term strategic issues than span political terms and use public collaboration to ensure transparency of major shifts in direction.”

“Tell us once automatically fails in a system of two-tier local councils”

Exactly – I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve heard politicians try to explain “Well it’s not Cambridge City Council that is responsible for highways, that is Cambridgeshire County Council”. Most members of the public couldn’t care less – they just want the pot hole repaired. “I will log a call with our outsourced service provider [insert name of multinational corporation] who will log the request as outstanding!”


Furthermore, we also have many of our public services contracted out and/or privatised. Such as our buses. Stagecoach in Cambridge under the previous director was run as a very tight commercial operation. This caused tension with councillors and communities. A new director has since been appointed – and he met the Cambridge Area Bus Users’ Group at the latter’s AGM. [I declare an interest as a founding member]. You can see how he got on at that meeting in the video playlist here 

“Should privatisation be banned?”

This video by the municipal authorities in Vienna makes an interesting case for public services.

In German with English subtitles.

This is inevitably a difficult conversation for civil servants to have with elected politicians who are ideological on such issues – whether 100% state only or 100% everything must be privatised except for law and order, and defence functions.

Reporting lines to local councils or back to Whitehall?

  • State hospitals fall under the remit of the National Health Service – reporting to the Secretary of State give or take what Lansley tried to do in 2012.
  • Secondary schools now report directly to the Department for Education through the academies structure – with similar aims for primary schools
  • The police (give or take the Police & Crime Commissioners – who most people probably don’t even know exist) report to the Home Office
  • The magistrates courts report to the Ministry of Justice

Are those existing lines of reporting and accountability sustainable in the future? Furthermore, what changes will need to be made to local government regarding how it raises revenue? Remember council tax was a stop-gap for the failed Poll Tax of 1990. The idea of setting local taxation bills based on property prices of 1992 is a nonsense, but successive ministers have kept this in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile.

***It did not used to be like this***

Taking the history of Cambridge the town as an example, a whole host of public services grew up as and when Parliament empowered local authorities throughout the 1800s. Don’t think that the founding of the NHS was not without controversy – it was very controversial as people were worried about the impact it would have on local council-supported hospitals.

460412 Addenbrookes NHS Threat.jpg

Above – one headline from 1946 and plans for a new national health service. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.

In Cambridge, historically our chief magistrate was the Mayor of Cambridge. The police, schools and libraries were all run out of the then town council. Not only that, the decision-makers at the top were known public and civic figures locally.

CBG Graphic John PInk Cambridge Library Founder 1900

John Pink – founding father of Cambridge’s public libraries.

CBG Graphic Cambridge Fire Brigade 1900 Capt Greef Lt Diver.jpg

Capt. Greef – our first chief fire officer

NPG x17439; Eva Hartree (nÈe Rayner) by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy)
Eva Hartree – our first woman Mayor of Cambridge (1924/25)

It was only in later years following successive restructures did these functions move either to the county council or to central government. But these people had public profiles. That doesn’t mean they were always popular – but at least people had heard of them.

Cambridge’s other complication – The University of Cambridge

Of which technically I’m a member due to my enrolment at the Institute for Continuing Education. Other towns and cities may also have large institutions that can make or break a place – such as a labour-intensive employer who underpins local supply chains. The relationship between town and gown is set out in statute because of centuries-long squabbles between the two sides, of which Prof Helen Cam of Girton (later the first woman appointed a professor at Harvard) wrote extensively about here.

At some stage, the future governance of Cambridge is going to have to involve re-examining this relationship – not least because of the Byzantine structures of governance and accountability in the University itself. How do you persuade such large institutions to behave in a manner as if the rest of the town – and surrounding villages matter? This is very important given how much land the member colleges own. Planning and building control will be one of the acid tests for the future of government – not least because of how we collectively respond to the challenge of climate change.




If nature reduces stress, how can we green our cities and make existing spaces open to the public?

Reappraising our towns and cities in an era of climate mitigation and no more ‘business as usual’

I’m reminded of this scene from Dr Zhivago, where he returns from the Eastern Front towards the end of WWI to find his family town house having been seized by the new communist authorities to house some of the homeless.

Dr Zhivago (1965)

South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen (Ind) often tells how it was when she saw footage of the London riots that she felt the impetus to get involved in politics. I remember watching on – it happened just after I left the civil service – thinking just how thin the blue line was between ‘business as usual’ and a complete breakdown of the existing system. I’m also of the view that climate change and the continuing of austerity will put further pressures on economy, society and ecology that something will have to give. The state of both the Conservative and Labour Parties on the back of recent elections reflects this, in my view. Society – as we have seen in the past, has split along two broad lines. Today we see this with the rise of BXP and on the liberal-left with the rise of the Greens and the resurgence of the Lib Dems. That plus the short-lived existence of whatever Change UK/Independent Group want to call themselves now.

Trees and green stuff

There were a few reports published recently

…plus this below:

…following an extended exchange between myself and Sam Davies on the RSA’s report and that of the UK 2070 Commission.

One of the first blogposts I wrote was back in 2011 and it was on the privatisation of public spaces. The expert in this field is Anna Minton – see her work here. Now Cambridge is full of privatised green spaces – the college gardens and playing fields. In 2016, I made a short video about playing fields that I once had access to as a child, but no longer do.

On gated playing fields in South Cambridge.

Playing fields at risk

At the Cambridge & South Cambs Local Plan hearings we found out about the various ambitions colleges had to build on playing fields they owned.

Cambridge City Council were batting for the city to keep the spaces green.

For those of you who are interested there is 85mins of debate on Cambridge’s playing fields with some ‘interesting’ statements on usage and need. Also note page 199 of the Cambridge Local Plan 2018 on playing fields here

Should the state have the right to tell individuals or private institutions how they should use their land?

That ultimately comes down to your disposition. In a legal system of complete private property rights, legally purchased or inherited land is yours to do as you feel. At the other end of the spectrum, all land belongs to the Commonwealth whether through a centralised state or a series of autonomous collectives – and everything in between.

Back in 1995 George Monbiot wrote about Land Reform (See here). Fast forward to June 2019 and he and his team were commissioned to write a policy paper on land reform for the Labour Party. His Guardian column on this is here. You can read the full policy paper here.

Bringing planning back

As with many things in history, things come in cycles. In one generation ‘laissez-faire’ economics is popular, in another generation it’s planning. With the Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire Local Plan 2018, have a look at the policies map. It’s interesting to see how the Grafton Centre/Kite and Newmarket Road east of it is shaded as an area of redevelopment.

190613 Cambridge Local Plan East Road Kite190613 Cambridge Local Plan key

The lack of large public open spaces for North Cambridge is striking

Though some have questioned the accuracy of the map. But the point remains.

Which bits of Cambridge could be opened up to the wider public?

Cambridge on G-Maps looks like this.

In the centre of Cambridge, given what the colleges said about the lack of use of playing fields by their students, I’d like to see the fields of St John’s College turned into a public park.

190613 Cambridge Map StJohnsCollege playing fields as a park

There’s enough space to maintain sports pitches for their use, but given the congestion in town, it’s somewhere that’s about the size of Parker’s Piece and could provide another area of parkland taking some of the pressure off Parker’s Piece, Jesus Green and Midsummer Common. It would also serve as a new public park for West Cambridge.

“Would the Master and Fellows of St John’s College agree to such a move?”

****Heeeelllllllllll No!****

Not in my lifetime anyway (unless that college gets some civically-minded fellows and a such-minded college master). But it provides for an alternative project should they attempt to build on it.

Opening up South Cambridge near some of the new developments.

This is the view on G-Maps of the sports and tennis centre behind the Faculty of Education between Hills Road Sixth Form College and Homerton College.

190613 HRSFC tennis courts as new park

Back in 1924 Homerton College looked like this, with the land the Faculty of Education is now on just behind it.

EPW009790 Homerton College 1924

At the top-left corner is one of the old playing fields of Hills Road Sixth Form College – now built all over. That area that looks like wasteland would become both an industrial unit and a playing field itself before the sports centre & tennis courts were built. At primary school we played football on that open space before it was transformed while I was at secondary school.

Coming back to the existing space…

190613 HRSFC tennis courts as new park

At the bottom left is a ‘tiny little pocket park’ – the concept of which I am against – far preferring larger open spaces that people can play team games on. I’d be tempted to put four of the outdoor tennis courts on the roof of the indoor tennis courts next to them, move the Faculty of Education’s car park underground, and convert that whole space into open park land.

190613 Homerton College Map photo view.jpeg

…the reason being that you have a series of medium-high density blocks of flats (the ‘Magna’ development) plus a private cram college just north of them – by the popular Cambridge Cookery School.

At a more distant view just south of the railway station, you can see more playing fields on both sides of the railway line. These are Cambridge’s ‘southern lungs’ and no, you are not building on them! You can see Homerton COllege at the top right, and just below it a private language college. The road running along the bottom right west-east is Luard Road. A cycle bridge over the railway line could link up with Porson Road and Trumpington Road in the west, taking a fair amount of cycle traffic off of Long Road.

190613 Homerton College Map photo view2.jpeg

The playing fields at the bottom-centre were the ones in the video I referred to as being publicly accessible in my childhood. No longer. Given the development of flats and the private language colleges, plus the expansion of Hills Road, I’d like to think some urban designers could come up with a solution to open those up to the public as public parks without compromising the security of the institutions or those in them.

Replacing real grass with fake grass

One of the institutions at the Local Plan hearings was The Perse Upper School (one of the oldest private schools in the area) – have a listen to their representative here. While making the case that it wasn’t in their interests to reduce their sports facilities, she was questioning the designation of its playing fields as open space (thus barring development).

190613 Cambridge Local Plan Long Road

…but the open space was designated anyway, council planners successfully making the case. Note in recent years there has been the conversion of a large amount of that open grass space into all weather/artificial sports pitches, incorporating about 20 tennis courts.

190613 Perse Map photo view.jpeg

One of the things that has been a persistent public policy issue in Whitehall and Westminster is the role of private schools and the huge problems of inequality in the UK (noting this article from the start of the year). That debate is outside of the scope of this blogpost. What for me is definitely within it is the role that all of Cambridge’s institutions have to play in *increasing* the wellbeing of all of those who make up our city.

In answering that question, I think George Monbiot’s paper for Labour is very timely as it calls on politicians to reappraise the issue of land reform, and to consider land as a collective resource. With the pressures of inequalities, the uncertainties of Brexit and an already-happening climate and ecological crisis, I can’t see how the hoarding of land (especially land with high financial value in urban areas) is going to be sustainable. That then creates a further challenge on how to manage and preserve the high quality landscapes such as the college gardens and The Backs that form part of the Cambridge Conservation Areas.

Everybody hurts

You may have heard the song from 1993.

I’ve tried to avoid the album for years as all too often it takes me down a very depressive spiral that’s emotionally very difficult to get out of. I heard it in a charity shop a couple of days ago having not heard it for over a decade.

And this year’s been difficult

Not just for me – this from Today in Parliament on Men’s mental health.

…and I’ve kinda lost the will to fight the system, so am sort of bumbling along like a bassline riff. Completing assessed essays have been a bit of a challenge to say the least though.

The background mood music is not good – especially in politics

The homophobic attack in Camden, London has upset & unsettled a number of people I know. I wanted to get to the Cambridge Pride event but only managed to get to the end of the road before leg cramps stopped me from going any further. When my spoons capacity falls during mood troughs, my body seems to throw very physical barriers in the way to stop me from moving anywhere. It was the same thing that stopped me from going to the public meeting at an inaccessible place on the future of Cambridge’s Parkside Police Station. (See the report here). Basically I used up all my spoons preparing for a presentation at an all day session at my ICE course at Madingley. I haven’t done much more than sleep for the past three days.

Fighting on too many local fronts

…amongst other things.

On not finding my tribe

I wrote about this back in October 2018. There are a number of events/incidents going back decades where I wonder what the outcomes would have been had there been proper professional help to intervene at times when I didn’t even know such treatments or support existed. This is one of the reasons why some of the comments from some of the leadership candidates for the Conservative Party are so worrying – taking us to some very dark places that involve people being denied knowledge – in particular on sex and relationship education.

On local institutions not growing with me – or our growing population

What I’ve observed in Cambridge in particular since austerity, is the degradation of our civic institutions. This was something Simon Burall mentioned in a monster Twitter stream at a democracy conference earlier. The reason why it matters to Cambridge is that since the year 2000, Cambridge has grown in population by 30,000 – a town the size of Haverhill. It’s due to exceed 140,000 by 2021, and be close to 160,000 by 2036. (Have a look at the data at Cambridgeshire Insight). Hence my persistent calls for:

If anything, we’ve gone backwards.

When I look at our civic institutions, I can’t think of many that bring together town, gown and village all together in one city. Or rather, town, gown, village and visitors. Given the recent and projected growth, we should be doing far better than we currently are. It’s normally at this point I get sand kicked in my face by local politicians, but I guess I have stupdendously high standards and think our city can do far more and far better to get closer to them.

Picking up learning points from my course

I’m now on the psychology element of the sociology/politics/psychology undergraduate module at Cambridge University’s Institute for Continuing Education. One was on being disconnected to a wider community and the impact that has on an individual. It reminded me of this blogpost from last year when I stumbled across some photographs of people I never really got to know during my first year at university. It’s nearly 20 years since I left Cambridge for the first time to go to university.

What if I told you…?

was the theme of this blogpost that sat unpublished for a year before I uploaded it. It cuts through the waffle. I’ve got a ‘to do’ list of things for this summer but something else always seems to crop up that demands my attention. That plus not having the support of local health services doesn’t help. But these days I find being around other people very exhausting, and I can also see that them being with me can also be very draining. Hence retreating into my shell somewhat. Part of it also is not wanting to be hurt again and not wanting to be a burden on others because I’ve lost too many friends and acquaintances in the past during mental health troughs.

Wanting to do something different other than ‘talking about it over coffee’

Strangely enough when I’ve had a really good counsellor (on that very rare occasion) it has worked. But with family, friends & acquaintances all too often I come away feeling like a burden, or rather that the listener hasn’t understood whatever it is that I was supposed to get across. (I waffle too much!)

These days I’d rather do something/go somewhere different – a local historical or visitor attraction – something that has nothing to do with party politics! (The numbers signed up to my Lost Cambridge Meetup Group don’t reflect the numbers who actually turn up to events). At the same time I’m mindful that most other people (esp those of a similar age to me) have got more than enough commitments without wanting to take on any more. That’s why the fight for Cambridge’s future seems to be between the corporate suits and middle-aged to elderly people when you look at who attends which meetings. People under-40 who are not paid to be there are very seldom there because of work and caring commitments. Even in the evenings.

I still don’t really know what recovery looks and feels like – it’s been so long yet time has gone so quickly. It’s been eight years since I left the civil service in the bonfire of austerity. The really sad thing with the continued austerity and inequality – esp on the streets of Cambridge is that we can see so much that needs to be done to improve things, but we can’t access the resources to make the improvements. Such a contrast to when I first moved down to London with the civil service with a real sense of purpose. And I still miss:

  • Music-making in large groups
  • Dance
  • Team sports

Maybe I’ll have fully recovered if/when I’m back doing all of these.