Greater Cambridge Partnership step it up a gear


This is what they should have articulated back in 2014.

The new video from the Greater Cambridge Partnership/City Deal.

…even though some things can be easily lampooned by those of us who have followed the rollercoaster for the past four years.

Now, a lot of credit has to go to local campaigners and campaign groups who have spent a huge amount of time and effort on getting the partnership to this place. Although the map below is a later iteration, Dr Colin Harris of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail Project did a huge amount of research before presenting a map that included where stations could be, and examined comparative costs and methods of financing with other light rail schemes in Europe and beyond.

181214 Cambridge_Connect_Light_Rail_Map.jpg

See for more details.

There was also the Smarter Cambridge Transport campaign, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, Rail Haverhill, the Federation of Cambridge Residents Association, and an alliance of campaign groups in and beyond West Cambridge amongst others who kept on campaigning and persisting – demanding something far better than what was being presented to the city and county.

A very rocky first two years

To be honest, it was painful. I won’t go into details in this post, rather I’ll leave it to the Smarter Cambridge Transport campaign who articulated the issues back in summer 2016.

Part of the frustration I had with everything led me to launch something called “Be The Change Cambridge” in early 2015 to try and articulate some of the issues and get a critical mass of people together to start finding solutions to those problems. One of my biggest criticisms of the general approach to local government in the county was the very weak use of social and digital media in the face of the budgets that they had – and the access to some of the best practitioners of it that I tried repeatedly to introduce them to.

It’s a little painful to watch now, but one chap and a 2010-era mini-camcorder and some very very basic training later and I made the video below.

From February 2015 – Be the change Cambridge. 

With a far bigger budget and professional specialist communications brought in, you can see the difference in impact the most recent Greater Cambridge video has, even if you may have issues with the content and schemes they are promoting.

One slick video and documents pack won’t solve the problems of content

Two years ago, campaigners in and beyond West Cambridge were protesting against one of the more controversial schemes, the Cambourne-Cambridge ‘expressway’ for want of another term.

All these people turned out on a cold December day to protest in 2016.

They had cross-party support as well.

Julius Carrington (Cambridge Conservatives), Cllr Bridget Smith (South Cambs Lib Dems), Stuart Tuckwood (Cambridge Green Party) in December 2016.

They were back again in the autumn of 2017

Another protest against the West Cambridge plans – a video medley..

The party political fallout was brutal – the following year in the 2018 local council elections for South Cambridgeshire, which happen once every four years, the incumbent Conservative Group was crushed by the Liberal Democrats, who took three quarters of all of the council seats on the back of disquiet with the Greater Cambridge Partnership of which at the time the Cambridgeshire Conservatives had the majority of voting seats on the GCP Board. And thus the blame that went with it. Today the seat for South Cambridgeshire now rests with the Liberal Democrats, & Cllr Aidan Van De Weyer.

Closer alignment between the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority

You can see that some incredibly difficult conversations have been had between politicians and officials over the past year – and the working relationships remain as tense as ever given finance and personnel issues with Mayor James Palmer that have been in the news recently. That was before budget issues with Cambridgeshire County Council exploded onto the front pages a couple of days ago.

Finally getting the Greater Cambridge Partnership to agree on the concept of tunnels under the city of Cambridge as part of solving the congestion problem

Originally the message from the early team of officers seemed to be ‘more buses’ was the solution. When the Conservative Government pre-EU-Ref came up with the concept of a county mayor first for East Anglia, and then for Cambridgeshire, there were more than a few concerns on how this would align with the GCP. There still are. But what is a relief from my perspective is that the GCP have come round to agreeing to the concept of tunnels under the city as proposed by Mayor James Palmer during his election campaign of 2016.

With the above, it was the Cambridge Connect Light Rail plans that finally caught the imagination of the people of Cambridge & District (I’m more comfortable with that term as I grew up with it) when it came to ideas for solving the congestion problem. For a lot of us, myself included, we were like: ***Yeah – we want *That* [pointing to map of proposed light rail network]***

I’m still behind Dr Colin Harris’s concept of a light rail underground for Cambridge – one that ultimately extends out to the market towns of Haverhill, St Neots, Newmarket, Ely, St Ives, Chatteris, Sawston, Comberton, and so on within the next 75 years or so – thinking along much longer timescales than many politicians and officials. That’s the historian in me. I’ve examined the history and have noted where decisions taken decades/centuries – even a millennia ago still affect us today.

The financial deadline from The Treasury approaches

Back in June 2018 at a time when political relations were still tense, the Communities Secretary James Brokenshire warned that the next and vital tranche of funding – £400million of it was “Not Guaranteed”, in the face of political disagreement at a local level. (See the report here). I’d like to think that this helped concentrate the minds of all involved. But my criticism remains that historically, Cambridge and actually the whole of England is long overdue a restructure of local government. They used to happen once every decade or two, but we’ve not had one for over 40 years, and many towns and cities have changed significantly since then. In the case of Cambridge, it continues to do so at a very fast pace to the extent that in my view, a unitary authority for Cambridge and District/Greater Cambridge is justified. The party political disagreement is where to draw the boundaries. Conservatives will want enough rural districts that traditionally vote Tory to be included so as to swamp the Labour/Liberal majority that dominates in and around Cambridge.

The Oxford-Cambridge-Arc

Too much of the marketing of both the ancient university cities of England pretends that you’ll have views of the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College Cambridge or the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Private educational institutions in my experience tend to be the worst, pretending that Cambridge has this magic pixie dust that gets sprinkled on you if you just happen to do an expensive course within a given distance of Senate House and King’s College Chapel. But I have to say that this is probably the most laughable example of trying to jump onto ‘brand Cambridge’ – not even in the same county (Clue is in the IP – Ipswich postcode) and taking no account into the traffic jam that is the A14. So once the planned Oxford/Cambridge motorway is built and/or the much needed East West Rail (which I hope goes beyond Oxford westwards to South Wales, and onto Norwich and Great Yarmouth beyond Cambridge), expect to see things like “Oxbridge/Camford college is ideally placed between the two great university cities and benefit from both of them – we’re based in Bedford/Milton Keynes…”

“You’re a cynic you are”

I know. It comes with age. I’m 40 next year.

Note that in the next couple of years, a number of important schemes – in particular cycleways – will have been completed. The Chisholm Trail for me is the big game changer, which I think will not only take more cyclists off the main roads and onto a much safer segregated cycleway travelling north-south through Cambridge next to the railway line, but also generate a far greater number of cycle journeys currently not taken. So it is essential that as soon as the cycleway is opened that the evaluation process is begun very shortly afterwards.








Isabel Hardman at the Cambridge Literary Festival 2018


National politics far too early for a Saturday morning. But I wasn’t going to miss a masterclass from one of my contemporary political heroes.

Several years ago, my jaw metaphorically hit the floor when I got a notification that Isabel Hardman of The Spectator had started following Puffles on Twitter. I had been keeping an eye and ear out for her journalistic output as one of the top political journalists and commentators on the circuit in Westminster.

Political journalism isn’t easy, but to be honest a number of mainstream journalists and institutions have been getting their reputations called into question of late – and understandably so. My persistent call has been for media organisations to be far more transparent about which stories they select to run with, and how they select them. The BBC, given the accountability via the licence, comes in for particular criticism on this front. Interestingly I have found that support staff and journalists the commercial broadcasters have been far more interactive with their viewers than their BBC counterparts.

Too much testosterone in politics and the media

In recent years I’ve started automatically switching off from the long established programmes and personalities in the field. Messrs Humphries and Marr for example are two that I will switch radio or TV channels over. Never having ever been positively disposed towards alpha male aggression in life generally, those sort of confrontations put me off politics – whether at a local, national or international level. Party-political phallus-waving and faux outrage is particularly tedious. Cease with this oxygen thievery!

At the same time, subconsciously I’ve gravitated towards women politicians and journalists in terms of reading their output and listening to their reports – and watching their contributions in the Commons and council chambers. (I’m one of those sad people who goes to council meetings…someone’s got to keep an eye on things).

Stage presence and the ability to ‘command’ an audience or ‘hold the room’.

Very few develop this ability to command the attention of an audience just by being there, or just by speaking a few words. Stella Creasy (pictured below with Puffles in Trafalgar Square several years ago) is one of them.


I’ve seen Stella speak at conferences, in the Commons (on TV) and also at a local workshop she ran in Cambridge a few years ago. There’s something about her tone of voice, pace of delivery, body language and content of what she’s saying that when put together can be extremely powerful and moving.

There are others in the field of politics who also have that presence – Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party is another – I’d love to see her get elected in the not-too-distant future. Her party co-leader, Sian Berry is another – and she’s finally getting some of the national recognition in politics that her hard work over the past couple of decades has merited. Caroline Flint, when as a minister I worked for her in the civil service, was another excellent public speaker who could hold an audience. Jo Swinson for the Lib Dems is another – someone who, for the sake of the Lib Dems in my view needs to step up to the leadership of their party.

Three men and a lady

The lead sponsor of the event was the New Statesman Magazine, which meant half the spaces on stage went to them. For the other two spaces, both David Runciman of the University of Cambridge, and Isabel, are recently-published authors.

Isabel’s book called Why we get the wrong politicians is of particular interest to me because I still haven’t figured out what the best methods are locally of encouraging people to get involved in local democracy, let alone stand for election. I set up the Democracy Cambridge FB page as a means for local people to receive ‘passive updates’ on things that are happening in the hope that people will pick up on things of interest to them, but in the grand scheme of things even a city like Cambridge has huge room for improvement. My take still remains that Cambridge needs to adopt a city-wide approach on a whole host of things. But given how fragmented our public institutions are – all too often for party-political reasons, it’s difficult to see how this will change in the near future.

“What did Isabel have to say?”

Lots – and with good reason. I live-tweeted the event so you can pick up some of the quotations here.

University tuition fees are a classic example of the above. In 1997 the Dearing Review that led to the first tuition fees (that were up front – my A-level cohort being the first generation to pay them) is something that I still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair and New Labour for. (I can carry grudges for a ***very long time*** – and financially at least this was particularly painful). The 2010 Browne Review which brought fees up to the level they are now was a continuation of the theme. Everyone knew what was going to happen: Minister (in this case David Lammy on behalf of Gordon Brown) commissioned Lord Browne of BP-fame to do a ‘review’ – or rather, provide cover for a political decision to raise fees significantly further, and report back just after a general election so that there is maximum time for the electorate to get used to it. Which is what happened. Only the Tories and Lib Dems implemented it.

Having seen one of my younger Twitter followers posting a snapshot of the total amount she owed to her old university being over £50,000…if that were my old undergraduate university sending me such a bill, I’d probably have gone back and burnt the place down &/or had a complete mental breakdown, such was my experience there.

MPs get sent emails from their party whips offices telling them the votes that are happening on a given day, and which way to vote. When the voting bell rings, they trundle through the voting lobbies in Parliament, many without a clue on what they are voting for or against.

…with the inevitable consequences. When in 2010 furious Labour MPs complained about the rise in university tuition fees was being done through a statutory instrument – a much faster procedure, too many of them forgot that they were the ones that had passed the enabling power in an earlier Act of Parliament enabling their political opponents to act in this way in a sleight of hand by Tony Blair’s government in 2004 – one which they used MPs representing Scottish constituencies to get the majority in the Commons to push the vote through, even though Scotland was not affected.

The nature of the system which is so archaic and crafted in language beyond the reach of most people. The rules of Parliamentary procedure – Erskine May is not even available online for free. You need to pay over £300 for your own copy. An attempt to get it published through a Freedom of Information Request failed.

The politicians who have been at the forefront of getting this system changed, from my viewpoint have predominantly been women – in particular Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavillion) and Stella Creasy above.

Isabel has some answers

But you’ll need to read her book to find out what they are.

One thing I’d have liked one of the speakers to have done at the end was to have challenged all of us in the audience to do one small one off action or small behaviour change to help make a difference to the situation that we all find ourselves in. The reason being is that we weren’t the most diverse audience in the world, to put it mildly. It certainly wasn’t a reflection of Cambridge the town, that’s for sure. It was more…

Middle Class is Magical

Because the thing is, if no actions stem from events where we explore a given set of social problems, no difference is made. All that happened is that a group of people from an affluent/connected/academic background had a nice morning session at one of Cambridge’s colleges. And I’d like to think that one of the reasons Isabel wrote her book and took part in the session in Cambridge was to inspire people to take action of some sort to make things better.

Anyway, Puffles is a happy dragon with a signed copy of Isabel’s book – noting that back in 2014 city council elections in Cambridge, 89 people decided that Puffles was not the wrong politician for Coleridge Ward in Cambridge, vanquishing UKIP in the process. (They said they would stand in every city ward, but didn’t. So got zero votes in Coleridge. And got beaten by Puffles).


My DIY results poster for the Coleridge Ward, Cambridge 2014 local council elections

Behind the scenes tour of the Cambridgeshire Collection


It’s worth booking one for yourself to see some of the hidden treasures.

…but you will need to be a small group – ten definitely – possibly five max. Book one here. With thanks to Caroline, Celia and Mary for putting up with me this afternoon!

What percentage of the collection is on public display? Under three percent. If there was ever an argument for expanding the Museum of Cambridge in order to house the collection and city archives amongst other things, that is it. I’d hazard a guess that most competent and passionate archivists would be able to wax lyrical about the hidden treasures of the places they work in and the collections they curate. My argument about the history of Cambridge the town is that too many of our treasures are unknown, hidden away, or lost – demolished in the face of the developers’ wrecking balls.

“The Archive Service is effectively operating at its statutory minimum”

Their words, not mine.

…which explains why there is so little officer capacity to do anything other than run a very basic service. Remember that volunteers and supporters need to be properly managed by permanent staff – which costs money.

Cuts to library services – and protests against them are nothing new

When the first public library was opened in Cambridge, there was no reading room. You looked at a catalogue, picked what you wanted to borrow, the book would be fetched for you and you’d bring it back at a later date.


…which is why supporters of our first borough librarian, John Pink, presented this scroll to councillors pleading with them not to cut the library service in its early days. But with such weak internal partition walls in Grand Arcade/Lion Yard, very little can be hung from the walls. 

Personally I think we should have a big picture of John Pink at the library’s entrance as he was the one who made the service what it is – and why it survives today.

CBG Graphic John PInk Cambridge Library Founder 1900.jpg

Civic legend – John Pink ran the Cambridge Library Service for half a century.

Photographs, negatives and glass plates measured in the millions – digitisation is not straight forward

It’s easy for the likes of David Cameron to say ‘Yay! Big Society!’ but with so much content to go through, you need to have people who know what they are looking for to undertake such a task – and have the time and willpower to actually do it. All too often, one task is dependent on another. Cataloguing is one such unsung task that is essential to researchers. In Cambridge, some noteworthy attempts at this have been done – have a look through to see some examples of photographers in and around Cambridge over the decades. Looking through the chest of draws with the card indexes of one prominent firm of photographers was a sobering reminder of just how big the tasks are of digitising and cataloguing such works.

Gifts from Royalty

“And this was a gift to the library from Queen Mary”

The problem is that there isn’t anywhere suitable to display many of the items on display. As with some of the displays of jewellery at the Fitzwilliam, some items require incredibly specialist rooms, walls and display cases for the public to see them while at the same time protecting the condition and integrity of the items concerned.

Chicken and egg on digitisation

How do you get people interested in something if they don’t know what is in the collection? How do you decide what to digitise and advertise if you don’t know what people will like? It’s a tough one because digitisation alone isn’t the magic wand it can sometimes be promoted as. I learnt about some more better resourced places that had done the digitisation and automated ordering for images, but this had not resulted in a corresponding return on investment. But then a little bit of me was like:

“Yeah – but we’re Cambridge and we have lots of famous people!”

…that plus there are a stack load of images of the colleges from ages ago which, if entries on online auction websites is anything to go by, there’s some milage in digitising the familiar scenes of the big name colleges and chapels.

The hidden histories where digitisation would make a difference on sharing local history

One Victorian surveyor in town took it upon himself to redraw a whole host of historical building plans and present the findings to the Cambridgeshire Collection. Below is one example – the infamous Spinning House.


Police on one side, preachers to the other, there was no escape for the poor women unlawfully locked up in the Vice Chancellor’s private prison.

Clara Rackham’s gift to the library

Clara’s brother-in-law, the illustrator Arthur Rackham, illustrated many a book, including a series of the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Clara, the long-service Labour councillor, suffragist and unilateralist, gifted signed copies of this series to the library and the people of Cambridge.


Above – a snapshot of one of the titles in the set – which don’t come cheap if you want your own original copies.

Show off the colourful stuff

Cambridge, like many other places had adverts like this up all over the place at coronation time. They don’t look big on this page, but these banners are *huge*. It’s only when you see them at full scale do you get to appreciate their size and impact.


Locals to Cambridge and Ely may recognise the Octagon Tower of the cathedral.

For me, it’s the colourful things that are the ones that catch people’s attention. At the same time, it’s got to be part of a strategy of getting people aware of, and invited in to share our collective history. But as I mentioned earlier, a lack of decent shared community exhibition and gallery space is a huge barrier.

And finally….

After over 4 years of bloody warfare on an industrial scale, imagine turning up to work to receive this:


“Huge plans to build metro from Cambridge to Haverhill, Huntingdon and Mildenhall”

…which makes it a public transport system that goes beyond Cambridgeshire – good. But it’s still at the scoping stage. 

The article written by Josh Thomas is here.

Mr Palmer posted the following updates


181106 CAMMetroMapPalmer copy.jpg

Click on the image above to see the additional stops.

I’m still attached to the Cambridge Connect plan.

One of the things that has muddied the picture for over a century with transport and local government is the local government boundaries.


The administrative boundaries of Cambridgeshire County Council from G-Maps show Cambridge, the county town being geographically closer to the likes of Mildenhall, Newmarket, Saffron Walden, Bedford, and Haverhill (the last being one of the largest towns without a railway service) than Wisbech – 40 miles north suffering from economic deprivation for decades with very poor transport links to anywhere.

Addenbrooke’s and the Biomedical Campus in particular need the Haverhill link completed as quickly as possible given the amount of traffic that is on the roads already. How we got to here without the substantial transport investment needed reflects badly on successive national governments and their refusal to provide either resources or powers necessary to have prevented this situation.

Regarding Mildenhall, the future of the airbase is one of the reasons influencing considerations there – alongside the pre-Beeching era railway line (as with Haverhill) long since closed. Discussions on what should be done with the base are already in full flow, and given Cambridge’s housing pressures, following the pattern of building housing on and around former air bases is one of the options.

Mayoral Development Corporations

Looking at the Localism Act cited in Mr Thomas’s article, the Act regarding MDCs only applies to London. Therefore new legislation would be needed to give similar powers to executive mayors in England. Given the time it would take to get a new bill through Parliament, chances are that ministers would look at powers under existing legislation to designate/empower an organisation with the planning powers Mr Palmer speaks of.

Cambridgeshire’s governance remains a mess – and ministers only have themselves to blame


By Smarter Cambridge Transport.

The Greater Cambridge/Greater Peterborough Partnership has since been absorbed into the Combined Authority’s infrastructure. Yet as I’ve said before, Cambridgeshire – and England generally is long overdue a comprehensive restructure of local government, the last one being in the mid-1970s.

Cambridge – close to the borders of Herts, Beds, Suffolk and Essex

When I was at sixth form college in the late 1990s I was struck by the number of students who had to cross county boundaries to do courses at places that for me were within walking distance. They were out of the door before 7am while I could be still in bed at 8.30am even though we both had classes starting at 9am.

Any Mayoral Development Corporation looking at significantly improving transport in and around Cambridge beyond the villages will need to have powers extending to some of the nearby larger towns over the county boundary – Haverhill being one of the more significant of these. At the same time, one of the areas that really needs improved transport links is east and north east of Cambridge – in particular the upgrading of existing branch lines.

Some areas are inevitably outside of the Mayor’s legal competency – such as dealing with Freight on the A14. Not a day seems to go by without reports of an accident on it. It’s also not new.

CEN 19951003 Hunts A14.jpg

Above – from 1995. Nearly a quarter of a century later and we still have similar headlines.

It remains to be seen if the proposed East West Rail will form part of the solution to the A14’s problems. The maps on this web page showing mid-2000s rail traffic highlight thinking around freight-only rail lines – freight being far heavier than passenger trains (which in the grand scheme of things are metal tubes full of people rather than wagons full of materials and liquids) do more damage to rail tracks. At the same time, freight services don’t need to be nearly as frequent as passenger services. Hence different repair regimes/schedules could be possible.

“Will Mr Palmer get the funding and powers?”

Parliament had an inquiry on land value capture – one of the means of funding this – you can read their report here. We await ministers’ responses to this. Otherwise it’s issuing bonds against future fare revenue, or waiting for the Treasury to open its purse strings again. And thus we are back to the same problem of Cambridge not being able to tap into the wealth it is generating for the economy to re-invest in much needed infrastructure.


Cambridgeshire Conservatives to sell off Shire Hall, Cambridge


What will become of this very historic site in Cambridge City, where the Conservatives have no councillors?”


Please note the clarification from the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Steve Count:

The Conservative Party seems to have a love-hate relationship with the City of Cambridge in recent decades. Historically, Cambridge Borough used to be a safe Conservative seat – so safe that they were able to parachute Sir Eric Geddes in as our MP a century ago without so much as a grumble. The high point for borough Conservatives was in the interwar era when the number of people turning up to their summer fete at the Gog Magog Hills opposite Wandlebury near Addenbrooke’s would easily exceed 10,000 people.

380802 Cambridge Conservatives Fete The Gogs Crowds.jpeg

From the Cambs Collection, over 10,000 people rock up to the annual Cambridge Conservatives’ Summer Fete. Note back then, Cambridge County was administratively much smaller – encompassing what is now South Cambs today.

The Implosion of the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Party

In the late 1970s, Cambridge Conservatives ran Cambridge City Council with 24 councillors. By the Millennium this number was down to two. (See the decline in this diagram by the late Colin Rosenstiel). There is a Ph.D thesis/mega research project waiting for a political historian to study and conclude how and why this happened.

In more recent times, a number of public buildings and services have come under threat –

…despite ministers telling anyone who will listen about how important Cambridge is to the national economy. (90% of business rates collected by the city council are surrendered to The Treasury for redistribution to more economically deprived areas – one of the sticking plasters from the early 1990s to deal with the mess of the Poll Tax policy that has stuck with us).

Cambridgeshire archives

The decision to move the archives out of the city was met with much anger in local history circles – not least because of the way plans to move the archives to a new heritage centre by the railway station (that article from 2005) were abandoned in very controversial circumstances – ones that hit the national news not so long ago. The decision to move the county archive out of the county town caused some problems for Cambridge City Council, who moved its archive into the county’s after the restructure of local government in the 1970s meant libraries and archives moved from district to county councils.

Cambridge Magistrates Courts

The Conservatives in government have tried to close Cambridge’s Magistrates Courts – something that South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen opposed (See here) and ultimately abandoned by the Courts Minister, Lucy Frazer MP for South East Cambridgeshire who found herself with this particularly tricky item on her table shortly after being appointed as Courts Minister.

Cambridge’s Crown Post Office

Now privatised although threatened with renationalisation under a prospective Labour government, Cambridge’s main post office (which always seems busy and full of tourists whenever I need to go in there for anything) is under threat. With a strong trade union tradition in the postal services, Labour MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner has backed the campaign to save it. Given that it is such a short distance from nearly all of the major bus routes into the city centre, the accessibility point is well made.

And now Shire Hall

While I think it reflects extremely badly on the Conservative Party as a whole to be moving the county council’s HQ outside of the county town as a matter of principle (the same would apply to any other political party doing the same), my main concern now is what happens to the Castle Hill site.

I’ve made the case repeatedly that the site should remain in council ownership, but if they really wanted/needed the income, to sell a long term lease to a hotel company to create a historically-themed hotel along with additional office accommodation.

[Updated to read:]

As per the clarification here and at the top, it is still the intention to lease the site – though a complete disposal of the site has not been ruled out.

However, there is nothing on official Cambridgeshire County Council’s website, or social media feeds clarifying that it was a long term lease available. Ditto on Strutt and Parker’s website – the agents appointed by the County Council. Hence making it harder for anyone to know the difference – all the public are seeing is the risk that a very historical site where Cambridge was near as dammit founded, is being privatised and turned into student flats or something that will bar off the general public – irrespective of whether it is true or not. Read the Cambridge Independent here for more.

“Who’s interested in the sale of the site?”

One firm is already getting excited about the prospect of more student flats.

…which would be the effective privatisation of another public building. The above reaction from Puffles was one of the more polite and muted ones compared to others I’ve seen.

Museum of Cambridge Castle Hill Satellite

The one thing to note is that the two car parks at road side of the site, plus the green, are now protected open spaces in the new Local Plan. Any new owner would be barred from developing/building on them. Then there is the Castle Mound listed historical monument which they cannot touch.

“Does this mean a possible heritage attraction won’t happen?”

For me, the worst case scenario is turning the site over to an ‘apart hotel’ operator – which, along with one web-based brand have become unpopular with local residents as guests are not supervised and can become hotspots for anti-social behaviour. But it would be a minimum cost, maximum profit operation for an unscrupulous developer. None of the hassle of running a hotel, but the benefits of being able to charge per night rather than per term. Note that the Castle Park building – formerly council offices, are already student accommodation.

“What should be done about Shire Hall?”

I’m not going to go into the politics behind the decision – that’s for a separate post at some future date. Note a couple of years ago I made some experimental videos exploring some of the history of the town – and started off outside Shire Hall.

The full playlist of videos is here

For me, it’s perfectly viable to combine a new heritage attraction – in my case an expanded Museum of Cambridge, along with a boutique hotel aimed at the upper end of the market rather than the mass market or student accommodation, while having office and restaurant accommodation incorporated in part of that redevelopment. This could include a rooftop cafe/bar with even better views than The Varsity’s Rooftop Terrace. The views are splendid but unfortunately at huge cost to the privacy to local residents in the centre of Cambridge, and also the terrace ruins the view of St John’s College from Jesus Green.

“Where would the museum expansion go?”

Where the car parks are

“Hang on – aren’t they now protected?”

They are, but it’s easier to make the case for the car parks to be designated for a heritage development in a future local plan if it involves rebuilding something that was already there in the first place. In this case it is the old magnificent Victorian Assizes Court build in the mid 1800s.

Above – models and photos of the old Assizes Court on Castle Hill, Cambridge. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.

“What will decisions come down to?”

For me, it’ll be purely rational and cold-blooded – for all of the emotion that could get thrown into it. Which one guarantees the county council the most money based on the criteria that they come up with for the sale. One of those criteria is about the heritage aspect of it – as they confirmed in a response to a public Q I tabled earlier this year.

“Who in their right mind goes to meetings of the Commercial and Investment Committee of their local council during the working day?!?”

“What might a solution look like that will placate all concerned?”

For me, a partnership between Cambridge City Council, some of the colleges, and a crowd-funding campaign targeting those firms and organisations that have been in Cambridge a long time, along with any philanthropists, would be ideal. That way, both town and gown have a financial stake in one of the most historic sites in the city – from where the Romans and the Normans rocked up, to where much of the river trade passed,  the place where the Great Suffrage March in 1913 marched past – (Sat 19th of July 1913 to be precise – read the report here), and the place where the Cambridgeshire Regiment was to make its final stand against an invading army during the dark days of the early 1940s.

Cambridge Defences WWII

Above – from the County Archive, the WW2 defence plan for Cambridge against the nazi invaders.

Note the boundary between E and A company of the 5th Btn Cambridgeshire Regiment (Home Guard), with A Company guarding the section between the railway line and Newmarket Road. Now you know why the ice rink being built there got delayed.

“Can the heritage be protected and even enhanced?”

My heart says ‘yes but’…and my head says ‘no…but…’

To give such a bid any chance of success, a consortium led or chaired by someone credible (i.e. not me – because Puffles) who can command the confidence of local government, the colleges, the local historical community, and beyond. How we go about putting that group together… I am all ears. Email me if you have any ideas and/or want to be involved in a response – antonycarpen [at] gmail




When nothing edible can fill the emptiness inside me

…and when eating a big tube of jellytots makes things worse!

Following on from my last blogpost – and thank you to those of you who took time to respond, if you remember one thing from this post, it’s not to eat a tube full of jellytots. You get a sugar rush that needs far too much fibre-based foods to combat. Yet growing up I can’t recall times when I was conscious of different foods affecting my mood.

Following a morning of filming Heidi Allen’s Brexit event in Cambourne (videos here) followed by a champagne tea at Homerton College for their 250th Birthday, I came away with the familiar sensations of having been in crowded rooms full of people yet completely and utterly disconnected from them at the same time. The first time I had heard of this as a concept was in the mid-1990s when The Levellers wrote JulieWhat I didn’t know at the time was that a few years later I’d move down to the town where the band formed – in Brighton. It would be a full decade after first hearing their music that I’d see them live – at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2004.

“Oh – it’s Puffles!” 

Heidi introduced me to the packed hall as I brought in my filming kit – telling the audience that the event was being filmed. (Not everyone likes being on camera at political events – even ones that are open to the public, hence why this is important). As I made my way through to the back of the hall, I could hear people whispering in hushed tones:

“Oh! It’s Puffles!” 

In some parts of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire and London I’m more known for the escapades of my tweeting dragon Puffles. The dragon’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but in recent times I’ve been getting more comments about why I’m not taking the dragon out and about.

“How does a person feel disconnected and empty inside, while having ***over seven thousand social media followers***??!?”

Those around in Puffles’ early days have often commented that social media felt a lot more friendlier back then than today. In the early 2010s every so often I’d host pub lunches in London for social media friends who had not met up face-to-face before. What struck me at the time with those was how the conversations seemed to have a natural flow to them – as if everyone had known each other for years even though they had not met face-to-face before.

Eventually I was no longer able to sustain hosting them – a train ticket and a pub lunch in London doesn’t leave much change from £50, and few people were willing to spend that much to make the return journey. While finance is less of an issue now, it’s health and confidence that are my barriers. It’s only when you’ve experienced the sensation of heart-related chest pains that put you in A&E that as a chronic worrier you end up second-guessing every bodily ache or pain. I cannot begin to tell you how draining that is.

Your life through the eyes of other people

In the process of a clear-out of things, I stumbled across a host of photos from my first couple of years at university – mainly of other people long gone from my life who I never knew for long anyway, and a handful of me. All I see of myself in those photos is just how ill and gaunt I looked – something that obviously reflects badly on myself but also of the institutions that should have intervened but never did. Photos of me in pre-social media age are actually quite rare – from my early teens I made it my business to stay out of photographs because of incredibly low self-esteem combined with being horrified at the results of photographs that were actually taken of me.

The really sad thing in all of the sets of photos – most of which will be binned because most were from visits to other places with people who I was only with for a few weeks at most, is that none of the groups of people from one set to another knew each other, and never stayed in touch. The people from the visit to Athens in 2000 were not the same group in Istanbul in 2001, for example. The same is true for everything after I graduated. The people I got to know through one activity or place of employment never crossed paths with another – despite my various efforts at the time. It was like oil and water – you can bring them together but they shall not mix.

Five years ago I made the observation that no one had been through the series of life experiences good and bad from the point of view of being by my side. (See the subtitle A life story through one pair of eyes only). When you’re at school and college, you have dozens of people sharing the same experiences as you in the same classrooms – even though your individual reactions to said experiences are inevitably different.

“I can’t go back – only forward”

One of the responses to my previous blogpost included the above. The nature of Cambridge (the town) today is one that has a destabilisingly high transient population. Thirty years ago this part of South Cambridge had such a lack of movement that it sort of became stale. From one extreme to another.

The response was in the context of being an integral part of a community group but for various reasons moving onto new projects and feeling that trying to go back for that same experience as several years ago wouldn’t be right – and wouldn’t feel right. This is my experience with dance lessons in central Cambridge, where at the invitation of a couple of acquaintances I’ve started once-per week just to get some exercise in. But I’m under no illusions – this is not the same set up of 2002-04 that I’m going back to, despite a handful of vaguely familiar faces. It’s a much smaller operation now – about half the size it was at its 2005 peak.

“You’ve not danced the Viennese Waltz for over seven years? That means you’re really good at it”

…when someone in far better shape than me grabbed me to dance the above on Friday night.

There’s a bit of me that really wants ‘to feel what being physically fit feels like again’ yet at the same time given age and health I don’t know if I could hack such an exercise regime that -given my poor mental health would leave little left for any other activity. But one thing that will always stay with me from the decade that I loathe to call the Noughties, is the sensation of dancing with someone who instantly connects with you on the dance floor. By that I mean you have this unexplained telepathic understanding of being able to lead/follow your fellow dance partner. This side of leaving the civil service I can’t recall ever experiencing that sensation dancing with anyone where you can almost close your eyes and have everything blurring into the background as the two of you move effortlessly around the floor, zero collisions.

When being permanently exhausted seems like a new found shyness

One or two people mentioned this over the years as well as recently. It’s all mental health-related, and in particular the sensation of no longer having the internal strength to fight the incessant worry chatter of what one friend calls her ‘mind weasels’. Or for those of you familiar with Spoon Theory, it’s a bit like knowing you could energetically participate in something knowing it’ll eat into your allowance of spoons for the next day/week and thus you’ll have to pay for it at some point in the future by lying in bed recharging your internal batteries. Back in the day when I did basic social media and public policy consulting, for every day at work I’d need to spend a day crashed out recharging. Two days in a row full on would be three days recharging. Hence I have no idea how people working in schools and hospitals manage on such full-on timetables. So if it looks like I’m taking a bit of a back seat at something, know that this is me pacing myself rather than being an unwilling/disinterested participant.









I never found my tribe


On trying to make sense of my past forty years.

Because next year I hit the big four zero.

The manner in which many of us who left the civil service in 2010/11 in the early years of austerity is something that will stick with me for a very long time. Having politicians tearing your profession to bits while being constitutionally barred from speaking out wasn’t fun. The creation of Puffles the Dragon Fairy on Twitter was one way of dealing with this.

When I joined the civil service in 2004 I remember having a sense of relief from the stability that a full time job in the field I thought I’d spend the rest of my working life in. In December 2006 I remember feeling an incredible sense of pride and relief having been informed of my passing of the Fast Stream Assessment Centre. The only other time I felt anywhere near that sense of pride/relief was with my GCSE results some ten years previous.

But there was no continuity

As a light reader of political and historical biographies, one common theme with many of them is the cohort of people who surround them from a relatively early age all the way through into retirement. Even now, studying the women who made modern Cambridge, Clara Rackham and Florence Ada Keynes had a partnership that effectively lasted half a century.  Yet I never experienced that.

I remember post-GCSEs being told that I had gotten into one of the best state sixth form colleges in the country. In the early days there I wondered who would be the people who would go onto be stupendously successful with their names in the bright lights and in the newspaper headlines. It was only later on that I found out that ‘success’ did not mean what I thought it did, and that as teenagers in South Cambridge, too many of the things we were told by the generation above us were the result of group think and peer pressure.

Life on a piece of paper

It goes something like this:

“Born – nursery – good school – great college – top university – graduate job – marry – children – retire – die.”

…even though I knew I wanted something far more – something that could nourish my soul in a way that going to church every Sunday was doing the exact opposite of.

I could have done something far more productive and beneficial than going to church every Sunday

Paraphrasing what comedian Ed Byrne said with his experience of having to go to church as a child, I take the same view. Yet even in the 1980s churches still had a strong hold – far stronger than today. It’s only looking back now that I can see just how divisive as institutions they were to us as a group of children trying to grow up together.

When I was finally able to break away from religion during my first year at university, no one realised just how difficult a move that was. They still don’t now. Institutionally we have nothing to support people who choose to break away from religion – one that may well have been embedded in the school that they went to. (Hence my opposition in principle to faith-based schools). It’s not simply a case of no longer having a routine of doing the same thing every Sunday morning, but making a substantive break away from a group of people many of whom you’ve know for a large portion of your life. It’s the equivalent perhaps of leaving a political party having been an active volunteer for a long time, or leaving a charitable group or campaigning organisation – a group of people with similar beliefs (or so you assumed) who you spent time with on a regular basis over a long period of time.

Not knowing I was suffering from a medical condition

It was my college years that, looking back, I really could have done with someone stepping in and ensuring I got proper medical treatment for the depression and anxiety I was suffering from. It’s straight-forward for me now to identify particular incidents where I can say ‘Yep – that was my anxiety talking’ or ‘Oh – that was my depression in action there.’ But even as recently as the late 1990s the impact of the failings of a number of institutions and individuals (myself included) is still striking. The direct impact was no longer staying in contact with people who I had known from childhood.

Anxiety makes you needy and intense…and the more friends pull away from you the worse that intensity and neediness becomes…and so the cycle gets worse and worse. And this has been the story of my life for as long as I can remember. And because this wasn’t nipped in the bud when it could and should have been (or – made even worse, in particularly by the rules of some of the institutions), the negative impact has been huge.

Not settling at University

One of the biggest negative impacts on my health at university was instability of housing. It never got anything out of me being there because as an institution we were just numbers. As with many universities in the 1990s, it had expanded its student numbers without building the necessary student accommodation to house them. They also had not put in place the services to ensure all students could find accommodation in the private sector with the minimal of stress. Had I had the courage I probably would have dropped out of university at the end of the first time/start of the second, saying it wasn’t working for me. But I didn’t have the courage. Lack of courage is my biggest moral failing and will remain so for the rest of my life. All the bad decisions I’ve made in life can be reduced down to that point.

The really sad thing with my time at university – especially when compared to that big institution that dominates my home town – is that I never met or made any friends for life. In fact I can only think of three people who I would later meet up with again at a future point. But they are all long gone now.

Trying too hard in the civil service

In the old Government Office for the East of England, the institution had a habit of filling its then annual intake of new civil servants at junior admin level with large numbers of young, talented and restless graduates. For jobs that required 5 GCSEs, about half would be taken by people with degrees. This meant that there was an imbalance between the senior management who started in the civil service of typing pools with a group of people who were familiar with using the internet in an academic, if not a working environment. To give you an example, one senior director insisted his PA printed out all of the emails he received for him to deal with them. (He retired less than a year later following a restructure).

The organisational restructure that decimated the ranks of young junior officers (while increasing the corps of senior managers that would ultimately be scrapped by Pickles and all) did away with what I thought could have become that relatively stable if not particularly exciting work place. I had spent the previous two years having thrown myself into a host of extra-curricular work-based things (because essentially I was under-employed in my comms role that I was paid for, and didn’t want to bum around being useless during the day). Yet in my heart of hearts I knew I wasn’t ‘connecting’ with the people I worked with at the level I really wanted to.

The same happened when I moved to London – trying too hard. I wanted to get to a stage where the people who I worked with were the people who I socialised with. Yet despite the positive disposition and volunteering for stuff, with hindsight I tried too hard. And burnt out.

Trying too hard as a symptom of anxiety and insecurities

One of the things I’ve struggled with for ages is getting to and from places. The only time at a local level it wasn’t really a problem was during my civil service days in Cambridge because I cycled everywhere at a time when I was physically fit – being able to get from the town centre back home nearly three miles away in the late evening in fifteen minutes. Flying through the darkness in the highest gear on my bike with a sense of effortlessness after 3-4 hours of dance classes in the evening following a day at work was normal at that time. I couldn’t do it now.

No long lasting friends despite the years of volunteering and helping out – in Cambridge, Brighton, London & beyond.

That’s one of the things that, with all things taken into account, leaves me feeling empty inside. Other people have come in and found their tribes and settled in whichever group, collective or organisation I happened to be in…but I never did. Why not? Why were they successful where I was not?

It’s too late now to change things or go back

This is sort of where I am now in my mind – a social creature living a solitary life involuntarily. I was people-watching at an event not so long ago, observing who knew whom, conscious in my mind that I didn’t really know anyone there. I was pondering on what the life and career paths of all of these people were, and on what kept them in touch with each other, and how this compared to decades and centuries gone by of their predecessors in this town of ours (Cambridge).

Hitting the big four-zero next year also means being in a cohort that I’m assuming for the many involves settling down and having children. But not for me. I’ve taken a conscious decision on the basis of my health that I could never cope with being a parent. My suspected heart attack of 10 months ago hit me like a ton of bricks, and made me realise that actually I have much less time left than I perhaps had assumed I had. That plus never being able to afford my own place in Cambridge in the short-medium term, and not being able to work full time anymore…you have to make a huge number of adjustments both physical and in terms of mindset.

Hence taking risks (including financial ones) with Lost Cambridge

I’m investing some of the proceeds of the sale of my share in an inherited property into my work on the history of Cambridge – not least because if I don’t do it now, I never will. And if I don’t, who else will? Those of in the field all have our different approaches. Alan Brigham has his tours, while Fonz has his radio show, while Mike Petty is undertaking a huge digitisation program, and Honor Rideout runs the Cambs Association for Local History. To give a few examples. And that’s before mentioning the Museum of Cambridge, and the Cambridgeshire Collection. They have all been around in this field for a lot longer than I have, and have done far more. I’m a relative newcomer.

But what we’re not is this well-supported, well-resourced dynamic team of historians sharing the story of this small but great city of ours, based in a place or building that when people enter into it go ***Wow!***.

It’s somewhere I’d like Cambridge to get to – and maybe one day it will. Just not within my lifetime.






On presenting Cambridge’s women heroes to our city


Facing the public with some of the results of my research on the women who made modern Cambridge.

I gave a talk about some of the women I’ve been researching about as part of an evening on all things Radical Mill Road, for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2018, hosted by the Mill Road History Society.

The lighting made things hard work for my camcorder, but so long as you can hear the audio and sort-of-see-the-slides it should be OK.

My talk was the third of the three talks, Deborah Thom and Mary Burgess delivering excellent presentations before. For those of you interested in the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage movement, Mary, Celia and Caroline at the Cambridgeshire Collection have collated a series of documents and items from this time. Furthermore, we now have a wonderful introduction to what the women of Cambridge achieved, in Sue Slack’s new book on the Cambridge Women and the struggle for the vote – available now.

A new local history meetup group

Not so long ago, I started a local history Meetup Group – Lost Cambridge with the aim of bringing new audiences to the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Central Library. This is because the Conservative-led Cambridgeshire County Council confirmed to me in response to a public question that they are running the county’s archive services at their statutory minimum.

Above – Cambridgeshire County Council full council July 2017.

Two years ago I also asked a question about the digitising of the county archives – this from December 2016. So it’s not as if what I’ve been doing has come out of the blue. The big picture funding decisions are outside of the scope of this blogpost, but given the realities of the situation, securing new independent funding streams for our archive services has to be a priority while the politicians fight things out over county budgets.

Learning a harsh historical lesson or two

When the heart of Cambridge town was ripped out in the comprehensive redevelopment of the Lion Yard in the early 1970s, the long-promised new concert halls and music centre never materialised. Below is a map from “The Cambridge That Never Was” by Francis Reeve – Oleander Press 1976.

180930 Gordon Logie in Reeve_2 1960s.jpg

Fast forward to the mid-late noughties and private developers ran rings around Cambridge’s planners and councillors in Cambridge Railway Station/CB1 to ensure we did not get the promised heritage centre for our county archives – now moving out to Ely, leaving local people fuming. This article in The Guardian went viral. Recently it was picked up by the CreateStreets Twitter feed. Finally, the new Housing Minister had his say:

…which sparked things off locally again.

This matters personally to me because all of this historical research started after spotting some old photographs of long-since-demolished buildings in Cambridge – which turned into a series of short videos titled: Cambridge – the shaping of our city in 2016. (Part of it was also a means of getting away from national and party politics following the EU Referendum!)

Interestingly, my concerns with the present day and recent decades have been around preserving our historical town heritage (which we’ve not been at all successful on), while the likes of Eglantyne Jebb, Florence Ada Keynes, Leah Manning and co were primarily concerned with poverty, its symptoms, causes, and solutions to. On the latter, slum clearances were a significant policy tool as the size of local, and then national government grew. What matters with all of those women is that they had a positive vision for the future of Cambridge, were persistent in their campaigning… And. They. Won.

But something didn’t happen after the Second World War

The prominence of those high profile campaigning women in Cambridge for whatever reason did not carry through into the post-war years, and the successes of the women in the pre and interwar era did not embed itself into our civic consciousness. The centenary of Votes for Women has given us a huge opportunity to put things right – hence the importance of books like Sue Slack’s.

The power of images.

Since getting hold of a new big printer, I have been printing out a number of large images from the archives and bringing them along to a number of public talks. One of those was a very recent meeting of the Cambridge City Council’s full council, where I showed a number of A2 print outs to councillors of the women councillors and activists from a century ago in the Palmer Clark archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

My suggestion prior to Cllr Anna Smith’s response was to have those prints expanded to A0 and displayed in the large assembly hall on the guildhall site – especially as the only portrait of a woman displayed is that of Queen Victoria.

The other poster that Cllr Smith referred to was the one below.

181017 Cambridge Colleges MuseumofCamb Poster.jpg

It’s an original from we think 1957 and it was for sale online at a not cheap price. When the Museum of Cambridge said the price was beyond their means (recall their funding crisis a year ago) …and not wanting to lose this historic piece to someone or somewhere else, I asked the art dealer to knock 20% off of the asking price on the grounds that I was acquiring it for the Museum of Cambridge, and arranged to have it delivered directly to the Museum.


As you can see, the poster is ***Huge*** – at the Museum of Cambridge

The point of all of these large images is that people have been genuinely moved by the large scale reproductions. Such as today at Newnham College.

Her biography is being published in November 2018.

Art and music on the women who made modern Cambridge.

My first commissioned piece of artwork has arrived – this being a portrait of Frida Stewart/Knight by Maxine Moar.

181018 Frida Stewart Max Moar.jpg

Frida Stewart – above, by Maxine Moar, and below from the book Rosie’s War by Rosemary Say who escaped with Frida from a wartime prison camp in WW2


Frida Stewart – a Cambridge woman of action.

I’ve also got two very talented local song writers commissioned who are in the process of writing songs of the Cambridge women of their choice, both of which are due for publication in early 2019. One local musician who has already written her own track separately on the struggle for votes for women is Flaming June.


Multiple stories need many people and multiple media with which to share them and embed them in our city’s civic consciousness.

Talking to one senior council officer recently, he commented that he didn’t even know the names of the historically significant men councillors past, let alone the women – which I said spoke volumes about how we as a city were completely ignoring our local civic and social histories. Go into any major bookshop in town and you’ll find in the history section lots of books written by men about men. For whatever reason, military history takes precedence over all other forms of history in bookshops, even though modern warfare is an incredibly destructive force – while social history primarily covers how we collectively improved the lives and livelihoods of humanity. Isn’t there something to be said about promoting and celebrating our civic heroes too?

Given the number of people who were active in and around Cambridge at this time, researching and presenting the stories and experiences of the women who made modern Cambridge is beyond the capabilities of one person. There is simply too much material to cover in order to know which bits to select as highlights in order to give the new reader the freedom to select which ones if any, to do further reading on.

In discussions earlier today with a couple of academics in this field, I mentioned that in terms of research, my ideal set up would be working as part of a research team where one or two very senior women academics specialist in this field were the chairs / champions of us group of researchers – one where there is a soft structure to work within, networks to tap into and channels by which to share our research, ones that go far beyond the traditional publishing of academic papers to historical journals. (For example using art, music and drama as mentioned above).

Finally, my personal preference in all of this research is that it is led by a woman – and one who has the confidence of those working with her. I’m not the person to lead it – I have neither the experience, expertise, calibre of persona, aptitude nor the health to be able to deliver on something that could become an extended program lasting many years given the potential there is with the material that I know is out there.

If you know anyone who is interested in getting involved – especially early career researchers, drop me an email at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com.




On the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review – no Localgov Restructure?


The elephant in the room remains untouched by the report despite welcome measures such as calls for public transport investment, long term market town strategies, and a powerful voice for Fenland, one of the most economically deprived areas despite close geographical proximity to Cambridge.

You can read the report here – click on one of the tiny orange arrows to the bottom right.

The dragon wasn’t impressed by the lack of a clear demand for a streamlined system of governance following years of tinkering with structures on the back of political envelopes.

Cambridgeshire 1945

The above map (dating from 1945) from the history of local government in and around Cambridge from 1959 (which I’ve digitised here – have a look at ***all of the wonderful maps!***) is one of my favourite as it gives an example of what a series of unitary councils might look like. The table below in Annex 1 is actually a very important table as it summarises who has what powers in Cambridgeshire.

180923 Cambs Localgov Powers Table_1180923 Cambs Localgov Powers Table_2180923 Cambs Localgov Powers Table_3

“The review had a huge remit – there was only so much they could have said about governance”

Overall there are 27 recommendations – 14 main ones, 13 subsidiary ones, which for any official report is a huge number. Interestingly it’s the last one – the last of the subsidiary recommendations that may catch the attention of regular bus users in Cambridge (of which I am one – and a founding member of this new group) is that they have called for Mayor James Palmer to use his powers of bus franchising. Many have been calling for him to do this for quite some time – despite the main bus operator, Stagecoach, having big reservations with it. In the grand scheme of things it’ll hit their profits. Andy Campbell of Stagecoach has always been clear at public meetings that he will not run bus routes that are run at a loss unless someone subsidises them.

Above – dragon goes several stages further. And given the current political climate, renationalisation is being discussed not just at national but in local political circles. This from last year at the general election hustings in Great Shelford.

Dan Greef (Labour – South Cambs) responding to a question on nationalisation at the General Election 2017 hustings at Gt Shelford Hall. 17 May 2017.

“Why is governance such a big issue?”

One of the reasons why ‘the business community’ is reported in political circles to favour executive mayors is because there is a direct point of contact to lobby to get what they want or need. The problem is that England has a very long history of having civic mayors. Cambridge has had a mayor (with fluctuating degrees of powers) for the best part of 800 years. Not something to be thrown away lightly. Peterborough too has a civic mayor. Thus there has been confusion with some dignitaries from other countries unfamiliar with the civic leader they are dealing with – assuming that our civic mayors have executive powers (they don’t) and/or mistaking the executive county mayor (currently Mr Palmer) for being the mayor of the cities of Cambridge and Peterborough respectively. (He isn’t). That’s not Mr Palmer’s fault, that’s the fault of ministers who rushed the policy development of executive mayors.

The current set up of local government causes far too much confusion for citizens and businesses – this review could have taken the opportunity to call for structures to be simplified.

Ask any of the business representatives who have been to local government meetings in Cambridge and more than a few will tell you that some, such as the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly can make you lose the will to live – especially as they trundle on into their third or fourth hour.

I put it in the context of the nominal hourly rate the individuals around the Assembly table get paid, or would have gotten paid if it were at a consultancy rate. And then asked the question whether politicians and officials had gotten value for money out of all of the people who were around the very large set of tables. Which in part is why I’m not a fan of big meetings that last for ages with lots of people where only one person gets to speak at a time. In my civil service days, 90 minutes was the maximum my teams would aim for, knowing that if they went above 2 hours, people would lose concentration. Given the importance of the issues at stake, not something you want to have happening.

Reducing duplication

There’s far too much of it in the current structure – and as a result it costs time and money, not just for the organisations, but for the media who report from said meetings and for the public who want to keep up with who is saying what. The problem is that the Review has taken the existing structures as a given rather than asking some essential questions as to whether the geographical area for a single county-wide mayoralty is the right one, and whether the current arrangements for scrutiny and accountability with the Combined Authority as is, are suitable in order to safeguard public money.

Separating the party political from the propriety and governance issues

The ballot box thumping the residents of South Cambridgeshire gave the Conservatives at the local elections this year made things a little bit more complicated for the Conservative majority on the Combined Authority – and completely removed the Conservative working majority on the Greater Cambridge Partnership. The latter, for which Cllr Lewis Herbert, Labour’s leader of Cambridge City Council, is the only member of the Board who has been there from the first meeting. Yet he had no say in the creation of the Partnership/City Deal as it was put together when the Liberal Democrats controlled Cambridge City Council.

The Conservatives have chopped and changed their board members, with only former Cllr Francis Burkitt taking a very proactive stance as both a member and a chairman compared with his party colleagues. While I didn’t agree with Cllr Burkitt, nor his party’s policies, he always struck me as a competent chairman, prepared to ask difficult questions, overturn officer advice when it was warranted, and face the media on controversial issues. I got the sense that people knew where they stood with him. In the early days of 2014/15, I felt that Cllr Herbert was carrying along the entire project alone.

The election of the Liberal Democrats with such a big majority on South Cambridgeshire District Council (one that will be there for up to the next four years give or take a boundary change) means that Liberal Democrat Cllr Aidan Van De Weyer, the representative for South Cambs, faces a huge test trying to make the Partnership work with the manifesto that he and his party colleagues were elected on earlier this year.

Finally, recent personnel changes in the Combined Authority by Mayor Palmer have been in the headlines of late, with both Cllr Herbert and the new leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith, calling for an independent review into the departure of the Combined Authority’s chief executive. The question is whether the other leaders of the county’s district councils – all Conservatives, will support such a call. Given what I’ve seen of past meetings, I doubt this will happen. Again, the fault is in the design – the Combined Authority Board being one aimed at getting the leaders of different political parties representing different areas to work together.

Politically polarised district councils

Cambridge City Council has zero Conservative councillors – a constitutional outrage in some traditionalist circles

East Cambridgeshire District Council has zero Labour councillors, and only three Liberal Democrat Councillors – and one independent. The other 35 councillors are all Conservative.

Fenland District Council has zero Labour councillors – despite it having once been a Labour-controlled council in the 1990s. How and why that party imploded remains a mystery.

With the above in mind, is there something about the electoral system that means large numbers of people are not being adequately represented? Whether that’s the 10,000 or so Conservative voters in the general election inside Cambridge City, to the 17,000 voters who voted for Labour in South East Cambridge (covering much of East Cambs DC).

What about retraining of workers?

One of the best articles I’ve read on this issue is by the finance and economics writer Frances Coppola – The Bifurcation of the Labour Market.

“Business re-engagement with the growing “shanty town” of low-skilled, poorly paid and insecure workers is essential for economic recovery. And it seems to me that fostering this re-engagement is the role of government. “

Essentially there is an incentive for firms to poach the skilled workers of their rivals rather than to invest in their own workforces. The growth of the zero hours/gig economy has also resulted in too many people being deprived of hard won workers’ rights such as the right to paid holiday and sick pay.

One of the things I’ve not seen is a comprehensive approach to the retraining of workers – in particular career switchers. In 1996 during my final year at school in Cambridge, our head teacher told us our future was one where there would not be jobs for life, and that we would have to retrain and switch careers. What followed clobbered Generation Y and the Millennials, where grants for further study were scrapped for all but the poorest – who had to go through various hoops and means testing (which are barriers in themselves), and hit them/us with eye-wateringly high debts. Seeing one of my Twitter followers informed that she owed the Student Loans Co over £50,000 was sobering. Knowing that the loan book has been sold off to the private sector isn’t going to help graduates get out of debt. And we’ve not even looked at housing. Yet if the under-40s are supposed to be retraining let’s say every decade or so, how can they possibly afford to incur the costs of it? More loans? It’s unsustainable. At some stage employers are going to have to take on much more of the costs of training and retraining – whether through taxation or other means.

And finally….

It’s a cliche to say young people are our future, but they are. Yet we don’t seem to have a mechanism to tap into what their hopes and fear for the future are. The reason why this matters is because Millennials are the first generation to grow up knowing more and/or having access to far more knowledge than the adults that are teaching them. What are the things that they can teach the adults? What knowledge of public services do they have that adults and decision makers are not aware of? For example the impact of poor public transport services on school/college attendance and future career choices. And we have been here before. Mary Chamberlain’s book on Fenwomen first published in the 1970s has heartbreaking testimony of young women being told they could not go onto study what they wanted to study because the government of the day had cut the bus services from their village. Do we have a picture of how the career and life choices of our children and young adults are being affected by the worsening transport situation?

There’s more I could write, but I’ll finish here for now.







Do you print out your photographs?


On storing personal photographs with an eye on archiving.

So I got the dragon a new (for us) second hand toy to be distracted by – an A2 printer that was going fairly cheap for what it does.

Poor Eglantyne Jebb looks petrified in the face of Puffles! This print is from the Palmer Clarke archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection – with tens of thousands of glass plates that volunteers are currently scanning and cataloguing. [For those of you interested, I run free monthly talks at the Cambridgeshire Collection on the 2nd Saturday of each month – see here for details].

I went through a spreadsheet that another volunteer had created from the card index to locate a number of very prominent women who were social reformers in the run up to the First World War and in the interwar period. Getting these printed out on A2 photo paper (i.e not poster paper) isn’t cheap. It’s at least £20 a time. Given the number of plates I could order, the potential printing cost from a third party was looking at over £500. At which point it’s far better buying a printer capable of doing the job.

What the detail shows that viewing on screen misses

I don’t know about you, but I prefer looking at historical documents and things on paper rather than on screen. I find I have more time to ponder and contemplate, gazing at a large sheet than having to fiddle around moving a cursor that is distracting to say the least – to say nothing of the screen glare. Surprisingly, some images have come out incredibly well even though they are photographs of small photographs.

Such as this one of Belcher’s unbuilt guildhall in Cambridge. This is the story of why we didn’t get it, but having the ability to print it out means I can give a copy back to the Cambridgeshire Collection that is far more striking than the original photograph we got it from. (The original painting is lost somewhere in the current guildhall).

Ipswich on the other hand managed to build theirs.

“Why print all of this stuff out?”

Some of it is because more detailed, larger prints reveal far more. Coming back to Belcher’s Guildhall plan, this – again from the Cambridgeshire Collection, is a photo of an A2 print I made earlier today. The original newspaper print is about A5, and the descriptions of the rooms are illegible in the latter.


Yet when I printed them out at A2, as the detailed snapshots from my phone show, the room labels magically appear.


The County Court room is more clearly visible as the large room on the left in the image above.


The Committee Room labels are visible, as is the balcony, while we can clearly make out the shape of the council chamber as well.

The printed image does not require another piece of equipment to access it, unlike data stored on a separate device/hard drive.

This was what got me thinking about what to print and where to store the images – both the photographs I take when out and about in Cambridge, and the images I’ve been digitising for my own research – eg newspaper articles.

One of the things with photographs in our local archives is that many of them are quite small. Understandable given the cost of producing them – alongside things like rationing and censorship, especially in wartime.

Humanity and personality getting lost/hidden in very small images

When we opened the first of the large prints I had ordered separately via the Cambridgeshire Collection, We gasped with surprise when the first prints of Eglantyne Jebb came back – as well as the photo of the roof of the old Masonic Lodge that was on Corn Exchange Street.

One of the people who came to one of my history talks is a Mason, and told me that the roof had indeed been saved, transferred to another lodge which, if all goes well we might be able to visit.

“So…size is everything?”

Not quite.

But for the purposes of my research, being able to photograph otherwise delicate newspapers and reprint them in the same large format means not repeatedly pulling out the originals from the archives. Furthermore, with images, as I’ve mentioned there is so much more detail that comes out in a larger format. For example in Eglantyne’s case you can see the freckles on her face just beneath her make-up. At that size she looks so much more human.

“Printing out all of those photos will take ages and won’t be cheap”

I’m not intending on printing out all 10,000+ photos that seem to have found their way onto my laptop since leaving the civil service in 2011. (The large majority of them are actually snapshots of things I’ve found in archives rather than of people and things). It’s strange because I used to hate being in photographs and hated taking them too because I was rubbish at it. There are precious few photographs of me in my teens and twenties around.

Does it bother me? Yes and no. It does because otherwise it feels like the things – even the good things that happened, were lived by someone else in another life. But then it doesn’t bother me at the same time because the people who I shared those experiences with are no longer in my life. As I mentioned in a previous blog, the impact of my mental health problems that I didn’t fully recognise at the various times were more than enough for people to back away. The ‘intensity’ that goes with it is one of the personality traits I hate in myself because I know how off-putting it can be. Unfortunately photos like this from over a decade ago shortly after I moved to London risk becoming meaningless because they lack both context and being part of a narrative or story.


This photo was taken at a ballroom ball at Fulham Town Hall by the former Stardust Ballroom Dancing Company (which unfortunately did not take off despite a strong start, and was liquidated).

But yes, in the grand scheme of things, I think it’s worth going through your own digital photo collections and picking the best ones either to print out on photo paper or get professionally developed (and at a larger-than-standard size). Chances are someone in the future will thank you for it.