Reach for the stars – because even if you don’t get there…

…you might just reach the tops of the trees – and the view from there is just as wonderful

The former deputy leader of Cambridge City Council – and someone who I see as a potential future MP for Cambridge (I’ve not told her this yet), Cllr Carina O’Reilly responded to my post about a concert hall for Cambridge. In fact, she’s one of three women who I respect immensely who have commented on the specifics of the whole concert hall idea – and getting the debate going.

“Are you saying we won’t get this concert hall then?”

I’m saying at the moment, the chances are somewhere between nought and zero – esp in terms of the site that I have identified. What I want to do in the first part of this post is explain some of the principles behind my thinking – and how my life experiences shaped me to think as I do. Bear with me.

Let your heart decide the destination, and let your head figure out how to get there – never ever the other way around.

Up until I graduated, my thought process was head first, heart second. In part because of my biggest moral failing: Lack of courage. I always let fear get in the way of achieving my dreams or desires. This was made worse by messages from church every week that destroyed my self-esteem. Really I should have told the clerics and everyone around them where to go (as others did at the time) rather than believing them. The problem is that when many of the adults you are surrounded by are part of that ‘faith community’ it’s incredibly difficult to break away from it. Hence my view that the state should be comprehensively funding activities along the lines of http://faithtofaithless.com/ given that they fund faith schools.

“What’s this got to do with a concert hall?”

If I followed my head on the concert hall idea, I’d be like? ‘Oh – hardly any chance of that happening, why bother?’

It’s the dreamers, radicals, renegades, misfits and free thinkers who come up with the ideas that inspire rather than committees of men

If the Millennium celebrations taught us one thing, it was this:

I visited the Millennium Dome (I still call it that) in the year 2000. Architecturally it is wonderful. The inside attractions…the less said the better bar Peter Gabriel’s excellent show. (If anything the stage was too big – me and my old friend from school, Raymond ended up actually sitting *on* the stage for the whole of the show because the seats were too far away and only realised – along with other people in the audience – that we were on the stage when the acrobats landed from the top of the dome. But they handled it beautifully). Each zone though managed to be the advertising showpiece for whoever the sponsor was. There was no unified message unlike say Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening show for London 2012. Which is probably the best opening ceremony I will ever see.

“It still ain’t gonna happen!”

Until it actually does – at which point you see tyre-screeching U-turns from people (normally the cynics who post negative social media posts regularly in newspaper columns) who say they were fully supportive all along.

The comments from Carina and friends don’t fall into that category – rather their comments are precisely the questions people should be asking.

“Sigh. Antony, the problem with this entire post – and the tenor of a lot of your posts, if I’m honest – is that it’s all magical unicorn sprinkles. It’s all ‘will our city do this?’ and ‘should we build it here?’ without any mention, anywhere, in your blog or in the clearly desperate CN’s story, about who you intend to pay for it, and why they should.

My emphasis on the bold fourth line down. To which my response was as below in the blogpost:

The bit that I needed to expand on was “Why?” Why should Cambridge University, its colleges and private investors pay for it given (as I’m assuming) the government won’t (whether due to ideology of right wing governments, or more pressing priorities on things like housing for a left wing government), and local government cannot simply due to a lack of money and legal powers.

“If it’s developers, why would they spend all this money on a facility which, as you underline yourself, is not actually needed right now, and which nobody is clamouring to run?”

This is a more challenging question for me and anyone else who wants such a facility.

“I don’t want to spoil your fun, but it is, really, just fun you’re having right now. It’s playground fantasy stuff.”

At this stage, for me it has to be. When I look at too many of the buildings going up in and around Cambridge, I don’t get the sense that the designers had even a minute of fun coming up with their designs. I get the feeling that their commission was to design something that would get the maximum revenue from the minimum of expenditure. The architecture around Cambridge Railway Station reflects this. If you can’t ‘play’ with such a concept, how can you expect anyone to be creative ever? Why is it that some of the highest paying creative organisations have offices full of playful things? Compare their offices to the offices you get elsewhere.

“If you want to be taken seriously, look seriously at the genuine barriers to getting this sort of thing done – generally money, planning law, people not wanting stuff in their backyard, and money – and come up with realistic solutions to them.”

Now we’re really talking – and this comes back to the ‘head vs heart’ separation I referred to above. From my perspective, I assume that my heart is telling me it can – it will be done. It’s just not the responsibility of my heart to work out ‘how’ it will be delivered. That’s the responsibility of my head. It’s not the responsibility of my head to say ‘It cannot be done’ – only my heart can decide, after looking at what my head has come up with, whether it can or cannot be done. Now, that may be because after crunching the numbers, the figure that my head comes up with is one that is hopelessly unrealistic. The single thing that would torpedo a concert hall scheme on the site I identified is land acquisition costs. If the land is owned by another organisation not willing to have such a grand facility built on it (and take the rent from it), then the scheme is dead in the water. The land prices are too high. Very high land prices have scuppered many a community scheme in and around Cambridge. Developers and their financiers have an insatiable demand for all things Cambridge. The way the system is structured, the most likely thing that will happen is that a new Marque building will get built on it – despite the presence of the Catholic Church.

Imagine this building below…

…being built next to this one below…

OLEM.jpg

…because that is what the planning system incentivises them to do. And that is the fault of Conservative ministers. It’s a political decision, even though they might have issues with the consequences of it. But that is what happens when you allow your policies to be driven by one every well-resourced interest group funded by huge profits. Few other voices can get a word in.

“Rant over?”

So…that’s the money and planning barrier. But there are more, as raised by two more friends on other private exchanges. I won’t name names but the comments are as follows:

Concert halls don’t come cheap therefore needs to be on a) council owned land or b) cheap land. Secondly they need to have multiple function i.e. Use for much of the day as possible so hear me out on this:
1 Location
A number of places spring to mind but all around the north and south train station. To the north – old City Council Park and Ride side or (very very very controversially) there is 5 acres of Green Belt (you would never know) at the cycle bridge next to Milton Tesco known as the triangle site/land – sometimes used for a travelling circus. To the south – some of the Babraham Park and Ride or the County land south of the biomedical campus 
As mentioned earlier, the land needs to be already owned by one of the colleges or Cambridge University. That’s the easy bit if it is. The next bit is convincing the landowner that for the sake of civic pride it would be magnificent to build such a facility there. But ‘civic magnificence’ is not a good enough reason to build such a facility.
  • Will the venue break even?
  • Will the venue provide a revenue stream in the very long term? (Note the lessons of the New Theatre that went bust in the 1960s despite having a seating capacity of over 1,500 at the time).
  • Will the venue be useable during the day – what’s the worst case scenario?
This then underlines the need for financial feasibility and technical studies – similar to the Cambridge Connect Light Railway.
2 Multiple uses
Firstly what a great facility also for public meetings, with good acoustics (god forbid you might actually hear a meeting) and also for conferences.
Both individuals concerned mentioned this.
***Now we’re talking*** – because we are now getting into specifics. For me, this needs to be informed by detailed surveys of industry need and community need as well as academic needs. Evidence-based policy and all that. Anecdotally over the past five or so years of community action in Cambridge, I’ve noted:
  • An under-supply of musical rehearsal space
  • An under-supply of dance floor rehearsal space
  • An under-supply of venues with first class acoustics – whether for conferences or for concerts
  • An under-supply of very large theatre style tiered seating space
  • An under-supply of community art space – we don’t have a community arts centre.

“Haven’t we got another candidate for a community art space?”

photo (3)
The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible
….Yes, but the landlord is not civically-minded
“So sell off the other assets for housing or offices or other uses, regenerate the market square and fund a totally new 2,000 seater facility with offices near either science park or biomedical campus for conference venue. Very large marquee’s are very expensive – £30k a time!” 

 

The above is in the context of the council selling off assets – big ones such as The Guildhall or Shire Hall. That in itself would require changes of local government structure. The problem I have with the selling off of the Guildhall is that it belongs to the people. I would hate to see it privatised, knowing that the developers would want to give us something cheap and skanky like South Cambridgeshire Hall in Cambourne as a replacement – which is a bland office block of an administrative building in the middle of effing nowhere rather than a vibrant buzzing civic centre.

If there was to be local council restructuring, Shire Hall would be the better candidate for selling off and turning into a hotel, with some of the surrounding land being turned into that concert hall space. Alternatively – and this really is talking unicorn magic sparkling dust, you could ***rebuild the castle*** and have it as a civic historical centre. You could have things like jousting tournaments and medieval fairs in front of the old castle mound! And instead of people walking up the mound (which would damage it even more), you could have a castle near it at the same height that they could clime up instead!

Yeah…one fantasy scheme at a time, Puffles!

 

Responding to online comments on a new concert hall for Cambridge

Summary

In defence of my idea and vision for Cambridge 

The blogpost I wrote on a new concert hall for Cambridge was picked up by David Bartlett of the Cambridge News.

The newspaper’s reporter Josh Thomas then wrote an article, seeking comment from the Cambridge Live Trust.

…and in print too

(Note – I run both @Puffles2010 and @ACarpenDigital – the latter account I tweet far less frequently – perhaps a few times a day at most)

“Who said what? ‘Don’t read the comments’ and all that? It can be a bit of a bear pit even at the best of times!”

I tried to respond to every comment on Facebook here and also on the newspaper’s site scrolling to the end here. In a nutshell I tried to avoid the confrontational exchanges that you normally get with some of these things – either referring people back to my original blogpost (which was not originally linked in the article) or to clarify things that might shine a different light on people’s comments. The main themes that stood out were:

  • There are other more pressing priorities (eg homelessness)
  • Cambridge already has the Corn Exchange
  • Town/gown splits
  • It won’t get built there

More pressing priorities – housing

On the more pressing priorities, others stated that as a city we are not restricted to doing only one activity at a time. i.e. it is possible to deliver on both. With homelessness, I said that the origins of the problem are in Whitehall – ministers not giving local councils the funding and powers needed to deal with the problem of providing enough social homes and stopping developers weaselling out of commitments on social homes. (That plus banning councils from building enough council homes in the first place – housing minister Gavin Barwell MP saying on Newsnight to Emily Maitlis that councils could not borrow to invest because of the impact it would have on the total government debt figures – forgetting that by borrowing to build, you are creating an asset that is worth more than the original amount borrowed. Do watch from 16 mins in here (available till early March 2017).

I also said that given the lifespan of such venues – the Corn Exchange will be 150 years old in 2025, the sort of very long term investment we’re looking at for a big concert venue is the one large institutional investors – such as Cambridge University and its colleges should be interested in.

Cambridge already has the Corn Exchange

I quoted figures in my previous blogpost about Cambridge’s projected population growth. When the Corn Exchange was converted into a modern concert venue in 1986/87, the city’s population was hovering around 100,000 people. In 2031, that population is likely to be 150,000, with further growth expected. Therefore my case is to plan for the city we are likely to become rather than simply say that today it might not be needed. Furthermore, the local councils have already stated there is a growing demand and need for such a facility – again in my previous blogpost.

Town/gown splits

I left this one for others to take on primarily, though I did post links to Cambridge University’s outreach programmes and their list of public talks. I’m as much a critic of Cambridge University and its colleges in terms of a closed decision-making culture so it’s incumbent on me to support those trying to open up the institutions.

Furthermore – and I’m grateful to those that posted, we saw a number of examples of public events hosted by Cambridge University for the good of the city. Remember though that for my generation and older, we grew up in a Cambridge where Cambridge University and colleges didn’t want to know us locals if we were ‘non-members.’ The change of culture in my experience only really started after the Millennium.

It won’t get built here

This is probably the most compelling challenge, not least because the commercial pressures are so great. The site is such a prime spot for buy-to-leave luxury apartment developers that they would throw a huge amount of money to acquire the site that would make it almost impossible to turn down. For all we know, the whole thing may already be wrapped up. I sincerely hope not. It it is, then it would just go to re-enforce concerns over the lack of transparency around decisions that affect the people of our city.

Note that at the Greater Cambridge City Deal meetings – another gathering with transparency issues, assembly member Sir Michael Marshall (of the Marshall Group) said that Cambridge is ‘at capacity’ in terms of its ability to function with one city centre, and that consideration needs to be given (not sure by whom) for an alternative centre. 50 years ago that debate was happening with talk of creating a new centre in the east of the city in The Kite – the area that the Grafton Centre was built at in the early 1980s.

Today, as I posted in the FB comments, such an alternative centre needed to be planned for and built either in the North West Cambridge development, or in Trumpington Meadows. Both those opportunities thus far have been missed. Personally I’d have made the case for the latter around a proposed Addenbrooke’s railway station with a Cambridge Light Rail and guided bus interchange. In fact, I’d have had all three underground (along with bus station and taxi rank – planning on all buses and taxis being electric by the time of completion). This would have allowed for a pedestrian-friendly civic square anchored by a further education and evening class college, a health centre, a sports leisure centre, and perhaps facilities for startups/ an incubator. (ie somewhere central that’s not stuck out on the edge of town like the Cambridge Future Business Centre.

The problem as always?

Cambridge’s institutions are unable to think and function like a city – acting in the collective interests of the people that make up the city rather than for their own financial bottom lines first and only. We see this in the examples of all of the independent shops that are forced to close. Hence why I wrote this blogpost.

“Will the concert hall get built?”

It will at some stage because population numbers will simply make existing facilities unsustainable. The question for our city is whether we want to do like we’ve always done, and wait for that unsustainable point to arrive before acting, or whether we can do things differently and start planning now before panicking when things get too crowded.

A new concert hall for Cambridge?

Summary

More thoughts following some recent online discoveries

This sort of follows on from Cambridge’s lost concert halls in my Lost Cambridge project – which started off life as a set of photos from the Museum of Cambridge, and a Facebook page here.

I was browsing through a treasure trove of published-but-not-publicised documents sitting on Cambridge City Council’s server as part of their submission to the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire Local Plan/Local Development Framework. All of the documents are in the file tree at https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/public/ldf/coredocs/ and there are ****lots**** of interesting things buried in here. It’s not ‘scandal’ or conspiracy theory or anything like that. In the grand scheme of things, councils have had their budgets plundered by Whitehall without the power to raise funds locally to make up for the losses. Hence not having anyone around to do anything useful in a civic or historical sense with them.

There are some incredibly significant historical documents buried in here

For example the 1950 Holford Wright Report that shaped Cambridge as the small city that we know today (but perhaps for not much longer).

Now, I feel like a bit of an idiot having chased after local councillors to digitise this report. Yet such was the depth that the digitised files were buried, chances are that local councillors didn’t know that this report had already been digitised and published. Furthermore, the person/people who did the scanning may have already left council employment due to the cuts, so the corporate memory of what is and isn’t in there has vanished.

“What’s this got to do with the concert hall?”

First things first, why a concert hall?

My take ever since I sang with We Are Sound/Dowsing Sound Collective at the Cambridge Corn Exchange in December 2014 is that Cambridge needs a new concert hall – one that has a capacity of at least 2,000 people.

We near as dammit sold out that gig. My writeup from it is here. The next biggest indoors venue in Cambridge is Great St Mary’s – but we’ve sung in there as well (This one from BBC Music Day). There are a number of other local groups that have also sold out such venues.

Cambridge’s population growth

The numbers are stark:

  • In 2001, Cambridge’s population was 109,000
  • In 2011, Cambridge’s population was 124,ooo (in the 2011 census)
  • In 2031, Cambridge’ population is expected to be 151,000

That means the city will have 39% more people living in its city limits than 2001 – that rise taking place over a 30 year period. Or to look at it another way, an extra 42,000 people in it. Which is noticeably more than the population of Haverhill (just over 27,000), one of the largest towns close to Cambridge not linked by rail. (Hence Rail Haverhill wanting to do something about traffic in that neck of the woods)

Expanding transport infrastructure

We’ve had the guided busway completed since late 2011 – which had a total of 3.5 million journeys take on it in 2014. We await the completion of East-West Rail – which will also link other fast growing population centres (towns and cities to you & me) to Cambridge. And that’s before we even look at roads and cycle networks. With the growth of Cambridge as this big regional centre, my take is that it needs to build the civic infrastructure to match it. As it is, our civic infrastructure is becoming more and more inadequate to meet the demands of a growing population.

What the councils said in 2013

In January 2013, Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council published a document that they’ve probably forgotten about. It’s called The Major Facilities / Sub Regional Facilities In The Cambridge Area – Review Of Evidence & Site Options. You can read it at https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/public/ldf/coredocs/RD-CSF/RD-CSF-020.pdf

It says the following:

130101-cambridge-concert-hall

“There is no purpose-built large scale venue provision within the Cambridge Sub Region”

“There is a growing interest in testing the case for a purpose-built auditorium for large scale music – the nearest concert halls are at Aldeburgh, and in Nottingham, Birmingham & London”

Their words, not mine!

So…where do you want this new concert hall?

Here

siteof2000seatconcerthallhillsrd

Above via G-Maps – junction of ‘Hyde Park Corner’ – Hills Rd, Gonville Place, Regent St, Lensfield Road, Cambridge.

The site I’ve identified is the old Perse School, now one of Cambridge Assessment’s offices – soon to be vacated when they move to their purpose built premises off Brooklands Avenue over the next few years.

siteof2000seatconcerthallhillsrdmap

Above – map view of the same photograph.

The large peach-coloured shape to the right of the A1307 (Hills Road) and the surrounding grey bits is the footprint of the site – one that is 3 times the size of the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

“Why here?”

  • It is central – ie not building on the green belt
  • A short walk from the Queen Anne Car Park, and only a little further from the Grafton Centre and Lion Yard Car Parks
  • It is on the guided bus route, park and ride south routes and Citi bus routes from the railway station
  • Re the railway station it’s a pleasant walk through the back streets to get to/from the railway station
  • Drummer Street bus station – where many regional buses terminate
  • In terms of evening events, rush hour traffic will have gone (and thus parking spaces emptied) by the time most events start at 7:30-8:00pm
  • There are a number of medium-sized hotels close by
    • The Gonville
    • University Arms
    • Barbie’s dolls house (I forget which brand runs it)
    • The Royal Cambridge
    • The Travel lodges on Clifton Road and Newmarket Road

***What’s there not to like?***

Actually, not everyone is convinced

This was from a Twitter exchange following my incredulity at finding out Cambridge University lacks exam hall space.

Such a venue during the day could deal with the issue of temporary exam hall space demands. The challenge for architects & designers is to construct a building that could meet as many needs as possible – including for the wonderful Cambridge Rollerbillies given the loss of rollerskating space.

Historically, Cambridge had a number of purpose-built rollerskating rinks and dance halls. Even the Corn Exchange was once used as such. No one could afford to rent out the venue for rollerskating today.

“Do you run the risk of having a building that seeks to be everything but ends up being a soulless box with no identity?”

Yes – you do. Look at the London Excel. ****Huge**** space which me and Puffles visited during the Olympics. A horrible, soulless space but the only place big enough to host monster-sized conventions.

We’ve been promised concert halls before

Here’s Gordon Logie’s plan for some concert halls in the redeveloped Lion Yard in the mid-1960s.

lionyard_3

The above is from the book “Cambridge that never was” by D.A. Reeve, Oleander Press 1976.

You’ll need to click on the image above to read the text, but essentially Logie’s plan was to have demolished the then derelict church of St Andrew The Great (it didn’t come back into use until a group of Christians rescued it in the late 1990s/early 2000s), to replace that with a hotel. The main entrance to the Lion Yard we know today, where the big sports shop is, is where the large concert hall would have been.

So…calling for a new music venue in Cambridge isn’t new – as this lot also state.

Can town and gown unite to make it happen?

Interested? Please leave a comment below or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/lostcambridge/posts/394730064238057

***Updated to add***

Via former councillor Colin Rosenstiel who was on the city council for decades, note the below.

What’s interesting – and consistent with other things in Cambridge is just how long it took to move from Gordon Logie’s first proposals in the mid-1960s through to the delivery of the solution – the refurbished Corn Exchange in 1986.

Note ‘The Alliance’ was the 1980s party political alliance between the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party – which broke away from Labour in 1981.

Can Parliament impose a ‘duty to co-operate’ on Cambridge University’s colleges?

Summary

How can we persuade Cambridge University’s colleges who own much of the land in Cambridge to co-operate with local councils when it comes to their financial decisions?

The story in the Cambridge News over independent shops going out of business has a depressingly familiar feel to it. Joshua Taylor, Eaden Lilley, Galloway and Porter, Browne’s books on Mill Road, and now the Cambridge Toy Shop along with Ben Hayward Cycles and Arthur Shepherd…it has a depressing feel as they have been replaced by shops that more and more sell to either the mass tourist, (Buy your Cambridge t-shirt souvenir – made in a sweatshop in the far east) or the affluent tourist market (Buy your Cambridge souvenir jewellery mined from a deathtrap of a mine that is also an environmental crime!). I jest…sort of. Cambridge University Press stopped printing books a few years back – a loss to the city.

Compare and contrast with The Shambles in York or Marylebone High Street in London where the land owners have chosen to exclude big brands and artificially lower the rents so that independent shops with a lower financial turnover can afford to run businesses, creating a much more vibrant, interesting and exciting area compared to their bland, identikit clone town cousins. Remember Cambridge was labelled as the worst clone town in the country in 2010. This ‘anti-award’ encouraged a group of people to set up Independent Cambridge.

“Yeah – what’s this got to do with imposing stuff you freedom-hating tree-hugging eco-communist?”

Abstract theoretical concept of ‘the right to breathe clean air’ without having to take extra medication for the purpose – an issue I took to Cambridgeshire County Council very recently.

Above: Tabled public Q on @CambsCC legal powers & duties on air quality

My point is this: If all of the colleges that own land with retail units on them decide to charge the highest rents possible, this has the knock on effect of letting their premises to the shops that have the highest financial turnover – which either means eye-wateringly expensive trinkets, or regular delivery of goods that require frequent lorry-loads of goods to replenish the shelves. Lorries – not good for the roads, and not good for the buildings of our ancient city. Oh – and diesel fuel emissions are not good for public health either. The thing is, writers living in Cambridge have complained over the centuries about the poor air quality in Cambridge.

***Why are we still having to protest this sh-te?!?!***

You only have to look at some of the very old buildings that haven’t been given a good clean to notice just how bad pollution used to be before the construction of central heating. Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb wrote about the impact of poor air quality inside people’s homes on their health and life expectancy. Just because you can’t see the black smoke doesn’t mean that the pollutants haven’t gone away. And bazmobiles with loud engines don’t help either. (Not least because they disturb my sleep patterns).

The thing is, if the people who sit on the college finance committees are not, or don’t feel that they are affected by any of these things, or don’t feel any sense of duty or responsibility to the people who make up the city of Cambridge, why would they have an incentive to behave in a manner as if the wider city mattered? The only incentive they seem to have is the bottom line – sweat their assets as much as possible to get the greatest possible return. I make this point not to criticise those on college finance committees, but to criticise the institutional structures.

That is just one example of the unforeseen consequences of colleges not co-operating with other organisations – in particular the local councils – in the administration of our city. I’m sure there are other examples of large/wealthy institutional land owners who are not necessarily putting the interests of the city they own land in – i.e. putting short term financial returns first. The developments around Cambridge railway station are an example of this.

“Can’t you just ask the college finance committees to change their culture?”

Changing the culture of large, old and wealthy institutions is like turning around an oil tanker. After all, why change anything if the existing cultures and practices have served your institutions very well indeed?

Funnily enough, this was something I was planning to ask Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz at his lecture at Homerton College next week. After all, as the current (but soon-to-be-retiring) Cambridge University Vice Chancellor, surely a quiet word from him to the committees over dinner would sort things out? It turns out not, due to the culture of colleges protecting their independence from Cambridge University fiercely. Or so I was told very recently by someone inside the system who is far more knowledgeable about the inner workings of Cambridge University and its colleges.

“Ah – hence legislating!”

Legislation is always a last resort. The bit that I need to figure out first is what are all of the actions that we (as a city) need to take first, and in what order before we start turning our eyes towards Parliament and ministers. That could range from asking local councillors to investigate first, MPs writing friendly letters, discussions with student activists studying at Cambridge University, and petitions in the first instance.

At the same time, we’d also need to come up with, for want of another phrase, ‘a vision’ and how the culture change and behavioural change would help achieve this. That would also need to be quantified along with risks, opportunities, and cost-benefit analysis. (On the last, how much extra rental income would the colleges forego, and what would the impact be on their activities as a result of changing their policies?)

“If we do all of that, can make the case for the changes – and they still don’t budge? Then what?”

That’s when you start looking towards ministers, MPs and peers to examine the issues. Note too that we are also in an era where Parliament rarely passes legislation that affects only one city. In centuries gone by you would find Acts of Parliament specific to towns, cities, roads and minor railway lines. (ie different to major projects such as HS2).

“Can Parliament force an institution to co-operate in this way?”

Yes – there is precedence in the Local Gov’t & Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 (S106 (3)) as a concept – in this case the duty applied to other partner organisations in the creation of the old ‘Local Area Agreements’. This is where local councils negotiated with central government on what targets they had to hit from a suite of 198 indicators – see all 198 listed here. Although ultimately scrapped by the Coalition a couple of years later, the principle of organisations having a legal duty to co-operate with each other (in recent times) for given aims/outcomes was established.

“Would it be a specific bill for Cambridge?”

Very unlikely for reasons mentioned above. That plus there’s no way a Conservative government would bring it in simply on the grounds of ‘red tape’. Quite understandably they’d say it’s a local issue for local organisations to sort out – why does Parliament need to get involved? But my take is that colleges and their finance committees can play a much more positive role in improving the city not just for members of Cambridge University but also for the rest of us.

Furthermore, going back through the archives, Cambridge used to have a tradition where wealthy and influential members and fellows would contribute their time and money towards the civic good of the city – whether it was through being on the Cambridge Organisation of Charitable Societies (see halfway down here), to the likes of Mr Sedley Taylor paying for the dental fees for all of the children of the borough in 1907, to John Maynard Keynes founding the Cambridge Arts Theatre, through to Sir David Robinson (of Robinson College fame) funding the construction of the Rosie Maternity Hospital in 1983/84. Can Cambridge University revive that tradition? I’ve got 3 projects line up if they are interested!

Chances are there are better ways to get the colleges to work for the greater good of the city. If so, I’m all ears.

Impington VC head’s powerful message to Cambridge businesses

Summary

“Step up and work with schools in Cambridge – it is in your interests”

It’s worth watching the video below in full.

Speech by Mr Ryan Kelsall, head teacher of Impington Village College

I’ve known Mr Kelsall and his family since I started primary school – our mothers have remained close friends to this day.

I’m not going to embarrass him about tales from what we were both like in our school and college years. We went our separate ways after college, me on my path into, through and out of the civil service, and Mr Kelsall into teaching at a number of schools in Cambridge before taking charge at Impington. The most important thing from the speech he gave at the Form the Future AGM at the new Trumpington Community College was his challenge to businesses: Work with schools – it’s in your interests.

To moaning businesses complaining about young people: Step up or shut up

The above is more my message than his. The point Mr Kelsall makes is that schools today have much more of a vocational focus than when he and I were students in the classroom. To ensure that the education schools give to our children is one that can help them in the jobs market – and meet the skills shortages that employers spoke of means that the latter need to get involved with Form the Future – who have now set up the infrastructure, systems and processes that make things much easier for schools and businesses to work together.

There really is no excuse for employers in Cambridge to drag their feet – especially the medium-to-large sized firms.

We know that party politics is a mess. We know that Whitehall and Westminster is a mess, and that machinery of government is now tied up with Brexit – a move that was hardly popular with employers in and around Cambridge. I noted now representatives from a number of large employers at the AGM were scathing of Government policies across the field – from education to health to Brexit. It was something I hadn’t quite expected given the reputation the Conservatives have for being the party that understands business. At the same time, I didn’t get any sense that employers were particularly supportive of any other political party. Which means we have issues with our democracy – something for a later blogpost.

Thinking as a city – what is Cambridge’s offer to our young people?

Mr Kelsall examined this in his talk towards the end in a similar manner that I have been repeatedly asking the local government sector in Cambridge what our city’s offer is to young people regarding democracy education. From Mr Kelsall’s perspective he was asking businesses to think beyond their own firm and for everyone in the room to ‘think as a city’. What would it look like if businesses collectively not just acknowledged, but embraced their responsibility for all of our city’s children? What would it look like if our business leaders said: “We are a responsible and civically-minded business. We get lots out of being in Cambridge and doing business here. Therefore we have a civic duty to give something back. To meet this duty we will be offering… [X,Y,Z].” ?

The onus is now on Cambridge’s employers to stand up and be counted.

 

Tabled public Q for Gtr Cambridge City Deal Board on 08 March 2017

Summary

Questions on how the City Deal Board and officers will assess the Rail Haverhill and Cambridge Connect project proposals.

Transparency note – I run the Cambridge Connect FB page on a voluntary basis (on the grounds that I want Cambridge to build an underground light rail metro to deal with our road motor traffic problems). 

My email to democratic.services@scambs.gov.uk (who you need to email to submit a Q to the City Deal authorities) is as follows:

“Hello Democratic Services

Please can I submit the following tabled Q to the City Deal Board.

“The City Deal Board announced an award of £50,000 of funding for research into the Cambridge Bullet Bus (reported at http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/city-deal-invests-futuristic-120-12124803). I have not been able to find any explanation into this project online – the complete opposite of the case for Rail Haverhill and for Cambridge Connect Light Rail.
Please can the City Deal Board:
1) release a formal document explaining at least the basics of what the bullet bus project actually is, and the considerations made before approving the release of £50,000 of funding for research for this project (which seemed to come out of the blue)
2) please comment on whether they will be willing to fund the necessary technical and financial feasibility studies for Rail Haverhill and the Cambridge Connect proposals in tranche 2 as part of the research budgets. I find it astonishing that such proposals were swept aside in tranche 1 given the levels of growing public support for both projects which have had extended publicity on the work already done, compared to the bullet bus project
3) please comment on how you will ensure the public – and in particular the academic community & experts in & around Cambridge will be able to scrutinise the assessments you make on the cost/benefits of proposals put forward given the disquiet of your conclusions originally for the rail haverhill project.
Kind regards

Antony Carpen”

Note the rules for tabling public Qs here. The deadline for submitting Qs to the City Deal Board is Fri 03 March 2018

Cambridge: The state of our city

Summary

Why our towns and cities could do with annual updates

This post stems from this blogpost on LostCambridge, where I noticed copies of the Cambridge Independent Press from over a century ago contained data from a whole host of civic and public services. It made me wonder why we didn’t see this sort of data published more prominently in this day and age. Part of the problem as I discussed with a number of local friends and residents over the past few days is that locating the data alone is something that takes more effort than most people are prepared to spend.

Pickles’ much-maligned town-hall-pravda’s

Local councils produce their own publications – some of which have become controversial over recent years. Former Communities & Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, to supporters and opponents alike, the ministerial wrecking ball of council budgets between 2010-15, made it his mission to clamp down on those councils that published their own publications on a regular basis – competing with commercial publications. So the inevitable challenge is producing something that explains to people what the statistics mean, but don’t have any partisan comment woven in.

Weekly updates informing citizens and busting myths

Local public services know that when they really deserve it, Puffles will give them a metaphorical kicking on Twitter. In the same way, Puffles will also praise them when they do good stuff. Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust started producing weekly infographics-style updates after we pointed out that their predecessors were publishing these on a weekly basis in local newspapers. Today, we have weekly updates.

An excellent example of keeping locals informed using social media

Bear in mind Addenbrooke’s hospital is a regional hospital – and a sort of ‘mini town’ in itself on the edge of Cambridge.

The fragmentation of our city’s public services

Part of the problem is there is no unified centre of co-ordination (different conceptually to being a unified centre of micro-management command-and-control style). To give you an example of this fragmentation, Cambridge has:

  • The Highways Agency responsible for the M11 and A14 – reporting to the Department for Transport
  • Network Rail, responsible for tracks and signals – reporting to the Department for Transport
  • Privatised train companies reporting to shareholders
  • Privatised bus companies reporting to shareholders – who won’t put on new routes unless subsidised
  • Cambridgeshire Constabulary – reporting to the Police & Crime Commissioner and the Home Secretary
  • Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Executive Mayor – coming into being in May 2017 – no one’s really sure how this will work
  • The NHS Trusts & Care Commissioning Groups – no longer properly accountable to the Secretary of State for Health due to the Health and Social Care Act 2012, so no one is really sure who they are accountable to, but at least Healthwatch keeps an eye on them
  • In Cambridge’s city limits, Cambridge City Council is responsible for lots of things – but not education, libraries and local roads.
  • Covering the whole county, Cambridgeshire County Council covers education, local roads and local transport, and libraries.
  • The academies programme means more and more schools are now outside the control of local councils and report through their academy sponsors directly to the Department for Education.

170204-camcitcolistofservices

Busy bees – Cambridge City Council’s list of services

“Doesn’t Cambridgeshire Insights produce anything data-wise?”

It does – see http://cambridgeshireinsight.org.uk/ – and goes beyond just public service output to cover things like state of the housing market and of the local economy.

170204-cambsinsightsnapshot

More busy bees – our county’s number crunchers at Cambridgeshire Insight

“That’s all very well, but other than *Ooh, that’s nice to know*, what’s the point?”

This is where such a guide needs to be linked to lines of reporting & accountability. In the grand scheme of things, most of us wouldn’t know who to complain to, how to complain, what our rights are, and what the duties of the organisation we’re complaining about or to, are. Hence why sites such as WriteToThem.com are ever so useful as they cut out a lot of the waffle in the middle and make the process of sending an email to the correct organisation that much more efficient.

The tricky bit is with political parties and campaign groups. Council publications have graphics of the names, faces and contact details of local councillors (Cambridge City Council via here, and Cambridgeshire County Council via here). To what extent should they go further with formal weblinks to party websites and social media pages? Should it be left to residents associations and community groups – or even local bloggers such as Chris Rand in Queen Edith’s ward/division in Cambridge?

“I still don’t see the point of it – I wouldn’t read it. What time’s Zed-factor on anyway?”

Vision – a city where:

  • more of us are familiar and knowledgeable about our public services.
  • we can use them as and when we need without either side becoming stressed out by the other
  • more residents are acquainted with at least one of our locally elected representatives to the extent they would feel comfortable contacting them if in need
  • more residents feel a connection with local institutions and public service providers and those that work for them
  • more residents feel they can take a sense of responsibility monitoring/scrutinising/keeping an eye on one theme or area knowing that there are other residents in the city covering the others.
  • when it comes to election time, voters are more willing to vote – and cast an informed vote due to having read the data, met/questioned/read about the candidates and relating those with their day-to-day lives. (Eg if what candidates publish does not match with people’s day-to-day lives, implication is the voter is less likely to vote for said candidate).

The implication with the above is that such a publication, while being party-politically neutral, would not be value neutral.

“What does ‘not value-neutral’ mean?”

It’s one where throughout the entire publication, the message is one of getting involved in, and taking responsibility for civic life of the city one way or another. That can be something as simple as running a neighbourhood blog (as Chris does with http://queen-ediths.co.uk/) and/or organising things at a ward/neighbourhood level (such as Abbey in Cambridge) to being on a local school governing body, PTA or alumni/former pupils’ network. In Cambridge from what I’ve seen, the older private schools are much better at keeping in touch with former pupils (and thus getting donations from them) than their state school counterparts. That’s not the fault of those at the state schools – where in some cases several generations of the same family will go, but because the wider funding system does not allow schools to employ staff to focus on staying in touch with former pupils.

“Let me guess: Someone’s done this all before”

How did you guess?

Here’s the Cambridge Independent Press talking about the Cambridge Charitable Organisation Society, of whom Cambridge Heroes Mary Paley (later Lady Alfred Marshall) and Florence Ada (later Cllr Lady) Keynes were the twin pillars.

img_6573

The above refers to Eglantyne Jebb’s 1906 report: Cambridge – a brief study in social questions (buy your copy here). The quotation that resonates with me is for this blogpost is this:

“The book is not written primarily for philanthropists, but for those citizens who, though they cannot devote any considerable portion of their time to working for their town, yet wish to be kept informed one way or another in making it a better and happier place for their successors to live in”

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Cambridge Hero: Eglantyne Jebb who wrote a book to encourage others to make Cambridge a better place for future generations – like ours. (Photo – Museum of Cambridge).

“Why not take the phrase Eglantyne wrote and sharpen it?”

In a nutshell, why not?

“The annual ‘Cambridge – the state of our city’ report is written primarily for residents who, although may not have lots of time to work for good of our city, wish to be kept informed one way or another in making it a better and happier place for our successors to live in.”

Following in the footsteps of Cambridge’s civic giants

More Cambridge Heroes at the Museum of Cambridge – Florence Ada Keynes, Maud Darwin (daughter-in-law of Charles), Clara Rackham and Dame Leah Manning.

If you’ve not already read about the group of people I’m describing as the Cambridge Heroes, have a read of this blogpost and of those before and after. There is another set of these boards put together by Tamsin Wilmhurst, now of David Parr House. Because history seems to have written out these heroes of our city, me and Puffles are writing them back in, because they made such a huge difference. The line we’re running with is this:

The Cambridge Heroes:

  • Learn their names

  • Recognise (or remember?) their faces

  • Read their stories…

  • …then ***match their impact***

…because you never know, their examples combined with making the data and information of today easy to reach might just inspire a new generation of people to breathe some much-needed fresh air and people-power into our local democracy. Because given the challenges our city faces, it’s about time we invited the city with all of its talent to take a much more active interest.

Poor air quality in Cambridge – what will the councils say?

Summary

Tabling public questions on Cambridge’s poor air quality.

I’ve tabled two public questions – one to Cambridgeshire County Council’s Economy & Environment Committee at 10am on 09 Feb at Shire Hall, and one for Cambridge City Council’s full council at 6pm on 23 Feb at the Guildhall.

Both meetings above are public meetings. You can come along and watch the debates. You are also encouraged to ask public questions too ***because democracy***

Details of how to table public questions for Cambridgeshire County Council are here

Details of how to table public questions for Cambridge City Council are here

The text of my questions to the councils is along the lines of:

“What legal powers does the council have, and what legal duties does the council have regarding poor air quality in Cambridge/Cambridgeshire?

In particular, I would like to know under what circumstances the law gives the council the right to take action on air quality, and also under what circumstances the law *compels* the council to take action (to the extent that legal action could be taken against it if it did not act)”

Rather than going in with “Why aren’t you doing anything about this?!?!” I’m finding out what they think their legal powers and duties are regarding our poor air quality. I have also given the city council notice that I have tabled a question to the county council prior to their one, encouraging them to get in touch with their county counterparts *to ensure that their responses are consistent with each other*. I will be incredibly disappointed if I get two sets of responses saying it’s the responsibility of the other council.

At last night’s City Deal Board, Hilary Holden demonstrated Cambridge has a big issue – two roads in my neighbourhood having far too many red blobs on for my liking.

The scale of public concern about air quality came as a surprise to one of the three councillors with a vote on the city deal board.

Note Cllr Burkitt’s full comments in the video here.

That should be a green light – not just for the greens, but other councillors in other parties to take the issue much more seriously, and develop manifesto commitments/policies for the 2017 Cambridgeshire County Council elections in four months time.

Note Cambridge City Council’s air pollution pages are at https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/air-pollution

Note Cambridgeshire County Council’s statement on air pollution regarding highways is at http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/info/20099/planning_and_development/234/planning/10

If you are concerned about air quality, write to your councillors or your MP. People responding in numbers seem to have given a wake up call to councillors in and around Cambridge, which hopefully will lead to much stronger policies and actions to deal with it. But we need to keep the pressure up.

On reprints of very old books, and publicising local archives

Summary

Some thoughts on how modern reprints of books sometimes hundreds of years old, along with gems inside under-funded local archives can refresh our collective memories of the histories of our towns and cities – and how they are essential to contemporary local public policy on our collective futures.

Private wealth, public squalor…seems to be the story of Cambridge at the moment when you compare the fortunes and outlook for the much-lauded private sector in these parts vs the state of our pavements inside the city and the state of rural roads outside of it. So if I type something such as:

Cambridgeshire’s county archives are underfunded

…then responses such as “What about…[insert name of service?]” are often forthcoming. As I mentioned in my Lost Cambridge blogpost I got a written response to a public question I tabled to Cambridgeshire County Council. However, as Cllr Susan van de Ven (Lib Dems, Melbourne) mentioned, the potential of the local archives seems to have been missed by the executive councillors and is something that is worth following up. Not least because I also found out today that the reprographics unit in the archives is currently snowed under with orders that I can’t get my desired order for a massive reprint of the Holford Wright map of 1950 printed until April 2017. Although I think this is supposed to be a revenue-neutral part of the council, given the current funding crisis inflicted by central government (and not helped by the current squabbles inside the council chamber over the budget), this could easily be turned into a revenue raiser and something that the council should be investing in, rather than doing the opposite.

Digitising archives

Why digitise? Here’s the authoritative line from the UK National Archives. Furthermore this is what the BBC are doing. Also, here’s my take from a few months ago.

Now, Cambridge could have had a wonderful setting for the Cambridgeshire Collection as planned about a decade ago, but the controversial developers of Cambridge Railway Station and surroundings managed one way or another to not fulfil that commitment leaving us with a bland block of flats sold to the highest bidder on the international markets instead. All queries to the board of this group. Yes – local historians and community activists (not just me) are still fuming about it.

That above-rant meant that the opportunity to advertise and showcase Cambridgeshire’s history to a huge audience. Instead, as county mayoral candidate states, we’ve got ‘minecraft city’

Note the words of incoming interim Cambridge City Deal chief executive Rachel Stopard in the Cambridge Independent.

“For me it’s always about partnership working. So King’s Cross is a success because the local authority worked really well with an excellent developer who had a vision for the place that said it’s not actually all about office blocks.

I’d like to think she’d have issues with what has happened with the station area development given her experience with King’s Cross – which is just across the road from her old offices on the Euston Road – close to where I used to live in London during my civil service days.

“What’s that got to do with digitising archives?”

It makes it all the more important that we get the digitisation and promotion bits right in the face of losing the above opportunity. Because once the work is done, the developer as a firm is dissolved and the investors run off with the cash. Which also means no return address for anything that goes wrong in the future. (Unless the investors are somehow liable – an interesting list here – almost makes me want to buy shares in one of them and castrate (metaphorically) their chief executive at an AGM)

“Anger’s not good for your blood pressure”

True.

“So…back to digitising archives and old books?”

I stumbled across this book by Eglantyne Jebb’s uncle Richard – the classicist Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, who was also elected MP for Cambridge University in 1891. Something tells me in the next decade or two, we’ll have a boundary review that will near as dammit recreate in all but name that constituency, covering the area where many academics and students live and work.

It’s not so much a book by Jebb, rather a speech he gave in Cambridge in the old guildhall. img_6446

From another gem in the Cambridgeshire County Archives, I found this plan of the old guildhall in a book called Cambridge Described and Illustrated by John Willis Clark. Isn’t it ****just wonderful****? 

Anyway, Eglantyne’s uncle said that the reason for England only having Oxford and Cambridge Universities for centuries was that it was better to keep all of the academics in as few places as possible so that the whole country could benefit from the exchange of ideas given lack of transport at the time. He also said that it was the development of the railways that got rid of the need to keep everyone living in close proximity to each other – hence the founding of other universities in the 1800s. See pages 2-3 of here.

Now, I don’t know whether it’s a straight-forward as that or whether there was more than a bit of Oxford and Cambridge wanting to maintain their privileges. Or something else. But it seems like a plausible explanation. I just don’t have any documentary evidence to hand to prove one way or another. Someone in this fair city of mine probably does though.

Digitising and modern reprints of very old books.

I’ve acquired most of my old books either online or via charity shops. It’s always sad to see an old book that has lots of wonderful things in it suffering from damp. My copy of Davige’s Cambridgeshire Regional Plan 1934 is one such damaged book I have. As historians at the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History said at a meeting recently, it was lovely to see the colourful maps in them – which I digitised here. It also has some beautiful woodcuts that were very popular with people, but because they didn’t catch my eye, I didn’t scan them first time around. Which goes to show 1) beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and 2) digitising things can give people access to things that they might value highly, even if you as the holder/custodian do not.

Same outcome, different process

I read and write very differently depending on what I’m working on. If I’m searching for something, how I ‘read’ it is very different to if I’m browsing for something or if I’m just ‘feeling lucky’ – which is how I found out about Eglantyne Jebb – the best MP Cambridge never had. I was standing in front of a bookshelf in the Cambridgeshire Collection feeling lonely and unloved (I go through these periods of gloom) when I stumbled across a book that told me more about the history of Cambridge in the 19th Century than any other book I’ve tried to read. And she did that…ooh…in a few pages of text? Eglantyne’s degree from Oxford was in history – perhaps explaining a reason why I found her social scientific study of poverty in Cambridge so easy to follow.

The thing is, when I was reading the original copies of the Cambridge Independent Press at the Cambridgeshire Collection – the ones dating from 1907 so as to see who said what about Eglantyne’s book, the process of reading those large newspapers was a much more relaxing one than using the microfiche machines. Yes, the latter are essential but they are noisy and fiddly things. For someone who spends too long in front of screens, any time away doing something constructive is a blessing. Browsing quietly in front of a wall of slightly faded text, awaiting the next historical gem to make itself known is far more relaxing than trying to do the same online. The process of zooming in and out is particularly annoying.

Finally with the books, I’m using the digitisation by G o o g l e to pick out the key bits of text – similar to searches on the British Newspaper Archive  which frustratingly is incomplete and thus work in progress. Thus I use digitisation to narrow down searches as much as possible, and once I’ve picked out something that has lots of gems in it, go either for the original or for a reprinted copy. In the grand scheme of things I’m not fussy about reprints vs old books. The importance with the latter is that they are much cheaper and more easily available to a much wider audience.

Why old history books – and their modern reprints are important

Taking Eglantyne again as our example, her current WikiP page states:

She moved to Cambridge to look after her sick mother. There she became involved in the Charity Organisation Society, which aimed to bring a modern scientific approach to charity work. This led her to carry out an extensive research project into conditions in the city, and in 1906 she published a book, Cambridge, a Study in Social Questions based on her research.

Not much came of this work, and for several years she lived quietly

I’ve put the last line above in bold – because it’s factually incorrect. It’s difficult to quantify what impact the book had at the time – especially given the outbreak of war less than a decade after. Much as I’d like to attribute the changing in housing, street and urban planning design to Eglantyne, there were various moves locally and nationally to do something about poverty and multiple deprivation. What I hope to find in the newspaper archives is whether her book led to any specific policy changes from local government, and/or pressure from her influential group of friends and activists to change government policy. One thing she didn’t do in her years in Cambridge after her book was published was living quietly. Quite the opposite.

(I’ll get round to signing up and editing that page/article in the near future but it’s past 1am in the morning).

And 110 years after her book was published, it’s becoming of interest again with the growth of Cambridge and with it, a renewed interest locally in the story of our city.

What would a refreshed ‘Cambridge Collection’ of reprinted books look like?

Y’know, other than books on a bookshelf.

The reason why I ask is because I’ve stumbled across a number of old pamphlet style books that are full of historical morsels but are all too easily missed/forgotten about because they have no spine from which to spot on a bookshelf. The old Oleander Press (now accepting new submissions for local history and children’s books) published a number of these in the 20th Century. This makes me wonder whether a compilation of their old works – perhaps with refreshed additions to cover the decades of history that has happened since, might be an interesting project for them?

 

Are Cambridgeshire businesses hiding away from tough political challenges?

Summary

Some thoughts on the various articles written for the business communities on the future of Cambridge

Cambridge Ahead – who were one of the lead sponsors for the Be the change – Cambridge event I organised a couple of years ago, hosted an event about the future of Cambridge that was aimed at the business community. A number of people have commented on who said what – in particular in the context of Brexit, which wasn’t even on the radar a couple of years ago. One article written about the recent event is here.

‘We are non-political’

I have often heard this line used by a number of people and organisations. What they really mean is that their organisation does not back or is not affiliated to any political party. But we all do whenever we comment on something like the future of where we live is we engage in something innately political. We should all acknowledge that.

What the people want and what’s good for business may not be the same thing

From the Cambridge business community’s perspective, the Brexit vote represented this. How, as a business (or business community) do you try and find a middle ground in politically polarised times? Since the late 1990s until very recently, it was relatively straight forward for the business community to hold that middle ground. Remember the complaints about political parties having very little to differentiate between them? The world we’re moving into now – especially given the first few statements from the new US administration, is going to be very different. Political parties themselves are struggling to redefine and reorganise themselves along the new split in UK politics – not left vs right but pro-EU vs anti-EU.

Accepting the structures given by central government rather than questioning them

This for me is a theme within public policy debates – the focus on details of the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’. The Qs on ‘why’ are put in the box ‘too difficult to answer’ or ‘that’s for the party political arena which we’re not involved in’. One of the few articles that does face the problem of structures head on is this one by Gabrielle Hibberd of CoFinitive.

 “The devolution deal will prove to be a big milestone is Cambridge’s progressive journey. But to tackle its issues head-on Cambridge needs real fiscal devolution. Cambridge has the potential; it just needs the right governance and more fiscal autonomy to deliver better growth even faster. Still, what Cambridge crucially needs to remain successful, is unity.”

Looking at Gabrielle’s Twitter profile I get the sense that she’s examined the problems of Cambridge as they are without worrying about the party-political niceties. Hence the solution she’s come up with cuts through the party-political fog of whether such a solution benefits one party or another. Refreshing – and an example of why Cambridgeshire’s politics needs many more younger people and people from more diverse backgrounds taking part. They will feel less constrained by the restrictions that inevitably come from being part of an institution (in this case party political) for extended periods of time. (Party political should not be seen as all things bad, as I’ll explain later).

The above quotation matches what data analyst and Liberal Democrat campaigner Phil Rodgers posted about the complexity of local government in Cambridgeshire.

Furthermore, Cambridgeshire – or as in Phil’s case, the Greater Cambridge Council (and its counterpart presumably based in Peterborough) need to have much greater taxation and spending powers than they currently have.

“What could those powers be?”

At a top level – and hell would probably freeze over before any Chancellor/The Treasury accepted this, are things like a land value tax, a wealth tax (based on total wealth, not just wealth in the UK), and a local income tax. Which one if any you choose, and and at what level will depend on your political disposition. Some readers of this blog will oppose all three on principle. Others will back all three and will want to whack up the percentage at which the tax applies – again on political principle.

Zero historical analysis

One of the reasons I started Lost Cambridge was because too many of our decisions were being taken with minimal historical context. The last time we had a restructure of local government in Cambridgeshire was in the mid-1970s. Devolution and LEPs are cosmetic compared to past restructures.

I wonder how many of us have looked into past infrastructure plans and wondered why some got the go-ahead and others did not? Or perhaps why some infrastructure projects were delayed for so long? For example Parliament passed the necessary legislation for two new bridges over the River Cam in 1889. The first – Victoria Road, was built in 1890. But it wasn’t until 1971 that the Elizabeth Way bridge was completed. A further – aborted bridge over the Cam was proposed by Professors Holford and Wright in 1950.

cambridge-development-plan-holford-1950-barnwell-rd-detail

Does anyone know why no bridge was built across Ditton Meadows linking East and North Cambridge? Did anyone (outside of local government and local history circles) know that such a bridge was proposed in the first place?

I picked out a few interesting things from the 1950 Holford Wright Report in this blogpost. What stands out for you? Were there any missed opportunities? If so, which ones were they?

Where are all of the women in decision-making roles?

One of the best books ever written about Cambridge was called Cambridge – a brief study in social questions. It was written at a time when women were banned from standing for election to Parliament. Yet despite that, the book was written by one of the most talented women ever to live in Cambridge. Step forward (again) Miss Eglantyne Jebb. If you look in the acknowledgements section in the book, you will find some of the most amazing women who lived in Cambridge at the time contributed to the book – including the first woman to be elected to the city council, Ada Florence Keynes.

Eglantyne’s book on Cambridge was the first social scientific study of multiple deprivation in Cambridge. Despite her very affluent upbringing, she went out to the slums of Cambridge (where the infant mortality rate was one in eight as she states) and wrote a book that was widely praised at the time – even though history has since forgotten about it. (Hence trying to change this). Remember at the time, the men of Cambridge University until only a few years before saw the issue of sex workers in Cambridge as being a problem of morals rather than multiple deprivation. Hence why they were unlawfully locking up young women in Cambridge until 1891 when 17 year old Cambridge hero Daisy Hopkins stood up to the university, metaphorically castrated their constables and got the law changed. The Cambridge University and Corporation of Cambridge Act 1894 was a huge point in our city’s history – in particular its governance. But how many of us knew that, and how many of us knew that it was a brave 17 year old woman who was the spark?

Where are all of the women in the decision-making roles in the business community?

Because if Cambridge was blind-sided to the input of women just over a century ago, imagine what the Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough LEP is blindsided to today. The gender split of the board is quite frankly embarrassing. And to say the talented women are not there simply won’t wash. As an institution the LEP is far too complacent – and has been ever since I first raised this issue a few years ago because we’ve seen so little change. If the LEP won’t reflect the diverse makeup of the business communities in Cambridge, why should any of us listen to the LEP?

Who is influencing the influencers?

Gabrielle Hibberd of CoFinitive hits the nail on the head again in her blogpost saying that Cambridge needs a longer term plan and vision. The City Deal should have been the chance to do that but it hasn’t because it didn’t use its ‘Year Zero’ as an opportunity to host that wide-ranging consultation and community conversation about the city we wanted to become. Several of us did try to persuade them but they were not for persuading.

Cambridge Network representative Claire Ruskin’s point is very well made. We don’t have that common data and evidence base. One thing for Cambridge’s (and Cambridgeshire’s) business community is to think about sharing information – and also to become more public-facing. By that I mean it needs to allow itself to be challenged and influenced by the public and community groups. Are there insights that businesses are missing out on by focusing their attention on senior councillors, quango chief executives and ministers?

And finally…where are your young people?

Given that skills is top of the agenda, why are young people conspicuous by their absence – given that possibly for the first time in history, young people have skills sets that older generations do not have. You only have to look at adverts for internet service providers on TV making a big thing about children having power over their parents because they know how to use the internet. And I write this with my most previous council meeting at Cambridgeshire County Council being one where at least two councillors boasted how they didn’t do social media. Have you got any board members like that? How do you think such attitudes look to your current and future employees and customers?

Food for thought.