Heidi Allen MP & South Cambs Lib Dems need to decide what their plan is – and quickly

Spolier: They decided -> https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2019/10/07/heidi-allen-mp-joins-the-liberal-democrats/



Will South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats stand down their candidate Ian Sollom and back incumbent Independent MP Heidi Allen against a close Johnson ally with a record of writing inflammatory articles on immigration and race relations?

Today has been full of speculation about when the date of the next general election will be, the Prime Minister plays a political game with very high stakes for the rest of us on whether the UK will crash out of the EU with ‘No Deal’. The latest is that opposition party leaders have declined his request to have a general election before the European Council meeting when any final request for an extension can be put.

Mr Sollom says the next election will be crucial:

South Cambridgeshire will be very difficult to call because there are so many uncertainties – alongside a rapidly changing and growing constituency that saw South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats crush their Conservative opponents on South Cambs District Council in 2018, securing 66% of the seats until the next round of elections in 2022.

With the exception of Samuel Montagu (Liberal) and Albert Stubbs (Labour), the lands around Cambridge have only ever had Conservative MPs – and the former was part of the coalition under Lloyd George that teamed up with the Conservatives in the latter part of the First World War and the immediate years after. So the current situation of not having control of either the district council or the parliamentary seat is something of a constitutional outrage in the context of the past 200 years of local history. Ditto the case for Cambridge itself – hence why ministers still rock up to the place pretending like it’s still a safe Conservative constituency.

Whatever Ms Allen and the South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats decide, they need to decide quickly because their main political opponent is already campaigning.

It remains to be seen what the opposition parties choose to do in South East Cambridgeshire next door, where the incumbent MP is Solicitor General Lucy Frazer QC MP. Given her public support for Mr Johnson in the leadership campaign despite representing a constituency that voted Remain, the Liberal Democrats see a possible upset in a constituency that straddles part of South Cambridgeshire District Council’s area.

We live in interesting times.



Where were you when Ken Clarke got kicked out of the Tory Party in the Commons?


Even the news people can’t believe it.

Actually, this show down was a very long time coming. The warning shots were fired ages ago, but ultimately Theresa May’s administration prevailed. But today, against Mr Johnson, they didn’t – and backbench MPs took control of the Order Paper.

So, having taken control of the order paper, they hope (with the help of the House of Lords) legally prevent the UK leaving the EU without a deal. If this law is passed, Mr Corbyn has said that he will support a general election, but *not before the law is passed* on blocking a ‘No Deal’. This looks like a success for lots of people who leant on Mr Corbyn to make such a move.

All of these now ex-Tory MPs have had their party whip removed.

…which includes two former chancellors of the exchequer and a host of former cabinet ministers. This is not normal. Count them. Twenty-one. Even Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames went.

It’s a bit like the expenses scandal that got rid of so many long-standing MPs. At the same time it’ll be interesting to see which MPs choose to contest their seats without the Conservative backing.

At a more local level, in South Cambridgeshire the Liberal Democrats have a decision to make – and quickly: Do they oppose Heidi Allen MP with their own candidate against chum of Boris and writer of inflammatory articles Mr Browne, or do they unite behind her against a candidate even less suitable for the county than Andrew effing Lansley? Browne has written more than a few articles that have whipped up prejudice against immigrants. Hence why I find him utterly unsuitable to represent a seat with Addenbrooke’s hospital in it. But then that’s the new Tory party under Messrs Johnson and Cummings.

More defending democracy protests

One or two people on the pro-leave side have complained to me about the fanaticism of some of the Remain side – forgetting that actual convicted racists have been out in support of Mr Johnson and co.

Then there was this incredible headline below:

…which is an incredibly irresponsible thing to do for any politician, but as we’ve discovered, the ‘normal rules’ have been suspended if not wrecked, and as Caroline Lucas said in a speech scathing of Mr Rees Mogg, the only solution is a written constitution.

You can watch Caroline’s Speech here.

Also, Puffles told everyone – with a snapshot.

…and the notifications went into meltdown.

This does not automatically mean there will be a general election this autumn, that the UK will get a second referendum, or even that the UK will ultimately remain in the EU.

Events are moving incredibly quickly on this issue – while other urgent and important policy areas are put on the back burner. At the same time, a lot of people are getting a crash course in parliamentary democracy. That said, our laws need an urgent update before we go into a general election. Read this by Full Fact.

There’s not long in which to table and pass such a bill through Parliament.

Defending democracy protests in Cambridge – August 2019


More people protesting in Cambridge. What happens next?

Isabel Hardman outlines the options here:

Jon Worth thinks these are the options:

…and on what he thinks *should* happen

…while Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government reminds us who is really responsible – and where the buck stops.

Advisers advise, ministers decide.

In the meantime, Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner was back amongst constituents on Saturday.

The playlist of videos is here.

On the pro-leave side, I’ve seen a number of posts similar to this one by Alicia Kearns.

The one thing that has muddied the water somewhat is who is under what obligation regarding the 2016 referendum.

For me, the problems we see today that the political class is struggling with, were of their own making. This is irrespective of whether they align with a strong leave, strong remain, somewhere in the middle, or just a big “meh.”

For the general public, I don’t see what obligation anyone has on having to change their opinions and views as a result of any referendum. In the Scottish Independence Referendum the debate is still going even though the pro-Remain in the UK side (backed by the three main Westminster parties) won 55%-45%.

Should the pro-leavers be directing their anger at those at the top of the Conservative Party for calling the general election of 2017 instead? They had the Parliamentary majority to see through the negotiations and leaving process all the way through to May 2020 under the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

One of the other points raised is whether continuing to oppose the UK leaving the EU is undemocratic or not, I wrote the following in response to some comments on FB.

“A single referendum at a single point in history is not the same as democracy. Democracy encompasses far more than that, including but not limited to:

  • 1) general elections,
  • 2) lobbying, asking questions of said elected persons to parliaments & councils,
  • 3) signing petitions,
  • 4) turning up to local public meetings to state your issues,
  • 5) taking part in protest marches and non-violent activities.

“The Conservatives created this mess – Cameron ran away from it followed by Osborne & a host of other politicians who exited stage right. Theresa May had *three secretaries of state* (Boris, Liam Fox & David Davis) and *three departments of state* (Foreign Office, Brexit Dept & International Trade Dept) to make Brexit work – and could not. Nothing to do with Remainers.

“The Tories could not get the deal past their own MPs – the pro-Brexit wing voting it down.  Opposition MPs are under no obligation to support the Govt’s Deal – why should they? Their job is to oppose. Irrespective of merit, Labour had their own proposals to negotiate as is their right in opposition.

“There was nothing on the ballot paper that said “…and everyone opposing leaving the EU will be banned from speaking about, protesting & campaigning for Remain ever ever ever. Brexit is for the Tories to deliver. If they can’t do it they only have themselves to blame. Shutting down Parliament also means MPs cannot scrutinise all of the other non-Brexit policies & work of Government- not an insignificant list of things. That really is undemocratic.

Splits in the pro-leave side and the pro-remain side.

I can’t recall a time when both the party in government and the lead opposition party appeared so split. Interestingly, the move by the Prime Minister to suspend/prorogue Parliament has hardened the splits between what’s left of the one nation tradition in the Tory Party vs the pro-Leave side, while bringing together wildly different factions not just within the Labour Party, but also those to the left of Labour and those to the right of it. Seeing dozens of Liberal Democrats protesting under the same umbrella as far left paper sellers was a surreal sight in Cambridge today. Yet all it takes is an inflammatory remark from one political sect against another and all hell can break loose.

Going beyond defending democracy, to building and strengthening it – Mrs Keynes sets the example

If I was going to make a speech on that theme, it would have been one that referred to the example of Florence Ada Keynes – someone who spent her adult life building democracy in Cambridge as well as influencing Westminster. In 1914 she persuaded Parliament to remove the ban on married women from standing for election. A few weeks later, the people of Fitzwilliam ward elected her to become our first woman councillor – persuading the Conservatives not to stand against her given that war had just broken out.

321230 FlorenceAdaKeynesTheVoteFrontPage

Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

In 1932, she was elected our second woman mayor following Eva Hartree in 1924. She got our present guildhall built – one from the inside at least that was suitable for modern local government and with a large enough council chamber. That was despite the huge opposition (who could not unify behind an alternative).

Eglantyne Jebb building democracy

The founder of Save The Children researched and wrote the first social scientific study of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge’s history. Published in 1906, it busted many myths about what caused it – the menfolk attributing much of it to ‘ladies with loose morals’. Eglantyne, along with Margaret Keynes (Florence’s daughter) and Gwen Darwin (later Raverat – and a grand daughter of Charles Darwin) did the data collection and analysis, and demonstrated that it was poor town planning and poor public health.

180730 Eglantyne Jebb Cambs Collection_2 Small PicA hero and a pioneer – Eglantyne Jebb, using a social scientific approach to public policy in Cambridge in the early 1900s. Photo: Cambridgeshire Collection.

My take is that there is much we can learn from the example of the Women who made modern Cambridge so far as strengthening our democracy is concerned. It’s not all about speeches and marches, important as they are for raising awareness. I’ll be speaking about Florence, Eglantyne and their network of friends, relatives and activists who transformed our city for the better, at the Open Cambridge Festival. Details of my talk at Anglia Ruskin University are here.

A convergence of multiple political storms

Summary: The Prime Minister shuts down Parliament at a time when Parliamentarians need to be in Parliament scrutinising the Government – and not just on leaving the EU.

I’m not intending on using this post to re-hash the debates on the UK’s attempts at leaving the EU and opposing politicians’ arguments to stay in. This is more about the multiple political storms occurring at the same time in an era where no one in Westminster seems in control of events – and its fallout local to me.

One of the things I’ve noticed that has been smashed to pieces in Westminster are the unwritten conventions that supposedly keep the place running.

…and my conclusion was that the longer term response to this was a written constitution. The trust needed to keep the existing political system going has gone, and ironically it is the Conservative Party that has smashed them.

In the meantime, the petition against the suspension of Parliament has shot to over a million signatures on the back of the news this morning.

In the meantime… Greta has sailed into New York

…while in and around Cambridge, it’s our river and her tributaries & streams we’re worried about – with over-extraction being blamed.

I made a further video on Hobson’s Brook below:

In the west-facing footage you should normally be able to see a stream and a small waterfall that flows out of a man-made pond, part of the landscaping for the open park by the new housing east of the new Trumpington Community College.

The domestic crises of public services

The headline in Tuesday’s Telegraph contrasts with the many new spending commitments that the Prime Minister seems to have made in recent times. Which bodes ill for schools, hospitals and everything that local councils do.

Whether the UK leaves with or without a deal, the upheaval caused by the changes needed to be made by institutions will be huge and painful – they already are.

Combine those upheavals with the changes that will be forced upon us by the climate emergency, combined with the opportunities & challenges that technological advances have brought us means that our present institutions will struggle – if not collapse in their existing forms. And don’t think that means more cuts, slogans with ‘doing more with less’, bringing in expensive management consultants, and more privatisation is going to do the trick either. Such things have been the default position of ministers of various political colours when dealing with failures in public service delivery.


The illustration of this talk by Dr Rupert Read speaks volumes.

Dr Read was the Green Party’s candidate in Cambridge for the 2015 general election, where he polled over 4,000 votes, nearly 8% of the vote – the party’s highest ever in the city. 

Dr Read wrote on Deep Adaptation to the climate crisis for The Ecologist. I remain of the view that as things currently stand, locally in Cambridge we have absolutely no comprehension of the huge changes we will have to make individually and collectively in the face of the global climate crisis. Whether it’s melting glaciers in Greenland or the Andes in South America, desertification in Africa, rainforest fires in South America and sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia – you’ve seen the smogs – through to the fires in Siberia, this is a crisis of global proportions yet day-to-day in Cambridge I’ve seen little evidence of systematic adaptation and behavioural change.

We still have people driving in cars with illegally modified engines – ones that risk invalidating their insurance policies which risks a prosecution of driving without insurance. We still have diesel buses. We don’t have the mass transits despite years of discussions. We still have the mass consumerism. Take a train ride out of Cambridge and whichever way you head you see fields without hedgerows – despite years of warnings about the impact of soil erosion and the collapse of insect life.

Then we have another round of job-losses in the face of even more automation – 1.5million at the last count by the ONS. Think of all of the supermarkets that have installed automatic/self-service check outs. In the convenience food shops in Cambridge I compare it to when I had my first part-time job over two decades ago – where being on a check-out week in week out you would get to know your regular customers. Working at a grocers, pub or restaurant was kind of a local right-of-passage that most of us went through. I just don’t see the striking up of conversations between customers and staff that was so familiar just before the Millennium. Something exacerbated by the increased turnover in population in South Cambridge that has also happened in the intervening period. (A combination of the rise in student accommodation and university/research contracts being fixed term – harder for people to stick around).

Protests on other issues lined up

There’s a big one on school funding lined up – Cambridgeshire schools are some of the lowest funded in the country.

The county receives £400 less per child than the average funded authority and £1,600 less per child than Westminster.

Now compare the council tax levels:

A stupid-crazy-stupid system for local taxation where what you pay is based on your home’s value based on house prices on 01 April 1991. Instead of getting involved in the mess that is Brexit, it would have been far better for ministers to have sorted out a much more sustainable and fairer system for local council funding – one that didn’t involve so much micro-management from Westminster. And I write as one of those former micro-managers! But as this article states, it is ‘politically unpopular’


Our systems of governance from local to international are not fit to face 21stC challenges


It’s not just dealing with the world of all things online that our present institutions are struggling with.

One of the most wise and high calibre people I’ve ever met, Dr Catherine Howe, tipped us off on this blogpost about governance by former New Labour supremo Geoff Mulgan, one of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s key policy advisers the 1990s & 2000s.

The paper is published by Nesta – formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts (an organisation spun out of the Dept for Culture, Media and Sport).

Mr Mulgan writes:

“In the 19th and 20th centuries, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation initially had disastrous results for millions as they moved to cities blighted by pollution, high crime and disease. In response, societies created a plethora of new institutions – from police to public health, from universal education to inspectorates, from trade unions to microcredit, and from welfare states to regulators.”

For those of you familiar with my Lost Cambridge blog, the above sounds very familiar. Shortly after Parliament passed the necessary legislation, we got our first police station. Fast forward to the present day and the Conservatives want to close Cambridge’s last police station, leaving the city without a permanent police base inside the city boundaries for the first time since Cambridge Borough Council voted to create and fund a borough police force.

Things Cambridge got to deal with social problems over the past 200 years.

We also got a new courthouse in 1843 at the top of Castle Hill.

Shire Hall Court House 28543 Photo

…but this was at the expense of the last remaining building of the old Cambridge Castle.

410804 Remains of castle hill gatehouse demolished_1 1841

…and the Liberal-supporting Cambridge General Advertiser was not slow on who to blame for this.

410804 Remains of castle hill gatehouse demolished_2 1841.jpeg

In the end, we lost both to that glorious 20th Century invention, the Car Park.

As an aside, the Commons Science & Technology Committee have recommended that the Government bans the sale of cars powered by fossil fuels by 2035. So they’ll need to find another use for that car park – like an expanded Museum of Cambridge.

This was also a time of growing museum and library expansion – Cambridge legend John Pink got us our first public library.

181016 First Free Public Library Jesus Lane Friends Meeting House

…and stuck around for the next half century to build it into an institution with purpose-built premises.

And for all the criticism of Victorian prisons, what we had before them was even worse. William Milner Fawcett‘s prison on Castle Hill was quite modern.

Cambridge County Jail

This was the site that would see Cambridge’s last public hanging.

We also got a big post office in town.

181006 Petty Cury Post Office 1900

This was on the corner of Petty Cury & St Andrew’s Street – long since demolished for the Lion Yard redevelopment. In the various housing crises we got inter-war council housing

271130 Cambridge Housing Soc new homes

…and in the post-war crisis my neighbourhood got pre-fabs.

461018 Lichfield Rd prefabs Neville Rd Nissan huts

When we started running out of burial ground space we got a new crematorium.


…but it took us decades to begin to address our town’s car parking problem – we’re still struggling.

360323 First Car Parking signs in Cambridge 1936

…This new ‘street furniture’ was quite controversial that it became the subject of local satire – alongside what is now the current guildhall in the mid-1930s.

360919 Ronald Searle road signs as vegetables

Newspaper images from the Cambridgeshire Collection – founded by John Pink!

In post-war Cambridge, demands for new retail and shopping facilities led to many a plan put in place by Gordon Logie – all of which seem to have been rejected.

180930 Gordon Logie in Reeve_2 1960s

From The Cambridge that never was, by Reeve. (1976) 

While we didn’t lose gems such as Robert Sayle’s premises, we didn’t get the fun stuff we were promised such as two new civic halls and an international centre.

“What does all of the above point to?”

Political institutions & actors engaging with civic society to invent institutions (and buildings to house them) to solve social problems in a rapidly-changing society.

Mr Mulgan writes about the challenges of long term social care in an ageing society. Lifelong learning is another – covered by Nesta here. With no more ‘jobs for life’ the idea that the individual has to pay to retrain over-and-over again to get to a high-skilled level – in an era of very high housing costs, is clearly utterly unsustainable. Something’s got to give.

Climate emergencies and ecocide

The forest fires in The Amazon, as well as those in Alaska and Siberia amongst other places have rung serious alarm bells. Earlier this evening I took part in a very large cycling critical mass ride through Cambridge – one of the largest I’ve seen. As I said to one of my fellow riders, fascist heads of state setting rainforests on fire is one of my big red lines.

And no, EUR20m is not nearly enough to fight the fires, let alone pay for the recovery costs.

I have no clue how to respond to any of this

As an individual I feel utterly bewildered at the scale of what is happening to our environment and climate. It’s similar to what Laurie Penny mentioned in her thread here on the impact that this is all having on our collective mental health.

There are also similarities to similar dark times in decades and centuries gone by, and how people and organisations responded. The example I have is how the Cambridge Daily News reported what was happening in international politics in the 1930s, and how it and local people responded to them – something rarely covered in conventional history books. In summer 2018 during the heatwave, I spent a whole month in the Cambridgeshire Collection going through every copy of the Cambridge Daily News between 1935-39. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. What’s clear to me is that people and institutions were grappling with phenomena they had never had to deal with before.

With the two historical blogposts, focus on the local reaction to the events rather than the events themselves – which inevitably carry a huge amount of historical and political baggage as we know what happened. The people writing and reading the newspapers at the time did not. For example, while the British Government had given up on the League of Nations as an institution, the people of Cambridge clearly had not – for our League of Nations Union was still meeting.

381111 Cambridge League of Nations Association.jpg

Cambridge had its share of peace meetings – this one below from 1936 with a soon to be famous face, Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the NHS as Minister for Health in Attlee’s postwar government.

360303 Peace Meeting with Aneurin Bevan.JPG

Above – both from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Cambridge – a protesting city

I wrote about the number and variety of protests that had already taken place at the start of the year in this blogpost. The news of the Amazon fires increased the turnout of cyclists at the latest critical mass by XR Cambridge.

A list of protests on issues beyond Brexit and the Environment, such as funding for schools and health have already been organised locally for the autumn. And yet for all of the protests outside of the Guildhall, the seat of Cambridge City Council, that council has perilously few powers and even fewer resources to respond to the crises that are afflicting our city – from homelessness to air pollution to the state of public transport. Which is why it doesn’t matter how much money the Prime Minister is able to release to the list of towns awarded high street funding, the institutional structures that caused many of the problems linked to austerity are still there. But which political party has the courage to bring in much needed local government reform – radical reform?

The United Nations – or just a talking shop for executive branches of nation states?

What the UN (whether through the General Assembly or the Security Council, or other agencies that makes it up) is not – and never was, was an assembly containing representatives of the people. For a start more than a few of the member states represented on the UN are dictatorships.

The idea of a global parliamentary assembly is not a new one. It was one of the ideas put forward when the League of Nations was constituted over a century ago. The concept was in part introduced to us in Cambridge by Lella Secor Florence when she moved to Cambridge shortly after the First World War.


Hero: Lella Secor Florence a few years before her marriage to soon-to-be Cambridge economist Philip Florence. 

A genuine internationalist, she was previously been a member of the Women’s Peace Party in the United States of America -an organisation that amongst other things demanded a World Federation – as one of the photos in this blogpost shows.

As we go forward, the historian in me hopes that we learn from the successes, failures, and actions of those that tried to solve similar overwhelming problems in the past – for example those women in Cambridge who made the case for women having an equal basis in international diplomacy as men at the end of the First World War. (We’re still waiting for this to be achieved – institutionalised sexism being stubbornly resilient).


Saving the River Cam

Summary: Our river is struggling due to over extraction and the climate emergency – and the proposed level of house building isn’t going to make things any better.

Tony Juniper, the Chair of Natural England posted the following:

The article by Donna Ferguson for The Guardian is here.

At the same time, our county has an ambition to double the geographical area of rich wildlife areas and natural open spaces from 8% to 16% by the year 2050. One of the reasons it is so low is because so much of the county is used for food production.

Having read Donna’s report, one of the first things I thought of was why so many of our buildings in Cambridge & county were not incorporating things like rainwater harvesting, and greywater harvesting – something I remember being discussed in civil service circles in the early part of my career in the mid-2000s.

I also picked up on the point musician Feargal Sharkey (yes, that one) made about the poor enforcement of privatised water companies over-extracting from chalk streams. This was something that came up in a debate in the House of Commons two months ago when the MP for Broxbourne Charles Walker in an adjournment debate – which unusually had contributions from other MPs. Watch the debate here.

So I cycled down to my nearest chalk stream in Cherry Hinton – Cherry Hinton Brook. I made a video on what I saw:

Cherry Hinton Brook – a struggling chalk stream

It’s not just Cherry Hinton Brook – which flows into the River Cam.

Mr Sharkey quotes local poet Rupert Brooke.

This was also the same Rupert Brooke who spoke in favour of nationalising the land in a lecture in Cambridge in 1910 on Democracy & the Arts.

180829 Rupert Brook on democratizing the land 1910

…and in the same year after campaigning against the Conservatives in the general elections of 1910…

“I have cut off the only man in Rugby I know at all well, for he was a Tory and very wicked just now.” Rupert Brooke in “Letters of Rupert Brooke” edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes [younger son of Florence Ada Keynes]

which made this choice of VIP a controversial one to unveil a statue of him in Granchester!

***Roooopert, you communist!!!***

But as one of the MPs in the Commons debate alluded to, it doesn’t really matter what your political persuasion is when it comes to responding to the climate emergency. We’re all going to be doomed by it if we do nothing. Also, nationalising water companies by itself won’t automatically save the chalk streams. (Much as I quite like the principles on the grounds that water is a natural monopoly and also essential to life). The mechanisms for preventing over extraction – and also reducing demand, need examining.

“So, what are we going to do to save the Cam?”

One of the things that I’m due to post in a future blogpost is how we do not have the institutions to respond to the climate and political crises. Governance sinkholes if you will. Whether it’s burning rainforests in the Amazon – (and yes I want the President of Brazil hauled before an International Court to answer charges of Crimes Against Humanity and Ecocide) to the state of the River Cam (the authority for the river I’d incorporate into an expanded & empowered unitary council for Cambridge), we don’t have the structures, systems or processes.

“Is that why you went on that protest bike ride through town?”


This is Cambridge – cycling is what we do.

Environmental activism over the past 12 or so months with XR Cambridge has grown a life and a dynamism of the like I’ve not seen before in Cambridge. The next few months will be crucial with the climax of the Brexit shambles, further scheduled climate protests following Greta Thunberg’s call, and a general election all happening.

Commons Science and Technology Committee calls for a ban on petrol/diesel motorcars by 2035 – including hybrids

In a nutshell, collectively we haven’t a clue about the huge changes that we will have to make to our villages, towns and cities to cope with the changing climate. Have a look at the recommendations here. If MPs are recommending to ministers that no new petrol or diesel cars should be on sale by 2035 – just over 15 years away, then think about the huge infrastructure changes we will have to make. It’s not just about where charging points might go. Replacing like-for-like the UK’s motor car fleet with electric cars will require two-thirds of the world’s cobalt supply.

And ministers want to go ahead with a new Oxford-Cambridge motorway to open in the year 2030? Madness.

Retrofitting existing buildings.

Look at New York’s approach to glass and steel towers that we’ve become familiar with. What will the approach be to retrofitting homes and offices? Note that one of the most prominent of glass towers in Cambridge is the Mills and Reeve one – which won an award in 2013…while also being featured as a piece of ‘hideous’ architecture in Hideous Cambridge by Jones and Hall.


Botanic House at the corner of Hills Road/Station Road – photo Cambridge Network.

Just by looking at it you can see it will need a major retrofit in the next decade or so should we get much tighter energy efficiency requirements on existing buildings. Furthermore, on the brick-faced south side of the building, there are no solar panels even though they have a huge canvass on which to fit lots of them on – and many buildings surrounding it that could benefit from that renewable power – not least the greenhouses of the Botanic Gardens next door.

“Isn’t it all too late?”

It feels like it – and Laurie Penny wrote an interesting thread on the mental health impact of the climate and ecological crisis.

…It’s worth reading her posts on the thread in full.

One of the saddest things from my perspective was that successive ministers (as well as the rest of us) knew about this from 1990. It was when Blue Peter on Children’s BBC published their Green Book. This was in the day of no internet and only four channels on TV – channels that also closed broadcasting overnight. Therefore the publicity this book got was massive.

We knew what was happening. But it’ll only be future generations who can know whether humanity succeeded in preventing an environmental catastrophe. And at the moment things are not looking good. Not looking good at all.

“This is Cambridge – we deserve better!”

Summary: In 1892, local councillors on Cambridge Borough Council criticised proposals from architect William Milner Fawcett for a new guildhall. Their comments are striking in that not only did they state that Cambridge deserved better, but also that they were prepared to spend more ratepayers money on a grander design.

The problem was that six years later when such a grand design was put to them, they bottled it and put the decision to local ratepayers who naturally refused to vote for what would have been a tax rise.

I’ve covered the story at Lost Cambridge here. This in part is the story of indecisive councillors bickering over designs before Florence Ada Keynes came in and solved the problem by finally getting a guildhall built – unfortunately one which in my view had the ugliest outside design. Thousands of townfolk took her to task over this. But as they had no united alternative, we got what we currently have. It could have been different.

181009 Guildhall unbuilt etching 1857

Peck and Stephens in the late 1850s was only partially accepted – we got the large assembly hall, opened in 1862 (and still there), but the powers that be didn’t approve the rest of it.

In the late 1880s/early 1890s, a series of proposed designs were submitted to councillors. Below is one design from local architect John Morley. There are others out there – but I’m awaiting the county archives to re-open.

350222 John Morley Guildhall 1890s

Above – from the Cambridge Daily News 22 Feb 1935 in the Cambridgeshire Collection – at a time when the controversy of the current guildhall was at its peak.

Below – William Milner Fawcett’s design of 1892.


Fawcett’s design was regarded as not grand enough. Alderman Deck, from the family of pharmacists was quoted as:

“He did not think that the elevation was of sufficient Importance for such a town as Cambridge. He believed the only thing they could do was to increase the grant and let the people have something worthy to look at. Towns of less size than Cambridge had far more handsome buildings.” (from earlier blogpost)

Councillor Young agreed:

“…he would rather the Council should pay an additional £5,000 for a better looking building, because it was to last for all time. It was not nice to see dormer windows facing a magnificent square they had.”

What struck me reading through the article and the minutes was how there was a real sense of civic pride from the councillors, and that they wanted the architecture to reflect this. So when one such design came along…

181009 Colour Photo Belcher Unbuilt Guildhall Horace Darwin 1898 Cambs Collection1.1

…John Belcher’s design for Mayor Horace Darwin, they couldn’t persuade the rest of the council nor the rate payers to agree to fund it. Such was the disappointment that it doesn’t seem like much more was made of guildhall designs until Florence Ada Keynes made it clear that the problem of the guildhall needed to be dealt with. Until then, our guildhall was this

Cambridge old guildhall - note to the left is old Petty Cury

Above – Cambridge’s old guildhall from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Below: Charles Cowles-Voysey’s design of 1935.

350108 CambridgeGuildhallCambridgeIndy1935

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The design became a target for political satire, so unpopular it was.


I can visualise Puffles now:

***Hai! We iz here to use your guildhall for target practice!***

DORA in this case…possibly the Defence of the Realm Act?

“Why are you so obsessed about civic architecture in Cambridge? Leave our poor architects alone!!!”

Messrs Jones and Ellis wrote a book about it. And given one of the newest local council buildings being the anonymous South Cambridgeshire Hall where the acoustics of the main debating chamber/conference room are awful for such a new building, I think the architecture world can do so much better. Furthermore, I think they won’t have any choice. They will have to. Because climate change is going to make them.

“Forced to?”

Yes – this from RIBA:

“RIBA declares environment and climate emergency and commits to action plan”

Over a decade ago when I was working on climate change policy in the context of new homes policy in Whitehall, one of the things that struck me was how different the design of our built environment was going to have to be if we were to adapt to the changes that even limited climate change would bring. Given the forest fires from the Amazon to Siberia, and the unprecedented melting glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, and further weakening of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf (we have the Scott Polar Research Institute and the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge), those changes might come far faster than we previously anticipated.

One of the things more than a few people in and around the building industry have mentioned to me is that the era of the glass-and-steel tower is over. The only reason why we were able to build them in the first place was cheap energy to pay to heat them. Hence why one of the conversations we’d often have inside Whitehall during my time there was on what was going to happen with renovation of buildings. One of the few good things that can be said about the buildings in Cambridge with large glass surface areas is that changing their facades does not need to involve the complete demolition of the buildings themselves – which have solid steel frames at their cores. Important when considering the lifecycle of buildings and embedded carbon.

“We can’t build Belcher’s Guildhall”


Actually, doing that would be a silly idea – not least because that design only has three stories on it, while the current guildhall has at least five. Furthermore, the interior of the main office buildings doesn’t need huge amounts of structural work done to it. And I think it’d be nice to have something similar to Belcher’s facade in place if not for Eva Hartree’s centenary as our first woman Mayor of Cambridge, then perhaps for Florence Ada Keynes’ centenary in 2032.

“No. We can’t have Edwardian Baroque.”

Ultimately architecture is about opinions – and money. Kenneth Robinson in 1964 was full of opinions in his video piece, slamming lots of town architecture left, right and centre. But no one can convince me that the accommodation for St Edmund College below, and featured here, is a credit to our city. Bland, lazy, minimalist and an architectural crime against our city for them to have forced through such a design on such a prominent location.


“I do share concern about blandness”

And I regularly hear such comments from councillors on planning committees, but the current system means that they have to approve bland applications less they lose on appeal and have to bear the costs at a time of austerity.

As I said at the top: “This is Cambridge – we deserve better”. Perhaps what’s interesting is that over the past century and a bit, I’m not the only local resident who has said this – and I can imagine similar has been said by others for their villages, towns and cities. And rightly so.

World Photography Day – nice things from my photo archive

…because let’s face it, everything else is more than a little bit sh_te. 

So…here are some with descriptions below.

Cambridge medallions

1873 Cambridge Working Mens Club Medal_2

I found this medal going online and recognised it as being something more significant than it is. It was from the first Cambridge Workmen’s Club Industrial Exhibition from the early 1870s, awarded to a local man who was a colleague of David Parr. I’ve gifted it to the David Parr House off Mill Road so that you and the general public can see it.

Satirical cartoons

350316 STDMoon cartoon motorists road signs and fines

This is Sid Moon in the Cambridge Daily News in the Cambridgeshire Collection. He was the Saturday satirist for the paper until Ronald Searle of St Trinian’s fame took over. This is Sid Moon in the mid-1930s lampooning the new national standard road signs named after the Minister for Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha.

They don’t make railway posters like they used to

181017 Cambridge Colleges MuseumofCamb Poster

This was a ***huge*** original railway poster by the artist Kerry Lee. I love the riot of colour in this poster, again which I acquired from an antique dealer on the south coast, and gifted to the Museum of Cambridge.

The old Shire Hall Assizes Court on Castle Hill

Shire Hall Court House 28543 Photo

Photo from the Museum of Cambridge. Built in the early 1840s, this was demolished in the 1950s as the building was full of dry rot and the county council were looking for an excuse to build a car park. My plan is to rebuild the court house down to the last moss-covered roof tile and have the building hosting an expanded Museum of Cambridge.

One of the guildhall’s we didn’t get

181009 Colour Photo Belcher Unbuilt Guildhall Horace Darwin 1898 Cambs Collection1.1

Designed by John Belcher for Mayor Horace Darwin – who was later knighted for his services to industry in WWI, the story of why we didn’t get this is here. Again I consider this design to be ‘work in progress’ which just requires a few amendments to make it suitable as a new facade for the guildhall in time for the centenary of Florence Ada Keynes’ centenary as Mayor.

Florence Ada Keynes – Mother of Modern Cambridge

Florence Ada Keynes Dissenting Forbears NevilleBrown

One of the greatest public servants in Cambridge’s history, she devoted her adult life to our city as soon as her three children were out of infancy. Our first woman councillor, in the group of our first women magistrates, and Mayor of Cambridge in 1932 after standing down as national president of the National Council of Women. She got our current guildhall built – against huge opposition, but as the latter could not agree on an alternative, we got the one in Market Square. Possibly the only major civic decision that I think she got wrong. But she got it built in time for World War 2. And in that regard, we cannot be fussy.

Books about how the country is run

I’m picking up quite a few of these – things that really should have been refreshed, published and publicised en masse years before we even thought about an EU Referendum.

A partly-built guildhall but we didn’t get the fancy stuff

181009 Guildhall unbuilt etching 1857.jpg

Peck & Stephens had this masterpiece planned in the late 1850s. We got the large hall in their design but not the things around it which would become fashionable as ‘Edwardian Baroque’ – often seen in London & built at the time of peak British Empire. It’s a style that (as with Belcher’s further above) that divides opinion. Personally I quite like it because there is something ‘magnificent’ about it – and furthermore it looks like the architects enjoyed drawing it up. I cannot say the same about many of Cambridge’s new buildings.

Hobson Street Cinema, built in 1930.

160607 OldBingoHallPerspective

It’s been unused for nearly a decade after initial plans to turn it into a jazz club were rejected on advice of the police and from the pressure of the college opposite. Many local groups have called on the owners to allow the building to be used for community groups – only to be rebuffed. Which makes these proposals from Labour all the more interesting.

The old Playhouse Cinema on Mill Road


Photo from the Museum of Cambridge – if anyone has a colour photograph of this, please let me or them know – I’d love to see a copy of it and cannot find one anywhere!

Sir William Holford’s motorway flyover plan from 1950


The Cambridge Development Plan of 1950 is worth studying in detail because the analysis is actually very good. I just disagree with more than a few of their plans – in particular their spine road that ploughs through Christ’s Pieces & Jesus Green, and this flyover that was planned to go over the river at Stourbridge Common – a classic case of a traffic-generating road. But townfolk protested strongly and the plan for both were dropped. Interestingly construction has started on a new cycle bridge for the “Chisholm Trail” that will link north and south Cambridge alongside the railway line, taking thousands of cyclists off main roads onto a segregated cycleway.

The people voted for a dragon, the people get a dragon


A year after Puffles beat UKIP in Coleridge ward in 2014 at the Cambridge City Council elections, the city council installed a new dragon slide at Coleridge Rec. Result.

I need to get back into music again – but health is preventing me at the moment

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds – Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)

I am absolutely petrified at this point – a couple of months after the city council elections of that year, this gig clashed with the World Cup Final of 2014. But this was my first group musical performance since…secondary school. And that was in 1992!

It’s still home – even though for years I hated the place


Cherry Hinton Hall – the Cambridge Folk Festival.

Cambridge’s old gasworks and sewage pumping station – by Howard Palmer from a local Cambridge Facebook Group.


A wonderful old colour photo from Mr Palmer from the latter part of the 20th Century, I always associated the two structures with each other because they appeared as tall as each other. But the gasometer is in fact a completely different building to the gasometer at what was the Cambridge Gas Works. The site became derelict as the country switched to North Sea Gas – this facility converted coal into coke and coal gas – going onto become one of the city’s largest industrial sites.

Cambridge Gas Works via Britain From Above

Cambridge Gas Works

You can see just how large this site was for a town that didn’t have a reputation for heavy industries. I still think we should have made a go of preserving the large gasometer, but the site was heavily polluted – as was the brickworks at the top of the photo. Hence why the site is mainly used for car-park-based retail. It requires far less land remediation work – which is incredibly expensive. Think of the costs of the Millennium Dome. The cost at the time was thought to have been at least £750million. The cost of the dome structure itself was only £50million. Most of the expense was in removing the highly polluted land – having to dig down to 15m into the ground. Where they dumped all of that material I have no idea.

Sylvia Pankhurst by Jerome Davenport


See here for details. I want some of these for Cambridge for our own local heroes.

Proposals for new council boundaries in Cambridgeshire

Cambridgeshire 1945

From 1945 – I’d be quite happy for these to be approximate boundaries for a new unitary council for Cambridge & beyond. The state of local government at the moment is a mess.

Cambridge Connect Light Rail


Can we have this please?

And finally…Cambridge controversies in the mid-1930s as vegetables

360919 Ronald Searle road signs as vegetables

Cambridge traffic problems dominating as motorists struggle with these national standard road signs and streetlights – and also Florence Ada Keynes’ guildhall plan.

If Cambridge evaluated previous phases of its growth over time, what lessons could we apply over the next half century?

Summary: What would a critical look at the past couple of hundred years tell us about how to proceed – combined with what we know about a changing climate and research on mental health, green spaces and urban design?

It was three years ago almost to the day that I started a short project making short video clips using a smartphone about Cambridge the town and how it grew.

Cambridge – shaping our city

The inspiration behind this (other than taking my mind away from the EURef fallout) was a book by Peter Bryan called Cambridge – The Shaping of the CityIf you live in/around Cambridge, pop into G. David booksellers by the Guildhall, they have a stack of updated copies going for about £7.

The growth of Cambridge is not a new phenomenon

Eglantyne Jebb told us this 110 years ago. And local historian Allan Brigham who runs the Town not Gown history walking tours reminded us of what happened in the 1800s that Eglantyne so succinctly wrote about.

Allan Brigham to the Federation of Cambridge Resident Associations, Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge.

The history of Cambridge housing

A year ago, historian Dr Tony Kirby of the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History gave this talk on Cambridge’s housing.

Cambridgeshire Association for Local History – join us here!

How big should Cambridge be? How big could it have been?

One of the things to remember paradoxically is the stuff that’s easily forgotten. Can you think of some roadworks that seemed to go on forever, but that once complete everything was forgotten about? I can! Over a decade ago Hills Road Bridge – on the main road into Cambridge from the south, was the site of some major road works to build a new archway for the then new guided busway to go under. I knew about it because it interrupted my commute to the railway station and into London. Have a read here. Such battles are easily forgotten.

Other battles include the periodic attempts throughout the 20th Century to expand the borders of the borough of Cambridge, as well as the powers of the borough council.


From a History of Local Government in Cambridge 1835 – 1958.

You can view the rest of the maps here. It’s a cracking read. If you are a local government history geek like me. The map above shows ickle Cambridge just after WWI, with Cherry Hinton and Trumpington outside the borough boundary, the huge area councillors applied for, and the slight expansion they got in 1934 – at which point the boundary of the borough and later the city has largely remained the same.

Expansion of Mill Road in the late 1800s

The residents of the cramped, terraced streets of the People’s Republic of Romsey in Cambridge (you can get the t-shirts here, kids) where properties now go for at least half a million on a good day, was the subject of many a squabble at council meetings in the late 1800s because the homes were not built with modern sanitation even by Victorian standards. The remedial work cost a fortune and a huge amount of inconvenience.

950118 Improving Romsey roads and sewers

Cambridge Independent: 18 Jan 1895 from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

“The work would be done to the satisfaction of the surveyor and it would be found afterwards who must pay in Romsey Town…”

Remember this was a year after the very expensive pumping station – today the recently re-opened Cambridge Museum of Technology, was built. And with good reason – our infant mortality rate was stupendously high, and poor sanitation was one of the primary causes. Eglantyne Jebb quotes a figure of 1:8. Today it’s about 4:1000.

From slums to sunshine

271130 Cambridge Housing Soc new homes.jpg

Above – some early council housing in the interwar period, this from 1927 on Green End Road. One of the recommendations from Eglantyne Jebb amongst others was to reduce significantly the density of population in homes, and to give people access to fresh air and green spaces – something notably lacking in Romsey and Petersfield in Cambridge. The various estate plans also were aimed at a new affluent middle class.

350316 new Woodlands Park Girton estate housing.jpg

Cambridge Daily News, 14 March 1935, in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Today, such estates are garden-grabbing developers paradise – such properties are easily snapped up by firms who replace them with a larger number of smaller apartment blocks in the face of our own housing crisis – one in a large part caused by developers manipulating the market to keep house prices (and profit margins) high, combined with a refusal of successive governments to intervene.

Housing density too low to sustain community facilities – too many estates lacking even the basics in post-WW2 Cambridge.

Many of the families living in the central slums were moved out to the new housing estates that became Arbury and King’s Hedges wards.

650325 Arbury and West Chesterton desert estate no facilities

Above – 25 March 1965, Cambridge Daily News in the Cambs Collection

Note these concrete ‘pre-fabs’ in Coleridge, Cambridge from 1946, which would be replaced in the late 1970s.

461018 Lichfield Rd prefabs Neville Rd Nissan huts

You can still see the wartime Nissen huts on the right, only hinting at the former site of the WW1 VD hospital. Prior to that, these were open fields. Today, the main rectangle block of land has back gardens full of trees, and a small recreation ground too.

That said, in this part of town there are not the community facilities that there are in other parts of Cambridge – and in part this is due to the lower population density of the homes built in the 20th Century. It’s worth noting that the residential developments around Cambridge Railway Station – both social and market housing, are built at medium densities, with low-rise blocks of flats up to four stories high. The 20th Century Housing in much of South Cambridge is semi-detached homes.

The post-war housing growth didn’t get rid of the homelessness problem in Cambridge – which was surprisingly vulnerable to economic shocks as the rest of the country. The growth in technology firms and the tourism boom had yet to take effect.

740110 Young homeless people on rise

Above – from 1974 in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

And housing problems in Cambridge haven’t gone away today either:

The Cambridge Community Branch of Unite, in November 2015. The organisation is calling for a large council house building programmes, and a policy of rent controls – recalling that in Cambridge house prices are 16x median salaries.

The interaction between councils, developers, residents, and new arrivals.

I’m a little bit sensitive about Cambridge as it’s the only real home I’ve ever known – hence I’m prepared to fight for it, campaign for it and improve it. I don’t buy the ‘like it or leave it’ line. One early group of civic campaigners were the Cambridge Preservation Society, founded in 1928.


Today, known as Cambridge Past, Present and Future, they continue to manage the landholdings that the early campaigners fundraised and purchased nearly a century ago, as well as scrutinising planning applications.

“What are the lessons learnt?”

The first one is the impact that housing has on public health. Again, Eglantyne Jebb told us that – only she did the research and pulled out the data. This had not been done before, which is why she is a civic hero in Cambridge.

180730 Eglantyne Jebb Cambs Collection_2 Small Pic

Hero: Eglantyne Jebb – who later founded Save the Children. Photo: Palmer Clarke in the Cambridgeshire Collection 

It also forces us collectively to examine what social infrastructure we used to have, why we built it in the first place, and why we either kept it or lost it. For example why did we lose so many community halls and venues in the latter half of the 20th Century, and why are we not building ones of utterly outstanding quality and beauty in the 21st Century. (Or rather, why are we building ones that tick the ‘bare minimum’ box, such as the tiny community rooms on the CB1 estate, the very small Signal Box on the other side of Hills Road, through to the Clay Farm Community Centre in Trumpington which having been there as well is far, far too small. And although not a religious person myself, I find the fact that various religious groups have to hold their gatherings in multi-purpose featureless bland rooms on new estates to reflect very badly on developers. This stands in contrast to the new Cambridge Central Mosque.

Why we need to repeat Eglantyne Jebb’s ground-breaking work over a century later

Along with Margaret Keynes – later Mrs Margaret Hill CBE (daughter of Florence the Mayor, and sister of Maynard the Economist), and Gwen Raverat (the woodcut printer, grand-daughter of Charles Darwin), Eglantyne carried out a rent survey of Cambridge and interviewed people all across the town.

One big challenge we all have to face is the impact of climate change. Put simply, our towns and cities are not nearly resilient enough to deal with more extreme ‘weather events’ – storms, droughts, high winds, heatwaves and mega downpours. At some stage the country is going to have to do an audit on the state of its built environment to work out what work needs to be done and how much it will cost to mitigate the worst of what will hit us.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard from many residents and councillors of the problems they have had with newbuild homes in terms of poor quality build. Given how high house prices are, this cannot be good. The problem at the moment is we have no system of post-construction evaluation – i.e. what are properties like after the first year of living in them?

And finally

The new developments we build need to have large open green spaces in them – not ‘pocket parks’ or concrete squares.

Although there is some acceptance in Westminster of the importance of access to nature in improving people’s mental health, we’re yet to see substantial changes in the planning system, and the new development plans put forward by developers and architects. I remain to be convinced.