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


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

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

Declaring my interests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadcast media setting a poor example to the rest of us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above – one-too-many interviews like that.

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

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

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

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

Separating professional journalist from media institution that employs them

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

The rise of fact checking

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

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

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

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

190519 CambsLive Clickbait.jpeg

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

Training for citizen journalists?

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

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




After the climate emergency declarations, what next?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…along with a lot of media coverage too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“How might a large open space event work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

181214 Cambridge_Connect_Light_Rail_Map

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

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

And finally … Politics matters

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

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

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



When Cambridge redevelopments enhance historical buildings


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and today the Museum hosts Cambridge Steampunk gatherings.

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

You can read the report in the Cambridge Independent here.

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

011012 Police Station Opening St Andrews Street 1901_1

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

Cambridge Old Spinning House_1.jpg

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

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


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

190627 Hobson House Police Station Drill Hall.jpeg

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

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

160607 OldBingoHallPerspective

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

Favourite lost buildings.

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

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

Above – from the Museum of Cambridge

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

181006 Petty Cury Post Office 1900


The old Spillers Mill silo, destroyed in a suspicious fire

Old Mill Silo


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


Above -from the Museum of Cambridge

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



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


Above – from the Museum of Cambridge

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


Above – from the Museum of Cambridge

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


The site is presently available for rent as a shop.

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

181211 rattee and kett station road buildings

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was the developer telling the truth?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cambridge 2030 under a new governance structure?


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

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

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

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

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

“Is it that bad?”


Yes – Cambridgeshire’s governance is *that bad*

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

Have a look here.

Jenny Vass of Cabinet Office writes:

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

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

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

“What does a city dashboard look like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Should privatisation be banned?”

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

In German with English subtitles.

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

Reporting lines to local councils or back to Whitehall?

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

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

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

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

460412 Addenbrookes NHS Threat.jpg

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

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

CBG Graphic John PInk Cambridge Library Founder 1900

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

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

Capt. Greef – our first chief fire officer

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

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

Cambridge’s other complication – The University of Cambridge

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

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




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

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

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

Dr Zhivago (1965)

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

Trees and green stuff

There were a few reports published recently

…plus this below:

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

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

On gated playing fields in South Cambridge.

Playing fields at risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing planning back

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

190613 Cambridge Local Plan East Road Kite190613 Cambridge Local Plan key

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

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

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

Cambridge on G-Maps looks like this.

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

190613 Cambridge Map StJohnsCollege playing fields as a park

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

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

****Heeeelllllllllll No!****

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

Opening up South Cambridge near some of the new developments.

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

190613 HRSFC tennis courts as new park

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

EPW009790 Homerton College 1924

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

Coming back to the existing space…

190613 HRSFC tennis courts as new park

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

190613 Homerton College Map photo view.jpeg

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

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

190613 Homerton College Map photo view2.jpeg

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

Replacing real grass with fake grass

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

190613 Cambridge Local Plan Long Road

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

190613 Perse Map photo view.jpeg

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

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

Everybody hurts

You may have heard the song from 1993.

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

And this year’s been difficult

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

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

The background mood music is not good – especially in politics

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

Fighting on too many local fronts

…amongst other things.

On not finding my tribe

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

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

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

If anything, we’ve gone backwards.

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

Picking up learning points from my course

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

What if I told you…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Parkside Police Station, Cambridge to close


Consultation on moving Cambridge’s central police station outside of the city boundaries goes out to formal consultation.

The consultation from the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is here.

“I didn’t know we had a police and crime commissioner!”

We’ve had one since 2012.

“I thought we had chief constables!”

We do, but Theresa May brought them in when she was Home Secretary in 2012.

“She did?”

Yes – and in the first set of elections for said commissioners, the turnout was a massive 15%

“So…who did we get for Cambridge?”

Sir Graham Bright.

“Never heard of him”

Fortunately Richard Taylor and Phil Rodgers were keeping an eye on things. This is Phil’s assessment – note 16% of voters voting for Bright, the Conservative candidate.

“What did Mr Taylor do?”

Chase after him because he didn’t like being held accountable by him.

Outside in the pouring rain – one of the few places Richard Taylor could get hold of the first police and crime commissioner for the county.

“Is he the best the Conservatives could come up with?”

Apparently. He was one of the politicians who got stung by Brass Eye in the 1990s.

Graham Bright via Richard Taylor – when the former was MP for Luton South before being defeated by Margaret Moran, who later featured prominently in the MPs’ expenses scandal which led to her downfall.

“Who have we got now?”

Jason Ablewhite – again for the Conservatives. See Phil’s assessment here. This was shortly before the EU Referendum in a particularly toxic atmosphere.

“So why do they want to close Parkside?”

A mixture of cost-cutting and the growth of Cambridge, but ultimately the current plans mean Cambridge City (on its existing boundaries) will not have a police station.

“Cambridge, the glorious jewel of the academic crown, the dynamic engine of the UK economy, the seat of the heir apparent the Duke of Cambridge, the splendid name known throughout the world…without a police station?!?!?!”


And remember the Tories wanted to close Cambridge’s magistrates courts too.

“What is it with the Tories?!?! Are they pro-crime or something?”

Careful now.

190609 Tories and drugs


And remember when the Tories restructured local government in the 1970s, the libraries and archives previously run by the city council were transferred over to the county council – meaning that the City of Cambridge’s archives are now held at Ely. And their move of the county council’s HQ from Shire Hall, Cambridge to Alconbury with next to zero public transport continues apace.

“The Tories properly hate Cambridge, don’t they? Why?”

Because the voters regularly discriminate against Tory candidates similar to how this chap complained about how he thinks Cambridge University discriminates against splendid chaps.

“Whooah! Serious case of Brexit Broflake-ism!”

I couldn’t possibly comment having never met the man.

“Cambridge voters don’t really discriminate against Tory candidates do they?”

I was teasing. Or rather, making the point that the Conservative presence at a local council level in Cambridge City wards and divisions is now non-existent. It collapsed in the 1990s. Tony Blair’s Labour thumped the living daylights out of them (along with a resurgent constituency party movement – which itself took a hammering in the run up to the Iraq War).

“Yes – took them a decade to recover from that”

With the Lib Dems now recovering – especially in the face of Labour’s confused message on leaving the EU, both parties are now campaigning hard against the move by Mr Ablewhite. So we have:

Take your pick as to which one you sign, and do read their notices on what happens to your data lest you find yourself on the receiving end of tailored political messages – especially given the strong likelihood of a general election in the near future. Because Parliament itself cannot go on like this.

Smart Cambridge with stupid governance structures


Unless the next general election brings in a government willing to undertake significant reforms to local government, Cambridge won’t be the only city that suffocates from politically-motivated governance structures.

I’ve been on a bit of a Twitter rant-fest of late, tearing into political decision-makers at various levels over the state of Cambridge – with ministers in particular getting a kicking, not least for imposing this model of governance on a city with global brand recognition.


Above – by Smarter Cambridge Transport

“You’ve moaned about this before”

I know. But it makes me feel better

“And it makes you sound like a stuck record”

Stuck records aside, Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire are heading towards a crashing halt as political governance structures become unworkable. Several of us found this out at an event co-hosted by CambridgeBID and Cambridge Network.

Dan Clarke on Smart Cities

Mr Clarke gave what I thought was the most comprehensive and impressive presentation on the future of Cambridge that I have ever seen. Set in a future tech context,

See also their online slides here.

The problem Mr Clarke faces is that the calibre of politicians on the ruling Conservative group on Cambridgeshire County Council is not functioning at nearly the same level that Mr Clarke and his colleagues are, and that they are working within a local government administrative structure that creates extra unnecessary barriers for him and his team. I have sat in county council meetings where a couple of councillors announced that ‘they didn’t do social media’ as if their ignorance was something to be proud of. (This is different from choosing not to use a specific platform but still educating yourself on the impact that social media and technology is having on society – good and bad).

At the end of his presentation I sort of wanted to ask him when he was going to stand for election because on the basis of that presentation, I was like “Yes – that’s the calibre of person I’d want running my city”. Remember though that Mr Clarke is a very technically literate civic administrator rather than a politician – and what may come easy to one doesn’t necessarily come easily to the other. Hence those with talents in both fields are very very hard to find.

Difficult conversations

It’s not just a local level that we have issues with political systems and processes. The Institute of Directors was scathing of the Conservatives and Labour over Brexit, stating businesses had lost faith in the political processes. Other business federations have said similar.

Part of the problem for me is that too many businesses for decades have been very vocal about specific policies, but very passive on supporting the institutions that have to take difficult decisions. Compare this to 50 years ago when it was the norm for people who were successful in business to get involved in civic affairs, stand for election, and raise substantial funds for large civic projects. We didn’t name the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre by Parker’s Piece after Cllr Kelsey Kerridge for nothing. Part of the local family building firm, he was a longstanding Conservative councillor. Cyril Ridgeon, George Kett, Arthur Negus, Sir Horace Darwin, Eaden Lilley – they all ran their own businesses, all were local councillors and all contributed greatly to civic life. One or two of them may have been scoundrels at times ***but at least the locals had heard of them*** because they shopped in their shops, bought their products and/or worked for their firms.

360919 Ronald Searle Alex Wood Carrott vegetable show Cartoon

Leader of Cambridge Labour Party Dr Alex Wood (physicist at Emmanuel College and preacher at St Columba’s on Downing Street) satirised by cartoonist Sid Moon as a carrot in the Cambridge Daily News in the mid-1930s. 

It’s hard to imagine that a modern day equivalent would be one of the directors of Brookgate – the controversial developers of Cambridge Station – standing for election, getting elected and being a very popular civic figure.  What I’m trying to say is that employers – especially firms with many employees – need to encourage their staff to take a stronger interest in local democracy. Not least because it helps reduce the risk of decisions about the longer term future being taken by groups of predominantly older people.

Difficult conversations II

I thought Ian Sandison’s presentation for the Cambridge BID was interesting in that he exposed where some of the gaps were in Cambridge’s decision-making processes, and also showed that actually all was not well beneath the headlines and stereotypes of Cambridge. What follows isn’t a criticism of his presentation – rather the opposite: these are things that as a city more of us need to know about.

What is Cambridge BID and who is the target audience of Cambridge BID?

Best answered at https://www.cambridgebid.co.uk/ it is funded through a levy on the business rates by the larger rate payers within a geographical area – in their case mainly the city centre & railway station. Note it includes The Grafton Centre & Anglia Ruskin University, but does not include Mill Road. For local residents, it‘s the funding of things like the Christmas lights and the City Ambassadors that will be more familiar. Personally I’d like to see more City Ambassadors employed – especially at bus stops and public transport interchanges. That alone would make a significant difference to unfamiliar visitors.

Local people shopping less in Cambridge

Feedback from Mr Sandison was that spending has fallen, and it feels like people are no longer shopping in Cambridge. The challenge for his organisation was how to respond to this. There are a host of trends that are far beyond the influence of even the best BIDs in the country – for example the rise of online shopping. Other things out of his direct control and influence also include:

  • Shop rents charged mainly by the land owning colleges
  • Asset-stripping by private equity firms buying up national store chains
  • Business rates generally
  • Large scale transport infrastructure – such as my pet favourite, Cambridge Connect Light Rail Underground. (My take is we need to crack on with this now if we are to have a functioning transport system to cope with projected growth over the next few decades, and to avoid the connectivity problems Cambourne faces).
  • Day trippers not spending money in the city, but contributing to congestion in the centre.


From Mr Sandison’s presentation: Is the existing high turnover retail model permanently broken? If so, what should town centres be for? (FHSF = Future High Street Fund)

This was the Grafton Centre last week – lunchtime in the late May half term on a dry but overcast day.

When this section opened in 1995 I was a teenager and this place was buzzing. The BHS Dept Store was the anchor store, and (the view from the top-left photo with the main open space) alongside was Heffer’s Children’s bookshop (which the Landlords should have pulled out all the stops to have kept it there), a branch of a national chain of record shops, Mothercare (now closed) and a host of others.

“Why did they all close?”

One thing I think the Cambridge BID should commission some early career researchers (i.e. not me) to undertake is an in-depth historical study into Cambridge retail past and present. Or far better, offer to contribute funding towards a joint-funded programme on the history of Cambridge the town, which provides answers to the question of how Cambridge got to where it is today (And what mistakes we made along the way). One can speculate, but I think specialist studies would help answer the question as to

“Don’t you have a vested interest in such a programme being funded?”

Yes – https://lostcambridge.wordpress.com/

But I’ve already done more than a little of the groundwork. There have been a number of studies done in decades past that examined the options for future Cambridge. The most stupendous one is Professor Parry’s one from the 1970s.


Could you imagine all of the land west of the A11, east of Cambridge Airport, south of Bottisham and north of Fulbourn being turned into housing? That was one of Prof Parry’s suggestions.

Land for the Many

The Labour Party commissioned journalist George Monbiot to lead a team on the issue of land reform in England. Very recently they published their report. It’s worth reading in detail irrespective of political persuasion. This caught my eye too.

190606 Land for the Many Compulsory Purchase.jpeg

On Compulsory Sale Orders.

I put this to Mr Sandison regarding this masterpiece unused for what feels like over a decade now.160607 OldBingoHallPerspective

Hobson Street Cinema – a civic masterpiece.

Assuming we get a Cambridge underground light rail, my plan for Hobson Street is to pedestrianise it and persuade Christ’s College to build Gropius’s planned building from 1937. Get rid of the walls and open up new court yards and walkways to the general public.

“And while you’ve got their attention?”

Cambridge’s population is due to be over 140,000 by 2021. When I left home in South Cambridge to go to university in 1999 it was 100,000. Therefore we should have built 40,000 people’s worth of leisure facilities. But we haven’t. Cambridge’s population is due to be nearly 160,000 by 2036. This is the population inside the existing city boundaries.

Hence my calls for a concert hall for over 2,000 people.


Expanding the Museum of Cambridge onto the Shire Hall site – preferably before Brookgate ruin it for everyone, as I fear they will do. Their record at Cambridge Station and their incredibly dull and unexciting architecture proposed for Cambridge North Station doesn’t fill me with hope.

Still, the vision seems to be positive

This from Dan Clarke of Smart Cambridge again.


But…conspicuous by its absence was climate change.

The Q we all need to answer is what in our existing plans is going to change (specifics please) as a result of Parliament and our local councils accepting that we are now in a climate emergency?

Cows about Cambridge.

CambridgeBID is funding this project delivered by Wild in Art. At first I was like:

“Norwich got dragons! Why can’t we have dragons?!”

Norwich Dragons , Rosie By Illona Clarke

Norwich’s dragons. 

But we’ve had cows grazing on common land in town for centuries – and it saves on the lawn mowing bills too. Today they have a Twitter account.

Seahorses about Cambridge 2025?

Below is an example of Cambridge’s civic coat of arms.

1873 Cambridge Working Mens Club Medal_2

Cambridge Workmen’s Medallion which I presented to David Parr House.

It will be their 550th birthday in 2025, so maybe we could have a similar project in six years time? The story of how Cambridge got its horses of Neptune is told here.

And finally…

Not everyone was content with all things smart.


Presentation from Jon Lewis of Cambridge firm Telensa 

It was this screenshot that was a little disturbing – seeing every single figure with its own unique identifier on the screen. Thus concerns about surveillance society and surveillance capitalism remain. Hence the importance of things like civic data trusts. For those of you interested and/or concerned, have a look at the Open Rights Group campaigns.

My point remains that one of the weakest links in all of this is the suitability of the county’s governance structures. Just as we’ve found with Brexit and national government, local government doesn’t feel fit for purpose in this technological data-driven age we’re living in.


Cambridge and South Cambs turn out in the European Parliament elections

Summary: Some very surprising results as voters turnout in and around Cambridge was far higher than average – at 48%.


South Cambridgeshire:

A grim night for Tories and Labour nationwide.

In East England, Nigel’s BXP replaced UKIP MEPs like-for-like. Expected given the nature of the campaign. But the Conservatives lost two of their three MEPs and Labour surprisingly lost their MEP Alex Mayer.

Results: Labour’s vote collapsed, leading to the surprising loss of Alex Mayer who at times had to cover for many absentee MEPs in the European Parliament as voters returned Euro-sceptic MEPs in 2014.

Greens and Lib Dems gain significantly in Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire

– leading to one new Green MEP (Prof Catherine Rowett) and two new Liberal Democrat MEPS, Cllrs Barbara Gibson and Lucy Nethsingha – the latter currently a councillor in Newnham for both councils in Cambridge.

Professor Catherine Rowett MEP (Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia) polled over 200,000 votes for The Greens in the East of England on the back of a very strong showing in the local government elections earlier this month. (She’s on Twitter at https://twitter.com/catherinerowett).

Alongside her are Cllrs Barbara Gibson and Lucy Nethsingha for the Liberal Democrats

In 2017 Cllr Nethsingha stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Candidates next door to Cambridge in South East Cambridgeshire. This was my interview with her following the hustings in Waterbeach – standing room only despite the pouring rain outside.

Above – Cllr Lucy Nethsingha on Brexit and local issues raised by residents.

“Why did Labour’s vote implode in Cambridge City? I thought that was becoming a safe Labour seat?”

Cambridge is a safe seat for no one – over the past 30 years the constituency seat has been held by MPs from each of the main parties, including the Tories. Majorities can be misleading. Dr Julian Huppert’s majority in 2010 was nearly 7,000 but that was wiped out in the 2015 general election in a very tightly fought election. Daniel Zeichner MP beat Dr Huppert in the rematch in 2017 with a majority of over 12,000. But that is no guarantee that he’ll keep hold of the seat in the face of such policy uncertainty and inconsistency from the top of the Labour Party.

Statement by shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry MP indicating internal polling showed it was going to be a very difficult night for Labour.

“Are Cambridge Labour doomed?”

Not at all.

“But they got fewer votes than Nigel-Club-Party!”

This was the result of the residual UKIP and Conservative vote which together at a general election is over 10,000 votes. At the EU Referendum in 2016, 15,000 residents (26%) voted to leave the EU. So given the implosion of the Conservative vote in this election – they did no significant organised campaigning – over 5,000 people voting for the new leavers’ on the block isn’t that much of a surprise.

General elections are very different beasts compared with European elections and local council elections. For a start, First-Past-The-Post / winner takes all nature of parliamentary elections means that votes in ‘safe seats’ effectively don’t count – and voters in those areas soon learn this. Take Saffron Walden who, between the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the EU Referendum have only ever had three members of Parliament – all Conservative. Furthermore, the turnout in these EU elections was in the 30-50%, while in general elections it’s generally 60-70%.

What will be of concern to Cambridge Labour is that their strong message on being pro-Remain at a local level did not prove to be reassuring to nearly enough voters in pro-Remain Cambridge. Expect some difficult internal conversations and feedback from local constituencies to party HQ.

“Thumpingly good results for the Lib Dems and The Greens?”


Again I voted Greens in these elections (I think I’ve always been a tree-hugging eco-warrior at heart, ever since I got hold of the Blue Peter Green Book in 1989) – I had assumed Labour had a strong enough loyal vote for Alex Mayer to keep her seat for Labour. As it turned out, such was the swing towards The Greens and The Lib Dems that the final seat in the East of England was a battle between what was left of the once mighty Conservatives and Labour.

The Lib Dems are ecstatic with two MEPs following the loss of longtime MEP and former Cambridge Councillor Andrew Duff in 2014 – effectively to UKIP. The lonely experience of the Coalition years makes their recent successes all the more satisfying for those that went through that experience and stuck the course. Note we are also starting to see the Lib Dems deploying the talents and skills of party members  who joined after the 2015 implosion.

Victories like this don’t happen by accident – it’s the result of a lot of hard work on cold, wet evenings over an extended period of time.

“So…does that mean Cambridge will become a Lib Dem seat at the next general election?”

Not automatically – the Lib Dems will have to move very quickly on the back of this result to increase their chances. The reason being while they have a very strong ground operation in the seats that they hold on Cambridge City Council, it is also almost non-existent in safe Labour seats such as Coleridge, Cherry Hinton and Romsey. In each of those wards, Labour have a slate of hard working councillors with very deep local roots from which to draw from. At the same time, Labour’s NEC will need to move quickly to stem the losses by coming up with a much more clear policy position on the EU. There’s no point in trying to out-Brexit the Brexit Party. The Tories tried that and now look at them. The longer Labour at a national level prevaricates over their EU policy in the minds of the public – and that includes having shadow ministers presenting different policies as party policy in the media, the more votes they will lose to other Remain parties.

“What about Change UK?”

Over 1,300 in Cambridge, nearly 4,000 in South Cambridgeshire – Heidi Allen’s constituency. Which means the Liberal Democrats will need to decide whether they come to an electoral pact (i.e. Change UK recommending a vote for the Lib Dems in Cambridge in return for not standing against Heidi Allen in South Cambridgeshire – knowing that those 1,300 votes might be the difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge), or see Change UK as a movement that needs crushing in its infancy in order to sweep up their members.

Essentially the party made far far too many unforced errors. They got caught by doing the opposite of what Nigel did with BXP. They should have gone with “Remain UK” or similar as their brand, and focused on that stating they would develop other policies in more detail once Brexit was sorted. They also could have adopted a line of “We’re not interested in what the other parties are saying or doing, our audience is [insert description of their target audience] and concentrated on opposing Brexit rather than getting into spats with other pro-Remain parties. Furthermore, their branding was incredibly weak despite the resources they were able to put into it.

“Disappointing – disastrous even for Change UK?”

This was the message they should have gotten out at the start – and repeated it:

Above – Neil Carmichael (Change UK No.2 candidate in East England) – three reasons on why their party exists.

It’s also worth noting that a significant social media spend by Change UK did not pay dividends – see the thread here. They will need to discuss between them why.

My take is that a lot of people showed a lot of courage to stand up and be counted to get involved in a new political party – especially given the relative fizzling out of the likes of Renew Party and the Women’s Equality Party in progressive circles in recent times. Take a look at the results in London.

190527 London region EU votes 2019.jpeg

Over 23,000 votes across London is a lot of votes, but it was still 2,000 fewer than the Animal Welfare Party. Nearly 120,000 for Change UK is a huge amount of votes – but they needed double that to get an MEP seat where they had a number of high profile supporters and a handful of very strong candidates. Can they hold things together there?

“What should/could they do now?”

As a very new party they need to convene a party conference and commission expert group facilitators to thrash out their agreed values and the new policies that stem from them. Because if it descends into a big political in-fighting event, it will make those who wanted to get involved in a ‘new’ way of doing politics even more put off than they were before.

“Will there be any changes on local democracy in and around Cambridge?”

Part of it will depend on what sort of presence the new MEPs want to have. With three MEPs noting the very large number of votes their parties got (nearly 18,000 for The Greens, and over 37,000 for the Liberal Democrats on a 48% turnout – compared with 7,000 for Labour & 6,000 for Conservatives) there’s a big incentive to have a higher media presence for a start. Given the resource and financial support that the European Parliament gives to MEPs, they’ll want to get their operations up and running as quickly as possible knowing that there’s a chance that it could all disappear by 31 October if the UK ends up crashing out without a deal. And as things stand, that is the legal default – the ultimate destination if whoever replaces Theresa May as Prime Minister sits back and does nothing. If a pro-No Deal Brexiteer takes office, the only thing that can stop them is a Vote of No Confidence and a general election returning a pro-Remain government prepared to revoke Article 50. Given that turnout in the EU Parliament elections in England was noticeably higher in pro-Remain areas (plus those EU citizens who were able to vote – aside from the scandal of those not able to vote), there is no guarantee that a second EU Referendum would result in a victory for the Pro-Remain side.