How developers game the planning system – a Cambridge case study


After researching and writing a previous blogpost, I was devastated to find that the deadline for formal responses had long passed – even though not all of the information was available at the time. What can we learn from this?

The post concerned is this one on my Lost Cambridge blog. I set up the blog as a means of documenting the various finds I’m making in archives about the history of the borough of Cambridge – something one day I’d like to write a history about. (Ideally with an up-and-coming woman historian as most of the books I’ve stumbled across on the subject are written by men).

The Belvedere, The Leisure Park, The Marque, Grand Central and CB1 – a toxic quintet of controversial developments in my neighbourhood


(From GoogleMaps)

  1. The Belvedere
  2. The Marque
  3. Grand Central
  4. Cambridge Leisure Park
  5. CB1 Development

“Toxic developments? That’s a bit harsh isn’t it?”

A mixture of a planning system loaded against local communities combined with local council incompetence/naivety (sorry chaps, there’s no other phrase I can think of) meant that for each of these sites, developers made a fortune and local communities got screwed.

Let’s not pretend that what was there on each of the sites before was pleasant. It really wasn’t.


Cambridge station in the 1950s – from and with annotations at Disused Stations blog.

Fascinating from an historical perspective to look at the site, but note the following:

  • The number of chimneys and the amount of smoke coming from the engines
  • The footprint of the railway yards and the engine sheds
  • The small hotel at ‘O’ described on one site as a place where dreams were turned into despair

On the site of the Belvedere was the Cambridge Pine Merchant – a single story workshop/outlet. On the site of the old Marque building was Tim Brinton’s Peugeot dealership. On the Leisure Park was the old cattle market and a former park-and-ride site. On the Grand Central site was the Cambridge Water Company. All of these were operational during my childhood. I used to deliver newspapers around that neck of the woods in the early 1990s.

“So…if it was all ‘orrible and grotty as you say it was, what’s wrong with what they built?”

What has been built has not been sensitive to the views of the local community, nor has it gone anywhere near meeting the needs of the city in terms of affordable housing, and finally ***they have designed in crime and poor traffic behaviour***.


The above from a South Area Committee meeting in Cambridge around the setting of the police priorities. The design of the CB1 development was so poor that it has actually led to an increase in reported crime to the extent local police have had to divert resources to deal with it. But will the developers foot the bill? No. The same is the case for Cambridge Leisure Park which also has issues with crime – ones that could easily have been designed out by more talented architects and more community-sensitive developers.

Let’s take The Belvedere.

Completed in 2004, they hoodwinked the local council on the commitment for affordable housing, making a financial payment instead – an amount that was minuscule in comparison to the huge profits made by the developers. Have a look at the exchanges between Richard Taylor and former Conservative Councillor Chris Howell (The last Tory councillor in Coleridge Ward, Cambridge) here.

I remember the adverts for The Belvedere on the hoardings as I cycled past them on my way to work off Brooklands Avenue and to/from dance classes. “45 minutes from King’s Cross” they proclaimed. “Luxury apartments from £350,000” (At 2004 prices remember – so today…exactly). The developers were effectively saying “Ha ha! Fuck you, peasants!” to all of the locals, while flogging the flats to the highest bidder on the London or on the international property markets.

Then there’s the very controversial Marque development

“There were 57 changes to the original design over a six year period before it was completed in 2013.”

“Residents campaigned against the design and scale of the building, which is on the corner of Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road.”


David Jones, author of Hideous Cambridge, said: “It looks like a double bed set up on end.

“It’s too tall, it’s too intimidating and if you look at the building opposite, its light is entirely blocked out by this vast excrescence.”

An investigation launched by the council when Cambridge Labour Party took control found there were lessons to be learnt.

The Marque was even slammed by a celebrity – here’s BBC’s Richard Osman from TV’s Pointless

Lazy, hideous architecture which has a plain brick facing the east of the city that again says “Fuck You” to the whole of the local community. And for what? A couple of extra ‘luxury apartments’?

Then there’s “Grand Central” where the developers again ripped off the council over affordable homes. See local historian Allan Brigham below:

Now…what’s next? Oh Cambridge Leisure Park. For me a ***huge*** missed opportunity

The landlords, Land Securities wanted – and still want – to make as much money out of the site as possible, and decided that a site full of clonetown brands would be the way to go. Fools. But as with other developments it’s now private property with the public ‘invited to enjoy the facilities’. Hence why Cllr Lewis Herbert, the Leader of Cambridge City Council and also one of the ward councillors for the local area found himself accosted by security guards when taking part in an architectural tour with local residents. Astonishing contempt for both local democracy and the local community. And when they found they weren’t making as much money as they wanted, they tried to dump an ill-thought-out restaurant in the middle of the site – to uproar from the local community until it was dropped. Cllr Lewis Herbert enquired about space for independent outlets on the site but was told firmly that it was established [ie clone town] brands only.

As for CB1?

Despite my blogpost here, it’s actually too late to make a formal submission on the application on the old silo mentioned in my blog that’s due for a decision on 02 November 2016.

The old mill silo in the black and white photo is on the right – a building that was always a permanent presence in my childhood that you could see from the top of Lime Kiln Hill in south eastern edge of the city. In 2005 we were promised it would be incorporated into a redeveloped site. Then I found out by accident yesterday that its replacement following a very suspicious fire would be that ugly grey-brown block. Conspiracy theories in and around the city are that the developers paid a criminal to torch the silo so they could knock it down and put up a cheaper more profitable alternative, but there’s no evidence to substantiate this.

What made me flip last night were the following:

  1. The extent that the important papers were completely buried to the extent very few people would know what to look for, where to look for it and how to look for the information necessary in order to pass comment.
  2. That the illustration in the third picture above was only published ***after*** the formal consultation closed. Therefore most people would have no idea what was being proposed until it was far too late.
  3. How Historic England simply rolled over and accepted the developer’s case rather than standing firm and insisting they restore the mill.

To write the blogpost at and then tell everyone required detailed knowledge of local history, local democracy and the planning system, and finally all things digital.

  • Local history to understand that the building is an historical building of local interest and part of our city’s industrial heritage
  • Local democracy and planning policy to know what things to look for and how to look for them
  • All things digital to know how to search online databases, extracting images, writing for the internet, and then social media in order to publicise everything. That sort of knowledge takes years and years to build up.

“Why were we not told earlier?”

We don’t have a system or a culture that compels developers to work with local communities, nor a system where local communities can be tipped off about future developments. See this presentation by local architect Tom Foggin.

Note in the seven steps for building a development, the community is only engaged at stage 4 – which in my view is far, far too late for them to be able to have any influence. Therefore we’re left with developers going for profit and profit only.

The planning application itself to replace the old silo contains 174 documents. But how many local people know that the idox planning system even exists, let alone knows how to use it? Has the council ever run planning awareness and user sessions on a systematic basis?

Then there’s the calendar of council meetings – have a look at it. How many local people would know which meetings are the ones go to for which subjects? For the planning meeting scheduled for 02 November the agenda and papers are here. But how many people know this? The drawing pack alone for that planning meeting is 52 pages. The public document pack for the same meeting? 410 pages. So…that’s over 600 pages of documents to read through just to try and make sense of a single planning application – one dealing with the demolition and construction of only two buildings.

“Crikey! No wonder people become exhausted and bewildered by the whole thing!”

Im just exhausted after writing this (and the previous blogpost) – these were definitely not blogposts written for pleasure. They required a fair amount of research too.

So…if anyone’s got any idea on how Cambridge can respond as a city to stuff like this, I’m all ears. Because at the moment residents are not finding out about unpopular developments until it is too late – which compromises not just councillors but undermines trust in local democracy and politics in general. And that can’t be good for anyone – even the developers.

Councillors using videos to hold each other accountable


…Which makes a nice change given the problems us community camerapeople have had trying to ensure not just that we can film, but that we can get decent audio that people can hear as well.

This from the full council meeting at Cambridge Guildhall (Cambridge City Council) on 20 October 2016.

Note at 9mins 15 seconds Cllr Lewis Herbert (Leader of the city council and Labour ward councillor for Coleridge) challenges Cllr Markus Gehring (Lib Dems – Newnham) to find video footage of where he gave a commitment to bring major city deal decisions to full council. Note at 11 mins 45 seconds Cllr Rod Cantrill (Lib Dems – Newnham) tells Cllr Herbert that although he did not stay to the end of the city deal board meeting that previous week, he did watch the video footage of the time he was out of the meeting.

A couple of things to note:

It wasn’t a straight forward process to persuade councillors generally that members of the public could turn up and film council meetings. Here’s Richard Taylor up the road in Huntingdon in 2013.

This was despite this piece of guidance from central government some two years before – see

It was as a result of experiences like this that The Government tabled new regulations in Parliament – subsequently approved – giving the right of members of the public to rock up to council meetings and start filming. (See

“Splendid! So everyone’s happy now?”

Well…not really.

“Why not?”

Audio. Have a listen.

This was at Shire Hall, Cambridge.

This was at The Guildhall, Cambridge.

Cllr Richard Robertson (featured) is naturally softly spoken. But because he didn’t speak directly into the desk microphone (which seem designed to be used by speakers sitting down), I had to ramp up the volume in editing by 500%. Hence the ‘hissing’ sound when he speaks when compared to Eleanor Leeke who asked the public question on behalf of riverboar residents on the River Cam.

“If you don’t get the audio, what’s the point on filming?”

One of the earliest lessons I learnt making digital videos was that audio makes up more than 50% of the content of a video. A viewer is more likely to tolerate poor visuals so long as the audio is solid compared to the other way around. And let’s face it, with most of my footage being from local democracy meetings it is the audio that really counts.

Councillors: Think accessibility

If no one watched my videos, it wouldn’t be an issue. But have a look at the data below:


The above is before the recent peak from the full council meeting of 20 October – which in the past 18 hours has tracked over 300 hits/views…which for a small local council meeting is unreal. Local residents are interested. Funnily enough, the wider (if I can call it) Cambridge diaspora also seem interested – with the data showing one person in Monaco and one in Jersey watching through a good half an hour of footage.

Many of the people who watch the videos – the ones that feed back to me – are people who for one reason or another cannot get to council meetings. For some this will be due to caring responsibilities, for others it’ll be mobility impairments. But either way, audio and acoustics matter. Council chambers done seem to be designed well for good audio – which seems strange given the space is for public speeches. The speakers that most councils use feel like they are from a bygone era, or are so small that the voices of speakers lose their natural warmth and thus sound squeaky or if the speaker has a deep voice, inaudible.

“Better microphones & audio speakers, better microphone training?”

Or public speaking training and practice? Cambridge Toastmasters run regular sessions for people interested in improving their public speaking. The safe practice space for current and potential councillors is there on our city’s doorstep.

On microphones, expenditure may sound like a luxury, but the more meetings that community camerapeople and citizen journalists turn up to, and the more views we get on our video pages, the more important having a better sound system becomes. Less of a luxury and more of an essential.

“Does anyone control the audio in the Guildhall?”

Here’s Puffles from a past UKGovCamp at London’s City Hall.


Rather than having councillors and speakers fiddling with whether microphones work, there is one specialist sound engineer controlling whose microphone is on, under the direction of the chairperson.

The arrangement above for me would save a huge amount of time for everyone. Speakers could concentrate on the message they want to get across while the sound engineer controls volume, community reporters and camera crew can pick up a separate and much more clear audio feed with much less background noise on a USB stick from which to splice with the video footage in editing, and everyone watching the video back has a more pleasant experience listening in at their leisure.

“Anything on councillors holding each other accountable?”

It was interesting to hear councillors referring to video footage in their exchanges. A bit of me was like: “Yeah? Care to name the people that did the filming, editing and the publishing online only it didn’t happen by itself?!?!!?” But then the rest of me was quite pleased that councillors were referring to the video footage in the normal course of debate to the extent that being filmed was now normal for them. ie not only is there nothing really to be afraid of (unless they want to portray themselves as something other than who they really are, or give conflicting & inconsistent messages to different audiences), but the video footage can be useful for everyone.


In praise of Ellisif


How a Norwegian postgraduate turned around the fortunes of one of our local political parties, influencing political life in Cambridge and helping make local political history

This is Ellisif Wasmuth – soon to be Dr Ellisif Wasmuth.


Ellisif outside Senate House in 2015 during one of several visits by the then Green Party leader Natalie Bennett in the run up to that year’s general election. The local elections at the same time also saw Oscar Gillespie elected to Cambridge City Council in Market Ward, restoring the Greens’ presence on the council and giving a political outlet to the towns prominent environmentalist communities.

Now, most of you won’t have heard of her, but I’m writing this not just to thank her for helping make politics more interesting, but also for the local historical record.

“Why were the Greens’ fortunes so bad? Didn’t they poll nearly 4,000 votes in Cambridge in 2010?”

They did – and at one time had two councillors on the city council and one on the county council. But by 2012 they had lost all of their councillors – two having sadly since passed away and one having moved away following a switch to Labour. The state of the local party in late 2012 was not good at all – as I wrote in this blogpost at the time.

It was around that time Ellisif moved to Cambridge for her Ph.D, & she sent a couple of social media messages asking where the Greens’ student society was. The sad truth* at the time was that there wasn’t one. So rather than wait around, she set up Cambridge Young Greens herself. *(I’m speaking from a ‘plural party politics’ perspective here given the large number of environmentalist activists there are in the city. Note the Tories polled 8,000 votes in the city in the general election but still didn’t gain any council seats in 2015 – which makes me then start looking at the voting system).

Two of the things that the local party benefited from (aside from the profile new MP Caroline Lucas in Brighton – where I used to live some 15 years ago at university, was gaining for the Greens), were the ease of access two of their most prominent party officials had to Cambridge. Natalie Bennett having just been elected leader, and Dr Rupert Read who at the time was their transport spokesman were in North London and Norwich respectively. Both were less than an hour by train from Cambridge, which meant ease of access to a city that still turned out over 2,000 votes for a party that in 2013 were only able to stand a slate of paper candidates at the Cambridgeshire County Council elections. ie The local party was in no organised state to campaign.

With the 2014 European Parliament elections coming up the following year, I mentioned on a couple of occasions to both Natalie and Rupert that if the city was giving the Greens 2,000 votes with zero campaigning and just names attached to a party label, what would it be like if they pulled out all of the stops?

Note at the same time I was having similar conversations and public exchanges on Twitter with people in other local political parties – with Conservative candidate for Queen Edith’s Andy Bower being the first candidate in Cambridge to quote one of my blogposts in one of his election leaflets. (He and his opponents will hate me for saying this but I still think Andy would make an excellent ward councillor in South Cambridge despite our political disagreements!)🙂

“What happened in 2014 that changed things?”

Essentially Ellisif managed to recruit and organise a small but talented core of student activists who were able to do the essential organisational work of booking college rooms and publicising events – which with elections coming up more often than not involved Natalie or Rupert coming up to speak. With the opportunity to meet a national party leader, along with the prominence of transport as an issue, the audiences that both Natalie and Rupert spoke to and took questions from, started growing.

The Green Surge of late 2014 was not an accident

Rupert missed out on a seat for the East of England in the European Parliament by less than 3,000 votes. He was pipped at the post by UKIP. Given the policy differences between the two, there was incredible disappointment not just within the Greens but across left-of-centre parties and groups locally that overall, the East of England had lost their only Liberal Democrat MEP to a UKIP MEP.

Yet while the mainstream media was focusing any reporting on Caroline Lucas MP, they completely missed the activities Natalie Bennett was undertaking. She was visiting university town after university town speaking to every growing audiences. For student and community reporters, it was a great chance for us to film and interview a national party leader too. Here’s Natalie in the middle of the green surge on her visit to Cambridge in January 2015.

For local newspapers, this made excellent copy because here was a party leader of a party represented in Westminster and Brussels that was visiting their patch. But it was sufficiently below the radar of established local broadcast media for them not to report it. Note too that at the time their office was run on a shoe string – they hadn’t yet got into the discipline of ‘modern media management’ that they now have with the additional funds Parliament granted post 2015.

The mainstream media start asking difficult questions

Both Natalie and Rupert got stung and stung badly in the run up to the 2015 general election by the mainstream media. The former in a crushing interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, and the latter over social media comments that led to a backlash. This was the first time I had seen Ellisif and the local party under real pressure from the media scrutiny. What was happening was that the Green Party’s membership had rise from around 10,000 in 2010, to 18,000 in 2014 to over 50,000 in 2015. See Adam Ramsay here.

It’s interesting to go back over the articles written at the time – whether in hope or delusion prior to the mainstream media turning its guns on them. This was something I wrote about before the event, because in early 2015 none of the political parties had really turned their attention to The Greens.

As an institution, the problems the Greens had stemmed from moving from an organisation set up to manage 5,000-10,000 people, to one that has to manage 50,000 people – many in areas where there has been little history of an active local branch. How do you ‘induct’ all of those new members and get them up and running in the middle of a general election campaign while at the same time taking incoming hits from your opponents and the media who are now going through your website with a fine tooth comb in a way that you’ve never experienced before?

Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that for a number of campaigners – not just for the Greens but across the political spectrum, the 2015 campaign was the making of them. We started seeing a number of new faces getting involved in local democracy.

“And yet…? How did they do?”

150508CambridgeGreens.pngCambridge Green Party having just won Market Ward in the Cambridge City Council elections of May 2015.

Here’s my interview with Cllr Oscar Gillespie shortly after his election.

It was from this point that Ellisif, with research deadlines approaching, was able to take a step back. If I recall correctly, across the city of Cambridge the party polled over 10,000 votes at the local elections in 2015. Despite initial setbacks mentioned earlier, Rupert Read succeeded in increasing the Greens’ share of the vote to over 4,000 – despite the very strong environmental credentials of Dr Julian Huppert of the Lib Dems and Daniel Zeichner, the latter edging out the former with only 600 votes difference.

“Did the surge last?”

I expected that it would, but despite an active campaign across a number of wards in the 2016 Cambridge City Council elections, the Greens fell back to their core base. This was something I asked Natalie Bennett about when she visited Cambridge again in the summer of 2016 – where we filmed this extended interview.

One of the big differences between the 2015 and 2016 local elections in Cambridge for the Greens was they had a much younger and more ethnically diverse slate of candidates – many of whom were first time candidates. With UKIP getting far more mainstream media attention, the Greens in Cambridge – and Labour in South Cambridgeshire too, took advantage of the free service I was offering to all candidates standing in & around Cambridge – which was to film a short video clip for each candidate. (Here is the Greens’ 2016 playlist). My take was that I wanted as many council wards as possible to have candidates on video where the electorate could see and hear them for themselves. (The Liberal Democrats are here, and the Conservatives here).

In terms of the Cambridge Green Party, Ellisif was instrumental in getting their local party in a condition where it was ready to fight for the elections in 2014 and 2015. Without her, there wouldn’t have been the regular visits from senior party figures, and it would have taken longer for the party to have built up the core of activists that it now has.

You may not have seen her in the newspapers, online or on Youtube, but Ellisif’s work not just for the Cambridge Green Party, but for local democracy in our city has been incredibly important over these past few years. So ***Thank you*** for all you’ve done for Cambridge Ellisif, and thank you for setting such a wonderful example in particular to young women, showing what difference they can make. Best wishes for your new life in…of all places, Oxford!


Now that the Cambridge City Deal has people’s attention…


Time for a cross-city (& beyond) series of shared problem solving workshops and/or an extended hackweekend?

Some of you may have seen the news reports of the 8am protests that closed some of the main roads into Cambridge City Centre. My playlist of videos is below:

Over 100 people up and about for a protest so early in the morning on a weekday reflects the strength of feeling in some quarters. But it’s not all plain sailing for those who are now calling for the scrapping of the City Deal – whether specific scheme or in its entirety. With more and more people having their say, and the programme now becoming more complex, we’re now at the stage where the protestors have their own critics. Here’s local blogger and cycling campaigner Cab Davidson.

“Truth be told the protestors have no alternative suggestions and don’t have evidence against the current plans. There’s talk of setting up a traders lobby group against them (but not, apparently, FOR anything else), and councillors are saying ‘we’re listening’. So the NIMBYs win this round”

My take has been that the four main shortcomings of the city deal systems, structures and processes are as follows:

  • No historical context
  • The lack of a ‘research and evidence-collection stage’
  • The lack of shared problem-solving workshops where locals have access to experts in the field as they discuss issues and ideas
  • The very poor communications until very recently

No historical context 

I mentioned the lack of historical context in a previous post. Here are some old maps from ‘The Cambridge that never was’ by Reeve from the Oleander Press, 1976 that I scanned.

Why were Professor Holford’s plans for a big road ploughing through Christ’s Pieces not actioned below?


…or perhaps Gordon Logie’s big underground roadways from 1963?


Or the Cambridge Monorail idea of 2009? Or perhaps the Underground bus tunnel?

Irrespective of what you think of those plans, collectively the Greater Cambridge City Deal needs to explain what the other previous plans were in summary form (with links to electronic copies of the full reports). That way, those who have been around local government for a long time don’t end up being the sole repositories of why things didn’t happen – and also don’t get needlessly annoyed by those of us who suggest things long since discarded – like electric trams!


Competition from diesel buses meant the old horse-drawn tram company started losing money hand over fist. Despite having powers from Parliament to convert to electric trams, and having plans to expand the tram network, the council chose to wind up the company just before the outbreak of the First World War.

Data collection and evidence bases

One of the biggest criticisms of the city deal processes has been on the lack of a substantial evidence base to inform decision-making processes. The Smarter Cambridge Transport campaign has been persistent in its call to strengthen evidence bases – see paragraph 7 here.

For me, one of the biggest gaps is the lack of data on the journeys our children & young people take to get to school and college. Yet the institutions already hold data to get some generic transport patterns based on the first 3-4 letters of post codes alone. Plotting those onto a map would be incredibly useful – especially when matched up with data on the main mode of transport that children and young people use to get to their places of study. But this does not seem to have been done – even though the plans disproportionately affect young people. We have some of the tools available to do this analysis – such as Cyclestreets.

We also have a wealth of data being collected by Cambridgeshire Insight – is this data being used? If so how? Is CI being publicised by the city deal? Are statistical bases being systematically referenced and referred to in press releases? Are the media publicising these?

Lack of shared problem-solving workshops

If they weren’t essential at the very start, they are essential now. This is because we are now getting critics of the critics of the City Deal. And more. Therefore the traditional ‘here’s our consultation – what do you think?’ mode of consultation is now broken.

We have to move away from the current adversarial relationships where only a small group of ‘experts’ do all of the analysis hidden behind closed doors to one where the city can make full use of the wealth of knowledge and expertise that it has in order to inform decision making. We piloted the process with Be The Change Cambridge in 2014/15 and the concept worked. Ditto with hack days such as this one from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign or this one from Culture Hack East in 2012 which provided valuable new insights into our leisure facilities in Cambridge. We have done this before, we can do it again – if the institutions want it.

Very poor communications until recently

Why oh why oh why do institutions in Cambridge have such a problem with asking young people about their opinions and ideas on solving Cambridge’s persistent and chronic problems that they have first hand experience of? It’s not hard. Two examples from this year.

And I’m not paid to do these interviews!

One of the consistent themes from protesters was that they felt they had only found out at the last minute about the proposals from the city deal. Over the past few months a number of people have been working their socks off to inform people about the city deal – I’ve been following their social media feeds of them out and about in their communities.

As I’ve stated before, Cambridge has a structural problem about how we as a city communicate with each other. The problem isn’t a lack of effort, but rather we’ve got something badly wrong about communicating with our citizens and with feedback loops influencing policy and decisions.

It’s not all doom and gloom – the city deal need not implode

It can be rescued from the avoidable hole it is currently in. From my perspective it’s frustrating to see the situation as it is because I’ve been following the meetings and processes, filming and interviewing various people involved for nearly 2 years. I’ve also regularly tabled public questions.

The Smarter Cambridge Transport’s plan is here. There is also an event coming up:


Here’s hoping we can reboot it and come up with something that has people working together to solve our city’s persistent and chronic transport problems.

Keeping Cambridge special – for whom?


Debating the future of Cambridge in the face of growing pressure and the persistent problems of traffic and housing.

The programme was as below


I was commissioned to film the event by Cambridge Past, Present and Future. The videos will be up soon – we’re just awaiting clearance.

What follows are my observations on the event. For those wondering what my ‘politics’ is all about, note I stood in 2014 for election through Puffles. Much of our manifesto still stands the test of time.

What’s the vision?

This was a comment that repeatedly came up all morning. We don’t have an agreed vision for the future of the city. Note the video below of Cllr Francis Burkitt recorded before he became the voting representative of South Cambridgeshire District Council on the City Deal Board. (It should start from 1m28s).

The video below is me discussing the future vision of Cambridge

Make what you will of both of those videos.

The point being though that the public authorities either have not formulated a vision that people can comment on, or that the vision they *have* formulated is one that lots of people disagree with – or feel that they did not give their consent to.

‘The view of business’ vs ‘the view of residents’ are at odds

This was acknowledged by both the Wendy Blythe speaking on behalf of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations, and Dr David Cleevely on behalf of Cambridge Ahead. (Transparency note – both organisations have supported me financially on projects over the past couple of years).

From an historical perspective, both presentations described what I call a new front in the history of our city: Village vs Gown – or rather village parishes vs the corporate interests of Cambridge University and its member colleges. Note the subtle difference between the historical ‘town vs gown’ that has been written about over the years. Going through the newspaper archives the impression I get from the contemporary reports is that the conflicts – and the acts of violence – were very much groups of individuals who ascribed to one ‘tribe’ or another. It’s easy to forget that some of the public servants of our city were injured for life in the violence.


Courtesy the British Newspaper Archives

What we are seeing with the expansion of Cambridge beyond its city boundaries are the encroachment of Cambridge University developments – especially in the western edges – into rural parishes. Now, this is not new.

Chesterton, Cherry Hinton and Trumpington are all examples of villages that were swallowed up by previous expansions of Cambridge. All three are now council wards in Cambridge. A number of current villages now look over – and for some, campaign against further expansion of Cambridge. Milton and Fulbourn are but two examples.

‘We don’t like more buses, we do like the Cambridge underground light rail’

The Smarter Cambridge Transport campaign has done an in-depth article on buses – see In a nutshell the city centre is now too crowded – especially at peak times – to cope with more buses. Or rather that was the feeling coming from the room. There was however strong support for the principles of Dr Colin Harris’ idea of a light rail for Cambridge that has a main line that goes underground.


Cambridge Connect – the ‘Isaac Newton Line’ 

Note the above map is the ‘headline’ line – the full network could be greater over a longer period of time. See

We missed a ‘call to action’ at the end

I tried to tip off Cllr Lewis Herbert at the end with a note inviting him to challenge the audience to commit to one small one off action and/or one small behaviour change as a result of taking part in the event, but in the rush of the end he didn’t announce it.

We’re still missing large sections of our community in the debate about Cambridge’s future

Cambridge architect Tom Foggin of the Cambridge Association of Architects  challenged the panel on this – noting that he was the only person in the room under the age of 30. There were only a handful of us under the age of 40 – most of the people in the room were older than us. And this issue is not new for the city authorities or civic organisations.

If it wasn’t clear before, it’s crystal clear now that Cambridge has a collective structural problem when it comes to involving young people, and ensuring proper representation of all of the communities that make up our city.

And this brings us back to the title of this blogpost: Who are we keeping Cambridge special for? Well…in the grand scheme of things it’s for future generations. It’s one of the mindsets I adopted for myself after I left the civil service – and even more so after my mental health crisis of 2012. In a nutshell, the career, life path and lifestyle I thought I would be living and going down evaporated with that health crisis – and forced me to re-assess absolutely everything. When your new starting point is ‘You may never be healthy enough to work full time again for the rest of your life’ then everything that you previously did and took for granted suddenly looks very different. Hence doing something more socially productive with my time while I still have it.

The missing historical context

The one thing that has been missing in the city deal programme is any historical context. This is why I set up the blog Lost Cambridge – also on Facebook at The purpose of this is not to rewrite history, but rather to bring to the front the various bits of history of the borough/city of Cambridge that have been archived and forgotten, or published and forgotten by all but a handful of people such as the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History. My point is that our civic history is not visibly influencing current policy discussions. If there is any bit of local history that really should be influencing our current policy discussions on the future of our city, it is the history of urban planning in Cambridge. Hence these books. I even made this point regarding the history of Cambridge buses at a meeting with county council officers who were presenting their plans for a new busway west of Cambridge .

Make what you will of the officers’ responses.

“Is the future all doom and gloom?”

It might feel like it looking at the national politics of today. Yet the presence of the Cambridge Connect light rail plans seem to have focussed the attention of residents at least onto something positive, rather than on opposing the current series of road management-based schemes that are currently out for consultation – such as the peaktime congestion.

At the same time, it’s easy to forget in the sea of negative headlines that there are schemes that are imaginative and that have broad support – such as the north-south cycleway known as the Chisholm Trail. That alone will take hundreds of cyclists away from motor traffic while at the same time speeding up cycle journeys across the city. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the potential health benefits.

“So…what is the next step?”

At the moment all eyes are on the proposed second busway with an important decision due on 13 October 2016. Note too that the board will be approving construction work on the Chisholm Trail.



Outta hospital, but not out of the woods


My first overnight stay in hospital

I was admitted into Papworth Hospital just outside Cambridge last night in a long-planned overnight sleep study to try and get to the bottom of my sleep-and-mental-health-related problems. To summarise, the study showed I’m sleeping but not getting restful sleep, but the main issue is ‘anxiety-related fatigue’ rather than anything specific to the sorts of treatment they have at Papworth. So it’s back to our system’s underfunded mental health services.


Above is me wired-up for the sleep study

It wasn’t the easiest night of sleep of my life, but the nursing and care team around me were superb and utterly professional.

Such a shame then that the staff of the hospital are being failed both by those at the top of health service policy and also by the failure of central and local government to provide a decent public transport system and civic infrastructure for the place.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been to Papworth using public transport – the poorly served bus line by the Whippet firm that supposedly gives a fig leaf of ‘competition’ for buses in Cambridge – when in reality the arrangement means that those of us dependent on buses have to pay two sets of public transport fares if Stagecoach that has pretty much a monopoly in and around Cambridge, does not serve them. As Andy Campbell, the managing director of Stagecoach in Cambridge states, if a route does not make his firm money, then he won’t run the buses. Hence my various tweets through Puffles calling for the ‘no-nonsense nationalisation of the buses’ with the hashtag #CommissarPuffles to make the point.

On the way to hospital, I ended up forking out £30 for a taxi from Cambridge because the failure of Stagecoach and GoWhippet to provide an integrated public transport system meant I missed my connection – and the last bus from Cambridge to Papworth, the latter leaving on an hourly basis. (I waited for 2 hours for the bus to get me back today – not willing to fork out even more money for the journey back).

On being wired up

I was only expecting a handful of nodes to be attached to my head but as it turned out other parts of my body were wired up. I was also swabbed for MRSA on admission to the sleep ward too. Your movement is restricted with all of the things wired and stuck to you, wondering if this is the part they start downloading your thoughts.

At the same time I kept on reminding myself that the staff are all professionals and see people like me day-in-day-out. Any social conditioning about other people seeing you with next-to-no-clothes on goes out of the window. Arms and legs had to be wired up too – hence the guidance notes for patients on wearing loose clothing.

This also meant I was confined to the ward – I couldn’t go anywhere beyond my room other than the toilet. During the night I couldn’t even go there because I was wired up to the machines next to the bed. I had a conversation with one of the staff about the camera that would be filming me – which had become rapidly obsolete with the pace of technological change in recent times. With the new Papworth under construction at Addenbrooke’s the wards at Papworth that are really showing their age will soon be gone. I can’t pretend the room was suitable for a sleep clinic – I was one of a handful of patients being watched & studied. The walls were paper thin and my room backed onto a pathway where the conversations of staff were clearly audible. Again, not the fault of the staff but a result of years of underfunding and poor design.

On waiting till mid-afternoon for the consultant’s assessment

This was the bit that could have been done online or via Skype. I didn’t need to wait around in the hospital for this. By the time it was my turn to be seen, the last afternoon bus had gone, leaving me with a 2 hour wait to get the last bus back to Cambridge.

In the grand scheme of things, the *cause* of my sleep issues appears to be fatigue-anxiety related – thus mental health, rather than a sleep-specific condition that Papworth amongst other things specialises in. But at least it has eliminated one line of inquiry. Yet given how underfunded our mental health services are generally…exactly.

On…the buses

It’s hard to ignore them on my side of work given the schemes out for consultation with the Cambridge City Deal. The night before I went into hospital I filmed at the West Cambridge Local Liaison Forum for the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations. I’m listing the videos in the playlist below.


It’s worth scrolling through the meeting on 26 Sept and also on 22 Sept just to get a feel not just for the strength of feeling but also the nature of the arguments that residents are making to city deal officials. The important vote is on 13 October where Cllrs Herbert, Bates and Burkitt have to vote on a whole host of schemes. Expect fireworks. Details of the meeting are at




Corbyn wins – but did the contest need to happen?


No – and had Labour MPs spent the few days after the EU referendum vote with the line The Tories have crashed the country , they could have won the next general election ages ago – with or without Corbyn.

A huge amount of bad blood has been spilt within the party. For the sake of politics generally I hope Labour doesn’t implode further with scenes of badly-behaved shouty people trying to shout down speakers on the platform.

“So…what should happen now?”

I’m not in the party, so I’m in no position to tell anyone within Labour what they should or shouldn’t do. More a case of posting open questions for which people can ponder over.

“What are the lessons learnt for the centre-right in Labour?”

Compared to the candidates that first put their names forward after the 2015 general election, both Angela Eagle and Owen Smith appeared to be far weaker than the likes of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and the like. Whether it was the background for both Eagle and Smith’s leadership launches (Smith’s being a set of window blinds – see here), or other basic errors, despite the limitations of Corbyn’s record the alternative didn’t seem any better to the general public. Remember the general public doesn’t eat-drink-breathe-live politics. Most have about 5 mins per day to devote to politics when perhaps watching the news/flicking through the papers/social-media-surfing online.

As things stand, it’s difficult to see where a new leader capable of replacing Corbyn over the next year or so is going to come from as far as the centre-right of Labour is concerned. What was interesting to note was how a number of high profile MPs managed to stay well away from the day-to-day media-spotlight campaigning with Owen Smith. Andy Burnham focused on his bid to become metro-mayor of Manchester, Yvette Cooper joined one of my local (as in local to my neighbourhood – I live on a parliamentary boundary) MPs Heidi Allen visiting and campaigning for child refugees, and Stella Creasy continued her grassroots activism both in her constituency and with Labour’s sister party, the Co-op party.  (See here for how this works between the two parties – an agreement that has been in place for nearly 90 years).

“What are the lessons learnt for the left?”

John McDonnell mentioned that he’d be looking at the substantive criticisms of how Corbyn’s operation functioned when asked for an immediate post-comment result. The toughest task from my perspective is rebuilding trust with the MPs who are not those who from the start said they’d never serve under Corbyn under any circumstances, but those who stated very clearly and concisely how their role was undermined by basic failures from Corbyn’s office. I’m thinking of the likes of Lilian Greenwood MP and Kerry McCarthy MP here.

So from that perspective, the question is “What is going to change as a result of the leadership contest?” Because 4/10 members not being content with the leadership – along with the hostility of the Parliamentary Labour Party is still a sizeable number. On the flip side, Corbyn got an even bigger mandate than when he was first elected as Labour leader. So in terms of massive policy changes sending the party back to the economic policies of the later Blair years, that just isn’t going to happen.

“What does “accepting the result and moving on” mean in modern day politics?”

This is both in an EU Referendum context as well as the Labour leadership context. Does it mean:

“You are now officially banned from speaking out on the issue concerned because the party/the people have spoken and have officially disagreed with you. Therefore you have been silenced!”?

I hope not.

In terms of pro-EU types it seems it’s still in the open for how best to respond. Some are taking legal action, others are campaigning for a second referendum, others are waiting for a general election, others think we should wait & see what the three brexiteers (Boris, Davies and Fox) come up with – the camp I fall in closest with, and others think we should accept the result, accept we’re leaving the EU on whatever terms & be done with it. Note at the same time on the pro-Brexit side there are some who are saying an ‘Australian points style system’ is a promise set in concrete while the £350million per week for the NHS was some abstract theoretical aspiration. It remains to be seen what Brexit actually means for the general public.

Lib Dems local-focus strategy

Social media has been covering the trickle of local council by-elections since the EU referendum, in which the Liberal Democrats are doing far better than their political opponents. Compared to where they were in the run-up to the 2015 general election, the Liberal Democrats have almost doubled their membership – and things appeared to be buzzing at their party conference. The problem for them was that the mainstream media hardly covered it. Outside of Tim Farron’s keynote addresses, none of their elected MPs or their peers seemed to get much media – or even social media traction at all. How many of you could name the other seven Lib Dem MPs? Off the top of my head outside of Nick Clegg and Norman Lamb (leadership contestant who I interviewed in a visit to Cambridge), only Greg Mulholland (follows Puffles), Alastair Carmichael (was in a legal challenge over election campaigning), and perhaps Tom Brake spring to mind.

Without the big hitters regularly on TV – due to new guidance saying the Lib Dems don’t have enough MPs to justify their previous higher levels of coverage, the party doesn’t really have much choice but to adopt a strategy that bypasses the mainstream media. One thing that is noticeable is that the party is already selecting prospective parliamentary candidates – whether Julian Huppert’s reselection in Cambridge through to long-time rising stars such as Kelly Marie Blundell in Lewes (Norman Baker’s old seat) and Daisy Benson in Yeovil – David Laws’ old seat.

And of the Greens?

At the moment they are caught between a rock and a hard place with Corbyn’s leftward shift and the loss of the environmental safety net that was EU law and directives that helped force up the UK’s environmental standards in a number of areas. Think beaches for a start. Despite her criticisms – in particular her TV media appearances, it was under the leadership of Natalie Bennett that the Green Party’s membership rocketed. That didn’t happen by accident. It was a result of her visiting town after town after town to meet local members and the local media – of which I was one in Cambridge. Note in the run up to the EU Referendum Nigel Farage did similar. Yet with its Westminster focus, the mainstream media completely missed both of these.

Now with two joint leaders John Bartley and Caroline Lucas MP, it remains to be seen how the two will divide responsibilities. Natalie Bennett’s decision to stand candidates in as many constituencies in the 2015 general election meant that with a significantly higher voter share than in past years they got a big rise in ‘short money’ from Parliament to fund their political activities. It was noticeable that the number of jobs the party posted on w4MP (where many Westminster vacancies are posted – interesting viewing if you want to see who is trying to influence what) rose – as did the seniority of the new roles.

And of the Tories – and UKIP?

The former have their party conference in a couple of weeks, the latter have selected Diane James MEP as their new leader. It remains to be seen whether Nigel Farage will still be ‘the person to go to for comment’ by the media or whether he’ll re-direct things to his successor. That said, Diane James when on TV has struck me as a politician I could see traditional Conservative voters being persuaded by. What happens to UKIP as a party depends on what sort of deal Boris, Davies and Fox can negotiate.

As for Prime Minster Theresa May? A stroke of tactical genius with the appointment of Fox, Davies and Boris leading Brexit negotiations given their high profile role in the Leave campaign. If they succeed in negotiating a good deal for the UK, she gets the credit. If they mess up, the three men get the blame given May stood back from both sides of the EU referendum campaign. Note too that at the same time we’ll be hearing from Cameron and others who have left government when they publish their memoirs. Given where the likes of Osborne and Gove currently are, expect one or two of them to be explosive. While Cameron sails off into the sunset of the corporate directorships world, I get the sense that Osborne’s not done with politics. As with Iain Duncan Smith who launched the Centre for Social Justice think tank after he lost a leadership challenge in 2003, Osborne foreseeably could follow in his rival’s example.

And finally…


Don’t underestimate the amount of civil service policy resources that will now be thrown at Brexit-related policies. Given that the Conservatives won’t want to increase spending on what they see as ‘administration’ or rather ‘the cost of politics’, other policy areas are going to be put on the back burner – they have to be. For a start there simply won’t be the staff to do the necessary policy development. Perhaps more importantly, parliamentary time is inevitably going to be taken up with the huge amount of legislative changes that will need to be carried out assuming Article 50 (which starts the 2 year count-down for exiting the EU) is triggered. Finally, there are a whole host of other outside shocks that could hit the UK and global economies. The ongoing wars in the Middle East are not making things any easier for the EU and the refugee situation. The US elections are looming, and every year climate-related news seems to get that little bit more worse.

Diversifying our community of local historians


How to grow, expand and diversify the group of ‘community custodians’ of our local history – and a list of local groups and websites

I wandered up to the annual Cambridgeshire Association for Local History Awards held at St John the Evangelist Church opposite Homerton College at the weekend. The group that attend regularly are predominantly over the age of 50 – most are retired. Someone commented to me that it was nice to see someone young attending. I’m 40 in a few years time. Which frightens the living daylights out of me.

Handing out the awards was Mike Petty MBE – who the county owes a massive debt of gratitude for his work in collating and curating the records in the Cambridgeshire Collection.


Above: A young Mike Petty with the Princess Royal on the opening of the Lion Yard Shopping Centre in 1975

Mr Petty gave a talk to the audience that was both a wake-up call for me as it was for them. It was all about getting online. Only someone like Mike or Allan Brigham could have given a talk like that to the audience there and have it being meaningful and having a positive impact. I simply wouldn’t have had the credibility with the audience. It also made me realise that there is still a lot more to do on basic IT skills training across society. We’re living in a time period where younger generations are more skilled than older generations (generalising big time) but noting that it’s a chunk of the older generations that hold the majority of the assets. A polarisation that bodes ill for society.

It’s more than ‘Oh – where are the young people?’

I filmed Hilary and Shelley of the Museum of Cambridge at the Cherry Hinton Festival prior to the awards. They are running the Capturing Cambridge project.

One thing I mentioned in a previous recording (which I’ve not yet uploaded) was how Cherry Hinton has changed significantly in my lifetime. During my primary school years I’d cycle through the village regularly. Then in the 1990s when I had the misfortune to be at school with some people from the village who I really didn’t get on with, I seldom went through the village for the best part of a decade. (It then got me thinking about which parts of town do today’s teenagers consider unsafe/no go zones, and what the public authorities are going to do about it.) Today, the village has a younger feel to it – and is much more ethnically diverse. I still refer to it as a village rather than just a suburb of Cambridge swallowed up by decades of expansion because it was once a standalone village. The homes that finally linked the village with the rest of the city were only built in the last 50 years.

My point above is that when I observed who was at the festival – as well as the young people out and about in town, Cambridge has become much more diverse. Which made me wonder about the parents of those children and why they were not much more conspicuous by their presence in the civic life of the city. One of the insights I got from the Greek Orthodox community from Cllr George Pippas when I popped into their new premises at the old United Reformed Church on Cherry Hinton Road was that many of their families were academic and science professionals who had moved to Cambridge in part as a result of the ongoing economic crisis in Greece. Many incredibly well-qualified people with incredible intellect…and yet the city is not tapping into their cerebral wealth. I assume theirs is not the only community in our city that is being ‘bypassed’ by our civic institutions.

Working together across the class divides

I’ve mentioned in a couple of videos about the football club I first played for when I was 10. We trained on Coleridge Rec, and the two trainers – both parents of children at local schools, came from very different social classes. One was a university professor – Andrew Webster, and the other, Andrew Ross was a plumber. And they worked together brilliantly. Webster was very much the quieter more softly spoken of the two, with Ross being the ‘traditional alpha male’ whose voice and mindset carried a powerful authority with a group of ten year old boys.

The above experience for me explains why for participation it’s not simply a case of getting people who are more qualified in the room together. For me you only have to look at the publicity the books about Cambridge University and its colleges get in local bookstores vs the books about the borough of Cambridge. Far less has been written about the latter, with far fewer books being shifted despite the borough having a very interesting history in itself. Interestingly, one of the comments in the archives in the book Planners and Preservationists is quite striking…



…note the final paragraph above. Have some members of Cambridge University been guilty of playing down the role of the people of the borough of Cambridge who are not part of Cambridge University? What impact has this had on the history of the town?

Books about the borough of Cambridge – long lost publications gathering dust in our local libraries?

I was at Rock Road Library not so long ago and noticed they had a number of short publications covering various historical aspects of life in the borough of Cambridge. But being thin paperback publications means that they physically deteriorate faster, and are harder to spot by the casual browser because you can’t see the titles on the spines of the books. This is irrespective of whether the content is any good or not. Never judge a book by its cover? Never judge a book by its spine even? But what if you cannot see the spine?

This made me wonder whether there is scope for someone to do a collation exercise to bring together the existing publications, where possible updating their content, and publishing them in a larger book of collated works.

More than just books

Kay Blayney got it spot on for Women of the World: Cambridge in 2015. Have a watch.

One of the things I’ve learnt from the digitised British Newspaper Archives is that they are a treasure trove for sources and inspiration for any play-writer or songwriter. Not least because decades ago the local journalists would report from every public meeting there was and write who said what verbatim – heckles included! I remember talking about this to local musician Melody Causton – who wrote this number about Jack the Ripper.

“He is burning he is wild, caught up in his sin / He sold his soul to the devil and now the devil fears him.”

For me, the big untapped route of diversifying our local history community is through music, art and drama. That’s not to say books are not important – they are. That said, I can’t help but feel we need to have a rethink on how we use our written resources to share the story of our city.


Cambridgeshire Association of Local History Book Award Winners 2016

  • Bognor, F and Tomkins, S.P The Cam: an aerial portrait of the Cambridge river
  • Boulton, R A policeman’s lot in 19th century Chatteris
  • Buchanan, A Robert Wills and the foundation of architectural history
  • CALS Not just a name on the wall
    (Award to go to Caroline Clifford and Alison England)
  • Delanoy, L and Scott, M One. two, three
  • Kingsbury, J and Williams, C Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, 1941-2014
  • Miller, E The Ely Coucher Book
    (award to go to F Willmoth and S Oosthuizen, Editors)
  • Morrison, M The Links on the hills: a history of the Old Course at the Gogs
  • Phillips, G and Stockman, N Chatteris remembers
  • Rawle, T A Classical adventure: the architectural history of Downing
  • Smith, D.C A Georgian house on The Brink
  • Thompson D Religious life in mid-19th century Cambridgeshire and
  • Huntingdonshire: The Religious Census of 1851


  • Barrett, D and Calvi, N The girls who went to war
  • Evans, M East Anglia at War
  • Fen Drayton History Soc Fen Drayton at war, 1914-18
  • Glazer, A.M and Thomson, P Crystal clear: the autobiographies of Sir Lawrence and
    Lady Bragg
  • Harper, G and Dellar, G Guilden Morden in the 1940s
  • Jarvis, D Wholefood heroes: the story of Arjuna
  • Melbourn History Group 1914-18: The Great War
  • Saltmarsh, J King’s College Chapel
    (letter to go to the Editors)
  • Sullivan, C Trials and tribulation: the story of RAF Gransden Lodge 



Digitising our county’s archives


Some thoughts after spending time in some Cambridge-based community archives.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon tucked away in the Cambridgeshire County Archives (currently in the process of being moved to Ely – much to my regret) at Shire Hall, Cambridge. It’s part of what I originally described as my ‘Lost Cambridge’ project that started with digitising some photographs from the Museum of Cambridge‘s collection of photographs – the first batch I uploaded to this album with their permission.

I want to scan everything, but I can’t

Not least because of copyright issues. Helpful as archive staff have been – and they have been incredibly so, I can’t help but think that if more people knew about what was hidden in the archives, more people would take an interest. And there is *** a lot *** hidden in the archive catalogue as the screenshot below indicates. Have a search yourself at


Furthermore, more people would use the accumulated knowledge of our collective local history to influence our county’s future & destiny. That matters very much at this time given the crossroads that we’re at with the various government policies affecting both Cambridge and Cambridgeshire.

“Let’s go back to first principles: What’s in the archives and why are they important?”

I can only give it from my perspective. If you asked the users of the archives they would all give their own unique reasons for spending their spare time in them. For me, they are as follows:

  • A positive disposition towards the study of history
  • A personal struggle to try and work out what my own identity is in this very fluid world and in one where the three generations in my family preceding me were born on three different continents
  • Curiosity at what my home town used to be like before I came into existence
  • Trying to work out what lessons can be learnt from our history and applied to our county’s current challenges
  • A sense of ‘discovery’ and finding things that people either never knew about or were only known about in small circles.

Let’s also take the case of one of my favourite historians Dr Janina Ramirez. Her lecture on her recent book ‘The Private Lives of Saints’ is here. What her research reveals is that this idea that saints stood above the rough and tumble of life in some sort of holy isolation – the impression I got from having to go to church every Sunday – was in fact a myth. The more I read about the historical record of the church I had been brought up in, the more angry I became about having been misled – lied to even – about how spiritual leaders were again spiritually ‘above’ politics…when the archives and the historical record shows the opposite. One of the books I stumbled across in the archives from I think the Cambridgeshire Antiquarian Society had a written article about two women recalling how they had to learn from each other the story of Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor) as one – Church of England-schooled was taught all about ‘Bloody Mary’ and the other – Catholic-schooled was taught about how she was saintly. The reality as history tells us was much more complicated. Yet the case here was that both women were misled by their educational establishments.

“So…there’s a ‘searching for the truth’ theme in this?”

Very much so – and as is often the case the truth can end up being far more fascinating and interesting than the myths otherwise perpetuated by whoever happens to be in power or control at the time.

One of the most striking things about the archives – in particular the British Newspaper Archives is just how dominant Christianity was in the county’s cultural life. And the nature of what that was, was by no means agreed upon. The number of ‘non-conformist’ congregations and communities around is really striking. And I thought the far left were splintered! Reminds me of this:

Quoting speeches and debates word for word

The digitised British Newspaper Archives are fascinating for anyone who wants to find out about the local history of their area. The trick as with most archives is knowing how to search for things…a bit like Government policy documents. While you need to pay for a monthly subscription, what you get back is more than worth it (in my view) once you’ve got the hang of it. With me, I started off searching by street names and by building names. Then I started with political parties and politicians. Then I started with particular events or area names. Finally I thought of the sort of text that an angry and outraged writer/reporter might put in an article to catch a reader’s eye. Like ‘Protest’ or ‘Disgraceful’ – while geographically restricting the search area. Hence discovering the tales of badly-behaved undergraduates in Cambridge during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Public meetings were quoted word-for-word – including the heckles! If you’re an aspiring play-writer, search the newspaper archives – you’ve got your scripts all there! I’m in the process of turning one such event into one already with the help of a number of people with experience in this field.

“What’s the ‘digitisation’ bit got to do with all of this?”

It takes a ***huge*** amount of effort to digitise archives – and even more to then transcribe manuscripts. At least with print you can use an optical recognition device or software to help – which is what the British Newspaper Archive has done – though not without its problems due to the age of the print it is scanning. Everything I learnt about all of the issues to do with this I learnt from Professor Melissa Terras of UCL when she visited me and Puffles in Cambridge a few years ago. (Actually she visited CRASSH to deliver a lecture on digital humanities – but her findings were fascinating). The big finding I came away with from her talk was that over 90% of the transcribing of the Bentham archives at UCL was done by less than 10% of the volunteers who volunteered to help out with the transcription. It takes dedication.

Yet once something is digitised, anyone with internet access can assist with the transcribing. The challenge is finding and supporting the 10% who end up doing most of the leg work.

“You’ve not said why it matters”

In a nutshell it makes things much easier for people to access and get hold of the information tucked away. It also makes it much easier for people to use that information as well. I remember talking to local musician Melody Causton about this after hearing her perform ‘The Devil Fears Him’ about Jack the Ripper.

I recalled how Charles Dickens got ideas for his novels having spent his earlier years as a court reporter. Who knows how many musicians could get inspiration from finding out about local historical figures or events otherwise hidden away in the archives? Although not linked to any archives, this reminds me of a number of songs about historical events. The battle of the beanfield (see this documentary) was something I only heard about because The Levellers wrote a song about it. Or the Bells of Rhymney by Oysterband. All three of those songs I find incredibly haunting.

From that perspective, digitising the archives makes it much more easier for the casual browser to stumble across something really interesting – and do something even more interesting with it. Because lets face it, until very recently, the most that people could do with archive finds was to publish a paper or a book about it – and perhaps do a speaking tour at best. With digital and social media we can do so much more.

“Such as…?”

Well I’m making my own video documentary for a start with not much more than a mobile phone and a selfie stick for filming. 150+ ‘likes’ on my #LostCambridge Facebook Page means lots of people are getting to see the photographs that I’ve been able to unearth from the archives, as well as tales of lessons learnt from the past.


Why didn’t we get this as our Guildhall 100 years ago?

Images like the above have, in my experience chime with people’s curiosity and imagination far better than a wall of text in a dusty book that might be sitting in an archive that might not be straight forward to get to – especially if you have limited mobility.

Unlocking knowledge and making local historical groups and services more financially viable.

What I’d like to see (And support if at all possible) is for the main community archives to get together in the run up to Christmas and have a pop-up stall in Cambridge with reproductions of photographs and maps of our county’s history on sale. As well as ‘postcard size’ images, I’m also thinking about big reproductions that have a real sense of presence – something that for example local businesses might want to display on their premises. Something like this would both generate an income and publicity to bring in new users. For somewhere like the Museum of Cambridge that could be a wonderful mini-windfall. Because in my experience of people’s reactions to the online photos they’ve seen, there is untapped interest in the history of the borough/town of Cambridge. It’s just few have written comprehensively about it and even fewer have gone that step further and promoted it.

“Why have so few written about our local history if it’s as interesting as you say it is?”

In one sense it’s a niche area. Why would anyone who had no connection to Cambridge or Cambridgeshire be interested in the history of the townsfolk? In the world of glamorous media, the University of Cambridge and the ducal couple (William & Kate) get the headlines – and the social media mentions. The other thing is that few have been able to present it as interesting. One person who has is Mike Petty MBE. Here’s him talking about my childhood neighbourhood’s experience of the First World War.

There’s also Allan Brigham’s ‘Town Not Gown’ tours which come highly recommended too. In both cases, Mike and Allan are bringing local history to the people – as is the Mill Road History /Capturing Cambridge Project. At a rural level there’s the Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network – again testament to digitally-aware historians getting their communities online.

But individuals and community groups can only go so far. And not all is well – there are some noticeable gaps despite the best efforts of a number of people. For example:

Cambridge Antiquarian Society – a society with a long and illustrious history and an almost intimidating ‘back catalogue’ of publications going back well over 100 years. Bookshelves of publications going back to 1840, but none that I can find are systematically digitised for open access. Also, I can’t find a Facebook or a Twitter presence. The reason why digitisation would help the society greatly is that by making their immensely detailed archives available, the casual browser doing an online search is more likely to stumble across them – some of whom may choose to get involved in their society.

Cambridgeshire Association for Local History – Honor Rideout works her socks off for this group, and I’ve attended a number of incredibly interesting talks hosted by them in my neighbourhood. The challenge is how to encourage the next generations of community historians to get involved, because quite often I’m one of the youngest people there. And I’m not far off being 40 years old. (*****Eeeek!*****) Note also the Cambridge branch of the Historical Association.

“Are we selling local history all wrong?”

In part, yes – but this comes from a more detailed response to the question of ‘how is our local history relevant to us?’ Take the newcomers to Cambridge – people who have moved into the area to make it their home. How is Cambridge’s local history relevant to them and why? How is Cambridgeshire’s local history relevant to younger generations and why? In one sense I’m using city and county interchangeably, and in another sense I’m not. Take Cherry Hinton for example. Up until just under a century ago, the village was outside of the borough boundaries. Now it’s very much inside. Ditto Trumpington and Chesterton. Will we see in 100 years time the villages of Fulbourn, Milton and Histon swallowed up by an expanding city?

What I’ve found that makes local history relevant to local people are the following:

  1. People can relate to images, film footage and descriptions of their local area from times gone by – it gives them/us a sense of place
  2. It can influence what decisions and actions we choose to take in the future – whether it’s looking at the historical record of a school through to which part of town we might want to move to. (This can create problems for institutions & places that want to ‘break away’ from a negative image in the mindset of local communities)
  3. Pictures of what we once had but lost can generate a range of emotions – shock, anger, disappointment, frustration – enough to make them want to find out more about why something did/didn’t happen and to make sure we the people/city/county learn from it in our future collective decisions
  4. People like the sense of having ‘discovered’ something within which they can form their own conclusions.

“How do we make history ‘social’?”

In one sense there’s more of this happening all over the place – in part because more of our local history is becoming accessible on the back of the social media conventions of sharing. I’ve seen this in a number of Facebook groups with people posting very old photographs from family albums that tell a different story about our county to perhaps what we might otherwise have assumed. For example we might take a nostalgic view about pub signs or road signs, but some of the photographic evidence I’ve seen shows them looking very tatty and plain.

The other thing for me is creating some sort of a ‘buzz’ around the events that the city & county host – hence the University of Cambridge’s commendable work with the festivals of science, literature, history and of ideas. A significant change in mindset from when I was growing up in the city – in particular as a younger teenager where me and my friends were about as welcome as the bubonic plague.

For a city like Cambridge and a county like Cambridgeshire, it’s up to those larger, grander institutions – in particular those that have and are shaping our collective history to take more of a lead. Whether it’s organising big events or festivals, through to promoting collective learning from our history (including and especially where we got things wrong) through to taking care of and looking after our archives, I’d like to think we can do better than we currently are.

…and finally…

Digital opens up new challenges as well as new opportunities. Talking to county archive staff, I was the first person to their knowledge who asked for permission to use still images for a YouTube not-for-profit/unpaid series where my camera was a mobile phone and the mount was a selfie-stick.

Digitising archives also means taking on collections that are not paper-based. Who’s going to conserve my hard drives of video footage of council meetings through to local arts performances? Because let’s say Melody Causton featured above goes onto become a huge musical star, those early gigs in Cambridge pubs might be of interest to far more people than just the people that live here.






Cambridge – the shaping of our city


My mini documentary series on how the borough, and then city of Cambridge became what it is today.

The video playlist is here – enjoy.

I’m currently recording a short documentary series about the history of my home town, focusing on the townsfolk side of things rather than Cambridge University – of which much has been written about the latter. I’m loosely basing it on the book of the same/similar title currently only available from G David Booksellers – ‘Cambridge: The shaping of the city’ by Peter Bryan. The bookseller is also the publisher.

I’ve also touched on a number of other books, such as the wartime diaries of Jack Overhill, edited by Peter Searby (see this one being available from the Cambridgeshire Collection on the third floor of the Central Library in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade. Here’s the intro piece:

It’s not the smoothest of pieces by anymeans – I’m filming it using only a smartphone and a selfie stick – attaching what useful gadgets I can to said phone – for example a small lapel microphone on windy days.

In a sense I want to get a feel for whether this can be done, and if so what it looks like. I don’t know if anyone locally has filmed such a local documentary featuring lots of walkabouts around the city. It takes a bit of getting used to – walking around town staring into a tiny little camera lens. But once you get into a flow and start speaking like a TV journalist, the monotone becomes a thing of the past.

“Why are you doing this?”

My main aim is to use our town’s history as a means for influencing our future – in particular as and when buildings and new infrastructure goes up. We still seem to be getting things very badly wrong with our systems and processes leading to some hideous buildings being approved – in the most part Whitehall’s planning laws having councils over a barrel. But the latter are by no means free from blame. See also Hideous Cambridge in this Cambridge TV clip.

“What have you discovered?”

The big thing for me is how much is hidden away in the British Newspaper Archives online. The problem for me is that no one has gone through the archives systematically (with zero digitisation of local newspapers post-1940) thus the reports contemporary at the time remain undiscovered.  I guess the same could be said for many other towns and cities – which is why digitising the newspaper archives and photographic libraries is for me ever so important.

Some of the most interesting tales have been the micropockets of local history – such as Jack Overhill’s diaries and exploring his neighbourhood. The most interesting bits for me are his takes on national/international news and the impact on not just him but Cambridge too. The biggest discovery I made was on how Cambridge was affected by the Second World War. I went into the Cambridgeshire County Archives and discovered the log book listing every single air raid on the city. Staff very kindly gave me permission to screenshot and publish the entries – you can see them here. I also counted up the casualties and munitions dropped. The figures are much higher than I ever thought:

  • 31 people killed
  • 71 people injured
  • Over 1,500 bombs and other munitions dropped on the borough

Note Cambridge was much smaller then than it is now – so the area the bombs were dropped on is smaller – hence a much more intense experience as a result. The really interesting part for me was corroborating what Jack Overhill wrote in his diaries with what the archives said.

Cambridge Defences WWII

The above map – again from the County Archives and published with their kind permission, is the map of planned defences of the 5th Battalion Cambridgeshire Regt (Home Guard).

The saddest discovery was the deaths of Petica Robertson and Lucy Gent – Air Raid Precaution wardens who were hit by bombs as they tried to get people into the shelters. Only the plaques on St Paul’s Church and The Guildhall note their passing.


Personally I think there should be a statue of the two of them locally.

Anyway, ***lots*** more to follow on this as I unearth more local historical gems in the library.