How do I tell people about…?


A list related to depression and disconnection – or rather my experiences of. (Drafted in December 2016 – unpublished until now) 

So…I made this video about the Mill Road Winter Fair 2016 – the third year in a row I’ve made one (and IIRC the third year in a row it’s clashed with a music rehearsal!)

But what if I told you I felt completely and emotionally disconnected from everyone on the day of filming? (I didn’t get any sleep the night before – insomnia).

What if I told you that I felt extremely isolated and alone that day?

What if I told you that it would have been much more fun to have been doing this filming & editing with a group of fun & energised friends?

What if I told you that I would rather have spent the day with someone than doing this alone?

What if I told you that during the rehearsal that followed, I had to take some tranquilliser medication just to get through it and the rest of the day?

What if I told you that what’s going on in local, national and international politics is getting to me more than it looks?

What if I told you that in a rehearsal hall with over 100 people in it I felt alone in that crowded room?

What if I told you I felt embarrassed & not know how to respond when people gave me positive feedback after that small group piece?

What if I told you that (unfortunately) it’s only the insults that stick?

What if I told you that I’m unable to apply for or take up job vacancies in London that friends and acquaintances tell me are made for me, because of my not great mental health?

What if I told you that, because of my health I’m unable to move into my own place – certainly in the near future?

What if I told you that I stopped dating because of my health several years ago?

What if I told you that I cannot visualise what being settled down will be like, because in my current circumstances I cannot realistically see it happening?

What if I told you that much of the community action I do today is driven by things that happened in the last millennium here?

What if I told you that out of those things that happened in the last millennium, I’m only in touch with two of the people who were there even if only for some of those years?

What if I told you that I nearly had a panic attack during a carol at a Christmas service I was invited to, because having to go to church had such a negative impact on my childhood?

What if I told you that years of exams and going to church with one of the worst choirs in the world almost turned me away from music completely?

What if I told you that I find it really hard to make friends with other men?

What if I told you that at a recent family wedding,  both bride & groom’s parties contained friends from their school, university and working lives, and I felt a deep sense of sadness knowing that I’ll never be able to experience anything like that?

What if I told you that it took me two days to recover from the journey to and from the wedding?

What if I told you that for near future at least, long distance journeys are now out of the question for me?

What if I told you that I was already displaying symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders in childhood before I even knew what they were?

What if I told you that none of the institutions I’ve studied with or worked at have ever looked after with people with mental health problems well, and as a result none of them were ever able to realise my full potential with them?

What if I told you that I used my A-level revision notes as the basis for revising for my finals…and I still got a 2:1.

What if I told you that I don’t think I have the self-discipline to do a masters or a Ph.D, even though I have a couple of ideas that would make good research topics?

What if I told you that I don’t blame people over the years walking away from me when my mental health issues became too much?

What if I told you that no one person or institution will ever be able to change my situation. Not even myself. It’s much more complicated than that.

What if I told you that one of my biggest fears is fear of being abandoned?

What if I told you that out of all of the people who encouraged me to stand for election, I was gutted that only two people were prepared to help in person with my campaign, and that only one person joined me in facing the general public in my neighbourhood? (Thank you Penny & Ceri for standing up and being counted?)

What if I told you that politicians from several political parties have sounded me out about standing for election as a candidate for their party since I left the civil service?

What if I told you that most of the best friendships I have had in recent years are with people I’ve met through Puffles, my dragon fairy?

What if I told you that many people who I know are more familiar with Puffles than they are with me?

What if I told you that there are people out there who call me Puffles in public, and some of them hold elected public office?

What if I told you that I’m fine with people calling me Puffles?

What if I told you that Puffles is a very useful filter, in that most of the obnoxious people I’ve met since 2010 have been people who don’t want to know about social media and don’t understand why I have a dragon?

What if I told you that the 4 projects I have lined up for the next few years are ones that I really don’t want to do alone, but also are ones that I don’t want to simply pay people to do?

What if I told you I am deadly serious about making a drama series for TV?

What if I told you that I am deadly serious about writing a history book?

What if I told you that in local history circles I’m often the youngest person in the room? (I’m going to be 40 in a few years time).

What if I told you that there is so much I more I would like to do with art and music, but that I cannot do it alone?

What if I told you that even locally there is so much more that I want to see and do, but that I cannot do it alone?

What if I told you that for much of the 2000s the colour of my skin was hardly an issue, but in the 2010s it feels like the opposite has been the case, especially in the past year or so?

When someone asks: “Where are you from?” I reply “Cambridge”. When they respond with: “No – where are you really from?” … I’m a bit like this man – four generations born in three continents on both sides of my family. If I’m not from Cambridge, where am I from? You tell me.

What if I told you that of the several thousand pieces of music that I’ve got, I can pinpoint many of them to a particular time, place, period or even person in my past?

What if I told you that I still collect music I can ballroom dance to, even though my heart has given up the ghost on dancing?

What if I told you that not having someone to dance with on a regular basis is still a painful void in my life?

What if I told you that I have an electric guitar, a base uke, a violin and a five-string viola in my bedroom but feel unable to play them or practice while I still live with my immediate family?

What if I told you that I really want 2017 to be better than 2016, but that I actually think it’s going to be worse?


I don’t know why I didn’t publish this at the time – I think I just bottled it. But here it is, a year later. Certainly the general election result of 2017 was the unexpected event I could not have predicted. 




Does filming local council meetings have any impact?


Some thoughts after a few years of filming local council meetings, and on how communities and participants can increase the impact both of the footage and of their work when being filmed.

Controversial CB1/Cambridge Station developers Brookgate were back in front of councillors from Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council & Cambridgeshire County Council on their plans for North Cambridge Station. Councillors were not impressed with their hotel designs.

…but with the exception of Cllr Damian Tunnicliffe, they all voted to approve the planning application.

“That…doesn’t make sense! Why did they not vote it down?”

Changes by ministers in the Coalition government that made the planning system much more favourable to developers – highlighted in both The Guardian here, and The Telegraph here. What the rules do is to give developers a stronger right of appeal where planning permission is refused, enabling Whitehall-appointed planning inspectors to overrule local council planning committees, and most importantly *award costs against local councils*.

Cambridge City Council found this out the hard way when it rejected an application by Brookgate to demolish Wilton Terrace, only to lose on appeal and face a hefty legal bill. The problem was that the big local campaign to save the Victorian terrace found out too late that the council had, several years before, given outline planning consent for the terrace to be demolished – and as mentioned by Cllr Lewis Herbert when he was leader of the opposition in Cambridge.

With Brookgate’s profits for 2015 and 2016 below from their annual report, they have the deep pockets to launch the action against the city council.


From Companies House above, there are more public documents filed here.

The report by the National Infrastructure Commission released today didn’t speak highly of what happened with Cambridge Station.

The main screen-grabs are below.

You can read the full report at

Does filming that one planning hearing (in this playlist here) make a difference on its own? Probably not. Because let’s face it, at most only a couple of dozen people are going to watch the videos. Those of us that do watch them are in a very small minority of people who take an active interest in local democracy. Understandable given the system feels designed to drain as much out of those that participate while putting off anyone who would want to get involved. It takes a huge amount of organisation to to put together the network that can enough knowledgeable and passionate people to share the burden. This is how the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, Smarter Cambridge TransportCambridge Past, Present and Future, and the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (FeCRA) function to a greater or lesser extent. The videos from the AGM of FeCRA indicate the level of interest that local residents have in the future of our city. But, as the Cambridge Station development showed, even a well-organised residents’ association and better-than-average councillors (we are lucky in Cambridge compared to other places – no, really) are no match for corporate developers with deep pockets.

Poor quality video footage

I’ll be the first to say that my camcorder and editing techniques leave a lot to be desired. But then we’re all used to BBC Question Time broadcast standard quality on TV. Having been in a BBCQT audience (in a hall with appalling acoustics), the scale of the set up to get that crystal-clear audio is mindblowing. The technical ballet dance done by the boom microphone operators (there were at least four) is a piece of art in itself because the operation of the equipment looks so incredibly smooth. Ditto the movements of the cameras. And all in complete silence too. This is not something that you can just ‘rock up’ and do. It takes planning.

In my case, I’m never in control of where I can place a camera, nor am I in control of the audio, let alone the large amounts of very poor microphone technique displayed by too many people. There’s something to be said about familiarising people with the AV systems in council chambers so that the whole thing doesn’t come across as daunting, and that audiences can hear who is saying what.

Viewers, activists, politicians and councillors: What impact do you think filming local council meetings has?

Serious question.

Councillors: have you watched a video of yourself giving a public speech and reviewed how that speech went? Both in terms of content and delivery?

Activists: how have you used the footage that videographers – not just me but others as well, have uploaded to the internet?

Viewers: have there been any examples where video footage that you have watched has made you take action on something in your local community?

Politicians: what difference have videos made both at a local level and your campaigns?

For everyone: Has there been anything in the video footage you’ve seen that has made you wonder whether local council systems and processes could be improved? What does the video footage show of what is definitely not functioning?

A positive post-bus vision for Hobson Street


I’ll be long gone before this happens, but we can dream…can’t we?

Over the past year I’ve been trying to prod the great and the good to do something positive about Hobson Street in Cambridge in particular the old cinema as described here.

In 2016 I took the above photographs of buildings on this route that is now little more than a bus route through town. Banning traffic other than when students are moving in/out would make a huge difference to this place.

Note the darker cream coloured building top left – that’s the old County Hall from 1913 built for the old Cambridge County Council when it covered a smaller geographical area. It was found to be too small following the growth of local government during and after the First World War, hence the move to Shire Hall in the early 1930s. The future of Shire Hall is uncertain – see their plan for a hotel…and my call for an expanded museum on the site.

Waterstones opens a new ground floor cafe

I was in there today – and it was packed with students.


The above pano shows the Citi-3 bus at the bus stop that used to serve a packed cinema and then bingo hall. I’m not sure what the ownership history is of that site but the city deserves so much better. Again, the ball is with Conservative ministers who have restricted the legal and financial powers of Cambridge City Council of acquiring that site over the past seven years that they have been in power.

And yes, I will make it party political because they are the ones in office. (Should Labour or any other party take power and not make the changes to free up local councils legally and financially, they’ll get it in the neck too. But they are not in office).

“How could Hobson Street be better? Banning busses – where would they go?”

Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport has part of the answer: a ring and spoke system for Cambridge, after which you have a general ban buses and cars from the town centre.


See the article at

The second addition is the Cambridge Connect underground light rail that would cover the journeys that need to go through the city centre for those that don’t want to change lines. But that’ll take more than a few years to build and will cost more ticket-wise. (Though buses ain’t cheap).

“Haven’t we been here before with Hobson Street?”

We have. This is what Christ’s College had lined up for 1937 but never went ahead with it.


What it would have done is open up Hobson Street. Potentially it would have replaced this wall below.


High wall with narrow pavement – a staple feature of Cambridge if you are a town-dweller. You don’t need ‘Private – Keep Out’ signs, you just need to ‘design out the public’ – which is what a fair amount of the architecture does. Why would you want to walk down a street that has a high wall on one side of a narrow pavement, and loud diesel-belching buses on a narrow road on the other?

“Can it be improved?”

If the Master and Fellows of Christ’s College want it to be.


The above from G-Maps, you can see Christ’s College on the right, with a car park and a big tree next to Hobson Street on the college side. By the tre on the college side is another car park as in the photo below.


More than enough space to do something nice for both the college and the people of Cambridge.

Again, the principles that architect Walter Gropius had are sound in creating a street-side courtyard. There is potential for a widened pavement and two courtyards. If they really need a car park it can be built underground, or simply say that it’s a car-free site.

“I can’t see the college agreeing to that!” 

Me neither. The only other alternative is to allow cars going into the college to come back the other way, but have very tight restrictions on who can and cannot use cars.

“Cars and Cambridge don’t mix, do they?”

It’s the culture change that’s needed. Remember that 100 years ago hardly anyone used a car in town. It was mainly the wealthy undergraduates that started using cars first, before local businesses picked up on using cars and trucks – mainly for delivery. Interestingly in both world wars, the fleets of delivery vehicles that the larger firms had were all commandeered by the military for the war.

“How do you change the culture in Cambridge?”

For a start by enforcing the laws on driving cars in Cambridge – that means resourcing and directing the local police to clamp down on anti-social drivers. The trend of (mainly men) driving cars with loud engines is something I find particularly annoying. Just as Cambridge University has nominally tight restrictions on car usage by its undergraduates, the same should apply for other universities in Cambridge, the cram colleges and language schools. But again, the problem is enforcement – in particular where there is no financial incentive for the language schools and cram colleges to enforce such rules. For them, all that matters is the bottom line – ie profits. The high turnover of students also inevitably makes it difficult to have a civic culture take root.

“Walking maps for tourists and visitors?”

Or anyone else for that matter. As discussed on Smarter Cambridge Transport at  there are enough bus stops where such maps could be displayed. Ditto coffee shops and takeaways. Put them up in places where people have to wait.

“Who are you to tell car drivers they cannot drive their cars in Cambridge?”

Mr Angry from Royal Tunbridge Wells – writing in green ink using block capitals.

Actually it’s a reflection of the urban-rural divide. The poor rural bus services mean that people who need to get into Cambridge to work, cannot do so except by car. Existing train services are already jam packed. Again, it is the neglect of successive governments and county council administrations that has led to the situation we are currently in – where only belatedly have they started taking action. But such is the pigs breakfast that Conservative ministers made of the arrangements for local government in and around Cambridge that we’re still trying to find out who has what responsibilities on transport. The county mayor? The combined authority? (Heard of them?) The County Council? (where the ruling party has zero councillors inside Cambridge City?) The City Council? (Where all of the parties on the City Council do not form the majority on the County Council?)

Are there other streets that could be transformed by pedestrianisation?

Look at Market Square, Petty Cury and St Andrew’s Street. They all used to be roads that the general public could drive cars down. It was only in the 1930s that car parking restrictions were put in and road signs were formalised.

350316 STDMoon cartoon motorists road signs and fines

New road signs in Cambridge – brilliantly satirised in the Cambridge News by Sid Moon, from the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Cambridge Central Library.

It’s one of those things where something like this for whichever street in the centre you choose to make big changes to, someone will get angry. The challenge is whether the plans to transform them can inspire and encourage enough people – and decision makers to push for them to make them happen. But given historical precedence in Cambridge where it takes decades for a good idea to come to fruition (eg 80 years for the ice rink, 80 years for the current guildhall), I will be long gone if it takes 80 years to transform Hobson Street. I’m not sticking around till 2100 for anyone to complete it!



Civic society organisations are essential components to the planning system – so how do we ensure they are properly resourced?


Following two events today, it struck me just how essential the role is of civic society organisations, and how under-resourced they are in the face of corporate developers with very deep pockets

The Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge hosts a series of weekly seminars in Cambridge – the City Seminar series. I went along to a talk given by Mark Walton of the London-based firm Shared Assets. The theme was ‘Commoning the city’. For those of you interested in the detail, see their report Planning for the Common Good.

As the event text states:

“This talk will explore established and emerging examples of urban land being managed for the common good, and the opportunities and challenges presented by current approaches to the planning, development and management of urban spaces.”

Mr Walton didn’t hold back on the problems with the current system and the impact that it is having – though I thought he could have ‘gone in for the kill’ in laying the blame at the feet of politicians and political parties that allow themselves to have their planning policies written for them by very well paid vested interests – the sort I experienced first hand when working in housing policy over a decade ago.

My live-tweets from the event either mention Mark Walton’s Twitter here on 07 Nov 2017, or Shared Assets here. It’s worth having a look around their website – esp those of you interested in sustainable planning.

The one thing that was crystal clear from Mr Walton’s presentation was the importance of civic society organisations not only being the eyes and ears of communities in the face of huge cuts to local government and the state generally, but also as sources of ideas, innovation and activity. He also noted that these cannot happen in a vacuum, and that all too often it’s only affluent areas that have the people with the time, passion, skills and qualifications to take on the likes of big developers. Yet even then, they can only make pinpricks into the thick armour plate made up of lawyers and consultants that big financial interests cover themselves with.

The most striking thing he said was that the planning system was designed to be opaque. The dragon identified who was responsible.

Advisers advise, ministers decide – and all that. (For the record, Mark didn’t state who was to blame. Puffles on the other hand…)

Note the recommendations from Mr Walton above.

The most significant recommendation from Mr Walton was that community organisations and small scale developments should have a more streamlined route through the planning system, and that larger developments especially where those domiciled far from where the developments are taking place, should face far more critical scrutiny from planning authorities. Which would be great if George Osborne and Eric Pickles hadn’t wielded the huge axe to local government and their planning and building control functions in the coalition years.

“What about all of those architecture & engineering students?”

When asked, less than half indicated they were following the developments of all things planning and transport in and around Cambridge. Which was disappointing but perhaps understandable – especially if you were from a foreign country on a one year post-graduate course where area you are researching is a long way from Cambridge. Short term intense courses don’t make for encouraging people to put down roots.

I also encouraged people to look at the work Smarter Cambridge Transport do to get an overview of the issues, and also of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Not least because during the Q&A, a number of students mentioned what they were covering in their research (eg smart cities and smart transport) that have some application in Cambridge. For me, it’s essential that Cambridge the city can bring to bear the scrutiny that full time researchers can bring to bear – in particular early career researchers as they can help balance the otherwise lack of participation in these things from students and young adults.

Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s scrutiny in action

Members raised issues with the proposals for a new hotel at Cambridge North Station

Have a look at the documents for yourself here.

For this meeting alone, the public documents pack has 190 pages alone. The report on the case the Cycling Campaign has objected to is 54 pages, and all of the planning and background documents for the case…there are 142 of them. (If that link doesn’t work, go to and search by the reference number S/2372/17/FL  ).

The people who scrutinise these applications on the whole are volunteers. Fortunately members have been able to raise enough money to employ a full time campaigns officer – Roxanne de Beaux who works and cycles her socks off for our city, but is inevitably fire-fighting to stop irresponsible developers putting profits before a sustainable and happy city.

The other organisation that regularly scrutinises and challenges planning applications is Cambridge Past, Present & Future – formerly the Cambridge Preservation Society. Interested in how that society has shaped Cambridge over the past 100 years? Watch this video.

I filmed this at the Cambridgeshire Association of Local History. For those of you interested in our local history, see and on FB at

The reason why their efforts, and those of local residents associations matter, is that we end up losing important pieces of our civic history – as I featured in my Lost Cambridge blog at Those volunteers who engage proactively in local democracy to make our towns & cities a better place get a bad rap. Especially those who do it without seeking public adulation, but just focus on the detail and the outcomes.

How do we fund and support our civic organisations?

With me I invite donations to cover my costs (hint hint…) and commissions from community groups – for which I am incredibly grateful for. But when it comes to looking at structures, systems and processes, communities, villages, towns and cities should not have to rely on donations and the work of often over-worked volunteers (who may not be qualified/experienced in the necessary fields) to carry out the essential function of community scrutiny of planning. That’s why Mr Walton’s point about the planning system being opaque (and designed as such) is ever so damning.

The other thing that Mr Walton mentioned was accountability. Given the deliberate cutting back of the state, what is the new model of ownership of community and public goods if it is not a democratically elected and accountable local government? For me, how to improve local government so as to make it less dependent on Whitehall for finances and initiative, has for decades been put in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile by a series of ministers & governments.

It is a big can of worms once you head down the route of state support for non-state organisations. First of all not everyone will accept the principle of state support for non-state actors in the planning process – least of all developers who will say this is an additional cost on business and means fewer homes. There are enough politicians who would be swayed by those headline arguments alone.

But assuming the principle was accepted, what would be the best way of providing that support? Let local councils decide? Have a single national provider of support? How long would such contracts to provide support last? How should such support be distributed? A flat rate for councils or a rate dependent on number and/or scale of planning applications? Would that mean more support for more affluent areas? How should it be paid for? General taxation? (“High taxes – boo!). Levy on planning applications? (“Additional cost for business – boo!”).

Alternatively, do organisations such as the Royal Town Planning Institute’s planning aid, the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, or the Town and Country Planning Association have the answer?

The problem is not the architects – it’s the politicians

In conversation with Theo and Rachel mentioned below, it struck me that architects as a profession feel they are already speaking out in defence of their profession in the face of (in particular locally) some extremely… ‘controversial’ developments. And it’s not just private developments – The Mother of Modern Cambridge,  Florence Ada Keynes had to deal with got it in the neck over the design of the guildhall in Market Square, Cambridge.

350105 Guildhall designs cartoon pleasing everyone

…as satirised by the Cambridge Daily News in 1935 – from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

(If you don’t want your Twitter acct clogged up by Puffles, I run the @ACarpenDigital too)

The planning system is put in place by ministers under legislation passed by Parliament. If lots of communities are having similar issues with the planning system, the problem is political. If developments are being built that are not meeting the basic needs of communities – eg constructing underused luxury apartments instead of much-needed social housing, the problem is political.

The problem then is that when you suggest that people ‘get involved in politics’, their response is in the negative – quite understandably given the recent revelations of sexual harassment in politics. Yet at the same time, the people who are passionate about their local communities but who do not want to go into ‘politics’ are likely to be precisely the people you need involved in politics and local democracy: people who want to serve their communities.

But then if you present someone new to politics with a list of 142 files of multi-page documents on a big planning application as a starting point, they will run like the wind. So we come back to first principles: Assuming community involvement in politics, planning and local democracy is a good thing, what are the best ways to inspire people to get involved?

The piecemeal changes to Cambridge’s residential neighbourhoods


It’s happening and there’s very little that residents and councillors can do about it because of rules set by ministers and laws passed by Parliament.

So I spotted these two tweets (screengrabbed) over the past day or so…

…and wondered what the event was that The Mayor turned up to. Turns out it’s another private college that has set up shop in Cambridge that does not provide its own accommodation in Cambridge.

The reason why this matters is that the growth of private colleges in recent years has had an impact on the availability of residential accommodation in Cambridge. Or ‘hard working families’ as politicians call them. Such has been the impact that the latest draft of the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire local plan blocks the development of new private colleges.


We find out in the next few weeks (end of 2017) whether the planning inspectors approve of this policy and of the local plan in general. Paragraph 5.33 below is particularly interesting.


Essentially if private colleges want to expand, they will have to demonstrate how they deal with the accommodation issue.

I looked at the fees for the college mentioned in the tweets. £21,000 for a full year. Further up the road round the back of the state-run Hills Road Sixth Form College is another private college that charges £28,000 for a mix of GCSE/A-level retakes and  pre-university courses aimed at the international market – though it is notable that there is some accommodation on what was once an industrial railway site that was derelict for many years. You could say that at least someone is doing something positive on that site. It doesn’t speak well for our system of government that such prime sites were allowed to lay unused for decades at times when Cambridge still had housing issues.

Some of the private colleges have been in Cambridge for decades – it’d be irresponsible of me to say that the problems of recent years was entirely down to them. But there have been more speculative and/or have upset local residents who wanted to use vacant sites for other purposes – whether much-needed social housing or community centres. The Methodist Church came under fire in recent years when it sold off a site to a religious college rather than to a local community group that had matched the asking price of well over half a million pounds. There was another case of a religious college that set up shop on an industrial park in South Cambridge a few years ago, only to close a couple of years later due to financial issues. They acquired and converted a local guesthouse into student accommodation, but it’s not clear what’s happened to it since.

Cambridge’s magic pixie dust

It’s almost funny how some private colleges try to associate themselves with the University of Cambridge and its member colleges. Even some developers of luxury apartments have tried the same trick. In the grand scheme of things, the University of Cambridge is very poor at ‘managing its brand’. You only have to look at the number of organisations that have picture postcard images of familiar sites in Cambridge. Or more pejoratively, the ‘money shots’ that imply students at private colleges will be able to enjoy such facilities (they won’t) and that they will be studying in such illustrious premises and not some converted Victorian or post-war office block.

CEG Kings College

Will you be a member of one of these two colleges in the photograph, and sing in the choir in that chapel?

Now, at a personal level I don’t really care whether, as in the case above, the Cambridge Education Group uses photos of King’s College Chapel in its publicity. What I care more about is the ability of public and civic institutions to manage our city in the face of competing demands, remaining properly transparent and accountable to the people who make up said city.

The problems of our city are not the fault of the students or young people

In the grand scheme of things, they get a bad rap. Strange as it may sound, I’m actually more concerned that students and young people who come to Cambridge are getting ripped off by the price of some of their courses and accommodation. (Something I’ve repeatedly raised with both student groups and local political parties). For a start, developers who claim to be building accommodation for students at Anglia Ruskin University do not, as a matter of course engage in detailed discussions and proactive consultations with students at ARU – where I was once a post-graduate student. If developers did, they would find that students want cheaper, shared accommodation rather than the individual en-suite accommodation that costs a lot more. At least three former Anglia Ruskin University Student Union presidents and/or elected student officials have mentioned this to me. They have also mentioned it to Daniel Zeichner MP – the MP for Cambridge. Local political parties and their sister student parties are pushing at an open door on a joint local housing campaign that delivers both affordable and suitable accommodation for students while at the same time providing affordable social housing for locals.

The changing nature of Queen Edith’s ward – demolish a town house and replace it with half a dozen+ rabbit hutches

The case of 291 Hills Road is about to come up for a decision soon. I was commissioned to film the pre-development scrutiny hearing by one of the local residents associations – see the video here. This case is an example of repeated cases of a large single dwelling being replaced by a series of much smaller ones. But in a piecemeal manner.

“What’s the problem? We have a housing crisis. It’s a better use of space!”

Strategic planning and community consent are the issues. Ditto with former council houses being sold off then artificially broken up into houses of multiple occupation then marketed to the private college market. There are a number in South Cambridge that I used to cycle past every day on my way to school that are now language college accommodation. My concern for the students is that the accommodation is not necessarily suitable for students generally – in particular younger students from abroad not fluent in the language, who could really do with 24/7 live-in supervisors. Hence why I agree with the draft planning policy that closes one of the loopholes and tightens things up on the expansion of such colleges. But the way ministers have rigged the planning system, there will always be a way around given the amounts of money to be made from brand Cambridge.

If you are going to change a neighbourhood, far better to do it not just with the consent of, but the proactive participation of the people that live and work there. Historically, Queen Edith’s has been a mixed ward with council housing sitting side-by-side detached housing. But again, central government policies on not replacing sold off council houses means that it is harder for people on low incomes to stay in the neighbourhoods that like me they might have grown up in. Having to travel in from further distances means a greater strain on already congested local roads – hence the sell offs being a false economy here.

Furthermore, the sorts of flats that are being built to replace the town houses are not the family homes that are affordable and suitable for those who are on lower incomes but who do essential jobs in our communities. Personally I’d like to think that cities collectively have a responsibility to ensure those on low incomes are able to live close to their workplaces, and not simply let the market rip.

Cambridge needs a ‘second centre’ – but where?

Cambridge sits within a triangle of dual carriageways/motorways

Cambridge M11A14A11 triangle

From G-Maps, the points of the triangle are the Girton Interchange (top left), Six Mile Bottom (top right) and Great Chesterford (bottom centre).

Do you allow the city to expand by removing the green belt, thus giving an urban sprawl effect, or do you pick another set of villages within the triangle, for example at the southern point and build a new town there, ensuring it is properly linked by rail & light rail to ‘old Cambridge’ and have it purpose-built around two or three sectors that either the region currently lacks and/or ones that urgently need to or have the capacity to expand relatively quickly.

Where not to build

In the 1960s, the local councils commissioned another study of where Cambridge & district could expand to. They also highlighted areas that should be left alone.

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

The above from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The green-line-shaded bits are the ‘don’t build here!’ bits – a mix of much higher ground compared to the rest of the area, plus floodplain.

But our system of local public administration remains a mess


From Smarter Cambridge Transport/Edward Leigh.

Until ministers and Parliament are prepared to sort out the above, Cambridge will never be this wonderful great city that ministers claim it to be. Mayoralties and councils of other western cities have far greater powers than UK cities do. But until our political culture changes, the potential of our cities – not just Cambridge, will continue to be held back due to the political prejudices, whims and shortcomings of whichever ministers of whichever parties happen to be in office.

Expanding the Museum of Cambridge


Cambridgeshire County Council agrees to consider the idea of having an expanded museum on the site of the existing Shire Hall / Castle Hill site.

Following on from this blogpost, On 17 October I asked a public question to Cambridgeshire County Council about the future of the Shire Hall site – followed by Qs from members of the public on the county’s policies on children’s centres.

Calm before the storm – My Q about the Shire Hall site before members of the public cross-examine the council about the future of Cambridge and county’s children’s centres.

“I didn’t know there was a Museum of Cambridge – I thought it was the Fitzwilliam!”

An easy mistake to make – because if you don’t cross the river, the Museum of Cambridge can be easily missed. The Folk Museum – as longer-time residents remember it as, was opened in 1936. Florence Ada Keynes was the founding president (who else but?!) and for a period of about 30 years, Enid Porter was the curator.  The first two museums I remember visiting in my early childhood were the Folk Museum and the Fitzwilliam. I think it was my mum who took me when I was really young – ending up having tea in the old Arts Theatre restaurant/cafe before it was turned over into a trendy restaurant in the late 1990s. I went there for lunch in 1999 and didn’t like it, and haven’t been back since. Maybe I should?

Although now branded as the Museum of Cambridge, it doesn’t yet function as ‘The Museum of Cambridge”

…and that’s not the fault of the staff, trustees or the volunteers. As a small independent museum they don’t get the sort of support and funding other museums across the country do. Yet when you look at the number of tourists and visitors Cambridge receives (over 7million annually), perilously little of the income that comes from tourism finds its way to the Museum of Cambridge. Essentially, the big institutions of Cambridge – in particular the ones that are making lots of money off of ‘brand Cambridge’ need to start re-investing some of those profits into the civic infrastructure of our city. Again, much as I’d like to see a city-wide approach to tapping into that wealth to improve our civic infrastructure, until we have a competent city-based unitary authority, this is another one of those things that I cannot see happening.

Evolving from a place that has historical objects to view, to a place where stories are shared

In recent times – and in particular since the opening of the Enid Porter Room, the Museum of Cambridge has become a meeting place and an events venue. It’s easy to think that museums are ‘passive places’ where you rock up, look at stuff, say “ooh, that is nice!”, leave and ask what’s for tea. The more proactive museums have moved away from that model and have started providing much more interactive offers. In the case of the Museum of Cambridge, these have ranged from people and organisations bringing in their wares to showcase, as well as hosting talks by local historians and researchers on their work.

This is my talk filmed by museum volunteers introducing the women who made modern Cambridge.

A cramped site with no where to expand?


As you can see from G-Maps above, there is no room for expansion on a very cramped site by a very busy road junction.

Museum of Cambridge Castle Hill Satellite

From G-Maps, the Castle Hill site is a short walk uphill from the existing Museum of Cambridge.

Around the end of the Second World War, the site looked something like this – from north looking southwards.

Cambridge Castle Hill from air southwards

From Britain From Above –

You can see what the old law courts used to look like – demolished to make way for a car park. The number of nice town buildings Cambridge has lost to make way for car parks in the postwar era makes me sad.


A beautifully clear photograph from the Museum of Cambridge’s photo archive – this is what I’d love to see rebuilt for an expanded Museum of Cambridge – one that tells the story of our city.

A new, civic historical square for Cambridge?

That’s my vision.

The back of the reconstructed building spills out onto the civic green north of Castle Mound. The existing Shire Hall building is converted into a hotel, and you build a new ‘castle keep’ building similar to Norwich Castle that ultimately gives you some of the best views of the city.


Norwich Castle Keep – could we build this in place of the old registry office? Or something even better and/or more contemporary perhaps? (So long as it’s not bland, international-architecture could-be-built-anywhere max profits-minimum costs style!)

Public transport – making or breaking civic, business and retail centres

The starving of bus services over the past decade or so to the Grafton Centre has (in my opinion) had a hugely detrimental effect on the commercial success of that place. One of the things the likes of the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough will need to consider is how a public transport network could support such a civic centre – in particular having a future light rail underground route stop that means visitors coming in from the railway stations do not need to get into a taxi to access any planned hotel.

That way, you create something that people can both get to easily, and will want to go to. It also has the effect of extending the major tourist route that otherwise stops at the river by Quayside.

Green Party’s Natalie Bennett and the importance of educating citizens about democracy


Former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett talked about the importance of educating people about how democracy and the state functions, at an event in Cambridge today.

In the run up to both the 2014 European Parliament elections and the 2015 general election, the then Green Party leader Natalie Bennett was a regular and dare I say welcome visitor to Cambridge as her presence and participation from where I was standing increased the coverage of politics and the elections in the local news media.

Interviewer Jon Vale, then of the Cambridge News, has gone onto greater things – now working for the Press Association in Westminster.

She stood down as party leader at the end of her constitutional term limit of 2×2 years, replaced by the dual ticket of Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley. At the 2017 general election she polled nearly 4,000 votes in Sheffield Central, in a snap election that saw the Green Party’s 2015 record vote of over a million squeezed back to just over 500,000 – but still a party record. (Almost twice as many as they polled in both 2005 and 2010).

The importance of democracy education

As we’ve seen in the newspapers of late, editors have been whipping up their readers into a frenzy against universities over the political opinions of academics that they do not like.

A number of people reminded their followers that when fascist dictatorships seize power, one of their first victims as a cohort are academics. And as many people were quick to remind their followers, the above-mentioned publication has got form when it comes to sympathetic reporting of such regimes (or inflammatory reporting against those fleeing such regimes) over the past century or so.

Natalie said that this generation of teenagers is the most politicised and politically aware she’s experienced in a generation. That doesn’t come as a surprise to me – my generation that turned 18 around the time of Tony Blair’s election in 1997 became one of the most depoliticised and apathetic in comparison to their successors today. Again from what I observed, both Tony Blair’s decision to take the UK into the Iraq War in 2003, and then Nick Clegg’s decision to break his promise on tuition fees put two significant cohorts of young adults off of politics. Despite the scale of the protests – and note it takes a hell of a lot to get the British people off of their feet to protest against anything in very large numbers – the decisions of both men showed to a huge number of people that trying to participate in democracy made no difference.

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader by Labour, The Green Party has faced a squeeze both in terms of votes and also a loss of activists who switched from The Greens to Labour – in particular in the run up to the 2017 general election. This was something Natalie mentioned in a short interview after the event.

A short interview with Natalie Bennett outside Selwyn College, Cambridge.

“On citizenship, democracy and educating the public – haven’t we been here before?”

We have.

After the Second World War, Pelican Books published a number of fascinating books about how the state functioned.

These books were cheap and very widely available. They are still cheap-as-chips today in charity shops. In Cambridge, both the RSPCA shop on Mill Road, and the charity shops on Burleigh Street have a number of editions that, amongst other things give rise to the impression that in days gone by we were a more literate/well read society.

The books pictured in total cost me under a fiver. Bargain.

“So…why not simply reprint these ones?”

Because for a start they’ll need a refresh – not least the local government one where the relationship between the central and local government is very different.

That said, the principle of having a common-branded set of cheap, widely available books/ebooks available to all is a sound one. But that alone is not the answer – rather it is part of one. Given how society has evolved since then – in particular younger audiences, something online and interactive might be more suitable.

How state and civic institutions function

The way I see it with these books is that in principle they are like a user-friendly guide to how organisations function – similar to the Haynes guides on how cars and things function. They don’t make a judgement on which car is better, just as these guides don’t make a judgement on which political party the reader should vote for.

What about people already in work or who have finished formal education?

This is the one thing that I’ve yet to see any of the political parties address comprehensively. For example the final point in the democracy part of the Green Party’s manifesto covers citizenship education for young people, but not for the wider population that, like myself had no citizenship education at all. In some senses it’s similar to sex and relationship education and how since 1997 and the arrival of the internet, there has been a significant improvement not just in content but also how information is communicated.

Going beyond more than one institution in delivering democracy education

It’s all very well saying “Well the council should do it!” or “The Government should do it!” – especially in an era when ministers like the idea of stuff being done so long as they don’t pay for it. In more recent times my own thinking has moved beyond which institution should do what, and more towards how people, communities, organisations and institutions in an easily-identifiable area can work together to improve where they live. Yes, that also means institutions and those with more resources taking on more of the burden vs those with fewer resources.

Again, going through one of the old blue pelican books, some organisations in times gone by – in particular the large employers – took it upon themselves to run their own civic education classes. Whether such an approach would work today I don’t know. Remember the time the books highlighted above were first printed in was in a time when we did not have a comprehensive television service. It was only in the 1960s that local newspapers in Cambridge started publishing the TV schedules. So ‘how’ we as a country could go about delivering comprehensive democracy education to adults generally, I just don’t know.

Cambridgeshire County Council cannot serve North Cambs and Cambridge City at the same time – it must go.


Conservative councillors voted for cuts to children’s centres in Cambridge City, voted against council tax rises and have now voted down an arts and music programme that the Arts Council had already said it was willing to put £1million towards in Arbury ward, Cambridge. The Conservatives have ***zero councillors*** in Cambridge City and have imposed their will in the face of opposition from their political opponents who make up all of the council seats in Cambridge City. This is unsustainable.

On 17 October the majority Conservative County Councillors on Cambridgeshire County Council voted through cuts of £900,000 to the county’s children’s services. Despite all of the councillors representing Cambridge City voting against these cuts, there are more councillors representing rural wards than those in Cambridge City. Thus by 31 votes to 22, the cuts passed.

Neil Perry, Chief Executive of the Romsey Mill in Cambridge speaking out against the cuts

I’m going to try and not make this blogpost personal as I’m not directly affected by the Conservatives’ votes to cut services to children’s services in Cambridge or block the proposals that would have attracted a £1m Arts Council grant. I’ll leave that to the politicians and the campaigners who are directly affected. What I want to focus on is how the current set up of local government ill-serves a politically and economically divided county.

Cambridge City as a lost aristocratic inheritance for the Conservatives

In the 20th Century, Cambridge only ever had four non-Conservative MPs:

  • Stanley Buckmaster KC (Liberal – 1906-10)
  • Major Arthur Symonds (Labour – 1945-50- noting a number of MPs were elected while still in wartime uniform)
  • Robert Davies (Labour – 1966-67)
  • Anne Campbell (Labour – 1992-2005)

Otherwise, Cambridge town only ever returned Conservative MPs. One of the things that I’d like to see a young career researcher look at is why the party declined and is now just a shadow of itself inside the city.

220325 Douglas Newton CChron Front Page.jpg

Even the local newspaper the Cambridge Chronicle was openly partisan for the Conservatives.

“Yeah, so why to the young-people-hating, tuition-fee-rising, health-service-cutting evil Tories hate Cambridge so much?”

Interestingly when you listen to elected Conservative politicians – ministers or MPs whose constituencies border or contain small parts of the city within it, they sing its praises. The city is an economic powerhouse and is a net contributor of tax receipts to The Treasury. You just won’t hear them mentioning that as far as democracy is concerned, the good people of Cambridge have no time for Conservative politics. Given the apparent wealth of the city, this is somewhat surprising. Roads where the average house price is measured in seven figures are often seen with far more Labour or Liberal Democrats’ boards at local/general election time than blue boards.

But then forty miles north you will find Fenland District Council where there is not a single Labour councillor – the Corbyn and Momentum machine having had zero impact in what has one of the most economically deprived towns in the UK, Wisbech. My point being that the same issues would apply if say a Labour-controlled county council imposed for example massive increases in council taxes on a district council area that had the makeup that Fenland currently has.

“So…what kicked off today’s call to scrap Cambridgeshire County Council?”


I met up with Cllr Nethsingha this afternoon to find out more about what this was all about.

It relates to item 6 at today’s Commercial and Investment Committee. The members of that committee are listed as:

  • Councillor Josh Schumann (Chairman) (Cons – Burwell)
  • Councillor Anne Hay (Vice-Chairwoman) (Cons – Chatteris)
  • Councillor Ian Bates (Cons – The Hemingfords & Fenstanton)
  • Councillor David Jenkins (Lib Dems – Histon & Impington)
  • Councillor Linda Jones (Labour – Petersfield)
  • Councillor Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham)
  • Councillor Paul Raynes (Cons – Soham North and Isleham)
  • Councillor Terence Rogers (Cons – Warboys and Stukeleys
  • Councillor Mike Shellens (Lib Dems – Huntingdon North and Hartford)
  • Councillor Tim Wotherspoon (Cons – Cottenham and Willingham)

The minutes when published will indicate who voted for the scheme and who voted against. You can find out the details of who represents which divisions/wards here. For those of you who want to lobby individual politicians, note Puffles’ house rules on this blog. You’re not bound by them, but me and the dragon are – and we recommend the ‘don’t be violent and evil’ theme to all.

“So…what did the Conservative councillors vote down according to Cllr Nethsingha?”

According to the papers, this:

“[A] project to convert a Council-owned community arts building in North Cambridge into a state-of-the-art National Centre for Research and Engagement in Arts, Technology and Education (CREATE) facility from which to develop and promote innovation in arts education, arts therapy, talent development, research and community participation.”

As set out in Agenda item 6 of this, councillors had the choice of going ahead with the scheme above in italics, for which the Arts Council had allocated £1million, or to designate the site as surplus to requirements.

The site is “St Luke’s Barn” for which the county council commissioned this access study.

What intrigues me with these screenshots from Google is that the barn – a WW2-era Nissen Hut, is branded as Cambridge City Council (which council owns it vs which council operates it?), and also its location which similar to my neighbourhood on the opposite side of town, is one close to the apex of three parliamentary constituencies. The barn is in Cambridge City on the edge of Arbury, one of the most economically deprived wards in the county. To the north west is Girton, in South Cambridgeshire. To the north/north east is Impington – in South East Cambridgeshire. Thus as the dragon/crow flies, it’s within easy access for people living in three different constituencies.

“So why would county councillors vote down the scheme?”

That’s for them to account for – but it sounds like they split on party lines. I’m assuming it would have been a 6-4 vote on the committee, six Conservatives defeating the three Liberal Democrats and one Labour councillor – the facility being in Cllr Dr Jocelyn Scutt’s Arbury ward.

Following the vote, Cllr Nethsingha sent out this press release:

“Lucy Nethsingha, Lib Dem leader at Cambridgeshire County Council has expressed her disgust at a decision by the Conservatives on the County Council’s Assets and Investment Committee to turn their backs on £1 million of funding from Arts Council England.  The funding had been allocated towards the CREATE project, a proposal for a state of the art facility in north Cambridge, which would allow pupils across Cambridgeshire access to educational opportunities usually only available to those in the city centre.

Many musicians, scientists, and world leaders in all fields visit the city every year.  They are often willing to give a small amount of their time for masterclasses or lectures, but are not able to fit a visit to the more distant parts of the County into a busy schedule. The new digital facility would have created a space where masterclasses or performances could be streamed out to schools around the County, enabling far wider access to pupils in far flung areas.

However the Conservative have instead decided to put the building to which the grant was linked up for sale, despite the fact that there is no clear view on the value of the site.

“I am horrified that the Conservatives have made this decision in the same week that they have voted to close a huge number of the counties children’s centres.” said Councillor Nethsingha

“Time and again the Conservatives seem to put the needs of children and young people at the bottom of the list.  The value of this site to the county council in terms of a capital receipt is minimal, and there is no guarantee they will be able to sell it at all, given the constraints of the site.   The value to educational opportunity in Cambridgeshire could have been huge.  The committee was told of the support of the Arts Council, and head teachers from across the County had written to the Chair of the Committee expressing support for the project, and still the Conservatives choose to sell. They are selling off our children’s educational opportunities for a short term gain.  I am disgusted!”   

“How much economic activity would have been generated by the conversion of the site?”

According to the meeting papers, the following:

  • Public Income (CCC) £500k – approved in principle
  • Loan Finance: £500k – approved in principle from CCC or potentially an alternative arts development loan provider.
  • Contributions from Cambridgeshire Music year-end Reserves during the build period not used toward activity delivery. £80K – reserve build up approved per year for 5 years.
  • Public Income (ACE) £1 million – awarded June 2017
  • Public Income (Cambridge City Council) £100k – under discussion
  • Corporate Sponsorship: £700k – under discussion
  • Grants and Donations: £350k – under preparation
  • Founder Partners’ Investment (from arts organisation stakeholders): £200k – under discussion
  • Individual donations: £200K “

“What is the alternative?”

Selling off the site – which, given the repeated council tax freezes that have been passed by the combination Conservative, UKIP and Independent councillors in the 2013-2017 council, and the current Conservative-led one, means that the county council is under huge pressure to balance the books.

“But councillors for places like Wisbech have said that their constituents on low incomes cannot afford council tax rises”

Wisbech and Cambridge have very different political cultures. It’ll be interesting to see what impact the proposed Wisbech rail link will have in the longer term given the otherwise very poor transport links between the two places.

The problem with the existing model of local government – set up in the mid-1970s with the local government taxation regime set up in the aftermath of the poll tax riots of 1990, is that it has not kept pace with the changing face of the county or country. You’d like to think that with the technological advances we have, we could have come up with a more effective and socially just system of funding local services – one that also reflects the political persuasions of constituents.

“Isn’t this also letting off Labour and the Liberal Democrats for their past campaigning strategies in elections?”

The structures of their local political parties means that the city branches of both parties expend a huge amount of resource and effort fighting each other in Cambridge to little effect at county council elections while allocating much less in comparison in the county. Having spoken to activists in both parties in South Cambridgeshire, it’s a source of irritation that the much better resourced and connected city parties have not been co-operating nearly as effectively as they could be.

“What do you mean by that?”

There are a small number of hubs where tens of thousands of commuters and young people travel into Cambridge to during the day: Addenbrooke’s, Cambridge Railway Station, the sixth form colleges, Drummer Street, Cambridge Regional College and the Science Park. All of these are in Cambridge City but many people from South Cambridgeshire and beyond travel in almost every day into the city. Why the city parties won’t help out their sister parties in surrounding areas by regularly targeting these places is beyond me. I’ve suggested it every year for the past few elections but I’ve not seen any action. Given how small some of the majorities were in rural areas, could some transport-hub campaigning have swayed the results? At some stage, activists inside the Cambridge City bubble are going to have to do something different and break out if they want something different to the long-term domination by their Conservative opponents.

“Finally, you called for the county council to be scrapped”

I’ve been consistent in my call for a unitary council for Cambridge and district/Greater Cambridge for want of another term. All of the MP candidates for the city also called for this in the 2015 general election. Comments by the winner of the county mayor election, James Palmer that he would not work with county council transport officers on new infrastructure projects indicate just how little confidence some politicians have in the institution. Schools have been hived off under the academies system – a reflection that ministers didn’t rate local councils in their previous roles with schools. Personally I think this actually reflects ministers bottling the more difficult task of improving local government generally, and making the time-old mistake of centralising everything. The fragmentation of public services doesn’t suit anyone interested in improving public services.

The question that Mayor James Palmer will have to answer with his review of local governance arrangements in the county is where to draw the lines for any new councils.


On the joy of new old books on Cambridge the town


On books that are ‘new’ to me but were published and printed ages and ages ago

For those of you following my Lost Cambridge project, you may be aware that I’ve acquired ***all these books*** to help me figure out what the real story of my home town really is. Much as been written, typed, published and printed in Cambridge but outside of university circles, perilously little of it has much to do with the town of Cambridge. Paradoxically you have all of these ‘Cambridge histories’ published by Cambridge University Press, but what we don’t have is a ‘Cambridge history of Cambridge’.

Shortly after Brexit when I got depressed again and sort of gave up on seriously commentating on national politics to spend more time pointing and laughing at it, I wandered up to the top of Castle Hill in Cambridge to begin filming a series of short videos trying to explain bits of how Cambridge grew.

But that was back in the days when I had only read a few books.

A shocking lack of books about Cambridge on sale in the big book shops

OK, so London has something like 60x more people in it, but that doesn’t mean it should have an entire section of its own while Cambridge has a poxy little set of shelves with little more than tourist guides, college biographies and the very specialist publication.

For me, part of the solution is for publishers and sellers to get together and republish some of the older books that don’t necessarily date. Charles Darwin’s Granddaughter Gwen Raverat wrote Period Piece about her childhood with three of Darwin’s high-achieving sons & daughters-in-law. Look closely enough in charity shops and you can get it second-hand for a pound. In places it is rip-roaringly hilarious, in particular Gwen’s attempts to avoid having to go to church. I should have followed her example as a teenager but got brainwashed by fear and trusted that those in authority (school/adults/church) knew what they were doing. Oops. Thus I find myself fascinated by the history of an institution and how it shaped my home town while at the same time wanting to smash the institution to pieces along with the patriarchal mindset that goes with it. I can’t be the first person to feel this way about a religious upbringing and won’t be the last. I just don’t have plans to go around firebombing everything.

“What was the history of the churches in Cambridge?”


Any social historian of the 19th Century will have spent many an hour trying to get their head around who ran which sect of which non-conformist movement at which time in any given town. The splits within the far left had nothing on the splits within the non-conformist movement in the 19th Century because the latter had a habit of building new buildings or mission halls every time they had a split. Or that’s the stereotype I get. And then it took a talented woman like Ellice Hopkins in the 1870s to remind the men they were spending too much time splitting hairs over abstract theological concepts while the poor of the town were starving.

Every so often I’ll stumble across a piece that talks about a meeting that took place in a prominent church or church hall in town and I’ll be like: “Ooh! I had a music rehearsal in there not so long ago!” or something similar. I was strangely pleased to find that one of the halls I learnt ballroom and salsa in was also a regular meeting hall for Cambridge’s women’s suffrage movement. Ditto my old primary school hall being used regularly by the then growing Labour Party where Hugh Dalton, who’d go onto become Chancellor of the Exchequer under Attlee spoke on more than one occasion.

Few of the really interesting people spent their entire lives in Cambridge – thus tracking them down can be quite time-consuming.

Take Hugh Dalton MP as an example. Labour activists with more than a vague knowledge of Attlee’s 1945 Cabinet will know about Hugh Dalton’s Parliamentary and ministerial record. What they may not be aware of is what he was doing before he was famous. I.e. being active round these parts. So I found out what he felt about his days in Cambridge in the first part of his memoirs in this book. Things in here then allow you to cross-reference things in the British Newspaper Archive or local archives. In Dalton’s day, Cambridge newspapers were properly partisan in ways that would make today’s tabloids blush.

220325 Douglas Newton CChron Front Page.jpg

Not biased at all: Vote for your friendly local neighbour Sir George Douglas Newton. Advert from The Cambridge Chronicle 1922 in The Cambridgeshire Collection.

The ***really interesting stuff*** – what the writers thought of things at the time they were happening

This is where our generation has the benefit of hindsight – for example knowing that Cambridge Labour Cllr Dr Alex Wood‘s proposals for disarmament in the mid 1930s was probably not his best idea, though completely understandable at the time given the huge losses communities faced as result of the First World War. Even now I still get the sense that our generation does not realise just how unpopular Chamberlain’s government was when war was finally declared. Nor do we acknowledge just how popular Chamberlain was less than a year before when he came back having signed the doomed Munich agreement of 1938.

“One man saved us from the greatest war of all” runs the title screen. Note the cheers from the crowds.

Women of action in action

At present my top three are (L-R) Anti-fascist fighter, Communist activist, historian and musicologist Frida Stewart (later Knight); author, charity campaigner, Liberal Party activist and founder of Save The Children, Eglantyne Jebb, and the Mother of Modern Cambridge who was the first woman to serve on Cambridge Borough/City Council, Former Mayor of Cambridge and the woman who gave us our current Guildhall in Market Square, Florence Ada Keynes.

Frida Stewart, Eglantyne Jebb and Florence Ada Keynes all in their late teens/early 20s before they went onto greater things. I’ve picked up a number of old books written either by them or about them. For some strange reason I’d like to think that an animated Puffles would have gotten on like a house on fire with Frida and Eglantyne, but perhaps less so with Florence. But I can’t put a finger on why this is.

The missing political histories 

I’m finding it a bit of a struggle finding any books or biographies about the Conservative MPs that Cambridge the town had. Almeric Paget, who Eglantyne fought tooth and nail to stop being re-elected, turned out to be a bit of a right wing extremist in his later years. Well…a lot of a rightwing extremist writing articles praising the fascist dictatorships of the 1930s…while still holding is party membership. But then he wasn’t the only Conservative politician to hold such views. Or Labour for that matter with Mosley. But in the grand scheme of things, Cambridge escaped the worst of the right-wing disturbances give or take a talk or a dinner organised and hosted by (and also opposed by) the students.

Old maps, old plans and long lost dreams

For me, John Belcher’s guildhall plan of 1898 – championed by Mayor Sir Horace Darwin (one of Charles Darwin’s three knighted sons) was the most heartbreaking one.


We didn’t get this, so when it comes to revamping our current guildhall for its centenary, I want Belcher’s design above to be the inspiration for a new facade – while not compromising the structural integrity of the interior.

Funnily enough it was going through the photo archives of the Museum of Cambridge that got me interested in how some buildings got knocked down and others didn’t.

Guildhall designs were always controversial. St Trinian’s author Ronald Searle – a local who went to what we now call Parkside, and Anglia Ruskin University, lampooned it all in the Cambridge News in the 1930s.

350105 Guildhall designs cartoon pleasing everyone

Nothing’s changed as far as an opinionated population is concerned. Just look at the public backlash every time the City Deal/Greater Cambridge Partnership gets something wrong!

Why councillors and council/public officials should consult the history books before planning new infrastructure.

Chances are their predecessors have grappled with the issues before.

For example, how should we reform local government in and around Cambridge? It’s back on the agenda with County Mayor James Palmer’s review of local government, and comments from former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Hestletine in Cambridge very recently. (My late grandmother always called him Tarzan).

In terms of grappling with Cambridge’s traffic problems that we’ve had since the end of the First World War because the inventor of the motor car forgot to invent the parking space and the car park amongst other things, post-war Cambridge grappled with this too. This was Cambridge in 1956 – a map I found in an antique shop for £1.50.


All that road traffic heading from London to Ely, King’s Lynn and Norwich would have to head through the centre of town over Magdelene Bridge by Quayside or Victoria Road Bridge in order to get through the city. There were no motorway bypasses and no Elizabeth Way Bridge in Chesterton. Sir William Halford’s report in 1950 also had drastic plans, such as this major road bridge completing the north-eastern section of a ring road in red.


The planned road would have ploughed over Stourbridge Common and have ruined the whole area. Fortunately locals threatened to have a proper riot if work went ahead and Halford backed down. Other parts of his plan that didn’t get built but are shown on the map include:

  • The footbridge linking Rustat Road to Cambridge Railway Station directly, thus giving Cambridge Station a separate entrance from the South and East – decongesting Station Road.
  • The bus stop for the above
  • The road linking Mill Road and East Road ploughing through Gwydir Street – which would have made a future Simon Fraser select somewhere else for Hot Numbers Coffee.

The one bit that did get built was Elizabeth Way Bridge – but that bridge, completed in the early 1970s & opened by Mayor Jean Barker (today Baroness Trumpington) already had an Act of Parliament authorising its construction. The Cam Bridges Act 1889. We were going to build the bridge in 1914 but war got in the way. We also found out at an open house event at the Museum of Cambridge that the little icons in the top left by the lightly marked paths were all military storage areas for D-Day!

“So…what else didn’t we get? And what didn’t the University and colleges get?”

Good question. There’s this on Emmanuel Street.


Much less private for the students and members of the college, the space opened up (especially given the buses) would have made the road feel a lot less crowded. Below is what the otherwise dark and unwelcoming southern entrance to Hobson Street by Lloyds Bank in town could have looked like.


…but the Masters of Christ’s College rejected it in 1937 – which I think is a shame as all there is on one side of the road is a high wall and a narrow footpath that no one wants to go down because of all of the buses. Personally I’d like to ban motor traffic down that road once we get the underground light railway that the County Mayor has lined up for Cambridge & District.  Basically if we don’t get something like an underground through the city centre, Cambridge will be crushed by demand from motor traffic.

The Lion Yard redevelopment in the 1970s was incredibly controversial. Looking back at the old photographs of what was there before (have a look here) it just feels that the heart of the town was ripped out. It had so much more potential than that.

A shame given the amount of time that was spent trying to come up with ideas, as described and illustrated by F.A. Reeve in his book from over 40 years ago, The Cambridge that never was. Note the plans for small and large concert halls and a new music school for Cambridge University.

The plan below, I think from Clark’s history of Cambridge is a wonderful little plan of what was on the site of the Guildhall before Florence Ada Keynes got the current one built. I ordered a modern day reprint but only a small portion of the book came through out of the 500+ pages that should have been there.


Inevitably with the very old histories of Cambridge, the writers focus on the colleges rather than the town. The first person to tell the story of Cambridge from the town’s perspective in the modern sense, was Eglantyne Jebb, mentioned up top. I’ve now got my own original copy of her book of 1906 and I’ve transcribed what she wrote on the history of Cambridge 1800-1900 in part 1 here, and part 2 here.

The official history of Cambridge the town

It was another woman that wrote the history of the town of Cambridge as part of the Victoria County History project. While the splendid chaps divided up the colleges and the University of Cambridge between them (minus Girton & Newnham), the only person who took on the role of writing our history of the town was the wonderfully-named Professor Helen Cam.


Professor Helen Cam – Cambridge civic legend and also sometime benefactor of Romsey Labour Club.

Because she took the time to write our history – all 150 pages of it which you can read here, I have this crazy idea of rebuilding Cambridge Castle on the site of Castle Hill where the registry office is, and naming it after her. “Cam Castle” – harmless enough? I put this to Cambridgeshire County Council in a public question yesterday after the council announced it was looking to move out of Shire Hall and do something else with the site. I said if they were going to turn Shire Hall into a hotel, please could we have the car park to rebuild the old courthouse and turn it into an expansion for the Museum of Cambridge with the castle next door, thus creating a nice historical civic square ringed by museum, castle, hotel and castle mound, with the top of the castle being an outdoor expensive bar that you charge lots of money for drinks that then pays for and subsidises everywhere else because you get the best views of the city from up there.


From the Musem of Cambridge – our old courthouse where proclamations of new monarchs were made.

It’s not the greatest castle, so why not open up a new castle design to a competition of architects? (And ensure competing architects have engaged with the city *before* they submit their designs as a criteria of the competition?)

It’s not all pretty local pictures

I stumbled across this series by Penguin/Pelican in a number of charity shops on Burleigh Street, Cambridge. They date from the Second World War.

With both I get the sense that Britain was in a very different place intellectually. In the run up to the 1945 general election, the country had quite possibly the biggest conversation in its history about the sort of society it wanted to become after the war. It’s part of a series of cheap reads printed to be affordable for the many, hence the quality of paper they were printed on not being brilliant. That plus the impact of wartime restrictions on paper anyway. The list of the books is here. More than a few of the titles are incredibly dense and intellectual. But many of the authors are literary titans.

It got me wondering what a modern day equivalent of let’s say the above two would look like. Would they work for a commuting market? Teenagers doing Duke of Edinburgh courses / NCS / Scouts / Guides / Woodcraft Folk? Any thoughts?

To conclude, the one common theme with all of these books is that despite their age, there’s still a huge amount to learn from them. I also think past schemes even in this day and age are worth another look in terms of their original concepts. After all, they can’t do much worse than the current lot going up!

On events and parties and nights out of old – and as we get older


A wander through nights out of old – and their decline in the face of a growing city

I’ve started writing manuscripts of times gone by to fill in some of the gaps in the various diaries I’ve kept over the decades as a parallel stream to my current research project on Cambridge’s history. The reason being that as we get closer to the modern day, this was a history that I lived – irrespective of how ‘detached’ I felt to what was happening in Cambridge civic life during my childhood. For all of its reputation of being this seat of learning, young people in and around Cambridge outside of Cambridge University have generally gotten a raw deal from both town and gown.

I was talking to a couple of friends recently about a small group of us going to a club night before realising that the only places that run them are smaller than The Junction in Cambridge. The reason why I mention this is because in the 1990s The Junction used to host regular club nights for a host of different music tastes. My last club night there was in September 1999 with a couple of friends just before I left Cambridge to go to university – I was the last of our cohort to leave bar those going to Cambridge University from Cambridge in that year. A week before we’d seen off one of my childhood close friends who is now a headteacher in one of our schools. Turns out that for the music night out we’d spotted, the venue was The Q-Club, where I went for his birthday bash in the mid-1990s. Since then, I’ve lived through a generation and more in terms of years. Hasn’t Cambridge grown to sprout some newer premises?

Cambridge has grown by a town the size of Haverhill since I left to go to university

…or about 30,000 people. So in my book this means that the civic amenities and infrastructure that Cambridge should now have should be the equivalent of what Haverhill already has plus more. That means there should be at least one reasonable-sized night venue that is additional to what was there. That’s not to say it’d be guaranteed to succeed. It was poetry-slammer Sally Jenkinson who spoke about the joys of the single market-town night club at Hammer and Tongue in Cambridge recently.

So…why haven’t we got anywhere that’s high profile new?

This is something I’m examining in the context of Cambridge’s history. Young people in Cambridge in the 1980s had an occupation at a former bike shop on East Road in 1986 in order to persuade Cambridge City Council that it might be a good idea to build a new venue for young people – hence The Junction getting built. You can see by the materials alone how it was a minimum cost job – the outlines of the concrete blocks being visible on the outside as well as the inside. This being before the J2 and J3 were added after the Millennium.

Showing my age – the big four-zero is getting bigger

This also means that the nights-out of my mid-teens are not the sort of thing I could even hope to replicate.

One diary entry from the mid-1990s is from one epic night out at the start of Year 11, GCSEs year. Me and my friends from school were going to the indy night ‘Supersonic’ and were introduced to people from other schools en masse through mutual friends. Many of us paired off and we didn’t get back in until 3.30am. Not only that, none of us felt the effects of the alcohol we’d consumed earlier that evening the following day. These days it takes me a good 2 days to recover from a drinking session! (I’m more picky on what I drink too). Looking back now, there are a number of things that stand out.

Everything we saw was in the context of school

And school isn’t great for everyone. I was watching First Dates on C4 recently and one chap who hadn’t been on a date in his life got an outpouring of sympathy from Twitter because it was a really rough time at school that scarred him long into his adulthood. A couple of the teachers – some of whom I still see in our neighbourhood today, remark that my year group / cohort was polarised like no other they had experienced. By the time we got to Year 11 different groups disliked each other to the extent that they wanted to see the back of each other as soon as possible. Fast forward a generation and in my voluntary and community work I discovered that young people’s desire to meet and interact with children and teenagers from other schools is just as strong. Which then makes me ask why us adults are not facilitating more of this.

Alcohol (plus narcotics too) and how we deal with it has a massive impact

It’s a national policy area that has a massive impact locally. I had no idea that Cambridge City Council and the police had been pressured by other local civic institutions to clamp down on underaged alcohol sales. This led to the side-effect of driving under-18s into the hands of dealers because the latter don’t ask for ID to check if you are over 18 or not.

It was also the difference between getting drunk round the house of a friend who had open-minded parents, a pub that turned a blind eye to the law, or on the streets in a park somewhere. (Funny how as I write this, Liam Gallagher is singing on telly). My parents at the time not being liberal-minded at all meant that I had to acquire booze from elsewhere, though it was often my place after a late night/early morning at The Junction that friends would crash over, followed by a cooked breakfast afterwards. So it wasn’t all bad! The lesson I learned from those days was from the open-minded parents who let us drink on their premises simply because they said it meant they could step in before things got really out of hand, and also we’d all talk to them and they’d listen. After however many cans of beer they probably found out far more about us as a group of teenagers growing up in the mid-1990s than all of the other parents put together.

It was only when I turned 18 that I didn’t have to worry about getting ID’d all the time – which meant I stopped going out at a time when everyone was. But the other thing that didn’t help (especially with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder at the time) was the low level aggression and violence. It was by sheer luck that I avoided the two beatings that some of my friends from school got in the mid-late 1990s. Both of them were alcohol related, and dare I say it had a vague school or college link. Funnily enough, one of the pubs where one of the violent teenage gangs that carried out one of the attacks – and was known for serving underaged drinkers, has since been demolished.

One of the things venue owners and proprietors tell me is that teenagers today are far more ingenious about getting hold of alcohol underaged than we were. So much so that in Cambridge it they hit the headlines recently. A decade before that, The Varsity Newspaper investigated the drugs scene in Cambridge.

“Wouldn’t having one big venue just concentrate all of your problems in one place?”

In one sense The Regal in Cambridge – formerly a cinema and concert venue – is more than well-known as being that sort of place. Big, spacious and lots of cheap alcohol. But as a building I still think it is splendid, and during the day it serves a purpose of providing cheap, hot meals in an otherwise expensive city. It’s also one of the few venues in Cambridge that is wheelchair accessible.

Fashions change, and towns and cities have to adapt to them

The history of rollerskating in Cambridge is one such illustration of it – as I explored in this blogpost. In the late 1800s there was a huge rollerskating craze. Then new sound and cinema technology was invented and a number of old rinks were built over for new cinemas and theatres. (That plus changes in laws removing the University’s veto on new theatres & cinemas).

In my case I stopped going clubbing in my early 20s because I got involved in one of Cambridge’s large dance societies. In that decade we were big enough to organise our own events that could more than match what was happening in town anyway. Then I left Cambridge to live and work in London where you are more than spoilt for choice. Thus between leaving Cambridge in 1999 to leaving the civil service in 2011 I was more than pre-occupied in terms of nights out. In the time that has elapsed, the one thing that is more prominent – not surprisingly, is the growth of international student parties and club nights. A few years ago local police were reporting on the increased case load associated with alcohol-fuelled incidents at these places too. On the bus back from town one evening we spotted one such incident between two groups of males that had spilt out onto the main road. It has also become a planning issue in Cambridge too. But then if irresponsible firms are going to cram in lots of young people from all over the world and not give them either enough to do, enough facilities and/or enough supervision especially in the evenings, it can hardly be surprising that bad stuff happens. Don’t blame the kids for problems designed in by adults.

Land prices distorting what gets built and where

To be honest, I don’t really know where you’d put a new venue or a new cluster of venues in Cambridge as it currently is outside of the ones I’ve moaned about (eg the old bingo hall/art deco cinema). Also, at the same time I don’t want the whole debate to become ridden in social class splits. Let’s face it, with Cambridge’s history we’ve got form when it comes to rich aristocrats rocking up and trashing places. When the Cambridge Corn Exchange was opened to the public in 1875, large numbers of Cambridge University undergraduates (all men in those days) smashed up the opening ceremony – such was the violence that a dozen or so were hauled before magistrates (after which their chums smashed the windows of the former mayor’s house), and led to headlines and grovelling apologies in The Times.

So…complaining about not feeling safe at night in the centre of Cambridge in that regard is not a new thing. Question is what urban design changes can we make in order to change this? Ditto with a cultural change? That also goes for the colleges who own the land in Cambridge as well: What would it be like if you all functioned as if you were responsible for everyone in Cambridge rather than just your college members?