How can local history influence the future of a town or a city?


Some thoughts on making use of our hidden histories (& herstories) to get more people involved not just in local democracy but on the futures of where we live. Cambridge and Cambridgeshire being my case study.

For those of you following my Lost Cambridge project, one of the things that I’m looking at is how to make everything I do ‘Me-proof’ on the grounds that the weakest link in all of this going forward is me. For a variety of reasons which I won’t go into here. My point is that my discoveries over the past few months show that however we as a city choose to follow this up, it’s going to take far more than one man and his dragon fairy to actually do it. I also don’t want some poor soul in 100 years time to stumble across all of this work and ask why no one did follow it up assuming I get run over by a bus or something. A question we often asked in the civil service when assessing project risk was what would happen if a key individual was run over by a bus: how would the project continue? This is actually a weakness of many ministerial initiatives – as soon as the minister is sacked, transferred or promoted, the project dies a very quick death as their replacement looks to stamp their mark of authority on their new teams.

Local history as a very long term project or program

My time horizon in all of this is about 15 years – i.e. between now and the centenary of Florence Ada Keynes’ mayoralty.

Florence Ada Keynes Dissenting Forbears NevilleBrown

Florence Ada Keynes shortly after her wedding to John Neville Keynes (parents of the Economist John Maynard Keynes) in Dissenting Forbears by Neville Brown.

“15 years – that’s a long time!”

Exactly – yet through it, it allows a program to grow as big as the city and the people want it to be, rather than having a very tight deadline to complete an unbelievably large and varied projects by.

It also means there is enough time for consistent branding to be developed, and something that projects developed by others can hook onto. Essentially the time allows for a significant amount of strategic planning – one where we can have a ‘year zero’ where we do that large information scoping and data collection exercise just to get a feel for what is out there. Because what I’ve found in the course of less than a year is that our civic history in Cambridge is far, far greater, more exciting and more interesting than many of us had realised.

Time for negotiations too

The reason why this matters is because a number of the colleges hold archives of letters and papers of people who were very important and influential in the shaping of our town and city. Some of the colleges are not actually aware they hold those papers outside of their archivist community. Others will have forgotten the part some of their former members played in how Cambridge the town grew, and more importantly how we improved the provision of social and public services as a result of the intervention of civic-minded individuals. The point being is that those individuals, as well as being part of the colleges’ histories are also part of the town’s history too. Once you’ve established that shared connection, then you can start talking about how to commemorate it. For example Florence Ada Keynes above was one of the earliest students at Newnham College – as were more than a few of the most prominent women social activists in the late 19th/early-mid 20th centuries. To pick two more individuals, Sir Horace Darwin, Fellow of Trinity College, founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company (which became a huge local employer, and whose offices on Chesterton Lane now house The Job Centre), and Sedley Taylor, (also at Trinity College) who paid for the first municipal dental clinic in Cambridge, and for free checks for all children at council run schools in 1907/08. Remember this was the time before the welfare state and most families couldn’t afford a dentist. Sedley Taylor Road, Cambridge? Yep, named after him.

Looming multiple centenaries.

We’ve missed a number of important ones – including the centenary of Florence Ada Keynes’ election to Cambridge Borough Council as the first woman in 1914. But there are a whole host looming, including:

  • 1918 – Representation of the People Act 1918 giving some women the vote for the first time, and also removed the property qualification on men who otherwise were still barred from voting.
  • 1919 – First women to win contested elections in Cambridge – Clara Rackham and Dorothy Stevenson
  • 1920 – the appointment of the first women magistrates (Florence Ada Keynes, Jane Harrison, Leah Manning and Clara Rackham)
  • 1923 – the appointment of our first woman police officer, WPC and later Sgt Annie Carnegie Brown
  • 1924 – election of our first woman mayor – Cllr Eva Hartree
  • 1929 – first elections that women could vote on equal basis with men following the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. Thus the UK did not get Universal Suffrage until that Act was passed.
  • 1932 – Florence Ada Keynes elected Mayor
  • 1933 – Cambridge Refugee Committee formed by Eva Hartree and others, to organise the first municipal reception for refugees fleeing from the rise of fascism across Europe – most notably from Germany and Spain.

Those events above as standalone local events deserve some sort of centenary marking in their own right. As part of a story of our city – especially on civic and social progression, it feels far more powerful because all of these are ones that town, gown and village can celebrate together.

“Town, gown and village? That’s a new one?!”

We take it for granted that the wards of Trumpington, Cherry Hinton and Chesterton are part of Cambridge City as far as elections and public services go. But all of these used to have their own councils – Chesterton once being its own rural district covering both these villages and much of what we now know as South Cambridgeshire.

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

The civic boundaries of Cambridge used to be much, much smaller. But we grew.

How will this influence the future of local public policy?

One of the things I’ve felt for a long time is that we, the people of Cambridge do not have nearly as strong civic identity as we could have. Part of that is down to us not knowing our civic history as well as we could do. That in itself stems from the fact that the last person who wrote anything approaching a comprehensive history of Cambridge the town was Cambridge Labour activist, Professor Helen Cam CBE of Girton College, Cambridge.

IMG_3522Cambridge Hero Professor Helen Cam – historian and benefactor of Romsey Labour Club in Cambridge. From Cambridge Women: 12 Portraits.

In the case of this blogpost on the town’s history, I’ve already named figures from three Cambridge colleges – Newnham (Florence Ada Keynes, Eva Hartree), Trinity (Horace Darwin, Sedley Taylor) and Girton (Helen Cam).

“What did Helen Cam do?”

Wrote our civic history. Literally.

No – really. Pages 1-149 of the official Victoria County History – Cambridge (the town) were written by Helen. I bought my own printed version of the history for £1 when the library was disposing of old past copies of the county history.

Helen Cam History of Cambridge Town Contents

Over the page all of the colleges are divvied up between various male historians (bar Girton (Jean Lindsay) and Newnham (Dorothy Brodie). Only Helen, supported by Susan Reynolds covered the town. The last update to this was in 1959.

That means we’ve got coming up to 70 years of unwritten history coming up

In a nutshell. That plus there was only so much Helen Cam and Susan Reynolds could squeeze into those 150 pages.

There are other things that come up too that were contemporary for the time but for whatever reason have been forgotten. In part because so few comprehensive books on Cambridge’s history outside of Cambridge University and its colleges have been written and sold widely. I remain of the view that some of the academic theses I’ve read by local historians, academics and enthusiasts are good enough subject to topping, tailing and layout changes, for publication as books in their own right. Go into any bookshop in Cambridge however, and you’ll see just how few books there are on the story of our city. And even then, some of the more contemporary ones are dispassionate accounts of the rise of a specific industrial sector that follows the money rather than the people, written as publicity puff pieces rather than as histories with an honest critical eye. With history, what you choose to exclude is just as important as what you cover. Pretending that there are no negative consequences with some of the more recent developments is just as dishonest as pretending there were no good things that happened in developments in the 1960s & 1970s when we lost more than a few really nice buildings in the city.

“Why so much interest in the women?”

Because that’s the bit that’s been written about the least vis-a-vis the historical evidence that is out there. Rather than following the noise that is in the university guidebooks and photo-guides of college splendours with all of the oil paintings of old men on the gilded ancient halls, I’m following the silences and the absences.

That plus the institutionalised sexism of the University of Cambridge and the churches linked to them is ever so striking. Florence Ada Keynes as Mayor of Cambridge was barred from having a full degree from Cambridge University due to her gender, despite being Mayor of Cambridge in 1932/33. Ditto Eva Hartree in 1924/25. And also ditto for another Newnham College student, Lady Alice Bragg who was Cambridge’s third woman mayor in 1946/47. Have a listen to her speech here from The Guildhall Balcony awarding the Freedom of the City to the Cambridgeshire Regiment, a number of whom had only recently been liberated from the hell of Imperial Japanese Prisoner of War camps in the Far East. (I covered the Cambridgeshire & the Fall of Singapore in 1942 in this post). Ultimately, it wasn’t until 1948 that Cambridge University finally removed the gender ban.

Interested in finding out more on the social and civic history of Cambridge the town? The first place to look is the Museum of Cambridge. Florence Ada Keynes was one of the founding trustees of the Museum of Cambridge when it was founded as the Cambridge and County Folk Museum. They are on Facebook at and on Twitter at @MuseumOfCamb. The museum has social drop ins every Friday afternoon from 2pm where a different subject is showcased or featured. If you are interested in getting involved – in particular on the history and actions of the women, drop an email to the museum.

“And on influencing the future?”

It really comes down to this: The more you know about a place and the greater the connection you have for a place, the more likely it is (I believe) that you’ll want to make difference to that place. Whether standing up against damaging developments or pushing for more positive things to be built or take place. It’s so easy to forget but it was a group of passionate teenagers and young adults in the mid-1980s who pushed for a new music and arts venue to be built in Cambridge. That is why Cambridge has The Junction.


Who took the fun out of Cambridge? (& how do we get it back?)


On regular events and nights we used to have but no longer do

I’ve had a number of conversations with local residents and activists in recent weeks about all things leisure in Cambridge, and a number of things have come up as a result.

What happened to the regular club nights at The Junction?

The Junction, as well as being a major entertainment and arts venue is also a big part of our civic history – especially for teenagers and people in their 20s. Why? It was that generation of teenagers & young people who got it built in the 1980s.

Plans for The Junction music/arts venue. )4 Nov 1986

The above from the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive is the Cambridge Evening News of 04 November 1986. Looking at it now, the underpass in the centre of Elizabeth Way roundabout would make for an awesome public space – whack a dome over it!

Yet the club nights that were regularly sold out in the late 1990s are no longer there. The old 70s and indie nights at The Junction are now at the much smaller Q-Club on Station Road Corner, which makes me feel that as a city we’ve gone backwards somewhat. That’s not to criticise The Junction as a venue or their staff. One of the things that they’ve struggled with – one that crosses more than two generations, is under-aged drinking. It’s a problem that goes far beyond Cambridge and one that we don’t look like solving anytime soon. I’ve seen secondary school children negotiating with street drinkers to buy alcohol from local supermarkets thinking “Yeah – why didn’t my generation think of that?!” while noting still that it’s easier for under-18s to get hold of illegal drugs than it is alcohol – just as it was for my generation growing up in 1990s Cambridge. I shrug my shoulders at those that squeal for the police and local councils to do more while voting in politicians that repeatedly vote for cuts to their budgets and/or refuse to vote for the necessary resources to enable public officials to carry out the duties they demand of them.

Cambridge’s population has grown by size of the town of Haverhill since 1990 – but has our leisure offer matched that growth?

I asked this question this time two years ago. The answer is still the same: no. Between 1990 and today, Cambridge should have built the equivalent of what Haverhill has, plus more given the improvements in transport access that the guided bus has given to the villages and towns in West Cambridgeshire.

What do we mean by “Cambridge is wealthy”?

People and politicians talk about the profitability of various firms (eg ARM Holdings), the number of tourists that visit Cambridge (while not considering the negative externalities of the model of mass tourism) and the amount of money Cambridge City Council returns to The Treasury from business rates. The problem is the municipal authorities don’t have the means to channel more than a fraction of that wealth into the functions that a city needs to function. Why does ARM holdings pay for a diesel shuttle bus from the railway station to its campus in Fulbourn rather than paying to re-open the railway station and upgrade the railway line that goes past its offices? There’s even a campaign to get it reopened for crying out loud!

“What’s that got to do with fun?”

Everything – people need to get to and from the places concerned – as I wrote in this blogpost. Finally – finally work as begun on our new ice rink on Newmarket Road. Flooding fenland fields in winter – which used to work in decades gone by no longer does in an era of climate change. If all goes well and the main bus route extends to the rink, I have an almost point-to-point bus link to said rink. Which is splendid even if the route is quite a long one. I get on, I sleep for 45 minutes, I get off, I get my ice skates on.

Land prices making some activities much more expensive

Some indoor activities inevitably need large amounts of indoor space. Basketball and rollerskating are two examples. One of our city’s best sports clubs, the Cambridge Rollerbillies needs a permanent and affordable home but is dependent on the availability of the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Hall. Cambridge United Women’s Football Club doesn’t even have a home ground inside the county, let alone the city. A disgrace to our city that needs rectifying. That two of our top women’s sports teams don’t have permanent homes in our city with decent facilities is a reflection of the institutionalised sexism in our city and in sport in general.

Where are the activities that mix young people studying at the city’s private language schools with young people at our secondary schools?

There are two things that worry me here. The first is that activities put on for visiting young people are inaccessible to young people that live here. The second is that visiting young people form friendships and future networks in our city that our young people are inevitably excluded from, while the private firms run off with the profits giving nothing back to the young people who call Cambridge ‘home’. It is not beyond the business networks in this city to do something about this if Cambridge is as innovative and forward thinking as we are told we are.

Is classical music about being beyond grade 8 or nothing?

Some of you might remember me jumping up and down about a new concert hall (and ideally, grand ballroom) for Cambridge in this blogpost. i.e. the one I’ve told several of you that I plan to name after the Mother of Modern Cambridge, Florence Ada Keynes.


Hero: Florence Ada Keynes in the 1880s before she transformed our city.

We have the guildhall in Market Square because of her. Unfortunately, in the large hall built in Victorian times behind it, the organ in there is broken and needs the best part of £500,000 to repair it. That plus some serious work to improve the very poor acoustics in there. Not that it stopped Mrs Keynes aged 74 from facing down 2,000 angry people inside said hall in 1935 who were complaining about design issues with the then proposed guildhall. While this was going on, her son, John Maynard Keynes (the economist) was busy building The Arts Theatre (which he underwrote for what was £20,000 in 1930s money when King’s College refused to stump up the cash). When he was bored or needed a break from economics in the evenings, he could sometimes be found in the box office selling tickets – because it was his theatre and because it was fun for him!

On the music side, my take for the past decade or so has been that Cambridge needs an adults’ late starters orchestra. East London has one, and Cambridge is full of music teachers and music scholars. So what is stopping Cambridge’s classical music scene from making this happen? After all, you have a big music school in our city and it’s not as if classical music doesn’t have an accessibility and image problem re diversity. (Although the point is often made about how tickets to football matches can be just as, if not more expensive than a classical music concert – which then makes us wonder whether the problem is ticket price or something else).

Lots of summer activities for older people and younger people – but what about that gap in between?

I was talking to a few people who like me, fall into that group and also happen to be single and childless. What is there that is specifically organised for this demographic (late-20s to early 40s) in and around Cambridge? I was looking at some of the things put on for the summer in Cambridge thinking: “I’d ***love*** to do that but I’m not 13 anymore.” I’m also not old enough to qualify for the Mayor’s annual day out to Great Yarmouth – but am more than happy to campaign for the re-opening of the railroute that used to exist so that we can all go to the seaside by train like we used to in the olden days!

Can our larger institutions think beyond their own memberships?

Cambridge University on social housing:

This from the top two councillors in Cambridge City – Cllr Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council and Cllr Kevin Price, executive director for housing and Chair of the Greater Cambridge Assembly.

I agree with both councillors – it is unacceptable for Cambridge University and its member colleges to behave in this way, pricing out the people who do the cleaning, bedding and catering inside their institutions. Astonishing that those on the college finance boards cannot see the positive impact that having such staff living in walking distance of their work places would have both on their work and on the health and lives of their employees. But as they are all too often outsourced to third parties, all too often the responsibilities go with them. For me a massive false economy.

Have some of our larger organisations stopped putting on some of the fun stuff of old?

I asked that question in this recent blogpost. The local archives make for fascinating reading in this regard. Given that they didn’t have TV or the internet 100 or so years ago, people had to find other things to keep them busy. In those days, some organisations built their own premises and hosted events in them. The Cambridge & District Co-operative Society was one such organisation. One Cambridge hero – Save The Children founder Eglantyne Jebb predicted shortly after the outbreak of the First World War that co-operation was the future. Read her full remarks from December 1914 here. Alas it was not to be, and the huge premises that were on Burleigh Street were sold off to the Grosvenor Estate Group and now host that symbol of low-cost-high-turnover turbo-capitalism, Primark.

“Doesn’t fun mean different things for different people?”

Yes – and dare I say it, we’ve lost our imagination and self-belief to build those things that could make our city much better than it currently is. I’ve been ridiculed enough over the concert hall idea. Note that we were told by 2016 we’d need a 50m swimming pool, a rowing lake, a community sports stadium and more – I read through old documents so you don’t have to 🙂 (Page 16 if you’re interested – the summary box at the end).

Yet as the 1986 newspaper article demonstrated, teenagers and young people came up with the idea of turning the big underpass by Elizabeth Way bridge into a venue – something that I’d never have had the imagination for. With not nearly enough diversity in local democracy nor a critical mass of the people that make up our city involved in how to make it function properly (not a new problem by anymeans), we miss out on the genuinely radical and imaginative ideas that could really make a difference. It’s one of the reasons I want the Cambridge Connect Light Rail to work. I’m still astonished that out of all of the candidates who stood for county mayor this year, it was the Conservative candidate James Palmer (who subsequently got elected) who pinned his manifesto to the mast of underground light rail. None of the others would back it.

“What about the free stuff?”

Wide open spaces matter.

Cambridge Crusaders vs Trumpington Tornadoes!

The pitch wasn’t nearly as nice as it is today, but we won 4-1 away in what was my first competitive football match as a centre-back. I was petrified…because I was 10.

But something as simple as removing the grass clippings from the open spaces actually makes a huge difference – especially to hayfever sufferers like me. Unlike my local park Coleridge Rec, the King George V playing fields in Trumpington had the clippings removed so I didn’t break out into a sneezing fit when I popped over on Saturday to see the Trumpington Youth Festival that was funded by Cambridge City Council’s South Area Committee allocation.

“Shouldn’t the city council be allocating some of this funding to each state secondary school to put on a summer festival in their local parks?”

Now there’s an idea.

The question is whether the schools would have the capacity to deliver it. These things are always easier said than done. Years of repeated cuts means that the capacity to deliver community events has fallen more and more onto volunteers. This inevitably means only those with the desire, the time and capacity to deliver such things take them up.

Talking to council officials, it was a group of young people aged 9-15 who put on the event in Trumpington. They went through the process of applying for funding and got it. I mentioned that learning how to apply for the money was an important part of the learning process, but also that there must be a simplified system we can put in place for the firms to donate funds say to the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation knowing that it will be used for such events. That or making a much better go of publicising the one that is already in place here.

And finally…

The *Wow!* factor.

Compared to where they were, Cambridge University has significantly improved its public engagement work in recent years. You could say that given that it used to treat the public like The Plague, an improvement isn’t hard. But many of the people who have been at the public-facing end that I’ve met have been utterly inspiring, and shows what we are capable of when we work together and put our minds to it.

Musicians in Cambridge working together could create not just a late starters orchestra but a new musical movement in Cambridge.

Dance groups in Cambridge working together could create the equivalent of a ‘May Ball’ where you had music and dancing of a different dance style in each hall/room/marquee.

Arts and college investment funds working with private donors and the local councils could give us that larger-than-the-corn-exchange concert hall (doubling as a conference centre that the business community regularly tells us we need). It’s not like we don’t have the technology to create a flexible but inspiring internal space.

At an even more basic level, we don’t need to sell out to developers all the time and leave pokey little patches of green in our new housing developments. Provide people with large open parklands like we used to. Let’s not become like London where we lose those open spaces as this report from 2006 shows what London lost.

What are your ideas?

You could say that ‘organised fun’ is a contradiction in terms – like planned spontaneity. There’s always been room for some sort of municipal provision for events ever since the Romans came up with the concept of bread and circuses to keep the people content…allegedly.

What are the things that as a city we’ve not even thought about? What are the things that could easily be put on and/or have low costs? What are the things that stop us from organising these things? Money? Poor transport links? Problems with publicity?

It reminds me of the criteria I wrote at the end of this blogpost on school sports: available, affordable, accessible, enjoyable, sociable. Do these apply to your ideas? Comments on a postcard please. (Alternatively in the comments box below on on Twitter & FB).






Adjusting to long term limitations from mental health illness


Over 5 years on and with no end in sight – trying to avoid despondency

It’s been that long since I went through a mental health crisis that took out my ability to work full-time hours. About six months prior to that I left the civil service on the back of the first major round of austerity job cuts.

In that time, I’ve tried my hand at a whole host of things but never really found a niche until now – with all things in a project that I believe could last many years simply because of the stories hidden within and the amount of unpublished and hidden material there is out there. The only thing that will limit it as far as I am concerned is the ambition of the city and its institutions. The other limitation is me. I see myself as the weakest link in project for a whole host of reasons.

“Yer not a kid anymore!”

One of the bad things of having moved back to Cambridge from London (and also from Brighton prior to that) is being surrounded by childhood history that is hard to run away from. Over the past few months I’ve really begun to feel my age – in particular getting it into my mind that over 2 decades have passed since I did my GCSEs, even though for a long time it felt like almost yesterday. Ditto with A-levels & university until I came to terms with the idea of this world having social media and those worlds not. It’s something I remind myself regarding the time of history I’m studying with Cambridge’s civic history: I’m studying a time period when there was no internet, no TV and in most cases, no radio. Perhaps just as importantly, no vinyl records, tape cassettes nor CD players. The idea you could hide away in your room and listen to music is a very recent phenomenon.

The more important thing though is getting used to the idea that my body is physically not able to do the stuff I took for granted until 2012. And I’m not just talking about hangover recovery – which had already reached the stage of needing a whole weekend to recover from a Friday night session by my very late 20s. No, this is the basics of cycling into town. Despite having a cycle, I always take the bus, even though I’ve procrastinated about getting back onto two wheels. The inevitable problem of moving back in with family is that you cease to be in control of your living circumstances – it’s not your house. You can’t make the changes to it that you would do if it were your own place. But in a place like Cambridge, moving out to somewhere else isn’t easy for anyone. We have a ‘hidden homelessness’ problem here of people who would like to move out but cannot. The problem is we don’t really show up on the statistics so there’s little political incentive for politicians to deal with it.

The other paradox with all of this is that I don’t know if I could cope with living on my own in my current state – though it’s something I’m more-and-more ready to give another shot again. Staying where I am feels unsustainable emotionally more than anything else.

On letting dreams go

When I left the civil service I always had it in mind that I’d get back into dancing (ballroom etc) again. But by then the club that I was once part of in the last decade prior to moving to London, had shrunk from its peak in 2005. The buzz that was once there was no longer there. I too was getting older and felt it more and more. Today I can’t see myself going back into the main venue where they host lessons. Funnily enough, since doing historical research on the political history of the town, the hall turns out to be one of the most well-used venues for a number of locally significant political meetings – in particular on votes for women, and the growth of the Labour movement.

Instinctively though, my body still has this strange yearning to go dancing – and cycling…and to play football too. It’s like when you do a given activity over an extended period of time in your relative youth, it becomes second nature. Yet at the same time, because of the regular bouts of (mental) exhaustion I get, I have to consider getting to and from venues in a way which I never had to in times gone by. Turns out I’ve not been the only person thinking about this – a number of local public policy types have started linking public transport access to venues as part of the county’s future leisure strategies. For me it’s an obvious point – I’m dependent on buses.  But if you’re a rural councillor from an affluent background, driving is the normal thing to do.

A career as a lifestyle

I assumed that this is what London would be like – work hard, play hard and socialise with the people you worked with. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Ironically, the people in the civil service who I probably felt the most comfortable with during my time there were the group that would later form the Government Digital Service. It was around the time many of us were considering our futures and I thought to myself that this is the group of people who I wanted to work with on something exciting, dynamic and socially productive. Many of these people were Puffles’ earliest followers. But there were no sideways moves and I had already signed my career away. The civil service that ministers were mismanaging was not a place I wanted to be in – and was also a place I couldn’t see myself surviving in. I needed a break.

Needing a break, but not a breakdown

I’d heard the phrase about people ‘going into the city, working hard, playing hard and burning out when they got to 30’. I just didn’t think it’d happen to me. Well it did. It’s like when the media gives out the 1-in-4 stat about the number of people who’ll suffer from a mental health problem in their lifetime. I’m one of the ones-in-four.

How are you supposed to manage a mental health condition when the NHS structures imposed by Lansley and Hunt don’t even give you a named general practitioner anymore?

This is why I despise with a passion the current and former health secretaries – and the prime ministers that appointed them. It speaks volumes these days that the former Health Secretary now only seems to appear at private meetings when discussing public policy. It’s almost as if he knows how hated he is by the general public that he dare not show his face. (Check those interests). A reflection of just how toxic our politics has become.

The thing is the politicians have known about the lack of funding of mental health services for over a century. Again, the newspaper archive reports are strikingly blunt in how they report inquests and hearings from the coroner’s office. Essentially when someone has an ‘unnatural death’ the county coroner is involved. (See this guide). This includes people taking their own life. (Don’t worry – I’m not about to take mine, but let’s not pretend the thought hasn’t cross my mind ever since I was diagnosed back in 2000). Even then it was crystal clear that mental health should not be ignored in the drive to improve physical health and hygiene as people became more aware. That’s why I’m like “Shut the fuck up about what you’re going to do, come back when it’s done”.

Sick of ‘let’s talk about mental health’

No. I’m sick of it. I’m sick to fucking death of it. I want all of us to have access to decent comprehensive mental healthcare treatment that is ours of right but isn’t being delivered because of political choices being made by ministers. You’ve been in power for over seven years: own it.

…because if you talk too much about it, you lose friends…

I have a number of people in my mind where I look back and think what a difference it would have made if that comprehensive system of support had been in place. The various crises I’ve had were not for them to bear the burden of helping me through. That was for the NHS – it’s what our taxes paid for. In particular having known how to make best use of tranquilliser medication which, up until my breakdown was something I thought was only for very serious cases. It would have helped stabilise my moods at some really critical points. Part of me thinks “How the fuck did you make it so far in the face of all of that?”

That’s why these days I try to bottle most of it in and/or distract myself

Fortunately I’ve got something to keep me distracted for a very long time – and fingers crossed our funding applications that I and a few others have started working on will mean I become somewhat independent and have a group of people to work with. Augusts generally are grim for me because everyone goes away and everything stops. Also, when I’m at my most irritable I need to get out of the house and away from people – which is why archives are very useful in that regard. No one disturbs you in archives. Given the nature of what I’m researching, very few people will have found the sorts of things I’ve been pulling out – mainly things in long-forgotten newspaper columns from a century ago. It’s the stuff that unexpectedly makes you laugh or smile that’s the nicest. Such as ‘red tape gone mad’.

Liberal Socialist farming spoof - 13 Oct 1926

…through to one of the earliest photographs of people (in this case children at the old Milton Road Primary School) smiling for the camera

Milton Road School PLay

(Click on the image and expand – the top photo in particular).

Then you’ve got things that simply smash negative stereotypes – such as the myth that girls cannot throw.

Miss Olive Johnson County High School Sports 30 June 1920

That’s Miss Olive Johnson at the Cambridge County High School for Girls Sports Day – 30 June 1920. We now call that institution Long Road Sixth Form College. And that is a cricket ball Olive is about to hurl.

Managing other people’s expectations

Never an easy one to talk about in terms of family expectations because the whole thing is loaded with things from the past that were outside the control of many of us. So I won’t go there.

But the inertia of past expectations and the social culture of what ‘middle class Cambridge’ was until I left to go to university in the late 1990s is one I can only describe looking with hindsight as absolutely toxic. It surprises me even now that we allowed churches and religious institutions to have such a stranglehold on our lives. The one thing that really strikes me is the impact the internet has had. As a child up until the internet became mainstream, you took what you were given knowledge-wise and were told to pass exams. Do well and you get treats, do badly and all hell breaks loose. I took that to heart and as a result ended up stepping back from a whole host of things to put exams first, when actually doing those other things would have been of immense benefit. The mindset at the time was that you only studied languages if you wanted to be a translator and that you played a musical instrument so that if you could not find a job anywhere else, you could always become a music teacher. (I still remember being told this by more than one adult).

The problem was that when I got to university and moved from a world where I didn’t have the internet to one where I did, I found that the institutions who I had trustingly obeyed throughout my childhood at left me woefully underprepared for the real world. What I also didn’t realise was that university was about to do exactly the same thing in my economics degree, only this time I didn’t fall into line. Much of what I was taught in that degree was called into question by the banking crisis – hence organisations such as and got set up.

“So, when are you going to get married and have children then?”

One of the reasons why I tend to avoid family gatherings these days. That plus a few years ago I started getting panic attacks at them so now I simply don’t go.

In a strange way I always assumed that getting married and having kids is what was going to happen. I was told before I went to university that I’d meet a new stable group of friends and a future spouse – none of which happened. One of the biggest shortcomings of higher education policy for decades has been ignoring the housing/student accommodation element. The housing situation in Brighton plus my old uni’s policy towards it did so much damage not just to me, but to many other people I spoke to at the time in terms of their experience there.

Post-civil service I’ve made the judgement call that my health simply is not strong enough to be a parent – even if I did meet the perfect partner. It’s such an awesome responsibility to have for such an extended period of time that I would inevitably fall short. We all make rash decisions when we’re tired and under pressure. Given that a high state of mental exhaustion is my starting point – combined with not being able to work full time anyway to support anyone, let alone myself, I’ve written myself out of it. But I’m reconciled to that and am at ease with it.

You could say that narrows the field in terms of searching for a life partner, but then I’ve not really been looking ever since my breakdown on the grounds that I’m not in a fit state of health. That plus having had to move back into my childhood home and not being in full time employment – and not fully independent means I’m hardly going to be topping the criteria list, let’s put it that way!

But rather than going on ***Oh woe is me!*** on that front (I’ve spent most of the previous paragraphs doing that), I’ve unwittingly followed the example of one of my top historical heroes, Eglantyne Jebb, who (following heartbreak) found a cause that chimed with her and didn’t look back.

Eglantyne Jebb in Cambridge

Eglantyne Jebb: Author of Cambridge: A brief study in social questions. 1906. Photo in Feminism & Voluntary Action by L Mahood. Photo from around the time Eglantyne was active in Cambridge (1903-1913).

When I first read her book I had no idea who she was. All I knew was that in the first two chapters she had taught me more about the civic history of Cambridge up to the year 1900 than the rest of the city put together. It was only when I found out that she founded Save The Children that I wondered why the story of her work in Cambridge wasn’t known much more widely. Like me, Eglantyne suffered from mental health problems, was incredibly highly strung/intense as a persona, liked partner dancing – and also never married. Reading her biographies I can’t help but think she worked herself into an early grave dying in her early 50s but looking decades older in her final years.

The reason why I’m committing my next however many years of living to this project is that the life stories of the women who transformed Cambridge is one of the most inspiring that I’ve read about, yet so few know about it.

“Does that mean giving up politics?”

Hell…no. History and politics are joined at the hip. Brexit being an example of politics going badly wrong because collectively we’ve gotten our histories in a big mess. Interestingly I’m in a situation where I spend a lot of time researching the lives and actions of long-deceased heroic women while at the same time spending a similar amount of time scrutinising the actions of panels and committees that are unfortunately mainly if not entirely male. (Greater Cambridge City Deal Board, Cambridge & Peterborough Combined Authority Cabinets are all-male).







The decline of work-based social and support functions


A ramble through the hollowing out of employer-backed social institutions in Cambridge, and the rise of local online-based networks in their place

For those of you following my research project Lost Cambridge, you’ll know that I’m currently going through about half a century’s worth of newspaper archives. Accordingly, I’m picking up on a host of things that I hadn’t really expected to find out about or even intended to find out about. Having just watched a programme on BBC4 about Paisley’s huge mills in Scotland, (with No.1 Spinning Mill being demolished in a crime against industrial architecture) it reminded me of something I was thinking about in relation to the collapse of the Co-operative movement in Cambridge.

“Collapse of the co-op in Cambridge? But they have stores everywhere!”

I’ve still not figured out what went wrong with the Co-op Society in general, but something very very bad happened over an extended period of time. And that was before they tried their hand at banking. I wrote about my brief work experience stint there in the mid-1990s and even then I could see all was not well. Not well at all. Compared to what the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society was in the early 1930s, today all that effectively exists is a brand. (They are rebuilding – which is a point I’ll end on).


The old Co-operative buildings on Burleigh Street – demolished by Grosvenor in the mod-2000s as part of a re-location of John Lewis while the Grand Arcade project was redeveloped. The site was then taken over by Primark.

SaleOfCo-op Burleigh Street_ArchivesRecord1980

Only now have I found out how the Co-op ended up relinquishing such fine buildings. Turns out in 1980 they sold the property to Grosvenor Estates – the firm in the headlines recently over family trusts and inheritance taxes.

The only reason I can think why the Co-op would have sold that site was because they moved to a new supermarket at the Beehive Centre. According to Ian Kitching the Co-op finally moved out of Burleigh Street in 1996.

More than just a shop and offices, but a social centre too

The photo-mosaic below (click for detailed images) from the Cambridge Chronicle on various dates throughout the 1920s show the sorts of events the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society Ltd organised. Images from the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive.

Fashion shows, civic parades, children’s fetes, formal dinners – and note the numbers of people taking part: hundreds. And the Co-op wasn’t the only organisation to do this. Heffers, the bookshop below in 1939.

390123 HeffersSportsSocialClub

Staff associations also had their big events.


Cambridge University staff used to have huge ballroom dances – this at the old Dorothy Cafe that is now Waterstones Bookshop.

Furthermore, there were significant tributes from employers for employees who had volunteered for or were conscripted into the armed forces during the First World War.

Given the sheer numbers you get the sense of the scale of the disruption that firms across the country will have faced. Note one of the templates used by Eaden Lilley and Chivers and co – two of the biggest employers in the area. Before the rise of the totalitarian dictators the symbol had much more peaceful connotations.

Public sector social clubs

The biggest and possibly most well known one in Cambridge is the Frank Lee Centre, which serves Addenbrooke’s Hospital and is open to staff and their families. I had my 18th birthday party there in the late 1990s. Also well known is the Cambridge University Sports and Social Club. It’s very well known in dancing circles as a venue for dance classes on its upstairs hall. In the private sector, Marshall’s has its own social club. Finally, Cambridge University Press had The Cass Centre – which was sometimes used by local civil service employers – certainly when I was there just over a decade ago. It remains to be seen what will happen once Cambridge Assessment move into their new site that was the old Press Factory. But these are the exceptions.

In the grand scheme of things, the large traditional working class social clubs that were subsidised by (or at least branded by) employers seems to have gone. Even the old trade union networks and political social clubs are a shadow of themselves. The only one that still functions is the Cambridge Working Men’s Club. The Romsey Labour Club closed – how and why I will never know but it should never have been allowed to. The Salisbury Club and Cherry Hinton Road Conservative Clubs are now more known as venues that can be hired out rather than as political hubs – reflecting the decline of Conservative politics in Cambridge over the past 30 years. While Cambridge Labour Party are able to host large private gatherings in Alex Wood Hall, the Liberal social presence buildings-wise, and that was once huge, has disappeared completely.

060126 Cambridge Liberal Club Etching.jpeg

This building was leased to the Cambridge Liberal Club for 21 years – a grand venue on Downing Street opposite Pembroke College.

“Perhaps people don’t want to socialise with those that they work with”

I worked for one of the large banks in a small office in Cambridge (long since closed) during my “year out”. I didn’t really know what a ‘Gap Year’ was until I actually got to University – when I met people who must have been the inspiration behind this chap. I remember once I had settled down thinking whether I could imagine myself spending the next 40 years of my life in that organisation or even industry. To which the answer was ‘no’. At the same time I remember the attitude generally was that the people there didn’t socialise with each other. I promised myself I’d never work in a small office as a career choice.

The crushing of workers (for want of another term) by firms in pursuit of profit has meant the cutting back on ‘non-essential’ expenditure

Look at the rise of the zero-hour contract and short-term contracts. Nothing shows more contempt for staff more than being ‘on demand’ for a firm who makes no consideration for an outside life you might have. Or being on one 3-month contract after contract knowing that at any point, your employer can simply let you go with no redundancy payment. I saw this shortly before I joined the civil service. What saddens me today is that these are the practices of firms that used to have much better terms and conditions for their frontline staff.

A growing number of single workers, micro-businesses and start-ups

Some have gone into this because it’s what works for them. Others have found themselves ‘coerced’ into this route following the large-scale redundancies in the public sector with austerity. Either way, this change in working patterns means you don’t get to form the networks or friendship groups that you might do working in a large organisation in a large workplace. Note that one of the responses to this in a number of places is the creation of open space ‘hubs’. Individuals and groups can hire flexible work space with the professional office services they need. Although they may be working for different organisations in different fields, they are all in the same workspace and even the same large room/office space.

Lower population density plus a poor transport network

It’s also worth remembering that Cambridge was much more compact compared with today – although some of the high-rise developments is beginning to reverse some of this. It’s one of the reasons why grand churches like All Saints, Cambridge was decommissioned, or worse, like the Wesleyan Methodist Church on Hills Road, sold off and demolished.

The old Wesleyan Methodist Church – where Strutt & Parker now are. This would have made a wonderful community building had the landlords preserved it.

Essentially in a compact town it was much easier to walk or cycle to where you needed to get to. It’s strange to think so today, but until fairly recently many of Cambridge’s central districts had large working class communities. Castle Hill, The Kite with The Grafton Centre, Petersfield, Newtown, West Chesterton and Newnham Croft are all examples. Today, many people on mid-to-low incomes have to commute in from outside the centre or outside of the city. Without the transport network that the city has needed for decades, it means that fewer people are able to take part in post-work activities.

Finally…advertising. Local newspapers used to be widely read. No longer. 

I kind of feel sorry for the historians of the future in that they won’t have this wealth of local journalism to work with. I certainly get the sense that the larger work-based social clubs had a much higher profile than they do today. It wasn’t just the photographs of their big events, but the smaller things such as games and sports teams competing in local leagues. Imagine your local political party having an amateur football team. That. A pub vs a political party vs a local church vs a large private sector employer in the sport or pastime of your choice. This was normal.

“Has someone come up with alternatives? Especially in this social media age?” 

Certainly at the ‘young professionals’ end with both JCI Cambridge and Cambridge Young Professionals. Furthermore, Meetup has a number of self-organising groups – the most vibrant of these being the CamCreatives network. The groups can be very specific to a city and/or local economy. In Cambridge, some of the most popular are based around specialist industries – some even based around specific computer programming languages!

Given the more transient nature of our city, social media has become all the more important in organising work or profession-based events. Also, given the now huge land costs in Cambridge, the idea of any organisation owning their own premises is a non-starter unless they have a major institutional backer or have inherited property down the decades.

It was also why I came up with the idea of a ‘Cambridge Societies Fair’ in 2014 – which evolved into the Cambridge Volunteers Fair run on behalf of Cambridge City Council by the wonderful Cambridge Hub. The next one is on 21 October – have a look at all of the organisations taking part.

Some of the supermarkets – the Co-op included, have appointed community representatives and organisers.  At the moment, these are predominantly store-based. It will be interesting to see if Cambridge City Council is able to harness their collective influence for city-wide campaigns and actions. Stores/groups of stores in an area supporting local charities and causes is now a regular feature at many. Here’s an example from the Co-op (who I’m a member of). Note a number of workplaces also do ‘charity action days’ where their staff collectively volunteer for a day of work (eg a nature reserve that needs lots of spare hands for a blitz) to taking part in big charity races.

“Does this mean that ‘the good old days’ were better?”


One of the other things that bound people together was the risk of destitution. In the days before the welfare state, you and your family were one bad accident or injury away from disaster. Going through the newspaper archives has revealed to me a number of ‘shocks to society’ that ultimately central government had to deal with. One of those was all of those families across the classes that no longer had a father and main wage earner.

The other thing that I keep on reminding myself of is that the people who I’m researching were living in a time where there was no TV and no internet. Radio was still in its infancy too. Given that the quality of housing wasn’t great, you can imagine the incentive to get out and about – and stay out if you could. I’m always struck by the news reports of court cases of how members of the public were able to run round the corner to alert the nearest police constable to arrest a local ruffian and haul him before the judges.

With the growth of the inter-war and post-war estates, and the improving quality of housing, the incentive to go out and about (and travel greater distances) perhaps diminished. Why go out in the cold and dark when you’ve got a warm house and a TV to keep you occupied? This is one of the explanations given to be by a church historian recently.

The rise and fall of friendly societies

Before the welfare state and before the system of national insurance, there was a growth of ‘friendly societies’ through the 19th Century as a means for people to insure themselves against the bad things in life. One of the few that is still visible in Cambridge at a street level is the Cambridge Oddfellows Branch. I’ve always wondered what they were about until I read about an election hustings they hosted a few years ago. The unofficial FB page here. shows the interior of the hall that they host events in and that locals can hire out – essential in a town that has a shortage of hall space for evening classes and rehearsals. From Lloyd George’s reforms in 1910 until the forming of the welfare state after the Second World War, the friendly societies played a big part in the administration of national insurance.

“Does any of this have a bearing on future public policy?”

In terms of how to deal with loneliness and mental health issues, plus in terms of the stabilisation of communities, I think it does. Hence my personal interest in it. The economic policies of the neo-liberal years (i.e. post-1979) saw the decline of the traditional churches (seen as Tory strongholds) and trade unions in inner city communities (traditionally Labour strongholds). Policy-makers in social policy have been struggling to come up with ideas on how to deal with some of the negative fallout of the decline of these institutions such as bringing people together on a regular basis. Difficult to argue for state support for organisations in a world where if something does not make money/profit it is seen as bad or a drain on society.


How many tourists is too many tourists?



On the Cambridge News’ exchanges with its readers

This relates to this tweet from Cllr George Pippas who in this civic year is Mayor of Cambridge.

Given his civic duties he’s often receiving delegations of visitors from China, civic, business and educational.

At the same time, The Cambridge News was also asking about tourism which lead to this article covering the comments from readers.

Tourists and and residents who might happen to look like they are from a country from where Cambridge gets lots of tourists are not the same thing.

This is why I hate punt touts. Because I happen to have dark skin they think I’m a tourist and I got sick of being continually pestered by them. Oh – they are also breaking the law. (That doesn’t mean Cambridge doesn’t need to overhaul how it manages punting and other activities on the river – it does).

I then read this by Colin Wiles

What makes me nervous about ‘anti-tourist’ protests is that they can very easily become anti-foreigner and anti ‘people that look like me’ protests. And Cambridge is my home – I grew up here.

As history goes, tourism in Cambridge is relatively recent. The text in the Twitterphoto is from 1950:

The problem is not the tourists, and dare I say it, not the numbers of them alone: it’s the model of tourism – mass consumer tourism.

This was something featured in The Guardian here recently.

Cambridge is a living, breathing city. It’s not a theme park and it’s not a film studio.

The organisations that bring in the tourists – and furthermore the language students and the much-maligned ‘cram college’ students don’t directly bear the negative externalities of their economic activities.

Former Eton economics tutor Geoff Riley created this guide on negative externalities. It’s written for an A-level economics audience, but the symptoms of what local residents in Cambridge complain about are negative externalities of the economic activities of the firms and organisations mentioned above.

My take is that the fault lies with central government – they have not given local councils here the administrative structures, legal powers or the financial freedoms (tax and spend) to deal with the externalities we face. (See my last blogpost here for more on this).

The problem for the past couple of decades is that Cambridge has not had the infrastructure to cope with the rising number of tourists and private students now studying in the city. Speculative developers have bought up plots of land and converted them into private student accommodation – often seen at the expense of social housing that the city desperately needs. I’m technically one of the ‘hidden homeless’ living back with my parents but who would rather like to have my own place if only I could afford it. But again, I don’t blame the students, young people or even the tourists. The blame here rests with ministers.

Transport infrastructure one of the solutions

One of the reasons why I like Cambridge Connect Light Rail is that it provides solutions both for the traffic congestion problem, and for raising revenue from the visitors to the city – in particular the day trippers. Here’s me on traffic issues very recently.

Traffic in Cambridge – not new, but now unsustainable?

I recorded that video after getting zero sleep the night before – hence the dark rings under my eyes. #SleepFailClub.

The point with a light rail underground network is that you can combine it with restrictions on tourist traffic coming into Cambridge. Bar tourist and private coaches coming into the city and get them to deposit their passengers at out of town/end of line park and ride stations so they can buy light rail tickets into town. Cambridge now has over 7million visitors per year. Suddenly you are making money that can be reinvested in transport – or whose future revenues can be rolled up into bonds on the finance markets to pay for at least some of the infrastructure in the first place.

Using transport planning to support culture and leisure industries.

For those of you that like Cambridge (the town) history, I wrote about the history of The Grafton Centre here. A couple of decades ago, many bus routes stopped at the shopping centre. Very few do today, and that has had a big impact on the vibrancy of the place. Yet flip the whole thing on its head and there is an opportunity to use future transport plans to increase the viability of a whole host of existing (or even future) attractions. For example one of the proposed lines out to East Cambridge could support the proposed Cambridge Ice Arena ice rink. Looking at postcode data from a number of venues in Cambridge at a hack event years ago, we discovered that the distances people were travelling to see shows in Cambridge were significantly greater than we had anticipated. Thus if people are already travelling those distances, does it not make more sense to invest in new public transport infrastructure to get people off roads and onto light rail? Note many of the venues have their performances in the evenings, thus making the services more viable for the nighttime economy.

It’s not just the driving and rail – it’s the walking and cycling too. All Saints Cambridge is one of our city’s hidden gems. The reason why it struggles is because the road it is down is off the beaten track. The pavement is far too narrow, too many buses and lorries go down it and it is not sign-posted. Yet the interior of the building is some of the most splendid Victorian era you’ll see in the city, if not the country.

What surveys have been done of tourists and language school students?

We’re in the middle of peak language school season and tour group season. I read one comment complaining about seeing groups of disinterested teens and tweens being dragged around the city by tour guides. I wonder if anyone has done research into what the students and young people on those tours and courses get out of them. Is there something unique about visiting/studying here or is it just another place to go shopping and have fun? If it’s the latter, do Cambridge’s institutions need to aim for a different market while inviting somewhere else that has the ‘shopping and partying infrastructure’ to set itself up as that vibrant place for young life-loving people? I remember in my early teens how boring Cambridge felt compared to our family friends who lived just outside Stevenage. In the early 1990s we thought Stevenage was great – you could go bowling, ice skating, and go swimming in a pool with a wave machine! You couldn’t do that in Cambridge in those days.

The other thing that worries me is that Cambridge’s young people are missing out on socialising with the young people from abroad on those courses. We don’t organise systematically joint activities and events. Personally this is where I’d like to see one of Cambridge’s business groups taking a lead on this and having a levy on the language schools – even a voluntary contribution to start with, to fund activities that can be put on for all young people in our city free of charge. That way it makes them accessible for families on very low incomes. Don’t think poverty doesn’t exist in Cambridge; it does.

“A different model for tourism?”

It’s a global issue. Here’s Barcelona. Here’s Venice. We learnt about the damage of unrestricted tourism in GCSE Geography in the mid-1990s. Do you think those t-shirts in the tourist shops with ‘Cambridge’ printed on them were made locally? Exactly. What are the alternatives to ‘the selfie, the snack and sod-off’ tourism? You’ve seen the articles of selfies in sacred and/or sombre places, the latter for example sites of crimes against humanity. Those are obviously extreme examples. But my point here is as a city about what we want tourists, visitors and language students to take away from their time here, rather than just thinking about the bottom line. Unfortunately while all of the incentives and economic structures are all about growth and profits, we’ll continue down this socially and environmentally destructive model of tourism. And not just in Cambridge. That cannot be good for anyone – including the tourists.

Cambridge can’t have nice things because its structure of governance is a big mess


Or rather, Cambridge cannot sort out its longstanding problems such as transport congestion because of an over-complicated structure of governance driven by/designed as a result of party political concerns rather than what is best for the city & surrounding towns & villages

The structure of governance in Cambridge looks like this:


And…it’s a mess.

And it’s no way to run a city with a global brand. The Cambridge City Council/South Cambs District Council are actually at the same level – both district councils, but the diagram by Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport illustrates that South Cambs has to cope with all of the towns and villages immediately around Cambridge without having any say or influence on what happens inside the doughnut – that being the area of Cambridge City Council.

“What do the history books tell us?”

Quite a lot – see my blogpost on Lost Cambridge here. Some of the most interesting exchanges on what should happen to Cambridge happened in the 1920s & 30s – when the art/science of town planning was blossoming as a result in part of the drive to build homes fit for heroes following the sacrifices of the First World War. The map below from “A history of local government from 1834-1958 with special reference to the county of Cambridge” shows what politicians, councillors and civil servants were considering in 1934.


The boundaries for the area applied for by the then Cambridge Borough Council (now Cambridge City Council) reflect the anticipated future development of Cambridge that planners in the 1960s anticipated. We know this because again, the archives tell us this.

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

Interestingly enough, in the 1960s the councils proposed segregated cycleways – note how they link them to the secondary schools.

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

I’ll leave it to you to judge how accurate the planners’ predictions were.

“Back to today, who is responsible for what?”

Exactly. This is what’s on the menu of Cambridge City Council:

170204 CamCitCoListOfServices

And this is for Cambridgeshire County Council

170730 CambsCCServices

But due to the nature of services delivered and a wider geographical range, the county council’s budget is much bigger than the city council’s budget. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve switched my focus in recent times from the city council to the county council – I’m following the money.

City vs Country – the progressive island in a sea of conservatism

One of the tensions in local politics is the Conservative-led county council vs the Labour-led city council (and before 2014, the Lib-Dem led city council). There are more Green Party councillors on Cambridge City Council than there are Conservatives – there are currently no Conservative Party councillors on Cambridge City Council. Hence the frustrations of Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters and politicians when so much of what they would like to do in the city is effectively blocked by the Conservative majority on the county council.

“Has it always been like this?”


Former Cambridge councillor Colin Rosenstiel maintains a fascinating database of Cambridge election results going back to the 1930s. Note how the Conservatives collapsed in the 1990s in Cambridge and never recovered. There’s a Ph.D thesis waiting for someone to write: Why did the Conservatives collapse in Cambridge during the 1990s and why have they not recovered since?

Because the Conservatives used to run the council in my very early childhood here, and regularly returned Conservative MPs until Newnham College graduate and former Parkside teacher Anne Campbell turfed out the Conservatives in 1992 as their candidate, former Cambridge University Conservative Association President Mark Bishop (see list of past ones here) failed to succeed historian Robert Rhodes James. Therefore the left-liberal political control of Cambridge borough/city in the grand scheme of things is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“How does that work with ministers and MPs?”

My stereotypical take is that ministers of all parties that don’t know Cambridge well see it as this picture postcard view of public school, punting, King’s College and ***complicated stuff that we don’t understand but that impresses foreign people and brings in lots of money for the treasury that we can use for spending/tax cuts [delete as appropriate]***

So I can imagine some hereditary peers getting angry about the lack of Conservative councillors on Cambridge City Council being a constitutional outrage, and that we should go back to the old system when Cambridge University had 2 aldermen and 6 councillors on the city council. (Aldermen as a concept were abolished in England and Wales in the 1970s). See Colin Rosenstiel here for more on how elections that included having university councillors worked prior to their abolition in the 1970s. Part of me wonders whether the governance of the city would improve if we had University representatives on the council – representatives that were responsible for the University’s actions and who could be cross-examined by residents & councillors alike. (On the other hand, Anglia Ruskin University might take issue given the number of students it has).

“So, what about the Mayor of the county, the City Deal/Partnership and so on?”

Since I left the civil service in 2011, Cambridge has gained:

Now my focus here is on the structures rather than the individuals that hold office in them. Because if you’ve got your structures wrong, even the most talented of individuals will be bogged down with meetings and libraries worth of papers to read. I should know – I’m one of the people that tries to turn up to meetings and read the papers! Yes! This is why I’m still single!

I digress…

My point is that all of these new structures were put together in isolation rather in combination with each other.

I also note that the combined authority is at and does not have a suffix. Given its functions, this surprises me. (Turns out it’s 2 urls for one website ).

We’ve also had a rebrand of the Cambridge City Deal – now the Greater Cambridge Partnership. Essentially they are now up and running at a level that they really should have been running at the start. The problem is that they were too officer-driven at the start and it’s difficult for them to unpick some of the poor decisions made early on. For example not having a ‘year zero’ for information gathering, data collection and community consultations.

Finally there are the problems of the Local Economic Partnership, initially set up by Coalition ministers to replace the former development agencies, just with lower budgets. Since their inceptions, I’ve repeatedly criticised the lack of diversity on their board. Count the number of men vs women. Also note the stupid-crazy-stupid decision not to have the leader of the city council on their board. Note Cambridge local historian Allan Brigham here. Furthermore, Steve Barclay MP has gone after the LEP over the decisions it has taken and the impact on Wisbech, one of the most economically deprived towns in the region in his constituency. (A town I might add that has huge potential).

With many of these organisations, it’s not entirely clear where some members get their mandate from, nor who they are accountable to.

“So…what does this mean for decision-making from a citizen’s perspective?”

Everything is unnecessarily complex.

Therefore the only people who can really influence things are people with time and money. I was following the Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire local plans, filming for the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations. These were really intense meetings going into a level of detail that is politically microscopic, but ones that developers and landowners were prepared to hire very expensive barristers/QCs to represent them.

More simplified structures amongst other things would reduce the need for internal meetings to co-ordinate the actions of different organisations dotted around all over the place. Time could also be saved for everyone with clear lines of accountability in terms of who does what. The public would also have a greater understanding of what is going on – important for making informed decisions.

One of the things that institutions take for granted is the cost of residents’ input. These things are not free. It means something else foregone. In my case with filming, I get commissions from FeCRA as I’ve mentioned, along with kind donations from individuals (see here – please support my filming and reporting!), but the commissioning rates I charge are about a tenth of the market rate. The simple reason being that no one would pay the £500-£1000 a day rate for someone to film a local council or community meeting.

Interestingly, the County Mayor James Palmer has announced recently that he wants to review local government in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

I hope this book will be of interest to him and his officials.


There’s a copy in the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Cambridge Central Library, but this version is my own personal one.

“Publications on how the state functions from times gone by – a refresh?”

I found this in the RSPCA shop on Burleigh St for 75p.

It dates from just after the Second World War and is a fascinating read. While I’d like to think publishing a refreshed series covering the functions of all of the major organisations of state would be useful, the restructures over the past decade would inevitably mean they’d become obsolete very quickly.

In the grand scheme of things, too much power rests with Whitehall, and within it, The Treasury. Note Cllr Lewis Herbert on the business rates revenue that are surrendered to Whitehall. For me it’s not nearly as simple as asking ministers to allow local councils to retain receipts. Ministers have to come up with something that allows local councils greater tax and spend powers, while bringing in different systems to support those local councils in economically deprived areas that face higher demands for their services while having a lower tax base to raise from. The problem with the current situation is that ministers have repeatedly cut support from central government while not giving councils the ability to raise revenue from other sources. Being a council leader or a council chief executive is the opposite of being a newspaper/media baron: Responsibility without power.

Cambridgeshire Archives are being run at their statutory minimum. How do we change this?


Cambridgeshire County Council confirmed how little support our county archives are getting from them. How do we change this?

Tabling a public question to Cambridgeshire councillors

See here on county council meetings.

We recognise that the archives service is effectively operating at a statutory minimum

…said Cllr Mathew Shuter for Cambridgeshire County Council.

Note the question from Cambridge historian Dr Sean Lang of Anglia Ruskin University a year ago.

Cllr Roger Hickford responds to Dr Lang for the Friends of Cambridge Central Library

I’ve found myself on the committee of the Friends of Cambridge Central Library (Please ‘like’ our Facebook page here!) because we run the risk of losing the legacy of libraries and civic centres started by one of Cambridge’s most unsung heroes, John Pink, who started the Library Service from scratch in the 1850s shortly after Parliament gave local councils powers to establish a library service. Mr Pink would be Cambridge’s chief librarian for the next half century. It would be another 60 years before someone really went through to sort out 110 years of history – Mike Petty – who is now trying to bring Cambridgeshire history into the internet age. Easier said than done – one of Cambridgeshire’s big historical groups only started using email in 2011.

A hidden treasure trove of local and civic history

Some of you will be familiar with my Lost Cambridge blog where I write about some of the finds I’ve made on all things Cambridge town and civic history. My take being that lots has been written about Cambridge University, its colleges and its splendid chaps in oil paintings. But little has been written about the history of the town in a comprehensive manner. My take is that the exciting stories and events are there – they were written about in the newspapers at the time. (Just don’t believe the claims in the adverts for health-related products!) In particular, journalists turned up to major meetings and court cases, and wrote verbatim who said what – heckles included! Some of the pieces read as deadpan comedy.

There are also essential pieces of information with which to hold current decision makers to account:


A proposed network of segregated cycleways proposed in the 1960s envisaging Cambridge in 2011. From the Cambridgeshire Collection


Unbuilt redeveloped Lion Yard from the 1960s – with large and small music/concert halls


Cambridge Heroes Maud Darwin and Florence Ada Keynes (Former, later Lady Darwin and latter, later Mayor of Cambridge) calling on women to step forward as candidates for local government following Parliament’s lifting of the ban.

010506 Boer War Camb Volunteers

The return of Cambridge volunteers from the Boer War in 1901

010629 Central Library

The old library where Jamie’s Italian now is.

My take is that we as a city need to get better about how we tell and re-tell our shared stories. In particular this goes for dramatising past civic events. One day perhaps we’ll have an archive of civic stories dramatised for theatre and schools so that children grow up with the stories of our city. But there’s still a long way to go to get to that point. The first thing we need to do is to secure the future of our libraries and our archives.

So if you haven’t let your county councillor know how important our libraries and archives are, please email them – (you only need your postcode).




Digitising long forgotten historical documents still in copyright


Trying to work out how much the cost of digitising dozens of long lost dissertations, theses and publications will be – and the first estimate is eye-watering

I asked the county council staff how much it would cost them in order for them to publish, and they quoted me their current standard fee of £5 per page – which seems extortionate. Essentially their rules need updating because otherwise I face a five-figure bill. And that’s before looking to secure consent from the copyright holders.

The county library services online search engine is a temperamental beast at the best of times, but clicking here searching for ‘Study’ I come up with 84 different entries. I described in this Lost Cambridge blogpost how I stumbled across the lists of the studies that historians past had completed and deposited in the Cambridgeshire Collection in Cambridge’s Central Library – many of which have long since been forgotten. And for me therein lies the problem: All that work finding that knowledge has been done, but nothing is being done with it.

Current copyright laws prevent the digitisation of these works in their entirety without the consent of the copyright holder

Those of you who studied an arts/humanities/social science degree will be familiar of the 5% / One chapter photocopying rule. Whereas my take is ***just digitise, publish, publicise and make the damn things searchable***. Especially for the ones that are proper old. Actually, not quite. That would be illegal.

My take is that the digitisation is not something that some random bloke and his dragon should be doing independently: this is an institutional, if not city-wide issue. Overhearing a couple of historian acquaintances discussing all things digitisation revealed that small, independent operations have trouble keeping things online available – for example the costs of maintaining subscriptions. The other thing is that in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather people went to the county archives and got engaged in what they had rather than hitting my blogs and stopping there. Simply because one creates a proper revenue stream for a cash-starved service. And remember I couldn’t do what I do without the existence of the archives and collections.

Why has Cambridgeshire County Council been so slow to monetise and grow the activities of its archives?

This was something I sort of hinted at in my public question to executive councillors today. It was unfortunate that a bad-tempered debate on council expenses followed my question. In response to my question we heard about limited budgets yet in the next one, the Conservative-run council were coming under heavy political fire from their opponents over their decision to vote through significantly increased expense allowances for councillors – in particular executive councillors who, as a result of the recent elections are all Conservatives. It wasn’t the council’s finest hour.

My take is that the council and its archives have a host of buried assets in its archives – in particular its extensive photograph collection. Essentially the archive should have a setup that the Francis Frith Collection has here. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t be beyond the county council to use some of their reserves to invest in digitising then automating the function that would allow people to select the images that they want, and either download or purchase prints through a local third party, meaning that they create an automated revenue stream without the burden of an extensive maintenance operation.

Bigger the better

Given that they have so many negatives and glass lantern slides in their collection, they also have the ability to create fairly detailed large prints which, from my perspective are much more interesting and inspiring, while being more expensive and generate more revenue than smaller prints. Dare I say it, with old large photo prints the people featured in them feel that much more…human. You also have the growth of artists that specialise in providing colour to black and white photographs. It’s a bit of a hit-and-miss thing, but the option is there.

Curating and collating already-digitised works

The Internet Archive based in the USA has already digitised a whole host of works, including:

And those are the ones that stood out in a brief search of ‘Cambridge, England’.

Each of the above books have their own stories to tell. One of the other interesting local publishers is the Oleander Press – a list of their books on Cambridge the town over the decades can be found here. The bookshop Heffers also used to be a publisher – have a look at their list here.

So…in attempting to write a modern history of Cambridge the town, you get an idea of just how much reading material there is for me to plough through.

Minutes of past council meetings – now these *can* be digitised.

I browsed through some of these earlier. From just after the First World War, these minutes – and their contents, were typed. The manuscript minutes are works of art in themselves, the handwriting absolutely beautiful. But not so good for an Optical Character Recognition machine/software. The typescript minutes however become instantly searchable with key words even if you are only scanning the pages of the contents for each year. With that in mind, they are civic gold dust.

But before I get out the cameras and scanners, we need to know where all of these digitised documents would be stored online for people to use. And until we’ve sorted that out, I don’t want to start ploughing through voluntarily scanning things myself, even though doing so would be of huge benefit to me. Learning from scanning the minutes included finding out Florence Ada Keynes as an Alderman (senior councillor) was responsible for elections in Romsey Town – in those days each ward had a returning officer. Also the local park to me, Coleridge Rec (in Coleridge Ward where Puffles stood for election in 2014) was bought by the borough council and secured as a park in 1925. This was after the land – previously fields, was sold off by one of the university colleges for housing Cambridge’s expanding population.


Who’d be a local government reporter?


Some thoughts on the accountability vacuum left by a crumbling local media – and what we could do about it

This post stems from Emily Bell’s column in The Guardian following the Grenfell Tower inferno where we still don’t know – and may never know how many people perished in the fire. The executive councillors for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have rightly come in for criticism – as have ministers over their failures over building regulations. So far, the only person to lose his job is the chief executive of the council concerned. The council leader is said by multiple media outlets to have tendered his resignation but it was refused by councillors.

With so many checks being made on buildings all over the country, what is appalling is how many samples on existing blocks of flats have failed the tests being carried out by Whitehall.

The lobbyists in the construction industry are going to have their work cut out in the next few weeks, explaining to politicians how this happened. I expect senior executives from across the industry will be hauled before Parliament to explain themselves to some very angry MPs….

…which is why MPs need to get their skates on and constitute those committees. Keep an eye on the Communities & local government committee and also the Business, industry & enterprise committee.

The importance of local political and campaigning blogs

It was only because of the Grenfell Action Group blogging at that the mainstream media were able to ask lots of very tough questions to ministers and local councillors. The former had been posting time after time their attempts to get the safety issues resolved. And they were ignored. With fatal consequences. When the mainstream media turned up, locals were understandably angry at having been ignored and took them to task.

Here’s Jon Snow speaking about when he was confronted by residents.

Watching the news coverage and the social media feeds, I got the sense that those reporting on the ground had recognised that residents had them bang to rights, and that the media collectively had failed to report the real and substantive issues.

A plethora of issues raised that all need examining in detail…

Such was the fury of the residents that many in the broadcast media simply pointed camcorders towards those that wanted to have their say and let them get on with it. And what we saw/heard were a host of incredibly well argued, passionate and articulate arguments over a host of issues where state, society, economy (and economic systems) and democracy had all failed. The one policy area that has received a much-deserved existential shock is housing policy.

It would have been unheard of for former senior ministers under Blair and Brown to be calling for the requisitioning of property, but this is what Harriet Harman and a number of Labour MPs called for. But perhaps we should not be surprised as the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 enacted under Blair contains enabling provisions that allow ministers to make regulations for the confiscation of property ***with or without compensation***. (S22 (3) (b) of the CCA 2004).

The importance of local journalism

In Cambridge we’re fortunate to have local reporters who will turn up to local council meetings. Or failing that who will watch video footage of important ones that they were not able to get to. But it’s a thankless task going along to meetings that normally go on for at least two hours if not longer. I’ve sat through them, I’ve filmed them, and at times it can be a soul-destroying function. Especially if no one is paying you for it but you know that your presence/reporting is for the wider civic good. Those who film, blog, live-report from local meetings without pay may never know just how important their work is. The reporters 100+ years ago in Cambridge’s local newspapers could never have known how much of a historical treasure trove they left me with. For example what must have seemed like a quaint little feature in 1930, today reveals just how much the women who shaped modern Cambridge have been ignored – even though the women at the time were household names locally.

In Cambridge, local journalism is of increasing importance because of the amount of money being spent on housing and infrastructure. External scrutiny is an incredibly important role. It’s only in recent times that we’ve been able to stem the flow of people losing interest in local democracy with the advances in social media. Though again I’ve got nothing to compare it to. Is it a case of a larger number of people have become even more interested in local democracy while the rest of the city and beyond have been losing interest? More people see the front pages of the local newspaper than see the tweets or blogposts of those that report on local democracy in an online-only presence.

In my case, I’ve tried to take a few steps back from being an opinionated little so-and-so, and focus more on filming, editing and uploading video footage with the proviso that it is up to the viewers to spot the important bits and take action where they deem it necessary. Being the cameraman, reporter and the activist all in one go is now something beyond my health.

“Big society journalism” isn’t enough

Emily Bell hints at this towards the end of her column – at some stage we’ve got to decide what new model for funding local professional journalism we go for. The BBC have set aside some funding for this, but in the grand scheme of things it is a pittance. Would economies at the top end of the corporation help fund greater expenditure across those areas of the country that lack a strong local media presence? What should the relationship between local independent media and the BBC be? Because accountability matters.




Goatgate and the hung parliament


You know how Puffles never swears?

Puffles swore.

I was expecting a Tory majority of around 60 seats. Anything more and Tory dreamland, anything less than their existing majority and Theresa May would be in trouble. That we’ve ended up with a hung parliament after having such a huge lead in the opinion polls alongside the full on furore of the print media – only the Mirror Group being the only print media group of note supporting Labour as they have done throughout the decades. Today we have seen the Prime Minister calling the whole situation ‘a mess’.

It remains to be seen what sort of deal the Tories can stitch up with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland (whose social policies have already resulted in planned demonstrations in Great Britain – with progressive activists in Northern Ireland wondering what took us so long to catch up with news there), as Parliament returns on Tuesday and the scheduled Queen’s Speech already delayed.

Labour do better than expected

Rather than losing seats, Labour gained a number of seats from the Conservatives and also the Liberal Democrats. It remains to be seen whether the party will unite behind Corbyn. Some on the Progress wing of the party say that with such a weak Conservative administration Labour should have won. Some on the far left wing and beyond (ie outside of the party) are saying that if the Progress wing had been more loyal, Labour would have won. The party’s communications operation is still a liability, making far too many basic errors. The decentralised grassroots campaigning – especially online, was excellent to the extent that they outfoxed the high-spending Conservatives whose online campaigning failed to hit home. What the Conservative strategists forgot is that the messenger counts big time. If political content is shared by a trusted source – a close friend, it’s more likely to have an impact than if it is from a paid advert. Furthermore, Labour activists were sharing content about policies – while the Tories were noticeably policy-lite.


The impact of Corbyn’s success also suppressed both the Liberal Democrats and The Green Party – the latter getting only half as many votes as in 2015 – but still returning Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion with an even bigger majority. UKIP should also be toast with this result – their leader resigning. However, the broadcast media still keep on coming back to them.

The Liberal Democrat rebound fails to materialise

Epitomised by Dr Julian Huppert’s defeat to Daniel Zeichner of Labour by a thumping 13,000 votes, the Liberal Democrats only returned 14 MPs. In my book they needed at least 20 MPs including Dr Huppert alongside several other high profile, up-and-coming, or senior politicians. The loss of Nick Clegg was a massive blow. Fortunately for the party, they have three former ministers – two former Cabinet, returning. Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Jo Swinson will be indispensable to Tim Farron who, in the grand scheme of things couldn’t do much more (other than not get into a tangle about his religion at the start of the campaign). Given the scale of the Labour swing, it’s difficult to see how the party could have stopped this.

Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire


I was at the count at The Guildhall.

Me at The Guildhall, Cambridge

Famous last words – a narrow margin. This is what the other parties were up against on polling day:

They were up at 5am.

…with this lot following up.

The thing is, Julian only lost a couple of thousand votes compared to last time. In one sense that’s the equivalent of the leaving students and researchers that voted for him last time, replaced by students unfamiliar with him.

Lib Dems and Greens fall short, while Conservatives fail to take full advantage of no UKIP candidate

Only around 1,000 voters seemed to switch to the Tories from UKIP – the others either switching to other parties or not at all. There was a higher turnout on a more accurate (and thus smaller) electoral roll – high annual population churn due to the presence of the universities and short term research contracts too.

The Greens collapsed back to their core vote despite a very strong showing by Stuart Tuckwood at the hustings. All of the other candidates paid tribute to the high calibre candidate he was, even though it didn’t reflect in the votes. The problem the Greens have at the moment is they no longer have an active student society working side-by-side with the city party in the way that Labour quite clearly does.

It’s difficult to say why Dr Huppert’s campaign did not secure more votes than last time – especially given city anger over Brexit and Mr Corbyn’s national policy being supportive of Brexit. Mr Zeichner being prepared to go public against national policy both in votes and consistently in public speeches throughout his time as MP (i.e. being against Brexit in principle) meant that he had a response to any accusation from Dr Huppert.

Finally, Dr John Hayward for the Conservatives – who campaigned to leave the EU – was something of a lightning conductor on this issue at the hustings. The public seemed to relish throwing their anger at him and he seemed to enjoy the verbal rough and tumble of the exchanges with his preferred policy being implemented. That said, it meant that the public did not get to see Dr Huppert or Mr Zeichner really going head-to-head on Brexit or other issues.

South Cambridgeshire


Heidi Allen increased both her share of the vote and total number of votes – despite Brexit, which some of us (myself included) thought might cost her. That said, there was an even higher turnout than in 2015 (by 3 percentage points higher). Labour’s Dan Greef added an extra 7,000 votes to his 2015 total, while Susan van de Ven for the Liberal Democrats managed to add 3,000 votes to the Liberal Democrats’ total in 2015 – a low point following the coalition, but still a long way off the 20,000 they polled in 2010.

Again as in Cambridge, Simon Saggers for The Greens saw his vote more than halved as left-of-centre/left-wing voters switched back to the main parties, while UKIP didn’t stand. Yet given demographic change and rapid housing growth, in 15 years time this constituency could well become a marginal (assuming the boundaries are not redrawn).

South East Cambridgeshire


With UKIP not standing and The Greens forming a local progressive alliance with Labour, Huw Jones’ votes rose considerably to over 17,000. Lucy Nethsingha held up the Lib Dems vote from 2015, but it could not stop Lucy Frazer from taking over 50% of the vote with an increased total as well.

Yet the nature of the campaigns and hustings in both South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire show that there is a demand from residents to be more involved in politics. The challenge for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats is whether they can identify where the mini-hotbeds of support are in the south of the county and do some targeted campaigning in future elections.


Which is where we are now, and the crazy afternoon online about whether there was going to be a delay to the Queen’s Speech because of the time it takes to write something on vellum.

Yes – really.

My understanding is that of Caroline’s above. Certainly until very recently it was Acts of Parliament (not Queen’s speeches or other papers) that were printed on vellum.

You can arrange a visit to the archives as I did back in 2004 and see all of these rolls.  The latest word on the matter prior to today was this discussion between the Commons and the Lords. In the grand scheme of things, vellum preserves extremely well – far better than standard paper. Also, you can read it straight off unlike electronic media where you need hardware and software. Digital data stores also degrade over time – floppy disks, hard drives and so on need continuous copying over time.