Civically-minded Cambridge University College Masters


A look back at the example of Professor Howard Marsh of Downing College through newspapers of the time 110 years ago, and a look at today.

Downing College picked up on a tweet I posted via Puffles on a meeting it hosted in 1909.

The screengrabs from the British Newspaper Archive below reveal a number of very high profile supporters for this body called ‘the Provisional Committee’ which organised this meeting to promote the election of women to a range of local organisations. The Provisional Committee is the predecessor of today’s Fawcett Society – this is its archives page in the National Archives.

From the British Newspaper Archive (£)

Professor Howard Marsh – ‘not one of Downing’s best-remembered masters’

“Um…why’s that?”

…was my first reaction upon reading the start of this post on Downing College’s website – even more so given the role of Professor Marsh not just on the issue of Indian students as the article describes, but on more. Note in the list of people at the meeting in the screengrabs above is Mrs Dutt – Anna Palme, the Swedish wife of Dr Updendra Dutt, a surgeon on Mill Road who saved countless lives in that part of town. Their son, Rajani, who went to the Perse, would go onto become one of the most prominent of British communists in the 20th century.

The archives tell us that from the late 1800s Indian students would become a familiar site in Cambridge. The article below – again from the British Newspaper Archive shows the Cambridge Moslim (sic) Association meeting at the University Arms Hotel. The association was founded by Quilliam in 1901.

100617 Cambridge Moslim Association - Muslims in Cambridge

From the British Newspaper Archive, note Professor Marsh is listed as attending this meeting alongside the Mayor of Cambridge at the University Arms Hotel – one of the most prestigious hotels in Cambridge both then (and when it re-opens in a few months time…) now. One other area where you get a feel for the number of international citizens living and or studying in Cambridge is in the list of convictions – in particular for cycling and motoring offences.

020808 Muslim Student no bike light

Cambridge undergraduate Mr Khan of St John’s College, fined for cycling without a light. The article below – an example of another meeting at the University Arms Hotel also attended by Professor Marsh gives an indication

090820 AngloOrientalCollege University Arms

It wasn’t just in that field that we find Professor Marsh active. We also find the newspaper archives showing that he kept an interest in health and social issues in Cambridge, reflecting his medical background. (His wiki page is here). In 1906 we find him active at Addenbrooke’s.

061026 Howard Marsh Downing Addenbrookes

Before the NHS, in those days Addenbrooke’s got much of its funding from voluntary donations and charitable events such as church parades. Just as it has funding issues today (for which I blame Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt in particular), Addenbrooke’s had funding crises before then as this article shows. Note Howard Marsh is mentioned on the bottom-right of the screen-grab.

One other organisation that Professor Marsh hosted at Downing was the British Women’s Temperance Association.

020801 Womens Temperance Association Downing College

It’s easy to forget today, but the temperance movement 110 years ago was ***massive***. In Cambridge as elsewhere, they ran their own cafes and small hotels – including one on Market Hill and one on Mill Road.

From the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive and the BNA, there are numerous examples of temperance events and social gatherings, many based around church-based movements. In Professor Marsh’s time, Cambridge was a very different place to what we know today. Eglantyne Jebb’s 1906 study provides incredible detail of just how bad things were with both public health and public drinking in Cambridge.

The archives also show that Professor Marsh and his second wife, Violet Hay (his first wife, Jane Perceval having died in 1896) were active in the public health and social movements in Cambridge as well. They took an interest in the care of people with mental health problems and learning disabilities – noting that this was around the time of the big Royal Commission on ‘the care and control of the feeble-minded‘ <- digitised here, it’s 600 pages and was a ground-breaking report for its time. So dense was that report that former mayor Horace Darwin, his wife Ida Darwin (who we named a hospital after), future mayor Florence Ada Keynes (The Mother of Modern Cambridge), Professor Pigou and others, wrote this summary on the Royal Commission’s report.

Both Professor Marsh and his wife Violet were members of the Cambridge branch of the National League for Physical Improvement – the latter being the hon. secretary. Both were also on the committee of the Cambridge Charity Organisation Society – which means they will have been familiar with both Florence Ada Keynes, Mary Paley Marshall, and Eglantyne Jebb.

“What makes Howard Marsh significant?”

As a college master, the newspaper archives tell us that he didn’t sit back and live a life of high table dinners, expensive wines and posh receptions in opulent surroundings. (A stereotype – but something that is very easy to slip into in Cambridge if you get into that bubble). It’s a life that is completely separate – and almost unknown to the townfolk of Cambridge who grow up under the shadow of, but locked out of the institutions that make up Cambridge University. Professor Marsh is the first and earliest example I have found so far, of a college master who fully engaged himself in the life of the town as well as that of his college and the university. In those days, Addenbrooke’s Hospital was where the Judge Institute is today – round the back of Downing College. He also threw open the facilities and grounds of his college for town society events.

“How does that compare with the college masters of today?”

Good question. I’ve not really looked into it so I’m not going to go about throwing baseless accusations.

Recently, there was a public fundraiser organised by the musical duo The Broccoli King to raise money to combat homelessness in Cambridge. Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdelene College gave the opening speech.

Dr Rowan Williams at Great St Mary’s, Cambridge.

One of our local town history societies, the Mill Road History Society (you can’t get much more ‘town’ than Mill Road) has one very eminent college master and his wife as members. Yet the nature of Cambridge is that people with current or former high profiles can get on with their lives here and at the same time play a positive role in local civic societies without the media flashbulbs going off.

College Masters blocking industrial sprawl

It wasn’t just the masters – it was a cross-city alliance that blocked the rapid industrial growth of Cambridge through a public fund raising campaign for the Cambridge Preservation Society – today Cambridge Past, Present and Future. This link has a summary of their achievements. The newspaper archives listed who had donated what.

390414 CambridgePPF Donations

Partial list of donors to the Cambridge Preservation Society – today Cambridge PPF.

In that partial list, we see some huge names donating. Marshall’s Flying School – part of the family that owns and runs the airport, C H (Harold) Tetley of the tea firm, and Heffers the bookselling family. Professor Pigou gets a mention, as does Lady Maud Darwin, another prominent campaigner for equal rights – in particular for women police officers in Cambridge. Further down that list, the masters of St John’s, and Gonville & Caius donated one pound and one shilling each – the same amount as the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society.

“So…there is precedence of town and gown working together for the good of the city?”

Yes – that’s the legacy that is continued today by Cambridge Past, Present and Future

The question I’d love to see more college members and alumni put to their college decision makers is this:

“What would your decisions and actions be if the whole of the city mattered to our institution?”

Because the students seem to be leading the way – in particular the Cambridge Hub. Here’s a video I made for them a year ago.

During my childhood growing up in Cambridge, outside of the trainee teachers from Homerton College doing school placements, I can’t recall Cambridge University students and academics having much of an impact on our lives at all. In a single generation there has been a huge change – but still a long way to go.

“Who are the current college masters?”

They are listed here –  a number of people who have had very high profiles in the past. Rowan Williams being one, Former Labour Culture Secretary Chris Smith another, and Bridget Kendall, the former BBC Diplomatic Correspondent all being examples.

I guess from a ‘bring town & gown together for the benefit of the city’ perspective, I see the potential role of college masters as being similar to the example set by Professor Howard Marsh. ie one of facilitation, of bringing people and institutions together, and being the host of events where participants from across the city can speak truth to power. Professor Sir Brian Heap did exactly this at an event in Cambridge at Emmanuel United Reformed Church on Trumpington Street a few years ago on the issue of food security. It was a cross town-gown audience of parishioners who did not pull their punches when grilling the two corporate representatives on the panel. Sir Brian sided with the audience – in particular when he felt a question had not been answered properly.

College masters as custodians not just of the colleges, but of our city and surrounds as well

One of the most difficult examples of where the interests of a college and the interests of the wider city clash is what to do with Hobson Street. I wrote a blogpost about it here where half of the eastern side of Hobson Street is taken up by Christ’s College’s very high brick wall next to a narrow pavement, killing off any decent views of the magnificent building housing Lloyds Bank on the west side. What was the old headquarters for the county council – the County Hall of 1913 (and due to the war and expansion of the state, found to be too small) ultimately found itself in the hands of Christ’s College – one of several examples of previously public buildings and areas being bought out by the colleges and taken out of public use. St John’s College’s developments on Bridge Street in the 1930s, St Catherine’s College’s takeover of The Bull Inn on King’s Parade after the Second World War are other examples.

As Cambridge inevitably expands, something is going to have to give as far as space in the centre of town is concerned. Are the college masters able and willing to play their part in facilitating what inevitably will be difficult conversations with local and national government – and with the people who make up the city of Cambridge? (Which for me also includes those that commute in to work, regular visitors and those staying here to study).


Why local newspapers matter – Cambridge’s perspective


On the trials and tribulations of declining local newspapers in the face of ‘that’ front page in the Cambridge News

Picture the scene:

Media Mogul: “You there! Minion! Write me something for today’s front page that is guaranteed to go viral!”

Journalist: Um…but sir, social media doesn’t work that way – you can’t guarantee something will be popular

Media Mogul: “I don’t want to hear any excuses – we are a ‘can-do’ organisation, you understand me?!?!”

Journalist: But you’re asking for the impossible

Media Mogul: “Nothing is impossible in this organisation! I want to see the results first thing in the morning – or I’ll hire someone to replace you!”

Journalist: Guaranteed to go viral it is!


Me in the Cambridge Guildhall cafe with what will become a special collector’s edition.

After the tweets of incredulity had subsided by the mid-morning, a very interesting thing happened in journalism social media circles: Many people started speaking out, saying that this was a consequence of huge staff cuts by the parent company of the Cambridge News, Trinity Mirror.

The full thread by BBC News journalist Alice Hutton (who was previously at the Cambridge News several years before) is here. It is damning of Trinity Mirror and the previous short-term owners. As the exchange below shows, concern about the business practices of Trinity Mirror are not new, as the digital publishing director of Trinity Mirror, David Higgerson states:

Now, concerns about the decline of local newspapers is not new. It’s been a problem that the entire industry has been struggling with for many years. Even when you look at the history of local newspapers across towns and cities, you’ll find the rise and fall of a number of different papers as they tried to adapt to a changing world. These ranged from changing printing technologies to how to incorporate photographs to how to interact with new technologies such as the radio and television through to changing legal frameworks on things like false advertising claims and laws on libel and defamation.

Now, I could make this blogpost a hatchet job about how ‘orrible Trinity Media’s cuts have been on the Cambridge News. But given that I’ve never worked inside a newspaper organisation before, I’ll leave such things to those with experience of working in the organisation.

The bit that I’m interested in is much bigger than what happened in Cambridge, and bigger than the decline of a medium of publishing. Collectively in our neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities, we’ve got to ask how we the people communicate with our institutions and each other.

“You’ve blogged about this before”

21 months ago to be precise. Given the recent conferences on Cambridge’s future, one massive gap in the conferencing circuit is all about interacting with the people that make up the city of Cambridge. I’ve always worked with the definition that anyone who lives, works, studies, commutes in and/or visits Cambridge regularly, makes up our city. That comes with rights and responsibilities – but unless we have structures, systems and processes in our institutions that incentivise people to take on both willingly, we’ve got our work cut out to improve Cambridge with the consent of the people.

“But we’ve got our media outlets, haven’t we?”

The overall structure of our media in and around Cambridge does not match the ambitions that (in particular) national politicians have for us. Sticking our heads in the sand and trying to preserve the whole place as some sort of historic theme park won’t cut it in the face of so many people/organisations with far too much money trying to make even more out of ‘brand Cambridge’. As I’ve said before, Cambridge has a global brand but is run as if it is a large market town.


The above is the state of public administration in Cambridge because no government since the mid-1970s have had the courage to initiate much-needed local government reform. The structure of district/county councils in Cambridgeshire is the same as in the mid-1970s – with the bodged sticking plasters of the other institutions taped on by clueless ministers in recent years. To his credit, the first elected county mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, James Palmer (Conservative) has made a much better go of the role than many people – myself included thought. I still remain of the view that Cambridge and surrounding wards need to become a single, powerful unitary council with much more legal and financial powers.

“What has the above got to do with the media?”

Everything. How is a local newspaper run on a shoe-string budget supposed to scrutinise the functions of local democracy? The Cambridge News has a reputation for appointing journalists with huge potential to the post of local government correspondent – currently Josh Thomas, with his two immediate predecessors finding themselves in London working for national news organisations having earned good reputations in Cambridge. (Jon Vale, now at the Press Association, and Chris Havergal of the Times Higher Education Supplement).

“So…how do they cover all of those meetings?”

Me and Richard Taylor – who regularly film public meetings help. It means that when there are meeting clashes (of which there are ***lots*** in Cambridge), local newspaper reporters can simply watch the footage and provide short summaries. When such videos are embedded into local newspaper websites, I find the number of views of such videos quadruples. But…it doesn’t pay my bills. Or Richard’s.

“So…how do you pay for rent, gas and the electric?”

By having moved back into the house of Mum and Dad after jumping off of the metaphorical plank in the civil service when the Coalition wielded the axe to public services all over the country. Thus in effect my family is subsidising local democracy reporting and scrutiny in and around Cambridge. Much as I’m grateful for all of the people who say my filming is essential, the structure of our economy means that many of us doing these essential things cannot make ends meet without subsidy from someone. This, in my view is not sustainable.

Note the other reason why I boomeranged back to the house of Mum & Dad is because of illness. I never did recover from my mental health crisis of 2012 (See here, then here). I can only work part-time hours and inevitably need to be flexible when health or medication means I have to spend a day zombied out in bed. It’s why I’d never be able to apply for something like this scheme the BBC is financing – the vacancies of which have just gone out. Note most of the funded posts are going to a very small number of local media groups. Only one of those 150 posts I’ve found will be based in Cambridge – interestingly enough with the Cambridge News. (Interested? Apply here).

“So…what is the answer?”

A number of community activists across and beyond Cambridge have been ***incredibly supportive*** of my filming – mainly members and supporters of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations. Their support means that important speeches given by prominent politicians – such as the one below by Mayor James Palmer to residents in West Cambridge (below), can be seen by the rest of the city and the county.

Keynote speech: Mayor James Palmer speaking to over 200 people at Cambridge Rugby Club in Sept 2017 – commissioned by the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations.

They also help me with lifts to and from venues that are not served well (or at all) by public transport.


By just browsing through these slides by Julian Matthews of Trinetizen Media, which I found through a simple online search for ‘journalism essentials’, you see in writing what a number of journalists over the years have re-enforced as basic principles of good journalism. That doesn’t mean all journalists are good eggs, nor does it mean that news organisations will behave responsibly. Just look at what Leveson uncovered. The problem with community reporters such as myself is we’ve not been through a process where we’ve had those essential principles taught to us. At the same time, when an institution is behaving unco-operatively regarding media access, we’ve got no one senior to act on our behalf – such as an editor or a representative of a trade union/professional body. The result on my part is that I don’t break down doors for access or seek confrontation. I’m not cut out for it. The only exclusives you’ll get from me are where I just happen to be filming at a meeting where either something interesting happens or an unexpected comment or announcement happens.

Broken feedback loops

This is one of the biggest issues for me: There seems to be a broken feedback loop in the example of the Cambridge News with what people are feeding back, what people are clicking on online, and what/how many people are buying which editions. For example there are stories/features/clickbait on the Cambridge News Facebook Page that are digital only, while some of the print articles have now started featuring what people are feeding back to the newspaper in response to controversial pieces. Some of these can cause unnecessary irritation – especially if it results in angry social media users throwing online brickbats at community groups and campaigning organisations. Just ask the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. I’ve lost count of the number of time angry men have posted assuming the CCC is responsible for the behaviour of every single cyclist in the city.

What should – or could a funding model look like for media in and around Cambridge, and what should the feedback loops be like?

It’s a difficult one, because the people or institutions contributing to whatever funding pool there is won’t like being the target of a bad news story or negative publicity.

Assuming you accept the principle of the licence fee, the BBC’s model goes some way but puts too much resource into the hands of too few media groups. For a city we’re continually told is making £Squillions, perilously little of it seems to make its way back into making the city function properly.

Having the people taking ownership (in more ways than one) of their media

This is sort of the community radio model, for example with Cambridge 105. The funding model Cambridge 105 uses is described here. Part of their model involves voluntary subscriptions – have a look here. Their suggested figure is £10 per month, which sounds more than reasonable given the support they give to our local music scene and community events. I could not imagine the Strawberry Fair in Cambridge without the Cambridge 105 Stage.

Does local ownership matter?

Depends how deep the pockets of the local owner/s are. In one sense, local ownership means there is a stronger relationship of accountability between the journalists and the area a publication serves. On the other hand, being part of a large corporation means you are nominally more stable in the face of big local shocks. But then you’re also at greater risk to the whims of a new executive based far away who may want to make an identical change across an entire fleet of local papers.

Could a local independent media trust model work?

It could do – where there is a ‘firewall’ between those contributing financially to the trust  and those applying for funding from the trust. This could be a fixed term contract as a correspondent in a particular field through to having a call-off contract arrangement with freelance reporters such as myself and Richard to film local democracy meetings. Furthermore, such a trust could work in a manner some independent media organisations work where mainstream media using footage and reports would pay into the trust to use.

Such a model – especially in Cambridge, could allow the funding of specialist correspondents given the nature of society and the local economy. For example an industrial correspondent in Cambridge under such a model would need to have a different set of qualifications/experiences vs an industrial correspondent based in an industrial area with a large petrochemicals industry. Again, picking specialist correspondents matters.

Given the number of classical music concert posters that are dotted about all over Cambridge, this saddens me. Given how central music is to arts and culture in Cambridge, I’d like to think that this is a wake up call to those involved in classical music in Cambridge regarding encouraging new audiences to get involved.

There are a few hard truths coming into play on all things local news and local democracy.

  • Things that we regard as essential to a functioning democracy may not be the things that private firms can make a profit from, but are also ones that we don’t want the state in control of or even funding.
  • We have to come up with an alternative funding model and structure regarding how our communities communicate with their institutions and each other.
  • Social media means we’re blurring the lines between what we once saw as standalone mediums of publication. Print, radio/audio, TV, online/realtime – journalists are now expected to be able to do all of these.

So Cambridge, how do we respond?

3-D animations bringing #LostCambridge to life. A 21st Century Cambridge Museums project?


Looking and learning from archivist Hannah Rice at East Riding, Cambridge has huge potential to combine archives with 3-D.

I was following the hashtag #DCDC17 where the great and the good from the archives community seemed to be. I confess that it’s only in recent times that I’ve become interested in archives – in part because it took so long for me to get my head around how to actually use them properly.

Archives are complicated creatures

I use that term deliberately – for *archives* are living and breathing institutions that have the archivists as their beating hearts and buzzing brains that make them function. It’s easy to dismiss or stereotype archivists as people who don’t like to be disturbed/don’t like daylight/don’t like human contact – you’ve seen it in a movie somewhere. This is why I think it’s a dangerous thing to go about cutting funding for our civic archives – a point I’ve told councillors at Cambridgeshire County Council on more than one occasion.

Asking a public question to the county council – you can do it too

Part of the challenge for historians and researchers such as myself is to turn the information that is hidden away in archives and present them to the public. That or get them into a format where creatives can turn the content into something engaging and exciting for the general public – something more interesting than a blogpost such as the ones I post on LostCambridge.

In and around Cambridge, one of the best examples of turning history into something far more engaging than text, is with Helen Weinstein’s organisation HistoryworksTV. Very recently I went to one of her workshops for the Mill Road Winter Fair 2017.

The story of the railways coming to Cambridge is told in their Creating Cambridge project here – featuring the legendary children’s author Michael Rosen.

In terms of bringing history to life, have a look at this showreel from HistoryWorks.

Lesson: To bring history to a wider audience, you’ve got to do more than just write about it. I gave it a shot last year on Cambridge – the shaping of our city.

3-D animations and history

I noticed that Hannah Rice was getting excellent feedback on Twitter with her presentation.

Early on in the stream, I spotted this tweet.

Now, Cambridge has Castle Hill without a proper castle on it.

Yet the archives tell us that we once had a castle on the site. I’ve also gone on record saying that Cambridge should rebuild the castle as part of an expanded Museum of Cambridge, with an expensive cafe-bar on the rooftop to have splendid views of the city while charging a lot of money for the drinks so that it pays for itself. Again, I tabled this in a public question to Cambridgeshire County Council who have promised to examine the idea. Being able to put the idea into a 3-D visualisation would make this so much easier for others to imagine what I have in mind. Hence my interest in Hannah’s presentation. Hence:

…followed shortly after by a post to some of Cambridge’s museums community

…noting that 3-D visualisation could link past with future as at

Cambridge’s archives are full of photos and plans of some wonderful long lost buildings, a few of which I featured in this blogpost.

“It’s all just old masonry, isn’t it?”

This is where the 100th anniversary of Votes for Women [who were property owners] comes in. (Full suffrage isn’t achieved for another decade). At the moment, Cambridge City Council are working with a number of organisations and colleges on this.

It was from both the gathering above, and from the HistoryWorks rehearsal that something clicked around getting the archive materials together in a manner that creatives, community activists and children & students in particular can then use and create something that will engage far greater audiences.

The 3-D animation/simulation isn’t just about recreating the streets that the likes of Florence Ada Keynes and Eglantyne Jebb would have walked down in their lifetimes in Cambridge. I’m not going to pretend I know what’s possible because I’ve never really done anything with 3D on a computer in recent years. (Trying to design a kitchen using early CAD on ACORN computers in the mid-1990s for GCSE Information Systems doesn’t really count!).

My imagination beyond the buildings-that-won’t-get-built (eg a new massive concert hall named after Florence Ada Keynes) doesn’t go much further than huge portraits or frescoes of the women that made modern Cambridge. Personally I think the big portraits in The Guildhall’s large hall should be replaced by new paintings of our civic heroes of the 20th Century. That plus commissioning paintings of the groups of women together. For example one of Eva Hartree, Leah Manning and Frida Stewart together as anti-fascist fighters. (Eva and Leah’s story is here, and Frida’s story is here).

But back down to earth…an addition to my task list is to find who would be the best contact/organisation to put Hannah Rice in touch with in order to invite her down to present on what she showcased at the #DCDC17 event today.

The journey from Cambridge Station into town


Trying to solve a problem that Cambridge has had ever since Cambridge University decided that having the railway station away from the town centre would be a good idea.

This was a problem created in the early-mid 19thC and just goes to show that with big infrastructure, if you get things wrong the problems and symptoms will stick around for many generations to come.

It didn’t have to be that way – as Reginald B Fellows showed in his book above, there were many other possible sites for a railway station (before the town expanded) that could have been used. My favourite one was the proposal that opened onto Parker’s Piece, where the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre now is.

So we got the one at the end of Station Road instead. The history of the railway station has been written extensively here by Darren Kitson – well worth a read for anyone who wants a historical context of the issues around the railway station today.

The walk from the railway station down station road to the town centre down Hills Road & Regent Street has never been the nicest. Ditto the cycle ride. In the past I’ve always taken a back route by bike. So on 25 November 2017 a number of local organisations got together to come up with ideas on how to improve things. Following a history talk that I gave to a local history group on the Women who made modern Cambridge, I turned up to film the presentations from the participants.

Hobson’s Choice – an alternative route for tourists, starting at the railway station and finishing up outside King’s College Chapel on King’s Parade.

The playlist of videos from all of the participants is here. With several of the participants being postgraduate students from abroad, or people who had only recently moved to Cambridge, their insights into what was missed by us locals was particularly interesting.

171126 Bland Hills Road Hack Cambridge

From Team Atkins <<– Click on the link to see the full video.

The above screenshot is damning of the architecture of the past half-century or so. Not least because of the buildings that have been demolished over that time period.


The old Wesleyan Church – demolished to make way for an anonymous office block – along with the House of Commons Pub next to it. Courtesy, Museum of Cambridge Archive


The beautiful Rattee and Kett workshop on the corner of Station Road. The demolition of this for Kett House in my view is an architectural crime against our civic history. Photo from the Cambridge Evening News Archive.

“Isn’t the easiest way to improve the walk into town to widen the pavements?”

It isn’t as straight forward as that – for a start which way do you widen the pavements? Narrow the road or buy up land/buildings to make way for a wider pavement? My take is that there are parts of Hills Road where the pavement can be widened through buying up land on the east side of the road. But some of the buildings – including the old Globe Pub (now a tapas bar) open out directly onto a narrow pavement. Making the pavement wider would involve either the demolition, or the major alteration of such buildings in order to create an overhang – not the most pleasing of solutions by any-means.

The winners are in the video below

In terms of implementation of any of the ideas, I note that walking has hardly been mentioned as a means of reducing congestion in Cambridge – noting that the ‘wayfinding’ theme was aimed at promoting solutions to encourage walking. See also Smarter Cambridge Transport on a Cambridge Walking Map here.

Cambridge’s problems are predominantly to do with public administration – and the structure of it.


The above is from Smarter Cambridge Transport, and shortly after this was published I wrote a blogpost about why the structure of local councils in and around Cambridge means that the city cannot have nice things. Since then, the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough has committed to a review of the structure of local government, which if I recall correctly reports back by the end of 2017 or in early 2018. Until local government is restructured and we get a legally and financially competent municipal council  that is also properly accountable to its citizens, everything else will be touching at the edges.


Local history in song – Mill Road Winter Fair 2017

Every year I make a video medley for it. Last year’s one is below:


On Sunday I went along to the rehearsal for a performance of Rhythm, Rhyme and Railways – all about the history of the coming of the railways to Cambridge. They will be giving a performance at the Mill Road Winter Fair on Saturday 02 December at 11am at St Philip’s Church by the Co-op near Coleridge Road, Romsey Town. (Sometimes known as the People’s Republic of Romsey given the strong left-wing views of past councillors and activists. It even has t-shirts.)

The rehearsal was a bit of a workout for those of us not physically fit, as well as being a challenge for those of us that cannot sing while doing choreographed dance moved that involve thinking at the same time. (I.e. Me). The project is a combination of work by HistoryWorksTV and Stagecoach Performing Arts in Cambridge.

The women who made modern Cambridge

Some of you will be familiar with my research on this – I gave another talk on this trying to join up more of the dots between the women who transformed our city from the late Victorian era up until the Second World War. The audience, all of them alumni from one of Cambridge’s colleges described the presentation as “enthralling” and “compelling”. If your local group would like to commission a presentation on what these heroes of Cambridge did, email me – antonycarpen[at]gmail[dot]com.

How do I tell people about…?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Does filming local council meetings have any impact?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The main screen-grabs are below.

You can read the full report at

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

Poor quality video footage

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

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

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

Serious question.

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

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

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

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

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

A positive post-bus vision for Hobson Street


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

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

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

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

Waterstones opens a new ground floor cafe

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


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

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

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

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


See the article at

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

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

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


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


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

“Can it be improved?”

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you change the culture in Cambridge?”

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

“Walking maps for tourists and visitors?”

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

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

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

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

Are there other streets that could be transformed by pedestrianisation?

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

350316 STDMoon cartoon motorists road signs and fines

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

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



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


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

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

As the event text states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the recommendations from Mr Walton above.

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

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

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

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

Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s scrutiny in action

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

Have a look at the documents for yourself here.

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

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

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

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

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

How do we fund and support our civic organisations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

350105 Guildhall designs cartoon pleasing everyone

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

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

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

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

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

The piecemeal changes to Cambridge’s residential neighbourhoods


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Cambridge’s magic pixie dust

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

CEG Kings College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cambridge needs a ‘second centre’ – but where?

Cambridge sits within a triangle of dual carriageways/motorways

Cambridge M11A14A11 triangle

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

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

Where not to build

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

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

The above from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

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

But our system of local public administration remains a mess


From Smarter Cambridge Transport/Edward Leigh.

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

Expanding the Museum of Cambridge


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cramped site with no where to expand?


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

Museum of Cambridge Castle Hill Satellite

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

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

Cambridge Castle Hill from air southwards

From Britain From Above –

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


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

A new, civic historical square for Cambridge?

That’s my vision.

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


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

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

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

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