Re: Creating the disruptive digital archive by John Sheridan of National Archives


Wrestling with digital archiving at a local level – in a very unique city

A couple of blogposts have been posted on digital archiving of late. This one on the hidden costs of digitising archives, via The Fitzwilliam Museum is sobering reading,  while the head of The National Archives in the UK, John Sheridan writes about their digital strategy.

“Yes, but you’re in Cambridge and Cambridge is loaded and the streets are paved with gold so it’s not like Cambridge has a problem…is it?”

Let’s get this straight: ***Cambridge is not just a university***

If we were to get all town-vs-gown about it, Cambridge University is only there because us townies say they can be there. We took them in when they fled the other place because we are ***nice***. (We did the same when the Belgians fled The Kaiser in WWI, and our first woman Mayor of Cambridge, Mayor Eva Hartree welcomed refugees fleeing from the fascist dictators while UK newspaper proprietors were hob-nobbing with them.

Actually, it’s more serious than that. We’re living in a time where The University of Cambridge is in the process of raising £2bn while our defunct system of 2-tier councils cannot afford to pave the roads and pavements properly. Homes in my childhood neighbourhood, built as family homes in the inter-war period are hitting London prices – a 3-bed semi in Coleridge Ward (which gave Puffles 89 votes in the city council elections in 2014) won’t sell for less than half a million pounds. Which is stupid-crazy-stupid.

“Can’t you just ask Cambridge University for some spare cash? After all, one undergraduate has got money to burn – literally”

A negative stereotype hitting the headlines due to the stupidity of one individual. What the news wasn’t reporting were all of the students in Cambridge collecting donations, food and drinks, then going out to take food to the homeless on cold, wet, dark evenings out of sight of the media lenses. I saw them with my own eyes on my way back from various meetings and events – and still see them now, long after the storm has gone away. The real 21st Century Cambridge is one where town and gown unite and work together to solve the shared problems of our city – as wonderfully demonstrated by the Cambridge Hub.

“What’s this got to do with archives?”

That level of co-operation hasn’t yet reached our archives – and as a city we’ve got more than most inside our civic boundaries.

“Ask the University for some cash and job done!”

If only it was as simple as that.

“Isn’t it?”


For a start, nominally we have two civic public archives: The Cambridgeshire Collection on the third floor of the central library, and the County Archives. Then there is the Cambridge and County Folk Museum – now called the Museum of Cambridge.

I’ve been speaking to a number of people in the local history scene and it’s clear that our civic museums and archives are being run on an absolute shoe-string. It’s testament to the work of the people volunteering and working in the sector in the face of such cuts to their resources that they can keep things going. Digitising anything is the last of the priorities at the moment – and I don’t blame them. Part of the problem is political, part of it is cultural.

“Politicians again?”

While the people of Cambridgeshire continue to vote for politicians that prioritise council tax freezes or cuts ahead of public services, the consequences are inevitable – especially in the face of Whitehall cuts – something tweeted by Labour’s Cllr Dave Baigent (although he made a typo with the year).

If I were a party political type, I’d have that statistic plastered up over every other billboard across the county – in particular in those rural areas struggling with the cuts. But I’m no, so there.

Fortunately, someone in Cambridge far wiser and more sensible than I will ever be, summarised the challenge for voters, councillors and council officers.

The basis of all social life is co-operation, and it is certainly the basis of our local government. In the council itself, it calls for co-operation between voluntary committees and expert officers. This is a matter of careful adjustment, possible only to a people with a real faculty for self-government. It calls also for co-operation between the electors and those whom they return to their local parliament. This can be best exercised by a vigilance that is not mere fault-finding but supplies constructive criticism and occasionally goes so far as to mark its appreciation of honest effort for the good of the community

The above quotation was from Mayor Florence Ada Keynes in her mayoral acceptance speech in November 1932, courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection. Basically, tax rises are not without consequences (neither are cuts). She goes on further.

“Underlying the many subjects to which the Council will have to give anxious attention during the year, is the expenditure of public money with that true economy which avoids waste and parsimony.”

I’ve given Mayor Keynes the title: The Mother of Modern Cambridge. She arrived as an undergraduate at Newnham College in the early 1880s. At that time Cambridge University constables were still throwing women they thought might be sex workers into their own prison (until 17 year old hero Daisy Hopkins stood her ground and metaphorically castrated the Vice Chancellor), and the town suffered from multiple deprivation on its doorstep – as another Cambridge Hero and the best MP we never had, Eglantyne Jebb (Mayor Keynes’ mentee, who founded Save The Children) wrote in her epic 1906 study, cited our town’s infant mortality rate as being 1:8 (as opposed to about 3:1,000 today). When she died, she left us with the record of being the first woman councillor, second woman mayor, first woman magistrate, and gave us the Guildhall in Market Square, resolving an 80 year dispute about what to do for a new guildhall. Oh – and her son, John Maynard Keynes gave Cambridge the Arts Theatre.

“What’s that got to do with digital archiving?”

The funding is political. If people want their local archives to be looked after, someone’s got to pay for it. Hence why I’ve taken the issue to full council.

Interestingly my line of questioning got cross-party support

The council’s written response is here.

The problem is that our local archives are in no position to digitise, let alone commercialise the resources that they have. Think of all of the old photographs of the streets of Cambridge they could digitise and sell digital copies of, just as the Francis Frith Collection has done here.

Interestingly, Mr Sheridan of the National Archives hints at an answer.

Collaboration between archives and other memory institutions is essential as we move forward. We’re looking forward to further contributing to the Digital Preservation Coalition (which is a national treasure!), sharing what we’re doing, learning from others, and working together.

The above is from Mr Sheridan’s final paragraph of his blogpost.

From my perspective with their equipment, expertise and resources, the University of Cambridge’s Library (The UL) is in a unique place to be the lead organisation for digitising Cambridge’s civic history – which is a shared history for better or worse. When I tabled the idea of such a project in a public Q to the Vice Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz at Homerton College recently, he remained non-committal (as he had to be in such a situation).

Given that Cambridgeshire County Council – who are responsible for our civic archives – have their four-yearly elections coming up in on 04 May 2017, now is the perfect opportunity to make this an election issue – niche an issue as it is.

But it will be a very, very long time before Cambridge – and other local civic archives are in a place to become second generation digital archives that Mr Sheridan talks of. That’s not his fault. That responsibility lies with politicians elected to public office. And perhaps collectively too with the rest of us responsible for electing them.

On supporting and growing community reporting


Including how to take community reporting and democracy education offline

Some of you will have seen my pleas for support for my community reporting and also historical research in and around Cambridge (Even though the button says ‘Buy now’)


…because freedom isn’t free, and neither is scrutinising democracy. Hence why I welcome the work of local journalists (i.e. the qualified ones) like Josh Thomas of the Cambridge News who stayed at Cambridge Guildhall till about 1am to report on the Cambridge City Council budget debate. I called it a night after 10pm – a good four hours after the meeting started. (See the playlist of videos here). Mr Thomas stayed for the whole seven hours – as did your councillors. In a nutshell, if budgets don’t get passed, bins don’t get collected and the councils get taken over by Whitehall commissioners.

There’s also Ben Comber of the Cambridge Independent, alongside Hannah Olsson of BBC Cambridgeshire who between the three of them cover as much as they can on local politics. They are the trained professionals – of which we have fewer and fewer of due to cuts to local journalism resulting from changing viewing/reading habits.

“How do you/we support independent journalism and community reporters?”

My thinking on this stems from a bit of a Twitterspat last night which upset a number of you online and off. I won’t link to it, but one of the reasons I kept going before blocking is that I’m interested in the concept of people following journalists that they rate, as opposed to the news organisations that they work for. There are some journalists who I will stop what I’m doing to read what they’ve posted (eg The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman), while there might be other writers for the same publication or organisation whose output I consider to be little short of carbon and/or oxygen thievery.

At the independent end, Laurie Penny has raised a significant amount of support for her work. She’s the first person I’ve become aware of who has reached that significant level of crowd-sourced independent financial support to free herself from the restrictions of editors and managers – and thus has the freedom to follow wherever the evidence leads her to.

“Is the model difference for hyperlocal journalists and community reporters?”

I don’t consider myself a journalist because I’m not qualified in the field. What I have is extensive work experience in the field that I comment and report on. In Cambridge too, community reporters bounce off our qualified and salaried counterparts and vice-versa. Sometimes this might as small as a retweet on a feed, to inclusion in a live online website news feed (See the Cambridge News on the council budget here). It might result in a prominent newspaper article (such as described here) through to being an interviewee on TV or radio.


(This is why you always ask people you are filming to spell out their names alphabetically before interviewing them – forget to do so and they can end up spelling your name wrong – as the BBC did with my surname here).

Note with the broadcast media, they have to be balanced in their political coverage. With limited broadcast time, quite often it’s better for them to go to a non-party-political informed voice (i.e. someone who is either an expert in the field or someone who has followed the news item/subject area in detail).

Women are under-represented as commenters/interviewees in the media in many fields. Therefore the BBC has launched a scheme to get more women involved. Have you specialised in any of the subjects/themes listed here? If so, email because in Cambridgeshire at least, we need far more women providing expert analysis on all things local government and more. I would rather listen to you than hear the sound of my own voice!

“How do you hold accountable freelance or independent reporters?”

I have an informal agreement with the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations to film meetings of the Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire Local Plan, and meetings of the Greater Cambridge City Deal Assembly and Board meetings. Where I am paid to film something, I declare it in the description on the videos, and also assign the intellectual property to them as commissioners rather than to me. This means that if any third parties want to use the footage, they need to acknowledge the people that paid me to do the filming and editing.

For those of you that have contributed financially to support me, first of all

***Thank you***

Secondly, I’ve also been thinking about some offline gatherings – not least to share what I’ve learnt filming and observing on your behalf. Furthermore, one of the things that is broken in the mainstream media is feedback loops. At a local level, dealing with that broken loop is much easier than at a national or international level. Not least because you are much more likely to know who supports you on a personal level. Interestingly enough, it’s that personal support from across the political spectrum that is the ‘disciplining invisible hand’ to keep things as impartial as possible when filming/reporting. This means separating news from analysis from opinion.

  • News: There was a budget meeting at The Guildhall on 23 Feb at which executive councillors gave summaries on their plans for the next year
  • Analysis: Councillors debated whether Cambridge should have a youth council as part of their democracy outreach to teenagers. This compares with South Cambridgeshire District Council which already has a youth council.
  • Opinion: I think Cambridge should have its own youth council like South Cambridgeshire.

The first is simply reporting what has happened. The second is where you are asking some questions on what has been reported. “How does this compare with A, B, C?” is one of the most straight forward Qs you can ask and answer that would fall into analysis. The third is where you are making a subjective opinion. It’s also why I don’t like seeing the phrase “It is recommended…” in council reports. I’d like to see council officers being more confident and taking ownership of the reports they write and the recommendations they make.

“I am a professional council officer who is suitably qualified in the field of [Planning/Housing/Transport etc] and I have written this report. To deal with the issue above, I recommend [A, B or C]”

It just gives me more confidence that someone is taking ownership of the issue at hand.

“Talks, workshops and seminars – on local democracy and local history too?”

These are what I want to organise for the spring following the success of the first ‘democracy in action’ workshop I convened that was hosted by FECRA at St Phillip’s Church on Mill Road in Cambridge last year. To summarise, the workshop got all of us to illustrate what our neighbourhoods looked like, and also what our city looked like. We examined how the local institutions served us in our neighbourhoods and had an impact on our lives. We then looked at the money trail and the lines of accountability, ensuring that we all had a basic understanding of how our village/town/city functioned, and how it related to Parliament and Government before we started looking at how ordinary residents might influence things and hold those in office to account.

I want to run these ‘Democracy in action’ workshops again – but I need your help to do so

I’ve got the workshop template and the materials to run the workshop. What I don’t have are the venues or the strong links inside the wide range of community groups in and around Cambridge to bring those people together for such workshops. So:

  • Do you run a community group, organisation or network in/around Cambridge?
  • Would those that form the above like to learn more about how our democracy functions with a view to taking [positive/constructive] action afterwards – action that helps strengthen our communities and our local democracy?
  • Could you book a venue and convene such a group of people for such an event?

If so, please drop me an email at antonycarpen [at] gmail

[Also] I want to run some local history workshops – but again I need your help to do so

I want to share the findings of the group of women I am calling the Cambridge Heroes – the women that shaped modern Cambridge. Basically because I can’t shut up about how wonderful the likes of Florence Ada Keynes and Eglantyne Jebb were for our city.


Cambridge Hero: Eglantyne Jebb, who wrote the first social scientific study of poverty & multiple deprivation in Cambridge, in 1906.


Cambridge Legend: Cllr Florence Ada Keynes – our first woman councillor elected in 1914, and our second woman mayor of Cambridge – who also oversaw the building of the modern guildhall in Market Square.

Again, if any of you are able to book a venue and gather a group of interested people, please drop me an email.

Many bridges, one Cambridge, it’s your city.



Tabled Questions for the Gtr Cambridge City Deal – March 2017


Dragon has been digging and has some awkward questions

My question for the City Deal Assembly is as follows:

“Please can I table the following Q for item 8 at (three campuses)

Just over a year ago, you published this press release at on the options available for dealing with congestion south-east out of Cambridge towards Haverhill. Much of the traffic coming into Cambridge comes down Cherry Hinton Road – where I live down. I am now on medication because of the impact of the worsening air quality due to the extended traffic jams down that road.
I note the City Deal Board rejected Rail Haverhill’s proposals in Feb 2016. I would like to challenge that decision based on very strong assumptions given to the consultants in carrying out their assessment as described in the draft rail viability technical note Jan 2016.
The authors state:
“A Cambridge-Haverhill railway line could also ultimately form part of a more strategic rail link from Cambridge to Colchester, via Haverhill and Sudbury, including the existing Sudbury to Marks Tey branch. However, this strategic option is beyond the scope of this technical note and the current study.”
This strategic option is central to the business case for Haverhill, for it links by rail the two campuses of Anglia Ruskin University (Chelmsford & Cambridge via Colchester)

Who made the decision to restrict this strategic option for Rail Haverhill to be between just the town and Cambridge Station?
I call on you to ask The Board to
A) Run a brief crowd-sourcing exercise to invite people to suggest what refreshed assumptions should be applied to a reappraisal of the rail option
B) Commission the consultants to re-appraise the Rail Haverhill option subject to the following assumptions:
1) That the Rail Haverhill proposals will be as part of the national rail network linking Colchester-Sudbury-Haverhill-Cambridge-Wisbech
and then…
2) That Rail Haverhill will be part of the Connect Cambridge Light Rail proposals”
My question for the city deal board is as follows:
“The City Deal Board announced an award of £50,000 of funding for research into the Cambridge Bullet Bus (reported at I have not been able to find any explanation into this project online – the complete opposite of the case for Rail Haverhill and for Cambridge Connect Light Rail.
Please can the City Deal Board:
1) release a formal document explaining at least the basics of what the bullet bus project actually is, and the considerations made before approving the release of £50,000 of funding for research for this project (which seemed to come out of the blue)
2) please comment on whether they will be willing to fund the necessary technical and financial feasibility studies for Rail Haverhill and the Cambridge Connect proposals in tranche 2 as part of the research budgets. I find it astonishing that such proposals were swept aside in tranche 1 given the levels of growing public support for both projects which have had extended publicity on the work already done, compared to the bullet bus project
3) please comment on how you will ensure the public – and in particular the academic community & experts in & around Cambridge will be able to scrutinise the assessments you make on the cost/benefits of proposals put forward given the disquiet of your conclusions originally for the rail haverhill project.”
The problem is that all of the detailed papers are not listed or uploaded to the City Deal website – note the few papers listed at
Recall that Cambridge City Council also has a similar issue with this ***very juicy store*** of planning documents (  that haven’t been properly listed and publicised. Because if you click on that link and go to ‘RD_STRAT’ ( you’ll find, if you are an historian that document no. 430 part 1 and no 430 part 2 are none other than scans of the 67 year old Holford-Wright Report of 1950 that shaped the post-war Cambridge that we know today – prior to the building work post-millennium.
Updated to add:
This is the route of my document search I followed:
Via a number of documents I came back to this paper:
Then do a word search for “Rail Viability Technical Note (pdf, 2.1MB)
Then scroll down to 2.2

“What is your vision of Cambridge in 2065?”


We get lots of reports that get launched with a big fanfare, but who does the progress checks?

Before I start: Democracy Cambridge on Facebook <<<— Please click here and *Like* (and share!)

This in part stems from my blogpost of yesterday and the problems of local government as it continues to move away from being a grant distributor under Labour in the 2000s to this age of rapid technological and social change along with the financial cuts post-2010 in an era of fragmented public services. That’s to say nothing of Brexit or DonnyT.

Losing count of the number of ‘fire and forget’ future visions for Cambridge

Half of them are probably mine and most of those are past blogposts! I jest. Actually, Puffles manifesto for 2014 was nothing if not a future vision for Cambridge. Does it stand the test of time? Have a look at the manifesto and judge for yourself. Furthermore, the city council has started implementing parts of that manifesto – which me and Puffles think is ***splendid***. The council started with doing an audit of community venues and service provision. They are now consulting on their Community Services Strategy that builds on this – an excellent piece of evidence-based policy-making.

Last week, Cllr Richard Johnson (Lab – Abbey), executive councillor for communities announced the council would be spending £10,000 ‘to explore how best to involve the City’s 12 – 15 year olds in decision making’ (See his press release here). I refer Cambridge’s councillors to the Young People’s theme of Puffles’s manifesto of 2014.  The formal details of Cllr Johnson’s amendment to secure the £10,000 is in the document BSR Executive Amendment via this link. (****Why do they bury all of the important stuff?!?!****)

[***Updated to add***]

Cllr Zoe O’Connell (Lib Dems – Trumpington) tweeted the following a few mins ago:

Cambridge Liberal Democrats are calling for the city council to spend £30,000 on democracy engagement with young people, rather than the £10,000 as proposed by Labour. Either way (and I’m not too fussed who wants to take credit), I’m glad that some money is being spent and that the issue is being raised. This marks a significant policy change from this response from former councillor George Owers when he was executive councillor for finance back in 2014.

“In terms of ‘engaging youth’ and visiting schools, I would point out that a) I was the youngest councillor ever elected to Cambridge City Council (21 when elected) and b) schools and young people are a County not a City issue. It’s not a blurred line, it’s the most unblurred demarcation in our two-tier local government system. Why not contact county councillors about these issues?”

You can understand why several people encouraged me to stand for election after reading that reply. It reads strongly now, but this was at a time when I was blogging very critically of the city council generally, and elected councillors were responding with both barrels.

So…that’s 20% of Puffles’ manifesto that the city council are currently working on. On Thursday I get to ask them about air quality and all things green. If Cambridge gets a low emissions zone and/or restrictions on highly polluting vehicles coming into Cambridge, that will bring us up to 30%.

“What about the other visions?”

Here’s 24 from autumn 2015.

To try and summarise each one in a single line:

  1. Lara Allen: “Equality – yay!” But few specifics
  2. Anne Bailey: Overhaul education – drag out of Victorian age & make lifelong
  3. Alan Blackwell: Make Cambridge more self-governing but direct privileges to the poor (‘King’s Hedges College, Cambridge’)
  4. Julian Bowrey: Expand city boundaries & make single unitary authority
  5. David Cleevely: Cambridge to be even bigger than Julian Bowrey says, with driverless cars & smart tech
  6. Ben Cowell: Wicken Fen & the countryside is coming to get you!
  7. Douglas Crawford Brown: 80% of buildings in 2065 around have already been built – retrofit.
  8. @CambsCC: “East West Rail – yay!” “Bikes – yay!” “Choice of transport – yay!”
  9. Bob Dennison/Stagecoach: “Buses/multiple person travel pods – yay!”
  10. Rachel Drury: “Art and science – yay!” “Festivals without pollution – yay!”
  11. Lynsi Hayward Smith: Skills – do we have them? How will demand/needs change?
  12. Rachel Jones: My life in a day – at 95
  13. Peter Landshoff: Old people – more of them (us?) with growing needs
  14. Lewis Herbert: “Here’s our 2015 manifesto” – does it stand the test of time?
  15. Ian Lewis: We’ll grow even more than what David Cleevely said
  16. Theresa Marteau: Smoke-free city, safe booze, healthier population
  17. Anna McIvor: Sustainable green living FTW.
  18. Roger Mitchell: Heritage, culture & leisure connected – all green & sustainable
  19. John Miles: “My bullet bus – yay!”
  20. Tony Raven: How the bloody hell am I supposed to know? In 1965 no one predicted Facebook!
  21. Claire Ruskin: Dammit we’re good!
  22. Jeremy Sanders: University of Cambridge has these needs – which you will deliver on
  23. Emma Thornton: We have World Heritage Status – yeah, back off parasitical developers!
  24. Jane Wilson: We’re going to grow our lovely & green centre outwards, not build more ‘nice centre surrounded by suburbia’ units.

Now, all of the above are a mix of tongue-in-cheek, a bit of humour and trying to take the important bits.

24 people will give you more than 24 different visions. All of the people concerned are either eminent in their fields locally and/or are well-connected due to their workplace. If I took you to meet the Abbey People or to Arbury, The St Matthew’s Estate on East Road, the council houses that friends and children I went to school with grew up in, you might get different views of what Cambridge 2065 might be like. Dare I say it, in some fields they might be even more radical than the above-24 because they are not constrained by professional or institutional boundaries. Also, children in particular generally have a better understanding of what the future is going to be like compared with older adults because they are living and learning with the technology in a way that we never did at school.

Why it’s important to look at past predictions of the future

The map below is from 1958 – a study overseen by WL Waide, our county planner on the future of Cambridge as he predicted for 2011 – showing proposed cycleways and secondary schools. The secondary school for Abbey Ward is under construction. There isn’t one for Fulbourn. The second schools for Histon/Impington & Girton haven’t been built. One of the two predicted in Trumpington has just opened, and the one for Shelford has not been planned. Oh – and we never got the city-wide cycle network.


And this was in the days when car was king!

“Are there any principles that stand out?”

Yes – a number. At some stage collectively we’ll have to grasp the nettles, get stung and keep going…or change direction if the stings are too painful!

Governance, controls, structures, systems and processes

The boring but essential stuff. Get this wrong and we can forget about everything else. The thing is there will always be a tension between what businesses want (i.e. a single point of contact and a single decision-maker) vs what residential communities want (i.e. a something that stops the local authority from allowing stuff they don’t like from being built in their neighbourhood). Part of the conversation – that Julian Bowrey quite rightly examined, was on the nature of civic governance our Cambridge of the future should have. Personally I could only see a mayoral model working if an elected legislature around it had real teeth and powers to it – including the ability to veto deputy mayoral appointments and to direct the mayor to undertake specific actions (or block the mayor if necessary).

A civic culture

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read about the wealth of talent Cambridge has. So why are we blessed with the most mediocre of new building designs and see so little of the scientific, engineering, artistic and cultural talent transferring across to local public policy and party political fields? One of the things I continually challenge our city over is improving our democratic culture – hence launching Democracy Cambridge on FB so that at least people are made aware of what meetings are happening and when across our institutions – compensating for a lack of a single institution to manage all of this.

What institutions and facilities are needed to anchor things like improving health and a strengthened civic culture?

The segregated cycle network is one. Not building gated communities everywhere is another. I tear my hair out over the inconsistencies between what the likes of the Town and Country Planning Association come out with vs what the developers design and build in and around Cambridge. At least it’ll be easier to retrofit the bland facades of the etch-a-sketch designed buildings in and around Cambridge Railway Station with green walls – long after the developers and their financiers have run off with their ill-gotten gains from gaming the planning system.

Clusters – do they work for sports as well?

For me, the Newmarket Road ice rink currently in the pipeline after 30 years of waiting (I’m so getting myself a pair of ice skates to learn to skate properly – so long as the rink is on a bus route, even though I’ll be nearly 40 by the time it opens!) is a huge opportunity to build a multi-purpose sports village at the other end of the city. When I look at the maps of the city, and the predictions of the likes of David Cleevely and others, we’re going to need to plan that infrastructure now. That also includes the proposed rowing lake at Milton Country Park – if only to protect the fauna that gets killed by boats. Ducklings and cygnets are regular victims of rowing crews on a very crowded river.

Transport – beyond local

If we’re going for a city of over 200,000, more of that expansion is inevitably going to be in the east. I’ve given my preference of moving the Marshall’s Airport out to Mildenhall, linking it to Cambridge by rail along the old rail link, then having it extending out to Swaffham, circling Norwich (linking the University of East Anglia and Norwich Airport by rail) and out to Great Yarmouth. Thus it gives Cambridge a direct rail link to the seaside – and also to Great Yarmouth which is currently one of the country’s most economically deprived towns. slide1

I can imagine a few people who wouldn’t mind living by the seaside if it meant a commute to Cambridge of less than an hour and fifteen minutes on a single train. Basically if you’re going to talk of Cambridge as a regional centre – and many books from over the decades and even over a century ago use similar language, then the transport infrastructure has to match that. Again I’d think radically for this. My Cambridge-Mildenhall-Norwich-Gt Yarmouth line would be an extension of East-West-Rail, which I’d have extending out to the Welsh Coastline in the far west. I’d reopen the rail link from King’s Lynn to Hunstanton for those that want a quieter seaside stay. In the even more longer term I’d look at a line extending out from Wisbech to Boston, Lincoln, Scunthorpe and terminating at Hull. By that time I’d like to think you could be running services that could get you from Boston to Cambridge within an hour, and from Wisbech in half an hour.

“Those are big distances and not cheap”

At the moment my only barrier is ambition. Some ideas will chime with people, others won’t.

“Like that concert hall?”

Ah – a new massive concert hall for Cambridge – which I wrote about here with a specific site. It got local newspaper coverage and proved to be quite controversial (see here) but I’ve chosen to respond to the comments and brickbats thrown at my ideas rather than let the negativity reign supreme. Reach for the stars – because although you may only reach the tops of the trees, the view is just as nice.

“And the castle?”

We used to have one in Cambridge


From though I can’t pretend it’s the most accurate representation! cambcastlehogg

There’s this one too via

It stemmed from an exchange with Norwich Castle

They kept their castle, why didn’t we? More to the point, if Cambridge ends up with a unitary authority, that leaves a vacant Shire Hall that could easily be turned into a hotel, and having a rebuilt castle acting as a big extension to the Museum of Cambridge. My thinking on this is that you’d make the castle to be expanded in scale (sort of like the modern ‘Mini’ cars vs their 1960s originals) that could also be home of the city/county archives, rather than in the big warehouse at Ely that’s planned.

Remember it was the gaming of our planning system that led to proposals for the county archives being at Cambridge Railway Station (the old mill silo – see pg3 of this) being dropped. ***This should have been our new historical and cultural centre***


but instead greedy developers hoodwinked the city council and instead we’re getting a bland block


…that will be useless to everyone except the London commuters that live in it – and the landowner collecting rent.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, we can come up with all of the wonderful ideas in the world, but while ministers and senior politicians allow developers and their paymasters to behave like this, ideas is what they will remain.




How do you solve a problem like local government?


Looking at some persistent problems raised at the NLGN Conference

I still keep tabs on what happens in local government policy circles – one that I found myself slap bang in the middle of some 10 years ago in my first civil service fast stream posting following my move from Cambridge to London. Not surprisingly, the tensions between central and local government remain – as they have done for centuries.

Central government decisions with local implications – that’s the entire planning system, certainly as far as Cambridge is concerned. This is because councillors are having to self-censor themselves and wave through planning applications that they would rather send back to developers, especially where the design is poor, lazy or bland.

Bad design builds in problems for the future, and community groups simply do not have the financial firepower to match the wealth of developers as they game the planning system.

The problem is that until local councils – and in particular city/municipal councils have the financial powers to raise revenue (through taxation – for example on land values, lack of use of land, or otherwise), the dependence on local councils on Whitehall will remain. Treasury is extremely reluctant to relinquish such tax and spend powers.

The structure of local councils and local government does come up with some strange statistics – especially on the number of directors.

One for each metropolitan borough. Quite understandably, there are those asking if there is a better way. We’re seeing more examples of local councils sharing chief executives, chief planning officers and so on in order to both cut costs and co-ordinate services. For Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire, it makes sense to share very senior staff dealing with housing and transport issues because they cross council boundaries.

Business rates have been in the news lately because of splits between Conservative ministers and grassroots members over the impact business rates have on small businesses.

The curse of short-term thinking

Dr Howe, who is one of the wisest people in the field of digital public services, is essential following for those of you on Twitter. The problems local councils face has been made much worse by the Brexit vote in the short-to-medium term because of the policy resources now taken up by the Brexit negotiations. Furthermore, ministerial mindsets (irrespective of party) are ones where ministers know they have a very short career-span (with v few exceptions), so have an incentive to rush things that otherwise need more time. No one remembers the minister that put in place a sound framework and stable long term strategy.

…yet if we need to move away from the pre-2010 model for local government, who will be the minister that ‘puts in place a sound framework and stable long term strategy?’

For those not aware, the pre-2010 world had a lot of grant administration to be done by local councils – especially those in economically deprived areas. This is because the Blair/Brown governments ran a number of schemes that gave money to those areas to deal with difficult problems such as multiple deprivation. On a personal note, with hindsight I can’t help but think that a fair chunk of that money should have been spent on improving public transport infrastructure – especially light and heavy rail.

Given the world we live in…

…which then makes things complicated if politicians put turbo boosters behind fake-news tactics in order to win elections.

The world in 2030?

But how many local councils have a look back at history to find out how they got to today, and assess the schemes they approved and rejected?

The above looks at some of the schemes that were proposed and rejected in Cambridge during the 20th Century. Some things proposed in the early 1930s (city-wide segregated cycling network, a pedestrian footbridge over the railway line at the station to open up an eastern entrance and thus reducing traffic on Station Road) we’re still waiting for.

2030 is when the Greater Cambridge City Deal is due to finish. For those of you not aware of the local controversies with this, the current city deal is very ‘bus-based’ as far as public transport is concerned. While residents and campaign groups are looking at things such as Cambridge Light Rail (which I back), local council officers in particular have been far less optimistic on anything other than buses.

‘A better way of working’ – where have I heard that before?

The problem with previous attempts to bring in better ways of working – ones that have failed, is that people become cynical. Why bother this time around when the last one didn’t deliver?

Who remembers all the attempts to reduce our use of email?

The unequal distribution of funding was also raised.

The problem with the above is that the shires – the county councils – are predominantly Conservative-voting. This means that unlike their urban sister councils, they are less likely to vote for increases in council tax. This remains an issue in Cambridge where a combination of Conservative and UKIP councillors voted for freezing council tax rates even though neither parties hold seats in Cambridge City. Thus, for one of the parts of the country that ministers fall over themselves to praise, we have a local government structure that gives us nothing but paralysis. I don’t expect great things from the executive mayor stitch up either. As far as Cambridge is concerned and as I have said on many occasions, this was an attempt by ministers to get control of Cambridge without having to win elections in the city.

Don’t expect any change this side of a general election

With Treasury ministers tied up with Brexit (because let’s face it, they are the only ones that count) and with Conservative party policy being no new restructuring of local government (the last one being in the 1970s), I can’t see much of significance happening unless/until there is either a major change in government policy or there is a change of government following the next general election (which has local government restructure in its manifesto/programme for government).

Higher Education has lost the trust of society…

…and those in higher education need to work hard to regain that trust – according to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Sir Lescek Borysciewicz

The Vice Chancellor spoke at the first Kate Pretty Lecture at Homerton College

Homerton College is a place I first found out about when I was at primary school – a short walk from our school, we’d often play sports on their wide open grounds (which we didn’t have) as well as taking part in local history, music and gymnastics classes throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Inevitably there was a strong Cambridge University element to what the VC said in his remarks – though I had to remind myself of this that ‘his’ Cambridge is a university, whereas ‘my’ Cambridge isn’t. I’m not and have never been a member, so don’t have the rights to the perks that members do.

His opening remarks regarding Brexit were in the very long term historical context, talking about surviving the Reformation, The Plague, WWI and WWII. Jack Overhill’s diaries show just how much life in Cambridge the town was disrupted by WWII.

But the statistic that struck the VC was this:

This helped frame some of his remarks about higher education losing the trust of the society that it serves. He said that there is an unwritten contract between The People and Higher Education: The latter exists to benefit the former. Given the split in the vote between towns/cities with universities and those without, did the vote show that the trust that binds this unwritten contract is breaking down?

Such sentiment is not new for those of us that live in Cambridge. I mentioned in the King’s Politics Hustings in 2014, that I grew up in Cambridge where, bar Homerton College (which wasn’t a full member college at the time), I, like many other children in Cambridge had barely noticed the benefit of Cambridge University. What we did notice was where we were not allowed to go – hardly a benefit. Going back further, in Josiah Chater’s diaries of Victorian Cambridge, he made the same observation regarding workmen in Cambridge. The opening up of Cambridge University – through the various festivals and science outreach, has been a very, very recent phenomenon.

That, perhaps was the VC’s historical blind spot. He spoke about the efforts Cambridge University had made in outreach, perhaps not aware of the historical millstone that hung around the neck of the institution in the mind of many townsfolk (if I can call us that).

“How should the higher education sector deal with the trust issue?”

Good question. Actually, this is something the University of Cambridge could pilot – starting with asking the communities that people in university circles might deem to be ‘hard to reach’ but that are on its doorstep. (In which case the only thing that makes them ‘hard to reach’ are the cultures, systems and processes created by the institutions (& those inside them) as opposed to people who live in the communities concerned).

I didn’t get nearly as much from the VC’s speech on specific actions people in higher education institutes should do. Perhaps that was not the purpose of that part of his speech – rather being to raise the issue and challenge those in public policy roles to start discussing the problem. I noted that this was the first time I had heard a public figure talking about Brexit being a sign that public trust between this sector we call ‘higher education’ and the general public was, if not broken, under severe strain. Imagine if we were talking about trust between the public and the entire health and social care sector has been broken. We may despise the ministers and the politicians, but I don’t get the sense that people are abandoning GPs, hospitals and specialists in their tens of millions and heading to non-expert soothsayers, charlatans and purveyors of false hope.

On Cambridge town & gown – and ‘surrounding towns and gown’.

When his remarks moved towards Cambridge the town, and surrounding towns and villages, there were a few things I noted:

…to which I remarked to fellow Cambridge blogger Phil Rodgers seated next to me:

“Yeah – what about that City Deal?”

The Greater Cambridge City Deal (on which Cambridge University has an advisory seat on the Board) has come under pressure from campaign groups in villages that border the edge of Cambridge – especially those on the southern and north-west fringes of the city. Transparency has been an issue that campaigners have repeatedly raised. *Transparency Note – Representatives of some of the campaign groups have commissioned me to film public meetings and to publish videos of the meetings on Youtube. My channel is at

The VC also gave us an insight into the new advertising/public information campaign being run by Cambridge University.

Dear World,
You sent us Newton. We sent you gravity.
You sent us Darwin. We sent you evolution. You sent us William and Samuel. We sent you Wordsworth and Coleridge.”

See more here as the University attempts to raise £2billion.

In the Q&A session, I challenged both Homerton College to open up its doors to the local community like it used to, and also invited the VC to reflect on what the whole of Cambridge would be like if Cambridge University and its colleges adopted a culture where the whole of the city (rather than just the interests of the institutions and their members) mattered.

I also specified two specific project ideas

The first is a shared (between town & gown) large concert hall and conferencing venue in the centre of Cambridge (based on this blogpost – with identified site that, as it turns out is owned by the University of Cambridge).

The second is on the UL – Cambridge University’s Library working with our local civic archives and museums (running on a shoestring) to help digitise our shared history.

Apart from my own self-publicity for ‘pet projects’, the more important thing for me from a civic perspective is that we the people start putting pressure on our institutions on specifics. I’ve lost too many hours of my life in meetings where people say “We need to…” and nothing gets followed up.

For me though, money itself is not the central issue. It’s the culture of our institutions. If we get a much more open, transparent and co-operative culture between our institutions, the financial decisions to support our civic institutions will flow from them – as will a culture of scrutiny to ensure that the money is not wasted.

I could not go without mentioning Cambridge Hero, Cllr Florence Ada Keynes


Cambridge Hero Cllr Florence Ada Keynes – more than just John Maynard’s mum.

It was her I mentioned first as an example of one of our city’s great figures who transcended town and gown. One of the earliest graduates from Newnham College, she was our first elected woman councillor at the then Cambridge Town Council, and was one of our earliest civic mayors in 1932. My challenge to the VC and to everyone in the room was who was going to follow her splendid example.

Which reminded me – where are we going to put these memorial statues of Florence and Eva Hartree?

Also a Newnham College graduate, Cllr Eva Hartree was our first woman mayor of Cambridge.

NPG x17439; Eva Hartree (nÈe Rayner) by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy)
by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy), platinotype, 1924-1925

Cambridge Hero Cllr Eva Hartree – our first woman mayor of Cambridge

Cllr Hartree was also a hero for other reasons – have a read here.

Earlier today I was filming a protest outside The Guildhall, and was reminded of the two plinths next to the entrance of the big doors.


Above: It needs a bit of a clean – one of the two plinths on both sides of the main entrance to Cambridge Guildhall.

Given that we have paintings and statues of the men of Cambridge’s history dotted all over the city, isn’t it time that we rebalanced things and had memorial statues of Cllrs Florence Ada Keynes and Eva Hartree on either side of the entrance of The Guildhall?


Reach for the stars – because even if you don’t get there…

…you might just reach the tops of the trees – and the view from there is just as wonderful

The former deputy leader of Cambridge City Council – and someone who I see as a potential future MP for Cambridge (I’ve not told her this yet), Cllr Carina O’Reilly responded to my post about a concert hall for Cambridge. In fact, she’s one of three women who I respect immensely who have commented on the specifics of the whole concert hall idea – and getting the debate going.

“Are you saying we won’t get this concert hall then?”

I’m saying at the moment, the chances are somewhere between nought and zero – esp in terms of the site that I have identified. What I want to do in the first part of this post is explain some of the principles behind my thinking – and how my life experiences shaped me to think as I do. Bear with me.

Let your heart decide the destination, and let your head figure out how to get there – never ever the other way around.

Up until I graduated, my thought process was head first, heart second. In part because of my biggest moral failing: Lack of courage. I always let fear get in the way of achieving my dreams or desires. This was made worse by messages from church every week that destroyed my self-esteem. Really I should have told the clerics and everyone around them where to go (as others did at the time) rather than believing them. The problem is that when many of the adults you are surrounded by are part of that ‘faith community’ it’s incredibly difficult to break away from it. Hence my view that the state should be comprehensively funding activities along the lines of given that they fund faith schools.

“What’s this got to do with a concert hall?”

If I followed my head on the concert hall idea, I’d be like? ‘Oh – hardly any chance of that happening, why bother?’

It’s the dreamers, radicals, renegades, misfits and free thinkers who come up with the ideas that inspire rather than committees of men

If the Millennium celebrations taught us one thing, it was this:

I visited the Millennium Dome (I still call it that) in the year 2000. Architecturally it is wonderful. The inside attractions…the less said the better bar Peter Gabriel’s excellent show. (If anything the stage was too big – me and my old friend from school, Raymond ended up actually sitting *on* the stage for the whole of the show because the seats were too far away and only realised – along with other people in the audience – that we were on the stage when the acrobats landed from the top of the dome. But they handled it beautifully). Each zone though managed to be the advertising showpiece for whoever the sponsor was. There was no unified message unlike say Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening show for London 2012. Which is probably the best opening ceremony I will ever see.

“It still ain’t gonna happen!”

Until it actually does – at which point you see tyre-screeching U-turns from people (normally the cynics who post negative social media posts regularly in newspaper columns) who say they were fully supportive all along.

The comments from Carina and friends don’t fall into that category – rather their comments are precisely the questions people should be asking.

“Sigh. Antony, the problem with this entire post – and the tenor of a lot of your posts, if I’m honest – is that it’s all magical unicorn sprinkles. It’s all ‘will our city do this?’ and ‘should we build it here?’ without any mention, anywhere, in your blog or in the clearly desperate CN’s story, about who you intend to pay for it, and why they should.

My emphasis on the bold fourth line down. To which my response was as below in the blogpost:

The bit that I needed to expand on was “Why?” Why should Cambridge University, its colleges and private investors pay for it given (as I’m assuming) the government won’t (whether due to ideology of right wing governments, or more pressing priorities on things like housing for a left wing government), and local government cannot simply due to a lack of money and legal powers.

“If it’s developers, why would they spend all this money on a facility which, as you underline yourself, is not actually needed right now, and which nobody is clamouring to run?”

This is a more challenging question for me and anyone else who wants such a facility.

“I don’t want to spoil your fun, but it is, really, just fun you’re having right now. It’s playground fantasy stuff.”

At this stage, for me it has to be. When I look at too many of the buildings going up in and around Cambridge, I don’t get the sense that the designers had even a minute of fun coming up with their designs. I get the feeling that their commission was to design something that would get the maximum revenue from the minimum of expenditure. The architecture around Cambridge Railway Station reflects this. If you can’t ‘play’ with such a concept, how can you expect anyone to be creative ever? Why is it that some of the highest paying creative organisations have offices full of playful things? Compare their offices to the offices you get elsewhere.

“If you want to be taken seriously, look seriously at the genuine barriers to getting this sort of thing done – generally money, planning law, people not wanting stuff in their backyard, and money – and come up with realistic solutions to them.”

Now we’re really talking – and this comes back to the ‘head vs heart’ separation I referred to above. From my perspective, I assume that my heart is telling me it can – it will be done. It’s just not the responsibility of my heart to work out ‘how’ it will be delivered. That’s the responsibility of my head. It’s not the responsibility of my head to say ‘It cannot be done’ – only my heart can decide, after looking at what my head has come up with, whether it can or cannot be done. Now, that may be because after crunching the numbers, the figure that my head comes up with is one that is hopelessly unrealistic. The single thing that would torpedo a concert hall scheme on the site I identified is land acquisition costs. If the land is owned by another organisation not willing to have such a grand facility built on it (and take the rent from it), then the scheme is dead in the water. The land prices are too high. Very high land prices have scuppered many a community scheme in and around Cambridge. Developers and their financiers have an insatiable demand for all things Cambridge. The way the system is structured, the most likely thing that will happen is that a new Marque building will get built on it – despite the presence of the Catholic Church.

Imagine this building below…

…being built next to this one below…


…because that is what the planning system incentivises them to do. And that is the fault of Conservative ministers. It’s a political decision, even though they might have issues with the consequences of it. But that is what happens when you allow your policies to be driven by one every well-resourced interest group funded by huge profits. Few other voices can get a word in.

“Rant over?”

So…that’s the money and planning barrier. But there are more, as raised by two more friends on other private exchanges. I won’t name names but the comments are as follows:

Concert halls don’t come cheap therefore needs to be on a) council owned land or b) cheap land. Secondly they need to have multiple function i.e. Use for much of the day as possible so hear me out on this:
1 Location
A number of places spring to mind but all around the north and south train station. To the north – old City Council Park and Ride side or (very very very controversially) there is 5 acres of Green Belt (you would never know) at the cycle bridge next to Milton Tesco known as the triangle site/land – sometimes used for a travelling circus. To the south – some of the Babraham Park and Ride or the County land south of the biomedical campus 
As mentioned earlier, the land needs to be already owned by one of the colleges or Cambridge University. That’s the easy bit if it is. The next bit is convincing the landowner that for the sake of civic pride it would be magnificent to build such a facility there. But ‘civic magnificence’ is not a good enough reason to build such a facility.
  • Will the venue break even?
  • Will the venue provide a revenue stream in the very long term? (Note the lessons of the New Theatre that went bust in the 1960s despite having a seating capacity of over 1,500 at the time).
  • Will the venue be useable during the day – what’s the worst case scenario?
This then underlines the need for financial feasibility and technical studies – similar to the Cambridge Connect Light Railway.
2 Multiple uses
Firstly what a great facility also for public meetings, with good acoustics (god forbid you might actually hear a meeting) and also for conferences.
Both individuals concerned mentioned this.
***Now we’re talking*** – because we are now getting into specifics. For me, this needs to be informed by detailed surveys of industry need and community need as well as academic needs. Evidence-based policy and all that. Anecdotally over the past five or so years of community action in Cambridge, I’ve noted:
  • An under-supply of musical rehearsal space
  • An under-supply of dance floor rehearsal space
  • An under-supply of venues with first class acoustics – whether for conferences or for concerts
  • An under-supply of very large theatre style tiered seating space
  • An under-supply of community art space – we don’t have a community arts centre.

“Haven’t we got another candidate for a community art space?”

photo (3)
The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible
….Yes, but the landlord is not civically-minded
“So sell off the other assets for housing or offices or other uses, regenerate the market square and fund a totally new 2,000 seater facility with offices near either science park or biomedical campus for conference venue. Very large marquee’s are very expensive – £30k a time!” 


The above is in the context of the council selling off assets – big ones such as The Guildhall or Shire Hall. That in itself would require changes of local government structure. The problem I have with the selling off of the Guildhall is that it belongs to the people. I would hate to see it privatised, knowing that the developers would want to give us something cheap and skanky like South Cambridgeshire Hall in Cambourne as a replacement – which is a bland office block of an administrative building in the middle of effing nowhere rather than a vibrant buzzing civic centre.

If there was to be local council restructuring, Shire Hall would be the better candidate for selling off and turning into a hotel, with some of the surrounding land being turned into that concert hall space. Alternatively – and this really is talking unicorn magic sparkling dust, you could ***rebuild the castle*** and have it as a civic historical centre. You could have things like jousting tournaments and medieval fairs in front of the old castle mound! And instead of people walking up the mound (which would damage it even more), you could have a castle near it at the same height that they could clime up instead!

Yeah…one fantasy scheme at a time, Puffles!


Responding to online comments on a new concert hall for Cambridge


In defence of my idea and vision for Cambridge 

The blogpost I wrote on a new concert hall for Cambridge was picked up by David Bartlett of the Cambridge News.

The newspaper’s reporter Josh Thomas then wrote an article, seeking comment from the Cambridge Live Trust.

…and in print too

(Note – I run both @Puffles2010 and @ACarpenDigital – the latter account I tweet far less frequently – perhaps a few times a day at most)

“Who said what? ‘Don’t read the comments’ and all that? It can be a bit of a bear pit even at the best of times!”

I tried to respond to every comment on Facebook here and also on the newspaper’s site scrolling to the end here. In a nutshell I tried to avoid the confrontational exchanges that you normally get with some of these things – either referring people back to my original blogpost (which was not originally linked in the article) or to clarify things that might shine a different light on people’s comments. The main themes that stood out were:

  • There are other more pressing priorities (eg homelessness)
  • Cambridge already has the Corn Exchange
  • Town/gown splits
  • It won’t get built there

More pressing priorities – housing

On the more pressing priorities, others stated that as a city we are not restricted to doing only one activity at a time. i.e. it is possible to deliver on both. With homelessness, I said that the origins of the problem are in Whitehall – ministers not giving local councils the funding and powers needed to deal with the problem of providing enough social homes and stopping developers weaselling out of commitments on social homes. (That plus banning councils from building enough council homes in the first place – housing minister Gavin Barwell MP saying on Newsnight to Emily Maitlis that councils could not borrow to invest because of the impact it would have on the total government debt figures – forgetting that by borrowing to build, you are creating an asset that is worth more than the original amount borrowed. Do watch from 16 mins in here (available till early March 2017).

I also said that given the lifespan of such venues – the Corn Exchange will be 150 years old in 2025, the sort of very long term investment we’re looking at for a big concert venue is the one large institutional investors – such as Cambridge University and its colleges should be interested in.

Cambridge already has the Corn Exchange

I quoted figures in my previous blogpost about Cambridge’s projected population growth. When the Corn Exchange was converted into a modern concert venue in 1986/87, the city’s population was hovering around 100,000 people. In 2031, that population is likely to be 150,000, with further growth expected. Therefore my case is to plan for the city we are likely to become rather than simply say that today it might not be needed. Furthermore, the local councils have already stated there is a growing demand and need for such a facility – again in my previous blogpost.

Town/gown splits

I left this one for others to take on primarily, though I did post links to Cambridge University’s outreach programmes and their list of public talks. I’m as much a critic of Cambridge University and its colleges in terms of a closed decision-making culture so it’s incumbent on me to support those trying to open up the institutions.

Furthermore – and I’m grateful to those that posted, we saw a number of examples of public events hosted by Cambridge University for the good of the city. Remember though that for my generation and older, we grew up in a Cambridge where Cambridge University and colleges didn’t want to know us locals if we were ‘non-members.’ The change of culture in my experience only really started after the Millennium.

It won’t get built here

This is probably the most compelling challenge, not least because the commercial pressures are so great. The site is such a prime spot for buy-to-leave luxury apartment developers that they would throw a huge amount of money to acquire the site that would make it almost impossible to turn down. For all we know, the whole thing may already be wrapped up. I sincerely hope not. It it is, then it would just go to re-enforce concerns over the lack of transparency around decisions that affect the people of our city.

Note that at the Greater Cambridge City Deal meetings – another gathering with transparency issues, assembly member Sir Michael Marshall (of the Marshall Group) said that Cambridge is ‘at capacity’ in terms of its ability to function with one city centre, and that consideration needs to be given (not sure by whom) for an alternative centre. 50 years ago that debate was happening with talk of creating a new centre in the east of the city in The Kite – the area that the Grafton Centre was built at in the early 1980s.

Today, as I posted in the FB comments, such an alternative centre needed to be planned for and built either in the North West Cambridge development, or in Trumpington Meadows. Both those opportunities thus far have been missed. Personally I’d have made the case for the latter around a proposed Addenbrooke’s railway station with a Cambridge Light Rail and guided bus interchange. In fact, I’d have had all three underground (along with bus station and taxi rank – planning on all buses and taxis being electric by the time of completion). This would have allowed for a pedestrian-friendly civic square anchored by a further education and evening class college, a health centre, a sports leisure centre, and perhaps facilities for startups/ an incubator. (ie somewhere central that’s not stuck out on the edge of town like the Cambridge Future Business Centre.

The problem as always?

Cambridge’s institutions are unable to think and function like a city – acting in the collective interests of the people that make up the city rather than for their own financial bottom lines first and only. We see this in the examples of all of the independent shops that are forced to close. Hence why I wrote this blogpost.

“Will the concert hall get built?”

It will at some stage because population numbers will simply make existing facilities unsustainable. The question for our city is whether we want to do like we’ve always done, and wait for that unsustainable point to arrive before acting, or whether we can do things differently and start planning now before panicking when things get too crowded.

A new concert hall for Cambridge?


More thoughts following some recent online discoveries

This sort of follows on from Cambridge’s lost concert halls in my Lost Cambridge project – which started off life as a set of photos from the Museum of Cambridge, and a Facebook page here.

I was browsing through a treasure trove of published-but-not-publicised documents sitting on Cambridge City Council’s server as part of their submission to the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire Local Plan/Local Development Framework. All of the documents are in the file tree at and there are ****lots**** of interesting things buried in here. It’s not ‘scandal’ or conspiracy theory or anything like that. In the grand scheme of things, councils have had their budgets plundered by Whitehall without the power to raise funds locally to make up for the losses. Hence not having anyone around to do anything useful in a civic or historical sense with them.

There are some incredibly significant historical documents buried in here

For example the 1950 Holford Wright Report that shaped Cambridge as the small city that we know today (but perhaps for not much longer).

Now, I feel like a bit of an idiot having chased after local councillors to digitise this report. Yet such was the depth that the digitised files were buried, chances are that local councillors didn’t know that this report had already been digitised and published. Furthermore, the person/people who did the scanning may have already left council employment due to the cuts, so the corporate memory of what is and isn’t in there has vanished.

“What’s this got to do with the concert hall?”

First things first, why a concert hall?

My take ever since I sang with We Are Sound/Dowsing Sound Collective at the Cambridge Corn Exchange in December 2014 is that Cambridge needs a new concert hall – one that has a capacity of at least 2,000 people.

We near as dammit sold out that gig. My writeup from it is here. The next biggest indoors venue in Cambridge is Great St Mary’s – but we’ve sung in there as well (This one from BBC Music Day). There are a number of other local groups that have also sold out such venues.

Cambridge’s population growth

The numbers are stark:

  • In 2001, Cambridge’s population was 109,000
  • In 2011, Cambridge’s population was 124,ooo (in the 2011 census)
  • In 2031, Cambridge’ population is expected to be 151,000

That means the city will have 39% more people living in its city limits than 2001 – that rise taking place over a 30 year period. Or to look at it another way, an extra 42,000 people in it. Which is noticeably more than the population of Haverhill (just over 27,000), one of the largest towns close to Cambridge not linked by rail. (Hence Rail Haverhill wanting to do something about traffic in that neck of the woods)

Expanding transport infrastructure

We’ve had the guided busway completed since late 2011 – which had a total of 3.5 million journeys take on it in 2014. We await the completion of East-West Rail – which will also link other fast growing population centres (towns and cities to you & me) to Cambridge. And that’s before we even look at roads and cycle networks. With the growth of Cambridge as this big regional centre, my take is that it needs to build the civic infrastructure to match it. As it is, our civic infrastructure is becoming more and more inadequate to meet the demands of a growing population.

What the councils said in 2013

In January 2013, Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council published a document that they’ve probably forgotten about. It’s called The Major Facilities / Sub Regional Facilities In The Cambridge Area – Review Of Evidence & Site Options. You can read it at

It says the following:


“There is no purpose-built large scale venue provision within the Cambridge Sub Region”

“There is a growing interest in testing the case for a purpose-built auditorium for large scale music – the nearest concert halls are at Aldeburgh, and in Nottingham, Birmingham & London”

Their words, not mine!

So…where do you want this new concert hall?



Above via G-Maps – junction of ‘Hyde Park Corner’ – Hills Rd, Gonville Place, Regent St, Lensfield Road, Cambridge.

The site I’ve identified is the old Perse School, now one of Cambridge Assessment’s offices – soon to be vacated when they move to their purpose built premises off Brooklands Avenue over the next few years.


Above – map view of the same photograph.

The large peach-coloured shape to the right of the A1307 (Hills Road) and the surrounding grey bits is the footprint of the site – one that is 3 times the size of the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

“Why here?”

  • It is central – ie not building on the green belt
  • A short walk from the Queen Anne Car Park, and only a little further from the Grafton Centre and Lion Yard Car Parks
  • It is on the guided bus route, park and ride south routes and Citi bus routes from the railway station
  • Re the railway station it’s a pleasant walk through the back streets to get to/from the railway station
  • Drummer Street bus station – where many regional buses terminate
  • In terms of evening events, rush hour traffic will have gone (and thus parking spaces emptied) by the time most events start at 7:30-8:00pm
  • There are a number of medium-sized hotels close by
    • The Gonville
    • University Arms
    • Barbie’s dolls house (I forget which brand runs it)
    • The Royal Cambridge
    • The Travel lodges on Clifton Road and Newmarket Road

***What’s there not to like?***

Actually, not everyone is convinced

This was from a Twitter exchange following my incredulity at finding out Cambridge University lacks exam hall space.

Such a venue during the day could deal with the issue of temporary exam hall space demands. The challenge for architects & designers is to construct a building that could meet as many needs as possible – including for the wonderful Cambridge Rollerbillies given the loss of rollerskating space.

Historically, Cambridge had a number of purpose-built rollerskating rinks and dance halls. Even the Corn Exchange was once used as such. No one could afford to rent out the venue for rollerskating today.

“Do you run the risk of having a building that seeks to be everything but ends up being a soulless box with no identity?”

Yes – you do. Look at the London Excel. ****Huge**** space which me and Puffles visited during the Olympics. A horrible, soulless space but the only place big enough to host monster-sized conventions.

We’ve been promised concert halls before

Here’s Gordon Logie’s plan for some concert halls in the redeveloped Lion Yard in the mid-1960s.


The above is from the book “Cambridge that never was” by D.A. Reeve, Oleander Press 1976.

You’ll need to click on the image above to read the text, but essentially Logie’s plan was to have demolished the then derelict church of St Andrew The Great (it didn’t come back into use until a group of Christians rescued it in the late 1990s/early 2000s), to replace that with a hotel. The main entrance to the Lion Yard we know today, where the big sports shop is, is where the large concert hall would have been.

So…calling for a new music venue in Cambridge isn’t new – as this lot also state.

Can town and gown unite to make it happen?

Interested? Please leave a comment below or on Facebook at

***Updated to add***

Via former councillor Colin Rosenstiel who was on the city council for decades, note the below.

What’s interesting – and consistent with other things in Cambridge is just how long it took to move from Gordon Logie’s first proposals in the mid-1960s through to the delivery of the solution – the refurbished Corn Exchange in 1986.

Note ‘The Alliance’ was the 1980s party political alliance between the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party – which broke away from Labour in 1981.

Can Parliament impose a ‘duty to co-operate’ on Cambridge University’s colleges?


How can we persuade Cambridge University’s colleges who own much of the land in Cambridge to co-operate with local councils when it comes to their financial decisions?

The story in the Cambridge News over independent shops going out of business has a depressingly familiar feel to it. Joshua Taylor, Eaden Lilley, Galloway and Porter, Browne’s books on Mill Road, and now the Cambridge Toy Shop along with Ben Hayward Cycles and Arthur Shepherd…it has a depressing feel as they have been replaced by shops that more and more sell to either the mass tourist, (Buy your Cambridge t-shirt souvenir – made in a sweatshop in the far east) or the affluent tourist market (Buy your Cambridge souvenir jewellery mined from a deathtrap of a mine that is also an environmental crime!). I jest…sort of. Cambridge University Press stopped printing books a few years back – a loss to the city.

Compare and contrast with The Shambles in York or Marylebone High Street in London where the land owners have chosen to exclude big brands and artificially lower the rents so that independent shops with a lower financial turnover can afford to run businesses, creating a much more vibrant, interesting and exciting area compared to their bland, identikit clone town cousins. Remember Cambridge was labelled as the worst clone town in the country in 2010. This ‘anti-award’ encouraged a group of people to set up Independent Cambridge.

“Yeah – what’s this got to do with imposing stuff you freedom-hating tree-hugging eco-communist?”

Abstract theoretical concept of ‘the right to breathe clean air’ without having to take extra medication for the purpose – an issue I took to Cambridgeshire County Council very recently.

Above: Tabled public Q on @CambsCC legal powers & duties on air quality

My point is this: If all of the colleges that own land with retail units on them decide to charge the highest rents possible, this has the knock on effect of letting their premises to the shops that have the highest financial turnover – which either means eye-wateringly expensive trinkets, or regular delivery of goods that require frequent lorry-loads of goods to replenish the shelves. Lorries – not good for the roads, and not good for the buildings of our ancient city. Oh – and diesel fuel emissions are not good for public health either. The thing is, writers living in Cambridge have complained over the centuries about the poor air quality in Cambridge.

***Why are we still having to protest this sh-te?!?!***

You only have to look at some of the very old buildings that haven’t been given a good clean to notice just how bad pollution used to be before the construction of central heating. Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb wrote about the impact of poor air quality inside people’s homes on their health and life expectancy. Just because you can’t see the black smoke doesn’t mean that the pollutants haven’t gone away. And bazmobiles with loud engines don’t help either. (Not least because they disturb my sleep patterns).

The thing is, if the people who sit on the college finance committees are not, or don’t feel that they are affected by any of these things, or don’t feel any sense of duty or responsibility to the people who make up the city of Cambridge, why would they have an incentive to behave in a manner as if the wider city mattered? The only incentive they seem to have is the bottom line – sweat their assets as much as possible to get the greatest possible return. I make this point not to criticise those on college finance committees, but to criticise the institutional structures.

That is just one example of the unforeseen consequences of colleges not co-operating with other organisations – in particular the local councils – in the administration of our city. I’m sure there are other examples of large/wealthy institutional land owners who are not necessarily putting the interests of the city they own land in – i.e. putting short term financial returns first. The developments around Cambridge railway station are an example of this.

“Can’t you just ask the college finance committees to change their culture?”

Changing the culture of large, old and wealthy institutions is like turning around an oil tanker. After all, why change anything if the existing cultures and practices have served your institutions very well indeed?

Funnily enough, this was something I was planning to ask Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz at his lecture at Homerton College next week. After all, as the current (but soon-to-be-retiring) Cambridge University Vice Chancellor, surely a quiet word from him to the committees over dinner would sort things out? It turns out not, due to the culture of colleges protecting their independence from Cambridge University fiercely. Or so I was told very recently by someone inside the system who is far more knowledgeable about the inner workings of Cambridge University and its colleges.

“Ah – hence legislating!”

Legislation is always a last resort. The bit that I need to figure out first is what are all of the actions that we (as a city) need to take first, and in what order before we start turning our eyes towards Parliament and ministers. That could range from asking local councillors to investigate first, MPs writing friendly letters, discussions with student activists studying at Cambridge University, and petitions in the first instance.

At the same time, we’d also need to come up with, for want of another phrase, ‘a vision’ and how the culture change and behavioural change would help achieve this. That would also need to be quantified along with risks, opportunities, and cost-benefit analysis. (On the last, how much extra rental income would the colleges forego, and what would the impact be on their activities as a result of changing their policies?)

“If we do all of that, can make the case for the changes – and they still don’t budge? Then what?”

That’s when you start looking towards ministers, MPs and peers to examine the issues. Note too that we are also in an era where Parliament rarely passes legislation that affects only one city. In centuries gone by you would find Acts of Parliament specific to towns, cities, roads and minor railway lines. (ie different to major projects such as HS2).

“Can Parliament force an institution to co-operate in this way?”

Yes – there is precedence in the Local Gov’t & Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 (S106 (3)) as a concept – in this case the duty applied to other partner organisations in the creation of the old ‘Local Area Agreements’. This is where local councils negotiated with central government on what targets they had to hit from a suite of 198 indicators – see all 198 listed here. Although ultimately scrapped by the Coalition a couple of years later, the principle of organisations having a legal duty to co-operate with each other (in recent times) for given aims/outcomes was established.

“Would it be a specific bill for Cambridge?”

Very unlikely for reasons mentioned above. That plus there’s no way a Conservative government would bring it in simply on the grounds of ‘red tape’. Quite understandably they’d say it’s a local issue for local organisations to sort out – why does Parliament need to get involved? But my take is that colleges and their finance committees can play a much more positive role in improving the city not just for members of Cambridge University but also for the rest of us.

Furthermore, going back through the archives, Cambridge used to have a tradition where wealthy and influential members and fellows would contribute their time and money towards the civic good of the city – whether it was through being on the Cambridge Organisation of Charitable Societies (see halfway down here), to the likes of Mr Sedley Taylor paying for the dental fees for all of the children of the borough in 1907, to John Maynard Keynes founding the Cambridge Arts Theatre, through to Sir David Robinson (of Robinson College fame) funding the construction of the Rosie Maternity Hospital in 1983/84. Can Cambridge University revive that tradition? I’ve got 3 projects line up if they are interested!

Chances are there are better ways to get the colleges to work for the greater good of the city. If so, I’m all ears.