Are big developers building in Cambridge oblivious to those of us that live here?


On the yawning gap between big developers and their agents selling ‘the city’ abroad and the residents that make the city what it is

I was keeping an eye on the UK Property Forum event being live tweeted by various people on the hashtag #Ceepf this morning. The head of the National Infrastructure Commission, Andrew Adonis addressed the meeting. In the grand scheme of things, he was one of the ministers in Gordon Brown’s administration who I rated as Transport Secretary – an indication why George Osborne appointed him to lead the NIC. (Remember Osborne and Brown didn’t get on – but did agree on Adonis).

Now, there have been numerous events, workshops, talking shops and seminars on all things Cambridge growth and the future of our city. I remain of the view that the biggest underlying root cause of Cambridge’s current and future problems is governance. The city is still governed by a large market town. Until it has the governance arrangements that can match what the money-men says it is (and it is nearly always men) – ie a small city with an international profile, it will always be subject to the whims of over-burdened low calibre here-today-gone-tomorrow ministers in Whitehall.

Having worked in Whitehall I learned that no minister or senior civil servant will ever have the information needed in order to take the decisions that cities need to take for them to run efficiently and effectively. There is simply too much going on. As a result, you end up with policy paralysis with local areas waiting for permission to go ahead with schemes and actions that really should be conceived, developed, funded and delivered locally. The way local councils are extremely limited in how they raise revenue solidifies these arrangements. Everyone in local government is looking towards The Treasury.

As far as the developers’ billions are concerned, that world of finance is light years away from the people that make Cambridge and other cities what they are. The controversial CB1 development around the railway station has made the developers a fortune. Yet despite their gushing PR in the Cambridge News in this article, scroll down to read the comments and there’s hardly a good word to be said. I remain a strong critic of the developments in and around the railway station mainly because of the missed potential. Interestingly, Historic England have offered to meet me and some local residents around the lessons learnt from this case. Note too the engineering problems as filmed by Richard Taylor below:

You’d have thought spending £1billion on the site, and £4million on the square alone they’d have got the basics right.

“How big should the voice of business be?”

Note this quotation attributed to Lord Adonis

Note recently, Sir Stuart Rose, the former M&S chief said the following after being on the losing side in the EU Referendum campaign.

“…to be honest, businessmen should stick to business and politicians to politics.”

In my experience, the voice of business is not a monolithic single voice. I’ve seen firms specialising in sustainable building and manufacturing arguing for stronger sustainability standards in the face of resistance from other firms lobbying to undermine them. Secondly, the voice of businesses that are genuinely at the heart of the communities that they operate in – ie they re-invest and spend generated profits in those communities rather than syphoning them offshore to tax havens, are more likely to have a different view of what their town/city should become vs a jet set chief executive who switches from apartment to five star hotel room to luxury villa at the drop of a hat.

Furthermore, just because someone may own or run a business does not mean that this is the only lens that they view the world through. They too feel similar emotions, passions and fears that the rest of us do. In the same way that Cambridge transport is not all cyclists vs motorists – I’ve lost count the number of times car drivers write in to newspapers in the face of someone complaining about cyclists saying that as a car driver they also cycle too.

Local residents not involved in decision-making processes early enough

Tom Foggin of the Cambridge Association of Architects gave a splendid exposition of the design and planning process at a recent event co-organised by the conservation organisation Cambridge Past, Present & Future and the business organisation Cambridge Ahead.

In the seven stages of development Mr Foggin took us through, it seemed to me that the public is only involved from the fourth – at which point it is too late. (Mr Foggin contacted me to assure me that this wasn’t the case, and that RIBA guidance for developers is to get local communities involved as early as possible).

Essentially our planning and urban design system builds in adversarial relationships rather than ones where we undertake shared problem-solving. One of the reasons I believe so many of the developments around Cambridge railway station have been so controversial locally is because developers and ministers have not been interested in framing such opportunities as shared challenges, but rather as a means for someone to make as much money as possible within whatever minimal social requirements they can get away with.

“Does this mean developers and ministers are evil?”


“Why not?”

Developers are doing what the system incentivises them to do – to make money. In the same sense, similar with career-minded ministers. Don’t rock the boat and you might get promoted. And all that. It’s not unique to Cambridge, but our governance, systems, processes and controls don’t incentivise developers to encourage and inspire local people to get involved in the designs of developments that they ultimately have to live with. Hence why all too often it feels like developers and their financiers impose big and locally unpopular developments on unsuspecting communities then run off with the money leaving communities to foot the bill when the design flaws become apparent.


Yes…in the developments by the railway station such was the poor design on all things crime and disorder that the area is now a local police priority. The area is probably stuck with this for the next half century.

And finally…

I’m still of the view that events looking at the future of Cambridge are too segregated and are lacking in diversity. (Where are all of the young people at these events?)

Until Cambridge’s governance can be overhauled (and I’m extremely sceptical about the county mayor proposals that Cambridgeshire’s councils approved this week), and until institutions start hosting events that bring together the communities that make up our city of Cambridge, we will see many more speculative developments that prioritise profit-making for investors that have no stake in local communities ahead of the needs of the people that make up our city. (By ‘the people’ I mean people who live, work and/or study in our city, along with those that need to visit regularly).


Asking questions at council meetings in Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire



Some guidance & links on getting involved in local democracy through local councils

Thank you for your continued support on all things filming & Cambridge/South Cambs community action. For those of you interested in supporting my work, please click here.

December council meetings – if you need a break from festive shopping

Cambridge City Council:

What are such meetings about? Have a listen to Cllr Richard Johnson.

Never been inside the council chamber at The Guildhall? You are more than welcome to attend public meetings here – have a look at this video below:

Any questions? Contact the council’s democratic services officers:


Cambridgeshire County Council

The list of council meetings is at & is regularly updated.

Their rules on public speaking are slightly more restricted, meaning you have to give a week’s notice of questions (ie email them in advance ( of the question you are going to ask). The public can still attend meetings. See my video below.

Any questions? Have a read of or email

Greater Cambridge City Deal

Events & meetings are listed at with contact details at – again, you need to give notice (this time 3 days) of questions you want to ask at public meetings.

The video below is an example of public questions being asked at a city deal assembly meeting inside South Cambridgeshire Hall.

I’ve not yet found guidance notes for South Cambridgeshire District Council (I’m sure they’ll inform me in the comments below or via Twitter – several of their councillors & officers follow Puffles), but their lists of meetings is via

[UPDATE] – South Cambs tweeted back to Puffles:

South Cambridgeshire District Council also has a youth council – while Cambridge City Council does not. Unfortunately this means Cambridge City is not represented in the British Youth Parliament that meets in the House of Commons. Cambridge residents, if you have an issue with this, write to your city councillors at

Campaigning through local campaign groups

You can campaign through residents associations (declaration of interest, the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (@FeCRA2 on Twitter) financially support my filming of city deal and local plan meetings) or through local interest groups. Some that regularly ask public questions include:

Cambridge Cycling Campaign – campaigning not just about cycles but on urban design and making Cambridge & surrounding areas more pleasant to live and travel in.

Cambridge Past Present and Future – campaigning for a more sustainable future for Cambridge – and against unrestricted urban sprawl.

Unite Cambridge – The Cambridge branch of the community union, often seen campaigning on affordable housing and social justice issues in Cambridge

Cambridge Council for Voluntary Service members – have a look at their members list here.

If you don’t want to stand up and ask a public question at a meeting…

…you can always ask one of your local councillors to ask the question on your behalf. Contact them via

Keep an eye on what all are doing on Facebook click on the links below:


Cambridge’s councils have sound issues


How can we improve the ability of councillors to make themselves heard, and how can we improve the audio set up in council chambers? Because I’m getting too many complaints about poor quality audio that is outside of my control.

Have a watch of the video below – which I’ve processed as a HD video rather than a standard large video that I normally do for long council meetings. (The latter means a smaller file size).

I’ve used multiple examples of the audio issues I face as a community cameraman and reporter. I’ve also provided examples of good microphone technique as well as poor technique. I’ve also commented on the limitations of each chamber in the video. The councils featured are:

  • Cambridge City Council – The Guildhall’s council chamber
  • Cambridgeshire County Council – Shire Hall’s council chamber
  • South Cambridgeshire District Council – South Cambridgeshire Hall’s chamber/function room

Both The Guildhall and Shire Hall were built in the 1930s. South Cambridgeshire Hall was built in the much more recent past. Due to the nature of the chambers, they all struggle with audibility – strange given that their prime functions is to host public debates.

“Hardly anyone watches local council videos, so why does it matter?”


Over 11,000 hits in the past three months, with spikes in early Sept and mid-Oct 2016. The first relating to a demo outside The Guildhall and the second pair relating to meetings on local planning and transport issues. People care. Note that nearly all of my videos related to local democracy issues in and around Cambridge. The videos therefore appeal to a very small geographic audience – and only a small section within that geographic audience of not much more than 200,000 people.

“What are your recommendations for councillors and public speakers?”

For the councils as institutions:

Please review your existing audio-visual facilities in your council chambers and consider upgrading your sound systems so that community reporters can record audio footage directly from your sound systems using flash drives.

Please consider upgrading your chamber audio speakers so that the frequency has a greater range and a warmer/more comfortable-sounding sound.

Please consider upgrading your chamber microphones so that councillors and speakers can extend/retract the microphones depending on whether they are standing, sitting or can adjust according to the height of the speaker.

Please consider whether you should invite new public speakers to rehearse their public questions so they get used to using a microphone and used to hearing their voice played back on a modern sound system.

For councillors

Please learn the basics of how to use microphones properly.

Please undertake regular public speaking training/coaching/mentoring – in both cases think accessibility of your constituents.

For readers/watchers/local residents

If you would like the audio in my videos to be improved, please email your councillor via – you only need to know your postcode. Because I don’t have the spare money needed for a professional broadcast standard microphone plus sound system to compensate.

Thank you.

Democracy activism begins at home…but doesn’t end there


Following the various elections in 2016…

I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of the US elections because I’m not qualified to do so. But the reactions in the feeds below speak volumes.

and via my friend Anke,

I just hope there are organisations in the US who are logging every single attack that’s reported.

Over here, Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie wrote this:

…trying to distance the official ‘Brexit’ campaign from Trump, with liberal commentator Mehdi Hassan responding in agreement below

…but then Nigel on the radio today came up with this:

I have no words.

But for those of you in shock at recent events, have a look at this Twitter stream.

Those speaking out against the hate we/they have to live through? That’s what it feels like. “Welcome”.

“And the response in the UK?”

Tabloid land on the right is a mix of welcoming it to ‘Weren’t you all shocked!” by the result. The liberal-left ones talk of dark times ahead. Understandable given the anecdotal evidence above.

You’ve got the awkward political responses from Government ministers given their previous comments criticising the president-elect during the campaign, but it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was praised for her response, re-enforcing what she believed were shared values.

“What can we do in response given that we are here??”

I’ve titled this piece “Democracy begins at home…but doesn’t end there” as a take on the saying “Charity begins at home” and “Think global, act local”. I’ve also been inviting people to consider the one behavioural change or one small one off action they will take as a result of the sense of shock they feel. I’m already talking to people about scheduling some local democracy workshops in and around Cambridge as mentioned in my previous blogpost.

At the same time, I’m continuing with filming the various council meetings happening in and around Cambridge – supported by the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations and many of you who have been kind enough to donate to help cover my costs. I’ve filmed seven meetings in the past 10 days. Democracy never sleeps. As when Norway responded to a tragic shooting of young political activists, the response from Kens Stoltenberg, their Prime Minister was:

“Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.”

Something for us to consider?

My music group has launched a musical response – see below

See also The People Are Sound Facebook Group

If you want something very small to do in response, My suggestion is to start off with finding out who your local MP and local councillors are via . You may want to:

  • send them an email introducing yourself
  • ask them about an issue in your local area that you think something could be done about
  • ask them how to get involved on a particular issue or activity locally
  • ask them their opinion on a specific issue
  • share the above link with friends/relatives/acquaintances and invite them to do similar.

Also, keep an eye on The Democracy Club & their work on improving elections. Also note this link via Dr Karolina Pomorska, a research fellow at Cambridge University.

It may not change the world, but it may be a small step in reconnecting more of us to decisions that we can influence.

So…shall we do this Cambridge democracy thing then?


Organising democracy workshops for early 2017 in and around Cambridge, noting the 2017 Cambridgeshire County Council elections are looming

But first this:

If you’ve not already seen it, Please see the video below where I explain why I need your support – including to pay for training that will allow me to work out how to make that button say ‘Donate’.


You don’t have to have a PayPal account to donate – you can use an ordinary debit or credit card.

If you have any problems, please email me at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com

Thank you for your continued support – because it also allows me to help organise things like democracy workshops!

“A democracy workshop?”

Yes – like the one we organised in June 2016 around the city deal

“How did it work?”

We brought together just over a dozen of us from across the city, which meant people were working with others who they had not met and would otherwise not meet either socially or in local campaigning. We explored Cambridge’s local institutions from the perspective of local residents rather than from the perspective of the institutions. It’s the step that many introduction courses miss when starting out: they put the institution first rather than the citizen or learner. Have a look at this new free e-learning course from Parliament (which I strongly recommend) but also note how introduce it from the perspective of Parliament first rather than citizen first.

“This free online course will introduce you to the work and role of the UK Parliament. From setting the age at which we start school to deciding pension policy, the UK Parliament makes laws that impact our lives, our work and our wider society.”

Turn the above around to: “Who decides at what age you have to start school? Who decides on the rules pension providers have to abide by? Who decides how much child benefit you get? Who brought in child benefit in the first place?”

That was the approach we went with, but built it around 2 principles:

  • Lines of funding
  • Lines of accountability

We learnt about where funding for the various public services came from – and what we defined as a public service & how they evolved over time. We also looked at what happened in return for that funding – how each different layer was responsible for the funding it received.

Once we had established the basics of services in our communities, we looked at when things broke down/went wrong and lines of redress. It was from there that we were able to move into discussions about what was happening in and around Cambridge and how we as citizens could influence proceedings.

“It still sounds very….*heavy*”

This is why I want to think now about how we make what is an incredibly complex, intellectually taxing and time-consuming subject area one that is much more digestible for people. In terms of main aims, they’d be something like:

  • For everyone to have a basic understanding of how our city functions
  • For everyone to know who to contact and how, when things go wrong
  • For everyone to have chosen one policy area that they’d want to give a bit more attention to, knowing that there are other people scrutinising other policy areas who they can contact for further advice or support.
  • For everyone to have met at least one person who they want to stay in touch with.

“Yeah – that’s a lot for a couple of hours”

That’s why I’m wondering whether to break the whole thing up into a series of workshops dotted about the city – in particular so that people can meet up more than once to talk about what they’ve learnt and found out.

Democracy Club comes to Cambridge

Some of you may have heard about the Democracy Club. One of the club’s founders, Sym Roe has just moved to Cambridge. Which is splendid for someone like me as they’ve already started building the online tools that will be really useful for voters in the 2017 elections – have a look at They are on Twitter at and on Facebook at too.

Where my workshops fit in is getting as many people who are at the heart of our communities in a position where they can talk knowledgeably about both the election processes and the online tools to local residents.

“Shouldn’t the council be doing this stuff?”

My take is that until Parliament gives local councils the necessary powers and ability to raise their own funds to pay for things like this, civic society has to step in. It may be the case that some of the work we have planned, if successful, becomes something that councils or local institutions take on themselves.

Democracy being about more than voting

That’s one of the things I also want to get across to local residents: Democracy is not a spectator pastime. It requires people to take action for it to succeed. And yes, at a local level it feels that the amount of time and effort put into it does not seem to match the outcomes at the other end, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. For example:

Cambridge City Council is asking Cambridge residents for views on how to improve local neighbourhoods with funding from developers. Depending on where you live, there’s a fair amount of money available. Rock up to your area committee to find out more – or email your councillor via (for which you only need to know your postcode to find out who they are & how to contact them).

It’s not just local councils or Parliament either.

Are you a regular health service user? If so, you may want to know about Healthwatch England. (Though I detest the language of “national consumer champion in health and care”). Every county or equivalent has one, and we have one in Cambridgeshire –

Crime an issue? The Government brought in directly-elected police and crime commissioners a few years ago. You can find yours at In Cambridgeshire we have Jason Ablewhite and he is scrutinised by the Cambs & Peterborough Police & Crime Panel.

There are a host of other organisations and public bodies that have various scrutiny arrangements beyond these. I’m still trying to get my head around all of them so that at least we can start mapping it all.

Anyway, interested in your thoughts how we might go about all of this.



Councillors reject Cambridge station blocks


City councillors voted to refuse planning permission for two new buildings at Cambridge Railway Station – including a proposed replacement for the old mill silo building destroyed a few years ago in a suspicious fire.

The run up to the case is described in my Lost Cambridge blog here.

The old mill looked like as in the black and white photo above, the 2005 plan is as the drawing in the top right, and the revamped replacement the developers wanted is the brown building in the CGI (computer-generated image) in the bottom right.

The playlist of my videos from the planning committee meeting at The Guildhall are here.

Membership of the planning committee can be found by clicking & scrolling down this page.

Papers for the meeting where this case was discussed is here – look for item 5 – 15/1759/FUL – Murdoch House, 40-44 Station Road .

See also Ben Comber in the Cambridge Independent here, and Adam Care in the Cambridge News here. Ben is on Twitter at @BenComberCI, and Adam Care is at @AdamCareCN.

“Does their refusal mean that the brown building won’t get built?”

No – Cambridge City Council has a ‘Refused planning protocol’ which allows councillors to reconsider any refusals they make when they refuse a planning application.

“What does that mean?”

It’s all explained in this document which stems from from the huge bill the council received following the Wilton Terrace case.

“Which means…?”

Councillors are going to get further advice from officials – including things like possible action the developer may take if the latter stands their grounds and decides to go to appeal to a Whitehall planning inspector.

“Who are these planning inspectors?”

These are accountable to ministers and have become unpopular in local communities across the country because they have been seen to overturn a number of council decisions against  development. This was on the back of changes to the law and of Government policy where successive housing ministers (Grant Shapps MP, Brandon Lewis MP and now Gavin Barwell MP) felt that too many refusals for planning permission by local councils was making the current housing crisis worse, so effectively ‘fast tracked’ the appeals process for developers. That plus the tightening of Whitehall rules on what councils can and cannot do means it’s harder for local councils to refuse planning permission.


This case is going to come back to the planning committee one way or another. The site is too valuable financially to be left as it is. It remains to be seen what the developers Brookgate choose to do. (Their corporate contacts are here).

Involvement of Cambridge residents

My two blogposts on this issue picked up over 1,000 hits in less than a week in the run up to the planning committee’s meeting, along with lots of mentions across other social media platforms. This included coverage from the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations. They mobilised their members to contact local councillors to oppose the planning application. Furthermore, a number of residents turned up to the planning committee meeting in person to put further pressure on councillors. Furthermore, I turned up with a camera to film the whole thing. (Such meetings are not normally filmed by anyone).

Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s opposition

The incredibly well-organised Cambridge Cycling Campaign have a linked tool that you can use at which they keep track on planning applications. Anything that in their opinion does not provide for enough cycle parking they will submit an objection. That’s what they did here.

Roxanne de Beaux of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign outlines the campaign’s objection to the planning application.

Councillors miss out the historical context

Because we didn’t get our objections in on time, councillors did not discuss the historical context. Instead they focussed on four themes as grounds for refusal, as directed by former Mayor of Cambridge Cllr John Hipkin. Those themes were:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Lack of cycle parking provision and facilities for cyclists
  • Lack of community facilities
  • Design issues

In the end, councillors went with refusing the application on all bar affordable housing grounds.

“Can we submit new objections on historical context grounds to the follow-up hearing?”

No – Cllr Kevin Blencowe, the executive councillor for planning, who sits on the planning committee confirmed this to me shortly after the committee refused the application. Any further considerations from the council have to be based on the issues that were raised at the meeting as grounds for refusal.

However, if the developers withdraw the existing application and submit a new one, objections on new grounds can be made as it is a separate planning application that will have been submitted rather than a modified one. So it remains to be seen how many – if any – modifications are made to the building that councillors and members of the public had issues with.


I have a donations page!

Even though the button says ‘Buy now’


Please see the video below where I explain why I need your support – including to pay for training that will allow me to work out how to make that button say ‘Donate’.


You don’t have to have a PayPal account to donate – you can use an ordinary devit or credit card.

If you have any problems, please email me at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com

Thank you for your continued support.

How developers game the planning system – a Cambridge case study


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

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

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


(From GoogleMaps)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Let’s take The Belvedere.

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

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

Then there’s the very controversial Marque development

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for CB1?

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

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

What made me flip last night were the following:

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

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

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

“Why were we not told earlier?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Councillors using videos to hold each other accountable


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

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

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

A couple of things to note:

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

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

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

“Splendid! So everyone’s happy now?”

Well…not really.

“Why not?”

Audio. Have a listen.

This was at Shire Hall, Cambridge.

This was at The Guildhall, Cambridge.

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

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

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

Councillors: Think accessibility

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Does anyone control the audio in the Guildhall?”

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


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

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

“Anything on councillors holding each other accountable?”

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


In praise of Ellisif


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened in 2014 that changed things?”

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

The Green Surge of late 2014 was not an accident

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

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

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

The mainstream media start asking difficult questions

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

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

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

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

“And yet…? How did they do?”

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

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

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

“Did the surge last?”

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

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

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

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