The case for a North Cambridge Arts Centre

It’s not just that the population size has grown since the opening of The Junction in 1990 following the East Road Riots of the mid-1980s.

I’m writing this in the assumption that there will be a solution to the Covid-19 crisis and that the restrictions we’re currently living under will not become the norm in the very long term – the mask wearing, the closure of concert halls, community centres and libraries, and the social distancing.

Cambridge’s population in 1981 (not including the students) was 91,000. (See the tables of data here). This was around a time when social venues in Cambridge were falling like skittles and there was much local public debate about what the future of social venues in Cambridge should be. This was also a time when the Cambridge Conservative Party had just lost control of Cambridge City Council to No Overall Control. (See the tables by the late Colin Rosenstiel, and Keith Edkins who is now maintaining them). It was also a time of huge civic discontent over the redevelopment of The Kite, which ultimately led to the opening of The Grafton Centre in 1984. After several years of fruitless campaigning peacefully and lawfully for a new arts and music centre for young people in Cambridge, young people decided to campaign violently and unlawfully to make the powers that be listen to them.

East Road Riots of 1985

It seems strange to think of Cambridge as being a place where such things would take place – especially over something like ‘the arts’. But that’s what happened. I wrote about the violence and what led up to it (including listing the venues that had closed) in a post for Lost Cambridge here.

Councillors select the least appropriate site in Cambridge for a new arts venue – especially considering the safety of young women.

It would be another fifteen years before the whole of the former Cattle Market site was redeveloped by Land Securities and turned into Cambridge Leisure Park. If anything, what they were given planning permission to do is an example of how not to redevelop what should have been a prime site but is now a site with some of the worst traffic congestion and the most appallingly-designed buildings in the city. And although primarily designed as a cash cow by the landowners – who only want high turnover chains on the site, it hasn’t turned out to be the success they wanted it to be or that it could have been. In the grand scheme of things the young people (in particular the students at Hills Road Sixth Form College) deserve far, far better.

When The Junction was built, teenagers would have to walk down a poorly-lit street with narrow pavements, parked cars and the inevitable traffic from the Clifton Road Industrial Estate before getting onto the main car park that at the time served as a park-n-ride bus stop. It was not a pleasant experience walking there or back. But then we didn’t know any better. We were teenagers who had known nothing other than being on the receiving end of austerity in the 1990s.

Fast forward to 2020 and a Cambridge in the midst of global crises

Which is where we are today, and a population of over 120,000 people, and an expected population of 151,000 people by the year 2031 according to a report on population by Cambridgeshire County Council in 2011. Next year there should be another one on the back of the 2021 census. Mindful of the caveat at the top of this blogpost what is the plan for a city with such a growing population? Especially given the time it takes to plan, consult, finance, and build a new large community centre that will potentially serve half of the city?

I’ve not mentioned the growth in private language students or the expansion of the private cram colleges and providers of university preparation courses. One thing we don’t know is what the medium-long term impact of Covid-19 will have not just on the young people that come to study and stay in Cambridge, but the institutions and the companies that provide for them. Because either the market will bounce back, or Cambridge will have to deal with a set of stranded assets built to serve a market that no longer exists (or is too small to sustain that many providers).

North East Cambridge as a possible site for a large arts and music venue

You can read all about the redevelopment of the Cambridge Sewage Works Site here.

Given the size of such a large brownfield site and its proximity to Cambridge North, the Cambridge Guided Busway, and the Chisholm Trail, it’s an ideal site to build an arts venue not just for the people who will live in the new homes built there, but for a much larger geographical area. If they build a bog-standard community centre – and I use that phrase pejoratively to reflect the substandard nature of recently-built centres in Cambridge (i.e. the smallest that developers can get away with building as opposed to awe-inspiring, state-of-the-art facilities that makes people *want to be there*), then either people will not use it or it will risk being overwhelmed by excessive demand for the limited availability.

Such a facility also needs to account for future populations. We can see what happens when this doesn’t happen. Look at Parkside Pools and the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre. The very busy evening sessions are quickly booked up or monopolised by long standing clubs that provide regular and sustainable incomes. Given that Parkside Pools opened in the 1960s after a lifetime of campaigning by Cllr Clara Rackham, and Kelsey Kerridge was opened in the 1970s, the city has nearly doubled in population since then – and the need for new facilities for that expanded population has already been formally assessed by Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council.

The visitor footprint of The Junction in South Cambridge

One of the things The Junction did several years ago at a data hack at Anglia Ruskin University was to enable one of the teams to work with anonymised postcode data of visitors to The Junction and plot them on a map to see which parts of the city and county they had traveled from. What struck them was how far people were prepared to travel to see different shows – even regular visitors were prepared to cross county boundaries to get there.

If a new arts and music venue is built on the North East Cambridge site – and I believe that it should be, it needs to learn the lessons of The Junction’s early years in particular. These are due to be put right in a redevelopment of The Junction through the somewhat controversial appointment of Levitt Burnstein architects which amongst other things will create facilities that can be rented out to businesses and community groups and provide a more sustainable income independent of grants.

Obviously I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to new large concert hall for the city being built on the site given my existing views that Cambridge needs one with a capacity of over 2,500, but note the target audience for that would not be the same as that of an arts and music centre that would provide the opportunities that you wouldn’t get at a mainstream venue.

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