A list of ideas for improving Cambridge – one for election candidates to pick & choose from

Cambridge Liberal Democrats have proposed demolishing the Queen Anne Terrace Car Park. So what other big things could Cambridge do? (And not just concert halls & museums).

It was their proposal a few weeks ago that caught my eye that covered some interesting things in the run up to the budget debate for Cambridge City Council. Mindful that the city council has few powers, the fact that there are three other elections taking place at the same time (See Cambridge City Council’s explainer here) means that a host of issues can be considered by the electorate all at the same time. Such as my proposal to abolish Cambridgeshire County Council and turn the historical county into a series of unitary/single councils, rather than the two-tier set up we currently have.

You will memorise this map from 1945!

Above – proposals dating from 1945 on new local council boundaries for historical Cambridgeshire. In those days, the upper tier/shire councils were much smaller – note the difference between Cambridge County (shaded red) and Cambridge Borough (pre-dating city status granted in 1951 by The King), the latter also indicating unchanged municipal boundaries since the War – despite Cambridge’s population inside it due to have doubled since then by the time we get to 2030. If you want to see more of the maps above, have a look at the history of boundary changes in Cambridgeshire since the Great Reform Act. This was published in the late 1950s and I bought a copy *ages ago*, and have digitised it so the public can see it.

A permanent Mayoral Fund for Cambridge – to raise big donations to pay for big civic projects

After all, the University of Cambridge has similar funds, and the Fitzwilliam Museum provides a textbook example of how to raise and save funds from large donations to spend on important acquisitions. I wrote about the idea back in 2018 and presented it to Cambridge City Council as a public question, but didn’t get very far.

“[The Leader of the Council] did not think that the council should seek individual contributions to infrastructure projects.”

Cllr Lewis Herbert (Lab – Coleridge) Full Council, Cambridge Guildhall, 19 July 2018.

You can read Cllr Herbert’s full response in the minutes of the full council meeting on 19 July 2018 in the Public Questions item.

The reason for having such a fund to solicit large donations for civic infrastructure is because in the short to medium term it does not look likely that The State will be in any position to fund such projects, even though more than a few buildings and facilities are showing their age. Furthermore, even where it can step in, the quality of civic architecture in recent decades in my view leaves a lot to be desired. And I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way. Central Government has published a new planning policy requiring new developments to meet local standards of beauty, quality, and design. Which then makes me wonder what the process will be for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire in creating that new local standard. The pilot for the national code is here.

Turn Cambridge Corn Exchange into a small business centre and incubator hub, possibly auctioning off some short term leases to the highest bidder for what would be a prestigious city centre location, and use the revenue to help fund a new, much larger concert hall with far better acoustics

…which until recently were notoriously difficult to work with.

The same goes for the Large Hall at the Cambridge Guildhall – acoustically it is a very difficult room to work with.

Back in 2017 my blogpost for a new concert hall was picked up in the Cambridge News here, and followed up here. Which meant having to summarise and responding to the comments which I did here. One of the most prominent criticisms was whether such grandiose projects should be built at a time of a huge affordable housing shortage in Cambridge. A fair point. However, where we have built homes in and around Cambridge – even at scale such as Cambourne, the lack of community facilities has brought about its own costs. This from Cambridgeshire County Council in 2015 that I quoted in the Bourn Airfield Development blogpost.

“One of the findings from the learning from Cambourne report is to provide and incorporate community buildings early in the stages of the development. One of the downfalls in a new community is not having community halls/meeting places built early on ie Community halls, pubs, youth clubs, sport provisions.”

“Loneliness and mental health problems were issues coming out of Cambourne partly due to the initial lack of community buildings. It is important to recognise that that people moving into communities may be moving away from their traditional support systems ie family and established communities with provisions to meet people and friends.”

Cambridgeshire County Council in Bourne Airfield before planners, 18 Feb 2021 – Outline planning permission subject to conditions, was granted by South Cambridgeshire District Council the following day.

The point about the large concert hall is about reflecting the large population growth within the city, and the proposals for significantly improved public transport infrastructure both proposed (the Metro with tunnels) and under construction (The Chilsholm Trail), the point being more people will be able to get to/from venues far faster, and more sustainably.

Expanding the Museum of Cambridge

This is strictly my own little hobby horse and not the policies of anyone else, not least the Trustees of the Museum of Cambridge (unless or until they decide for themselves otherwise – but that’s their call). Also, the Museum of Cambridge needs your help – do consider joining their annual Friends of the Museum scheme.

My hope at the time was to turn the Castle Hill site into an historical attraction with a commercial hotel or similar being the use of the old Shire Hall building. The County Council announced it was moving out of Shire Hall, with the developer of Cambridge Station and North Cambridge being announced as the preferred bidder in 2019. The new county council building will be opening later this autumn according to John Elworthy of the Cambs Times. The editor, John Elworthy is essential following if you want to keep an eye on news from the County Council https://twitter.com/johnelworthy.

Connecting Cambridge vs CAM Metro

Two different models:

For the candidates challenging Mr Palmer for the Mayoralty, they will need to make a decision on which of the two they want to support, if at all. (They may take a view that Cambridge does not need one). Or they might want to bring back the 1960s era monorail instead?

Revamping The Guildhall and Market Square

The redevelopment of the Market Square has been up for discussion for some time now. I’m more interested in The Guildhall’s façade, taking the view that the action by local Conservative councillors and supporters in both 1898, and finally in 1913, were mere temporary setbacks in. the grand scheme of Cambridge’s long history. Hence thinking that the centenary of Florence Ada Keyne’s mayoralty due in 2032 – Florence being the Mother of Modern Cambridge, would be a nice target date to aim for, mindful that parts of the building are showing signs of ageing.

In the grand scheme of things, my proposals to upgrade the Guildhall involve raising the existing council chamber up to the rooftop, building a rooftop cafe, placing a dome on the top of the council chamber, and turning the void below – where the council chamber currently is, into a state-of-the-art conferencing hall/theatre style, which can then be rented out to the general public and corporate sectors. Thus creating two additional revenue streams for the city council – because people will pay that high price for a glass of wine if it means they get splendid rooftop views of old Cambridge. We know this from the Varsity Hotel’s experience.

A new lifelong learning college for adults – located in East Cambridge

This sort of combines with the idea of a Playground for Adults which could be located in the same area. East Cambridge’s area profile by Cambridge City Council is here. The challenges compared to the affluent wards in Cambridge are significant, with higher than average unemployment and food poverty. Therefore investments that bring in new jobs that are within walking/cycling distance of the housing estates, along with opportunities for adults to learn and gain new skills in brand new, modern facilities, could make a huge difference. I wrote about such a college for adults in this blogpost, which was around the same time that the House of Commons Education Select Committee published a report calling for a new generation of Lifelong Learning Colleges. I had a further look asking who would fund it, and if we got one for Cambridge where would we locate it. I concluded that Abbey Ward in East Cambridge would be the best part of town to locate it.

There is already a consultation process going on regarding the future of Abbey Ward, rightly in the hands of the people who live and work there. I hope that with the future housing developments planned for that part of town, plans for a Lifelong Learning College can be included in those plans – whether that’s part of the redevelopment of the Cambridge Airport site in the next local plan or something more sooner than that.

Making existing underused green spaces more accessible

Working on the principle of ‘it doesn’t matter who owns the land in the short term, what matters is that people can access it and enjoy using it’, I identified a number of sites that could be turned into public parks, if not turned into facilities that the public can have access to. I included some of them in a 2019 blogpost after Phil Rodgers identified how few of Cambridge’s green spaces are accessible to the public – and in particular to children and young people. When one new development carried the words ‘large park’ in the headline, I was sceptical.

Above – proposals for Devonshire Road by Cambridge Railway Station and Mill Road Bridge. If a green open space isn’t big enough to play team games on – eg a jumpers-for-goalposts football match, then it’s not a large park. ‘Pocket Parks’ are the thing these days, but for me all too often they are used as cover for over-intensive developments that benefit the financial interests behind them rather than the long term health and wellbeing of those that will live there in the future.

Above – from the Cambridge Local Plan 2018, a submission from landowner/developer CEG – which for me is an example of proposed developments lacking sufficiently large green spaces within them, and built to a monocultural architectural design. Note the changes to the planning system requiring higher standards of beauty, design, and quality announced by Central Government recently.

“Where’s our rowing lake?”

The Cambridge Sports Lakes Trust has had to go back to the drawing board, but I’m still supportive of the principle that Cambridge needs a big rowing lake if only to take pressure off of the River Cam. Ages ago I picked up a Countryside Report published by Cambridgeshire County Council in 1974, and blogged about it here. Back in September 2020 the Trust announced:

You can read the article It’s now or never for Cambridge Country Park and Sports Lakes. The reason the Trust and local councils need to get their water skis on is because the very large Waterbeach Newtown recently received outline planning permission. The proposal for thousands of homes on a disused barracks means that there will be a demand for leisure facilities that at present Waterbeach does not have. You can read the plans for Waterbeach Newtown here. That the proposed site for the Rowing Lake sits between the proposed Newtown and Cambridge means there should be enough people wanting to use it to make it commercially viable – especially as the Chisholm Trail will be long complete by the time such a facility opens. A long, straight, uninterrupted cycle route means cyclists are willing and able to cycle much further than previously modelled for – one of the key findings of the cycle trail alongside the guided busway.

The Cambridge Junction – for North Cambridge

The appointment of the architects was not without controversy locally, but the time had clearly come for the old Junction building opened in 1990 to be demolished and rebuilt to a much-improved specification. Built to a minimal cost and specification in the late 1980s following the Riot of East Road in 1985 when music venues were falling like skittles (The Beaconsfield on Gwydir Street by Cambridge 105, and The Carioca/Newmarket Road Tabernacle being two examples), The Junction has become a part of local history. Yet I’m struggling to think of a significant new venue in Cambridge of a similar calibre that has opened since 1990. And bear in mind ***Cambridge’s population has grown by over 30,000 people*** since then.

So I wrote this blogpost calling for a new community arts venue for North Cambridge, sited close to North Cambridge Railway Station so as to increase the chances it will be commercially viable by opening it up to audiences up and down both the Chilsholm Trail *and* the Guided busway cycleway and bus routes.

The Sir Michael Marshall – Frank Gawthrope Institute for Local History

This is what I think should have been opened in the original proposals for Cambridge Railway Station as the original plans included a new heritage centre. The story of what went wrong was written up in The Guardian by Olly Wainwright here, featuring comments from many in the local area and those involved. By the time Lockdown is over, much of the building work should be complete, though there remain a host of issues to resolve.

All of that aside, in recent years we lost two of Cambridge’s civic titans, one Conservative, one Labour, but who between them gave probably a century’s worth of service to our city through the causes they volunteered for and supported. Given the recent and growing interest in local history – reflected by the number of blue plaques, celebration events, and books published we’ve seen, I think having a small local history institution would be a way of cementing that growth in interest in the longer term. Furthermore, the purpose of the institution wouldn’t be just for research and paper-printing, but to support the city’s creative and artistic communities to create works of art, drama, music and literature to tell the story of our city to visitors and future generations.

“Build Bridges”

At the memorial service for the late Mayor of Cambridge Nigel Gawthrope, the Vicar of Great St Mary’s recalled asking the Mayor what he wanted from the University Church during his mayoraly.

It’s not just the bridges linking communities metaphorically, but also physically. Cambridge has not only a river that separates our city, but also a railway line. Just ask the people of Abbey Ward who are cut off from the rest of us by both – hence the importance of the Chisholm Bridge on the Chisholm Trail, which will open later this year.

There are a number of possibilities for new bridges over the railway lines as well. In particular linking the Mill Road Depot/Ironworks site with the Cromwell Road site by footpath/cyclepath, mindful that the Chisholm Trail passes alongside both sits.

Above – at the bottom-right of this photo is Hooper Street, which could provide an exit to the Petersfield side of the railway line, potentially linking people living in Romsey and further beyond that, Cherry Hinton – which itself is having a large development of 1,200 new homes built.

And tunnels?

In 1950, the Holford Wright report proposed an eastern Railway Station entrance – which we still have not got. One of the options that could be made available along with such an entrance is a footpath leading to the Cambridge Junction, making it easier for audiences coming from outside of town to get to the last train late at night, rather than having to go round over Hills Road Bridge. Ideally, leisure providers and bus/train operators would be having conversations to co-ordinate late evening services. But at the last Q&A session Stagecoach had with the Cambridge Bus Users Group [<<– Click there to join!] showed that these conversations have not been happening. Any county council candidate willing to commit to getting these started?

Use it or lose it: Bringing back buildings into community use – like the Hobson Street Cinema

The Housing Secretary’s proposals on council-owned buildings did not go far enough, and the wonderful Hobson Street Cinema has been out of use for nearly 20 years.

Above – still not in use. Whoever wins the local elections needs to deal with this. Because I’m bored of moaning about it and watching so many wonderful ideas fall by the wayside.

Home sports grounds and facilities designed by and for women

Because most of the sports grounds – the few that we have, were designed for men and men’s sports. The Abbey Stadium for example. Note that in 1921 the Football Association banned women from playing football on pitches owned by organisations affiliated to it. That ban was only lifted in 1971. So all of the stadia originating from that time and before, were designed with only one gender in mind.

Both Cambridge United Women and Cambridge City Women have had to relocate to grounds outside of the City of Cambridge in recent times. As the city expands, my take is that there is capacity for the new developments to build a state-of-the-art community stadium that meets the needs of the football clubs. There’s also a case to be made for upgrading the changing rooms and pavilions across the city to make them accessible to all users, and make them places where people would want to get changed and prepare for a match or training session.

…and a permanent roller skating rink for the Rollerbillies.

Not least because they are continuing a tradition of roller skating in Cambridge that dates back nearly 150 years. They taught me how to skate safely – including what pads to wear, how to crash safely, how to stop, and how to skate backwards. These things had been on my internal bucket list since the 1990s. Therefore the least I can do is to support campaigns to get The Rollerbillies a permanent home skating rink where they have first refusal on use.

Just make sure that any new venues are accessible by segregated cycle path and ideally by any new metro/light rail system. This simply means more people will be able to use the facilities, ensuring that they are less likely to need subsidies in the longer term.

“So….just a few ideas then?”

Yes – and under the current political and economic climate most I concede are unlikely to happen. Or rather won’t happen if it just comes from me blogging about things. Furthermore, many of these are very long term things that might be for future generations to run with – ones that I may not live long enough to reap the benefits of. Such as revamping the Cambridge Guildhall.

For me the big ‘in principle’ barrier is the permanent capital fund for the city and civic projects. If Cambridge’s politicians can create the financial structures needed, and challenge the rest of us to work with them to come up with some inspiring positive visions for the future of our city, maybe we’ll be able to persuade those with deeper pockets to contribute as they do to Cambridge University and its colleges. But if we don’t ask, we don’t get.

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