Rebuilding civic society in Cambridge – starting with the Mill Road Library…

…but not stopping there. Because if we can’t bring back both the Mill Road Library and the Hobson Street Cinema back into public use, we may as well all go back home.

I noticed that the County Council will be discussing its priorities for the Libraries service on Thurs 04 March 2021. You can read the meeting papers here – item 7.

As Jane Fleming has noted, not all libraries survived austerity intact.

The state of the old Mill Road Library

It’s a local scandal at the moment. It was something I picked up a few years ago and put some Qs to Cambridgeshire County Council.

The reason why it’s empty state is so sad at the moment is because when it opened, it was a source of local pride.

“The scheme of branch libraries was an important development and Mr. Pink was particularly proud of the Mill Road Library, which he claimed to be one of the best branch libraries in England.”

Cambridge Independent Press 30 Nov 1906 following the death of Cambridge Borough Librarian John Pink. Digitised by the British Newspaper Archive.

Happy Chap – Cambridge civic titan John Pink, who built up Cambridge’s municipal libraries service from scratch following the enactment of the Libraries Act 1850, authorising local councils to establish public libraries. He did just that for Cambridge in 1854, spending half a century as our borough librarian. Photo from the Cambridgeshire Collection – which Mr Pink also founded for us.

A century later, Henry Tribe produced this tribute – celebrating 100 years of the library building, and mourning the closure of the library after 99 years, in 1996 – the county council unable to keep the library going after 18 years of Conservative austerity with local council funding. Ironically, this was at the end of a rare period of council rule where the Conservatives in Cambridgeshire could be out-voted by their Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents at Shire Hall. The General Election however, would see a return to Conservative rule at Shire Hall despite the Labour landslide in Westminster – the county bar Cambridge returning a slate of blue-rosetted MPs.

Note it was in 1974 that there was the last major restructure of local government in England – one that is still broadly with us today give or take a unitary council created here and there, such as Peterborough, and also Brighton & Hove. The copy I seem to have acquired was from a sale was the one the author gifted to former city councillor Ben Bradnack (Lab – Petersfield 1991-2009), which he then gifted to the Cambridgeshire Collection. Some of you may remember his late wife, the Homerton College scholar Julia Swindells. She co-authored the book What’s Left: Women in Culture and the Labour Movement with Lisa Jardine following the 1987 General Election.

Rebuilding our civic society in Cambridge – starting with the Mill Road Library

If there was any building in town that we could name after Allan Brigham, the late local historian who for many years was based at the old Mill Road Depot round the back of the library building, it is this one. In the grand scheme of things I don’t think most people will be too concerned about the detail of how it is done, just that it is repaired and returned to community use. I wrote about creating a permanent Mayor’s Civic Fund to pay for projects like this, raising money through donations and bequests similar to how the colleges and Cambridge University raises money. There is no established or recognised way for people to leave bequests to the people of the city in a way that is recognised by all that the money will go on civic projects and buildings not normally funded by council taxes. (The presence of such a fund makes it easier to apply for Lottery funding and from trusts that require match funding to be in place.)

Sounds like an interesting idea? Have an alternative one for the library building?

Put your ideas to your local election candidates! See Because as Chris Rand wrote in the Queen Edith’s newsletter for Spring 2021, this May will see the biggest set of local elections Cambridge has ever seen.

For more on Queen Edith’s issues in South Cambridge (which for county level borders Romsey town), see

Rebuilding civic society and social infrastructure – what the academics say

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy will be asking what Levelling up means for Cambridge & beyond.

They also have a compilation of wide-ranging policy articles on their blog.

Earlier, the Institute held an online discussion about the importance of social infrastructure in the collective recovery from the CoronaVirus pandemic.

Above – you can watch the discussion on video.

Libraries got a mention.

This is in marked contrast to the loss of 17% of libraries as a result of austerity – which represents some 800 libraries. Was the loss of so much social infrastructure worth the austerity that George Osborne imposed on the country (and approved by the Coalition) as Chancellor? One continued by his successors beyond 2015? One point from Dame Julia Unwin was particularly striking.

This matches what Anna Minton’s research has shown regarding the privatisation of public spaces.

She was the journalist who introduced me to the concept of public spaces being privatised. One such space near me in Cambridge is the old cattle market site – now Cambridge Leisure Park owned by Land Securities. They have been designed only for people who want to spend money, rather than places where people can meet, debate, campaign and protest.

If we in Cambridge collectively are concerned about social infrastructure – whether the lack of it on our new and recently-built housing estates (don’t think this wasn’t a problem in Arbury and other estates in the 1960s – it was, just as it is in places like Cambourne today), to long closed historical buildings like Hobson’s Cinema or the Mill Road Library, we will use this opportunity to ‘take back control’ (remember that phrase?) of our civic infrastructure and bring it back into public use.

The challenge for local political parties is to incorporate this into their local council manifestos. With so many elections happening at the same time, there is a responsibility on the local political parties and candidates to ensure that their manifestos and policies are not only consistent with each other, but are ultimately *greater than the sum of their parts*. Can they include a case study of any idea, place, scheme, activity where they can demonstrate how the different tiers of local government can work together to deliver something greater than the sum of its parts?

It’s not just political parties, but also civic society beyond the party politics.

I remember years ago a public speaker lamenting the demise of the Church of England and of trade unions as social institutions that stabilised towns and cities across the UK. Historically both institutions are much less influential than they were in the early-mid 20th Century. Furthermore at another speech I recall one comment mentioning the demise of industrial correspondents in journalism.

Yet on the other side of the Atlantic, the new President in the White House has just given this speech in support of American Labor Unions (the Trade Union movement’s American sister organisation).

If I was on Labour’s digital campaigns team, I’d be sharing the above video widely!

“What if I don’t want to do party politics?”

Don’t do party politics then. I’ve never been a member of a political party. When you’ve worked in policy roles in the civil service where one of your tasks is to pick holes in other people’s arguments (in anticipation of Qs that will be put to ministers who then task you with thinking up the responses), it’s hard to be tribal for any political party. Especially ones that tell you to keep quiet because it’s not in line with an agreed communications response.

And when we look at data on party political membership, membership numbers are not high.

Above – from the House of Commons Library which has more data here.

When you compare national party membership to membership of charities, we find the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – the RSPB, has more members than *all* of the political parties in the UK put together. See their annual report here – they have over a million members. They also have more RSPB youth members (195,000) than the Conservatives had in members in 2019 according to the Commons Library (180,000). And possibly the largest voluntary membership organisation in the country? The National Trust, with over 5 million members.

Pick one local cause, and support it well

Otherwise you’ll end up burnt out repeatedly like me!

Cambridge has a long and colourful history of supporting causes local to international over the centuries. Conservative councillor Mr Charles K Kerridge campaigned to get a new indoor sports centre built next to Parkside Pool – the fruits of a lifetime of municipal campaigning by Labour’s Clara Rackham, who with Cllr Mabel Fell secured Cherry Hinton Hall for the people of Cambridge. So successful was Cllr Kerridge in fundraising the money needed for the sports centre that we named it after him. Cllr Jean Barker – Baroness Trumpington was instrumental in raising the money to pay for the Frank Lee Centre at Addenbrooke’s. And although it has caused problems for locals in more recent times, Conservative Cllr Howard Mallett had the Howard Mallett Centre opened in Petersfield.

Who are going to be the new generation of civic heroes who raise the money for a new round of much needed civic and social infrastructure if we cannot rely on central government to give local councils the financial and legal freedoms to build it, or the finding directly themselves?

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