If Greater Cambridgeshire (i.e. Cambridgeshire + Peterborough) is to be the county of culture 2025, heritage and transport are key components

Oh – and it would be nice to have a new large concert hall for Cambridge by the end of the period as well. (Because the time has arrived for it).

Some of you may have spotted my live-tweets from earlier.

…since written up by Mr Hatton in the Cambridge Independent. (It’s worth subscribing to one of our local newspapers to keep up to speed on local democracy. Alternatively feel free to support my own commentary and comments via the Town Owl’s Ko-Fi page).

Criteria for City – or county of culture

You can read them here. To summarise:

  1. Articulate a vision which uses culture to transform a place through social, cultural and economic regeneration, making it more attractive to live, work, visit and invest in.
  2. Drive growth
  3. Innovate
  4. Reach out across the UK and abroad
  5. Maximise the social benefits of investing in culture
  6. Maximise the legacy, and have capacity to deliver
  7. Embed environmental sustainability

Note the multi-town bid: “This could be a city or large town, or a cohesive area made up of two or more neighbouring or closely linked cities or towns”

“But Cambridge does not need any more tourists!”

Expect to hear more sentiment like this.

“Are Cambridge, Ely, & Peterborough closely-linked cities? Is Greater Cambridgeshire a cohesive areas?”

That’s what those behind the bid have to convince the panellists making the judgement call. And meeting the criteria is not without its significant challenges. The recent election results alone show that we are a very divided county politically. Cambridge is the most unequal city in the country on wealth distribution. And when you compare the demographics and health/education indicators between South Cambridgeshire and Wisbech, that sense of polarisation is only strengthened. And that’s before we’ve looked at the Fenland vs Cambridge EU Referendum results.

There are some on the blue-rosetted side of politics who will consider the above county council election results map to be a constitutional outrage that must be dealt with immediately. You can find some of them penning broadsheet columns bemoaning the latest announcement from the Vice Chancellor’s Office – the sort that goes over the heads of most of us townfolk but at the same time signifies the end of civilisation in parts of Fleet Street.

“This is a British Democracy Bernard! British Democracy recognises you need a system to protect the important things in life…and keep them out of the hands of the Barbarians!”

Therefore part of the bid has to cover reducing the divide and the polarities between the different parts of the county.

Avoiding the stereotypes of King’s College Chapel plus two Cathedrals

Because architecturally these gothic masterpieces/monstrosities dominate (in the minds of outside visitors) each of the cities – even though the reality is that there is far more to the three cities than the tourist honeypots. I also dare say that there is much more to each of the buildings and their histories than many of the local and county residents are aware of. The challenge of any city with a strong tourist reputation: how do you ensure that the people who live there grow up with the civic knowledge embedded in their education? Remember that I’m of the generation of townies who were about as welcome in University circles as the bubonic plague. Actually, I think the latter was more welcome! (I’ll save the tales of the 1990s for another time).

That’s not to say don’t include the three great institutions.

Excluding them would be just as much of a mistake – as would trying to ‘invent’ a new culture especially for such a bid. That would be trying to go too far in the other direction. Thus leaving you with two entrenched sides: the traditionalists going with popular choral pieces by world class choirs on one side, versus the anti-traditionalists on the other looking for something new for its own sake – a reminder of some of the cultural battles of the post-war era as reflected in the practices of the built environment of the time.

“How do you involve choral music without involving religion?”

Like this:

Only in Sleep by Ēriks Ešenvalds sung by the Trinity College Chapel Choir of 2015.

Other things that come in threes

It doesn’t have to be three cities alone. They could also feature the three queens of Ely Cathedral:

  • Etheldreda the foundress,
  • her elder sister Sexburga, who founded the Nunnery at Sheppey…
  • and her niece Ermenilda,

You’ll sometimes see the three crowns on county-related things – though the news of a new county flag in 2015 was something that passed me by. I’ve been more familiar with this from the local government world.

“Why not three towns?”

They alone would not be able to carry the bid in themselves. Especially on criteria two and four at the top. The towns would be too small to drive growth, and too low profile to reach out beyond the UK at scale.

If a trio of towns were selected to incorporate into a county bid, my picks would be:

  • Huntingdon
  • March
  • Wisbech

Huntingdon – everything to do with Cromwell, as well as being on the Great North Eastern Railway; March because it is the county town of the Isle of Ely and where the original Isle of Ely County Council was established – hence the construction of March Town Hall and Fenland County Hall – also in March; and the historic inland port of Wisbech.

“If we wanted it to be future-looking…”

…we only need look across the sea to The Netherlands to learn from them. After all, The Fens were drained by Dutch engineers under the leadership of Sir Cornelius Vermuyden. Given the poor state of transport links in this part of the world, there’s much the county can learn from The Netherlands on their rural cycling infrastructure. With that in mind, one of the best things that the new Mayor Dr Nik Johnson could do is to recruit a competent cycling infrastructure engineer to start mapping out a new cycling network across the county so as to reduce dependency on the motor car. (First port of call is The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in London, if you’re reading Mr Mayor!)

Alternatively, The Mayor could host community meetings inviting residents who have lived all over the world to get together and suggest ideas of things that are great in other countries that might be really good to have here. And rather than having it as a one-way conversation, get people to share ideas with each other, talk to each other and see which are the ones that rise to the top. Multiple shared conversations.

2025 might be too soon – what about the next round?

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It might simply be the case that we don’t have the transport infrastructure ready to cope with the visitors that will come with such a title. It might be that we have not invested enough in our local heritage organisations (The Cambridgeshire Association for Local History is the starting point) mindful that previous county councils chose to under-fund local heritage by only funding its archives service at its statutory minimum – something I strongly urge the new Joint Administration to turn around. In fact, the County Council will need to if The Mayor’s bid is to get off the ground in my opinion. Many of our heritage organisations are run on shoe-string budgets and have also taken their own hits from the pandemic.

If Greater Cambridgeshire is to be a County of Culture, then political leaders will need to lead by example and start putting some resources into our local heritage organisations enabling residents to reconnect with our local shared histories. From there, the ideas for a wider cultural offer can be taken up by the worlds of arts, drama, music and literature.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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