Whose future vision of Cambridge is being delivered, and why?

Some of you may have seen the spoof letter to the people of the city regarding access to Grantchester Meadows following the restrictions put in place by landowner King’s College.

Picture the scene:

The King of England (Henry VI to be precise) rocked up to Cambridge and surveyed the scene on Milne Street. He saw streets by the river bustling with people and traders going about their daily business. Then he declared:

“What a splendid scene this is! You know what? I think I’m going to build a college here, and call it “Mine! Not yours! Mine!”

…and thus King’s College was built. (Above. -from Cambridge Seven Hundred by Poole)

Actually, only The Chapel was completed – the rest of it being different from the original plans. As for the people who lived and worked by the river? They were cleared out of the way with a swift stamp of the Royal Seal.

Which was pretty much the miserable lot of the people of Cambridge for the next half-a-millennium. We probably did not help ourselves in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, but *we were provoked* by the abuses of the colleges and the university – as well as being mislead by our civic leaders. Look it wasn’t our fault we were illiterate and poorly led! We didn’t have the vote!

We can’t really be blamed for Oliver Cromwell becoming our MP either. Parachuted in as a candidate and elected on a tiny franchise.

Above – Clarke & Atkinson in 1897 writing about Cromwell’s election in Cambridge, where a room full of chaps said: “You’ll do!”

Fast forward to the early 1800s and much political and campaigning effort was expended trying to ride the town of the toxic parasitical influence of the Duke of Rutland’s stranglehold of the place that John Mortlock and chums (who squandered much of the town’s wealth over a period of nearly half a century) held for him – as Prof Helen Cam describes. The struggle between Mortlock’s Tories and the opposition Whigs (later Liberals) was something that would occupy the town for over half a century – and all too often involved threats of violence or business boycotts (mainly in favour of the Tory interest so the archives tell us), and the various attempts to improve the town with nice things for the people were all too often only carried through with reluctance of the rate-paying elite. If you were too poor to pay the rates or own property (or were a woman), you could not vote. That situation did not change until after the First World War.

Fast forward to the late 1800s/early 1900s and the vision of the Ratepayers and their Conservative allies to requests for nice things was: “No!”

  • 1898: “Can we have this nice new guildhall design please?”
  • Tories & Ratepayers’ alliance: “No!”
  • 1913: “Please can we have this nice not-so-new guildhall design please?”
  • Tories & Ratepayers’ alliance: “No!”

Then in the 20th Century it was the other way around:

  • 1935: “We don’t want that ugly guildhall design!
  • Councillors: “Well you’re having it anyway”
  • 1976: “We don’t want that ugly big shopping centre in the middle of our neighbourhood!”
  • Councillors: Well you’re having it anyway”
  • 1990s: “We’d quite like to keep our public services actually!”
  • John Major: “Well you can’t have them – here are some cuts instead”

And thus we ended up with no Conservative councillors representing any wards or divisions inside the City of Cambridge.

They may have had ‘orrible visions – but at least the voters knew who was behind it and could vote them out.

One of the big problems with the current set up is that it is not clear whose vision is being delivered, and how the people responsible for that vision are directly accountable to the electorate.

The overly-complicated governance structure of Greater Cambridge put in place by ministers in London has created unnecessary confusion

I’ve said this for *years*.

Above from Smarter Cambridge Transport – governance structures for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

“The Business Board? I’m sorry – who invented you?”

 “I appreciate politicians want to be popular, but I am really unimpressed by politicians who get photographed with every placard. They write letters to us claiming that everyone is against this scheme, or other schemes. There’s little back-up to these stated facts. It just comes across as anti-business, which I obviously find quite offensive.” 

Clare Ruskin of the Cambridge Network, and retiring Board Member (non-voting) of the Greater Cambridge Partnership, at last week’s Board Meeting.

The Cambridge Independent wrote that this was a thinly-veiled criticism of the MP for South Cambridgeshire who had been working with residents who had been bombarding his constituency office with complaints about the busway. In my current state of chronic-fatigue-based immobility, watching Conservative politicians and the business sector tearing strips out of each other counts as a spectator sport. The tree-hugging eco-warrior in me was waiting for Ms Ruskin to throw another metaphorical thump against said MP.

But there is a more important and wider principle at stake here – one that ministers have continually over-looked. And that is lines of accountability for any ‘external stakeholder’ brought on board to represent a sector on on a decision-making body or forum. And this was raised by Independent Queen Edith’s Councillor Sam Davies MBE.

What I find offensive is the assertion that elected councillors have less right to speak for the interests of their residents than the unelected representative of a business lobby group – a ‘temporary’ appointee to the Exec Board after the Local Enterprise Partnership was wound up in disgrace in 2018.”

Cllr Sam Davies, 04 July 2021

In principle, I agree with Cllr Davies – where do the mandates for business representatives come from? I’ve sat on similar boards during my civil service career that were full of business and campaign group representatives, wondering what qualifies these chaps (and it was mainly men even in the mid-2000s) to have the right to spend time telling ministers and their civil servants what Government policy should be. Back to the Cambridgeshire case and the old LEP was wound up in disgrace a few years ago and incorporated into the Combined Authority following a highly critical report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Does the model of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign hint at a way forward for both representatives of the business sector and for other campaign groups?

The first thing to ask follows up on a point Cllr Lewis Herbert (Lab – Coleridge) made as Leader of Cambridge City Council on the GCP Board. That was the views of those on low incomes who commute into Cambridge for work because they are unable to afford to live in the city. In terms of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, with over 1,500 members they have monthly meetings (now online), an AGM and weekly newsletters that highlight local issues that members can get involved with depending on their free time available.

How do we ensure the needs and views of those with the least time to engage with public consultations and local public debate on our city’s future are properly accounted for?

Are street surgeries one way forward?

I’ve seen a couple of local groups try this out, but not regularly, continually, and systematically.

Cllr Herbert made the point that people living out of the city needing to commute into it are more likely to be in favour of such transport links than the property owners complaining about the view being spoilt. The decision on which group of people you want to put first then becomes a political decision in the real sense of the phrase.

Furthermore, ‘do nothing’ is not an option. Which is why local MPs against the busway option now need to have some alternative options to promote if/when they raise the issue with ministers.

Having briefed and advised ministers in my distant past on similar geographically-located issues, my one piece of advice I’d give to ministers is to invite the MPs and the people they represent to come with a series of options and solutions – ones that don’t mean “Stop everything, do nothing” – given we know that this won’t solve the traffic problems. And for the latter, to come prepared with their options – in particular those that might help the GCP climb down without losing face.

Unless the county Liberal Democrats are more than happy to do a mega-U-turn and come out as champions of busways.

My take is for the Minister to use his/her powers of convening to bring together the GCP with local political leaders and some of the institutions that have big pockets on the back of having made fortunes from Cambridge’s economy. The Minister must then ask those wealthy institutions and firms (including but not limited to Cambridge Ahead members) how much they are willing to contribute towards the Isaac Newton Line of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail Project (with twin underground tunnels) that meets the local transport objective while at the same time meeting the local environmental concerns.

We know this is possible because London managed to secure funding contributions for Crossrail from the City of London Corporation, Canary Wharf Group, Heathrow Airport and Berkeley Homes – all of whom benefit from the new infrastructure.

Whose vision for the future of Cambridge is being built?

Let’s take Cambridge Ahead – the high-end business network:

“Our vision is to make Cambridge the greatest small city in the world, creating regional prosperity. Our purpose is to be a catalyst for the success of Cambridge and quality of life across the city region.”


I quite like the idea of being the greatest small city in the world. Furthermore, let’s not forget that historically Cambridge has been a regional centre for trade for centuries. That’s not to do with the University. That’s to do with where Cambridge sits geographically – at the point where trade coming in from East Anglia’s ports turns from moving westwards to the North-West in order to get around the flooded Fens. It also happens to be the upper-most point along the River Ouse/River Cam where trading ships could navigate up to.

All roads lead to Cambridge…

Above – Bus frequencies mapped by Prof John Parry Lewis in his expensive and ultimately abandoned plan for Greater Cambridge in the 1970s – which would have seen the City double in size to over 200,000 people.

“How does the above compare with the present county transport plan?”

You have read the Cambs & Peterborough Local Transport Plan haven’t you? If not, it’s here.

…and it needs updating.

…which needs urgently refreshing:

“Work on the Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro (CAM) has stopped in advance of a review of the programme by the Combined Authority Board. Mayor Dr Nik Johnson is not in favour of proceeding with the CAM and instead will focus on transport investments that will benefit communities across the whole region.”

https://cam-metro.co.uk/ 05 July 2021.

Above – democracy in action. Dr Nik Johnson won the Mayoral Election in May and had the scrapping of CAM Metro as one of his commitments. No one can be surprised that work has stopped – it’s what the electorate voted for. The challenge remains to find a longer term alternative, mindful that Dr Johnson said that he did not have the timeframe or the budget from ministers to commit to a high profile, expensive metro system for Cambridge.

This is one of the reasons why I think the Minister responsible needs to help resolve the impasse by finding the money needed to meet the local transport demands. Land value capture as promoted by his predecessor is one method, but that requires The Chancellor to table the necessary legislation to Parliament at a future Budget/Finance Bill to secure this. (i.e. taxing the difference in the value of land as it rises following the completion of new transport infrastructure, rather than allowing the existing land owner to sell the land and pocket the profit.)

“We’ve still not dealt with the vision question”

Let’s look at Visit Cambridge (and beyond).

Now, I don’t know about you…

…but I’m not seeing much about anything recently built or completed in Cambridge

See the history! See the sights!

For a start, we’ve missed out large chunks of the history – something I’m trying to correct on my shoe-string budget.

Secondly, the photographs selected speak volumes about the developers and architects of recent years. The contemporary prizes that their works may receive clearly count for nothing when it comes to encouraging tourists to come to the city because if they did, they would be in the adverts and social media feeds. Instead, one of the most well-known books in recent times on Cambridge’s contemporary architecture has been one featuring how horrible too much of it is.

Above – Hideous Cambridge by Jones & Hall – available to read in your local town library! (This one is at Rock Road Library).

So the challenge for developers, property professionals, and Cambridge’s architectural community is to design & build buildings that the people at Visit Cambridge would be delighted to put on the front cover of their tourist brochures. Can they come up with something more iconic and admired than King’s College Chapel?

Me moaning about modern architecture is not new. Or anyone for that matter.

Ronald Searle lampooning the unpopular Guildhall design – hated by many in the 1930s. From the Cambridge Daily News 03 Oct 1936, in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Nearly 30 years later, Kenneth Robinson took viewers on a tour of Cambridge’s Architecture. He didn’t pull his punches.

The lampooning of the King’s College

Thus we come back to the top – and the letter poking fun at the decision-makers at King’s College.

Interestingly, their statement here is being contested by senior councillors on Cambridge City Council, who state they were never consulted before the signs went up.

So the question is: who runs our city, and in whose interest?

Again, this is not a new question.

For me, the over-centralised structure of public administration is a very big part of the problem. Local government, unlike other countries does not have constitutionally-protected powers to raise money independent of central government, nor powers on planning that are independent of central government. Which means that under-resourced council planning departments are seen by residents to be rubber-stamping what developers put in front of them, while developers complain that councils take far too long to process development plans submitted for building.

And then we all find out the shortcomings of the entire industry with disasters like Grenfell Tower, and the inability of ministers and the building industry to work out who should pay for the rectifications other than ‘neither of them’. (Expect the Inquiry Report to shred major players in the building industry – in particular manufacturers of components). So over the next 15 years, expect to see a few court cases. This matters in Cambridge because one high profile award-winning design has since been declared unsafe. And at present it is the people with the least to blame – the home buyers, who are finding themselves hit badly.

…and a future question for another day is:

“How can we get the nice stuff for our city?”

Comments on a postcard please.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: