Can the promoters of economic growth in the Greater Cambridge area also make the case for providing social and cultural infrastructure – and greening our city too?

Pictured – a CGI of a proposed new rowing lake by

Can the members of groups such as Cambridge Ahead also offer up shared resources to improve Greater Cambridge’s cultural offer?

The challenge came from Cllr Sam Davies (Ind – Queen Edith’s) to the University of Cambridge after I complained about the time it was taking for them to build their long-promised new Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Some of you also may have seen the article by Jane Paterson-Todd, CEO of Cambridge Ahead in the Cambridge Independent this week. (If you don’t know who their members are, see here)

It’s worth a read [buy the newspaper!] – alongside the Case for Social Infrastructure by Jack Shaw of the Bennett Public Policy Institute at the University of Cambridge here.

A city of competing interests – with multiple lobbying, campaign and pressure groups all vying for attention of the decision-makers.

As regular readers will know, my view is that Cambridge’s systems of governance have been broken for a very long time. Our city’s governance structure only frustrates those of us who want to improve our city for the many, and not see it as some kind of cash cow for others to extract the wealth from and send it elsewhere, wherever that may be. And many of those issues are ones with very strong roots in failures of national government and in Westminster. This is reflected in the call by the Bennett Institute when they call for more power for local places.

My take remains that our towns and cities do not have the substantive legal and financial powers they need in order to solve their own problems. So the incentive for the whole of the local government sector is to go cap-in-hand to ministers asking for grants.

Many central government grants inevitably have to involve some sort of competition, which means councils have to spend time and resources on applications with no guarantee they will get anything in return. Therefore the money does not go to all of the places with the greatest need. It can simply be who happens to be aware of which grant-funding programmes are accepting applications at a given time.

At a national and constitutional level, either you have a written constitution clearly setting out what the powers and responsibilities of local councils are – and what ministers cannot touch, or you have a system that says Parliament is Sovereign and can do what it likes with no constitution to stop it. Take your pick.

Do our plans and strategies talk to each other?

I asked Cambridge City Council for an update on the two existing strategies that state Cambridge needs a new large swimming pool (the Indoor Sports Facilities Strategy 2016) and a new large concert hall (the Major Facilities Strategy of 2013). You can watch the video of the Question and Response here. The meeting papers are here.

In her response, Cllr Katie Thornburrow (Labour – Petersfield) referred to a new Cultural Infrastructure Strategy that the relevant councils are currently working on. This was also referred to in a meeting of the City Council’s Environment & Scrutiny Committee in October 2019 where I asked a series of questions on behalf of Andrea Cockerton of the We Are Sound Music Collective.

“This process of building a robust evidence base was a key part of developing a cultural infrastructure strategy, which would inform future planning in Cambridge. It was important to look at questions of cultural infrastructure over the region, rather than in a piecemeal way.”

Debbie Kaye, Head of Community Services, 3rd Oct 2019. See 19/42/EnC – Public Qs in the minutes

Above – inevitably the Corona Virus Pandemic put a stop to the continuation of this work on a new cultural infrastructure strategy. The point remains from Cllr Davies that Cambridge is building all of these new homes, but the social and community infrastructure – not to say the open green spaces needed, are not being created at anywhere near the same scale.

The water crisis – Cambridge’s influential businesses and institutions must bring pressure to bear on the water companies, lest their own activities grind to a half.

And that’s before we’ve mentioned what activists and environmentalists are doing in Cambridge – some of whom got together for a ceremony to Declare the Rights of the River Cam this time last month (23 June 2021). Recall before the pandemic, Cambridge had regular youth climate marches taking place.

In a few years time, some of those young marchers might find themselves on the Young Advisers’ Panel of Cambridge Ahead. On top of that, and as a surprise to many not closely watching politics in Cambridge, the Cambridge Green Party got two new city councillors elected in Abbey Ward in what was previously a strong Labour seat, resulting in the loss for Labour of two experienced and high profile city councillors. As a result, every single Full Council meeting now has a climate-change-related motion being put to the council. Furthermore, the Cambridge Schools Eco Council put their concerns to Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire Councillors over the state of the River Cam.

Children and teenagers in and around Cambridge can get involved via

One of the other project groups hosted by Cambridge Ahead, alongside the young advisers’ panel, is their policy group chaired by the Regulation Director of Anglian Water, Alex Plant. Several of you will be familiar with Mr Plant from his time at both Cambridgeshire County Council, and also Cambridgeshire Horizons. He was briefly my director in the civil service for a few weeks in Cambridge just before I moved down to London in the mid-2000s.

There’s both a challenge and an opportunity for Mr Plant to bring together decision-makers from the water industry, businesses from across the Greater Cambridge area, academic experts (not least from Cambridge University’s Earth Sciences Dept) and long-standing campaigners and activists familiar with the history and the local detail to deal with the persistent and growing problems of water extraction, growing demand, and limited supply. Note Cambridge City Council acknowledged at Full Council that the River Cam and our chalk streams lack the legal protection from over-abstraction, and there is continued and growing political pressure for the Environment Agency to take stronger action, and for ministers to table tougher new laws in Parliament. Therefore it is in the interests of the water companies and Cambridge businesses to deal with issues that have been put off for far too long – such as retrofitting the existing built environment, and bringing in new water infrastructure for things like grey-water cycling and rainwater harvesting.

Mitigating for the changing climate already locked in – and making available much more green space to the general public.

Every other day seems to bring photographs of another part of the world suffering from forest fires or extreme flooding. The photo illustrating this blogpost is that of the Cambridge Sport Lakes – long-standing proposals for a new rowing lake between Cambridge and Waterbeach.

Above the Cambridge Sport Lakes Trust at

One of the things the proposed facility could function as is a flood water balancing lake to protect settlements downstream such as Ely.

Then there are the proposals for Cambridge Great Park south of the city

I wrote more about this here earlier in 2021. One of the things it has the potential to do is to reduce the flash flooding risk from surface run-off in the upper courses of the River Cam and its tributaries. In the past when cycling south of the city in summer, I’ve been struck by the monocultures of crops in the fields, and how rock solid the soil seems to be. 1990s GCSE Geography taught us that this increases the rate that surface runoff from rain water rushes into water courses instead of percolating into the soil – something that plants with much deeper root systems such as trees, hedgerows and wild/prairie grasses aid. Much of the former wilderness was brought under the plough during the world wars during the U-boat blockade, and needed to remain under cultivation in the years that followed.

The social and leisure offer can’t simply be concert halls and expensive sports facilities for the rich, and retail parks for the poor. Mixed communities accessible to all matter for Cambridge

Holford and Wright told us this in 1950. They also told us about the importance of shared community facilities to encourage neighbourliness and good community relations – picking out some of the areas that had failed to do this.

“Ditton Fields, north Romsey Town, Queen Edith’s Way-Hills Road, and Grange Road area all “one type” districts and are lacking in Churches, clubs, shops, and small open spaces.

Above – from Holford & Wright 1950 Vol 1 para 215.

Hills Road and Shelford Road are picked out as examples of speculative unregulated Ribbon Development of expensive detached homes which pre-dated both Holford and Wright in 1950, and Davidge’s Cambridgeshire Regional Plan of 1934. All three men deplored Ribbon Development and called on future plans submitted with such designs to be refused planning permission.

The committee the plan authors reported to

Several of the names of the committee that Holford and Wright reported to, will be familiar to regular readers. Ald. Clara Rackham and Ald. Liliam Mary Hart Clark were to of the most prominent women in Cambridge in the first half of the 20th Century, and the Cllr Hon Mrs Michael Pease was Helen Bowen Pease, daughter of the Labour peer Lord Wedgewood. (You can read their extensive papers in the Cambridgeshire County Archives in Ely)

The other Labour figures of note are the academic Dr Alex Wood, Leader of the Cambridge Labour Party, and Ald. Albert Stubbs MP, the long standing local official of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, who surprised everyone including himself by getting elected as MP for the safe-as-military-fortresses Conservative seat of Cambridgeshire (today, South Cambs/SE Cambs).

For the Conservatives there was Miles Crawford Burkitt, the Grantchester Councillor and Archaeologist, who I’m assuming is related to Francis Burkitt, until recently the Grantchester Councillor and Chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership, along with Kelsey Charles Kerridge of the building family.

Kelsey Kerridge – the sportsman, builder, councillor, and fundraiser for a new large leisure centre for Cambridge

A giant haystack of a civic figure in Cambridge’s history, Kelsey Kerridge successfully fundraised the necessary remaining sums needed for a much-needed sports centre in central Cambridge – for which the city named it after him.

Above – Ald. Kelsey Kerridge, who represented Cambridgeshire in a variety of different sports at county level in his youth.

“When I start anything, I want to finish it. I don’t like giving in. All I want to do is to see the first brick built there. I shall know then that it’s going to be finished. Then I can have some peace and quiet.”

Ald. Kelsey Kerridge to Deryck Harvey, 03 July 1972 in the Cambridge Evening News, in the Cambridgeshire Collection. Transcribed at Lost Cambridge here.

Not only did Kelsey Kerridge want to see the leisure centre built, he wanted it to be the first of its type in East Anglia, the best of its type, and the most efficiently run.

“This is a Ministry concept to cover almost the whole of East Anglia. We are the first in the field and we don’t want to be anything but first in the field.

Sir David Robinson – another Conservative philanthropist who donated 95% of his wealth to civic and philanthropic causes

I’d like to think that Robinson looked at Kerridge’s record and decided he could beat it. I’ve written about Sir David in this post. Having successfully founded Robinson College in 1981, he became aware of the problems finding the money for a much-needed new maternity hospital for Cambridge – the existing one on Mill Road being a former Workhouse. But the new Conservative Government’s program of austerity meant that previous plans had to be put on hold.

“David Robinson did not think Cambridge’s expectant ladies should have to wait that long, so he stepped in and made his gift, on the condition that work began without delay, and that the new hospital was opened quickly too.”

Chris Elliott, Cambridge News, 11 Dec 2016

The examples of all of those civic heroes mentioned is one who, despite party political differences were able to work together to shape the future of our city – and set in place some very important principles that are still valuable to us today. They were people of commerce, academia, social reform and civic vocation.

Can today’s generation be inspired by their example and match their achievements?

Food for thought?

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:

%d bloggers like this: