Cambridge Ahead will need a strategy to engage with non-members in order to deliver on its vision & purpose

You can read about them here, and can browse through their member organisations here. This post invites Cambridge Ahead to engage systematically with people and organisations in the arts, sports, and leisure industries in the context of the future of Cambridge, including networks such as the Cambridge Art Network.

“Who has the power to make big decisions in and for Cambridge?”

The answer you get depends on who you ask.

  • Ask the motorists and they’ll blame the cycling lobby (i.e.
  • Ask the cyclists and they might say the car lobby
  • Ask small businesses and they might say ‘the council’
  • Ask big businesses and they might say The Metro Mayor
  • Ask even larger businesses and they might say ‘The University’
  • Ask me and I might say ministers
  • Ask older people and they might blame councillors
  • Ask young people and they might blame Boris
  • Ask Extinction Rebellion protesters and they might say the fossil fuel industry
  • Ask a van driver stuck in an XR Roadblock and they might say Environmentalists

But then I’ve complained about our county’s governance structure for years – because the below diagram by Smarter Cambridge Transport reveals a structure that looks like it was designed by someone commissioned to make a pig’s breakfast out of decision-making processes in and around the city.

When your decision-making within the public sector in Cambridgeshire looks something like this, no wonder no one *really knows* who is in charge. (Should anyone be, or should we be run as a sort of autonomous collective?)

Cambridge City Council – stuck within borders created in 1934.

We could have been bigger had ministers consented, but they didn’t.

If we wanted to move to a quartet or trio of unitary councils, the old shire boundaries provide a starting point for negotiation. The Isle of Ely even had their own fine county hall built for their Isle of Ely County Council – just has Cambridge got Shire Hall.

Ironically the last move by the Conservatives on the county council was to move the county council HQ to Alconbury in Huntingdonshire at the expense of Shire Hall, in the process of being leased out to the private sector, thus asset-stripping the old Cambridge county that the then rate-payers had paid for. The problem is that they failed to provide decent public transport to the area, which created a big incentive for the new Joint Administration to devolve more of the council’s work to district-level bases to enable more co-working. Furthermore it has led to headlines about the big losses made in adjacent projects such as this in the Cambs Times.

Cambridge Ahead is not the first business lobbying group in Cambridge’s history, similar in that Cambridge Past, Present, and Future isn’t the only environmentalist lobby group. Angry people on media comment boards complain about the cycling lobby’s influence on local transport issues, only to be reminded that the Cambridge Cycling Campaign has over 1,600 members, many of whom take a very close interest in what happens locally, who vote regularly, and who are not tribally loyal to any one party. It wasn’t always that way. A quarter of a century ago, businesses were very much pro-car, as this article from 1996 reveals.

Above – from 03 May 1996 – the Cambridge Retail and Commercial Assoc making the case for cars – not least because bus services (Certainly for us teenagers as I was at the time – preparing for my GCSEs) were generally awful. Image: Cambridge Evening News via Mike Petty MBE/Cambs Collection.

Any major Cambridge employer trying to make the case for fossil-fuelled private motor transport today would not only find themselves heavily criticised by many councillors in the city (The former have their fans further out), but risk a visit from Extinction Rebellion who for better or worse have form in targeting firms involved in or investing in big oil. (This is not the place to discuss the merits and legalities or otherwise of what those responsible do. Look them up on social media instead).

The University of Cambridge and Cambridge Ahead sharing a similar shortcoming

Both organisations are only constituted to represent and consult with their members. This means they have knowledge and information gaps when it comes to influencing decisions about the whole city. Take their Quality of Life group – listed here. When you think of ‘quality of life’ in Cambridge, and the people, activities, and organisations that improve our collective quality of life, who and what are missing? Or conspicuous by their absence? I make the same observation with their Skills Group in the context of career switching and lifelong learning – again mindful of both the climate emergency and the lives people want to live post-CV19. Could Cambridge Ahead help lobby for a new lifelong learning centre in East Cambridge, which would serve one of the most economically deprived council wards in the city while at the same time serving the villages out to the east of Cambridge?

Growth cannot happen sustainably without significant additional water supplies from outside of the area – as the new Local Plan evidence base tells us.

At some stage, both groups are going to have to come out strongly critical of Anglian Water and Cambridge Water over their continued failures to provide enough sustainable water provision for the area without damaging the river and wider environment. Because the consultants Stantec, commissioned by Greater Cambridge Planning to research and deliver an Integrated Water Management Study for the emerging local plan, were absolutely clear on the environmental limits to growth:

“There is no environmental capacity for additional development in the new Local Plan [2030 ono] to be supplied by with water by increased abstraction from the Chalk Aquifer. Even the current level of abstraction is widely believed to be unsustainable”.p17 here.

Assuming the current level of abstraction is unsustainable, then even the next decade’s worth of housing and business growth cannot go ahead without doing further damage to the local hydrosphere. And that could do serious economic damage to Cambridge’s tourist industry should tourists find themselves punting in a river that’s more sewage effluent than river water. Where will the water come from, I asked in August 2020? A year later the water companies published their early proposals for a new reservoir. But it will take until 2035 to complete at the earliest.

Historically we have been here before – it’s why the big sewage pumping station was built in 1894. And that had decades of indecision taking place before it was finally completed. Let’s not repeat that pattern today. It did however, leave us with a fine Museum of Technology.

Cambridge Ahead are working as part of the Cambridge Nature Network to support the county-wide aim of doubling nature by 2050. As Jane Paterson-Todd is quoted:

“Nature must be prioritised as we plan for Cambridge’s future, for the benefit of the environment as well as the quality of life of our residents. It is an issue that transcends so much of our work. I am particularly delighted that Cambridge Ahead’s Young Advisory Committee, led by Rob Carter, has helped support the emergence of the Cambridge Nature Network.”

Jane Paterson-Todd of Cambridge Ahead, at Cambridge Nature Network

I picked out Ms Paterson-Todd’s comment here because she mentions quality of life in the context of ‘our residents’ – i.e. not just their membership, something I welcome. This is important to note – and something that Cambridge University and its colleges should consider following when making big decisions that affect the people who live, work, and study in Cambridge. What would the city be like if all of the large organisations behaved in a manner as if all of the people who make up our great city counted? (i.e. not just their members?)

Let’s think of some case studies:

Would Eddington contain a significant number of council homes and social housing? Kevin Price, until recently the Executive Councillor for Housing on Cambridge City Council slammed the University of Cambridge over their failure to provide such much-needed housing. (He has since resigned from the council and from the Labour Party prior to the 2021 local elections). Would Clare College Cambridge make the case for this under-used playing field near the railway station to become a mixed development with key worker housing in a community land trust to serve our low-paid staff at our hospitals, rather than having it potentially going for luxury apartments or London commuter flats for the investment market? Would the wealthy tech firms and the large colleges be willing to put serious amounts of investment into the Cambridge Connect Light Rail Project given the failure of the promoter of the CAM Metro, Mr Palmer, to secure an electoral mandate to continue in post earlier this year?

Above – the latest iteration of the Cambridge Connect model in the Rail Future East Sept 2021 Newsletter. (Anyone commuting by rail or a regular user of rail services may want to join Rail Future here.)

Can Cambridge Ahead make the case for much greater provision for arts, sports, and leisure?

This is former Cambridge Architect and Chief Town Planner Gordon Logie on his plan for Lion Yard’s future in 1965.

“It must be an exciting place to go to in a place where one can see and hear the best of music, drama, and ballet, where the local societies can present their performances or exhibitions, a centre for painting, sculpture and all the visual arts, a place for conferences and lectures, for borrowing, browsing, and buying of books.”

Gordon Logie, Chief Architect and Town Planner, Cambridge City Council, 25 June 1965, Cambridge News.

His headline demand?

A Concert Hall – to present first rate music for an audience of up to 2,500.

And Mr Logie was writing less than two years after four young chaps from Liverpool had played a gig at the Cambridge Regal. You may have heard of them before. They were called The Beatles. You can read about his unrealised dream for the centre of Cambridge here.

With Cambridge University’s new investment in a Centre for Excellence in Music Performance, the time for a new large concert hall for Cambridge has arrived. But not just for Cambridge. Site it close to travel hubs and active transport routes and – as The Junction found out when it number-crunched its customer post-code data, it could become, like The Junction, a facility that serves not just city and county, but region. (Please do support The Junction via their membership options, which helps fund their work with young people in & around Cambridge).

That’s not to say Cambridge should be putting all of its musical eggs in one basket. With up to 14,000 homes planned on the site of the current sewage works (which is due to move near Fen Ditton), I’ve called for that development to provide North Cambridge with a theatre and performing arts facility that it does not yet have – and one that really should have been provided for by a previous generation’s expansion. The local newspaper archives tell us that community facilities were under-provided for, people in the 1960s who moved out to Arbury and King’s Hedges complained bitterly.

The Cambridge Arts Network – an ideal starting point for conversations?

Why try to re-invent the wheel? The Cambridge Arts Network is already there. The vision I’ve had for years for a new performing arts venue in Cambridge is something similar to the Komedia in Brighton, where I lived for nearly 3 years during my university days. Whether the inflated land values and housing demand would allow for such an independent quarter to emerge around such a venue is another matter entirely – one beyond the gift of anyone in local government.

Do we have a city or county-wide campaign group for sports that supports substantially improving existing facilities, and building new ones? (Or at least setting aside more open green space for both maintained sports pitches and open grassland for ‘jumpers for goalposts’ sports? I’m mindful of the but I’m also mindful that two of Cambridge’s highest profile sports teams, Cambridge United Women’s FC and the Cambridge Rollerbillies Rollerderby Team do not have home bases. This must be rectified. Because otherwise the institutionalised sexism of team sports in Cambridge continues for another generation.

And finally… how should any lobbying group or campaign group listen to their critics?

Because Cambridge Ahead has got their fair share, as do some of the big house builders currently active in and around the city – and as do even the individual grassroots membership campaign groups such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, of which I am a member. I’ve seen some of the bullying that the full time staff have faced online. All too often it’s the women who get the worst of it, and as a result we’ve lost too many good people from public life and civic society as a result.

This comes back to the question: “How do the people of Cambridge communicate with its institutions and with each other?” – which I asked back in 2016. Again this matters – not least because of the state of Cambridge’s daily paper the Cambridge News, whose circulation has fallen to just above 4,000 – at a time when our city’s population is still growing. It was at 40,000 twenty years ago. Because we’ve got a number of very difficult decisions to make collectively, and some of them might involve saying No to firms wanting to set up businesses or relocate to Cambridge because it is not in the interests of the wider city. For example those that want to establish new private colleges and occupy much-needed properties in the face of the housing shortage. Cornwall, with over 10,000 properties on holiday letting sites vs only 69 available for those wanting to rent for the longer term, shows how extreme the problem can get. (Does Edinburgh have a solution, and do English councils have the powers to take similar action, or are slow-moving ministers the barrier once again?)

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:

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