Despondency over the future of Greater Cambridge – and the missed opportunities

Made all the more difficult to deal with because no one individual is to blame for where we are vs where we could be: There have been multiple shortcomings by many people and institutions – not just Central Government either.

I want to start with one of the most controversial people in post-war Cambridge: Mr Gordon Logie: Cambridge City Councils’ Architect and Chief Town Planner. Preservationists despised his proposals that he came up with throughout the 1960s – and with good reason. But this civic titan had a vision – one that was ultimately unrealised – in part because his visions were processed through an architectural prism of concrete brutalism. But take his words and put them through a different civic and architectural tradition, along with a different set of values, and you might have got something wonderful.

“An informal, friendly place to stroll through, peer into shop windows, chat with friends, lounge in pubs or sit in the sun”

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

What was he describing? His vision of a future Lion Yard!

“Well we certainly did not get that!”

There were a lot of other things we did not get – but he was absolutely resolute on what should be the centrepiece: A Concert Hall 

“– to present first rate music for an audience of up to 2,500. Other possible uses: conferences, university examinations, dances and receptions.”

Gordon Logie, 25 June 1965, Cambridge News.

And Logie was writing just two years after four chaps from Liverpool had played at The Regal around the corner. You may have heard of them – their names were John, Paul, George, and Ringo. So when it comes to his call for presenting first rate music, none of us are in a position to question him on that. And if you’re still querying that, messrs Jagger and Richards arrived for their gig in Cambridge just over three months after Logie’s quotations in the Cambridge News were published. Same venue too.

You can read more about his vision for a new city centre for Cambridge here – one which had civic institutions being the heartbeat of our city. Not a fan of the brutalism, but I think his words of a future vision are just beautiful and inspiring.

Fast forward to the early days of the Greater Cambridge City Deal…

One of the earliest critics of the approach from Central Government was from Daniel Zeichner MP shortly after his election as MP for Cambridge. This from November 2015.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership Executive Board meets at the end of the month (you can read the papers here) provides more than a few indications that officers do not know how to deal with the scrapping of the CAM Metro by Mayor Dr Nik Johnson – as the latter stated he would do in his election campaign. Agenda item No.10 of the papers from p81, and in particular their continued use of a diagram of their vision of Cambridge in 2030 *that still includes the CAM Metro* does not fill me with confidence.

“What happens to the Cambourne-Cambridge buses when they hit Grange Road?”

I asked the above question in a video from 26 August 2017.

Above – me with more hair and far fewer greys, by Queen’s Road, Cambridge.

I asked them *again* earlier in the summer at the previous board meeting. Mr Blake dodged the question. See p26 of the meeting papers, which for convenience I’ve screen-grabbed below.

The problem is that even their own external audit identified the Grange Road problem

“[The Cambourne to Cambridge Busway Project] …offers no solution apart from the City Access program of soft measures to restrict on-street parking and reallocate road space to active travel. The assumption is that these measures will be enough to enhance bus speeds and provide more reliable journey times across the city. However, no detailed modelling of the likely impact has been conducted so it remains uncertain whether bus accessibility will improve.” [Audit Comment A4].

Greater Cambridge Partnership meeting papers 01 July 2021, p385

Above – I’ve screen-grabbed it for good measure. This key finding by the independent auditors has been completely ignored by the senior officers – and the politicians on the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

You can either have a world class transport network, or you can have a transport network with buses as your primary means of medium distance travel. You can’t have both.

And I write the above as a founder member of the Cambridge Area Bus Users Campaign, and a regular bus user myself. I don’t have a car, I never have – even though I passed my test in 1997. I know what it’s like to be dependent on, and wait a very long time for buses n a frequent basis. (Last week in rush hour it was over an hour for a Citi3 to arrive at Tesco in Fulbourn).

On page 83 of the meeting papers, the Greater Cambridge Partnership re-states their main objective:

I question the competency of the privatised UK transport industry to be able to provide the seamless co-ordination of modes of transport that places like Vienna and Geneva take for granted. I don’t trust the ability of transport engineers and designers to create the ease of movement that would make it much easier for people with mobility difficulties to switch from one service line to another. My evidence? Cambridge Railway Station. Between them the developers Brookgate and their consultants had all of the possible advantages one could want for redeveloping a site and they still managed to mess it up. Whether it is the high levels of traffic pollution on the Great Northern Road, the much-longer-than-necessary walking distance from the bus stops to the main entrance of the railway station, to the continued failure to provide a safe, segregated cycle route through the station site, why would anyone trust that industry given the huge amount of funds they had to build something that functioned properly? The failings have been compounded by the persistent failures of landowners and councils to build much-needed footbridges over, and an eastern entrance to the railway station – something that messrs Holford & Wright called for over 70 years ago.

Above – Holford & Wright’s proposals for Cambridge Station in 1950.

Not even the Greater Cambridge Partnership could find the funds in their £500million from the Government to put this simple, cheap solution that would take away thousands of passengers away from the main station entrance, and hundreds of cycles that could otherwise be locked in a secure, ground floor facility off of Rustat Road – a road that also needs renaming given the man involved made part of his fortune from the Slave Trade.

“Why the moaning all the time?!?”

In one sense, Brookgate-bashing is one of the easiest pastimes in Cambridge. It’ll have to be another generation that has to undo the failings of ours and the previous generation on all things to do with the railway station. At which point I’ll have been turned into plant food.

Strange as it may sound, but actually:

We want the transport planners to succeed

A world-class, sustainable transport system that makes it easy to get into, out
of, and around Greater Cambridge”
you say? ***Yes!*** Let’s build the damn thing!

The problem is that the people of the city and of the surrounding villages never gave their enthusiastic informed consent for what we seem to have ended up with: busways.

The only board member for the ruling Conservative group on the Greater Cambridge Partnership Board who made a reasonably compelling case for the principle of a Cambourne-Cambridge busway was former Cllr Francis Burkitt (Cons – Grantchester).

The Conservatives held the majority on the GCP Board from 2014-18. The Liberal Democrats took over the South Cambridgeshire District Council seat from 2018-to date (currently Cllr Neil Gough – (Lib Dems, Cottenham)), with Cllr Lewis Herbert (Lab – Coleridge) was the Cambridge City Council representative from 2014-21, his place now taken by Cllr Dr Dave Baigent (Lab – Romsey), with Cambridgeshire County Council’s Joint Administration represented by Cllr Elisa Meschini (Lab – King’s Hedges).

Ever since the first proposals for a busway were first published, there has been a consistent opposition against them. Whether sceptical questions at meetings…

…to protest marches.

…the above being one from 2016.

…which is why there were a series of events organised by a number of groups and organisations over the year calling for an overhaul.

…which included radical alternatives, such as the Cambridge Connect Light Rail.

Above – a detail of the latest iteration of Cambridge Connect Light Rail, integrated with other existing and proposed plans. This was produced for RailFuture East – you can see the full version in their newsletter here.

“Whose vision was it for Cambridge to have up to four segregated busways serving Greater Cambridge?”

This is one thing I’ve never really been clear about: Who’s creature is this?

Other projects of the Greater Cambridge Partnership / City Deal have much more prominent champions. For example:

There have been protests about the other busways too

And as for the Cambridge Eastern Access Project, I think officers are still struggling to work out what to do following the scrapping of the CAM Metro.

The Cambridge Eastern Access Project…what happens to the buses when they hit…Cambridge?

See the introduction on p250 from the Joint Assembly papers from 10 June 2021.

Above – this incorporates the Cambridge Airport Site. Since that meeting, the Greater Cambridge Planning Service has published their first draft of the emerging local plan for 2030-41, and the redevelopment of the airport site is one of the areas of major change. You can read about the airport initial proposals here.

For a start this means that whatever initial ideas officers have had, they must go back to the drawing board and start working with the town planners as to what is best for the site before going out to consultation. And it is a consultation that has to incorporate the different professions working in a co-ordinated manner: transport engineers, town planners, urban designers, and ecologists.

Their initial thoughts back in June can be found on p256 of the Agenda Pack. The detail below indicates a possible Park & Ride on the south side of Newmarket Road SW of J35 of the A14 at Quy – see the detail below:

Above – possible siting of an A14 Park and Ride. Note the ‘Indicative CAM realignment – which can now be scrapped. Then there is the “New off-road High Quality Public Transport Route” [“Just say ***busway***“].

…which is followed by ***something-something-something*** then “Welcome to Cambridge Station!”

Note also the controversial busgate stays in place.

“But I didn’t want to go to the railway station!”

Well then you can hop off at the station and get onto one of the buses into town!

“You mean the interchange that Brookgate made a complete pig’s breakfast out of?”


“Is Mayor Dr Nik going to come and save the city?”

He might do – depends on what his new Local Transport & Connectivity Plan have to show.

“Following feedback from the leaders of its constituent councils, the Combined Authority plans to begin public engagement on the LTCP later this autumn; responses from which will help to shape the final document that will be consulted on in early 2022.”

CPCA 09 Sept 2021 Press Release.

Item 2.4 of the Combined Authority’s Transport Committee of 08 September 2021 has a little more background. But basically the existing Transport Plan had become out-dated not just due to the party political change of Mayor following the elections, but also because of the publication of the Independent Commission on Climate Change for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, which compelled even the previous Mayor to have a rethink.

“Why is it so complicated? Or is it complex? “

A bit of both – public policy by its very nature is a lot of both. Can you break up the vision for the future of Greater Cambridge into separate component parts, or is it a single complex entity where you have to deal with everything at the same time?

For me, at a very high macro level that is what we were faced with. The problem has been that our structure of public administration for Greater Cambridge does not have a suitable, competent, resourced and empowered institution that can deal with both the component parts separately, as well as the complex entity as a whole. And so you risk ending up with the worst of the Cambridge 2065 scenarios because no one is communicating with each other.

“What does that scenario involve?”

It involves the following:

  • Water shortages – the much-needed external water resources not coming on stream because of the lack of urgency from ministers, regulators, water companies, and their financial backers
  • Power shortages because the electricity transmission infrastructure has not been sufficiently upgraded, and not enough renewables capacity has been built
  • The growth of featureless suburbia with few large green open spaces and even fewer community facilities because developers don’t want to pay for things that might hit their profits, and so use loopholes to get out of such commitments
  • High housing and rental prices because ministers refuse to make the radical changes to the law on property ownership, taxation, and renters’ rights meaning that what is built serves an international finance market, not the people and communities that make up a city
  • Continued transport gridlock as commuters simply switch from fossil-fuelled private transport to alternatively-powered private transport because the radical public transport infrastructure that we needed never got built
  • The degradation of the environment and of the city generally as too many people crowded into too smaller spaces increases the wear and tear
  • Increased crime and disorder as already high inequalities are further polarised, and under-funded law enforcement (not just police, but the courts (which ministers tried to close a few years ago – the magistrates court, plus probation and rehabilitation functions)
  • Reduced quality of healthcare again as NHS-provided services remain over-stretched
  • Quality of life reduced as the built environment is unable to cope with a more extreme climate, and as employees especially in essential public services have to travel increasingly long distances to get to and from work

Above – we already know what Greater Cambridge in 2065 might look like – you only have to look at the sites submitted to the councils for development in the emerging local plan to get an idea of which ones will be built on in future planning periods. In my Cambridge 2065 blogpost here I picked out some of the very detailed and expensively produced proposals to look at.

It does not have to be like that.

Part of the challenge is that there are multiple tiers of institutions that don’t share the same geographical boundaries.

  • Cambridge City Council – the municipal boundary as defined in 1934
  • Greater Cambridge Partnership – Cambridge plus South Cambridgeshire
  • Cambridgeshire County Council – Cambridge, South Cambs, East Cambs, Fenland & Huntingdonshire
  • The Combined Authority & Mayoralty – Cambridgeshire & Peterborough
  • The Police Commissioner – Cambridgeshire & Peterborough
  • Health services – various, but the patient watchdog Healthwatch covers Cambs & Peterborough, but is not well integrated with local government.
  • Ambulance Service – East of England
  • Arts Council – East of England
  • Schools Commissioner – East of England and North London

My point being that for essential services that have not yet been privatised like the utilities, there is no possibility of treating either the City of Cambridge or Greater Cambridge as a single, complex entity and managing it accordingly. Too many decision-making functions sit outside of the control or influence of the municipal authority – Cambridge City Council in this case. Even if Cambridge City Council wanted to have any influence, they do not have the expertise or officer capacity in those fields in which to develop, let alone wield that influence.

“Former Cllr Francis Burkitt said: “This is the deal for not building on the Greenbelt….”

I think he might have been onto a good idea had he chosen to develop his argument further. He spoke of needing transport corridors to get people into Cambridge and back. As I have argued in previous posts, not everything needs to be in Cambridge. Not everyone should need to commute in.

What functions and institutions could move out of Cambridge?

Let’s start with something *really controversial*:

  • Hills Road Sixth Form College
  • The Perse on Hills Road

It’s a little-known piece of contemporary history, but The Perse had the option under Harold Wilson’s Government to join the state system following the abolition of local council scholarships by Labour Minister’s for Education the late Shirley Williams – who stood for Parliament for the Liberal and SDP Alliance in Cambridge in 1987. In the early 1990s, austerity under John Major resulted in the large expansion of the sixth form colleges as that was the only way they could maintain their state funding. As a result, the student populations of both Hills Road and Long Road Sixth Form Colleges are far larger today than they were in 1990.

With The Perse on Hills Road expanding its numbers and facilities, the percentage of young people squished into a small part of the county is now far too high – and not their fault: they deserve better. In particular more space and much shorter journey times. So part of any future deal has to involve moving at least one of the two out of the city. You could provide an incentive for either one to have at Waterbeach to include the Cambridge Sports Lake as part of the deal. Your other alternative is to have one of them at Cambourne by the proposed East-West Railway Station there. You then have one large site (The Perse) as a mixed housing and large public park side, and the Hills Road SFC site as one for keyworker housing – say at Addenbrooke’s. In that regard, both institutions would become anchor institutions for the new housing growth, while taking some of the pressure off of the city. I can imagine some may express disquiet at losing the ‘Cambridge brand’ or the ‘close to the University’ selling point, but to what extent does ‘distance from Senate House and the Chancellor’s throne’ directly affect the quality of teaching by those institutions?

If they were to move, it should not be an opportunity for an even more exclusive private institution to take over the buildings. Part of the challenges Greater Cambridge continues to face is that what might be good for one person or one institution might not be good for the rest of the city and district. The redevelopment of Cambridge Railway Station and the controversial collapse of Ashwell’s and the emergence of Brookgate is one such example.

“From then on, the quality of the [Cambridge Station area] project was progressively watered down and obligations renegotiated, each regressive step argued on the basis of the straitened economic climate in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis”

Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian, 13 June 2017

Another example is the lack of publicly accessible green open spaces in and around Cambridge. Developers do not like handing over large parcels of expensively-acquired land (not helped by a broken land market system and a broken planning & taxation system to go with it) for either community facilities or ‘nothing profitable.’

Above – one of the submissions from CEG to the Local Plan for Wort’s Causeway / Babraham Road. Bland identikit designs, no clear civic centre for the development, small ‘pocket parks tacked onto the edge of an already large area of predominantly residential neighbourhoods with few substantial facilities of note and even fewer architecturally inspiring buildings that people want to spend time in and around.

Under the current system, the piecemeal expansion of suburbia is what we’ll get because developers will continue to use the excuse of affordability to under-provide what communities need. They have a financial incentive to do so. It doesn’t make individuals bad people or anything like that – it’s a reflection of how systems have been designed to function – whether intentional or not.

“Is there a short-medium term solution?”



One that involves working within the structural and institutional boundaries as they currently are.

So far, the Mayor Nik Johnson has actually been showing the way by meeting with people from across institutions and the political matrix (I don’t use the left-right spectrum, instead I refer to the matrix of the Political Compass model). This is also reflected by a very different way of working for Cambridgeshire County Council, where for now at least, Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats, Cambridgeshire Labour, and Cambridgeshire Independent councillors have discovered they all have far more to gain both individually and collectively by working together and overcoming their differences in power, than being opponents in a Conservative-led council. Having spent a quarter of a century in opposition, so far the mood music coming out of the county council has been a lot more positive than it has been for years.

A short-medium term solution need not involve establishing new institutions or groups that meet regularly. It doesn’t need large, rambling constitutions. Furthermore, it doesn’t require large consultations or surveys – we’ve got enough of those and also, the political mandates are already there from the whole council elections for city and county – and Mayoralty. South Cambridgeshire will go through their own whole council election in 2022.

With the above in mind, what it needs are the major decision-makers in and around the city to gather in public say once every six months and set out what they need from other institutions & decision-makers to meet their side of the vision – one that can be formulated from the manifestos of the winners of the recent election winners combined with the very important reports such as the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Climate Commission Report. The meeting in public element is essential or transparency and public trust. There are enough conspiracies going around as to who is receiving brown envelopes from whom in planning. (Some of you may be interested in former Housing Minister Nick Raynsford’s review for the TCPA, as well as the findings of Lord Kerslake’s UK2070 Commission).

The point being that such a gathering will allow the leaders of the institutions that can make or break the future of Greater Cambridge (who are based in and around Cambridge) to look at the worst case scenario for 2065, and ask what they need from their partner institutions to avoid it – and also provide answers and commitments to their partner institutions as they try to meet theirs.

It does not have to be anything more than that.

Some of the actions might be combined – such as

  • calling on regulators and ministers to compel utility companies to provide the necessary additional infrastructure and supplies to keep the taps and rivers flowing
  • calling on land owners to make more land available for active travel networks – cyclepaths, footpaths and bridalways
  • calling on land owners (including the colleges) to set aside land (or provide a long term lease to local councils or charitable trusts at nominal/peppercorn rates) to create new wildlife havens and open parkland
  • calling on rail companies and agencies of central government to come back with better designs and proposals for new stations and new routes
  • inviting new settlements – towns and large villages to make pitches for some of the functions, services, and institutions currently in Cambridge, to relocate
  • inviting new settlements to make pitches to Cambridge-based organisations and philanthropists to contribute towards the funding of new large arts, sports, and leisure facilities that can serve surrounding villages and Cambridge residents, so that the movement of people is not simply in one direction, but one that brings revenue and investment out of Cambridge and into the towns & villages.
  • Synchronise and co-ordinate actions – such as policy announcements, publication of reports and so on. Because at the moment too many organisations have been taken by surprise by the actions and events affecting partner bodies. The GCP’s transport planning being turned upside down by the Mayoral elections being but one example.

Could it happen?

Who knows – but either way the consultations coming up and the ones happening now should be used as an opportunity to strengthen the relationships between local councillors and their constituencies. It would be good to see more neighbourhood-level gatherings hosted by local ward councillors similar to the ones hosted in Queen Edith’s over the past few years – Covid aside – ones that people can attend in person, or watch a video of the debates online later on. (And then follow up

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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