“Allow people to be proud of their place”

How might some of the concepts being promoted by the New Local think tank work for a high growth area like Greater Cambridge?

You can read Stephanie Riches thought-provoking blogpost here. This is part of the series on Community Power by the New Local think tank.

I spent the last couple of years of my civil service career working on different aspects of the New Deal For Communities Programme. I came in at the end – after all of the big mistakes had been made, wondering how to deal with this huge programme that covered 39 of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England that spent nearly £2billion between 1999-2010. Anyone working in community development should read the final evaluation of that programme because there is a lot of interesting learning in there that is still relevant to today. (There were many other evaluation documents published – my worry remains that the learning will have been forgotten despite the significant sum rightly spent on making sure the learning was captured.)

None of the much-needed progress at local levels will happen unless Central Government institutions such as The Treasury are willing to relinquish significant control over revenue raising, borrowing, and spending powers by local councils. Until that happens, politicians of either of the top two parties cannot talk seriously about empowering communities and ‘giving people a voice’. Because ultimately The Treasury can simply veto everything. In the meantime local areas waste a huge amount of time and resources filling in forms for competitive grant programmes that enable junior ministers to go on site visits cutting ribbons.

“You’re from Cambridge?!? Oh you’re so lucky to live there – what with the University and all that?!?”

…A phrase often said to me in the mid-late 1990s as I started discovering the world beyond my home town.

“Lucky? Hell no! The University hate us town people – we’re about as welcome as the bubonic plague!”

…would often be my response. When you look how under-used college playing fields are – and how more than a few of them want to build on them rather than turn them into municipal parks, you can see where the interests of the college bursars and their finance committees lie. It’s not with the people who make up our city. I am more than happy to be challenged on that and be persuaded to think otherwise. In fact I’d be delighted.

Because if we look at Arbury, the last chance that one of Cambridge’s most deprived council wards had of having their own large municipal park was taken away from them with the expansion of Cambridge University’s premises by building on the remaining green spaces north of Huntingdon Road, and west of Histon Road. (See G-maps below).

This is due to the approved development of Darwin Green.

Above – Darwin Green’s overall plan – you can explore the map here….which was inevitably followed by a second phase.

Above – published in March 2021 which shows Arbury residents will be even further away from large open green spaces. Which makes the case for the Cambridge Connect Light Rail even stronger, because at least that provides public transport to jobs, training, and the countryside west of the city.

Above – the latest iteration of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail proposals integrated with existing and proposed lines.

“Still not proud of bland suburbia though”

Tell me about it.

And we’re still making the same mistakes.

Arbury council estate built without community facilities. 1965

Above – from an article in 1965. When you look at the map overhead today, where are the major architectural features that can help provide some sense of community pride? Ditto another economically deprived ward next door – King’s Hedges. I’m not asking for a replica of King’s College Chapel in every ward. The Early Victorians did that in what was the Barnwell Slum and did a half-decent job of it. No need to repeat it. There’s also something to be said about the Masters and Fellows at Jesus College in the Victorian era – the land owners of Barnwell, who allowed roads like “The Garden of Eden”, “Eden Street” and Adam and Eve Street” to become slums. There’s a Ph.D waiting for someone to research!

It’s not just Arbury and King’s Hedges. On the other side of the river we have Queen Edith’s. (No relation – one refers to hedges belonging to the king, the second is named after the wrong Edith). I was talking about both council wards last night at the Council’s Planning & Transport Scrutiny Committee with two of their elected representatives, Cllr Jenny Wood (Lab – King’s Hedges), and Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s). They both noted that what we have now is a history of suburbia in Cambridge with both of the wards – ones that don’t fall easily into the history of the colleges, nor the history of large, polluting heavy industries with slum housing built around them at a time when there were far fewer protections for working class residents.

Above – Cambridge’s sewage pumping station & combuster (The building with the big chimney – now the Cambridge Museum of Technology), with the Cambridge Gas Works (Now Tesco) next to it in the foreground, and one of the Cambridge Brickworks in the background with Newmarket Road running along it in the background. In the top right hand corner you can see Coldham’s Lane.

Cambridge had heavy industries – not on the scale of the great industrial cities, but we had them. And if you lived in the cramped working class terraces out of shot to the right, you knew about it!

“So, how do we avoid the problems that the post-war housing estates faced?”

This relates to the question I put to city councillors scrutinising the emerging local plan for Greater Cambridge 2030-41. What is the role of local historians in this process?

For those of you interested, do join the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History – of which I am a committee member. We’ve got our AGM coming up very shortly which is also convenient.

One of the methods is to invite the people who lived those local histories to write them – rather than waiting for someone else to. The Museum of Cambridge with its Capturing Cambridge is in the process of doing this through crowd-sourcing. Ideally it needs more Museum Friends, volunteers, and funding for a project that will enable people to contribute their memories, stories, and even photographs. Because as I’ve discussed with many people, the more aware that people are of their local history, the greater the incentive they might have of wanting to influence their future too. The other option – and this was my original aim in 1999 having done my A-levels, was to leave Cambridge for good. (I failed on that one. Twice – I tried again in 2007 when I moved to London with the civil service). And many do – in particular those that leave to go to university. As with many other towns and cities, the over-centralised state is one of the reasons for moving to somewhere like London. And London changes you. There’s something about the intensity of living and working in a mega-metropolis that I’ve never quite been able to put into words.

Does the local planning process – and land/property ownership patterns – enable people to build a local community identity that then becomes part of local folklore?

For example the railway workers of Romsey Town developed a strong left-wing culture in the first half of the 20th Century – hence the t-shirts. So much so that one of the most senior left-wing clerics who arrived in Cambridge after the Second World War, Canon Mervyn Stockwood, decided to stand for election to Cambridge City Council in Romsey. As the Labour Party Candidate. The problem for the Establishment was that he had just been appointed the leading cleric at Great St Mary’s, Cambridge – the University Church. His was a very eventual time in office before he was moved on – promoted as Bishop of Southwark.

Two big differences between somewhere like Romsey vs more recently-built neighbourhoods

The first is public houses. The older wards generally have far more pubs and restaurants than the newer suburbs

The second is community venues. Post-war suburbia lacks them. Post-millennium developments lack them. All too often developers are reluctant to build more than the bare minimum that they can get away with because of profit margins. Again, this is simply the economic & political system functioning as designed. I look at places like Clay Farm, Trumpington, or the Storey’s Field Centre which lots of people love but I loathe mainly on the grounds that it is far too small for the population it is supposed to serve. Again, I don’t blame the residents – they are the ones that deserve far better from the process.

The one group of people all too often left out of these conversations are teenagers. It was the same for my generation in the 1990s. There was hardly anything for us to do – noting The Junction was a concession to stop the previous generation from rioting. One thing we often hear reports about in the new housing estates – similar to previous generations of new-builds, is of youth crimes – violent ones too. But then you look at the purpose-built community centre at Clay Farm and their timetable of events: What is there for the teenagers? Interestingly the older residents past and present who were around in the 1960s talk about the youth clubs their generation had that mine did not. In part a number of them were church-based and run, and were of their era. At the Museum of Cambridge when it ran a project for the 175th anniversary of the Eden Baptist Church, some of the people taking part who were children in the 1960s spoke of the weekly Sunday colour videos they’d watch that had been imported from America at a time many of the children would not have had television sets in what was still one of the poorest parts of town. (Hence the added attraction of the new technology).

It’s not in the gift of politicians to allow or deny people the right or ability to feel pride in their neighbourhood

It is, however within the gift of those in high public office either to provide the tools for, or put up the barriers to stop, people from working together for their greater good. The austerity of the past decade is one example of the latter. The New Deal for Communities mentioned above was one attempt at the former – but it was a top-down programme managed from the centre that all-too-often bypassed local councils.

For me the journey is just as important as the process. When I think of personal pride in anything I’ve done, the common strands include hard work over an extended period of time, overcoming barriers and setbacks, and facing up to fears. And the really enjoyable ones involved people.

Today I see a lot of people from outside talking about Cambridge in glowing terms, but I don’t see it reflected in the mood of residents, nor do I feel it in myself or about my own side of the city. Which is why I’m demanding the impossible.

Above – be like Puffles the Dragon Fairy: Demand the impossible for your town

Possibly the only candidate who Cllr Lewis Herbert, the Leader of Cambridge City Council has ever had to face on a public platform, we didn’t get everything we campaigned for in the 2014 manifesto (you can read it here and ask how much progress we’ve made since – you’ll be pleasantly surprised), but we did get a new dragon slide for the children. (The next upgrade will be a an even bigger dragon slide – that is purple & green).

There were only a couple of others who were directly involved in that campaign but a surprising number of people got in touch to say how for them it broke a glass ceiling on community action – and got active themselves. At least two stood for public office – and got elected. (I won’t name them). So next time I’m standing dressed up as a concert hall ***because you never know!***

Actually the more serious point is about doing the research, and inviting & involving people.

Young, old, recently-arrived, life-long – it’s the invitation and welcomes that matter. Furthermore, I think Ms Riches is spot on with her second observation:

“People should be able to improve their life outcomes, participate in local action and become more socially mobile whilst remaining working class.”

We know Cambridge is one of the most unequal cities in the country. I can’t help but feel irritated by the big poster adverts of various private schools dotted around the major bus stops, in the same way some estate agents highlight the private schools and private hospitals in their literature, but not the state schools. If the private sector firms in our own city won’t take pride in our civic infrastructure – but instead do the opposite, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The same goes for our public spaces. The Grafton Centre once it was built, became a place where working class families would go shopping and later go for things like the cinema. I’ve lost count the number of times people have said the shops in the city centre are not for them because they are too expensive. In A-level geography we learnt that a host of shops could not survive in a town of 100,000 unless there were significant numbers of visitors – The Disney Store being a case study. You could argue the same just a generation later with the Harry Potter shop – a brand that has nothing to do with Cambridge.

For a combination of reasons The Grafton started failing, then with the big brand names imploding in recent years, and then the pandemic it was put up for sale. The estate agents are trying to sell it as speculative laboratory space. Which came as something of an unpleasant shock to those who were dependent on The Grafton for employment and retail. Note any new owners will have a very long and expensive struggle to convert it into lab space – not least because the site is not allocated or proposed for such a use in the local plan. Or for the next one either. But you can imagine the reaction if wealthy interests – in particular those not based in the city, got their way at the expense of the many who make up our city but who do not have the financial firepower.

So this comes back to how our democratic and town planning processes enable residents – in particular those who don’t have huge lists of qualifications but whose families have lived here maybe for generations, to tell the planners and politicians what their shared needs and constructive ideas are. Something that the planners and councils will need to give serious consideration to with their communications plan. I mentioned this to Cllr Davies, highlighting mutual acquaintances who I went to school with whose eldest children have just turned 18. Three generations of their families who have never been involved in democratic processes beyond voting before prior to this year. How do we change this?

Pride in shared achievements – whether a cup-winning football club, or the opening of a new civic masterpiece

When the Cambridge Corn Exchange opened in 1875, the Mayor of Cambridge John Death (yes, really!) gave a speech dedicating the venue to the people of the town, rich and poor. You can read his full speech here. It was this line that chimed with me:

“The Corn Exchange is part of your freehold as inhabitants of the borough, however poor you may be, as much as of the wealthy and influential. “

Mayor John Death, quoted in Cambridge Independent Press 13 Nov 1875

The idea that a civic building could belong to everyone to lived in the town irrespective of income and wealth then – and still is today a radical concept. I can’t think of the last time a large new standalone arts or leisure facility was opened that was dedicated to the people of Cambridge in recent times.

And football matches?

The first football match I went to was at the time the biggest football match the city had ever been involved in: The first ever Playoff Final at Wembley Stadium in 1990 with Cambridge United vs Chesterfield.

Yes, that is a very young Dion Dublin who scored. When the civic town history of Cambridge is written to cover the 20th & 21st Centuries, he should be recorded and remembered as one of the most influential town figures in our city’s history. – one he’s returned to as a Cambridge United club director. I’ve suggested that the councils should commission him to do some publicity for the local plan – in particular with the question of Cambridge United moving to a new site. Given his years co-hosting a property-related show, he already knows more than most about the basics of the planning system, and is one of the most familiar faces in the city. As a regular public speaker, he can easily command an audience. Why not hire him as a facilitator for a couple of events – one for the corporates, and one for locals/the fans. And have the fees for the former event covering the cost of the other.

Because maybe, just maybe having one of the biggest names in Cambridge’s history challenging locals to come up with ideas on what new civic, sport, leisure, & arts facilities our city needs, and also what actions they are willing and prepared to take in order to achieve them….might just work.

Above – me and Dion Dublin in the Grand Arcade back in June 2014

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: