Cambridge students demand their University delivers climate justice for Cambridge town

Another cohort of Cambridge University students calls on University & colleges to change their values and act as if all of the people who make up our city matter – echoing the call from a former Vice Chancellor from over half a century ago.

It’s worth listening in full to the speech by Daisy Thomas for Cambridge Climate Justice – formerly Zero Carbon Cambridge.

Above – Ms Thomas’ speech to hundreds of people on Parker’s Piece, 06 Nov 2021

More on the events of the Day of Action in Cambridge by Mike Scialom of the Cambridge Independent here. Also, Junayd Islam who will be familiar to a number of you via the Cambridge Schools Eco Council, gave Cambridge an education on the one major sector that seems to be exempt from all things climate: The military industrial complex – listen to his speech here.

“Cambridge University refuses to listen to students calling on them to do better…. We need system change from the ground up. The University’s development projects monopolise living space in our city – forcing divisions between students & the community”

Daisy Thomas, Cambridge Climate Justice, Parker’s Piece, Cambridge – 06 November 2021.

This is a repeated call from students, echoing what their predecessors a few years ago said.

“We demand a commitment to housing justice, including rents and fixed charges across the University, and negotiating with town housing groups across our city so that Cambridge residents are treated fairly, and the opening up of University spaces to serve social and educational needs in the Cambridge community.”

Cambridge Defend Education, supporting UCU Cambridge, King’s Parade, Cambridge. 05 March 2018.

A year before that, the then Zero Carbon Cambridge ran a series of actions shortly before the surprise announcement of the 2017 General Election.

Above – Elise Nyborg and Rufus Jordana in April 2017, then of Zero Carbon Cambridge, who have gone onto greater things

Student activists influencing our local history

Some of you may find the idea of re-publicising older student-era speeches to be excruciating when looked back at a later date. But for a city like Cambridge, student activism has played an important part in the development of our city’s modern history. One early example features a young teacher called Leah Manning who recruited some undergraduates to run some sports sessions for children in one of Cambridge’s most notorious slums in the early 1900s. Then there was John Cornford’s organising students against the fascists in the 1930s, and ultimately more recently in 2015 when it was the student vote that won the Cambridge seat at the general election for Labour’s Daniel Zeichner MP (still here six years later) from the incumbent MP Dr Julian Huppert. There were only 600 votes between the top two – the closest contest in modern times here. Note the next general election could be fought on slightly different boundaries due to population increases in the county meaning Cambridgeshire is due an extra seat. The proposals from the Boundary Commission proposes moving Cherry Hinton (a solid Labour ward where historically the Tories are the nearest challengers) into a reformed South Cambridgeshire.

University dons trying to influence the future of Cambridge for the good of the town

In the fight for the post-war future of Cambridge, the Vice Chancellor in the early 1960s, Sir Ivor Jennings QC made a statement at the launch of the University’s proposals for the future of the town centre and of the westward expansion of Cambridge University premises – which we see in the Sidgwick site amongst other places. The most important statement he made was on Cambridge University’s duty to the people and city of Cambridge:

Headline reads "Vice chancellor opens university plan exhibition - our duty is to improve city"

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection (which you can visit in the Cambridge Central Library in Lion Yard – see details here – especially if you are interested in the history of Cambridge Town).

“In the Exhibition you will see our suggestions for its use mainly as an extension of the civic arena, and I would stress the point that the University has already offered to meet half the cost of a new public hall in the Lion Yard for joint city and University use. Such a hall would, I believe make a great contribution to the life of Cambridge.”

Sir Ivor Jennings QC – Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge News, 01 June 1962

Any interested students willing to dig into the University’s archives and take this very public commitment by the Vice Chancellor to the current and/or soon-to-be-appointed one and ask for a progress update? Or on how Sir Ivor’s vision is being implemented by those responsible for Cambridge University’s landowning interests in and around the city? (Ditto the colleges?)

This comes back to the point Ms Thomas made in her speech on Parker’s Piece – which I think if others can amplify her message, could become one of the most significant speeches in our recent history. If we want it to be. But that’s up to us. Ms Thomas called for a change of values within the University – one that comes from the grassroots upwards. Successive generations of students have told me how their colleges never tell them anything about the controversial things that they are doing on land/property they own that could have a detrimental impact on Cambridge town. And now given its continued expansion, the surrounding villages too. This is why when I talk about the people of Cambridge, I don’t restrict myself to the municipal boundaries set in 1935, or on a system of local government that hasn’t changed much since the mid-1970s give or take a new unitary council or under-resourced tier of administration here & there.

What would it look like if the University of Cambridge and its member institutions & colleges behaved as if the whole city mattered?

Because it’s not as if this hasn’t been done before by individual college masters – as I found out with Professor Howard Marsh of Downing College when doing research back in 2017. Note these are generally influential individuals – what for me would be the next big step is influential institutions making the changes.

In the sphere of local government, the think tank New Local has come up with a number of principles that could apply to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) generally.

Above – from Becoming a Community-Powered Council, by Kaye & Pollard. How many of the alternatives in the pink column could apply to other institutions beyond local government?

Town’s responsibility to the students

This is something I think either the City Council, or the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services should hold a summit on with student unions and student activist groups in the city. What would Cambridge be like if we, the residents acted as if all of the students were our responsibility (in the same way that we would want students to take responsibility for the city and not just their college or university?)

As far as assisting students’ social justice campaigns, one of the things I think we could do is provide essential information (refreshed annually) on how local government and public services function in/around Cambridge. It should be straight-forward to organise with the Cambridge Hub. The point being that the less time they spend trying to map and navigate their way around the system, the more time they have getting out and about.

What we have:

What we could have had if Harold Wilson had won the 1970 General Election:

Above – effectively Greater Peterborough Unitary, and Greater Cambridge Unitary councils as proposed in the 1966-69 Royal Commission on Local Government. (I digitised the main report here). Note the key surrounding towns (and residences of thousands of car commuters – Royston, Saffron Walden, Haverhill, Newmarket, Ely, & Huntingdon are all *included* in this single council – which would have done wonders for transport planning. One for the Cambridge University Railway Club to look at?

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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