Whose Cambridge is it anyway?

…and how does the city deal with forces and institutions pulling in different directions?

I stumbled across the Anstey Hall change of use planning application (See item 8 here) where it looks like the Covid Pandemic meant that the running of it as a wedding venue and hotel was no longer viable.

You can see from G-Maps below how much the surrounding area has changed.

Above – Anstey Hall is where the red balloon icon is, and just to the bottom-right of it is Trumpington Waitrose.

You can already see the housing development taking place around it. One of the completed developments next to it is Anstey Barns, marketed by Savills here. You can see all of the application papers on the Greater Cambridge Planning Portal, Ref 21/02332/FUL. In the grand scheme of things either few noticed the application or few felt moved to comment. No one objected, and in the grand scheme of things it’s making use of an existing site.

There’s a small part of me that might have had the site nationalised/municipalised under the Emergency CV19 Regulations, and turned the existing buildings into keyworker housing for healthcare workers and teachers while turning the grounds at the back into a public park, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t feel particularly moved either way. Private colleges targeting the wealthy international market and resits have been around for a while now, along with the language colleges. In one sense, a private language college might have been a more suitable alternative, targeting older students rather than teenagers. And it is here where things get interesting from both a Political perspective, and a local public policy perspective.

“Abolish Eton!”

Given two of the past three occupants of 10 Downing Street in London, I can understand the sentiment. And a group of Labour Party activists have established (or re-established) the campaign to abolish private schools.

Abolishing private schools is not some new policy that came out of nowhere to frighten the ponies. Explore The British Newspaper Archive and you’ll find multiple examples of politicians from all over the place calling for the mandatory incorporation of private schools into the state system. And with good reason: there were not enough existing secondary schools in the early-mid 20thC to enable compulsory secondary education, nor did the mainly Conservative-led/dominated governments of that era provide enough funding for the construction of new ones. The histories of Cambridge’s state secondary schools in the 20th Century is actually far more complicated than most people are probably aware of, with institutions coming and going, moving sites, and having name changes.

Cambridge – an exclusive city or an inclusive city?

This is where the debate gets ***really Political***. To summarise, the Conservative Party historically has been (and still is) supportive of private education. In 1980 Margaret Thatcher’s Government brought in the Assisted Places policy that subsidised private school fees. John Major’s Government extended it in the mid-1990s in the face of opposition from a very confident Labour Party who said they would abolish it as soon as they got into Government – which they did and they did, saying the money was better spent on improving things like nursery education than a handful of children going to private schools. I knew a couple of fellow A-level students who were on assisted places prior to their GCSEs before we all ended up at [the state-funded] Hills Road Sixth Form College. Which is a separate life chapter for me in itself!

The reason why private institutions matter is because of the University of Cambridge and its history.

The Education Act 1870 was the first piece of legislation that made provision for the compulsory education of children, with successive pieces of legislation making further provision for the funding of places and the building of new schools. In 1899 Sir Richard Jebb of Trinity College (Eglantyne’s uncle) who was also an MP for the University of Cambridge (we also had a town seat) made a very high profile speech to the Annual Conference of the National Union of Teachers (yes, that one) that John Horobin of Homerton College had brought to Cambridge that year, making the case for secondary education.

Given Cambridge’s history stretches back the best part of eight centuries and counting, the only schools that had long associations with the University were private ones. And even then, until the 1830s the only universities that existed in England were Oxford and Cambridge. (Turns out the rest of the UK was more enlightened!) So the privilege of certainly the older private schools of sending their leavers to Oxford or Cambridge is ingrained historically…and is inevitably something they don’t want to give up easily. Furthermore, the number of students each school is able to get into either of the two universities is seen as an unofficial benchmark/measure of success between schools.

Add the private colleges who offer pre-university courses targeting the international market – in particular those whose families want to get their offspring into a top UK university but of which the latter of whom may not have the required skill/competence level in English language, the number of students that progress to Oxford, Cambridge, or other highly-regarded university is something that those institutions can and do use in their marketing. If, as a private institution you can somehow link yourself to say Cambridge University in a way that competitor institutions cannot (here’s one presentation that has a couple of examples), then you can lever that in what is a very lucrative market to the extent that there is policy paralysis in Conservative policy-making circles: On one hand they want to have an aggressive policy on migration to appease the print press barons, while on the other hand they know that private education for international students is a significant revenue earner for the Exchequer, for tourism (visiting relatives), and foreign exchange.

Furthermore, the extent to which some private institutions will go to, to try and associate themselves with ‘brand Cambridge’ is quite…I can’t even find the word for it. The institution concerned in this example from several years ago has long since abandoned such branding.

As for the publicity materials full of images of the ancient colleges and punting on the River Cam (don’t tell them about the water and sewage crises) there are too many numerous examples to show.

Therefore private education institutions have very strong incentives for Cambridge to be marketed as exclusive rather than inclusive.

This is the opposite of what both the state system of education (making up over 90% of people educated) and also the higher education sector itself needs – the latter wanting to select incoming students on merit and potential rather than on ability to pay or familial and institutional connections. How you achieve this as a public policy objective is something the politicians are still arguing over. But the point remains that the way Cambridge-based institutions market themselves and inevitably the city, has a knock on effect for those of us who call Cambridge ‘home’. And that is irrespective of whether you are someone who only moved here yesterday to start a new job/career, or whether you were born in, & grew up in the city with previous generations also living/having lived here.

The big public policy question for local institutions irrespective of sector is: “how do we as a city ensure that schools & colleges are getting students from all backgrounds to mix & get to know each other?”

The simple reason being that young people from all over the world who are from affluent backgrounds are coming to Cambridge, spending however long here, making those all-important connections with each other that can last a lifetime, while children and young people in Cambridge are locked out. The private colleges go to great lengths to promote the diversity of country backgrounds of their students (see examples here, and here – and note again the responsibility rests with the adults, not the children or students) and yet all too often we see few activities that bring local young people together with students at those colleges who are the same age.

I thought that the old Shape Your Place website would have been a starting point for some activities – formerly funded by the county council.

Above – students from Cambridge Regional College produce their own version of BBC Question Time in their media suite from back in 2014. You can see the rest of the SYP videos here. Could we bring it back?

Does the Cambridge BID model offer an alternative until central government intervenes (given this is more than likely an issue elsewhere)?

The BID model enables local authorities to raise revenue from a small additional levy on local businesses in a geographical area to spend on priorities decided by those businesses that have to pay it. (There’s legislation behind it – and as enough Cambridge firms voted for it, Parliament granted powers to establish the Cambridge BID.) A similar proposal could work involving all educational establishments in Cambridge. State schools would pay a nominal fee, the private establishments a much higher fee to fund it. If willing persons are able to establish it as a voluntary program with voluntary contributions, that could work too – not least because it would not require a change in the law. (Getting from this blogpost to a change in the law is a process that takes *years*).

Why ministers past & present are to blame for the housing issues, and why young people from abroad who come here to study, are not.

One of the biggest impacts in recent times is the conversion of former council housing into student accommodation for the private colleges. The choice by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government to ramp up the ‘right to buy’ policy for council housing, while not providing local councils with the means and powers for a 1-for-1 replacement, has resulted in a situation that will be familiar to many: Former council houses now in the hands of landlords who charge far higher rents to tenants than would have been possible had they remained council homes. Thus we have a massive transfer of wealth from those with few if any assets, and lower incomes, to those at the opposite end of the scale.

Successive governments have been either unwilling and/or unable to do anything about this. Combine this further with the rise of very short-term lets (Air BnB etc) – something debated in the House of Lords on 21 February 2022 which you can watch here, (the transcripts will be up here a week or so after the hearings) and the rise of the ‘aparthotel’ which, like student accommodation makes no contributions towards ‘affordable housing’ and cities like Cambridge face something of a perfect storm. Not least because the local and regional authorities have no powers or finances to make the policy changes they know are desperately needed. Thus we come back to the problem of over-centralised UK.

Tech and science business parks – when are they in Cambridge and when are they not?

For similar reasons to the private colleges trying to attach themselves to brand Cambridge University, we see similar things happening in the business sector. My take for years has been to improve significantly the rail network and to build a comprehensive light rail network to enable more firms to establish their main businesses further away from Cambridge, but enable themselves to have a ‘shop front address and presence’ in the city boundary if they need it. Therefore surrounding towns like Huntingdon, Haverhill, and even Wisbech – that could all do with the extra investment, would benefit.

The case I’m looking at here is the Unity Campus – raised by Wendy Blythe of the Cambridge Federation of Residents’ Associations.

Back in 2019 the then leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, now no longer local to us, took this splendid photograph of the campus under construction – showing an example of reusing existing built infrastructure rather than demolishing everything and starting again.

The new interim director of the Unity Campus was recently announced – Jeanette Walker, formerly of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus – which to you and me is still the Addenbrooke’s site.

“In line with Howard Group’s commitment to creating places which enhance the lives of those who live and work in and around them, Jeanette will help to initiate a campus-wide community engagement programme which will include social, health & wellbeing, business support and external community engagement.”

Cambridge Network – 01 Feb 2022

You can have a look at the Unity Campus website here.

or their vision brochure here, those eagle-eyed amongst you noting that CB22 ***Is not in South Cambridge*** but in a faraway village called Sawston which is miles from Cambridge.

Actually, it’s only faraway from Cambridge if you don’t have a car. Like me. (Even though I passed my driving test back in late 1997).

Which is why I hope the new interim director Ms Walker gets in touch with Dr Colin Harris of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail project only that his proposals which continue to be ignored by local transport planners would link up her business park with the Biomedical Campus and the Science and Tech parks in the north of the city.

Above – the proposal from Cambridge Connect and Rail Future – noting that healthcare staff I showed these proposals to were very interested in the idea last December. (See here)

You can join Rail Future here

“Why are we trying to cram everything into Cambridge?”

Because no one in political public office has succeeded in extending our municipal boundaries since the 1930s.

Above – from this book of proposals past on the boundaries of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, and a bit about Peterborough too.

We tried in the early 1930s around the time of Davidge’s Cambridgeshire Regional Plan but ministers turned down the bid and gave us the borders we are familiar with today.

If a future government goes for a much-needed radical overhaul of local government in England similar to the Royal Commission of 1966-69 (See the summary here) then the option of a “Great Cambridge Unitary” becomes an option.

Above – the proposals from 1969 – Prime Minister Harold Wilson promised to adopt them if re-elected.

Sir Edward Heath scrapped the proposals and instead gave us broadly what we still have today – sort of minus Peterborough, now a Unitary Council following the huge house building programme that followed its designation as a third generation new town in the 1960s.

The point about this is that Cambridge’s municipal boundaries have not remained set in stone for eternity. They have changed and grown over time, as has the governance of our city. And whichever way I look at it, those pushing for the most socially progressive change have never quite achieved what they set out for – always being one vested interest or another in the way. On the other hand, the boundaries that the chaps below were seeking to protect in the photo below, would make for an interesting discussion on the future boundaries of new council boundaries.

Above – protesters outside the wrong local government building in 1960 campaigning against the merger of the old Cambridgeshire County Council with the Isle of Ely Council. Photo via Mike Petty MBE.

Less than 15 years later that council would be merged with Peterborough & Huntingdonshire Council to form what is effectively the boundaries of Cambridgeshire County Council + Peterborough Unitary. Note the sign “Town, Gown, and Village” – the three components that make up our city today given the levels of commuting.

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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