What can Cambridge (& southern Cambridgeshire) learn from other cities as it continues to grow?

Case study: The City of York

The New Local Think Tank published a report on York recently.

“Telling your Story of Council and Place”

You can read it if you are a member – sign up here, but no longer being a member of any library or institution, I have no access. But you can read York’s original documents here.

This flow chart struck me.

…because all of the above are things that we should be doing in and around Cambridge. Let’s take each heading.

Making history every day

“York is abundant with cultural history and beautiful build heritage and has learnt from its past how to build better futures. When we make plans for our city, we reflect and build on these stories and are always driven to consider how today’s actions will impact future generations.”

Do we do the above? No. Officers from the Greater Cambridge Partnership told me to my face at a public meeting back in autumn 2016. Have a watch.

In my mind I’ve written off the Greater Cambridge Partnership in my head. In my opinion and in my experience, senior officers early on decided busways were the way to proceed. Whether under Conservative-led or Labour/LibDem-led GCP Boards, councillors nominated by their local authorities have gone along with busway plans that date back to the millennium – even though in 2021 they had an electoral mandate to pull back. They decided not to. That’s a conversation to be had between them and their electors.

Prioritising human experience

“York is a city on a human scale, large enough to have ambitious goals to provide opportunities for everyone, and intimate enough that every person can make their mark. We are working together to create fair, compassionate, and welcoming communities where collaboration and social vision sparks grassroots action”

Ironically one of the biggest selling points of the city to tourists is one of the very things that is destroying it as a city – whether the unmanageable crowds of tourists in the summer (and I don’t blame the tourists – I blame successive ministers for not giving municipal authorities the legal powers and financial resources to manage tourism), through to the architectural styles representing early 21stC minimal cost, maximum profit disaster capitalism design from a globalised industry that has no interest in the city beyond how much money it can make from the brand.

Furthermore, the shorter, fixed term contracts that we see in academia and the industries that Cambridge has become famous for, undermine the very things needed in place for communities to become welcome, for collaboration to create a social vision for grassroots action. Impossible when population turnover is so high, and where a research contract is not renewed it involves people having to leave not just the city, but the country too.

Pioneering with Purpose

“In York, we lead the way, innovate, and experiment with a common purpose – to make lives better at home and around the world. We have bold ideas and form local, national, and international partnerships to help bring these human-centred ambitions to life”

Cambridge’s corporate, senior academic, and financial classes might think that this is what Cambridge does. But it does not. We don’t have a common purpose. The data on inequalities in our city tells us that – we are the most unequal city in the UK. We have to be honest with ourselves – and with central government that our city does not have the institutional structures, the legal powers, or the ability to tap into the financial resources we supposedly generate, to deal with the challenges we face.

  • We cannot talk about international partnerships when our international citizens who have settled here, live here, and who may even have children who go to school here, are banned from voting even in local elections (even though Scotland and Wales have removed that ban from local elections – Scotland adopting votes at 16 and residence-based voting rather than ‘golden-visa-based voting’)
  • We cannot talk about strong and clear lines of democratic accountability while our governance structures are the mess that they currently are
  • We cannot talk about bold ideas (such as a light rail that could link up our surrounding towns just over the county boundaries) when we’ve had busways driven through despite years of calls for something better – the results of which has disheartened so many. The impact has at times felt similar to both the Iraq War II, and Tuition Fees, where the huge numbers protesting found out that their efforts counted for nothing.
  • We cannot talk about human-centred ambitions when schemes like the redevelopment of Cambridge Railway Station ended up taking away the civic heart of that redevelopment in the most controversial of circumstances – with the then executive councillor for planning Cllr Kevin Blencowe telling the Planning Committee of Cambridge City Council that Brookgate had hardly covered themselves in glory over their actions. And they are not the only one – the Romsey Labout Club development is back – with a bid for even more units on an overcrowded site (see https://applications.greatercambridgeplanning.org/online-applications/ and type in 22/01432/FUL into the search box).

“So, what can we do? We’ve just had local elections after all”

Let’s look at York again. First of all they asked the question: “How do we see ourselves as a city?” (See https://www.york.gov.uk/YorkNarrative and the first few links)

My various moans about Cambridge seem to resonate with more than a little of the hypothesis that the researchers came up with.

The 2019 perception of York and what it offers is out of kilter with the day to day experience of living, working, studying or visiting the city, and to the future detriment of the city – affecting investment, talent attraction and employment, business growth and reputation.”

York – Perception Baseline Exec summary Annex 2 – slide 4

We can get a good look of what the perception of Cambridge is in terms of how it is marketed through the international property markets.

Above – Cllr Tim Bick (Lib Dems – Market), a former leader of Cambridge City Council, who will be tabling a motion on new-build housing being marketed in Hong Kong.

Above – from the marketing website just over a year ago from Cllr Bick’s post. The language used is enraging for anyone suffering as a result of the housing shortage. I’ve deliberately not included the photograph of the people in the screenshot. This is not about people from China or Hong Kong any more than our overcrowded streets pre-pandemic is the fault of the individual tourists. The fault again lies with UK Ministers and the policies that they have chosen. The same political party in government whose ministers:

  • continue to hesitate over calls for a windfall tax on energy companies who are making vastly excessive profits while the poorest choose between heating and eating
  • continue to excuse the unlawful and illegal behaviour of their Prime Minister
  • ignored repeated warnings about the stockpile of PPE and other equipment even though a pandemic was at the top of the Government’s national risk register.

If successive Chancellors of the Exchequer wanted to clamp down on things like large scale tax avoidance, tax evasion, and ensuring domestic home buyers [‘buy to live in’] get priority in the housing market over second/third/investor properties, they could make the changes in the law. They could bring in a land value tax to replace the broken system of local government financing through council taxes and business rates. They could have worked constructively with the EU (instead of Brexiting) to get a continent-wide digital tax on the giant tech corporations. Housing & planning ministers could make changes in the law to enable local councils to designate areas of land for development of certain types/classes of housing – for example key worker housing near public transport stops. They could have insisted on insulating new homes and have them built to higher standards. Instead they gutted local government funding which hit planning and enforcement functions – in particular of building regulations – something exposed by the Grenfell Inquiry. There are a lot of things they could have done, but have chosen to do next to nothing. Or whether through sheer incompetence or something else, made the problems worse.

Let’s go back to York again

“It was felt the reality of York is overwhelmed by its heritage tourism image and that negative impacts are felt by some organisations and businesses in the city”

Sound familiar?

“There is a counter-concern that this is not the case for all partners; there might be a gap between the different needs, wants and understandings of different groupings of stakeholders, including residents.”

Cambridge cannot serve the international property bubble and meet the housing needs of our city at the same time – as Cllr Sam Davies MBE states in her blog here. And it’s not just Cambridge. You can find similar problems in many other towns and cities across the world. Join up the dots?

“What people value and want of the city – what they would like it to be known for in the future?”

Above – one of the three questions asked in finding out the perception baseline. If we carry on along an unsustainable trajectory with Cambridge, what will the city be known for in the future?

  • One where the water taps ran dry in the science labs because Cambridge Water, and Anglian Water had failed to build enough infrastructure, plug the leaky pipes and ensure enough new supplies?
  • One where the River Cam once again became polluted with sewage and filth because regulators were too weak-willed, too poorly resourced by The Treasury and woefully led by ministers similar to those in Victorian times?
  • One where it becomes a city full of executives who complain they cannot find a local plumber/handyperson/carpenter/gardener to do the essential repairs because they have all been priced out of the city?
  • One where only a handful of academics can stay around for so long before they are turfed out – or who quit (resulting in the loss of their knowledge to their subject area) because living and working conditions in higher education have become detrimental to their health?
“The engagement target was 1,500 engagements and activities”

Some of you will be familiar with my calls for Cambridge & Cambridgeshire organisations to overhaul how they do consultations. It’s slightly easier in York being a unitary council (similar to Peterborough) than it is for Cambridge, which is a lower tier district council similar to many large market towns. Given how Cambridge is spoken of both in London and beyond, why is the city governed like a large market town? York’s population at the 2011 Census was around the 200,000 mark – so similar to Peterborough. Cambridge was closer to 125,000. How much longer Cambridge can remain 1) a lower tier council, 2) confined within municipal boundaries last expanded in 1935, and 3) stuck with the same number of city councillors (42) since 1974 remains to be seen.

Above – the summary of Sir Edward Heath and Peter Walker’s plans for an overhauled local government system that is still broadly in place today for much of the country. Where next for local government in England? Have a look at this from the Electoral Reform Society, that plots a history of how we got to today.

Cambridge cannot be all things to all people – nor should it be.

Slide 14 from York’s baseline perception slides got me thinking of the above.

For example,

  • Can you have an exciting and fast-paced life in a city that also markets itself with punting on the River Cam?
  • Can you have a city that has those picturesque riverside spots while served by privatised *and* privately owned water companies that don’t have AGMs to shareholders and no means of being held publicly to account for their failings on a regular basis? (Whether through public cross-examination by shareholders, councillors, or even committees of MPs?)
  • Can you have a university city where the more famous& wealthier of the universities (and its member institutions & colleges) whose corporate values and institutional behaviours (whether providing council housing on land it owns, to paying living wages across the board that reflect the high costs of living) don’t incorporate the needs of the city whose support it cannot do without?
  • Can you have a university city whose image of old and ancient buildings is not reflected in any of the new architectural styles that are going up – rather ones that reflect an anonymous, minimalist ‘could be built anywhere’ style that does not engage with its undergraduates or residents *at design stage*?

The same goes for new public transport and leisure with our surrounding towns. Let’s take Cambridge’s spheres of interest from this 1951 Cambridgeshire County Council document shortly after Holford & Wright published their development plan.

Above – a couple of people mentioned that the surrounding towns are calling out for a ‘circle line’ suburban or light railway to be built to link them all to each other and Cambridge – perhaps in a spiral rather than a spider’s web reaching out from the centre to individual towns.

I had a look at some possibilities in this earlier blogpost.

In this case, I looked at a series of looped light rail lines.

Above – Cambridge – Ely – Sutton – Chatteris – Ramsay – Alconbury (& A1(M)), Huntingdon, St Ives Northstowe – Cambridge

Those would be just the main stops – there would be additional stops at the smaller villages along the route including any larger leisure facilities that might benefit from having a stop along the line that can also serve the settlement it is in.

The south-eastern loop below examines relieving the congested roads into Addenbrooke’s.

Above: Cambridge – Addenbrooke’s – Babraham – Linton (and zoo) – Haverhill – Saffron Walden – Duxford IWM – Sawston (incl Cambridge City FC’s new ground) – Addenbrooke’s (again) – Cambridge.

For any of the shows at Duxford, a huge amount of motor traffic can be taken off the road. Commuter traffic from Haverhill (which could be a dual train-tram line that they have in Germany and thus reconnect to Sudbury and beyond to Colchester) and Saffron Walden. It would also boost tourism to the market town of Saffron Walden and provide public transport to Cambridge City’s new stadium at Sawston under construction (as well as a potential wider fan base – i.e. not just a city based one.

This is also a reminder that the newtowns being built near Cambridge – Waterbeach, Northstowe, and Cambourne, all could do with leisure attractions that Cambridge does not, and cannot have (not least because of high land prices) that can serve not just the towns themselves but surrounding villages and Cambridge itself with a splendid public transport service alongside safe, well-maintained and well-planned cycleways / active travel routes. Extend the Chisholm Trail cycleway to Waterbeach to serve a new Cambridge Sports Lake? Could Northstowe or Cambourne have a large indoor skate park as part of a wider outdoor leisure centre that might incorporate other activities? Eg dry slope skiing? (Esp if/when Cambourne gets an East-West Rail stop).

“So….why can’t we have all of these nice things?”

My previous blogposts go into detail about different things – institutional behaviours, broken/fragmented governance structures, an unfamiliarity with our local civic and municipal history, the economic inequalities, the physical and metaphorical walls that separate gown from town. Who is going to do what about it?

That’s a conversation you will need to have with your local councillors and local Members of Parliament – drop them an email here. Because if you don’t ask (nicely first) you don’t get. That also means a commitment from all of us to do something – however big or small, whether one off (e.g buying a copy of “Buses magazine” to find out the essentials of public transport) or a continuous behaviour change (e.g. joining the Light Rail Transit Association so as to collect an evidence base on what other cities have that we could have that you can regularly put to local councillors). Or joining a local branch of a national campaigning group – such as Living Streets (Formerly the Pedestrians’ Association) Cambridge Branch because we all have to use the pavements, and at the moment they are in a real state.

Furthermore, as we have a general election likely within the next two years, now is the time for the public to start influencing what’s in local manifestos. For some of you that might mean getting involved in large single issue campaigns, neighbourhood/community campaigns, or even joining political parties. Part of the challenge is we don’t have a regularly-updated directory of Cambridge’s community and campaign groups (although Transition Cambridge makes a good go of it). Back in the day at the peak of the Kite’s rebellion in the 1970s, they produced a newsletter and had a community hub that provided for exactly that. Have a look at this example of The Grapevine in winter 1979, or this edition from the autumn before.

One of the challenges that politicians also need to put back to us residents and citizens is asking us what actions we can undertake to make what we want actually happen. Because democracy isn’t a spectator sport. We’re not consumers, we’re citizens. As the residents of St Neots found out from Jon Alexander recently. (See https://www.jonalexander.net/ for the book).

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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