CamCycle’s first in-person meeting in nearly three years

Above – you can view past and current copies of CamCycle’s magazine here.

Getting a sense of how the organisation (of which I am a member of) is run – and what other local campaigning groups can learn

CamCycle – the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, has become one of the most influential organisations on active travel policy in the modern history of our city.

Above – from the homepage.

Cambridge’s associating with cycling goes back a very long way. Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, the woodcut printer Gwen Raverat tells us that in her memoirs (Period Piece – available in almost any charity shop in Cambridge, or G. David Booksellers, round the side of St Edward’s Church on the west side of the Guildhall) of her childhood of Newnham Grange – today’s Darwin College.

Gwen credits her mother, Maud – the niece of Lady Caroline Jebb, both from the USA, as being the first woman in town who rode a tricycle.

Above – Maud Darwin on her tricycle, Period Piece p76.

And they were a hardcore cycling family in the days when most of the roads were still dusty dirt tracks.

A browse through the British Newspaper Archive online corroborates our cycling heritage, as does the Cambridgeshire Collection – where this photo in the Cambridge Daily News just before the UK’s entry into the War, was one of Cambridge’s first purpose-built cycle tracks.

Above – innovative cycling infrastructure. We could have had more as well.

Below – Gordon Logie’s “Future Shape of Cambridge” document from 1966 in the Cambridgeshire Collection gave a vision of Cambridge in the year 2000, with expanded villages all connected by cycleways.

Above – from The Future Shape of Cambridge – note how the existing and proposed secondary schools are all linked by cycleways.

“He said: “I’ve been to the Year 2000!””

When I get round to writing this local historical musical aimed at secondary schools so that they learn the history of our city, I’m including an amended cover of “Year 3000” by Busted – only with Cambridge City Council’s Principal Architect and Chief Town Planner Gordon Logie singing it.

Above – Gordon Logie via Mike Petty’s digital camera, and also the consultation report on his proposed new large concert hall that Sir Ivor Jennings promised us the University of Cambridge would fund 50% of the costs of, back in June 1962.

If you’re wondering about the prospect of a new concert hall in light of the recent release of the Census 2021 figures, see Delilah Knight for Varsity in May 2022 here.

Cambridge Cycling Campaign – an organisation with a clear vision

You can read one of the documents CamCycle produced – Cycling2020. One of the volunteers who spoke about what he did for the campaign summarised the reasons why the campaign was so successful. This was after hearing a series of talks from other volunteers who had spent years – some of them decades even, on the campaign. And some of the things were quite technical, such as setting up online databases through to Cyclestreets Cambridge, through to responding to major planning applications. Not meeting requirements set out in statutory guidance from central government, or complying with the Greater Cambridge Local Plan can delay a major development back months if they have chosen at design stage to cut corners and not comply with what they are legally required to – especially if local campaigners spot it. Because Cambridge being the city that it is has more than enough people willing to sustain objections over an extended period of time to try and ensure that the law and legal obligations on town planning are enforced. This is all the more important when central government has stripped away resources from local councils to do the job themselves.

The volunteer – who I won’t name, conceded that in a couple of the presentations he hadn’t a clue what the presenter was on about because the level of computing knowledge was beyond him. And me too. But then he said that he did not need to worry about that, so long as someone passionate and competent was keeping those things ticking over, and that there were others there to support and scrutinise. This is important given the burden that the law regarding charities places on trustees. Hence also the annual reports here – which trustees are required to produce and present to members at annual general meetings.

With over 1,600 members, CamCycle is one of the biggest civic society organisations in our city

There are very few local grassroots organisations outside of local political parties that have anywhere near that number of active members. One of the few that was mentioned – that also had and still has an impact on the shaping of our city, is Cambridge Past, Present, and Future – previously the Cambridge Preservation Society, whose volunteers and activists helped secure the Cambridge Green Belt and the protection of places like Granchester Meadows, Wandlebury, and Cherry Hinton Hall. The onetime University Vice Chancellor A.B. Ramsay, who was on the committee overseeing William Davidge’s Cambridge Regional Plan of 1934 acknowledges as such:

“The Cambridge Preservation Society have made familiar certain principles which may secure the lasting attraction of our great University town; and it seems that similar principles should govern the whole system of rural life in the County.”

Allen Beville Ramsay, Cambridgeshire Regional Plan, 1934, Foreword page vi

How did they do it? You can read the history in Planners and preservationists: the Cambridge Preservation Society and the city’s green belt 1928-85, by Anthony J. Cooper. (There’s a copy in Oxfam on Burleigh Street if you get there fast enough!)

It’s worth noting that in those days, the County Council covered a much smaller geographical area – see below from Davidge in this lovely map illustrating the green spaces he wanted preserved.

Above – proposed green spaces for preservation, and new trunk roads, bridges, and crossings from Davidge in 1934. You can see which bits of the ring road got built, and which bits did not

The contrast with the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Combined Authority

Top-down institutions created at the command of a senior minister, vs a long-term grassroots campaign whose diversity in the skills and professions of its members is also one of its strengths

This also came up in the discussion, and one of the several points of consensus was that both institutions lacked popular local and county support for a host of reasons – one of them being the lack of a democratic mandate to establish them in the first place. Furthermore, their existence as institutions only further complicates an already over-complicated system of local public service delivery where different institutions report to different departments of state. At the same time, the alternative of a simplified unitary authority on similar boundaries to the old smaller county council boundaries exists as a more efficient and effective alternative. In principle at least!

“Are there any weaknesses or areas for improvement?”

There always will be in any campaigning organisation. In CamCycle’s case, it has made progress on getting more women and families involved, but the lack of young adults involved is a significant issue for me – and is something that affects many other organisations in and around our city. Cambridge Ahead highlighted this in their recent report on housing for young people – which you can read here.

There are many reasons behind why this might be – and this was something that I lived through myself in my 20s during the noughties after graduating from university in the early 2000s and boomeranging back to Cambridge. Although in my case at the time I had no intention of wanting to base my future in Cambridge. I wanted to leave permanently. And managed to leave Cambridge not once (for university in the late 1990s), but twice – in the late 2000s during my civil service days, when I tried to move down to London only to find it utterly unaffordable. So Cambridge is stuck with me. Sorry.

Linking up with other non-fossil-fuelled transport campaign groups.

I managed to make my way into town last Saturday to meet with people from Rail Future East, Rail Haverhill, Connect Cambridge Light Rail, and the Light Rail Transit Association. Because at some stage we are going to need a light rail network not just for passenger travel but also potentially for some freight too – recalling 100 years ago there were proposals to build new light rail systems for harvests that were based on the supply chains observed during the First World War.

Above – from the Cambridge Daily News 06 March 1919 in the British Newspaper Archive

And the LRTA made proposals for trams and light railways in 1944 as alternatives to motor buses, which you can read here.

I’d like to think the various groups could co-operate and host joint stalls at future community events so that the public can see the various different alternatives to cars, and start discussing how different examples from elsewhere on things like:

…could be applied not just to Cambridge, but to the wider county too – noting groups in Ely (Ely Cycling Campaign) and Huntingdon (Hunts Walking & Cycling) are now making themselves noticed with their campaigns.

Inviting further education students (16-19 year olds) to do cycling/active travel-related extended projects

I’ve started suggesting outreach to the schools and colleges to every politician, chairperson, committee, and civic society figurehead I can get my hands on. Metaphorically – because yesterday was the first meeting of any sort I had been to for ages. What made it accessible was that the venue for the CamCycle event had bus stops that were short walks to the route that stops near where I live.

In my state of health these days, that can be the difference between going and not going to an event. Accessibility matters. Hence also why livestreams are also essential – such as the video for the Planning Committee Hearing for Romsey Labour Club redevelopment, which was refused planning permission by councillors earlier. (See the background to that application here by Alex Spencer in the Cambridge Independent – CamCycle objected on the grounds that the cycle parking facilities were not of a high enough standard to meet the requirements of the Local Plan.)

As I mentioned earlier, I lived in Cambridge and experienced life as a teenager in the 1990s – a time when we were ignored by politicians, and when local government then as now was run on a shoe-string due to long term austerity by a Conservative Government. So much so that in the 1990s the Conservatives actually lost political control of Cambridgeshire County Council for the middle part of that decade.

Obviously we’re in a completely different economic and environmental context – alongside the technological advances in communications and information retrieval that back then we could only dream of. But given the long term changes and proposals that have happened, are happening, and are likely to happen over the next couple of decades, there’s an opportunity for civic society generally to put in place systems and processes that can help new generations of teenagers and young adults learn about democracy, politics, public policy, and civic society through doing rather than as passive recipients to a lecture in a classroom. With so many of CamCycle’s resources and archived newsletters online, there is more than enough material for new generations of young people starting college in September to start working with.

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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