“I’m often surprised at how little knowledge of the city centre many Cambridge residents have”

Comments by Ian Sandison of the Cambridge BID [Business Improvement District] lead to more questions about the future direction of Cambridge

You can read his short piece here – also published in the Cambridge Independent this week. Cllr Sam Davies asked if anyone is looking into why this is.

Most of the issues I’d normally raise I’ve covered one way or another in tweets, blogposts and videos over the past decade? Does it feel like anything has improved for the city as a collective? No. The title of Most unequal city in the UK hangs around the neck of the city like a millstone. Or a ring road full of belching traffic pumping out poisonous fumes. And which was actually the original plan for upgrading the roads in 1934 in Davidge’s Cambridgeshire Regional Plan.

Above – Davidge’s regional plan for Cambridge p61 – where he also identified areas of green space that should remain undeveloped. (Also, spot the lost railway lines!)

What do we know about Cambridge’s residents?

Well, we know that there are over 20,000 more of us than there were in 2011. Go back to when I started secondary school in the very early 1990s and the difference between then and now is closer to 50,000 people. (You can see the historical census figures here). So between my teenage years and today, that’s over 40,000 people more living within the city boundaries. Now consider population turnover – people moving to the city, older residents passing away, new arrivals at The Rosie (and home births). On top of that, the rise of fixed term research contracts has meant people who have wanted to stay in Cambridge have not been able to because their field of expertise means the only alternatives to them are often in other cities, if not countries. And that’s at the highly-skilled end. I’ve lost track of how many people I met in my 20s who I’ve lost track of because their careers took them elsewhere, even though they were happy to stick around. Don’t think these factors have little impact on individuals. They do. I have found out the hard way.

Population churn – its challenges for cities

The old DCLG (my old workplace) produced a report on the London 2012 Boroughs on population church. Look at Page 14.

Above – the impact on local councils of high population turnover

Between 2007-08, their findings for inner London boroughs showed that population turnover (in-migration and out-migration) was over 200 people per 1,000 population. Over 20% in a single year. What are the figures for Cambridge? Is there any way of finding out?

One of the factors might simply be that new arrivals who do not have the pre-existing social and institutional links to the centre of the city simply do not know, or are not made aware of what is and isn’t available to them. And that point I’ve put in bold deliberately. Because for some firms and institutions, their entire business model relies on selling Cambridge as something ‘exclusive’ that isn’t open to everyone – but is open to you. For a price. Hence me asking Whose Cambridge is it anyway?

“If you live in Cambridge why not take the chance this summer or any day, to explore your city, to experience the great visitor welcome voted first in this survey”

Ian Sandison for Cambridge BID

Depends who the above comment is aimed at. Because it certainly isn’t aimed at someone like me.

“Experience the great visitor welcome voted first in this survey!”

***No! F— Off! I don’t want to go punting!*** replied so many locals to invitations to go punting that back in 2016 Cambridge City Council had to bring in a Public Spaces Protection Order banning such touting and making it a criminal offence for anyone to undertake such practices. You can even buy the t-shirt with the slogan on it.

Above – the ***No I don’t want to go punting today!*** t-shirt

Other slogans and designs are available. Personally I’d love to see the Museum of Cambridge working with local children and teenagers to come up with their own designs to sell and raise money for the museum. (See my blogpost on this here).

Parking’s not cheap, traffic is horrendous, and buses are expensive and unreliable

Furthermore, we don’t have the safe cycling infrastructure in place to make it a pleasant cycle ride into town. Again, this is something the transport authorities should really be working with secondary schools on to designate segregated safer cycling routes where cyclists have priority over motor vehicles. We’re nowhere near that stage.

Does the City Centre provide what residents need and want?

There are a number of issues that come up with the retail offer here – and these need to be unpicked before everyone turns around and shouts: “No!”

Rents for commercial properties/units in the city centre are sky high

Don’t expect North Laine in Brighton, Marylebone High Street, The Shambles in York, or even Mill Road in Cambridge when shopping in Cambridge. It’s mainly the colleges that own the land in the centre – The King from many moons ago and he could do such things, hence the residents that lived and worked along the banks of the River Cam before the Reformation and the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt all got turfed out. 1381 was a particularly grim year for townsfolk, as Prof Helen Cam describes in the Victoria County History of Cambridge.

High rents mean that the only retailers that can afford to make a profit are either those that target the very affluent with very expensive goods/services, or those that target the mass market with a very high turnover of stock. Which require frequent deliveries to replenish said stock – and increase motor traffic and diesel fumes. In A-level geography in the late 1990s one of our teachers pointed out the stores at the time that served the tourist market, stating that a settlement that had only 100,000 people could not hope to sustain such a shop. One such example at the time was the Disney store – even though Cambridge (as a city) had nothing to do with the media multinational.

“Cambridge scored very well for our cultural offer with our beautiful buildings, museums, and colleges but a lot of the visitor experience is the great customer service the hard-working staff in our hotels, bars, shops, cafes, attractions, and restaurants provide every day. These are our visitor welcome champions.”

Ian Sandison for Cambridge BID

Not surprisingly, Cambridge scored well on buildings and museums. However, once you’ve lived here for a bit, you get used to it. There’s only so many times you can go into a museum before you get bored of it – and I type this as one of the Friends of the Museum of Cambridge. (It’s one of the reasons I want to see it expanded onto the Castle Hill site). With the colleges we come back to the point that they are private, functioning institutions. They are not theme parks. We have to respect the fact that for students this is a place where during term time they live – and have a right to privacy. Cambridge is their city too.

Are those that work in Cambridge’s service industries being paid enough to match the very high costs of living in our city? It’s all very well praising them for their hard work, but given the costs of living and the costs of renting commercial premises, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of their hard work? This comes back to the issue of Cambridge being the most unequal city in the country – and many low paid staff having to live outside of the city and bear the brunt of transport costs of commuting in. Cambridge is their city too. What do they get out of it?

Cambridge’s leisure offer does not match what local residents want or need

When was the last time I had a really great night out in Cambridge at something that was not university / college related? You’d have to go back to the other side of the Year 2000 for that one. My point? Cambridge as a city has not kept up its leisure offer with the rapidly growing needs of our city. And by that I include

  1. Residents living within the municipal boundaries that date from 1935
  2. Residents living outside the municipal boundaries but live within a reasonable radius of the city so as to fall within its economic sphere of influence as a regional economic centre – many of whom may commute for work or study
  3. Full time university students who live in the city during term time
  4. Full time private college students (including cram colleges, access courses, and language schools) who live in the city as short-stay residents

When you consider the number of teenagers in Cambridge during the summer, the state of our leisure offer is appalling. But it’s no good blaming local councils – ministers and Parliament refuse to give local councils the financial powers to tax the people and industries making fortunes in the city and exporting the wealth elsewhere.

Cambridge’s central business district, its municipal boundaries, and its structures are long obsolete to deal with the challenges it faces today.

There is a huge democratic deficit with Cambridge’s local governance that prevents shared problem-solving. Our structures put city residents against commuting residents who have to drive in because there is no reliable and affordable public transport system. That’s not to say proposals past and present have not been made. There’s one – Cambridge Connect – waiting for a visionary group of people with the finances and political mandates to back it. That has not happened.

If Cambridge cannot meet the needs of our fellow residents on the lowest of incomes, then we have failed as a city.

Hence the importance of free civic events in our city that are open to everyone irrespective of incomes. But inevitably that means for an institution like the Cambridge BID, those residents fall outside of its consideration. By that I mean there is zero financial incentive for the Cambridge BID to engage with residents that have little money to spend. Go onto any well-frequented online message board and read the comments from people who say that the shops in the city centre are too expensive or don’t sell anything that they need or want.

Then consider the state of the Grafton Centre – which ever since the first part of it was opened in 1984 became the shopping centre for working class Cambridge & District. Even when Grand Arcade opened it remained that way. In the 1990s it was the place we as teenagers wanted to be – because it had brand new cinema and a choice of fast food outlets. It’s soul-destroying to see it so lifeless now – but that is in part of catastrophic political decisions in Westminster (eg not rebalancing taxation of online sales vs high street sales) combined with corporate decisions taken in boardrooms far from Cambridge. (The asset-stripping of high street brands) has led to far fewer retailers willing to take the plunge in shopping centres. The market’s response has been to try and ‘sell’ The Grafton as a site for a speculative science lab complex. Add the same with the Beehive Redevelopment Plans which at first view leave very little for green open space for the many teenagers that live in the neighbourhood, and you wonder again why residents would want to visit the town centre if more and more of it is being priced out of their range.

Education and learning isn’t just for the young – but what is Cambridge’s offer? How does it compare to past times?

Have a look for yourselves – this arrived earlier – the Cambridgeshire Technical College and School of Arts Calendar 1954-55

Above – the covers of the course calendar for what became CCAT, then APU, now ARU

Now look at both the governing body, and the themes of courses in the contents. The number local civic titans in that list is so great they make the earth move!

When you look at the courses in detail – that run from the old GCE-O levels through to A-levels and all the way up to undergraduate degrees validated by the University of London, the variety is incredible. Furthermore, scholars of local history as well as long time residents who have been here for over half a century will be able to recognise which employers the people studying would go on to work for. For example:

  • Industrial Printing – Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Newspapers
  • Building – Kerridge, Ridgeons, Rattee & Kett to name but a few.
  • Institutional Cookery – any of the large employers that had staff canteens
  • Local Government – Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Councils, and the smaller-than-today district councils
  • Banking – pre-dating the mergers and takeovers, there were far more branches than there are today
  • Scientific Instrument making – PYE, the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company
  • Radio Service Work – PYE
  • Civil Service clerical and executive grade – The Government Offices off Brooklands Avenue (Shaftesbury Road – where I started my civil service career in 2004)

Where is the equivalent city centre adult education college that offers daytime and evening classes (along with the social facilities) that give people a reason to come to the city centre for something other than shopping and stereotypically ‘middle class, high culture’ activities?

“Who wants to live in a town full of executives where you can’t find a plumber?”

…said one of my friends at school in the mid-1990s bemoaning the state of Cambridge and the direction it was going in. He moved away many moons ago. Have we reached that point? And could we have prevented it? What is the local response? What is the public policy response?

At least in the 1950s there was the institution within walking distance from the town centre that could teach people the practical skills that a city’s workforce needed in order to function. I fear we’ve lost that today. There’s also the inevitable class-based snobbery – something I grew up with in South Cambridge. It was reinforced by the institutions of education. The academically bright would go onto university and become managers, while the less academically bright would go on to do vocational courses and into a trade. And not knowing any different until I left Cambridge to go to university and beyond, I believed what I was told because why would adults lie to me? (I was so gullible in those days and believed everything that people in authority told me!!!)

One of the things the climate emergency may well force us all to do is to familiarise ourselves with the essentials of the trades in order to maintain our homes. Solar panels, rainwater harvesting, heat pumps, air conditioning – the more machines we have in our homes means having to deal with the risks of them breaking down. Yet as I’ve mentioned, where are the courses that teach adults all about these whether as day courses or in the evening? Which are the employers who would be willing to give paid learning leave for their staff to go on such courses that were not directly relevant to their work, but collectively are essential for a functioning city? (Mindful that the cost of living crisis, the hangover of university-era debt, and high house prices means few can afford to take unpaid leave for learning).

And finally…

Does Cambridge finally need a second urban centre that is far enough away from the historical centre?

Half a century ago, Prof John Parry Lewis came to this conclusion – and the majority of the councillors disagreed with him and threw out his report. And it gathered dust for over 40 years until I rediscovered it and told everyone about it. Have a read of his plan here. His proposals were to increase Cambridge’s population to 200,000 by the Millennium.

Above – John Parry Lewis’s options: Extend southwards, or eastwards? (‘N’ being the new urban centre he proposed)

“So…to conclude?”
  • In the face of an economic crisis, I can understand why the Cambridge BID is trying to encourage more people to visit the city centre and buy things (and in their position I’d probably do the same thing)
  • We don’t know nearly enough about the people who make up our city to know whether the needs of tourists and visitors are the same as those that live and work in our city
  • We have not analysed in depth the impact that powerful decision makers have had and continue to have on our cities, or the weaknesses in our governance institutions. in regulating them *for the collective good of our city*

Some of the issues will have local solutions, some will have regional solutions working say with partner local councils, while others will require firm, bold, long term actions from visionary and competent ministers. The last of which I can’t see happening.

I do hope we can get a new large concert hall for our growing population though. Hear the story of the unbuilt concert hall at my Open Cambridge Talk on Wed 14 Sept. Details here.

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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