Cambridge University must be open and honest with town and villages about its ambitions

On the new Cambridge Innovate Charter

You can read it at <<– click, scroll to the foot of the page, click.

“I thought we already had a charter!?!?”

We have a few – from various monarchs past.

The last one which made Cambridge a city was from King George VI in 1951. Before then, the city council was known as the Borough Council.

“Who is behind this new charter?”

Here are some from the website – they expect more to sign up.

“How ambitious is it?”


“It will incorporate the large-scale innovation district infrastructure needed to sustain and accelerate our capacity to translate research to impact. This includes the need for transport solutions which enable employees to access these major employment sites in a way which is both sustainable and affordable.”

Cambridge Innovate Charter p4

Left – what their Charter states about our city’s infrastructure.

“Cambridge must develop the infrastructure needed to support our ambition, as well as enhancing our world-renowned place proposition.”

“Well I didn’t vote for this!”

Thus we come back to one of the core problems of Cambridge’s future:

Democratic legitimacy

Where is it? Who voted for this? In whose manifesto was all of this? Which group of supporters were pounding the streets of the city and surrounding towns and villages to make the case for the University’s ambition? Or rather, “The Universities’ ambitions” given that Anglia Ruskin University are one of the supporters?

Cambridge University, like government ministers and politicians are avoiding the ‘too difficult to deal with’ question on how Cambridge and Cambridgeshire should be governed.

Here’s me in January 2015 asking about accountability in an early Greater Cambridge Partnership Meeting, putting the question directly to the University of Cambridge representative on the board at the time, Prof Jeremy Sanders.

Above – note the then leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Steve Count, (Cons – March North and Waldersey) also on the Board in the early years.

I wrote a blogpost making the case for a unitary council for Greater Cambridge, which would underpin a new light rail system for the area. It also draws from previous attempts by generations now long gone. Sadly no one discussed this at the 2022 local elections – despite my request!

Above – the abandoned proposals from the Redcliffe-Maude Report – the Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-69. You can read the full version of the main report here, or the summary report here. We didn’t get this, we got the complicated structure of local government in Cambridgeshire below.

Above – Cambridge’s governance diagram by the now retired Smarter Cambridge Transport. The GCP never listened seriously to the suggestions and detailed, expert scrutiny coming from SCT that in the end the participants mothballed the project. (I ran their FB page).

Looking at this again, you could say that the University of Cambridge should sit outside of the Combined Authority as it does not have formal representation on its board. (Why should it?) Furthermore, given the scale of its ambitions, Cambridge University has a moral duty to consult with the surrounding market towns – as identified in Professor John Parry Lewis’s study of the early 1970s – which you can read here.

Above – Cambridge’s sphere of economic influence: it goes beyond our city – and beyond our county boundaries too. From John Parry Lewis 1974

It’s not like we didn’t know before then either. The former Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings reminded Cambridge University members of the responsibility that institution has to our city back in 1962 at a very high profile event. A few years later, Nathaniel Lichfield’s study of Cambridge (which you can read here) came up with this diagram similar to Prof Parry Lewis only pre-dating the latter’s report. This model is very similar to what Thomas Sharp came up with in 1931 in Town and Countryside – all about town planning, of which he was a pioneer.

Above Left – Lichfield 1965; Above Right – Sharp 1931. Now can you see the case for a light rail network to link not just the towns and village to Cambridge, but the towns to each other? I explored a concept of loops with the future of Huntingdonshire consultation.

“Who decides what the policies of Cambridge University are?”

Many people have tried to investigate (and still are), and few have succeeded (Cambridge Climate Justice did well to get this far). I don’t think even they know because their structures, systems, and processes are so complicated, opaque and lack transparency. At the same time, their students and graduates are becoming more vocal in opposition to what is being done in the name of Cambridge University. The General Board of the University of Cambridge is here.

Note that the member colleges – especially the large land-owning ones, are the institutions that have bigger impacts as a result of their decisions on things like property ownership and rentals. When you look at the planning portal for planning applications, more often than not the applications from from colleges rather than the University of Cambridge. Some can be for minor work that requires extended processes due to the listed building status of the very old buildings in the conservation zone, while others can be for very large developments that encroach on the Green Belt. I think it was a former A-Level geography teacher who told me the biggest threat to the Cambridge Green Belt was not from bulk house builders but from Cambridge University and its colleges wanting to expand westwards. This was in the late 1990s.

I can’t recall a time when Cambridge University or its colleges called for an overhaul of how Cambridge City and County is governed.

Nor can I recall a time when the institutions published a high profile policy publication (and publicised it widely) coming up with proposals on *how* our city’s governance structures should be improved.

Not only do I think they have a right to do this, I think they have a civic duty to our city – including us town people and also the people who live in our surrounding villages and market towns who commute into our city for work, retail, and leisure. It’s their city too.

The Stagecoach crisis is what happens when decisions are made by institutions that affect people’s day-to-day lives but do not have their consent.

“In my time so far as mayor, no issue has evoked as strong a response as this announcement by Stagecoach,”

Mayor Nik Johnson in CambsNews

…which is why Stagecoach are now panicking.

“Stagecoach East has called for a rural connectivity summit to identify new transport solutions across Cambridgeshire.”

Cambs Times, 23 Sept 2022

I’m beyond such messing around now. Nationalise the bus network and be done with it. Reverse the disastrous decision of Mrs Thatcher’s Government which privatised the industry. In the meantime, we wait to see what officers recommend to the Mayor about filling the gaps in the existing service network – noting that there are proposals on the table.

“What have Stagecoach got to do with The University?”

Look back at the new charter: “Cambridge must develop the infrastructure needed to support our ambition…” – and that includes transport infrastructure.

Yet our governance structures of city and county don’t allow for those conversations to take place – i.e. what level of bus services are needed and to where, in order to meet whatever their ambitions are. Furthermore, there has been very little publicity on light rail from this very wealthy sector of our city that, amongst other things could be funding the essential feasibility studies for the Cambridge Connect Light Rail Project. One way Cambridge University and its supporters of this innovation charter could demonstrate how serious they are about infrastructure – and the environment, is putting that up-front funding for Cambridge Connect’s feasibility studies. Because on past form it’s not going to come from central or local government institutions anytime soon.

It’s not just housing and transport – it’s water too. It won’t be until 2035 till the first Anglian Water reservoir comes on stream. What is going to happen when the rivers run dry? The lead singer of The Sex Pistols has some questions from 1990 for you to answer.

Above – Public Image Ltd with Mr Lydon.

Just don’t ask me what impact the plunging £Sterling and the new economic crisis the Chancellor created with #Minibudget will have. Not yet anyway.

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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