Over 30 people turned up to discuss how to hold the University of Cambridge and its colleges accountable for the decisions they take as corporate institutions
It was mainly students at this gathering at the back room of St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, plus a handful of us not-so-young town people, who went to this first in-person gathering of the Cambridge Land Justice Campaign (See them on FB here).
…was my reaction at the end of the workshop.
The most refreshing thing to take away from this was how it was not like traditional campaign meetings where you have an ‘executive committee’ sat at the front going through an agenda where only one person gets to speak at a time. As a former trade union rep I’ve been to more than enough such meetings than I care to remember, often wondering why we couldn’t come up with a better system that enables more conversations between groups of people there rather than having everything facilitated by one or two people.
A generation moving away from ‘command and control’
When I look at the dynamics of institutions in politics, public policy, and commerce, the inertia of command and control is still there. Look at how local government is still controlled by ministers who decide ‘Lady Bountiful-style’ who gets how much money for which projects – something that Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children criticised during her Cambridge activist days.
The difference this makes – and we’ve seen much more of this since 2010 starting with UKUncut and the anti-fees protests, is that activists don’t wait for permission from someone in the hierarchy to get on with something. They let people know what is going on, and if people want to get involved they can get involved. This for me in part reflects why the mainstream media has struggled to get their head around the autonomous nature of the climate emergency protests and the number of offshoot campaigns from the 2019 Extinction Rebellion protests. They want to know ‘who is in charge’. It reminded me of an exchange during the anti-fees occupation in Cambridge in 2010. Run on autonomous lines, students were encouraged to come in to do their homework to ensure there were enough people there 24/7 to ensure they always had the numbers to resist an eviction. (See photos from Indymedia in 2010 here) It was also a place for workshops, discussions and debates of the sort that we never had during my student days a decade before.
Cambridge Police: “Who is in charge?”
Crowd of students blocking the Senate House entrance: “No one is!”
Cambridge Police: “Then who is responsible for you?”
Crowd of students: “We all are!”
I was still a civil servant in those days but like many I knew my days were numbered, and the students were the only ones standing up to austerity in the face of announcements that had seemingly paralysed the trade unions in the public sector. I remember going into some stormy meetings between members and full-time trade union reps, the former furious that the response from unions seemed so limited. Ministers back then moved so quickly that by the time the unions had gotten round to organising strike ballots, thousands of people had already been made redundant. i.e. it was too late.
“Isn’t 2010 all ancient history? Today’s undergraduates were at primary school when that happened!”
Yes. And no.
I mentioned local history as a means of learning from what previous campaigns had done. Mindful of the news about the speculative science laboratories proposal for The Grafton Centre (the first consultation will be next month!) I mentioned the fight to save The Kite neighbourhood (where The Grafton shopping centre is) from back in the 1970s & 1980s. Some of the students studying architecture mentioned they were looking at The Kite as a case study. Thus getting into discussion about the local political context of that (see my blogpost here), and how one of the colleges (Jesus College, Cambridge) had a huge influence on the neighbourhood – from the slum properties built in the first place in the 1800s, through to the property negotiations in the post-war years. Here was a local history case study of the very same issues today’s students are campaigning on. The interest in Cambridge town history from the group was pleasantly surprising. (See also Mill Road History Society, and the Cambs Association for Local History as well as my own Lost Cambridge pages)
One of the other issue that came up was the University of Cambridge and its colleges not acting in the interests of the people whose livelihoods depend on the land they own. This came up in the context of the Felixstowe Docks where trade unions (in this case Unite the Union) has linked up with students to hold Trinity College, Cambridge, accountable for its decisions as the freeholder in the face of the industrial action at the docks.
There’s also the case of the University of Cambridge not delivering on long-held promises to provide leisure and community facilities for both town and gown. Such as the long-promised swimming pool.
“Cambridge University tells councillors it cannot commit to early delivery of long-promised swimming pool”Cambridge Town Owl 21 July 2021
On this, the conversation I had with a few of the students was whether this was something the sporting societies could lead on. The land justice campaign doesn’t need to be the lead on everything, and often it can be useful to let other groups and societies lead on something and to say “call us if you need us” say for petition-signing or taking part in a protest march or lobby of decision-making organisations.
I’ve lost count of the number of cases where community and civic amenities have been stripped back to the detriment of people living and working in newly-built areas past and present. For example the economically-deprived communities of Arbury and King’s Hedges which were built with only minimal community facilities.
Above – from the 1970s – the debate for north of our city included the need for a large park. Sadly no land was allocated for such a park – the last opportunities for one lost to the developments of Darwin Green. This means the only opportunities are on the other side of the A14. And what are the proposals? That’s right, *another science park*
I wrote more about it here in May 2021 stating that the developers would need to contribute significant sums of money for new public transport infrastructure and water supplies brought in from elsewhere if such proposals are to be incorporated into the next Local Plan for 2030-41. Personally I hope the land can be re-wilded instead.
“Does this also mean the students might campaign for a new town-gown concert hall?”
Only if they want to.
Pembroke graduate Delilah Knight wrote an opinion piece for Varsity, calling on The University to fulfil the commitment made in 1962 by former Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings QC to fund 50% of the costs for a new joint town-gown concert hall. This followed from conversations we had where I was the community contact for her team on a Cambridge Hub project that she led. Their challenge (in the middle of a CV19 lockdown) was to come up with proposals for a Cambridge Late Starters’ Orchestra for adult beginner musicians. (London has a few, but we don’t have one in Cambridge specifically targeted at this group).
Number-crunching big data sets
This is the sort of thing that wasn’t even on the radar of protests I became familiar with a generation ago outside of academic circles. While campaigns were able to draw on academic research, the idea of campaigners getting hold of or collating their own data sets, doing the processing, publishing, and publicising at the standard I’m seeing today was incredibly rare a generation ago. In particular the data mapping. Keep an eye out for the results of the huge piece of work the Cambridge Land Justice Campaign has done on identifying which plots of land in and around Cambridge are owned by the University and its colleges.
At the same time, there are other groups doing similar things in creating the online knowledge bases that connect up the various activist groups in and around Cambridge. Have a look at the Cambridge Resilience Web.
“Two webs of resilience, showing the environmental and social justice groups in Cambridge, UK. These webs are useful for finding local like-minded organisations, seeing common connections and contributing to proactive collaboration across Cambridge.”Cambridge Resilience Web
This involves South Cambridgeshire too.
Some of you may have seen the headline in the Cambridge Independent about Cllr Lucy Nethsingha’s comment on a Cambridgeshire light rail. (As a supporter of the Cambridge Connect proposals I was delighted by that headline!)
Above – by Cambridge Connect and Rail Future East – (join here!)
The two long-term concerns from different groups of residents are the loss of open green space to a proposed busway (which wouldn’t happen with Cambridge Connect as it proposes a short underground tunnel instead), and the huge lack of trust/belief that a buses-led improvement plan will be enough to reconnect villages that have lost services with austerity, and persuade motorists to leave their cars at home. The latter is a huge issue for people on lower incomes who cannot afford to live inside Cambridge’s city boundaries, but of whom our city is dependent on because they work in essential service professions without which the city could not function. Therefore – and as the Land Justice Campaign has already demonstrated, its activities will not stop at the municipal boundaries that were set in 1935. Since that time our city’s population has doubled!
“So, what happens next?”
That’s up to the participants and activists. What was wonderful for an ageing warhorse like me to see was not only their desire to learn and gain more knowledge, but also their willingness and ability to then develop something independently without needing to be told what to do or controlled by anyone or any committee. Also, when it comes to managing projects, I’m the worst at it for my own weaknesses and limitations get the better of me! Furthermore all things health mean I no longer have the capacity to do the sorts of things I did in my civil service days. I trust more town people will be getting involved – noting Cllr Hilary Cox Condron who has given early notice of
“Join the researchers from the University of Cambridge, Cambridge Carbon Footprint and artist Hilary Cox Condron in this workshop of collaboration of researchers, residents, campaigners and creatives.”The Imaginarium, 30 Oct 2022 at The Grafton Centre, Cambridge
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: