Cambridge Arts Theatre’s new plans

Replacing the restaurant area with a new studio theatre form a core part of their new plans

The plans are described on the Greater Cambridge Planning Service Planning Portal – both 22/04228/FUL (the main application) and 22/04229/LBC (request for consent to make alterations to a listed building, which the Cambridge Arts Theatre is).

“Refurbishment of auditorium and back of house spaces; demolition of disused restaurant area and creation of new studio theatre. Installation of a halo illuminated fascia sign and new canopy. New entrance doors and goods lift off St Edwards Passage access and minor alterations to fenestration to rear of Spalding Hostel. Ref 22/04229/LBC

The site will be familiar to many of you, but for those of you wondering where this is, it’s round the western side of The Guildhall and the Corn Exchange.

Above – from the Design and Access Statement Part 1 (in 22/04228/FUL) – the pale section just below “St Edward’s Passage” – the dome of John Pink’s old library, Peck & Stephens’ large assembly hall, and the Cambridge Corn Exchange all visible on the right hand side. There’s a random art project for someone to make a hill of peas on Peas Hill. (Although Stubbings and Gray tell us that there’s no evidence that there ever was a hill of peas on the site, or that peas were ever exclusively sold).

The Heritage Statement goes deeper into the history, with the diagram below showing the extensive alterations made in the 1990s.

Above – p18 of the pdf (in 22/04229/LBC)

I was surprised to read the statement about the loss of much of the 1930s building.

“As set out in chapters 2 and 3, the theatre was so thoroughly reconstructed in the 1990s that it cannot be said to be a 1930s building. The existing auditorium is not a 1930s auditorium. This is apparent from inspecting before-and-after photographs (chapter 2). With the exception of the plaster reliefs, there is no 1930s fabric left with any inherent significance.”

Above – from the Heritage Statement

Looking up what the British Newspaper Archive had on the redevelopment,they had a summary from May 1997 when the Queen Mother (1900-2001, also the first woman to receive a degree from the University of Cambridge as Queen Consort to George VI) visited following the major works.

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive here

“[Architects] Julian Bland and John Cole of Bland, Brown and Cole, the firm which carried out the refurbishment work, told the Queen Mother that radical work to the theatre had been needed but the aim had been to preserve its soul”

Cambridge Evening News 30 May 1997, in the British Newspaper Archive.

As a child I always remember such interiors being larger than they actually are when seeing them as an adult! It’s mainly musicals that I’ve seen at the Arts Theatre over the years. My first visit was as a five year old when my late grandparents took me and my brothers to see Paddington The Musical in the mid-1980s (I had only just started school). The most recent production I saw was Avenue Q, after which several people who had seen the production before me asked about the internet song. Just because a production has puppets in it does not mean its target audience younger generations! It also explains in part why the Arts Theatre was non-existent in my teenage years – the redevelopment work took four years.

A new studio theatre for Cambridge to sit on top of the existing 600+ theatre

This is the plan, with up to 120 seats with three sides of seating, and up to 160 seats with all four. From the Design and Access Statement Part 7 Ref 22/04228/FUL

Above – a CGI of the proposed third floor studio theatre, from the Design and Access Statement Part 7 in 22/04228/FUL.

Cambridge’s shortage of rehearsal space

We know that there’s an unmet demand for rehearsal space in and around Cambridge. This from 2020 – as Simon Poulter Consultants told Cambridge City Council & South Cambridgeshire District Council.

“The survey comprehensively shows unmet need in artist studio provision, particularly those that offer long term and sole use. Our survey responses show that to meet the need, there is high demand for medium and larger studios in the range 20 to 40 metres square. There is a smaller demand for medium and larger performance/rehearsal rooms, again 20 to 40 metres square. There is also demand for office and storage space.”

Greater Cambridge Creative Workplace Supply and Demand Survey – March 2020

Furthermore, outside of the city the now defunct Cambridgeshire Horizons produced a report in 2006 stating that there were similar gaps for small and medium-scale performance spaces outside of Cambridge and also Ely. This comes with a very strong warning for new developments around Cambridge – in particular Cambourne, Waterbeach Newtown, North East Cambridge, and Northstowe.

“Great care needs to be taken not to assume that the general provision of multi-purpose community or shared educational space will be adequate for high quality cultural and arts activity.

Arts & Culture Strategy for the Cambridge Sub-Region, Cambs Horizons 2006, para 4.10

This matters because we have seen the construction of exactly these spaces both Cambourne and in Clay Farm – the latter with Eva Hartree Hall which for me is exactly that minimal cost, maximum flexibility space that might work for developers but for me does not work for communities – especially when you look at 1) the recent problems the Clay Farm Centre faces, and also the profits made by the developers from the house building.

The 2006 document goes further.

District Councils, developers and cultural agencies should make a long term commitment to planning and building small scale multi-art form venues and facilities – for music, dance, theatre, independent cinema and exhibition for existing, and in particular new and faster growing communities.

This would also meet a number of sub-regional gaps, including performance spaces for small and medium scale music outside Cambridge and Ely; music rehearsal and production spaces outside Cambridge, particularly for young people involved in nonclassical/choral music; and space for making and touring small scale performance, children’s theatre and dance.”

Transport matters.

The 2020 document highlights the opportunity to spread Cambridge’s artistic wealth and opportunities beyond our 1935-era municipal boundaries.

“46% of survey respondents said they would be prepared to locate in dedicated workspaces elsewhere within Greater Cambridge, including the new growth areas, provided this included the right mix of transport links, parking and access.”

Greater Cambridge Creative Workplace Supply and Demand Survey – March 2020, p5

Which is why I keep going on about the Cambridge Connect Light Rail proposals. Both Cambourne and Haverhill would be ideal new arts centres for those organisations to have dedicated work spaces within arts centres built next to light rail and public transport hubs. The simple reason because aside from the connections to Cambridge for those based in the towns, it also provides easy transport access for those living along the light rail lines to get to the venues and back – which increases the financial sustainability of the arts centres.

“Will the new studio at The Arts take away existing audiences from elsewhere?”

I think it’s very unlikely. The reason? Cambridge’s population has grown significantly in the past decade – and has grown by nearly 50% since I started secondary school in the early 1990s. There is more than enough room for extra capacity to be created to meet the pent-up demand in a city that, in my opinion is lacking in essential infrastructure whether arts, leisure, sports, transport, you name it. Even more so when you consider the amount of wealth the economy generates – and the persistent refusal of ministers to enable local government to tax that wealth to pay for it. As I’ve said before, what’s the point on having these gleaming science labs if the roads surrounding them are full of pot holes?

Within Cambridge, I think there is a strong case for the North East Cambridge development to host a North Cambridge Arts Centre. Furthermore, I think that development should also host a new large swimming pool off Milton Road by the Science Park. Both developments could be justified on anti-poverty and levelling-up grounds alone. A fully-empowered and funded city council would be able to tax the necessary wealth from local wealth-creating firms and get on with planning and construction. But we’re not there. Which is why Parliament’s on the broken governance of England is ever so important. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to overhaul our broken system of local government. Time to start lobbying your local political parties to incorporate this into their manifestos? Start emailing your councillors. (Or alternatively search for your local political party of choice and drop them a note. If you don’t tell them, they won’t know what your views are!)

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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