Becoming irrelevant in a rapidly-changing city

My struggle against this strange phenomenon while burdened with the millstone of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that took over a decade to get a diagnosis for – over which time my city’s population grew by over 20,000 people.

I went to Mark Thomas’s latest show in Cambridge in which he basically tore the Tories to pieces. See Angela Singer’s review here.

This was my first visit to a show of any kind since the first lockdown. At least I think it was. And the post-exertional malaise hit me like an iron brick this morning. Which means I have to think very carefully about any future events I go to in terms of what I do the day before and the day after. This despite the fact that all I did was sit there and laugh, having had a short walk up to the top of the road and back. Hence today getting over the road for a coffee at Balzano’s deli over the road was as far as I could go today.

It’s been a bit like this for the past decade, with the symptom slowly getting worse. It would have been nice to have had a diagnosis back then.

Because then at least I would have a ‘label’ to show people what I could and couldn’t do, and why I could/couldn’t do stuff. Because now that I’m in my early 40s, I find myself in a city that I sort of recognise bits of physically, but one that’s full of people who I don’t have a shared history with. And there are a host of reasons behind both the changes to Cambridge the city, and my place in it.

What has been tough reading has been going through the newspaper archives of the 1980s and 1990s and reading about how successive governments and councils cut back significantly on education and schools funding to the extent there was next to nothing left by the time I got to my mid-late teens. No wonder by 1999 I was so desperate to leave the city. And never to return.

And that was my intention. I remember the sense of “there is nothing left for me here” in early 1999. Everyone else I had known from my school days had gone their separate ways. I was working in a bank back office – in part to get some working experience in finance before going onto do a degree in economics, but also because I didn’t feel ready to head straight to uni from sixth form college.

“When you grow up in a small place, all the longing of adolescence can end up focused on the idea of getting out, striking out for the big world and the adventure that it promises. This is not a mistake, exactly, and later I could feel a certain pity for the people I met who had grown up in comfortable metropolitan surroundings: for all their seemingly effortless self-confidence, I had something they lacked, because I was aware that I hadn’t grown up at the centre of the universe.”

Dougald Hine – Adventure Uncovered

What my generation didn’t seem to have was mentors – adults or people with ‘life experience’ outside traditional lines of authority (family/school/religion) who could not only challenge what we were told/led to believe by traditional authority figures, but to show/guide us towards alternatives and educate us how to figure out what the options were, and how to make those choices.

Broken in Brighton

One of the reasons why I moved to Brighton (to go to the University of Sussex) was because I wanted to go to somewhere that was the opposite of Cambridge. What I didn’t expect was to find out how previous authority institutions had spend the previous 20 years gaslighting not just me but what felt like our entire generation – something that ultimately broke me as a human being. I still have this sense of having ‘lost’ my teenage years because of it, and as a result spent a very unstable ‘roaring 20s’ trying to make up for it as best as I could. With very mixed and polarised results. It took ministers twenty years to reconnect the railway link between Cambridge & Brighton from the time when I thought ‘actually, that would be really useful’. Sadly I’ve not been able to use it.

The town-gown polarisation

In the end such was the poor state of my mental health that even though I got a 2:1 in Economics, I had to return home to recover. I did a post-graduate diploma in Historical Studies: Contemporary Europe at Anglia Ruskin University which opened the door to academic circles – and places that as a teenager I never had access to. It was a completely different world so it took much of the edge of any feeling of ‘coming back home’ and having failed to have left Cambridge permanently.

I tried leaving Cambridge again in 2007 when, having spent the whole of 2006 applying for transfers to London in the regional civil service office in Cambridge (part of a cohort of over-qualified graduates who were in admin jobs that only needed GCSEs) I finally got the call at the end of the year. But yet again a combination of poor mental health plus the stupendously-crazy London housing market meant that even on a salary approaching £30,000 a year I was still unable to afford to live anywhere close to my workplace. Hence burning out and, in the end taking the redundancy package offered by the new coalition government. Whether living in London or commuting from Cambridge, I still have no idea how I managed such long hours and such an intense lifestyle. And I can see why it broke me.

One thing that Brighton, Cambridge, and London all have in common is high turnovers of population. I remember returning to Brighton in 2006 for the PCS Union’s annual conference. It was my first national trade union conference and, if the movement was in the right place, could have gotten me into it in a big way. But it never happened.

Learning how others in my generation were also failed by the institutions of our home city too

In the years that followed my exit from the civil service, I’ve bumped into various people I had known or went to school with in childhood. I’ve never pretended things would ‘go back to the way they were’ or anything like that. I’ve changed too much, and so have they. Yet the common theme for all of us was that we had all gotten to where we were/achieved what we had achieved *despite* our childhoods in Cambridge, not *because* of our childhoods in Cambridge. Which must make for soul-destroying reading for the adults for that generation who perhaps tried as best they could to shield us from what turned out to be the devastating impact of central government policies on towns and cities between 1980-2000.

“How bad had things become?”

No different to anywhere else in one sense. Think teenagers complaining about having nothing to do – and then in the newspaper letters columns having older generations complaining about teenagers being too ‘soft’ compared to their generation. Take this example from a quarter of a century ago from Queen Edith’s, Cambridge via the British Newspaper Archive.

Above – Carl and Andrew pictured were from my generation – I knew the both in the early-mid 1990s.

“Andrew, 17 and his friend Carl, 18, said “We just drive around. We used to borrow footballs from the youth club, but now there’s only the Netherhall Sports Centre, and that costs money”

Cambridge News, 04 Dec 1997 via British Newspaper Archive.

In the early 1990s we would climb over the fences as children/early teens to play football or just to hang out at various places. Then in 1996 the Conservatives passed the Education Act 1996. Section 547 criminalised the presence of children and teenagers *in their own playgrounds* without the permission of the education authorities – those same authorities that did not provide for adult supervision or facilities for children and teenagers to be using local facilities specifically designed for them.

Two decades later, was there any progress in re-opening those playing fields and green spaces? No.

Above – me in August 2016.

Cambridge may have lots of green spaces, but the access for local residents is extremely limited. Hence the recently-formed Cambridge Land Justice Campaign by Cambridge University Students – a new generation that is now calling out their college landowners over Cambridge’s status as the most unequal city in the country; a statistic recalled by Mark Thomas last night.

The population census – which wards in Cambridge have grown and by how much?

The huge housing growth in Trumpington comes as no surprise – and ditto Castle. In the cases of Queen Edith’s and Coleridge, much of it is the result of artificial sub-division of properties designed as family homes but turned into Houses of Multiple Occupation.

Furthermore, in Queen Edith’s there has been a trend of developers buying up larger houses with larger gardens and demolishing them to make use of the large plot of land for small blocks of flats – just below the number that would require them to provide for social housing. The profits they can make from the land value uplift can be into seven figures. Yet the local council sees little of this. As I’ve mentioned before, successive governments have chosen to let this happen. There is little an austerity-burdened local council can do.

‘Who are these 4,000 new people? What are they like? What sort of lives do they live? What positive impact could they make on our city?’

A project for further education students to look into? Or the Museum of Cambridge to run? The sort of city we were in my primary school years is not the same as the one today. In 1991 – around the time I moved from primary to secondary school, our population was just over 100,000. (See Cambridgeshire Online here for the historic time series). 30 years later, we are over 145,000. Furthermore, this is abased on an obsolete municipal boundary set in 1935. There are a number of places where neighbourhoods fall outside of that boundary – including east Cherry Hinton, east of Abbey Ward, and Orchard Park north of King’s Hedges. If we then consider the commuting in population, the functioning population of our city on which our city’s services depend upon is far, far greater. And yet we still have the governance structure of a large market town.

From being in a venue where you know lots of people, to the same venue (expect the newer add-on) where you hardly know anyone.

If I compared November 1997 to November 2022 – a quarter of a century or the length of a generation in time, that’s two snapshots in comparison. Several things stood out from yesterday.

The first was that although fortuitously I was caught by the lapel by Cllr Sam Davies (Ind – Queen Edith’s) at the Mark Thomas gig at the J2 of The Junction (which didn’t exist in 1997), most of the audience was above the age of 30. For an institution founded off the back of teenagers having a riot in 1985 due to the closure of so many music and social centres for young people by Thatcher’s austerity, this saddened me. Furthermore it remains an ongoing concern not just for me but for others who are worried about how young people in our city who don’t have affluent parents or connections are being locked out or priced out.

The second was when I bought my ticket (and renewed my membership – you can do it too and help The Junction continue and expand its projects for young people in/around Cambridge) in the early afternoon, the much architecturally-maligned Cambridge Leisure Park was full of sixth form students huddled around the edges of the buildings because the city authorities have no powers to control the numbers of students at educational establishments, nor do they have the funds to ensure that there are sufficient facilities for them. It wasn’t pleasant outside and it’s not going to get much better for them either. And don’t think transport has gotten any better either. Here are a couple of former Hills Road students I interviewed back in 2016, one of whom I know is still around locally. Stagecoach should be utterly ashamed of their continued failures. At the same time, and as I wrote in a previous blog, UK Cities will never achieve their potential while Central Government forces poor service providers onto them.

Where does this leave me and the rest of us?

Caught between a rock and a very hard place.

Following and commenting on local democracy, and researching local history from the collection of books and pamphlets I’ve acquired in recent years (some of the older ones published pre-21stC & pre-1990s I’ve digitised here) along with online archives are my only means of having any meaningful connection to the town I grew up in. With CFS I also have to accept that things won’t get better. There is no known cure or treatment. That means it’s the end for any hope of recovering to the extent I’ll be able to hold down a full time job or have any meaningful sense of independence. It also means that I’ll never find my tribe.

It’s that fatigue-ridden insight that shapes my outlook for a future Cambridge and what one that works for the many, not the few, could be like – highly unlikely as this is.

Yesterday I was at Relevant Records on Mill Road, trying to get some cycling exercise in before it got too dark. (Trying to manage the needs of becoming healthier for my heart and not pushing too hard to make PEM kick in isn’t easy at the best of times). I overheard two people talking about this middle-aged bloke saying how he didn’t have any close friends, and the impact of an illness was having on him. I pondered how they could have been talking about me, and how we don’t have the social infrastructure in our towns and cities (let alone rural areas with the closure of so many village institutions) to respond to the pandemic of loneliness. (I wrote about loneliness and Cambridgeshire in 2021 – noting the House of Commons Library had written a briefing for MPs on it).

It’s one of the reasons why I think the narratives on lifelong learning are far too narrow from both the Government and from Labour – see Equipped for the Future by The Fabian Society, which I think puts lifelong learning into a silo of adult skills and training for jobs, rather than what former Labour Cabinet Minister Arthur Henderson envisaged a century before in The Education of the Citizen. In one sense, lifelong learning mattered much more in 1920 because the working man had only just won the franchise following the First World War, and it would be another eight years before women secured parity.

There’s also a risk that if we build a new generation of lifelong learning centres that only provide for the basics, we won’t build the sorts of civic buildings that people want to spend time in and around. Compare this to what the private schools have been building.

It comes as no surprise to me that a number of the new and splendid facilities being built are at private schools in and around Cambridge – ones that are not on the doorsteps of large residential neighbourhoods. Take The Leys School Great Hall. Or the recently-approved plans for The Perse School’s new swimming pool where their original proposals for very limited community access had to be pushed back by councillors – alongside their performing arts centre. This then brings into focus the issues of ownership and access. This is not a new debate – during and after WWII there was a huge public policy debate on whether to nationalise private schools. See R.H. Tawney here in 1943 for the Workers’ Educational Association – and the conclusion.

In more recent times the focus has moved towards access – irrespective of who owns the land. This is something The Ramblers have been campaigning on for coming up to a century – because so much land (over 90% of the countryside) is out of bounds.

“People living in towns and cities – that’s 80% of the population – also have less opportunity walk freely off-path close to where they live. Very little of the green belt surrounding our towns and cities is ‘open access’.”

The Ramblers

That point I made about access to playing fields? Applies here too.

Anyway, stuff just got real on the international stage.


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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