Hobson Street’s art deco cinema to be demolished

I’ve just returned from a consultation event funded by the developers and facilitated by independent facilitators CommunityRegen. It was about the future of Cambridge’s former Art Deco cinema building on Hobson Street that has been derelict and unused for nearly 15 years. It was one of those meetings where representatives of ‘key community stakeholders’ identified by informal networks found across towns and cities is convened to sound out what should be done about/with something. Hence why you wouldn’t have seen any adverts for it.

There was a reasonable representation of community organisations there, including Cambridge Past, Present & Future, Cambridge Carbon Footprint, Cambridge CVS, Cambridge City Council, and Cambridge BID amongst others. The big question was what to do with the amount of building space that has been allocated for community use. Reasonable question to have a gathering for. I had some interesting exchanges with the architects and the developer’s representative about the building and their proposals. They made it clear to me that their preferred option was to demolish the Art Deco Cinema building in its entirety and replace it with something more modern – stating that the building is in such decay and that the existing facade does not meet existing standards for the requirement of natural light for a building.

When it came to debating what the community space would be used for, the ranges and options available was inversely proportional to the amount of space developers propose making available for community use – mitigated by the ‘peppercorn rent’ proposal for it. Essentially their plan is for a narrow strip along the north side of the building to be that space – about the size of a large ‘Keep Fit’ style studio on the ground floor, with a meeting room-sized space in the basement. The rest of the building as originally planned in this current iteration would become office space, which I wrote about in October 2021

Above – see those ickle bits of community space in green? That’s about as much space as they’ve allocated – maybe slightly more on the ground floor, but not enough to hold community activities involving movement such as a ballroom dance class as Cambridge Dancers’ Club has called for.

Above – from my post two years ago on The Right to Regenerate.

They have lost their main class venue at what is now the Downing Place URC following the merger with St Columba’s and the renovation of their site (which in the grand scheme of things is really well done). My hope was that any proposal from the Hobson Street Cinema site would incorporate a large enough community hall for dance classes. It was clear from the presentations today that this was not in the mind of the developer, neither was saving the existing facade of the cinema building a priority for the architects.

“So…what did you do?”

I slipped out early.

“You mean you didn’t make a scene, film yourself making a speech about how outraged you were before flouncing out and then uploading a video of yourself saying “Look at me being outraged, flouncing out!”?!?!”


Because this isn’t about me – rather it is about issues facing our city that are far bigger and greater than I will ever be – or would ever want to be. Furthermore, the feeling in the pit of my tummy wasn’t outrage, but one of sheer exhausted disappointment. Perhaps it goes with the territory of my CFS plus post-heart-attack convalescence, but I kind of don’t have what it takes to be volcanically outraged about anything anymore. I’ve gone too grey in the hairs. Also, I’ve been raising the issue of the building for years – see the video below from 2016. It’s now 2023.

…and in December 2016 I asked a public question on this at West-Central Committee.

Above – my Q to councillors, with Market Ward Councillor Tim Bick (Leader of the LibDems Group and former Leader of Cambridge City Council) responding. He was at the meeting today along with his Labour colleague in Market Ward, Cllr Nick Gay, so there was cross-party representation).

If you want to follow up on any of the responses given by councillors about the future of the building, feel free to email them https://www.writetothem.com/ <<– You only need a postcode & a return email address.

I said to the facilitator that I did not see what value I could add to the proposals that I found to be soul-destroyingly disappointing, and that if I stayed I risked being a disruptive presence rather than a constructive critic. The developer’s representative asked if there were any things I wanted them to consider despite this. I mentioned that if they were going to demolish the facade, could they ensure the detailing and interesting parts of it could be donated to the Museum of Cambridge. I also asked them to consider the proximity of the site to Drummer Street Bus Station when considering the number of potential users and range of schemes. Finally I asked them to get in touch with Cambridge’s music societies because one of their most persistent complaints is the lack of community rehearsal space. That goes for drama societies too.

There’s little that an under-resourced, disempowered local planning authority/city council can do about this.

In my experience and opinion anyway. Furthermore, the Conservatives in Government show absolutely zero appetite towards launching a renaissance in local government. I’m happy to be proved wrong (in fact, I would be utterly delighted to be proved wrong and to see a very large community hall capable of holding large dance classes being incorporated into the redevelopment, and the existing facade restored) but such is the impact of the property bubble and the huge demand for Grade 1 office space in the town centre, alongside the Sci/Tech lab space bubble that without a substantial intervention from a charitable rich person or a wealth of new funding and powers for local government, community groups simply do not stand a chance.

Hence my complaints about the provision of community and leisure facilities not having kept up with the population and housing expansion – here’s me in 2015, and also again in 2020.

Abolish Cambridge City Council?

As the institution stands, it is an institution designed to govern a market town, not a small city with a global brand. Hence asking in 2022 whether any of the City Council candidates were prepared to discuss the future of the City Council as an institution. With the local elections coming up – including Cambridge City Council’s annual ‘elections by thirds’ one coming up in early May 2023, you can ask your candidates once the list is formally published. Their social media links will be up on https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ by Democracy Club. (The same link will work for the elections across the country – including Peterborough, Fenland, and East Cambridgeshire).

If you feel strongly about this, don’t feel the need to act alone.

As I mentioned, the following groups were represented at the meeting.

…Feel free to get in touch with them and have an initial discussion about what the options are, and what their group view is on what should happen to the site.

What’s really sad from my perspective is that it did not need to be like this. The building did not need to be left in such a state as to become so derelict that architects recommend demolition. We could have had a much more positive vision for Hobson Street – of which I gave one example here.

But I no longer have the health or the heart to campaign on this. Perhaps you do? If so, start with the groups I’ve linked to above. Otherwise you’ll end up being almost as dejected, disappointed, and despondent as I felt when I first saw their plans earlier this afternoon.

One other thing to add: I didn’t get paid to take part in that meeting. Several of the community representatives didn’t get paid to take part – they are volunteers too. In my case I’m permanently disabled and am on UC. And yet I was still picked out to take part as having a specialist interest or expertise. I also live with my parents in my childhood home. The developers of this site and so many others I’ve been asked to comment on or scrutinise, stand to make significant sums. At what point do we as a society say that the financial and social costs of community input is something that should be properly funded, and that people who have gained expertise through other means should be compensated for it? Because there is no way I would be able to afford to live in Cambridge on my own. And it’s not just things like this.

Above – community members of NHS Trusts (who are members of the public – you can become one too via https://www.cuh.nhs.uk/about-us/foundation-trust-membership/) don’t get paid for their input, and neither do their public governors or patient governors. Ditto for school governors. Yet the work they do is essential to the functioning of our public services. Given the costs of living, is that model now utterly broken? And if so, what should replace it? And who should pay?

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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