Hobson House ‘up for sale’


What could Cambridge do with a 125 year lease on the site?

Other than a luxury hotel, en suite cram college student apartments (which are exempt from council tax due to the Local Government Act 1992 – not the students’ fault) or just another clone town shop, what could be done with this building? The site concerned is this one on Regent Street.


The full story is in the Cambridge News here.

The most interesting finding from my perspective is the existence of ‘Cambridge United Charities’ – which has nothing to do with the football club, but was founded in 1970 so as to bring together a number of different local charities. See https://cambridgeunitedcharities.wordpress.com/history/. The other interesting thing is their trustees – see https://cambridgeunitedcharities.wordpress.com/trustees/

I’ve had a look at the Charity Register on the Charity Commission website – the regulator of Charities in England and Wales. Here’s the entry for Cambridge United Charities. The trustees report makes for interesting reading regarding their investments strategy – moving from a ‘passive’ to an ‘active’ fund manager. Also, regarding their ownership of Hobson House, page 17 makes interesting reading.


Thus Cambridge United Charities now face both a potential (and substantial) new income stream from Hobson House that they don’t currently receive, but will also have to find and pay for all of the financial and administrative services previously provided for by the Council. A shame that it looks like this agreement will expire as it has saved council tax payers on rent and the charity on administrative services. That said, a shrinking local council no longer needs the premises, and the site is a prime city centre site that will have the mouths of investors of various sorts salivating.

“Not another luxury hotel or more student flats!”

…were the cries of a number of people on Facebook when I posted the news on a number of local Facebook pages. Of which I agree entirely – the space is too valuable and has far too much of a civic history – foul and fair – for it to be locked up behind a private investor’s lock and key. But let’s face it, in these current times it’s hard to see the charity turning down a bank-busting offer of a huge rent given the number of housing association homes they run and given the demand for social housing in Cambridge. I’d be gutted if they did hand it over to a firm that went maximum profit minimum cost showing complete contempt for the community as this building did.

“What was the building before? You mentioned ‘foul and fair'”

The site used to be a workhouse and a gaol for women deemed by Cambridge University authorities to be prostitutes. This was even though said women were not members of Cambridge University. The story of – and a song about – the much hated spinning house was made for the Cycle of Songs project in 2014 in Cambridge. To give you an insight into what it was like, here’s the 1838 report of HM Inspectors – extracts from their visit to Cambridge below:

Horrific stuff. Hence it was the subject of legal action in the 1890s when a very courageous 17 year old called Daisy Hopkins decided to stand up to Cambridge University when she was detained by a proctor for the alleged heinous crime of…talking to a married man. The idea of a university being able to throw townsfolk into prison? Exactly. Horrific. Hence it ended up being debated in Parliament – have a look at this transcript. The story goes that MPs appealed to the Home Secretary who ordered Daisy to be released. Daisy seemed to have lived on locally into her 80s, passing away in 1957. Cambridge University had to be shamed into supporting a bill in Parliament that took away their legal right to imprison townsfolk. And it was Daisy that did it. The city of Cambridge owes her a ***huge*** debt of gratitude. See the more detailed story here.

“Crikey on a sticklebrick! What a wonderful woman!”

Exactly – so why are there no paintings and statues of people like her, unlike those of all of the men dotted all over the place?

The building then became the police and fire station – something that needs more than an article on each. Then it was taken over by the city council for offices along with a place for charities to be based under the umbrella of the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services. The latter have since moved to the north of the city.

“So…who might be interested in the site if not a commercial operator?”

As things stand, the building needs a huge amount of internal work done to it whatever it becomes. Having been in there on a number of occasions it has that musty old 1970s feel to it. It’s a building that I think has so much more potential than in its current state. It could for example be a headquarters for the Cambridge Hub with an in-house ‘town-meets-gown community centre’ – a huge contrast from their cramped premises on Pembroke Street.

“What do you think it’ll become?”

If I’m honest, I think it’ll become a luxury hotel. If you asked the influential business movers in the city, they would say that the city is screaming out for something such as that for its so-called ‘high net worth’ visitors. It would provide a huge income stream for the charity as well – especially given that the lease quoted in the Cambridge News is a 125 year lease. It’s the sort of length that would encourage investors to completely gut the interior and spend lots on its renovation. But remember you then have that socially awkward juxtaposition of a luxury hotel next door to a building where many local residents on low incomes come to meet council staff for things like housing benefits. On the other hand, it could send a strong messages to visitors to state that in our city, we don’t want rich and poor to be segregated – we want a city where we can live together, work together, play together and support each other together. So it could work both ways. (A high standard hotel run as a workers co-operative on ethical principles?)

“What about the design? Knock it all down and start again, or keep the facade?”

Though noting points about ‘facadism’ I’d like to think they could do what they did to the Old Addenbrooke’s – now the Judge Institute. Essentially make the front of the building look colourful rather than the deathly grey/brown that it is. I just think with a building like that you could have so much fun. I can’t see any contemporary architect coming up with a building that is anything other than a bland box or glass-and-steel-with-a-bit-of-wood-for-fauxthenticity design that you’d see anywhere else in the world. Developers have hardly covered themselves in glory with the developments in and around Cambridge railway station so why should we be any more confident they would do any better now?

“Who should we start lobbying?”

First port of call is your local councillor if you live in Cambridge. The simple reason being is rather than deluging the charity lots of unsolicited correspondence, it’s best to go through your councillors for something like this. The reason being is three-fold:

  • You are alerting them very early on something that will become a community issue in the near future
  • The charity is more likely to respond substantially to them than they are to an ordinary resident – Cambridge is full of institutions that only talk to other institutions, not residents outside of them
  • It’s the councillors that will have to make the decision on planning permission – alert them to the issues now and they might be able to influence things very early on, which is far easier to do than late in the process.

If you want to see who your local city councillors are, have a look here. For those of you who are outside of Cambridge but are interested in supporting the protection of our city’s historical heritage and more, the best place to start is Cambridge Past, Present and Future, who can advise accordingly.

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