William Robert Davidge and the Cambridgeshire Regional Plan of 1934

I have digitised and uploaded the Cambridgeshire Regional Plan to the Internet Archive here. The first in depth regional plan for Cambridge Borough and Cambridge County – today most of South Cambridgeshire and parts of East Cambridgeshire District Council areas.

I covered some of what Davidge had written in my previous post looking at the impact of the motor car and the politics around it. Amongst other things this post allows me to embed a series of videos I recorded at the start of Lockdown.

In the still that appears is the familiar face of Dr Alex Wood of the Cambridge Labour Party.

Although he never became leader of Cambridge Borough Council, as leader of the Labour Group on the Council he would become one of the most well-known civic and political figures in 20th Century Cambridge. I wrote more about Dr Alex Wood here.

Chair of the planning committees

As you can see from the preface, Dr Alex Wood was the chairman of all of the sub-committees that contributed towards the plan that Davidge was responsible for.

A fragmented local government picture

Looking at the map of local council boundaries below through the lens of today’s technologies and one is appalled at the fragmentation of local councils. Note even Cambridge Borough as was back then has smaller boundaries – though following this report it would shortly get the city boundaries that we are familiar with today.

When I talk about ‘Cambridge County’, this is what I mean by the external boundary. It’s very different to the Cambridgeshire County Council boundaries that we are familiar with today – which includes Ely/Fenland, and Huntingdonshire. Those boundaries were set in the mid-1970s. We’re still arguing about them today.

On transport and population growth

In the second video I have a look at some transport issues – including the part on aerodromes. Interesting given the recent announcement of Marshall’s likely moving to Cranfield, making available the Cambridge Airport site for redevelopment. And an urban country park. This was also the time where we came across the concept of a ring road.

Below – Davidge’s proposal for a Cambridge Ring Road – bits of which got built but most of which did not.

Above – can you see the proposed flyover across Stourbridge Common and Ditton Fields?

Above – the full map of proposed road improvements by Davidge, 1934.

It wasn’t just which roads to build and where, but in what form. One of the things planners at the time took a dislike to was ribbon development. The complaint was that as former dirt tracks were upgraded at the expense of the local rate payer, landowners would built properties next to roads and these would extend ribbon-like out of town, with the inevitable impact on traffic as residents drove into and out of their driveways.

Above – alternative designs to ribbon development suggested by Davidge, 1934.

The third video clip also examines ribbon development and also the ring road.

Davidge also examined housing design.

This remains an issue today, with complaints about minimalist square block housing design in early 21stC UK. It just goes to show that we may think some things are unique to our time and age, but actually a brief glance through history shows that they are recurring.

Revise the council boundaries!

Davidge makes a call for overhauling council boundaries and reducing the number of district level councils in Cambridge County.

Again, not a new call – and one that follows a pattern throughout the 21st Century of fewer councils covering larger geographical areas. We see this with the current proposals coming from central government today – although given their current workload the civil service does not have the policy capacity to deliver the reform and restructure of local government the country so badly needs – and has been cruelly exposed by the Covid19 pandemic. Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News has been brilliant on the principles of this. This thread explains it all on the central-local tension.

On green open spaces and parkland

One thing the response to the CoVid19 outbreak has taught all of us in the importance of open green spaces. This is not a new phenomenon. The Cambridge Preservation Society formed in 1928 was hugely influential in shaping a number of policies in Davidge’s report. You can find copies of their story here. Today, they are known as Cambridge Past, Present, & Future, and own and run sites at Coton Farm and at Wandlebury.

Davidge listed a number of places that he said should be preserved and protected from development. One of them was Cherry Hinton Hall.

It was ultimately purchased by Cambridge Borough Council following campaigning and a motion by one of the council’s youngest councillors, Miss Mabel Fell.

Above – Cllr Mabel Fell (Lab – Cherry Hinton). She had to resign from the council when the outbreak of war meant she had to leave Cambridge to take up a new post to support the war effort. We never found out what happened to her, but she left an incredible legacy for the city.

It was a legacy that Ken Woollard, a former Royal Signals rider who served in France following D-Day, and a lifelong fellow Labour activist would put to good use. In the 1960s he had this idea of having a celebration of music for the people in Cambridge. Cherry Hinton Hall with its trees and open spaces provided the sort of setting that many modern festivals do not have. Thus with his wife Jean Woollard they organised and founded what we all know as the Cambridge Folk Festival, which today is one of the most high profile music festivals on the festival scene. I still remember a festival guide in the old NME in 1995 with a ‘select your festival’ board game pullout, with the Cambridge Folk Festival being the place to go to if you want a family-friendly festival where drug taking is frowned upon.

Sixteen years later and we get Holford & Wright’s Cambridge Development Plan of 1950

The demands of, and the technological progress that resulted from the Second World War inevitably meant that Davidge’s report would need refreshing and reviewing. Furthermore, there had been seismic changes in the attitude of the population and the political class of what the role of the state should be. Following the Town and Country Planning Act 1948, Sir William Holford and Myles Wright came up with their proposals, which they published in 1950. Again originals are not easy to find, but there are a few available here. I blogged about the Holford Wright report here.

Such was the housing crisis across the country that Cambridge was not immune from the challenges. Accordingly we got prefab housing as well.

Above – prefab housing on Lichfield Road off Cherry Hinton Road, South Cambridge in 1946. From Britain From Above.

Above – prefab housing off Coleridge Road, South Cambridge 1946, with a Ministry of Works garage in the foreground. From Britain From Above. (Even the presence of a garage owned by the Ministry of Works is an indication of the expansion of central government during and following WW2).

Davidge’s legacy?

In one sense it was cut short by the crisis of the 1930s – successive weak national governments that lurched from crisis to crisis meant that Davidge’s plans never had the time or the resources to deliver on anywhere near the number of areas it covered.

It was however a significant step on from the work that Eglantyne Jebb and friends undertook at the start of the 20th Century on a shoestring budget in their study of social questions in Cambridge in 1906. In the timespace of just a few decades, Cambridge went from having a handful of hardworking, talented but unpaid women doing the analytical work to having large bureaucracies working on similar issues. Given the impact of the war, it was perhaps inevitable that the future of Cambridge would be looked at through a different lens to that of the early 1930s. As for Holford’s legacy…I think we’re still debating that over seventy years later.

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in the history of Cambridge the town and the people who made our modern city, please support my research in bringing their records of achievement to wider audiences. Click here if you would like to make a donation or take out a small subscription to support my ongoing work.


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