3,000 people protest against plans for an enlarged Cambridgeshire County Council. 1960. Spoiler. They lost.

Boundary reviews and structural reviews will be called for so long as economies and populations change. The problem then as with now is that the institutions had markedly different views – even those that were made up of members of the same political parties.

This is an incredible photograph from the event on a hot June afternoon up on Castle Hill back in 1960. A protest so big and well-supported that they were even able to have a giant marquee for the occasion. Unless it was booked for something else and they were able to use it. Note the chairs set out as well.

Above – from Mike Petty’s digital photo archive here.

Protesters outside The Guildhall – also from Mike Petty’s archive

The story behind this is Local Government Reform – a subject stereotyped as ever so dull and dense that it puts people to sleep. It shouldn’t be – it should be exciting and fascinating because it underpins how we as people in a geographical area choose to live with each other, co-operate with each other, and resolve our differences.

Only 15 years since the end of the Second World War – and much had already changed, and more change was to come.

Recall that the boundaries of the Borough of Cambridge had been extended *twice* in the previous 50 years. The first was in 1911, incorporating Chesterton in the north, and parts of Trumpington & what is now Queen Edith’s in the south. In 1934/35 the boundaries expanded further incorporating Cherry Hinton. (See the maps here).

Above – the headline, via Mike Petty.

“Why did they want to change them again?”

The demands of war resulted in the massive expansion of the state both during the First World War and the Second World War. Furthermore the massive growth in the use of the motorcar combined with slum clearances and the rise of the consumer society were having a huge impact on the shape of our towns and cities. Instead of the densely crowded slums and courtyards of central Cambridge, thousands of people were moved out into the far less dense suburbs of Arbury, King’s Hedges, Coleridge, and Queen Edith’s. It was the building of these estates that forced the hands of ministers to undertake boundary reviews to incorporate these new estates into the governance of the towns and cities that they were on the borders of.

Housing development on Cambridge’s boundaries is an issue today as well.

Taking these snapshots from Cambridge City Council’s ward map here,

Above – the eastern ends of Cherry Hinton and Abbey wards are outside of the city boundaries, so fall within South Cambridgeshire District Council.

Above – the Cambridge Science Park, and Orchard Park fall outside the city boundaries. The 1934 expansion bid included Milton, Impington, Histon and Girton. That bid failed – and ultimately influenced the route of what is now the A14, originally the Cambridge northern bypass. Had that bid been approved, that bypass may well have gone round the villages to the north as there would have been nothing to have stopped the city council expanding the housing estates further other than financial constraints.

And finally south of Trumpington, where one of the new primary schools sits outside the city. Just. It’s only a matter of time before the urban fringes are built up to the boundary of the M11. The long term market demand for housing plus the continued housing need for council and social housing remains too high.

“What did the people of 1960 want?”

This – from William Davidge’s report of 1934. This was the border of the old Cambridge County Council at the time. The protesters wanted to keep it that way.

Within Cambridge County were a series of smaller district and borough councils. The recommendation from Davidge was followed through, creating the expanded Cambridge Borough Council (created a City Council by The King’s Royal Charter in 1951)

Above – it’s strange to think of South Cambridgeshire District Council as once being three separate district councils – once called Chesterton Rural and the other one called Newmarket Rural District Councils.

Cambridge County Borough – a unitary council for our glorious city!

That was the intention as far back as 1888 – when the county councils were first created. The liberal-supporting Cambridge Independent Press, perhaps with an eye on party political control, made the call for Cambridge to become a county borough. This bid was refused, mainly on the grounds that Cambridge’s population was too small at the time. Further bids were also refused.

Hence trying again in 1960. The problem for the rural hinterland of Cambridge County was that the proposals involved them merging with the Isle of Ely (Fenland), Huntingdonshire, and Peterborough – which then had a population similar to Cambridge. It was only under Harold Wilson’s Government that Peterborough was declared a second generation Newtown and a designated area of housing growth. Hence its population today being over 200,000, while Cambridge’s is 130,000. It’s also worth noting that Peterborough has the equivalent of ‘County Borough’ status – i.e. it was designated a Unitary Authority in the 1990s.

Having failed in 1960, Cambridge tried again in 1962.

From Mike Petty’s digital archives again.

…but that bid inevitably failed as well.

Peterborough aside, the final say on the council structures was completed in the mid-1970s which created the councils that we are familiar with today. This was on the back of a significant amount of research including a royal commission. The amount of published research and consultation undertaken for the current metro mayor/combined authority structures was far, far less. Furthermore, the responsibilities for local councils today compared with the early 1960s are also different – and fewer. In part this is due to the privatisation of public utilities. Many of the newspapers talk of the expense of upgrading the water and sewer systems, and the role of the local councils. Today, despite the concerns of climate change and the state of our chalk streams, the decision-making structures and processes seem far, far away. Other functions as well have been centralised, merged, or even automated. For example the regulation of medicines is now done by an agency of central government. In the past that would have been a local council responsibility in a world of local producers. Could you imagine today every local district council in the country having to run its own tests and approvals for the CoronaVirus vaccines? A very different world when the research, production, and the scientists involved, are global.

One of the things the CoronaVirus pandemic has exposed is the limitations of the existing institutional structures of the UK. In the course of deciding not just what sort of villages, towns, & cities emerge from the lockdowns – as collectively we must, we also need to decide how the places we live in actually function. And that means looking at governance and accountability. It has been half a century since we last looked at it in detail. Time we did it again?

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