During that long hot summer of 2018 I escaped the oppressive heat by spending much of that summer in the air-conditioned rooms of the Cambridgeshire Collection, going through thousands of newspaper articles and trying to cover 150 years of local history in the course of a few months. I failed – but I did pick up a number of interesting articles that are still relevant to today. The report from the Cambridge Housing Committee from March 1965 is one – and highlights the risks of building large housing estates without the much-needed community infrastructure to go with it.
The article reads as follows:
Centre plan move for ‘desert’ estate
“Many moved from more central areas to the Arbury North council house estate on the outskirts of the city were being put “into the deserts and snow fields of West Chesterton'” Councillor Mrs Ann Tweed (Socialist, West Chesterton) claimed yesterday.
“She told the Housing Committee:
“They have no facilities for social recreation. It seems that the council’s chief officers feel that because there are two schools in the area – which provide evening centre activities – this is enough”Cllr Ann Tweed (Lab – W Chesterton, in the Cambridge News, 25 March 1965)
“She was referring to a report prepared by the Town Clerk, Mr Philip Vine, and other chief officials about the need for community centres in Cambridge. The report suggested that if these were built, Trumpington should take priority. The report said that the King’s Hedges Estate, which is a large section of the Arbury complex – is served by the Manor school evening centre.
“Mrs Tweed said a community centre was needed where parents could meet socially, where the children could be left for short periods while their mothers went into town and where group activities such as social clubs and whist drives could be held during the day as well as in the evening. It was agreed that the Planning Committee should be asked to earmark a site on the Arbury estate for a community centre.
“Mrs Tweed emphasised the plight of old people. “They cannot afford to go into the city centre. All they have are the four walls of their homes.”
“Mr A. Stringer, a council solicitor said that when the report was being compiled by the Town Clerk’s department it was felt that the Arbury estate already had all the amenities being asked for.
“Councillor R.P. Reilly (Socialist – Cherry Hinton) thought the committee would be encouraging vandalism; when the schools and the youth centres closed children had nowhere to go.
“Councillor G.B. Scurfield (Socialist – Petersfield) said youth centres were useless for the unattached people they were trying to attract. A large house where young people could gather for a drink would serve as a community centre. Councillor Mrs M.V. Morse (Cons – Trumpington) urged that something should be done for the ward – the council’s oldest estate which had no social facilities.
“A warning about the cost of building and running community centres was given in Mr Vine’s report. The probable cost of building a community centre, he said would be in the region of £65,000. It would cost about £100 per week to run.
“The report warned that any large spending on a community centre would tend to reduce the money available for central sports centre or arts centre schemes which had been mooted.
“To this extend the council could be said to be dissipating their resources on small isolated projects offering facilities of a limited kind when the alternative could be the provision of a large centre offering accommodation for sporting events and cultural functions of a very high order.”Philip Vine, Town Clerk, Cambridge City Council to the Cambridge Housing Committee. Cambridge News, 25 March 1965)
“Mr Vine said that if it was decided to establish community centres in the city, the council might feel that Trumpington area should have the first call. Other areas where the Housing Committee might feel the centres were needed were in the King’s Hedges Estate, Cherry Hinton, and Romsey Town. Mr Vine pointed out that the Education Committee were anxious to provide suitable buildings for youth and sports club activities on some of the city’s recreation grounds and it was hoped the first of these would be at Cherry Hinton.
“If the Government’s Department for Education and Science gave permission for the new building to be included in the 1966-67 financial schemes it would be basically similar to the East Barnwell Centre.”
What the above article tells us, and what has happened since.
The final sentence of the article is interesting in that it reflects the relationship between central and local government at the time. The idea that Central Government would need to sign off the construction of a small community centre sounds ludicrous to us today, but this was a time when there were a host of significant demands on government spending, and limited resources to go around. As well as dealing with the process of decolonisation – this was a year when the Rhodesia crisis erupted, one of the challenges that the newly-elected Labour administration under Harold Wilson was dealing with was the continued balance of trade/balance of payments problems – which ultimately led to the devaluation crisis of 1967.
Council house building
Two graphs from this article in the Financial Times also inform us of one of the pressures on council budgets: council house building. The most important is the one below, on house building.
Above – from the FT. Note the increase on total council house building (the dark blue bars) following the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. That is not to say Harold MacMillan’s Conservative government were slouches – building over 100,000 council houses per year. In the late 1960s over 400,000 council houses were being built per year. As you can see, the total level of house building is now much lower, and questions remain as to whether they are the right sort of housing that people actually need vs the housing that those with the finances are able and willing to pay for. For example the under-used luxury apartments in prime central sites that might be better used for council housing or key-worker housing.
During my civil service days I worked in housing policy. I aged a decade in ten months. It was the most intense political and public policy experience I’ve ever faced, at a time period when the banking crisis of 2008 imploded on us. An incredible learning experience that taught me a great deal about how heavily lobbied by incredibly powerful interests this area of public policy is.
One of the lessons from this article, and this area of history is that areas of land that are released for planning *must* have plots of land held back from development either for large open spaces, and/or for community facilities that are suitable for the residents that will use them. This also means that housing developments cannot be designed as suburban sprawl. One of the things we learnt with that is community facilities need people to sustain them. If the population density is too low, then without a decent public transport system to move people, they won’t survive. There’s also a question for central government – does local government have the legal powers to compel developers to hold back large enough plots of land for future community buildings? And should central government be providing financial support for councils to acquire and build community facilities?
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