The gradual renewal of The Kite – the proposals rejected by the Conservative-led city council.

The party would pay a very heavy electoral price at the ballot box – one from which they are still to recover from nearly four decades later.

Below – an obituary in the Cambridge Independent on the late Cllr John Powley (Cons – Castle, 1967-78).

I was aware of community proposals for the renewal of the part of town now occupied by The Grafton Centre in Cambridge that were put together in the mid-1970s, but had not seen a copy until I found this for sale in The Haunted Bookshop, tucked away behind The Arts Theatre – the latter founded by Florence Ada Keynes’ eldest son, the economist John Maynard Keynes (who also co-founded The Arts Council).

I’ve digitised the document and have uploaded it to the internet archive here for you to read. (If you’d like to help support my research costs – including finding and buying documents like this, see my Ko-fi page here)

The Kite, Cambridge

My introduction to The Kite back in 2017 is here. When you compare the map from the very early 1900s with the aerial view from much more recently, you can see why the redevelopment dominated local political conversation for decades.

From the National Library of Scotland, you can explore the maps in more detail here.

To give you an idea of the scale of the old community, Britain from above is particularly useful.

Proposals to comprehensively redevelop (or redevelop comprehensively – take your pick) The Kite date back to the Holford Wright report of 1950.

Above – detail from Holford Wright’s maps of 1950.

You can see the distinctive ‘Kite’ Shape with the pointed sharp end at what is now Elizabeth Way roundabout – and the read line heading north later becoming Elizabeth Way Bridge. Note the proposals that were dropped – including the main road through Petersfield/St Matthew’s that would have ploughed up rows of working class housing in order to provide a road link from the railway station to the River Cam and Chesterton. Note to the left of the map you have the abandoned plan to drive a main inner spine road over Christ’s Pieces.

Who owned what

From the map below, the Kite Action Group highlighted the three major property owners. Once again, you can see how influential Jesus College Cambridge was in the evolving shape of the city. It was this college that provided the land that Cambridge Railway Station and the surrounding town houses were built on. Furthermore, they owned much of the land that the original working class community of Old Barnwell/The Kite was built on – something that brought them much criticism for allowing slum properties to be built in the first place. They also owned the land that the homes in Coleridge ward were built on – hence the road names and even the ward being named after prominent college men, including the controversial Tobias Rustat who made his fortune (and thus his college donations) via the slave trade.

The once-mighty Cambridge & District Co-operative Society went the same way as the once-mighty Cambridge Conservative Association: It imploded – and in the former’s case, disappeared into the national organisation. There’s a book/thesis on the rise and fall of that society waiting to be written, but essentially they put all of their eggs into one beehive-centre-shaped basket and lost the lot. Ultimately they made a catastrophic strategic error to move their main shopping centre from Burleigh Street (suffering from planning blight) out to a site in a different part of town that was not easy to get to by car – and regularly snarled up with road traffic. Sainsbury’s established a new supermarket further down Coldham’s Lane which, with the opening of Barnwell Road meant it could serve car-driving customers from Romsey, Abbey, Cherry Hinton, Coleridge, and even Queen Edith’s wards, taking many of the customers that might have gone further down the road and over the bridge to the Beehive Centre. One of the “What ifs?” of Cambridge’s postwar history is if the Cambridge & District Co-op had stood by the Kite Community in the longer term, and put what could have been their considerable resources behind renewing the neighbourhood?

Proposals from the residents

The document The Gradual Renewal of The Kite is a wonderful example of community-led planning. That the city council and accompanying landowners chose to ignore their proposals and ram through a locally unpopular scheme of comprehensive redevelopment was one that initially brought lots of new shops to Cambridge, and created a new multi-storey car park at a time when the profile of Cambridge as a regional shopping centre was very high as an economic function. Fast forward to today and that decision looks incredibly short-sighted, as the centre struggles to cope in a post-lockdown world, with both its major anchor stores (BHS and Debenhams) having imploded. Today, it’s struggling to find a post-Lockdown identity – currently scoping opportunities to convert some units into office space.

So what were their proposals?

The background is important:

“The Kite is a self-contained neighbourhood within Cambridge. A man can be born, live, go to school and to church, work, shop, relax in pubs, cafes and restaurants, and even his funeral can be arranged locally!”

“Socially, the Kite is a thriving local community of old and young, established and newly-arrived residents who appreciate living adjacent to the city centre”

Similar could be written about other parts of industrial-era Cambridge, such as Petersfield and Romsey Town.

However, the legacy of planning blight, industrial decline, and a lack of investment in the built environment meant that this part of town became a prime candidate for comprehensive redevelopment in the minds of planners and politicians. You can get a sense of this from Roy Hammans’ photographs in the Cambridge News here.

The Kite Action Group made clear their rationale for a gradual renewal. I quote:

  1. “We believe our proposals are appropriate both for The Kite and for Cambridge. All over Britain, Council and public opinion are reacting against vast comprehensive schemes
  2. The financial arrangements to be discussed by the City Council and Jesus College with Samuel Properties in April 1976 are likely to be unacceptable. Spiralling building costs and interest rates *[note this was a time of *very high* interest rates] makes the comprehensive approach even less likely without a large rate burden.
  3. We feel that an urgent start must be made on the renewal of The Kite which has been blighted for too long. It is vital that the decision to start the gradual be made now, and that developers are not allowed extensions of time in which they can keep all of their options open, until they finally decide whether Cambridge can be milked of sufficient profits.
  4. The comprehensive approach is inflexible. But gradual renewal can be tailored to suit changing needs.
  5. We need to avoid a vast marketing complex sitting astride our streets and turning its backside on the Kite homes.
  6. We need control over our environment and the scale of re-building.
  7. We need the services offered by the local traders.
  8. We need a broad mix of shops, houses, restaurants and business appropriate to Cambridge.
  9. We do not need a slice of Birmingham or London.
  10. We need to maintain the existing community. Gradual renewal allows the community to flourish. Comprehensive redevelopment kills it stone dead for others financial gain.
  11. We cannot tolerate the car and service vehicle congestion and pollution which a large comprehensive scheme would entail.
  12. We do not believe the statement in the Minister’s report that the comprehensive scheme would be
    complete in 5 years. In our opinion the Kite would be in noise, filth and turmoil for at least 8 to 10
*The interest rates issue

We take for granted the historically low interest rates, but in the latter 20th Century, UK interest rates – then set by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (so subject to politically-inspired interest rate cuts, esp just before elections) were both high and volatile. This is not a good environment for anyone to be borrowing to invest. At the same time, the oil price shocks from the Middle East (pre-dating North Sea Oil) meant the economy took a massive supply-side hit to costs of production.

Above – historical data from the Bank of England.

The Kite Action Group then put forward some new development principles:

  • “The blight must be lifted immediately.
  • Redevelopment is to be by gradual renewal.
  • District shopping and local traders are to remain an essential part of the scene. They are not to be displaced by national stores.
  • Houses are not to be destroyed; gradual renewal must make good housing losses already sustained.
  • New Square is to be properly landscaped and returned to public open space.
  • The local amenities, essential to the Kite must be retained and encouraged: churches, pubs, meeting rooms, art centre, drama centres, community college, dancing facilities, dental, medical and other professional practices.
  • Through traffic is to be eliminated.
  • Car parking is to be rationalised; commuter parking is to be eliminated.
  • Rear servicing where practical is to be arranged.
  • Fitzroy and Burleigh Streets are to be paved over, with motor vehicles having access only.
  • There must be a local plan policy, including a limit to commercial growth of 10%.
  • Scale and character are not to be exchanged for unsympathetic building.”

The only proposals on the list that were eventually adopted were the returning of New Square to grassland, and the pedestrianisation of Burleigh Street and Fitzroy Street – which also got rid of the through traffic. The problem was the large multi-storey car park created a congestion nightmare on surrounding main roads, including Mill Road and East Road from my part of town, as well as Coldham’s Lane and Newmarket Road coming in from the east. (I remember being stuck in said traffic jams as a child – ones that got worse with the inevitable roadworks.)

Their vision for the future

Above – before and after – a vision for New Square, which eliminates the minor through-road towards the old Hopbine Pub – now the Cambridge Community Kitchen collective that serves free meals for anyone, conveniently located opposite one of the city’s homeless hostels.

Many of the illustrations are wonderful, both in their detail and in their simplicity.

Above – the popular Waffles cafe on Fitzroy Street.

The legacy of The Kite Campaign

The late Cllr Colin Rosenstiel of the Cambridge Liberal Party, and later on the Liberal Democrats, was one of the councillors who opposed the comprehensive redevelopment. He was also one of the councillors lobbied by the residents during the 1970s over the future plans. In 2001 he wrote a summary of what happened – including the defeat of a prominent Conservative Councillor Graham Edwards by Margaret Reiss, the wife of Dr Bernard Reiss – the latter had The Bernard Reiss Centre named after him, which is an extension to Arthur Rank House, on the Brookfields Hospital Site at the eastern end of Mill Road.

Perhaps one of the sad things to reflect on is that the campaigners were ultimately proved right. Despite the huge amounts of money sunk into the Grafton Centre and its extension in 1995, its popularity could not sustain in the longer term as shopping habits and people’s values shifted, and the ability of asset-stripping investors and consortia acquired one high street name after another, over-loading them with debt and ultimately resulting in their closure along with the huge losses of jobs and pensions.

Prior to the internet shopping boom, there was a noticeable decline in direct bus services to The Grafton, which along with the redevelopment of the Grand Arcade meant that fewer shoppers made their way to that centre. Changing technology also took out three prominent industries – digital photography and downloadable music meant that that photograph processing, music shops, and video rentals all imploded. The only store that seems to have resisted the decline is the discount clothing store Primark, now on the site of. the old Co-op. Why more wasn’t done to save the buildings I don’t know. They should have been protected as landmark neighbourhood buildings.

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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