“Take the shackles of the town so I can plan…!” John Parry Lewis’s impossible job

A pattern emerges from town and transport planning articles from the 1960s & 1970s in the Cambridgeshire Collection, collated by generations of archivists.

The screenshots are from and courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection. They kindly gave me permission to make this short video where I explain how you can view the files yourself.

The big headline in John Parry Lewis’s (JPL’s) report was the creation of a new urban centre to accompany the large scale house-building. In 1967 Harold Wilson’s Government had designated Peterborough as a third generation new town, which is why its population is around 200,000. A few years later, JPL proposed similar for Cambridge. Achieving it however, was a different matter.

Following Gordon Logie’s failed – or rather, thwarted attempts to prepare Cambridge for the Millennium, Prof John Parry Lewis of the University of Manchester was invited by ministers to have a go.

Given that Gordon Logie has to sing a parody of “Year 3000” by Busted in my proposed musical on the history of Cambridge Town, JPL has to sing “Shackles” because of the theme the Cambridge Evening News attached to his attempts to break the shackles.

“Why did the Department for the Environment send JPL in?”

Good question – I still have not found the answer as yet. But he wasn’t cheap either.

£100,000 in early 1970s money is over £1.5m in 2021 money. That was the similar cost of the Cambridge Transportation Study which also lasted a number of years. By the mid-1970s when the cycling element of that study was released, there was a growing realisation that building more roads and car parks was no longer they way forward. Too much had already been lost.

The problem in part was the nature of the local planning system back then, as a very young Cllr Colin Rosenstiel (Liberal – Market) explained in a letter to the Cambridge Evening News, critical of Cambridge’s Conservative MP David Lane – later the first Director of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Cllr Rosenstiel would spend the next half century involved in Cambridge’s municipal life – his widow Joye serving as Mayor of Cambridge in 1994-95.

“Why was JPL so unpopular with some councillors?”

It looks like it was because he was a central government appointee – working to a quango called the East Anglian Economic Planning Council – established by Harold Wilson’s Government and abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. Therefore you had a Professor from Manchester appointed by an East Anglian Quango to write a report on local and county planning (economic, transport, and municipal planning) over and above the heads of the county council – which in those days were responsible for ‘the local plan’, while the city/borough council was responsible for day-today functions of local government that were affected by planning, but there was little the city council could do to influence the county – which was dominated by the Conservatives, as was South Cambridgeshire District.

Avril Lavigne (again) : Complicated. Quite.

The decision by Margaret Thatcher to abolish the regional bodies fits with her political philosophy of getting rid of the institutions responsible for central economic planning. I can imagine many local councillors felt similar. They did in my time in the civil service in the mid-2000s when I started life in the former Government Office for the East of England established under Michael Hestletine in 1994 who was then Secretary of State for the Environment (which in those days included local government, town planning, and housing policy).

“How did John Parry Lewis get shafted by local government?”

He was also messed around by Whitehall too.

He had spent two years (1971-73) working on his plans for the Cambridge sub-region. As we know, his proposals involved creating a new urban centre for Cambridge and expanding the city to 200,000 people.

Above – from the Cambridge Sub-Regional Plan that I’ve digitised here from my own library.

The problem was that the local councils were working on a plan about doing something with The Kite – around Burleigh Street where The Grafton Centre now is. JPL said you can either have a second urban centre at Burleigh Street or you can have his plan for a second urban centre east of Cambridge Airport and just north of Cherry Hinton. But you cannot have both. On the map, The Grafton is about a quarter/third of the distance between the tourist honeypot of King’s Parade and East of Cambridge Airport. Whitehall said that the Burleigh Street report would not publish until it had the chance to examine JPL’s recommendations. But just before JPL’s sub-regional plan went to print, news of the final recommendation for Burleigh Street (in favour of comprehensive redevelopment) leaked out. JPL was ***furious***. Accordingly, Conservative councillors on the various local councils used this to undermine JPL – for the councillors outside of the city (mainly Conservative) were strongly against the rapid expansion of Cambridge similar to how many of them are today nearly half a century later.

Above – from the Cambs Collection: Cambridge Evening News 10 Sept 1973

At the same time, the city and county councils were falling out about where to build council houses.

Above – a few months before, Cllr Roger Thornley (Labour – Petersfield) complaining about Cambridgeshire County Council putting pressure on Cambridge City Council about who could build where.

The problem is I’m still trying to get my head around who had what legal powers to grant planning permission for what. This is one of the joys/frustrations of ‘active learning and live historical research’ – your interpretations of who was responsible for what changes as you find out new things.

Senior Conservative Alderman Cecil Mole goes after JPL

When JPL released the second volumes which looked at the sub-region in more detail in 1974, one of the senior councillors tore into that report

“Dealt with quickly” – i.e. rejected. Alderman Mole was scathing of JPL’s plans for the massive expansion of Cambridge.

Alderman Cecil Mole – who chaired the City Council’s planning committee for a decade in what was the last year of the old-style council before the structure we are familiar with today became established.

Although the Cambridge Labour Party by this time were in control of Cambridge City Council, they were not in control of the surrounding district councils – whose agreement was needed given the direction of house-building the Parry-Lewis Report was proposing. Planning officers in the local councils recommended rejecting that report, and the Conservative-dominated councils agreed with them.

Above – this was in part a result of the officials not consulting Prof Parry Lewis before rejecting his scheme altogether. The Labour councillors (often referred to as Socialists in the print press in those days) said the planners should have given more consideration to the Parry Lewis Report.

“In the end…?”

An understandably bitter Professor wrote a series of stinging articles in the media defending his plans and attacking the politicians before taking a step back.

Above – Cambridge Evening News 21 Sept 1973 in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

In the end, the councillors put the whole thing out to a massive consultation in order to draw up a new blueprint for the city.

Which is another story.

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

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