Why did it all kick off in The Kite, Cambridge? The redevelopment plans from the late 1960s speak volumes

I spent this afternoon recording a piece to camera having stumbled across a series of documents two undergraduates studying Architecture at Cambridge were looking at for their project. Reviewing the footage it looks like I’ll have to re-shoot it because I spent too long looking down!

*Don’t look down, there’s only shoes and floor and you know what they look like already!*

Above – a line from my dance class days from nearly twenty years ago.

Above – six published reports and a box full of newspaper files in the Cambridgeshire Collection from the 1970s – which tell of a story that should be dramatised.

The students asked me if these reports could be digitised and published – I said I’d follow this up with the councillors in overall responsibility, not least because there are a host of reports that should really inform the emerging local plan.

Above – the official reports spanning 1969-1980 on the redevelopment proposals of the neighbourhood in and around the Grafton Centre. You can search for more items in the Library’s catalogue here.

The John Powley Files

The archivists invited the three of us to have a first go at examining the recently-deposited but as yet uncatalogued files containing the political papers of Cllr John Powley (Cons – Castle), possibly the most significant councillor in terms of his impact on pre-2000 Cambridge. The Grafton Centre is his legacy.

If you had asked me in the late 1990s whether Cllr Powley had been proved right (esp having seen photographs of what the area used to look like), chances are I would have agreed with you. The place was buzzing, the shop units occupied, and the multi-screen cinema extensively used.

Ask me that same question in 2021 in the face of the shopping centre being put up for sale after a failed £multi-million refurbishment and its marketing by estate agents as a site for science labs (contrary to the Local Plan), and suddenly it looks very different. But who foresaw the rise of internet shopping in the 1970s?

When the papers have been properly catalogued, they will need careful study – they deserve careful study because of the impact that the people involved in one of the most protracted disputes in Cambridge’s modern history had on so many of us. For as well as the massive negative impact it had on the Kite Community, the opening of The Grafton Centre represented the start of the long and unstoppable decline of the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Association, until then one of the largest and most influential civic institutions in Cambridge’s history. Former Liberal Councillor Colin Rosenstiel gave his view in a 2001 internet chatboard post (Which I digitised here) – it’s important for our historical record that the events told from the local Conservative perspective are also told – in particular the reasons behind the decisions their senior councillors took.

The 1969 proposals that set the alarm bells ringing

If someone said to you: “Our council is going to build three multi-storey car parks, two dual carriageways and a road tunnel in your neighbourhood to meet the demand for a regional shopping centre”, how would you respond? i

Above – the proposals from the Llewellyn-Davies study and proposals for The Kite, Cambridge in 1969 in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The other part that’s easy to miss is on the bottom-right of the map: Two streets of run down terraced homes were completely razed to make way for the extension of the Cambridge College for Arts & Technology – which became Anglia Polytechnic University, today Anglia Ruskin University.

In the end they got one multi-storey car park and two smaller ground-level car parks. It looks even more dramatic in the model version.

Above – the road tunnel as proposed in the comprehensive redevelopment proposals of 1969.

We learnt from the Powley files today that the original designation for The Kite to be comprehensively redeveloped was made by Central Government in 1964. The bit that I had not spotted previously were the brutalist flats. The style may look familiar to some of you – they are in the form of the concrete student flats at Christ’s College

Above – Christ’s College concrete flats on GMaps here.

How does it compare with today?

Above – G-Maps today. New Square was grassed over as planned.

You can see the impact that the Kite campaigners had. They significantly reduced the size of the area comprehensively redeveloped. As a result, more of the older properties survive.

Just as Cambridge Architect Gordon Logie had his nemesis in Dr Alice Roughton opposing him over the redevelopment of the Lion Yard, so Cllr Powley had his – in the form of another pioneering woman with a strong academic background. This was Dr Lisa Jardine of Jesus College Cambridge – the first woman elected to a fellowship at the College. She chaired the Kite Community Council and was a constant thorn in the side of Cllr Powley and his allies. Again, there is a post-graduate thesis waiting to be researched and written on the work of Dr Jardine and the KCC.

To get an insight into the radical communities that were gathering in The Kite – a place suffering from planning blight and thus full of derelict buildings occupied by squatters, have a read of some of their newsletters that I bought some time ago that I digitised here: The Grapevine. Many of the social reforms especially on equalities that we take for granted today were fought for by many campaigners in The Kite. Friends of the Earth Cambridge were campaigning on insulating houses in Cambridge due to climate change decades before Insulate Britain hit your headlines. Only back then it wasn’t an emergency. Today it very much is. Gingerbread for single parents? LGBTQ+ campaigns? Anti-racism campaigns? All could be found in the events and meetings pages in the newsletters.

There is still a huge amount of material to cover – and also an oral history project by the Museum of Cambridge to capture the memories and experiences of those people still alive who lived through that era of huge economic and social change in that part of Cambridge.

Details on visiting the collection are here. Staff can give you details on how to support the Collection, or alternatively you can donate online via the link at the bottom of this page.

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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