Some thoughts on 2021 in Queen Edith’s

The photo above shows the empty space where the big house on the corner of Hills Road and Queen Edith’s Way stood for over 100 years, until this month. Despite a community campaign to save it, there was little chance of overcoming the combined forces of the ridiculous prices commanded by flats in Cambridge, property developers with no care for the area, and an increasingly toothless council planning system.

The demolition was symbolic of the way changes are being made to Queen Edith’s with little regard to those who live, work or study here. We can all see so many mistakes being made a mile off, but it’s almost impossible to turn around intransigent – and often incompetent – local authorities.

I’ve been involved in two organisations which have tried to do this in different ways in recent years. Smarter Cambridge Transport has taken the approach of getting together concerned (and often inspired) local people to come up with sensible ideas to solve our transport problems. You might think these would be seized upon by the local authorities, but instead it seems to have deepened their resolve to promote vanity projects.

The Queen Edith’s Community Forum has tried to improve the area by informing and supporting those who want to make a difference. If I’d written this 18 months ago, I might have said that like Smarter Cambridge Transport, it has also been defeated in many of its aims by the quagmire that is local government and its political preoccupations. But 2020 has changed all that.

Taking matters into their own hands

Last March seems a long time ago now, but I’m sure we can all remember that something needed doing in the community, and fast. While the government floundered, many people were worried enough to take matters into their own hands. When the Prime Minister did the first of his many “Alas…” speeches on 23 March, most of my street (and most of the country) had decided to ‘lock down’ without being told. We were getting spontaneous notes through the door from young people offering help with errands if we couldn’t get out. I’d never seen anything like it.

The Queen Edith’s Community Forum saw how it could help by using its network to spread what was happening across the area, and as I’m sure we’re all aware, this became the start of the biggest community self-help initiative of our lifetimes.

We’ve now stepped up to a level of mutual support that nobody could have imagined a year ago. All this has been done by ordinary friends and neighbours offering their time and support because they care. A roundup ‘thank you’ email from Queen Edith’s Community Forum chair Sam Davies this week thanked 400 people by name. I suspect there were many more who could have been added if records had been kept.

What next?

Several of the community initiatives have been put in place in such a way that they might continue to run as long as the pandemic does. To move much further though will probably need more than local people can achieve on their own. A say on the council would be a start. In the past, the our local councillors – of whatever party – have been far too concerned with party politics rather than addressing the big community issues. It’s why, for example, just about the only two people in Queen Edith’s who appeared to want the new housing on Worts’ Causeway were ‘our’ two councillors who voted for it.

What Queen Edith’s could really benefit from would be more councillors who care more about the area and its residents than whatever political party that they chose to join. And there’s an opportunity for that coming up.

This May, every council seat is up for election. That means every political party will ideally need to find four enthusiastic local residents for every ward.

There’s no chance of that happening. Trust me, normally they struggle to find just one. In recent years, the majority of people on your ballot paper have either not really wanted to be councillors, or have never even lived in Queen Edith’s. This is no longer good enough.

If you’ve ever thought you’d like to be a non-party-political councillor, this coming year is the best chance you will ever get. The initiative is with the community, and the political parties won’t be able to put up enough decent candidates. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’d be happy to help you organise a campaign. You’re never too young or too old, and you’ll stand a much better chance of being elected than you might think.

3 Replies to “Some thoughts on 2021 in Queen Edith’s”

  1. This comment is about Raylands, the house at 291 Hills road, which stood proudly in the empty space of the photograph above, until now.

    Raylands, which was recently demolished, was a fine example of Edwardian architecture. The planning application for Raylands, dating from 1913, is a gorgeous hand-drawn picture of the house (which can be seen in the archives of Cambridge). The house was built by Frederick Hiam, the well known potato merchant and founder of, farming and fresh produce business.

    Since it was for sale in 2017, many families wanted to buy this glorious house and maintain it as a family house, of which there is a documented shortage in Cambridge.

    Sadly, private buyers were denied access, and it was sold to developers.

    As part of a campaign from the developer to convince the planning committee to grant permission for replacement with a block of flats, Raylands was put for sale with a local estate agent, but credible buyers were not allowed access, enabling the developer to make a case that there was no demand for large family houses of this sort in Cambridge.

    Following this, planning permission was granted, demolition took place, as potential buyers looked on, devastated that they had not been given a chance to buy Raylands, and sad for the loss of architectural heritage of Cambridge.

    Raylands was structurally sound, there was no technical reason to demolish it. It was underpinned so deeply that it would have stood for another several hundred years without a single crack.

    There was demand for such a house; there still is.
    It was an architectural gem.
    It stood on unusually large grounds for such a central location.
    It was a very precious asset for our city of Cambridge.

    There is no denying that there is demand for more housing in Cambridge, both for flats and for large family houses. We need to ask the hard questions of the trade-offs we are willing to make. Raylands was exceptional. Cambridge should not have lost it.

  2. As one who was a protestor about the demolition of this elegant house, I am appalled to read about potential purchasers being denied access. I must admit I was surprised that there seemed to be no takers for it, when a house of such size and quality would have been a perfect family home for many well paid people who are transferring to work on the many new projects that are springing up in the Cambridge area. On the other hand, it has reminded me of a similar situation of a house very near where I live, that was put up for sale some years back. I knew of a couple who were very interested in purchasing it but they were shown round by an ill-informed young man who was extremely unhelpful and any queries made to the agent were either ignored or incorrect information given. Need I say it – the house was demolished – it went for a lower price than expected, and the same developer of the field behind it built a vast and rather unattractive edifice on the land. As far as I am aware, it never actually appeared for sale on the open market, but it was certainly occupied very soon after completion of building. If the agent had not been so unhelpful, the original house might still be standing – and occupied.

  3. There was a good technical reason to demolish it: It was an extremely inefficient building. Massive brick houses of that vintage need enormous amounts of heat and are a huge problem in the face of the climate emergency. It is possible to retrofit them, but if you try to preserve the architectural character then the retrofit is inevitably either heavily compromised or astonishingly expensive – sometimes both. You can never do as well as knocking them down and building something decent instead.

    So it’s a shame – this was a nice-looking building, but some modern housing here will house a lot more people with good active travel options and dramatically lower emissions overall. The new houses should be passivehouses, and Cambridge planning does not yet require that, but they will still be a factor of at least 5 better than Raylands. If we hadn’t already screwed up the atmosphere then maybe we could reasonsbly keep all the buildings like this, but I think we’ve missed that boat. A few like the Palace of Westminster and Kings Chapel can stay, but the vast majority of old buildings either need to to be completely replaced or radically altered. It’s our own fault.

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