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Cambridge city centre survey results: Our respondents call for protection of its unique character and independent shops

The character of Cambridge city centre needs to be preserved – or it risks withering away, residents have warned.

A survey by the Cambridge Independent has gauged the views of hundreds of local people on the changing face of the city, its transport challenges and the proposals to convert major shopping destinations into laboratory spaces.

While there was much love for the city’s historic character and beautiful architecture, and widespread support for its independent shops, many voiced concerns that the city was becoming a clone town, dominated by chains and fast-food outlets.

Shoppers in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Shoppers in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Many respondents argued that developers’ plans to convert much of The Grafton centre and the Beehive retail park into lab space to cater for Cambridge’s booming life science cluster would be damaging for the city, leaving residents and visitors alike without the shops they need, and creating “dead zones” out of office hours.

Today, we reveal the results of our online survey, which asked readers to tell us how often they visited the city centre, why and by what method of transport. We asked what they liked and disliked about it, what could be done to make them visit more often and what they made of the proposals to convert The Grafton and Beehive.

Lindsay Fournier, from Cambridge, who cycles into the city, summed up the thoughts of many when she responded: “I like the independent shops, great museums and galleries, interesting cafes and restaurants. I love the way the beautiful colleges are part of the city centre and the students are a welcome sight. Unfortunately, the independents are being pushed out by generic chains.

“I’m disappointed to see so many fast food outlets appearing in Cambridge. They are brash and unattractive and spoil the facades of the buildings they inhabit. Even the market is being taken over by food stalls.”

In a week when American fast food chain Wendy’s announced plans to open at the former NatWest bank site in St Andrew’s Street, concern over the dominance of such eateries and takeaways was a frequent theme.

“Shopping has deteriorated so much that I don’t go into town as often as I used to,” one South Cambridgeshire resident told us. “All the shops that closed are now eating/coffee houses. Why? We have enough of those. Small businesses need to be encouraged into the town. All the household names have been bought and gone online, so if nothing changes the city will just die except for tourists/students.

“A lot of towns in the north seem to thrive on the smaller artisan shops, so this is probably the way to go but it won’t happen unless something happens with the rents. They seem to just keep going up and up, driving businesses out of the city.”

The proposals for weekday road charging and the conversion of shops to labs would only make this worse, the respondent added.

Cambridge resident J Silbs called for a “reduction in generic food and takeaway-style stores and/or market stalls, and encouragement of more artisanal crafts and goods, tradespeople and unique businesses of Cambridge, versus high street brands found everywhere”.

Variety was a key component for many respondents.

“The city centre has a good mix of high street and independent shops, individual cafes and restaurants,” one Cambridge resident told us. “I do not like the increasing amount of fast food restaurants in the centre.”

Another Cambridge resident who cycles daily to the city centre complained it was now “almost all chains” and a “clone city centre”.

Megan, from Cambridge, added: “I love going to shows and it’s also nice to go clothes shopping in person sometimes. It’s wonderful to walk the streets and be reminded of the beauty of the place we call home.”

But she disliked how the city has been “evolving towards a place to eat rather than do things” and called for more child-friendly activities.

Cambridge resident Giorgio Sironi called for “an offer of activities or events that is not exclusively shopping” to encourage more frequent visits to the city centre, adding: “The Central Library, for example, is doing good work in that direction.”

Cambridge Central Library. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Central Library. Picture: Keith Heppell

Giorgio, who cycles into the city centre weekly, appreciated “the ability to walk around and randomly discover new interests, fashions, hobbies, trends” and “the availability of lots of street foods or opportunities for coffee and other get-togethers”.

Carole Middleton, from Cambridge, liked the “array of small, independent shops”, cafes and the marketplace, along with the cultural offer at museums, including the Botanic Garden, suggesting we are “spoilt for choice”.

But she was less enamoured by the brands dominating shopping centres.

“I dislike that we seem to have lost a harmony and balance for the residents of Cambridge and its many visitors and tourists,” said taxi user Carole, who also called for better Shopmobility access and said the “chaos of buses in Emmanuel Street” gave a poor impression to visitors.

Cambridge was also let down at times by dirty streets, said some.

“It feels run down, grotty and grimy. If you visit similar cities like Norwich and Chelmsford, you will see the vast difference – those places are clean and welcoming! The homeless people tend to be aggressive towards you when you say you’ve got no change,” said Katy, from South Cambridgeshire.

Ian Clarke, from Cambridge, said he rarely visited the city centre now, explaining: “I would rather drive to Lakeside or Bluewater for shopping –great free parking, no environmental charges, all you need under one roof.

“Cambridge looks like a northern city from the 70s: dirty, damaged roads and pavements, empty shops due to sky high rents and lack of footfall. Driving in the city has been made more difficult due to the council’s idiotic road closures.”

Of those who live in Cambridge, 75% of respondents said they visit the city centre at least once a week, compared to 44% of those living in South Cambridgeshire.

A number of residents complained about the state of the roads and pavements.

One Cambridge resident told us: “I like the market, the historic buildings, the green spaces like Parker’s Piece, the independent shops.

“I dislike the terrible state of the roads and the pavement, the potholes, broken bits of pavement, the wretched buses trundling around, and the price of car parking.”

Transport was, unsurprisingly, a crucial factor.

One Cambridge resident told us she would visit more if she was able “to drive in and park without having to take out a second mortgage”.

She added: “Car parking is extortionate and parking spaces are too small. I once had to climb in through the boot when I was pregnant and couldn’t get my belly through the tiny gap between cars when both of us were parked in a reasonable manner within our space. It’s cheaper and more pleasant to go somewhere else now.”

When we analysed the first 200 responses, we found only 18.5 per cent of respondents used a bus to reach the city centre. Just under a third drove and more than a quarter cycled, although cycling was the most popular mode (37 per cent) among Cambridge residents.

One Orwell resident, who noted there was “good wheelchair access on the whole”, called for ”better, more frequent public transport”, suggesting the Park & Ride service “should go on till at least midnight” and buses should serve rural areas better.

“If we want to go shopping and to the cinema/show/concert in the evening, very few taxis do the rural areas and there are very few buses and the P&Rs stop at 8.30 – nuts. We have to drive as we can’t get home otherwise. The day and night economy need to be linked and this can only be done by providing 24-hour public transport.”

An East Cambridgeshire resident, who enjoyed the mix of independent and chains on offer, and the wealth of entertainment options, said the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s proposed weekday road charge would “force me to go elsewhere for shopping and do the cultural things at the already congested weekends”.

A number complained about the speed of the bus service, saying they would visit more “if buses were cheaper, more frequent, faster”.

Another East Cambridgeshire resident complained about a “lack of buses from my village”, adding: “I don’t always want to drive into town but there is only one bus now and it’s not reliable.”

Insufficient safe cycle parking was an issue for many.

“I mostly cycle into Cambridge, but the volume of traffic makes it unpleasant and dangerous, so I don’t go there more often than necessary. There isn’t enough cycle parking in the city centre,” said one Cambridge resident.

K Thomas, from Cambridge, said “bicycle theft stops me using my bicycle to park anywhere in Cambridge”.

Lauren, from Cambridge, agreed, calling for “more proactive policing of bike thefts and known thieves, thereby affording me the opportunity of cycling in to town and not worrying that the visit will cost be a few hundred pounds”.

Local historian Antony Carpen included proposals for cyclists in his seven-point plan to improve the city centre, which called for:

  • A new large concert hall
  • A revamped Guildhall
  • A light rail metro with a short underground section as Connect Cambridge proposes
  • An extended Museum of Cambridge on the Castle Hill site
  • A repurposed Corn Exchange either as business incubator space or an indoor market split onto multiple floors with a ceiling level performance space
  • A new urban park formed out of under-used college land near The Backs
  • Pedestrianisation of more of the city centre and the creation segregated cycle routes away from pedestrian and motor traffic routes.

Proposals currently being worked on by developers would mean a large proportion of The Grafton shopping centre being turned into a science and technology park, while investment company Railpen wants to do the same at the Beehive Centre, off Newmarket Road, with the Asda supermarket on site potentially moving across the road to the neighbouring Cambridge Retail Park.

Many disliked these conversions, with some calling them “madness”, suggesting it would “kill the city” and would impact those on everday wages.

“The Grafton centre and Beehive are where normal (not rich) people shop. It will make Cambridge less of a desirable destination at the weekend,” said an East Cambridgeshire resident.

Among respondents who lived in Cambridge, 37% said they cycle to the city centre, while 34% walk. Only 10% use the bus, while 15% drive

A Cambridge resident agreed, saying: “I think that is all wrong. The town centre is mostly for students and tourists. Us locals, born and bred in Cambridge, use the Beehive and retail park more – lots of different shops to use. Pretty obvious the planning department are not catering for local people. Labs and office space should be built off the A14 and leave us our tiny little space (the Beehive) to go to.”

And a Cambridge resident who cycles to the city centre was “appalled” at the idea, adding: “Most city residents shop far more in these centres than the city centre as shops are more in their price range. Many residents in the Petersfield area have no cars and rely on being able to walk to large supermarkets like Asda.

How the Beehive Centre could be converted
How the Beehive Centre could be converted

“Local residents I talk to are really upset about this plan. We need essential services and shops in the city to both prevent car use and to enable people without cars to access shops.”

One South Cambridgeshire respondent, aged under 25, told us there was “not enough variety of shops in the town already – putting yet more lab space will decrease this even more”, predicting: “People will go elsewhere for more choice and cheaper parking.”

Another called it “sad, but perhaps inevitable given that so many people shop online”.

And a fellow South Cambridgeshire resident said: “If you wish to put the final nail in the coffin of Cambridge city centre, go ahead.”

Carole Middleton told us: “I feel it is a totally crazy concept. Getting office/science staff to travel into Cambridge to work and getting Cambridge residents/visitors to shop at out-of-town retail units seems ludicrous and back to front to me.”

Another Cambridge resident said: “While I understand that lab space is needed, it seems that the shops being targeted are shops that residents use, not the more touristy, desirable buildings. I don’t think planners are thinking of residents or those on lower incomes.”

How the Beehive Centre could be converted
How the Beehive Centre could be converted

But not everyone was opposed.

Robert Maxwell, from Cambridge, suggested: “It’s a good idea. Cambridge has a desperate shortage of lab space, and there is acres of space amidst all that car parking without disrupting the pretty unexciting retail.”

Helen Osborne, in South Cambridgeshire, said: “There are lots of empty units so maybe it would be better if they were used for a different purpose.”

Another Cambridge resident agreed it would be “positive – this is far better than empty shops”. Nick Gellatly, from Huntingdonshire, called it a “good use of empty space” and called for “more homes” in the city centre too.

Rosalind Lund, from Cambridge, said: “It’s a good idea to create more workplaces in the town centre. But it will be essential to crack the public transport problem. And much more cycle parking is needed.”

One Cambridge cyclist suggested it might have a positive impact for shops serving the new workers on site.

South Cambridgeshire residents were most likely to drive (58%), while one quarter (25%) use the bus to reach the city centre

“If this will bring more small independent shops to support these work spaces, that would be a good thing. But the Grafton area is also surrounded by residential streets and people living there need local shops such as food shops, newsagents, hardware shops like Wilko.

“If it simply becomes a business district, and therefore closes down at night, that will make the Grafton area less pleasant as a residential community, less safe at night.”

For many, it was a case of labs in the wrong locations.

One Cambridge resident said: “Science labs should be on the outskirts of Cambridge. Labs in the city centre will increase congestion and traffic from outside Cambridge.”

Another Cambridge resident warned: “Converting these areas into offices and labs will not assist in reducing congestion or CO2 levels.”

And a South Cambridgeshire resident argued: “This is materially at odds with our present councils’ expressed desire to reduce traffic.”

Some people drew a distinction between the two sites, with more concerned at losing the out-of-town shopping at the Beehive.

“I don’t mind losing the Grafton, but the Beehive is fab for car access and larger purchases, so that needs to stay,” said one.

A fellow South Cambridgeshire resident who works in the city told us: “The Grafton and whole area around it needs significant investment and a change of use. The Beehive Centre is busy and should remain as it is.”

One Cambridge bus user said: “No issues with turning The Grafton into labs, or academic/scientific buildings. I think more public buildings in Cambridge would also be good, but there should still be retail at the Beehive.”

How the Beehive Centre could be converted
How the Beehive Centre could be converted

And another suggested: “The Beehive currently has a good range of keenly priced shops such as B&M, TK Maxx etc. If stores such as these are lost to Cambridge residents then living costs will be increased.”

A regular South Cambridgeshire visitor said: “I feel unhappy about this, and think laboratories should be outside the centre. I regularly shop at the Beehive and I am upset at the plans for it.”

Antony Carpen, however, argued that it was “totally inappropriate for The Grafton centre, which could take inspiration from the proposals from residents in 1976 and be used for a non-car-based community of mixed housing, community hall spaces, independent small businesses and shops, and new green spaces”. He felt it was “inevitable for the Beehive Centre” but added “it should not be given approval until Cambridge has a light rail line”.

For one resident, the conversion in the Grafton area was all about one Fitzroy Street shop.

“So long as the little Waitrose remains I’m not worried,” the respondent wrote.

For others, it was a question of how the conversion is handled.

Architect's sketch of the proposed redevelopment at The Grafton centre
Architect's sketch of the proposed redevelopment at The Grafton centre

Megan said: “I think Cambridge’s population probably can’t support the growing number of knowledge-intensive businesses, so they need to look outside for people to come here to live and work. More business space in town sounds like it could be a win, but without infrastructure to support this, these businesses will find it hard to recruit and there will be increasing pressure on housing, schools, GPs, etc. Economic expansion must come alongside improvement to the local area – this is where Cambridge fails time and time again.”

Z Tnimov, from Cambridge, said: “I think it is a great initiative as long as space is kept inclusive and community spaces are improved and expanded.”

And another Cambridge resident told us: “Losing chain store businesses is 100 per cent fine by me – I avoid them anyway. However, the businesses that cater for the needs of lower-income residents should be preserved (Asda).

How The Grafton could be divided up
How The Grafton could be divided up

“If the Grafton and Beehive sites are largely converted to new uses, then the balance of the space needs to be wisely allocated to preserve the services needed by the local community (both with regard to retail and community functions). Extreme rigour needs to be applied to all aspects of the environmental consequences of any building works, maximising trees and greenery and minimising urban heat island effects – especially at the Beehive site.”

With developers still working on their proposals, the debate is sure to continue as part of the wider discussion on preserving and enhancing Cambridge as a destination to visit, shop, dine out and enjoy.

What is clear is that most residents – whether they approved of the changes or not – are passionate about the future of their city, and welcome a say on it.

Cambridge market ‘needs an upgrade’

Cambridge market
Cambridge market

The market provoked a lot of debate among respondents.

It was a reason to visit the city centre for many, but others felt it needed an upgrade.

Neil McArthur suggested it was “smelly” and should be moved to Christ’s Pieces. He called for the market square to be redeveloped “to be a bustling vibrant city centre square with cafes and evening entertainment”.

Bus user Paul Street, from Cambridge, said: “The market square looks tired and is underused outside normal working hours. A continental style daytime market with ‘roll-on/off’ stalls would increase usage. This would necessitate easy and safe access to toilets and there should be an ‘emergency room’ available round the clock. This could/should be accommodated within the Guildhall, where facilities and toilets already exist.

“The road surface around the square should be done away with but retain marked/defined areas around specific areas retained for pedestrian movements and emergency services.

“Vehicular access to shops, restaurants etc should then be restricted to prescribed times for deliveries, cleansing. Cycle/e-scooter parking should also be provided and secure.

“Public free wifi access points should be available and reliable.

“A suitable raised dias should also be available for occasional public performances.

“Interactive and imaginative general and ‘specific’ lighting should also be installed, and a simple public address system.

“This would be essential in emergencies and public functions for the safety of the public and informative of events and crowd control.”

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