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Revealed: plans for £20m civic quarter in Cambridge

Details of a £20million plan to create a new civic quarter in Cambridge’s city centre have been revealed.

A report seen by the Cambridge Independent and set to be published by Cambridge City Council explains how the multi-million pound budget would be used to revamp the market square, Guildhall and Corn Exchange.

Cambridge City Council, The Guildhall, Market Square, Cambridge
Cambridge City Council, The Guildhall, Market Square, Cambridge

If approved, the council would “progress” plans for the market to become a part-time entertainment space with removable stalls. Previously, these plans were unpopular with traders due to a failure to find stalls that could withstand high winds.

The report also proposes commissioning of a concept design for the Guildhall – the council’s headquarters – to transform it “into a more open and accessible space that retains the character and heritage of its grade II listing, meets the council’s civic and administrative needs and generates commercial revenue”. One option is to make it the main council hub while selling off the current council offices at Mandela House on Regent Street.

Under the scheme, the Corn Exchange would benefit from refurbishment and improvements to acoustics.

Cambridge's market square. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge's market square. Picture: Keith Heppell

The council report states: “By creating a civic quarter, there is now an opportunity to enhance placemaking through developing the relationship of the Guildhall with the market square and the Corn Exchange. By widening the aspiration to a civic quarter, the council will consider how it can create a more attractive destination and increase visitor numbers for the market, Corn Exchange and businesses in the area, whilst providing modern flexible office facilities for its own staff to improve staff retention.

“By creating a more attractive civic quarter destination, with increased visitor numbers the council will be looking to enhance the economic multiplier effect in the quarter as well as reducing annual operating costs of its civic spaces through the net zero refurbishment designs and enhanced placemaking.”

Councillors at a strategy and resources committee meeting on Monday were asked to approve £20m from the Labour-run city council’s general fund reserves for the programme, but the report outlining the plans was not shown.

Cllr Naomi Bennett (Abbey, Green) told the meeting that it “leaves a very bad taste” that the council held a public consultation on its budget but did not mention this new proposal for a £20m spend on a civic quarter until after the consultation had ended. And she asked: “Are we really happy that spending £20m, most of which is going on The Guildhall, which is half empty, is really the best use of our reserves?

“I have yet to hear anything that will convince me this is the most appropriate use of the funds.”

She added: “It all looks a bit hasty”.

Cllr Tim Bick (Lib Dem, Market) asked if he could see a concept for the civic quarter, but was told to wait for the report.

Meanwhile, Wendy Blythe, who represents the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (FECRA), told the meeting that the civic quarter plans had taken her by surprise.

She said: “In the papers it says a new earmarked reserve is proposed with a remit to provide work required for the design of a new civic quarter in the centre of Cambridge. This has come out of the blue for local residents.

“This is on the agenda today. What discussion has there been about bringing it on the agenda today?

“It is basically about the vision for the city, but what input has there been about it?”

She was told by chair Cllr Richard Robertson that the vision would be explained in a paper coming before a meeting on strategy and resources scrutiny committee January 29, which has been seen by the Cambridge Independent.

Wendy added: “At the last market square stakeholders’ meeting, the CEO of Cambridge BID told attendees a bid for investment in the city centre was going out to tender and that the vision for the city centre would be commercially driven and not civic. Cambridge residents ask why there has been no public disclosure of the discussions about using the general fund for this, which involves large sums of taxpayer money and impacts world famous city spaces and people’s livelihoods?”

The new report recommends that £1,450,000 is put aside to pay for design and consultancy services to create a single concept design for the civic quarter, which would come under “a single project and professional team”.

This design work would be reviewed in November at a meeting of the strategy and resources committee.

The council adds that: “A new civic quarter liaison group would be established to involve key stakeholders such as market traders, residents and business representatives, throughout the process.”

The sale of Mandela House is expected to fetch £16m and the predicted cost of the Guildhall refurbishment projects is £35m, which will be funded by the sale plus £20m of city council reserves that would also go towards the market and Corn Exchange.

It also recommended in the report that a second option be explored to understand the cost for renting an alternative office and civic space which meets the council’s needs in or around a central location, rather than refurbishing the Guildhall.

Cllr Simon Smith, executive councillor for finance and resources, said: “We are fortunate to have a number of treasured buildings and spaces in Cambridge that are at the heart of the city’s civic and cultural life.

“Now, we have the opportunity to invest in them in a coordinated way to create a refreshed civic quarter that befits the city’s global status and attracts and serves many more people for years to come.

“By thinking about the Guildhall, the market square and the Corn Exchange together, we can create a place that brings a new, exciting dimension to the city centre, attracting more people and boosting economic activity. Our consultation told us that people would like to see much more from the market square, in particular.”

A decision made by the council’s environment and community scrutiny committee in March 2022 is being hailed in the report as the current vision for the market square, which includes it becoming “an active day and evening hub” with “engaging and inclusive cultural events”.

The full vision included in the report states: “An inspiring, strategic public realm heart to the city centre, the market square will be welcoming to all to work, visit and spend time here. A 21st century international and local multi-generational and multi-cultural space, celebrating Cambridge’s history and heritage, it integrates a thriving, sustainable, accessible, safe and open environment, connecting the surrounding streets with spaces to shop, wander, stop and socialise. A bustling seven-day market, space for seating and eating, additional business and social opportunities and engaging and inclusive cultural events will add to the richness of the area, making this an active day and evening hub in the city centre for local businesses, residents, and the wider community.”

However, the plans for evening events rely upon the removal of some market stalls to make space for seating or staging of performances. The council had admitted that no workable stalls have yet been found that can be dismantled but will stand up to the rigours of daily market use.

Glenys Self with the examples of the proposed market stalls on Cambridge market . Picture: Keith Heppell
Glenys Self with the examples of the proposed market stalls on Cambridge market . Picture: Keith Heppell

A council spokesperson said: ”Different types of market stalls have been trialled in the past but no ideal solutions were found and no decisions have been made. Our focus now is on how we achieve the vision for the market that was agreed by councillors and how that is best done in the context of the wider civic quarter. Market stall design is something that we will need to look at again as part of this project, alongside other elements of the market and how it operates. Traders and other stakeholders will be kept informed and involved in that process.”

What would you like to see in the civic quarter? Write to letters@iliffemedia.co.uk to share your views.

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