MIL-OSI UK Cities: Proposals for a renewed civic quarter in the heart of Cambridge city centre

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Source: City of Cambridge

FRESH proposals for investment in a renewed civic quarter in central Cambridge are to be considered by councillors.

A report to Cambridge City Council’s Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on 29 January recommends that detailed proposals for a major investment in the Guildhall, Market Square and Corn Exchange be worked up for consideration by councillors.

The report, which draws on a feasibility study carried out in recent weeks, sets out how investing in the civic quarter would help the council to achieve a number of important objectives including:

  1. Creating a more attractive central Cambridge destination that would increase visitor numbers for the market, the Corn Exchange and businesses in the area;
  2. Making essential, long term savings to ensure frontline council services are sustainable, by cutting operational costs and increasing revenue streams – a process that is a part of the council’s continuing ‘Our Cambridge’ transformation strategy;
  3. Helping the council to meet its net zero carbon by 2030 target.

Investment in the Guildhall, Market Square and Corn Exchange would be managed as part of a single civic quarter programme, geared to maximise placemaking opportunities, minimise overheads and ensure close coordination.

Guildhall

The report highlights the potential to transform the Guildhall 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. The required investment could be funded by the sale of Mandela House on Regent Street and the use of reserves.

Market Square

A vision for the Market Square was agreed by councillors in 2022 following consultation in 2021. This consultation showed support for changes to the Market Square to make it a more accessible, attractive, welcoming, exciting and safe place to visit, shop and gather both during the day and into the evening. If approved, the new civic quarter programme would take the next steps towards fulfilling the vision.

Corn Exchange

The potential to make the Corn Exchange a more modern and appealing venue with a programme of improvements to the facilities is also discussed in the report. It recommends that options be considered for updating facilities, exploring new commercial opportunities and reducing operational costs.

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.

Cllr Smith added: “These proposals involve a major investment but they would achieve savings in future. We have been open about the financial challenges the council faces after years of government funding cuts and the impacts of the successive pandemic, inflation, and cost of living crises.

“All of that means a major capital investment in the Guildhall needs to deliver financial, environmental and social dividends.

“Under the next steps, investment cases will establish the potential financial returns to protect essential frontline services through operational savings and commercial income and more flexible and productive office space for staff.

“For the environment and the city’s cultural life, opportunities will be tested to convert the Guildhall into a net zero carbon building and a better used arts and entertainment venue.”

If councillors approve the recommendations in the report on 29 January, next steps would involve appointing a design and consultancy team to produce a detailed options and feasibility report for the civic quarter programme.

This work would also contribute towards the business case for matched funding of £1.5m earmarked by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority last year, subject to approval of the CPCA budget.

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 proposals in the report are an important element of the council’s transformation programme ‘Our Cambridge’ which is creating a more digitally enabled and efficient council delivering high quality services for residents.

As part this programme, the council is transforming some of its accommodation including the creation of an operational hub at Cowley Road by merging two existing sites.

In a bid to support charities and social enterprises and generate income, the council has worked with Allia to establish a Future Business Centre in the Guildhall.

The council has also vacated its 171 Arbury Road office and is renting the premises to two charities, reducing operational costs and generating income.

In October 2022 the council expressed a preference for keeping the Guildhall as its HQ so long as it was financially beneficial and asked officers to investigate options and feasibility.

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