Most people have heard of the Civic Society – but what does it do? You may be aware that it hosts talks, and have an idea that it is responsible for placing blue plaques associated with historic figures and places – but there’s much more to it than this, and good reasons why you should consider getting involved. The Moment talked to Peterborough Civic Society Chairman David Turnock and Vice Chairman Toby Wood.
As you know, The Moment has featured various major new developments in the city over the years – including Fletton Quays and the university – and talked to a number of people involved, such as Mayor James Palmer and Council Leader John Holdich. Most people probably know those people and their responsibilities, but I imagine fewer people know exactly what the Civic Society is and how it gets involved in such development. Starting with the fundamentals, what is the Civic Society, and what is it there to do?
David Turnock: Well, civic societies have existed since around the 1950s, and were a reaction to the loss of a large number of historic buildings after the Second WorldWar. There’d been significant bomb damage throughout the country and people thought ‘Why do we want to keep all this Victorian and Georgian rubbish? Let’s just bulldoze it to build Homes for Heroes, cheap housing and tower blocks…’ So, it was very much a reaction to that. And in Peterborough, there was a man called Harry Paten – you probably know the name from Paten’s wine merchants. He was the father of Richard Paten, who was the guy who started Nene Valley Railway and bought the first loco for it. Harry Paten started the Civic Society in Peterborough in 1952, partly because where Crescent Bridge roundabout is now there were some old Napoleonic era buildings that were lost to new development. So, the society was formed to try and make everybody – locally, but also nationally – understand that they could easily lose local history if they just allowed rampant demolition and redevelopment.
So, it’s a national organisation as well as a local one..?
David Turnock: You may have heard of the Civic Trust – that lost its funding about 10 years ago, but there’s now a national umbrella organisation called Civic Voice, and we subscribe to that. About 300-400 civic societies from all around the country pay subscriptions to Civic Voice, and that organisation has a national voice and lobbies government, getting involved in things like the current planning white paper, which was all about relaxing planning regulations – almost a developers’ charter. We’re not preservationists, but a charter for developers to do what they want can’t be good for heritage and keeping the scale and the character of places. So that, in a nutshell is ‘where we’re at’!
The Civic Society locally has about 300 members – but also over recent years, we’ve actively encouraged many corporate members to join us, companies like BGL and Milton Estate who appreciate the value of what we do. They might not always agree with us but they appreciate that we have to occasionally nail our colours to the mast and say if we don’t like something.
Toby Wood: David mentioned Civic Voice, which is the national organisation which is made up of a large number of civic societies and civic bodies throughout the country. And what’s clear from that, as well, is their own unique and different focuses, depending on where they are in the country. One of the most vibrant is Wakefield, for instance, which has a very high local profile and is driven by a chap called Kevin Trickett, who is so dedicated and passionate about the built environment. Other organisations in the country may have a different focus; Aylesbury will have a different one from Manchester – and that’s interesting for us to see that civic societies aren’t uniform across the country, they try and represent their own distinctive communities.
One thing I would like to stress is what you said about Mayor Palmer and Cllr John Holdich, and people’s understanding of what they do. I don’t actually believe that people understand what James Palmer does, how much money he’s got, and where it gets spent. Our own City Council now has a cabinet system so I think that the Civic Society performs the role of a conscience, not an opposition. Increasingly, now, we’re getting people from the Council saying to us, ‘Well, what do you think? What’s the Civic Society’s view?’ and the society is a vehicle for us to put forward the views of local people. It’s another route in for local people to have an opinion. It’s very much about us having a stake in the place where we live. It’s quite a simple philosophy, really, whether you’re an individual or organisation or a politician – we all deserve a stake in the place where we live.
David Turnock: I have to say, Toby, you’re very good at actually doing that… Toby Wood writes articles every month in the Peterborough Telegraph. Also, the PT’s own Nigel Thornton writes a column, and some time ago he described the Civic Society as ‘the only viable opposition’ in the city. It wasn’t meant as a party-political comment, it’s just that, at the time, no one was saying anything about our dearly loved Embankment. There have been all sorts of plans floating about concerning the Embankment. We’re one of the few organisations trying to hold the City Council to account about producing something that the people of Peterborough could be consulted on – some sort of coherent plan. Whether or not a football stadium ends up on the Embankment or not remains to be seen, and we have to have an open mind. But there seems to be this idea that the football club going on the Embankment is a ‘done deal’. People perceive that the Council is actually dealing with things behind closed doors but, as we all know, the City Council and its members are just custodians of the city on behalf of all of us. We’ve got to hold them to account. We might not make any friends but that’s what we’re here for. We’ve got to do what we think is best.
Toby Wood: Another important facet of the Civic Society is our membership. Many of the people that are involved are retired, or ex- or current architects, as David is, or planners and people with a huge amount of knowledge and expertise. Now, I don’t come from that background – I’m an ex-head teacher and education officer. I’m Peterborough born and bred, born in Thorpe Hall, and have lived and worked in the city all my life. So, when my wife and I retired, we said, ‘Right, what are we going to do? Are we going to stay here? Or are we going to go elsewhere?’ The Society wants people to have a stake in where they live, whether you’re a Polish immigrant coming to work in Amazon’s warehouse and living in a small bedsit, or whether you’re somebody who works in London and owns a nice big house in Longthorpe, what do you want to do for the city? How do you want the city to be? It’s quite difficult at the moment doing that, because if you look at somewhere like Fletton Quays, it’s very nicely developed, very well-planned, but look at the people who are there. They are mostly younger, single people and very few families; the whole nature of the area is quite transient. It’s difficult to build and maintain a coherent community – it takes time. We really want to make sure that people have an investment in the places where they live. And that’s tricky.
David Turnock: We’ve got many current initiatives, again, Toby wrote an article in the paper a few weeks ago about making more of our river. This is part of our efforts to make sure that the Embankment is valued and we don’t just see it as a tatty, unloved, underused area of the city. It certainly needs some investment but just think about what other cities do with and around their river, there’s often so much life and activity. So, we have a terrific opportunity to bring life back into the city centre. Also, there’s the bridge across the river, which is something we’ve lobbied for. We thought when Fletton Quays initially obtained planning permission about four or five years ago they should have been expected to build a bridge in to link the two sides of the river. That didn’t happen for various reasons. But now a bridge is going to go in as part of the Towns Fund bid. Hopefully, families will want to walk across the bridge with the children, watch the swans going past, look up and down the river and have an ice cream at a little café – in short just promenade around the city centre, which was what people used to do.
Toby Wood: David’s made a very valid point there. But what we have to do as well is to understand and appreciate the fact that local authorities currently have no bloomin’ money! They are being forced to cut all the time. I’d hate to be a local councillor at the moment. There’s very little room for expansion, and that’s one of the reasons, to follow what David said, why local authorities need to put more weight into insisting that the developers augment their schemes to include features that enhance the city.
How does all that actually work? Is the Council obliged to consult with you, and if not, what is the process?
David Turnock: Let me take it back one stage first, because the Civic Society does a whole raft of things. We see ourselves as a vibrant society, so we hold lectures through the winter months with a range of speakers. We arrange visits during the summer months, so we go to interesting places and actually learn from them. Currently our membership is around about 300 people, and it’s generally in the older age group, as Toby has already said. Another aspect of what we do is to promote the city wherever we can, so, Toby has led our Plaques Group and we have erected another 15 blue plaques in and around the city centre, making a total of 36. We’ve produced leaflets which we disseminate far and wide and, once the pandemic is over, we will offer local residents and tourists guided tours of these. So, we provide a sort of tourist information service for people coming to Peterborough to find out more about the city. That’s been good because currently there isn’t actually a tourist information centre you can go to and pick up any information about the city.
Planning is one of the major things that we look at but we’re not a statutory consultee, so when a planning application for a major scheme comes in, obviously the police get consulted, the drainage authority, the highways, all those sorts of people – but not necessarily us. However, we now have a very close working relationship with the two Conservation Officers that are employed by Peterborough City Council. Peterborough is very fortunate to have two full time Conservation Officers. Some historic cities only have one or none at all. We have a good rapport with them so we can quite often support them when they’re feeling a bit exposed. Cathedral views is one of the major areas where we lobby with those Conservation Officers. There’s a current application which impacts on the views from Stanley Recreation Ground. Stanley Rec is where Northamptonshire played cricket in years gone by, and there are some very fine views of the Cathedral, and there could be applications that would block and interrupt that view. So, we’ve been supporting the Conservation Officers to try to ensure that the right decisions are arrived at.
Toby Wood: In a sense we’re a pressure group. We have a good relationship with the Council, and the Council don’t have to consult with us, but they generally do. A number of people within the Council have told me that they value our input. We’re not just saying ‘We don’t like what you’re doing…’, or whatever, we try to be thoughtful about the whole process. We are trying to be a critical friend. We’re augmenting the quality of the decisions being made by those who make them, helping them to be thought-through and qualified.
The Council’s priority, whether they like it or not, is very often economic, so if a development means local jobs, it is generally seen as a good thing. Do you see yourselves as bringing balance to that argument?
David Turnock: The thing is, those decisions are not always made on the basis of quality. You mentioned jobs, and that seems to be the trump card. So, whenever someone wants to come in, build a big shed and create 100 jobs, the City Council is naturally tempted to say, yes – it doesn’t matter what the building looks like as long as it creates jobs. And there isn’t so much of a quality threshold in terms of actually steering things in Peterborough. If it was Cambridge, as you might imagine, any new development would have to be perfectly right and it would have to enhance Cambridge. But with Peterborough having grown the way it has, there’s a very small city centre, and over the centuries, many of the old buildings have been demolished to make way for new ones. So, we don’t have many very old historic buildings. Priestgate and Cathedral Square constitute the historic hub of the city. And that’s about it. And so the mindset of economic developers may well be ‘We’ve got these business parks all around Peterborough so it doesn’t really matter what happens there’.
Coming back to Fletton Quays, I think the City Council’s own offices, in particular the way they’ve kept the listed railway shed, works very well. There’s a couple more bits of the jigsaw to finish. The development could have been very, very poor, and at one stage it was touch and go. If you just let the developer get on with it, you don’t have the sort of touchstone of quality that you’re trying to create for the city.
Toby Wood: It’s also coordination. Quays is being developed but we’ve also got the Northminster area, we’ve got North Westgate, and there’s very much a danger that these could be thought of as isolated developments, with not an awful lot of thought for the overall whole of Peterborough city centre.
Do you sense a shift in mood? Peterborians have sometimes been quite down on Peterborough, but over the ten years I’ve been writing for The Moment it seems that there has been a growing pride in what the city is, and more positivity about what it can be…
David Turnock: I can give you an example of that. I had a conversation a couple of years ago with some people at the Heritage Festival. A lot of the re-enactors who dress up as Saxons and Romans etc. love coming to Peterborough, the reason being they meet ordinary people. Normally, they’re going to stately homes where people pay 25 quid per carload to get in, but what they like about Peterborough is that the city is trying to put on events for everybody. It doesn’t cost you anything to go to the Heritage Festival; you can go and shake hands with a Roman soldier if you’re a Lithuanian eightyear- old. Peterborough is clearly trying hard to attract and cater for people of different backgrounds and different experiences. It’s not always succeeding, but I think there is the will there to appreciate the fact that we come from very different angles.
Toby Wood: When I was head teacher at Abbotsmede primary school – and this is going back a long way – we did a survey of all the parents. The school was just off Saxon Road, the eastern side of Peterborough, not a wealthy place. We found that 90% of the families had been to Tescos in Broadway – and 90% of the families had not been to the Cathedral, even though the two things are equidistant. The Cathedral is free to go in, it’s a fantastic building, but a lot of people just don’t go there. Now, I know that habit has got a lot to do with that, but it is part of the Civic Society’s intention to try to encourage people to look around and to experience our city – just to get people to appreciate their surroundings and therefore want to be part of raising the quality issue that David’s talked about.
David Turnock: One of the concerns we have at the Civic Society is age profile – many of our members are in the Third Age, and it’s hard to get families and children involved in what seems like a quasi-historical society. One way we would like to involve more people is, for example, having an app for our blue plaques so that people can find out information. It’s a bit beyond our finance to do at the moment, but we’re looking at ways to involve youngsters and families to increase appreciation of our environment – both the built and the natural – something that’s far easier to do. It’s not an elitist thing. It’s there for everybody, just like the Cathedral should be there for everybody. The last thing we want to come across as is old-fashioned or ‘fuddy-duddy’.
The biggest new thing on the city’s horizon is the new university. What’s been the Society’s view on it?
David Turnock: Well, we are certainly a supporter of that. We made some comments on the design of the new university building, but generally we’re very favourable. I mean, bring it on… It’s easy to say we should have done this 20 years ago, and that Peterborough sort of missed the boat in terms of a university, but better late than never. So let’s build up the student numbers, get the sort of life that comes with the student population – and vibrancy will come back after the virus, obviously – but if you’ve got a coterie of 4-5,000 students in the city, they demand the sort of nightlife, culture and things that go with that – and the existing population can enjoy those things as well. University facilities might not all be on the Embankment because there are other university buildings dotted around, and there could well be accommodation in North Westgate or places as yet undeveloped, like Wellington Street where there’s an open car park at the moment. But all those bits of the jigsaw will be filled in. Peterborough has quite a small city centre, so the fact that the university is not on a single campus is not really a big deal, to be honest. There is a little bit of space to grow on the Embankment – if we don’t build a football stadium there…
Toby Wood: I’m naturally optimistic, but on this particular thing, I’m slightly cynical. I think the phrase for me is ‘the jury’s out’. I would like to think, like David, that the city centre is going to become more vibrant, is going to be used more and I hope that the demand is going to be there. But what the new university has to do is attract those people, and there’s huge competition all over the country. The people running it, those that are recruiting both staff and students, are going to have a really big job. But I sincerely hope it works. Because as David said, it’s something we’ve been anticipating for years. That’s the problem; it’s happening years after it should have happened.
David Turnock: There are several, very successful and leading companies in Peterborough who are part of the university’s steering group, and a lot of the courses are going to be geared towards the sort of investigation and technology that they specialise in. I can’t name any names, but I know there’s one in particular that is going to be involved in that university complex and it is a world leader in what it does at the moment. So, all right, that’s only one, but Peterborough has got to build up several of those sorts of businesses to make Peterborough a place that you want to come to. It’s the technical university of Peterborough. The Polytechnic of Peterborough, to use an old word.
Toby Wood: And also there’s this thing about specialisation. We’ve got Flag Fen in Peterborough. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if one of the specialisations was the study of things related to that – a sort of university for the new Francis Pryors? I think that’s the way that it could go. That’s where the university could be successful.
David Turnock: Part of the Towns Fund bid is planned to contribute towards an extension on the museum to house the Must Farm finds. And again, that puts Peterborough on the map as a tourist destination, and people will beat a path to Peterborough if they’re interested in Bronze Age history.
Just going back to practical matters again, how do you ensure that you are representing people of Peterborough?
Toby Wood: Well, I don’t think we are representing the people of Peterborough! I think we’re representing the members, and those people who are interested in Peterborough Civic Society. If the people of Peterborough want the Peterborough Civic Society to think differently, then come and join us. Come and change us, come and reshape us. I don’t think we claim to represent all Peterborough people, we represent our society. But we’d love to make our society larger and more diverse.
David Turnock: You’re right. We’ve only got 300 members in a city of over 200,000. That’s actually quite a small percentage. And we could be seen as an elitist organisation with all these middleclass people who’ve got time on their hands and are looking for things to do. But, as I hope we’ve demonstrated, we need to exist. The major issue ahead is that Peterborough is going to continue to grow. And that’s a good thing – but it’s got to grow in the right way. So, it’s not about numbers. It’s not just about jobs. Peterborough’s got to grow and create a community. It’s got to have a sense of people being involved, and being proud in the new communities that are created. And I think maybe a good way to finish this article is with a couple of challenges that we might issue to the people of Peterborough. What would you like us to do? We’d love you to come and join us – but actually, just tell us what you want. What is your vision for Peterborough? What should we work to try and achieve together?
Toby Wood: We’re very good at listening to people’s opinions. If somebody wants to contact us, we take it seriously. We talk about it, we have an opinion and we will respond to people, so if people from outside want to give us their view we’re very open to suggestions and ideas.