Missed Opportunity at the Penny Ferry Car-Park

Monday, April 20th, 2009. 3:17am

Works at Penny Ferry, Chesterton, Cambridge

Cambridge City Council is currently refurbishing the riverside car park and adjacent areas in Chesterton at a cost of £62,523; a very large amount of money given what is being done.

In the last few days it has become apparent that the “Lead Councillor” for the project, Cllr Liddle, is not happy with what is being built. I have been reliably informed that she is demanding that various things already in the ground get moved. This is odd as according to the resolution passed at the January 2009 North Area Committee which approved the spending on the project she was, along with the chair, given the role of approving the final plans before they were built. It appears that she failed to do this effectively, and has been surprised by what she is now seeing under-construction.

The main point of contention is provision for cyclists traversing the site which forms the entrance to the well used foot/cycle path along the river known as the “hailingway”. The Cambridge Cycling Campaign had made a proposal for a cycle-route through the site to run diagonally from Water Street to/from the hailingway following the previous desire line of many cyclists. This was discussed by councillors inconclusively at the January North Area meeting; they decided to approve the spending, and require that the plans were redrawn to reflect a compromise between the plan put forward by officers and the Cycling Campaign’s proposals. That committee did not make a clear decision on the detail, redrawn plans were to be approved later by the committee’s chair, Cllr Armstrong, and the Lead Councillor, Cllr Liddle and other ward councillors.

If the North Area Committee followed the common practice (outside Cambridge City Council) of reporting chair’s actions to the committee then the gap between the plans produced and expectations following the discussion could have been caught at the March 2009 North Area Committee. Instead, at that meeting the only mention of the project was a verbal report from officers that work had started on site the previous day. We will probably have to wait until the next North Area committee meeting to find out what happened, but even if officers did not put the plans infront of councillors I think councillors ought to have been making enquiries on their own initiative. Cllr Liddle has few other responsibilities on the council, and might have been expected to take a reasonable interest, not only as her colleagues put her in charge of the project, but she lives a few hundred yards from it.

The current plans (PDF), which reflect what is being built, do not include a diagonal access for cyclists. This area is on a national cycle route, yet the options for cyclists are to either do two ninety degree turns within a few meters, or to cycle across the pavement, round a blind corner (visibility is restricted by the public house’s fence). Councillors have missed the opportunity to improve the area for cyclists.

In September 2007 I wrote to my local councillors suggesting there was an opportunity to improve the cycleway through the site, and in August 2008 I wrote to them again saying:

Given the amount of money involved I am disappointed that “the proposals are a sprucing up of the area and not any major change”, I think there is an opportunity for more than a sprucing up – particularly with respect to the ease of use for cyclists following the halingway.

As well as writing to councillors about this project a number of times (1,2,3,4), I also made use of the “Open Forum” at the committee to make suggestions on a number of occasions. I urged better, and wider consultation, I expressed concern about officers misleading and ignoring the will of the committee, I noted Cllr Liddle’s absence from discussions despite being the lead councillor and also made suggestions relating to lighting, parking, mooring, trees and other items.

Action From Where We Are Now

Given what has been built it appears that it will be impossible, without incurring significant expense, to achieve what had been potentially possible. What could be done cheaply though:

  • Extraneous bollards could be removed. While cars need to be prevented from driving down the hailingway, this does not need two sets of bollards as well as a rail.
  • The drop-curbs could be lengthened, or moved providing cyclists a wider choice of arcs though which to travel, or a closer approximation of the proposed diagonal route.
  • The 30cm high rail to be installed could be limited to right in-front of the carpark so that it does not obstruct cyclists.
  • The willow tree is currently trimmed so its branches are high off the ground; it needs to be kept that way. In the past it’s branches have reached the floor over the pavement area.

Highlights of the Farce To-Date

  • The Old Chesterton Residents Association were given far too much say, being told they could make the final decision on the plans. This is particularly bad as on occasion some councillors attend meetings of that organisation; the decision was taken out of the public arena of a council meeting. As they are not members, they avoid listing their connection on their entries in the register of members’ interests.
  • Speaking in June 2008 Cllr Blair responded to my calls for consultation with rowers, the cycling campaign and the wider public by saying that there would be a consultation after the committee had seen the plans and approved them (I wrote to Cllr Blair).
  • Council officer John Isherwood told the North Area Committee in October 2008 that the Cycling Campaign had been consulted; he omitted to mention that in fact the campaign had been sent the plans earlier that day.
  • The North Area Committee resolved in September 2007 to consult a wide range of groups; officers ignored this decision.
  • Discussion of the Penny Ferry works was inexplicably removed from the agenda of the December 2008 North Area Committee meeting.
  • Councillor Liddle was made “lead councillor” for the project in her absence; she failed to turn up to a number of North Area committees at which it the project was discussed.
  • Councillors spent a surreal thirty minutes or so under the impression that the original concrete bollards were to prevent cars falling in the river. (They were to protect trees from being run-into by cars and they were so widely spaced you could comfortably drive a tank transporter between them).
  • No site notice was posted, local residents weren’t formally kept informed (though I distributed plans and posted my own notice).
  • In both August 2008 and September 2007 councillors considered the project in the absence of plans.
  • In August 2008, though nothing happened afterwards, councillors voted to approve the spending of £45,500 on the project. I asked if any councillors had seen the plans for the work for which they were approving the money, all indicated they hadn’t. The officer said she had forgotten to bring the plans to the meeting. (They had not been distributed in advance or been made available electronically)
  • Councillors repeatedly responded to questions about the scheme by saying it was only renovation, and not a fundamental change so didn’t require their in-depth scrutiny.

The Inconclusive Discussion

My notes from the discussion on the Hailingway / Penny Ferry works at the 22nd January 2009 North Area Committee are below. There was lots of contradictory discussion, but no clear decision.

The item started with Martin Lucas-Smith, who introduced himself as representing the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. He referred to a letter the campaign had sent in advance of the meeting describing their proposals, which amounted to losing three car-parking spaces and replacing them with a diagonal route for cyclists. The Cycling Campaign also distributed a photo sheet at the meeting.

He said that there was a large amount of money being spent and as such a better outcome ought be sought, a better compromise.

He drew attention to the claim made at the previous North Area Committee which had discussed the Penny Ferry works, that the Cycling Campaign had been consulted prior to that discussion. He said that the campaign had been sent an email at midday on the day of the meeting “which I don’t regard as consulting”.

Speaking to the campaign’s proposals, he claimed that there was plenty of space for reversing cars (the spaces are very deep), he argued this reduced the degree to which reversing cars would be a problem to cyclists moving behind them. He argued the hazards of reversing cars were not a reason to reject for the diagonal direct access to the road he was proposing.

Addressing another anticipated objection to the campaign’s plans, relating to the amount of car-parking, he noted that one of the Cycling Campaign’s Committee had lived in the immediate are and reported that the car park was only full consistently during the bumps.

Martin Lucas-Smith finished by saing that the current plans were giving other users a greater priority than cyclists who were left with a “wiggly path on a blind corner”.

Cllr Upstone spoke next. He agreed that the plans officers had put before the committee had significant problems, which could be solved by having cyclists enter/leave the site at the downstream end of the site, as the Cycling Campaign were proposing, rather than the other end as on the plan produced by officers. Cllr Upstone also said there was a need to slow cyclists down coming off the hailingway, that there was a problem with the blind corner and people (coaches) focusing on boats going down the river. Cllr Upstone spoke against cyclists carrying straight on infront of the carpark, saying that it was pointless having seats if you are going to have cyclists passing in-front of them.

Dinah Foley-Norman, the council officer presenting the plans and report, said she had not been able to attend the previous meeting. Addressing Martin Lucas-Smith’s concern about the misleading claim the cycling campaign had been consulted prior to the last meeting she confirmed to councillors that what he had said was correct, and the campaign had only been sent the plans on the day of the meeting. She defended John Isherwood, the council’s senior engineer who had claimed the campaign had been consulted, reporting that he didn’t know when it was sent (There was no apology).

Dinah Foley-Norman then turned to the design, she said that while there was an opportunity to “improve the situation for where cyclists already go”. She described the suggestion to omit three parking spaces as a drastic change, and claimed they were extremely well used by both residents and visitors. Responding to Cllr Upstone she said “Cyclists following rowers will follow the river anyway”. She said there was an opportunity to move a drop curb to keep cyclists away from the blind corner by the penny ferry pub.

Cllr Liddle, the lead councillor on the project (attending her first North Area Committee at which the plans were being discussed for quite some time) said:

I support this thing from the cycling campaign … I suspect cyclists go on the cycling campaign’s proposed route anyway

Cllr Liddle agreed with Cllr Upstone’s point about a potential conflict between those using the seats and cyclists. She also said there was a problem with taking away three car spaces and suggest losing just two. She then went on to suggest public art to mark the beginning of the hailingway, saying it was historically significant, and:

It’s pretty we want to mark that in some way

Cllr Blair disagreed with the cycling campaign’s proposal and said she liked the scheme as presented by officers. She said: “we are here on shared surfaces, it is well used as a car park”.

I presume that by referring to shared space she was suggesting that cyclists could cross the area how they liked; what she had missed was the fact that various obstructions were to be installed including higher curbs, a rail, the cycle parking and bollards.

Ian Nimmo-Smith said he generally agreed with Liddle and Upstone, rather than Cllr Blair. He said “my desire line is to join Fen Road as soon as possible” he noted that currently this route involved “nasty jolts” as he mounted or dropped down curbs. Cllr Nimmo-Smith discussed the location of the cycle parking, briefly suggesting it ought be positioned so as to prevent cyclists carrying straight on from the hailingway, though this didn’t get wider support and he didn’t push it. Cllr Ward also spoke in favour of slowing cyclists down so they didn’t come into conflict with pedestrians (he gave some anecdotes about him running people down when he used to cycle, and another about him being run down by a bike, and yet another about him falling off his bike on his own accord with no-one else involved).

Mr Bond of the Old Chesterton Residents Association spoke in favour of the proposals being presented by officers. He said that they were a great improvement, generally, to the car park. He said that what the officer’s plan encouraged was cyclists following the line of the river in-front of the car-park and leaving the site by the dropped curb in an orderly way, rather than taking their chances through the carpark. Mr Bond said he didn’t want to see any parking lost, as disabled people and those not able to brave the elements used the area to stop and watch the river. He said he felt the seating was in a reasonable location, and there was not a problem with a few bikes and pedestrians going past in-front of them.

On Public Art, Mr Bond, suggested a “Roy Meldron Shelter”, saying many in Old Chesterton would like to see a memorial to Roy Meldron.

The officer was asked if any disabled parking spaces were proposed, the answer was no.

Rupert Moss-Eccardt asked if the higher curbs [to prevent cars ending up in the river], which had been discussed in previous meetings, were on the plans, and was told they were not. (The latest plans include 30cm high railings for this purpose).

Cllr Pitt spoke to say that to him the revering issue was mute, he felt the risk is acceptable and no different to that in many other locations.

Cllr Upstone took up the idea of preventing cyclists carrying straight on when coming off the hailingway, he suggested a railing. He said he wanted to slow cyclists down before merging onto the road. He said many cyclists were young students with their minds on other things.

Dinah Foley-Norman said that if the drop-curb was to be on the downstream side, then the cycle parking could be positioned so as to stop people cycling straight (either straight-on or straight to the road, I don’t know).

Cllr Blair gave a huge speech, the crux of which was that she wanted as much parking as possible kept, and a “middle way” found between the cycling campaign’s proposals and the officer’s plan.

The committee moved to the recommendation. They agreed amended plans would be produced, which would be sent to ward councillors, the lead councillor and the North Area Committee Chair (I presume the opposition spokesperson too, but I didn’t note that). The officer asked “And then can we get on with it?” all councillors then enthusiastically agreed that they ought get on with it and unanimously passed the recommendation to spend the money, as written :

Recommendation: Officers recommend approval of the design amendments to include the items listed at an additional cost of £17,023 bringing the total to £62,523. Decision to be made: To approve the design amendments and a total cost of £62,523.

I really find that a shocking amount of money; particularly having now seen the drainage being put in which I was told was one of the main contributors to the high cost – it looks very simple to me. To try and put the City Council’s costs into perspective I wrote the county council’s highways department asking how much it would cost them to rejuvenate a lay-by of this size; they didn’t reply.

It looks like the Google StreetView car parked here

7 comments/updates on “Missed Opportunity at the Penny Ferry Car-Park

  1. Richard Article author

    three council officers at penny ferry
    I came across a site meeting on Monday 27th April involving (I believe):

    • Clare Rankin – One of Cambridge City Council’s Cycling and Walking officers
    • John Isherwood – Sometimes described as Cambridge City Council’s “senior engineer”
    • Dinah Foley-Norman – Cambridge City Council’s Principal Landscape Architect

    The presence of the cycling and walking officer indicates that they are now, albeit after building has got under-way, perhaps starting to properly consider how cyclists will pass across the site.

    I asked the officers what they were doing, what options they were considering and if they were there to make a decision on what was going to happen. I was shocked by how defensive, evasive and secretive they were.

    I was told by Mr Isherwood:

    • Work has not stopped. The council have requested a “go slow”, the contractor is OK with this as they have work elsewhere to be getting on with. (Removal of the old cobbles by the riverside is the only work I’ve seen for a week).
    • The decision on what to do next will not be taken by officers, but will be referred back to councillors. (I was not told who or where).
    • What is currently under consideration is the removal of the newly installed bollard which is behind Mr Isherwood in the photograph. (I was given the impression that was all that is being considered!)

    I also asked if councillors had approved the plans prior to work starting. I was told that was a question for members.

    One possible interpretation I could put on that is that perhaps an email/letter was sent to members which stated their approval would be assumed if officers heard nothing.

    One of my local councillors, Mike Todd-Jones was delivering election leaflets yesterday. I asked him about Penny Ferry and he said he would have to look at his emails to find out what had happened. I suggested reporting chair’s / lead councillor’s actions back to the North Area Committee as something which would have prevented this problem. He agreed, but made no commitment to propose it.

  2. Richard Article author

    In advance of the North Area committee on the 14th of May 2009 I wrote to my local councillors suggesting that they ask:

    Did councillors approve the detailed plans before work started?

    I suggested that all decisions made by the chair and lead councillor since approval of the scheme in January ought be reported to the committee.

    I suggested that in future all chairs actions ought be reported to the committee.

    I expressed my hope that some changes to the plans to make the cycle route slightly better and ensure the 30cm trip-rail is confined to the area directly in-front of the cars have been made.

    I suggested my councillors ought as questions on why the project cost so much given the apparent simplicity of the work, especially the drainage – which the committee had previously been told was complex and expensive. I also noted the tree-pits didn’t appear to be particularly tree-friendly either with concrete preventing roots extending under the parking area.

    I asked if there are there any outstanding decisions for councillors to make with respect to the area?

  3. Richard Article author

    On the 2nd of July 2009 I asked a public question at the North Area Committee about what decisions the chair and lead councillor had taken in private since the committee gave its go-ahead for the work in public. I noted that the final plans did not correspond with what everyone’s expectations following the discussion at the meeting which gave the go-ahead. I specifically asked: who approved the final plans and who stopped the work at one point, and why?

    I suggested that such decisions ought to have been at least reported to the North Area Committee, and asked if in the future chair’s actions, and actions by the lead councillors could be reported as a matter of course.

    Cllr Liddle answered saying that nothing substantial had occurred outside the public meetings of the North Area Committee, only minor changes to the plans had been made and they were too trivial to need to be reported.

    I didn’t have an opportunity to come-back and challenge her reply. Had I been given such a chance I would have pointed to the fact Cllr Liddle herself admitted that the detailed interpretation of what compromise was to be found between the opposing views expressed at the meeting which approved the funding was something to be decided outside the meeting. I would have argued that the final sign-off of that compromise solution was not a trivial matter (to all intents and purposes I did argue that in my question!).

    As the City Council’s Environmental Improvements programme has been assessed by auditors as performing poorly in recent years I would have thought councillors would have shown more interest in what went wrong during the long drawn out process to get these very expensive improvements to this area completed.

    No councillors asked any questions at all on the Penny Ferry works at the July 2009 North Area Committee. It was noted that current planting is only and trees are to be planted later in the year. No one questioned if the planting areas had been built as intended to encourage tree growth; they looked to me as if they had substantial concrete walls and not the access for roots to reach soil which I had expected.

  4. Richard Article author

    junction box with solar panels on the top

    A new metal box with solar panels on top is now present at the site. I am wondering what it is. As it has solar panels I’d guess it may well have been paid for by Cambridge City Council’s climate change fund – a large pot of money set aside for “climate change” which councillors are struggling to spend.

    A list of solar panels installed by the council has been released, this one doesn’t appear to be on it (it may not be on council land?).

  5. Neil Hardiman

    Thanks for posting the photo of the metal box with a solar panel on top on July 15th, 2009, did you find out what it was? I was puzzled by an identical box at the side of the road on the A593 in Cumbria today, and your photo was the first thing that came up when I tried Googling to try and find out what it was.
    Think they might be solar powered inductive loop cycle counters, see page 12 at

    and photo of smaller box on a pole at


    The box I saw is at


    All the best, Neil

  6. Brian Johnson

    Well, it looks like the Fen Road Steering Ctte / Water Street Traffic Improvement Group/ Whatever have implemented some changes to that area.

    They’ve dropped the kerb, shortened the car parking section which was next to the old Penny Ferry and and moved it back out of the way to give a widened exit for cyclists coming from the towpath and wanting to go down Water Street.

    Sadly, this is the opposite of what the cyclists wanted (as shown in your PDF link) and, as was repeatedly pointed out to the planners at all the meetings I went to, means that cycles now are forced into conflict with pedestrians along the primarily pedestrian area between the row of benches and the river.

    The point which seems to have been studiously ignored by the planners is that this area has significant pedestrian traffic back and forth *across* the path as people transit from the council-provided benches to the council-provided wildlife notice board and river’s edge.

    Wait a minute… I wonder if removing the benches would solve the problem? #GasManCameToCall

    https://twitter.com/brianlj/status/588832675898777602 for photos

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    Just seven years after spending tens of thousands of pounds on this area councillors have dug it all up again. The money, and the hours of consultation and meetings all went to waste.

    The new plans have not been publicised on the site, or mentioned at meetings of the North Area Committee as far as I am aware. While it appears there has been a consultation it looks to me, as a daily cyclist along the road, to have been of the leopard guarded locked filling cabinet variety. The only thing mentioned at North Area committee meetings as far as I can recall has been traffic calming, the replacement of speed humps, and infrastructure to make them impossible to avoid.

    I can’t find the new plans anywhere, the county council project webpage says they are still to be finalised, but it does say there is to be “an off-road cycle link between Water Lane and the start of the Halingway towpath” which is something I have been lobbying for many years. This will be brilliant news for those to recreationally cycle along the river, those who commute down the hailingway and for those following rowing crews; it is an obvious and much needed improvement that has taken councillors far too long to put in place.

    The county council have removed their consultation website for the project just as the work has started :


    The consultation page should have been kept, and used to point to the outcome of the consultation, details of any relevant meetings and decisions, and eventually the agreed plans.

    The new scheme is a £285,000 project.

    Photos of work underway:

    Water Street / Fen Road Works September 2016

    Water Street / Fen Road Works September 2016

    Water Street / Fen Road Works September 2016

    See also: Penny Ferry Demolition Decision – July 2012

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