Regulating Punting in Cambridge in Summer 2009

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009. 12:08am

Punting from Garret Hostel Lane, Cambridge

I observed a meeting of the Conservators of the river Cam in January 2009. One of the major items discussed was the regulation of punting in the summer of 2009. Independent punters present warned there were increasing numbers of independents and it was looking as if Garret Hostel Lane (pictured) was going to end up being the only place left for most of them to operate from. This follows Cambridge City Council’s action in 2008 to prevent the use of Jesus Green by commercial punters (hidden cameras were used to monitor punters). The council has also acted to prevent independent punters using the middle steps on Quayside, and has been involved in secret negotiations, and perhaps a legal dispute, with Scudamores Punting Company over the ownership of Quayside. Independent punters warned that loss of these two areas would result in massive congestion at Garret Hostel Lane bridge, one of the few remaining open access points to the river. Cambridge City Council appear to currently be trying to establish who owns the access at Garret Hostel Lane, perhaps with a view to closing, or regulating that too.

Following the meeting of the Conservators of the Cam meeting I made a request to the council, using the freedom of information website, for details of a meeting between the Conservators and the Council on the subject of regulating punting. In my view the council have been quite negative towards the independent punters. The fact I got a response from the council’s “Anti-Social Behaviour” team when I asked about punting was in itsself revealing of their attitude. Incredibly even though I made my request by email, the council’s response was almost 80MB of Word documents containing scanned images of emails and meeting notes which I had to collect on CD-ROM from the council’s offices. It is clear that the council have these documents in electronic form and could easily have sent them to me. I do not know if it is incompetence (IT incompetence is tolerated to an incredible level in local government) or a deliberate attempt to make it difficult to deal with the information released. This is symptomatic of the lack of openness there has been in the council in relation to punting; representatives of the various punting companies, local councillors, the universities and those representing tourism and retail interests in the city all ought to have been involved in these discussions which could have been held in public.


  • The Council and Cam Conservators are considering interviewing people before they are given a license for a commercial punt. This raises questions such as if all staff or just punt owners will be interviewed? Previously the punt, and not the individual, have been licensed, interviews could mark a significant change, or be relatively pointless if the punter themselves is not the one interviewed. Information on what questions the interviewers will be asking and what criteria they will be assessing applicants against ought be made public.
  • An update on Quayside [ownership] was on the agenda, but any information given was either not minuted or not included in the papers released.
  • Garret Hostel lane has been confirmed to be highways land, this means anyone has a right of access over it. The council is looking at ways to regulating punting in this site; any method they come up with might have massive consequences for Riverside in Cambridge. For example if they decide they can use the planning process to restrict the usage of the the slipway and quay at Garret Hostel lane they might be able to use a similar approach to restrict mooring at Riverside, which is also highways land bordering the river.
  • If the City Council do attempt regulation despite rights of free access to the river this will be similar to the situation on Jesus Green, where everyone has a right of access but the council have still been threatening to prosecute those operating commercial punts from there.
  • It appears the City Council might be considering running an independent punt station at Garret Hostel lane. If they do this and regulate it as heavily as the La Mimosa punt landing stage, they will make it hard for independent punters to operate.
  • Engagement with councillors appears intended to be limited to Executive Councillors.

I think it is very worrying that our public access to the river in Cambridge is being threatened by the actions of the City Council. I believe Cambridge City Council should be encouraging and enabling competition between punt operators in the city; competition will keep the quality of the offering high and the prices competitive.

I think some of what Cambridge City Council has done in relation to punting has been successful, there has been a reduction in the amount of irritation caused by punt touts in recent years. We need to keep punt touting operating in a manner which does not cause a nuisance, and we also have a duty to keep punting on the river safe. I think we can achieve both of those aims without resorting to excessive and draconian regulation.

I have made the released information available as a single 3.3 MB PDF, albeit at a much reduced resolution to that supplied by the council. I also have made the original documents, as supplied available in an 80MB zip file.

Released Information

The first document released was the agenda of a meeting between the Conservators of the Cam and Cambridge City Council held on the 16th of January 2009. The meeting was given the title of: “Meeting to Discuss Forthcoming Punt Season” and held in the Hobson Room, Hobson House, Cambridge, CB2 3AS at 10am.

Matters listed to discuss:

  • Garret Hostel Lane – Strategy for Enforcement – Pip Noon
  • Update on Quayside – Phil Doggett
  • Licensing of punts without lawful spaces – Alastair Roberts
  • Enforcement Officer’s role and links with River Bailiff
  • Any other business

The minutes of the meeting were also released:

In attendance:
Cambridge City Council: Alastair Roberts, Debbie Kaye, Yvonne Mackender, Lisa Munro, Philip Doggett.
Cam Conservators: John Adams, Philippa Noon, Adrian Hoyes

Action points

  1. Research ownership of Garret Hostel Lane slipway (CamCon/City)
  2. Contact head of City Development Control regarding planning requirements for a punt station at Garret Hostel Lane – change of use (public to commercial) (City/CamCon)
  3. Conditions of commercial craft registration, interviewing of commercial punt operators at time of registration application or renewal, grounds for refusing/revoking registration. (CamCom)
  4. Suitability of landing places for passenger operations and application of byelaw 3 (CamCon)
    [Byelaw 3 is entitled Control of Traffic on the River and states simply: "The master of every vessel shall obey and conform to the directions of the Control Officer relating to the use, navigation, anchoring, berthing or mooring of such vessel."]
  5. Seek clarification from Cambs County Council as regards commercial use of the public highway (City)

The date of the next meeting was given as Friday 27th February, 10am, Hobson House
Distribution: all above [attendees], Ian Nimmo-Smith

Handwritten notes of the meeting

Garret Hostel lane:
-Ownership of land
-Planning control (City & Cam Con)
-Contact Highways to ask if they would give control over the area.
To be an condition of license
Extent of powers – legal advice
Engage with members (Exec. Clls)

Garret Hostel
- Riparian Ownership – C. Con
- Planning controls – contact head of development control

Licence Conditions
- Examine Cam Con powers to impose terms and cancel licenses.
- Grounds to refuse licenses

Use Justification
-Use of Byelaws in this instance

Highways Authority
- CCC to look at what can and can’t be done


Emails between Cambridge City Council and the County Council

From: Alastair Roberts (Safer Communities Manager, Cambridge City Council)
To: John Finny at Cambridgeshire County Council
CC: Philip Doggett; Richard Castle
Date: 30/01/2009 16:48
Subject: Garret Hostel Bridge


We are trying to establish ownership of Garrett Hostel Bridge and the slipway running down along the town side of this structure. I assume Garrett Hostel Lane is a highway, and may well be maintainable at public expense. That being so, the bridge would probably belong to the County as highway authority. However, the slipway has a sign which, although almost completely obscure now, we believe to read: “Plying or hire by chauffeur-punt operators and any other forms of trading from this slipway and quay are prohibited. Cambridge City Council”. Maybe this is a leftover from the days when the City acted as agent for the highway authority? I’d be grateful if you could shed any light on the subject.

Many thanks,



John Finny replied:

Please find attached a plan showing the extent of the adopted public highway (shown in brown and blue, the blue being both an adopted public highway and a definitive footpath) at the above. In terms of who owns the bridge the following is a quote from Gareth Guest one of our Bridges Engineers:
“We do own and maintain the bridge and the stone/concrete skirt that runs round the abutment”

I hope the above is of use.



The plan (a black and white copy of which I received) indicates that the slipway, and quay are adopted public highway, and that both the highway and footpath go over the bridge.

Mr Roberts of the City Council replied:


Thanks again for your speedy response. Does the County have a view on the use of the slipway to the side of the bridge for commercial purposes? I understand that certain commercial punt operators intend to use their businesses from this piece of land during the coming season.



The reply from Jon Finney:

Trading from the highway is an interesting situation. As Garrett Hostel Lane is within the controlled zone all trading would have to be done from a pitch measuring no more than 1m X 2m which rather excludes punts. In any case the Highway Authority does not consider this to be an acceptable location for a street trading pitch, as we much consider a range of potential users and not just one format, eg. once a pitch is established it wouldn’t be possible for an ice cream sales cart to trade and this isn’t really suitable position for such an activity.

However, what the Highway Authority would be unable to do would be to prevent people being picked up and dropped off at this location (as the river is technically a travel route like a road), and if the punts were to have all their wherewithal to trade on board or worked a pre-booked system elsewhere than the Highway Authority would not have any objections.



Email from Yvonne Mackender to the River Manager

From : Yvonne Mackender
To: river.manager at
CC: Alastair Roberts
Date: 22/01/2009 1:25
Subject: Re: Action points from punt meeting

Hi Pip,

Under action point 3 should we not mention the possibility of you interviewing applicants for commercial operators licenses?


Philippa Noon, the river manager replied:

Dear Yvonne, Lisa, Alastair etc.
Still picking up the ropes from my leave of absence last week. I see that there was an exchange of e-mails regarding the action point from the punt meeting between yourselves and Jonathan, my Deputy. I’m content to add the note under point 3 regarding the interviewing of commercial punt operators. Please therefore accept this attachment as the final draft )also noting the correct spelling of your surname, Yvonne!)
Best wishes,

River Manager
Conservators of the River Cam

I believe the attachment would have been a draft of the minutes of the meeting.

Garret Hostel Lane Sign

Sign on Garret Hostel Lane, Cambridge
A photograph of the sign at Garret Hostel Lane was released, along with an email exchange about it between conservator Adrian Hoyes and the River Manager.

28 January 2009 17:39
Hi Pip,
Last one today – this is the fabled sign at Garret Hostel bridge, now graffi’d over, that used to read something to the effect “no commercial operations are permitted on this quay…public access only .. by order of … (forgotten that bit).

Will ask Alan W tomorrow if he has any records/photos.

Cheers, Adrian

Adrian Hoyes emailed the next day confirming the wording of the sign as:

“Plying or hire by chaufer-punt operators and any other forms of trading from this slipway and quay are prohibited. Cambridge City Council”

As the papers released revealed the existence of the next meeting between the council and conservators on punting was held on Friday the 27th of February 2009. I have of course requested details of this meeting be released.

5 comments/updates on “Regulating Punting in Cambridge in Summer 2009

  1. ferg

    Whereas being constantly bothered by touters during summer is annoying to the extent I avoid Quayside (The independents seem to be the best behaved). I’m sure a punt monopoly is not desirable for Cambridge. (I live in Cam).

  2. Richard Article author

    I have spoken to a couple of independent punters this morning who were concerned that by promoting competition and commenting on the council’s apparent intentions to heavily regulate punting in the city I was suggesting an unregulated free-for all.

    I am not, I had already written in the above article that I think keeping punting on the river safe clearly has to be a role of regulation. The Cam Conservators require commercial punters to have public liability insurance and have a code of practice.

    What the Cam Conservators can’t currently do is limit the number of commercial punts registration or decide who they allow to register punts.

    If the numbers of punters are to be limited then there has to be a way to select fairly who gets to work on the river. The most likely method of regulation appears to be through the city council trying to control access points to the river. There has not been transparency surrounding how the places on the La Mimosa punting station were allocated, some individuals were initially denied places but made a fuss and got them. We cannot have a system which gives spaces to those who have been operating on the river for the longest, that isn’t an open and fair system, it is also by its nature ageist.

    Interviews for prospective independent punt operators are being suggested by the council; there would have to be a clear set of criteria and guidelines and an independent panel making decisions. We can’t have people not allowed to operate punts just because their face doesn’t fit, or they are not liked by their competitors. Equally we need to ensure that criminal individuals, and those who are reckless with respect to safety are not able to operate. Allowing them to work may bring all independent punt operators into disrepute, and customers may stick with the well known brands.

    The public impression of independent punters is crucial to their success, various reputable independents are working on promoting themselves and their offerings, for example there is the Cambridge River Tour website and suggestions of independent punters using a market stall from which to promote themselves in the summer.

    The discussions on how to approach this are currently underway within the city council; the reason for my freedom of information request, the response to which is given in the above article, was to open up these discussions and ensure they do not occur entirely in secret.

    The City of Cambridge needs good quality, reasonably priced, diverse offering of punt trips, punt hire etc.. This is critical for many of the City’s businesses, particularly those in tourist industry, as it helps make Cambridge an attractive destination for all sorts of people including shoppers and academics as well as tourists. Customers of Cambridge’s chauffeur punts have an expectation of safety and a certain quality and it is entirely right that residents of Cambridge, through the City Council try and ensure those expectations are met.

  3. Paul Lythgoe

    I draw your attention to notice put up on Garret Hostel Bridge on August 2nd threatening criminal prosecution of operators and particularly chauffeurs. The notice is headed with logos of the Cambridgeshire police, the Cam conservators, and the city council and threatens criminal prosecution. The council it now appears have claimed ownership of the slipway…minutes from 2012 suggest they still didn’t know whether they owned the slipway. The main points are that the council are trying to enforce with the aid of the police the byelaws of an unelected and undemocratic body, the conservators, and uphold their prejudicial licensing policy. The justification is th over commercialisation of the river and the risks to public safety. One might ask whether the presence of the owner of Scudamores on the board of Conservators has been influential in allowing no regulation of the numbers of punts operated by his business and the suppression of competition in this very lucrative business.
    Given that the Cam conservators have stipulated that only 6 punt stations may operate on the river, it would seem that this is a succesful way of limiting competitive pricing on the river, and allowing select individuals to make substantial profits.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I wrote an article on the council’s appointment of those Conservators of the Cam it appoints in 2012:

      There is some democratic legitimacy as the Cam Conservancy itsself was set up by Parliament, and Cambridge City Councillors select many board members – it is councilors who decided to make James Macnaghten of Scudamore’s a Conservator. Three members are though appointed by the University of Cambridge which is indefensibly anachronistic.

      As for the police involvement; that’s not something I’d heard of before, though I have noted the sessions in Cambridge Magistrates’ court where the Conservators bring prosecutions against those breaching their rules.
      Perhaps if there is an Act of Parliament to create one council for Greater Cambridge we could include in that a section abolishing the conservators and having a committee of Greater Cambridge councillors running the river. Just as council tenants get to elect reps to the housing management board; perhaps those living on, next to, and running businesses on the river could elect reps to play some role on such a committee if councillors wanted their input.

      The Conservators of the Cam have significant investments and assets, so handing over control of the Cam to a national body, the Canal and Rivers Trust or the Environment Agency would see this, as well as the ongoing income from registration fees, taken away from the city, which would not be good for Cambridge. There is a good argument though that the costs of running the short stretch of the Cam the Conservators are responsible for ought be reduced; it is one of the most costly to run stretches of waterway in the country.

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