Mill Road Library – a community asset

Can the Mill Road community put together a sustainable plan for the old library?

On Wednesday 10th August 2022, local community groups received notice from Cambridge City Council that Cambridgeshire County Council intend to sell the former Mill Road Library building.

City Councillor Mike Davey (Petersfield ward) convened a meeting on Wednesday 7th September 2022 which was attended by over 100 local people.

The Grade II listed building, where community and cultural activities have always taken place, is on the City Council’s list of ‘Assets of Community value’ detailing buildings or land which are felt to provide an important service to their community.

More discussion will need to take place, but two local community groups have registered an interest in making a community bid under the ‘Community Right to Bid‘ rules, which means that it cannot be sold until February 2023, to give the local community a chance to compete with commercial groups. There is much work to be done to make this project succeed but also a large number of people eager to make it happen.

Google street view of the Mill Road Library
Image: Google Maps

Many suggestions for how the old library could serve the community were mooted at the 7th September meeting. There was also warm welcome for the new Mill Road Community Centre which will be opening soon, on the Ironworks (former Mill Road depot) development and a determination that the two centres should work in close conjunction.

Suggested uses for the old library included:

  • an arts cinema, theatre, and venue for local musicians and literary activities
  • an art gallery and exhibition space focussing on local artists
  • a cultural space for Community Arts
  • a venue for the Cambridge Literary Festival

Speaking later to Mill Road Bridges, Piero d’Angelico, Mill Road Traders’ Association Ambassador, saw the old library project as analogous to running a business: “As a trader, I know what my outgoings are, and how much business I must do in order to cover my costs and make a living.” D’Angelico stressed that finding uses which generate a reliable income stream will be key to mounting a successful bid.

One attendee – a long-time Mill Road community activist – hoped that an arts cinema could provide such an income stream. Finding the right ‘niche’ would be tricky; there are three commercial cinemas in Cambridge – Vue, The Light, and the Arts Picturehouse. This latter, is part of a group undergoing ‘financial restructuring’. See: Cineworld files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in US.

It is worthwhile noting that Mill Road Fringe – an offshoot of Mill Road Winter Fair – will be showing three films soon. However, as these are free, they wouldn’t pay the bills!

Join Mill Road Fringe on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th September at St Philip’s Church for free screenings of three groundbreaking arthouse films.
These film nights herald the start of a new series of events by Mill Road Fringe over the course of the autumn, leading up to the return of the Mill Road Winter Fair on Saturday 3rd December. The films being shown are Microcosmos, Rocks and Flee.
Each film is distinctively rich, remarkable and conveys diverse narratives/stories. All these film screenings have free entry and are likely to be popular, so do turn up in good time to be sure of getting a seat. Feel free to bring your own refreshments (alcohol not permitted) and enjoy the show.
The films have been curated by Hitomi Shinozaki and Tony Jones, of Cambridge Film Projects. They are presented by Mill Road Fringe, which works in association with Cambridge’s Mill Road Winter Fair to nurture and celebrate the area’s community, creativity and independence.
Click the image to visit the Mill Road Winter Fair website for full details

Jordana Learmonthe from Cambridge Art Salon, a hub of local artists, has written to Councillor Davey to pledge the Salon’s support by committing to use the exhibition space, if the facility is provided, and thus some rental income will be ensured.

Another commentator was in touch with Mill Road Bridges to suggest that the building be divided into two floors, with one floor being rented out to an organisation, or to small firms, that can pay a market rent. That could leave the other floor for any community-related functions that complement the new facilities being built, rather than competing.

A number of attendees observed that a brand new, purpose-built community centre, immediately behind the old library, is scheduled to open late this year, seeing it as essential that activities pursued in the old library building be complementary to the new community centre, providing a different type of activity. The general feeling at the meeting seemed to support this aim.

John Franks, Chair of Petersfield Area Community Trust, told Mill Road Bridges, “Using the old library as a generic community centre won’t pay the bills; we have a really good purpose-built one next door!”

Asked if there is now a clear plan, Franks told us, “It’s more the case that people are still open and looking for other ideas.”

It’s down to all of you, in the Mill Road community: if you would like to help Petersfield Area Community Trust in their quest to put together a community bid for the former Mill Road Library, email info@PACTcambridge.org.


If it’s such an asset, why is it being sold?

It’s complicated… Here’s the view of local historian, blogger, and former civil servant, Antony Carpen.

I’m not going to go into the party political issues. I imagine this would have been a very tough negotiation between members of the [County Council’s] Joint Administration. I can’t believe that Labour councillors would have wanted the building to be sold off if there wasn’t a hope of putting together a bid for community ownership. But ultimately the past 12 years of central government austerity has meant councils across the country have had to take similar decisions because ministers and Parliament have not given them powers to raise revenues through much wider means.

Cambridgeshire County Council to sell the old Mill Road Library building,
Cambridge Town Owl (aka Antony Carpen) August 12, 2022

And a bit of history…

Sketch of The New Library, Mill Road, Architect J Waters
Image courtesy of Cambridgeshire Collection, F.F.J96 25963

Mill Road Library, most recently in use as a Hindu temple, and now to be sold by Cambridgeshire County Council, was opened on Wednesday 2nd June 1897, by the Cambridge City Council. The library passed to the County Council’s control when all of England’s local government was reorganised in the 1970s, finally closing in March 1996.

A brief history of the building can be found here – From Books to Bhajans – on the Capturing Cambridge website. Also worth a read is Mr John Pink: Founding Father of Cambridge’s Public Libraries, 1833-1906, by Cambridge Town Owl, January 9, 2018.

In 1998 the Indian Community and Cultural Association became the new tenants, and erected some beautiful carved stonework inside. However, all was not well…

The Indian community organisation that took over the library were granted a 25 year full repairing lease on a peppercorn rent in exchange for maintaining the building fabric. This building which is grade 2 listed was considered a financial liability to the County so this was seen as a zero cost way of maintaining the structure.

Unfortunately the lessees did not spend any money on external maintenance in 10 years allowing water to enter the building and cause extensive damage. The City Council which is responsible in law to ensure listed buildings do not fall into disrepair served notice on the County Council about the deteriorating state and the County sent in surveyors who […] estimated the repairs to be in the region of £300,000.

Frank Gawthrop, local resident and activist

More here: The 5000-strong Cambridge community fighting against eviction by Debbie Luxon, Community Reporter, Cambridge News, 12 October 2019.

This left the superb carved stones at threat of being tossed into a skip and used as hardcore. See our earlier post: Beautiful Indian stonework under threat. Thanks in no small part to Piero d’Angelico, Mill Road Traders Association Ambassador, the stonework, believed to be worth £500,000, has been saved and is due to be erected in Ditchburn Place gardens. See: Cambridge temple archway wins planning permission for park installation by Alex Spencer, Cambridge Independent, 20 May 2022.


This blogpost is open for comments but, if you are able to help, getting in touch with Petersfield Area Community Trust is much more important.

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