“The Traditional Cambridge Punting Company is currently, the only remaining truly independent choice for a punt tour now left in Cambridge” are the words on the website of this Cambridge punting company.
That is the remarkable ‘logo’ of three young graduates who have challenged not only the historic companies of Cambridge but now also the Cam Conservators the organisation that controls the movements on the River Cam.
Whilst the other punt stations are now run by large companies, their business strives to employ local people, who are actually passionate about Cambridge and delight in the difference a small, independent tour can give - unlike the major competitors the guides from the company do not use scripts, as this is 'their town'!
Some even hum the tune “My Kinda Town” made famous by Frank Sinatra who himself once stayed in Cambridge and took a punt ride in the 1950s.
They own and operate a punt aptly ‘baptized’ in honour of Prince William and his bride “The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge” and have written to the Palace offering the Royal Couple the ‘freedom of the River Cam on the punt.’
The battle is now however, with the Cam Conservators, the organisation responsible for the stretch of the River Cam, is desperately trying to put an end to independent punting tours in Cambridge, forcing customers to have no choice but to use the major punting companies. This mirrors the situation of the same battles being fought on the British High Streets between chain stores and independent retailers.
But they are fighting back through the legal system and have hired a top barrister Anne Tayo who only two weeks ago convinced the Magistrates Court in Cambridge to adjourn a case.
The graduates have not stopped there. They have taken their case to the top of the legal pinnacle the Royal Courts of Justice filing a Judicial Review.
Sam Matthews who has lived in Cambridge all his life summed the case up this way: “I have lived in Cambridge all my life. I have operated from a spot near the River that for hundreds of years was common land. I registered my punts for years then all of a sudden the Cam Conservators change the goal posts and say I can’t work from a place I have traded from all my working life. So I told them and have said in court documents that the English Civil War started in Cambridge when King Charles appropriated common land. The King lost the battle and his head.”
But just why has this happened?
The Cam Conservators changed a by-law because they said there was congestion on the river and this is the only cause for this ban. The evidence for extra congestion was provided by a so called 'independent' survey - which just so happened to be “Trinity Punts” - a major punt company and one of the three graduates competitors.
Who made this decision?
The decision was made by the Cam Conservators the governing Regulatory Body established to safeguard the River Cam. One member just ‘so happens to be’ the Managing Director of Scudamores, by far the biggest punt company on the Cam and the very that has by far the most vested interest in seeing ‘independent punting’ shut down.
Advice was also delivered and accepted by the Cam Conservators in the form of an "independent" letter as to how to enforce this ban - written by another director of Scudamores.
This clearly suggests the decision taken to change the By-Law was solely to advantage the ‘big company’ and has openly exhibited a lack of fair competition that the English Civil war brought to the country. But the graduates have fought back not only in the law courts but in the boardroom.
The role of the Cambridge Police is also brought into question. Quite apart from the impartial role that the Police Act requires a certain officer has ‘taken sides’ with the Cam Conservators despite knowing fully that the whole dispute is currently with the High Court. The strange behaviour of the normally efficient Cambridgeshire Constabulary is further highlighted by this certain officer canvassing to the public with mendacity and falsity.
Tersoo Sugden summed it up by saying “the police officer tells our clients that our punts are without insurance. That is simply a lie. Our insurance company has backed us all the way in this dispute. Why are the police taking sides? We can but hazard a guess but prefer to think otherwise.”
Only last week with the backing of a major investment bank and insurance company Sam Matthews, Tersoo Sugden and Oliver Prevett together with two other colleagues followed the path set by Martin Sorrell of WPP in the 1980s when he made his audacious bid for an advertising company a hundred times the size of his own, raised the money and the rest is advertising history.
The graduates made a bid for Scudamores whose balance sheets show a precarious financial position.
They hope to buy the company and have the backing from a well-known investment bank; update the punts, and bring new services to the stations and enhance the tourist attraction.
Martin Sorrell succeeded and is now a Knight of the Realm. The graduates look forward in celebrating a major acquisition and enhancing the reputation of a trade that is centuries old with new ideas, equipment and services and expanding to Oxford, Canterbury and to Las Vegas where one major hotel chain has shown an interest in having punts on an artificial river surrounding the hotel.
It is a path the graduates intend to follow.
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