Friday, June 13, 2008

Planning the Future of Cambridge

One of my key election pledges was to fight to put quality of design and transport infrastructure at the heart of our planning system. The test I am proposing is to ask ourselves if future generations will look back on the new development being planned and built now and say 'yes, that was a good way to expand the City', and not to say, 'what on earth were they thinking when they built that'. We should trust local people, existing residents, much more over decisions like if and how new developments are allowed, because I think we are much more likely to get things right if we do.

So this week, I have attended several planning related meetings to get up to speed on the issues.

On Monday, I met with officers and other Councillors to discuss plans for an area of land owned by the City Council that is now part of the Clay Farm/Showground area earmarked for development. The Council is considering selling its land for below its full market value in return for conditions to be imposed on the buyer such as increasing the level of so-called 'affordable' housing from the planners usual 40% to 50%, and to built exemplar environmentally friendly housing. Its fair to say I have some concerns about the Council's plans here, not least in relation to my other election pledge to stand up for the interests of the general council taxpayer, who could end up paying a heavy price out of all proportion to the policy benefits from a lower sale price.

On Wednesday I sat through (the first three hours!) of a joint City/South Cambs/County development control committee. For the large applications spanning the City boundary, a joint committee has been setup to approve planning applications under a common policy framework, to avoid two applications being required for the same site, possibly under different local planning policies. I suspect under the surface there are likely to be significant disagreements in principle between the prevailing political groups on the City and South Cambs, I hope to meet some of my South Cambs colleagues to find out how these have been resolved to make this committee work.

And last night I met the head of environment and planning at the City Council to discuss the main areas of development, and where we are in the decision making process. In total, these are expected to increase the size of Cambridge by over 40% between now and about 2020.

The main areas are as follows:

Southern Fringe: Mostly in Trumpington and Queen Ediths wards, about 4-5,000 new homes are planned. After Wednesday's meeting, outline applications have now been agreed for just about all the sites, giving permission for the general layout of the sites, including planning conditions on the developments. After negotiation of so-called section 106 agreements (where the Council tries to get as much cash or benefit as possible out of the developers to fund various projects notionally related to the developments), there will follow individual applications with detailed design and then the building can begin. So the Southern fringe is full steam ahead - unless as I strongly suspect will happen, the developers take fright at the current chaos in the housing market. But the Addenbrokes southern relief road and guided bus are already well under construction!

North West Area: Mostly University owned land in Castle ward, around Huntingdon Road. This timetable is somewhat behind the Southern fringe - the Council is currently consulting on an Area Action Plan.

Northern Fringe East: This covers the Chesterton sidings area. Only 900 homes were earmarked for here, along with a railway station in Chesterton (which would be a good thing!), and plans are currently up in the air after proposals to move the sewage works were rejected.

East Cambridge - the airport: This is the big one, and the most controversial - over 10,000 new homes earmarked in a major urban extension. Obviously Marshall's need to find a new home, but the biggest problem is the transport situation - the Cambridge East Transport study presents a picture that is both fantasy and horror story in equal measure for Coleridge residents. The fantasy is that in a development 3 miles from the City Centre, over 60% of journeys will be non-car, a level not achieved anywhere in the UK outside central London, with its massive tube, train and bus network. The horror story is the assumption that we will have congestion charging forced on existing residents, the use of Coldhams Common for a new Guided Bus route, and complete chaos on local roads, with the duelling of Perne Road, buses down Davy Road, and significant new congestion. I think development on Cambridge East may be made to work to existing residents satisfaction, but we will need massive investment in public transport (like tunnels under Cambridge perhaps), and a huge new outer ring road for cars, probably linking the A14 to the M11 via the site. On the site itself, we will need to build fewer dwellings at lower density. More of the dwellings would need to be family houses, more free-market housing available to all, built to high quality, and we would need to build a real East Cambridge community, which isn't based around a supermarket car park or an 'estate pub', but does include significant private enterprise and private employment. Can the Council deliver this - I doubt it, I don't think it has the right planning policies to make this happen, and in the meantime I am resolutely opposed to what is planned for East Cambridge.

There are a few other big developments to consider. The government is trying to force even more housing on the Cambridge sub-region, which needs to be resisted at all costs. And Ashwells have resubmitted a planning application for the Station Area after their first attempt was rejected by planners by a Cambridge record 23 reasons. This will be a massive application requiring careful scrutiny of the plans for potential over development and transport considerations - its not clear when it will go to the planning committee yet, but residents and interested parties need to get their comments back to the planners as soon as possible.

I have many comments and concerns about these plans to be raised over the next few months. One thing is for sure, if even a small part of this happens, Cambridge will be a very different place.

No comments: