Sunday, July 27, 2008

Spinning the Station Development

When I wrote that final amendments had been submitted by Ashwells, the developer behind the proposed CB1 station redevelopment, I was certainly a bit confused by what had actually happened.

The notification to Councillors of the amendments did not appear to amount to much in terms of scale - the biggest change being a proposed northern access road to the site. So it was surprising to say the least to read the spin in the local papers - final amendments had been submitted, and the plans had been scaled back 25%, implying those final amendments had significantly reduced the scale of the development.

In fact, nothing of the sort had occured. The first Ashwells planning application a year or two ago had been for a huge overdevelopment of the site, and was rejected by a Cambridge record number of planning reasons for refusal. A new application was submitted earlier this year, with a reduction of around 25% in building floor area, that Ashwells are currently trying to get through the planning process. The latest 'final' (although they probably won't be) amendments that were the basis of the stories in the local press did not make significant changes to floor space from the original resubmission earlier this year.

I would be very interested to know how the local press came up with its spin that the 'final amendments' represented a huge reduction in scale. If I was being cynical, this could be one of the oldest tricks in the book. Submit an application for a really gross overdevelopment of the site that is soundly rejected, then significant reductions in scale can be made sounding like a huge compromise, when in fact it is still more than the site should have.

What do I think of the application? I am not going to be making the decision on the planning committee, so am free to make my views known. (Cue repeat of my rant about Area Committees)

This still looks like an overdevelopment of the site to me.

The open space element is less than the City Council's planning standards require, and the proposal is for the developers to pay a 'commuted sum' to the Council, to spend on open space elsewhere in the City to compensate for this. Except the Council already has almost £4m in the bank for formal and informal open space previously paid by developers in similar situations -I don't know what this will be spent on, or even if the Council will be able to spend it, but it certainly won't be compensation for the fact that the station development needs more open space, particularly in front of the station in the new station square.

The development density also raises transport concerns - the plan to massively restrict car parking could result in huge additional parking pressure in Coleridge ward, and if we are going to make this work there needs to be huge improvements to cycle access to the site, including in my opinion a new southern cycle/foot bridge.

But the Council is to some extent being blackmailed - if we don't deliver the additional density and the sub-standard open space, the desperately needed redevelopment of the transport interchange at the station is at risk as Ashwell's claim the whole development won't be 'commercially viable'. As Mandy Rice-Davis might say if she was interested in planning and development control, they would say that wouldn't they.

We need to look very carefully at such claims by the developers, but we also need to look carefully at all the obligations being placed on the developers of the site, and what they are costing the developer. As ever, the Council is trying to get as many allocation rights to 'affordable' housing on the site as it thinks it can get away with, by forcing the developers to provide 40% of the residential land free to a housing association. But if the scheme really is on the borderline of commercial viability, it could well be the case that the subsidised rents enjoyed by the Council's chosen tenants on the site are far from costless - they could be being paid for by the travelling public in Cambridge suffering from an overdense site lacking public open space. As downward pressures continue on both the residential and commercial property sectors, Council's will have to stop seeing developers as a costless resource to meet their policy aims (which they never have been), and start to think about the economic effect of their planning obligations and how the policy objectives can be met in today's very different commercial environment.

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