Thursday, October 16, 2008

Station Area thoughts

After speaking at the Station Area planning meeting yesterday morning, I sat through almost the whole day, but had to leave just before the decision was made around 7pm. Although I wasn't surprised to hear the result - I had predicted the result and who would vote which way in early afternoon.

Personally, I am very disappointed with this decision. The scale of development proposed with its lack of on-site parking is going to cause chaos for car parking in Coleridge, and I think traffic levels generally in Tenison Road and Hills Road will prove to be a problem.

This is also a missed opportunity, and will leave future generations with very little to show in terms of open space and space for transport interchange. It effectively precludes the bus station ever being moved to the station from Drummer Street. And whilst cyclists have more spaces available, they may turn out to be less than happy that they will now be further from the station entrance.

It was an eye-opener to see how such a major application was effectively forced through the planning process. From a very early stage, officers at the City and County Councils had clearly decided that after the wholly inappropriate previous application this application was a 'flier', and all stops were taken out to try making the application acceptable with numerous meetings and discussions behind closed doors between Council officers and developers. The Councils had good policy reasons to want this application to succeed - the area desperately needs redevelopment, and be in no doubt there will be major improvements to transport infrastructure as a result. Not to mention the shopping list of other goodies the Council will insist the developers pay for as part of the permission - new CCTV systems in the area, £1.5m for public art, £1.3m cash in lieu of the lack of open space, contributions towards education, £3m for the Guided Bus, the truly astonishing cost to the developer of providing nomination rights to the Council for a small number of subsidised rental homes etc etc - in the context of the City Council (and even the County Council), these are big sums of money, all effectively a form of tax, all agreed by officers prior to going through a democratic scrutiny committee - in contrast at other times Councillors spend hours discussing a few hundred pounds for environmental improvements at meetings like the East Area Committee.

How I thought planning applications were supposed to work is the application is made, the City and Council Council officers provide a generally independent view on whether the application satisfies the multitude of relevant planning policies providing advice during the course of the application. During the meeting itself, planning committee members review the application and come to their own personal decision as to whether or not it is acceptable. But in this case, the advice of the City and County officers is in no way shape or form independent - there was just too much at stake for the policy objectives of these organisations, and objectivity of the advice was seriously at risk. It is arguable that the Councils took an iterative approach until something acceptable was in place, after which the Councils were effectively campaigning on behalf of the applicants to get the decision through.

I don't know if the Lib Dem members of the committee had discussed the application before the meeting and expressed opinions as to whether or not it might be acceptable. But it was a remarkable co-incidence about how the members split on the final vote. And the applicants certainly looked quite relaxed all day! Personally, I am concluding that yesterdays decision was in fact a party political decision, that could well have been made some time ago, but who knows. In a way, if the officers had been allowed to effectively negotiate with developers and present the application in the way it was without agreement in principle from the ruling group, I would be even more worried about how the democracy of the this decision worked.

So I would like to congratulate Ashwells all those involved at the City and County Councils - a tremendous amount of work has gone into this major planning application, and the dilligence and professionalism of the officers will doubtless have resulted in numerous changes to this application for the better, and, credit-crunch permitting, Cambridge can look forward to a significantly improved transport interchange. But I can't help remaining disappointed at what this application could have been.

We look forward to seeing the detailed planning applications for specific buildings that Ashwell’s brings forward, and in view of the credit crunch, when they will be looking to make this development happen.


Richard J said...

I agree, the money that councils "extract" from developers during planning leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Not only are these discussions behind closed doors, and no doubt I can't find out the details, but because it is a negotiation going on it rather implies that the council is giving something in return for the money.

The amount of the money "extracted" seems to vary, if it were a flat rate based on land value (or similar) at least it would be transparent.

Would a Conservative government reform this practice, perhaps removing Section 106 payments altogether?

Chris Howell said...

The Conservative suggestions have been about abolishing national planning policies, giving more control over what happens to local Councils, and with more of the benefits from developments ending up with local people (e.g. benefitting from the extra Council tax) - but this plan obviously needs to be treated sceptically until there is a bit more detail as to how it would work in practice.

Even if the result wasn't what I wanted, My criticism of the Council over the station decision is tempered by the fact it is really difficult to make large projects like this happen at all (and they obviously aren't there yet in terms of delivery).

The s106 tax issue is likely to sort itself out pretty soon, as in most future developments the fall in property values will ensure there just isn't the value available for Councils to take, and much of what is being spent is in reality long term public infrastructure that will need long term taxpayer commitment to fund. If it is seen as taxpayer money being spent, it will be money better scrutinised and therfore hopefully spent with considerable more attention to taxpayer value than s106 at the moment that is seen as 'free money' that noone has to pay for.