Building work has restarted at Arbury Park in North Cambridge; this has been prompted by a relaxation of the rules intended to ensure that the area supports a mixed community and becomes a pleasant place to live.
- The policy of mixing affordable, subsidised, homes and those to be sold on the open market on the same plots has been dropped.
- The fraction of non-open market homes has been allowed to rise to fifty percent
These two facts were mentioned by council officers while Cambridge City Council’s Environment Scrutiny Committee on the 23rd of June 2009 considered a hefty report into the lessons to be learnt from the Arbury Park / Orchard Park development. Learning lessons from the development is important as there is to be a significant amount of further building on the fringes of Cambridge and at Northstowe. Northstowe, like Arbury Park, is to have Gallagher Estates as its “Master Developer”. The item was on the agenda following a council motion proposed by the Labour opposition on the city council which had suggested such a review.
The last time the Environment Scrutiny committee discussed Arbury Park Cllr Clare Blair (Liberal Democrat City Councillor for East Chesterton) used almost all her contribution to claim it was her who had prompted the name change from Arbury to Orchard Park; Labour members noted at the time that it might not be that sensible to try and enact a such a change in the face of two thousand years of history. A lot of road signs, marketing material and other features are still using “Arbury Park”. The name Arbury certainly isn’t going to be lost from that area of the City any time soon despite Cllr Blair’s efforts. I much prefer the Arbury name, with its solid connection with the area’s past, than “Orchard Park”, which is bland and could be anywhere.
Creating a Mixed Community
Officers presenting the report, from the City, County and South Cambridgeshire District Councils started by reporting that work had recently restarted with work now underway on three new sectors. An economic driver for the new work had been created through a switch of allocation of properties from market sales, to affordable housing, that ratio was reported to now be at 50:50. In other-words the new building had been prompted by an injection of public / housing association money. The councils have also diluted down their policy of creating a thoroughly mixed community, allowing sections of the site to be developed with solely affordable / subsidised homes due to the pressure on them to get homes built in an economic climate where the open market is not giving the developers an incentive to build. County Council officer Richard Preston said that the councils had been faced within an unenviable set of choices; the option was to allow the affordable housing to be built alone, in bigger blocks, or to hold back on all building. Given that there was money only for affordable housing, he said the decision had been made to build that and hope. The hoping being that the open market housing will follow at some point in the future. The councils’ original proposals for mixing the various types of ownership and tenancies was described as “pepper-potting”; such an approach is no longer possible.
I think one of Cambridge’s best features is the mixed nature of many of its central streets. While I think all any new extensions of the city, or new towns ought be mixed developments I do not subscribe to the point of view Cllr Blair has expressed, which is that the affordable housing ought be the same quality as that on the open market. I do not think that those having their rent paid by state benefits ought be accommodated in £525,000 flats with sea views for example. Liberal democrats have a wide range of view on this, as with everything else, and not all are as supportive of communist style “equality” as Cllr Blair. One thing I think is especially important to resist in Cambridge is the creation of a University housing estate, where homes would be only available to those working in the University, this has been one of the proposals for land between Madingley and Huntingdon Roads. My view of the award winning Brooklands Avenue.
Newly elected councillor Susannah Kerr (Liberal Democrat, East Chesterton) said that Orchard Park was an opportunity missed in terms of design. The officer response was to say that the project met CABE national guidelines, and that an informal design panel was used. Officers reported that attempts had been made to “rescue” the project following an article in the Cambridge-News comparing the designs to soviet block flats. Officers blamed thoughtlessness and shoddyness on the part of some developers; they were particularly scathing of the “blue end”, the “Wimpy end” of the development where they gave examples of poor quality including gas pipes running up the outsides of homes and letterboxes being inaccessible. The council officers said it was impossible to regulate in relation to such things. I am sure that is not the case, and if council officers think it is then councillors ought be prompting them to improve their knowledge of the tools and routes of influence open to them.
Cllr Reid assured the meeting that there was now a dedicated design panel for the future fringe sites.
Cllr Blair said that she was to “appear before the ‘housing shortfall inspector’ next week”. Google shows no results for “housing shortfall inspector” so I have no idea what that is about. She related concerns of residents about how the change in proposed use of the North Edge of the site, to residential use would impact the area. I have written a previous article on the North Edge design brief.
An officer introducing himself as the “three way director of planning” called for closer working between the highways authority and others involved in transport and those involved in planning. He recommended closer working on the detail.
Cllr Herbert spoke about the role of the “Master Developer”, he asked about the power relationship between the developer and the council and asked “what leverage can we apply?”. He explained he was concerned that responsibilities of the Master developer were being passed on down the line to the “volume house-builders”.
Cllr Wright expressed a concern that the planned noise barrier – to be provided by the commercial element of the North Edge buildings was lost. She also commented on how the guided bus had been “quite literally misguided through the development”.
Cllr Mason, a South Cambridgeshire District Councillor and a member of Histon and Impington Parish Council was present at the meeting. He said the biggest problem was the amount of time the build out had taken, he also said that transport works, on the A14 and guided bus had not kept pace and needed much closer co-ordination. Cllr Mason spoke of the difficulties developing a community on a building site and drew councillors attention to the fact that 473 homes are now occupied, but many of the items to be funded by the developer’s “S106″ contributions to community facilities, green space etc. had not yet been provided.
Cllr Pitt spoke to say that the barrier created by the Kings Hedges road was one of his main problems with the development. He asked if the increase in affordable housing was at the expense of less elsewhere in the city. Jo Mills South Cambridgeshire District Council’s corporate manager for new communities said that there had been a “new injection of cash”.
Cllr Upstone made an interesting suggestion; he said the design had failed to consider the third dimension, and the layout of the roads, pavements and cycleways was too flat. He said that some junctions were eight lanes wide, too wide for cyclists and pedestrians. He wanted bridges and embankments to be given consideration in future projects.
SCDC’s Jo Mills complemented Cllr Blair on her work on “community development” and discussed the prospect of a “local retail centre” on the site, she said she expected plans for that to come forward soon.
Richard Preston, Cambridgeshire County Council’s lead officer for transport and access said that he didn’t realise in advance how much of a barrier Kings Hedges Road would end up being; he agreed that the end result was “substandard facilities” and said there was often too much emphasis on motorised traffic and the project had “fallen well short of what was needed to meet the requirements of cyclists and pedestrians”. He said there was a need to get developers to sign up to a design code early on, and there was a need to reflect on the resources necessary to provide the necessary facilities, he suggested developer contributions to infrastructure were insufficient.
Mr Preston gave a history of the site, saying it was originally earmarked for a possible extension of the Science Park, but that had proved not to be required. It was then considered for a shopping area, and finally, although not ideal particularly given the proximity of the A14, the decision was made to use it for homes. He said that both on this site, and at the University’s West Cambridge site it would be preferable to “keep landscape as a buffer” between living areas and the road.
Cllr Blair spoke as chair of governors of the new school on the site; she said that pushing the fraction of affordable housing on the site up to 50% “really strains service providers” including the school, and health services.
There was a brief discussion about the desirability of either a unitary authority, or an expansion of the City Boundary, so that the City council could have more influence on than merely as a consultee on the planning process. Planning for future fringe developments is to be carried out by joint planning committees. Often the reluctance of SCDC to “give up” the areas around the city is given as a reason the boundary cannot be changed. I think this should not come down to negotiation between local councils but Parliament should get on and define greater Cambridge in the national interest, and start considering the regions housing and transport problems in a manner unconstrained by historical borders which have no relevance today.
Councillors, including the Executive Councillor Cllr Reid, unanimously agreed the report’s findings; with councillor Reid adding that she was particularly concerned with air quality and noise.