On the 22nd of September 2010 I observed Cambridge City Council’s planning committee approve a new planning application for the fire station site on Parkside. Councillors approved plans for an eight story residential tower on the corner of East Road and Parkside, a new fire station on the existing site with flats above, and further flats both on the East Road frontage and facing into internal courtyards within the site.
Cllr Stuart was chairing the meeting and she refused to allow any debate relating to the height and mass of the proposed new development on the grounds that a planning inspector had already approved a previous application for the site with similar height and mass to the current proposal. Planning inspectors are not democratically elected or accountable and I think their existence is hugely detrimental to local democracy. Not having this application treated as the entirely new application which it was, and allowing councillors, particularly those who’ve been recently elected and have not had their say on previous applications on this site was in my view wrong.
The council’s planning officer, Mr Carter, advised councillors they could only object to the proposals in relation to areas in which either the proposed development had changed since the application which was approved by the inspector or in areas where planning policy had changed. This left councillors Wright and Tunnacliffe who indicated they had doubts about the size of the proposed buildings apparently feeling unable to vote against the application on those grounds.
While Cllr Tunnacliffe asked if there was any way he could note his concerns about the height and mass of the building, he went on to vote in favour of the application. Cllr Tunnacliffe showed himself to be a typical Liberal democrat, trying to sit on the fence and ending up saying one thing and doing another. If he had concerns about the application which were so serious as to warrant rejecting it he should have voted against. Simply raising a concern is no good when you’re being asked to make a yes/no decision.
I recorded the meeting, and have a made my video of Cllr Tunnacliffe and Wright raising their concerns during the run up to the vote, and the vote itself, available online.
The application was almost debated without any reference to the proposed building’s external appearance and architecture. A request late in the debate from Cllr Nimmo-Smith corrected this as he asked for information on these aspects, noting they were lacking from the report. This threw the council officer who had not brought the relevant papers with him to the meeting, and he was unable to locate them during a five minute suspension of the meeting held to allow him to return to his office. The applicants, who were present, took the opportunity to hijack the council’s IT system and place a computer generated image of the proposed development on the screens in the meeting room. Usually strict rules are followed during planning meetings and it is very unusual for an applicant to be able to present new information half way through in response to councillor’s questions. The image shown is the one which is illustrating this article.
The planning officer then spoke to the image, saying the bright white primary facing material was to be reconstituted stone; and windows were to be surrounded with bronze anodised aluminium.
Cllr Nimmo-Smith said that the CGI image provided by the applicants mid-way through the meeting had reassured him about the quality of the building’s architecture which he had been concerned about based on the stark appearance of the plans.
39 of the 99 residential units in the new development (~40%) are to be “affordable”. Ten of the “affordable” properties which will be in the form of intermediate rent, one bedroom flats as specifically for firemen (Cllr Dryden obtained an assurance fire fighters would be eligible irrespective of sex). How the remaining 29 are to be made available is to depend on if the developers are given a grant; if they get extra money they’ll make ~22 social rented and the remaining ones available under some kind of low cost home ownership scheme, presumably shared ownership. The council’s planning officer said that those on the council’s housing waiting lists will get access to these properties, and allocation will be either by the council, housing associations or a similar body.
Cllr Hipkin voted against the planning application because while the council’s planning policy would have required eight of the “affordable” properties to be three bed properties, there were to be 13 one bed and 26 two bed flats but no “affordable” three bed properties. Other councillors, primarily Cllr Blair, argued that the planning policy was flexible and it was appropriate to accept smaller properties in this location. Cllr Blair said the city centre location was not suitable for families. The officers’ argument for accepting this lack of provision of larger “affordable” flats was appeared to be solely based on precedent set previously by the planning committee; so just as with the visual appearance of the development councillors were being told their hands were tied.
I recorded the meeting and have made Cllr Blair’s contribution on this point available online.
My view is that excessive amounts of this so called affordable housing just increases the price of homes on the open market. In order to cover the costs of providing all these properties for social housing the remaining properties will have to be sold for an inflated price; this will drive up market prices whereas building new homes has the potential to have the opposite effect. (Though access to inappropriate levels of credit has had much greater influence on property price inflation than supply and demand in my view). As those like Cllr Blair take Cambridge towards a communist ideal and we see ever more new housing being held in common and allocated according to need I think there is a need to consider the effect this has on increasing people’s dependence of the state (via arms length bodies like housing associations) and removing factors which motivate people to seek to become self-reliant and independent.
The country, and Cambridge in particular, has major problems with inflated house prices. I think councillors are making things worse. If councillors want to provide affordable housing I think the best way for them to do this is by monitoring the fraction of, and where necessary mandating the inclusion of, smaller cheaper properties on new developments. Availability of such properties would result in people no longer seeking social housing, subsidised by the rest of society, but being able to afford to house themselves independently.
Developers are aware that there is a market for studio flats in the city centre they proposed them on this site, and on the nearby site on Prospect Row. There are many in the city for whom studio flats would be appropriate housing. I think councillors have got to be very careful when they meddle with the market, and as they have done in this case demand larger, more expensive, properties be built.
The top three floors of the tower will not contain any “affordable” properties, as I understood it none of the social housing will look out over Parkers’ Piece either, but elsewhere in the development the affordable and market properties will be well mixed. I agree that where we are to build new social housing it ought be well integrated but have no problem with the developer’s selling the best properties on the open market. I am concerned that the effect of the policy adopted by councillors is that those seeking social housing are considered, as are those wanting, and able to afford, high specification penthouses overlooking the city, but the majority, in between those two extremes are largely being ignored.