Following a 09.30 start it was just before 19.00 when the Cambridge City Council planning committee meeting considering the outline plans for the “CB1″ station area redevelopment finally concluded with a vote.
Six Liberal Democrat councillors (Al Bander, Baker, Blair, Dixon, Holness, and Reid) voted in favour of accepting the officers’ recommendation to approve the planning application with only councillors Hipkin (Independent) and Blencowe (Labour) voting against. Cllr Dryden, a Labour member of the planning committee was absent. There were no abstentions.
Councillors ensured that “their fingerprints would remain on the project” as they requested that many of the details of the scheme (more than are statutorily required) be brought back to future planning meetings. However this was the last chance for them to exercise an overview.
The decision could have gone either way right up to the discussion before the final vote was taken. Cllrs Blair and Holness in particular were very critical of many aspects of the plans during the course of the debate yet eventually voted in favor of the scheme. Cllr Dixon also expressed reservations at various points.
During morning session (which I did not attend) the applicants and number of public speakers addressed the committee. Towards the end of the process the chair of the planning meeting expressed his regret that more of those who attended in the morning could not have stayed throughout the day to witness the committee’s operation and see how it came to its final decision. Personally I did not see that much connection between the contributions to the debate made by some councillors and the way they finally voted.
The amount of green space, who should own and control the green space and related questions relating to trees and play equipment was a key concern of a number of councillors, including many who eventually voted in favour of the plans. Their concerns were addressed by council officers who gave evidence that:
- Taking the station area as a whole, not just considering the area of the outline planning application, the total amount of green space proposed was approximately the same as that required by the strategic station area development framework.
- The City Council was not prepared to take ownership of or to manage the green spaces because of underground tanks below them. These tanks are involved in mitigating the effect of run-off water resulting it was claimed in the proposed development having the same net drainage characteristics as open fields.
- Play space was sufficient, though officers were unable to provide even an estimate of the numbers of children expected to live in the proposed properties. Cllr Blair stated that the assumption the number of children would not be high was not substantiated.
- Existing play space in the Triangle had not been counted twice, but it was considered to be providing play space for the new development too, councillors were assured that the absence of play equipment from the outline plans was simply because they were not that detailed.
Cllr Dixon, who lives in Petersfield Mansions at the town end of Mill Road claimed that he lived in a similar type of accommodation to that proposed on the CB1 site, and thought he was the only councillor to do so. He said where he lives is an area near Anglia Ruskin University, and noted the students did not appear to make much use of the informal green space there. (I can only assume he can’t see Parker’s Piece from his flat!)
Cllr Blencowe, the local ward councillor as well as a planning committee member noted there was an unacceptable lack of play space in his ward at the moment
Frank Gawthrop, speaking from the “public gallery” made a number of comments about the lack of green space during this discussion.
I was surprised by the amount of time councillors spent discussing play equipment.
Councillors corrected references to the developer being asked to fund a school, changing this to “school places”. A County Council officer, who introduced himself as being from the “Education Authority” explained the complex nature of overlapping school catchment areas in the south of the city. He explained that while the nearest school, St. Paul’s could not be expanded, others in the south of the city could, and that would be what money would be spent on and how provision for additional children would be met.
Officers noted that it was hard to predict the environmental effects of the proposals. They suggested that this was primarily something to address during future applications. The kinds of things they were considering here were the effect on the conservation areas, listed buildings and Botanic Gardens. Cllr Blencowe pointed out that the environmental impacts had been an important part of the previous refusal. He noted that three of the major consultees on environmental effects expressed strong reservations and suggested: “this should give us cause for pause”.
A couple of councillors applauded the fact that officers appeared to have set their sights higher than the applicants and congratulated them for their work during negotiations.
Councillor Holness expressed a concern that deep buildings, needing lot of power for air conditioning could be built. Officers assured her that the outlines on the plans were merely potential footprints for buildings, and plans submitted in the future could well involve buildings with atriums or in a U shape. The Principal Development Control Manager introduced a specialist “sustainable design” officer who gave excellent concise advice in response to Cllr Holness’ question on air conditioning, especially as she appeared to have had no prior notice of it. The officer warned that she was not sure the standards referred to in the conditions were sufficient alone, and commented that they would be easy to meet. Councillors did not heed this advice and strengthen the conditions, but perhaps this is something for future planning applications.
Councillors considered the anticipated living conditions of future residents. Cllr Hipkin was particularly concerned about several hundred students living in a block, known as H block, which he described as jammed between a railway and a bus tunnel. He said he needed to be persuaded that these students were to be decently and humanely accommodated.
Cllr Holness made some astoundingly shocking remarks, she said she was concerned about placing “marginal people” into the worst areas. She was referring to both the student accommodation H block and a block of residential housing. She said there was an element of pushing those who don’t have much money into poorer areas.
The planning officer noted that the plans had already been amended to remove a designation of “affordable housing” from the residential block nearest the railway and told councillors they had to consider simply if that was a site suitable for residential use. She said: “All reference to the location of affordable housing has been removed from the application.”
Cllr Blair spoke to say she did not want affordable homes located anywhere that open market housing would not be located. She said she would like to see affordable housing integrated fully, expressing her view that those living in affordable housing should experience the same environment and conditions as those buying open market housing.
Cllr Blair stated that she felt it was important that affordable housing was built at the same time as other housing, not separately as had occurred in Arbury Park. Councillors later ensured that the “phasing plan” would be brought before a future planning committee.
There was a potential for the meeting to have to go into closed session as it discussed commercially sensitive information. Cllr Blair asked for it to do so as she felt discussing the unit size mix affected the viability of the scheme. But as she didn’t want to say anything more detailed than expressing a preference for a reasonable proportion of 3-bed properties the chair did not close the meeting.
Cllr Hipkin spoke to say this application needed to be viewed against the background of the “growth agenda” – the massive expansion of the amount of housing in the Cambridge region. He stated he was concerned that while projects like this were obtaining funds from developers for transport infrastructure they were doing so in a piecemeal fashion. He asked where the funds were to come from for the huge structural investment required to make the city functional.
Opposition councillors raised the point that we need to future proof the development on this site so it can cope with the expanded city. Liberal Democrats responded to say they were “satisfied we’ve had clear advice from the County on this point” (Only two of them had been at the public meeting at which the County’s consultant had admitted his advice had largely not taken growth of the city into account).
Councillors returned to the discussion of the fact they were not considering building outlines, but outlines of areas within which they were giving permission in principle for buildings to be erected.
Cllr Holness and others sought reassurance they were not approving the building of a series of “monoliths” on Station Road – which is what the outline of the sites for the buildings appeared to look like.
Councillors were concerned that by accepting the outlines as they were that they would be limiting themselves when they came back to consider detailed planning applications. They were worried they may not be able to say for example a certain building was too close to the bus exchange, or railway if it was within the approved area. The planning officer told them they would be limiting themselves in this way, and they would not be able to reject future applications that were within the “boxes” on the grounds that they were inappropriately placed.
The meeting’s chair Cllr Baker stated that if such a case occurred the committee would have to find other, perfectly good, reasons to refuse a development.
The council’s director of planning appeared to take a different view saying councillors would be no worse off in future planning meetings having accepted the current plot outlines.
Cllr Holness raised the issue of as she put it: “Micromanagement of the buses”. She wanted to ensure that off bus ticketing and similar measures were in place right at the start. The planning officer was reluctant, initially stating that the committee was concerned with land use planning and it was nothing to do with land use. Cllr Holness countered pointing to conditions requiring travel plans and management plans to be followed. The officer stated the travel plan was in a section 106 agreement, but said bus management was different because it was not under the control of the applicant.
Councillors spent some time discussing how the £25 000 contribution to the city’s CCTV had been arrived at, noting there was no formula for such figures. They questioned if it would be sufficient, given potential inflation in a few years time, they were assured it was.
Cllr Baker asked if bus shelters and toilets for bus users were considered part of the transport infrastructure.
Cllr Dixon noted that the question of the police station paying market rent had not yet been resolved. Councillors did not decide to insist the police were given accommodation in the scheme at below market rents as they had requested. Officers recommended against this as it was a “commercial viability consideration” no councillors countered this.
Cllr Hipkin, quite rightly in my view, questioned why the committee was going on to discuss conditions before voting on the substantive question. What the chair should in my view have made clear was that the committee was discussing the conditions “without prejudice” to the final vote. He did not, what he said was that what councillors agreed as conditions might itsself affect the vote on the substantive issue, so the conditions had to be finalised before the substantive vote. I think the council (or even the country) needs a clear policy on this so that planning meetings like this don’t take on the appearance of having a foregone conclusion.
Modifications to recommended conditions made by councillors, included [unspecified] measures to prevent rail users parking on other areas of the site and the provision of litter bins.
There was no discussion on the conditions relating to bus and taxi access to the square, which I felt needed strengthening to ensure free, competitive access to the area.
Councillors required the following to be put before the planning committee in the future rather than leaving it to officers:
- All the significant proposals for modifying road junctions
- Detailed plans for the road closure bollards controlling access to the square
- The strategy for signage and reducing visual impact of signs and street furniture. It was noted there was an absence of a design code. City Councillors were not happy to leave this to the county council highways department.
The wording of some of the conditions was left to be decided between officers and the Liberal and Opposition spokespeople on the committee.
Cllr Blair asked for assurance that the final draft of the section 106 agreement would return to the committee, she was given this assurance by the committee chair and officers.
The general discussion started with the Chair, Cllr Baker offering thanks to the lead officer Sarah Dyer. Cllr Baker then went on to sum up his comments on the station area:
- Something needs to be done to the Station Area. It has been in an impoverished state since he arrived in the city in the 1970s, and was partially derelict. He stated change, preferably improvement, was required.
- The previously refused application was refused with good reasons, a record number of good reasons – 26. He gave his opinion that the current plans were a significant step forward from that.
- He noted this was only an outline application and said there would be ample opportunity to comment on reserved matters applications as they came in.
- Clearly he was going to vote in favour, he hoped the future applications would be of the highest architectural quality, and would result in a sustainable community. Referring to the recent awarding of the RIBA Stirling Prize 2008 to the City’s Accordia development he expressed a hope this development would also end up in the running for the prize
- Cllr Baker said he felt the investment would be of great benefit to the city, he used the example of the proposed public art facilities including an artists workshop to illustrate what he felt was the applicant’s genuine commitment to put the city’s interests first.
The chair reminded councillors of their code of conduct which stated those minded to vote against the officers’ recommendation had to give their reasons, with respect to planning policy, before a vote was taken and that those reasons needed to be recorded in the minutes.
Cllr Blencowe indicated first and summarised his reasons for voting against as:
- The open space / recreation space falling well short of what was required by the local plan(2006)
- He was skeptical of the traffic assessment (He was not giving this as a formal reason)
- He opposed on the grounds of urban design principles being breached and there being an unacceptable effect on listed buildings
Cllr Hipkin summarised his reasons for voting against as he felt the proposals were contrary to:
- Section 5.10 of the local plan – he felt it was not a well balanced mixed development
- Section 4.11 (b) and (c) of the local plan – impact on conservation area.
- Section 9.3 of the local plan – development in urban extensions
The chair argued this was not an urban extension, Cllr Hipkin accepted this and withdrew that reason.
The chair stated his view that delaying a decision, while something some public speakers and correspondents had suggested was not appropriate. He said he felt the committee had properly considered everything it needed to and was in a position to make a decision. He said a delay would leave open the possibility for the applicants to appeal on the grounds of non-determination. (Something Cllr Herbert, who was watching proceedings claimed was “nonsense”).
The committee then moved to the vote, and the application was approved, 6-2.
The above reflects my best efforts at presenting what I witnessed. I welcome any comments or corrections.