Cambridge City Council has recently run a consultation on its Draft Open Space and Recreation Strategy.
What is this Strategy Document For?
If approved the strategy would become key part of the city council’s planning policy; which means it would become a document which councillors making planning decisions will have to have regard to.
The primary policy document councillors making planning decisions have to consider is the Local Plan. The current Open Space and Recreation Strategy is described as supporting the local plan, exactly what this means has been the subject of objections to the strategy submitted on behalf of a number of colleges of the University of Cambridge, the question raised being if designating new areas of protected open space in the strategy document pre-empts a review of the local plan.
Another area where greater clarity would have been useful is in the status of the document in relation to the development areas, outside of the Cambridge City Council area. The document refers extensively to these areas where the city is expanding, but consultees from outside the city appear confused as to why they’ve been asked to comment on a City Council document. It would have been useful if the council had made clear what, if any, future pathway has been agreed with South Cambridgeshire District Council for the Open Space and Recreation Strategy to become a planning policy document for the Cambridge Fringes which Joint Development Control committees will have to have regard to in the future.
Hopefully when the results of the consultation are reported to Cambridge City Council’s Environment Scrutiny Committee clarification on these very important points will be sought and obtained. Not having made clear the intended status of the document prior to the consultation was in my view a major failing. What we are dealing with here is state interference in a basic right, the right to property. I’m a strong supporter of democracy and think its right, that when it’s in the public interest that the state, on behalf of all of us can restrict what some people can do with their property, but its really important that clear democratic due process is followed when such powers are invoked.
Another key thing the document will do, other than provide the policy basis on which future planning decisions will be made, is to set out the policy basis for raising of taxes on development intended to pay for recreational and open space provision outside of development sites. This is really important as it potentially involves tens of millions of pounds.
While the document is not mainly about issues of day to day maintenance and management of the city’s open spaces and recreational facilitates; it does have some role in setting the high level, long term, strategy for protecting, ensuring access to and promoting use of these assets.
My Consultation Response
My responses to the consultation can be viewed online on the consultation website, there they are linked to the section of the draft document they refer to.
I am concerned that s106 tax income is being spent on “improvements” to open spaces which may not last as long as the developments.
As a basic principle I suggest that councillors consider if any improvements made will be truly permanent or not and ensure that they are confident what they are spending the money raised on will be of enduring value to the city over the very long term. I think councillors should be reminded of this whenever they make a decision on spending s106 income.
Spending money raised from developers on things which won’t last is one of the areas where I think we, as current residents of Cambridge, are making a huge mistake. We’re behaving irresponsibly and without due regard to those who will be living in the city in the future. The draft policy states that taxes raised can be spent on “improvements to existing facilities”, I am concerned with how this is being interpreted and have therefore made my suggestion for strengthening this section.
I also have wider concerns about development taxes. One of the major problems facing the UK at the moment is the shortage of appropriate and affordable housing. To an extent these taxes are being levied on those who cannot afford somewhere suitable to live. I think it is reasonable to allow developers to pay for infrastructure improvements, or to purchase open space to overcome barriers which would otherwise prevent a development from going ahead. What concerns me though is when councils see new developments as sources of “free money”. The Liberal Democrats running Cambridge City Council have appointed an Executive Councillor with responsibility for the growth of the city, Cllr Tim Ward, who doesn’t think anything anyone does can affect the market price of homes, this is the worrying and misguided attitude which has resulted in the way the council treats theses taxes and the revenue generated from them. In my view it is obvious that if millions of pounds are extracted from the local housing economy that has to be funded from somewhere, it makes building houses less attractive for developers and makes homes more expensive than they need to be. (I can see there are many other factors at play, I expanded on a number of these a previous article).
Double Council Tax in Cambridge’s New Developments
Another response I submitted stated:
Residents of Cambridge’s urban extensions can end up paying twice for the upkeep of the city’s open spaces, both through their council taxes, and through management charges for the maintenance of open spaces in their development. I think this policy ought make clear the City Council (and South Cambs District Council) policy towards adopting green space in new developments. I suggest that as a general principle publicly accessible green space on new developments should be adopted by the council and its upkeep should be funded by general taxation and not management charges on particular properties. There is a risk of splitting the city into those who get their local environment maintained through their taxes, and those who do not.
I think it is particularly notable that as the councils have adopted increasing amounts of new developments over time management fees on these sites have not changed to reflect this. In practice I’ve been told that the council has been taking a view that if green space fronts onto a main road it will adopt it, but if its deeper into a development it won’t – while this approach doesn’t appear to directly relate to what’s been happening it’s an approximation to the situation. I think this is something which needs to be debated openly, and the council’s policy needs to be clear. I think this is a matter of fairness and equality as well as another factor which the council can directly affect the affordability of living in homes in newly built homes around Cambridge.
Locating Open Space and Recreation Facilities on New Developments
On this subject I wrote:
I suggest there should be public access to open space and recreational facilities on new developments. The location of such facilities should encourage the public from other areas to use the facilities. This would result in the areas surrounding a new development benefiting from it, and reduce the degree to which new developments become isolated enclaves, and promote the integration of new developments into the surrounding city. What I am suggesting is making open space and recreational facilities visible from, and accessible from, outside of new developments and not “hiding” them deep within developments; treating them as facilities for the whole locality an not only residents of the new development.
I think it is important to make clear where facilities on new developments are accessible to the general public (as a result of them being funded by, or provided in lieu of, s106 contributions) and to avoid the impression that new developments are private enclaves and outsiders are not welcome.
As specific examples I would note the play area deep within the Accordia development off Brooklands Road, and the play area proposed for the central open space on the Vie development. I still think the Vie development facilities ought be moved to an area next to the path to the new bridge; however the council has done its usual trick of not consulting openly – the proposals have not been taken to the North Area Committee but only promoted on a post on the proposed site in the middle of the development. While visibility from outside would be desirable, where this isn’t done signage would help – both pointing out the location of facilities and making clear they are open to all.
An example of what I consider better practice can be seen on Woodhead drive where the new (and fantastic) play area is accessible from Woodhead Drive itsself as well as from the new development.
Cambridge City Council doesn’t have a current tree policy. It used to be the case that all sorts of planning and other policy documents referenced this non-existant policy. (Related freedom of information request). The document is cited as part of the Draft Open Spaces and Recreation policy, I commented:
I think it is positive that the council is accepting that it doesn’t have a current tree policy. I think it is really important to get a consistent approach to making decisions with respect to all trees in the public realm in the city in an open and democratic fashion.
If a new Arboricultural Strategy is agreed by the City Council will it automatically become part of this open space and recreation policy? Can this policy be written in such a way so that it does, or can a mechanism for fast-tracking it in be created?
Council policy documents often have references sections, or worse, incorporate documents, which it is very hard to get hold of. I therefore made the following general comment suggesting the council publish, and link to, all the related documents mentioned:
I would like to suggest that when this document is published links be provided to all the documents mentioned in the “Policy Context” section; and that where any documents cited are not currently available online they get placed online.
University Sports Centre
The City Council should work closely with the University of Cambridge over its proposals for a new University Sports Centre. I suggest the city council should invest some s106 funds into the project, boosting the range of facilities provided, seeking in return to ensure public access to the facilities. I think the council should change its current position of waiting for the university to take the lead and work with staff and students at the university who are urging the institution to take the project forward.
I have expanded on these views at:
The draft strategy document listed the Cambridgeshire Horizons document titled: A Major Sports Facilities Strategy for the Cambridge Sub-Region as one of the strategy and guidance documents it must “work within”. I commented:
I support this strategy, particularly its sub-regional priorities for the Cambridge area of:
* Ice Rink
* Multi-lane rowing facility
* 50m swimming pool
I note though the strategy is rather out of date, being pre-olympics.
Strategic Cycle and Pedestrian Routes – Including Recreational Cycling
I strongly support the creation of strategic routes connecting Green Infrastructure in the City with the surrounding districts. In particular I would like to see more footpaths made accessible to cyclists to promote recreational cycling opportunities around the city.
I think there is potential for many footpaths around the city to be designated as cycleways (or bridleways) to allow cyclists to use them. Already for example the footpath between Baits Bite lock and Horningsea is heavily used by cyclists, I wouldn’t want to see such routes necessarily surfaced and made into super commuting cycle routes, just for cycling to be made legal on them, and in respect of other routes for cycle unfriendly gates, styles, bridges and steps etc. to be removed. I think there are vast opportunities to open up recreational cycling opportunities which are currently accessible to those willing to break the law, and get their bikes over obstacles to more people.
I also think the city’s green spaces offer fantastic, generally safe and traffic free cycling routes; I think we need to think about the areas which connect them (for example Fair Street and Claradon Street connecting Midsummer Common and Parker’s Piece) and think about how we can improve pedestrian and cycle safety along these corridors to make it easier and more pleasant for people to get around the city on bike and on foot.
Roads and Junctions Adjacent to Open Spaces
Following on from my previous comment I made what I suspect might be seen as quite courageous in conservative Cambridge – that we should consider adopting the concept of “park roads” in our city. I wrote:
I’d like to see roads adjacent to open spaces, and running through open spaces, given special status and appearance of “park roads”; the aim would be to create a safer and more pleasant environment. I would suggest using coloured roads (perhaps bonded gravel, or red roads) and gates on the entrances. Such “park roads” can be found in many places eg. Bath and the Royal Parks in London. I think it would be easier to enforce 20 MPH limits in such roads, creating a safer environment for all road users and perhaps discouraging through traffic from these areas.
By “enforce” in that comment I mean naturally prompt lower speeds as a result of the road environment rather than through policing. Candidates would include Maids Causeway, Victoria Avenue, and Chesterton Lane around Jesus Green and Midsummer Common, as well as Fen Causeway though stretches of roads adjacent to recreation grounds in the residential areas of the city could receive similar treatment too.
I think the roads and junctions next to the city’s open spaces need to be made safe and attractive for cyclists and pedestrians to use too. Specific areas where I’d like to see improvements include Chesterton Lane by the Jesus Lock bridge and the crossing to Carlyle Road. There are many similar places around the city where entrances to parks are close to busy roads and there are opportunities for improvements.
The document for consultation used the phrase “green lung”. Dr Ann Mullinger, writing on behalf of the Windsor Road Residents Association expressed support for this stating: “We strongly support the need to consider the supply of open spaces which provide a green lung to surrounding built areas.” I added a comment stating:
I think if the phrase “green lung” is to be used it ought be defined.
I think it’s important that the council’s strategy is based on something more tangible than an abstract, undefined, term.
On Site Provision
While having some overlap with my earlier, and most important comment; I think that on-site provision of open space and facilities on new developments is generally preferable to the council taking money in lieu, not least because the council finds it hard to spend the money on open spaces. My comment:
I think the council should more strongly demand on-site provision of green space and recreational facilities and be less inclined to accept money in lieu. Where money is accepted in lieu I think it is important it is spent on the purchase of permanent assets (ie. new green space, not “development” of existing green space) which will have an enduring impact on the city, for as long as the development continues to have an impact on the city.
Clearly there are cases, such as very small developments, where on-site provision is not practical and it makes sense to pool contributions; but even there if the strategy was for facilities to be provided on the sites of new developments contributions from some projects could be paid to other developers to secure provision on their sites.
Friends Groups AND Democracy
The Liberal Democrats running Cambridge City Council have in my view given far too much weight to the views of residents associations and friends groups; too often they don’t consult any more widely than these groups and there have even been instances of them delegating decisions to such select groups. The council leader has even on occasion conflated “residents associations” and “residents” when speaking showing how she doesn’t distinguish between one group and another.
I think friends groups and residents associations are immensely valuable, the council needs to support them and use them as one of many ways of engaging with the public. I think its important that decisions relating to Cambridge’s recreational facilities and open spaces are made by democratically elected councillors. My consultation response on this point was:
I think the sentence on “Local people should be involved in decisions relating to improving and creating open space and their future use and management.” ought be spun out into its own section as this is a key part of how the city’s green spaces are run.
I would like to see decisions relating to the city’s green spaces being made democratically, by elected councillors, in public. Too often decisions are made in secret in consultation only with select individuals or groups. An example was the recent (August 2011) lottery bid in relation to Jesus Green which was not put before councillors prior to being submitted.
I think the council should support friends groups and residents associations and help them to (and require them to) operate in an open and accessible manner. In particular the council could assist with publicity, administration, and the legal structure of these groups. The council could list meetings on its meetings calendar for example and assist with publication and production of papers for key public meetings for the city’s major friends groups.
Responsibility for Paths on Open Spaces
There is regularly confusion over which council is responsible for which paths on the city’s green spaces. A clear map showing which paths are considered “highways” and are the responsibility of the county council should be produced (or the councils should agree how to share their responsibilities in some other manner eg. sharing costs).
Criminality, Safety and Policing of Open Spaces
Many ward profiles list problems arising from criminality. Cambridge’s green spaces are often the locations of crimes; many people feel unsafe using them in the dark. I think there should be a section in this policy dedicated to safety and perceptions of safety. It should address the council’s approach to policing, CCTV, lighting and related matters and how safety is considered at a design stage in relation to new green spaces. It should also describe how opportunities for the council, and councillors to influence policing and other elements of the criminal justice system to help implement this strategy [are to be used].
College Exemptions from Development Taxes
I would like to suggest clarification of the definition of college. Will commercial, speculative, development of student accommodation be treated differently in terms of S.106 taxes when compared to one developed by a college of the University of Cambridge?
I note the university doesn’t have a swimming pool; so why should it be exempt from contributing to public pool provision? I suggest the best option is to encourage the development of a pool and related facilities by the university and to use S.106 exemption and planning policy to obtain public access to the facilities.
Timing of Provision of Open Space and Facilities Such as Playgrounds
Play area installation and opening needs to be timed to coincide with residents moving into new developments.
Obvious perhaps, but something the city council is constantly getting wrong. Currently the play provision on the Vie development is at the point of having its location discussed despite people having been living on the site for many years. Even the playground at the award winning Accordia development opened late.
(Representation detail : Related section in draft document.)
Cherry Hinton Pits
Cambridgeshire County Council objected to the section of the draft document covering Coleridge ward saying they had potential to be a leisure resource for an urban park that adjoins the newly improved Tins cycling route. I added:
I agree with the county council representation that the pits East of Burnside and West of Cherry Hinton are not a weakness but a huge opportunity for new public open space and recreation.
I think there are all sorts of possibilities for all sorts of leisure pursuits and water-sports.
Public Access to Currently Private Open Space
I think the council should seek greater public access to the open spaces owned and controlled by the colleges. Such access could be negotiated in lieu of s106 payments or on-site provision in developments.
Open Spaces as Cycle Routes
The Cambridge Cycling Campaign had made a comment on the draft document as a whole stating:
The Strategy fails to stress that the open spaces of Cambridge have a very important transport (including commuting) function, both for cycling and walking. The open spaces form an absolutely key part of the ‘cycling culture’ of Cambridge, enabling people to travel by bicycle in a pleasant, convenient and safe environment. The Strategy must therefore give more weight to the transport aspect.
Paths are often too narrow for users to pass each other adequately, or badly maintained (e.g. Jesus Green). We are not proposing that these areas should be available for very high speed commuting that would be out of character with these spaces, but the balance currently is wrong.
On too many occasions, officials have frustrated attempts to widen paths moderately. An example of this is the improvements to New Bit. Proposals for an additional 1m of space on some paths would not compromise the visual amenity of the path but means that users can coexist much more safely, are not delayed, and avoids the sides of paths becoming muddy as people cycle or walk outside them. 2.5m paths are below national standards for shared use paths and can result in conflict that could be avoided.
Segregation does not always reduce conflict; in fact, it can sometimes create conflict by creating a “this is *my* space” view amongst users, especially where widths are narrow. What is far more important is that the width is made adequate (minimum 3m), which will avoid conflict. Segregation may also lead to inappropriate speed by less responsible users.
For these reasons the term ‘adequate width’ is vague and needs to be better defined.
The Cambridge Cycling Campaign represents around a thousand members, and does a fantastic job promoting the interests of the tens of thousands of people who cycle in Cambridge. I responded to express my support and suggesting a new section of the report focusing on cycling:
I would like to support the comment from the cycling campaign.
While I can see this draft document is compatible with Cambridge’s open spaces continuing to be used, as they are, as major cycle routes, it does not positively encourage improvements in conditions for cyclists.
I would suggest a new section focusing on cycling, introducing a policy of identifying and resolving pinch points, and points where cyclists come into conflict with other users of the open spaces.
I agree with the view that segregated paths can create conflict; particularly where people on foot inadvertently walk into them prompting cyclists to ring their bells, or worse.
The policy is currently vague when it comes to cycle and pedestrian routes; I think it should be more positive and make clear the council’s aspirations.
I think the entrances to the green spaces ought be given particular consideration with a view to increasing the safety of access to green spaces for cyclists and pedestrians.
While perhaps slightly going off the topic of planning policy and overarching strategy I decided to comment on the council’s event charging policy. I was prompted to do so by a comment from the cycling campaign on the issue (They’ve been charged £86.10 for meeting up on Midsummer Common before a ride).
My consultation response states:
This section states that the city’s open spaces should provide opportunities for events.
I would like to suggest that the council’s policy of charging those organising events on the city’s open spaces needs to be reviewed. The current policy of charging only those who make an application to hold an event and turning a blind eye to others is farcical.
I suggest reinstating the threashold of 500 people below which no charge is made, and considering which other events ought be exempt from charges eg. charitable and community events which don’t result in costs to the council.
Other Responses of Note
Michael Hendry – Bidwells
Mr Michael Hendry writing on behalf of the property company Bidwells repeatedly noted:
It is inappropriate to designate buildings as protected Open Space
He appears to have a very good point; it will be interesting to see how the council respond.
Mr Hendry, writing both on behalf of Bidwells and a number of colleges argues that The Open Space and Recreation Strategy should not designate open space as protected before the Local Plan Review and points out the risks to the growth of the city of excessive restrictions on what landowners are free to do.
I agree with this point and I am too concerned about if due process is being followed and if the proposed restrictions are too heavy handed.
One of the areas where it is proposed private houses are to have their gardens designated protected open space is along the river bank opposite Stourbridge Common, between Vie and the Green Dragon bridge. One thing I don’t know is how much the planning policy will tie the hands of councillors considering any future planning application; I expect this will depend largely on the individual councillor’s views on their role – some cease to see themselves as representatives of the people when making planning decisions and view themselves instead as people tasked only with assessing the application against the policy.
Mr Jonathan Shanklin
Mr Shanklin objected to the strategy, with an unusual view in my experience of Cambridge, stating:
Whilst trees may be appropriate in some areas, they often grow and then become inappropriate. Many open areas in the city have suffered from too much tree planting.
Cambridge Cycling Campaign
The cycling campaign have published their consultation response online (PDF).
In addition to the points noted already they are suggesting the formal recognition of the cycle routes across the open spaces as rights of way – presumably to ensure they are protected into the future.
They also suggest the strategy should consider the impact of events on other uses of the open space.
Cambridgeshire County Council
The county council is concerned that designation of school sites as open space might restrict flexibility to develop schools to respond to demand – this appears to me to be a very sensible objection; and very similar to the objections made by various University of Cambridge colleges.
Cambridge Past Present and Future
They have asked for all pubs, churches and educational institutions to be designated as protected open space. This doesn’t appear to me to fit with any common sense, or commonly used English, definition of open space, it appears they are trying to use this strategy document to achieve the protection of community facilities other than open space and this probably isn’t the right place to do it. Local government planning is obtuse and convoluted enough this would be entering the realm of the surreal.
CPPF has made a statement in line with my key point, stating:
The ongoing practice of using financial contribution to upgrade existing open space should only be used in limited fashion.
Conservators of the River Cam
The Conservators have asked for the surface of the River Cam to be considered as Open Space. It is not clear why they’re requesting this, or what they think it will achieve.
The Conservators also called for a reduction in the number of residential mooring licences and for the promotion of fishing.
The Conservators have made the rather odd statement;
There is currently a shortfall in the provision of facilities to enable the commercial punting industry to be put on a proper footing, e.g. inadequate landing facilities and no storage areas for operators’ equipment.
I agree with their veiled suggestion that the Cam should be made more attractive to visiting boats, and the existing slipway access could be improved. They also note: “There is absolutely no mention of rowing in this document”.
Mr Brigham’s responses can be viewed online via this link.
Mr Brigham notes the failure of the draft document to mention dog walking. I think this is a good point, particularly as dog mess is one of the top complaints people in North Cambridge came up with when asked what was wrong with their local area; that did refer to streets as well as open spaces though.
Bursars’ Environment and Planning Sub-Committee
This subcommittee of the notoriously secretive and elusive Cambridge University Bursar’s committee (which views itself not as part of the University but as a private club, which each bursar attends as an individual, not on behalf of their college) responded primarily calling for a quantitative assessment of the need for sports pitches in the city and comparing it with the need. The bursars club committee claim the city is over provided for; but what they have missed is the fact that in Cambridge so many of the sports pitches are controlled by the university colleges and so are inaccessible to even university students from other colleges – this lack of openness and accessibility and sharing of facilities is what requires and creates over-provision. As a student I lobbied for greater sharing of recreational facilities between colleges but got nowhere with the colleges each very keen to maintain their independence and isolation even to the detriment of their own members.
Windsor Road Residents Association
The association, represented by Dr Ann Mullinger, made a large number of comments, largely in support of the council’s draft plan. They are in favour of moves which result in open space which is currently private becoming publicly accessible.
Friends of Midsummer Common
The Friends of Midsummer Common’s responses can be viewed online via this link.
The friends asked the council to add “to graze cattle on large tracts of common land” and “Community orchards” to the list of opportunities the city’s open spaces offer residents.
Petersfield Area Community Trust
The Petersfield Area Community Trust’s responses can be viewed online via this link.
The PACT make a number of excellent points, one of their responses states:
With regard to Petersfield in particular (Section 4.29), the consultation document acknowledges that there is no publicly accessible outdoor sports provision at all. There is not even a general ‘kick-about’ area for youngsters, and this deficit has led to what the police calls ‘vandalism’ in the area (in
the form of playing informal football in unauthorised’ areas and occasionally breaking nearby windows). We urge that the area to the east of the Howard Mallet Centre (currently – and we believe illegitimately – blocked off by the current leaseholders of the Howard Mallett building) be formally designated as a public space for outdoors sports.
In another comment they state:
St Catherine’s College
The college is one of the few to have responded independently (not via an agent). I find it difficult to understand their rather garbled submission but I believe they are arguing that there is not such a strong need for open space within new developments on the outskirts of the city on the grounds that these areas are near the surrounding countryside.
I think that shows an astonishing lack of foresight; and fails to account for the fact much of the open space surrounding the city is farmland and is not publicly accessible.
Running of the Consultation
Cambridge City Council set the closing date for the consultation as 17.00 on Friday the 2nd of September 2011. In practice the online form was not turned off until some point over the weekend and a number of submissions were made after the deadline. As I doubt council officers do anything with consultation results over weekends, and weekends are times when members of the public (including councillors, and parish councillors) are likely to have time to respond to consultations I think the council should change its practice of ending consultations before weekends, and shifting such deadlines to 9am on the Monday morning.
The covering letter sent to those specifically consulted stated “Please do not rely on sending a fax or email on the last day of the consultation period” effectively cutting short the consultation period for those wishing to use those media to send in their responses.
A number of people commented on crazy aspects of the online system the council used. It was hosted on a third party site, and “skinned” with the council’s logo. There was no straightforward way to show support or objection to comments which had been raised by others; comments were only published online following a delay for moderation. Comments of over 100 words required the provision of a 100 word summary (something which irritated users who’d made comments of just over the limit). Many of those responding wanted to suggest new sections be added to the document, or comment on aspects of open spaces and recreation strategy which had not been covered by the draft document. As all comments had to be associated with a particular section of the existing document this resulted in many comments being added to sections which were only loosely, if at all, related to the point being made.
I think that it’s really important that our planning policies are developed locally, by elected councillors. I also strongly see dealing with planning applications as a democratic (rather than quasi-judicial) process. I hope that we will see this document become a planning policy which gives as much power and flexibility as possible to local councillors in making planning decisions.
Overall I think what’s important is keeping Cambridge a city well provided for in terms of open space, recreational facilities and with functional open space which serves as transport corridors, sports facilities, space for events and so much more. We’ve got to achieve this while keeping the city alive – making it a place where the educational institutions have the flexibility and freedom to continue thriving, keeping the city an attractive place to start and grow businesses and particularly ensuring that affordable, appropriate and desirable accommodation is available for those who live, or would like to live, in the city.