On the 7th of April 2009 I observed a meeting of the “Joint Cambridgeshire Regional Spatial Strategy Review Panel”. County Councillors, Cambridge City Councillors along with District Councillors from Huntingdonshire, East Cambridgeshire, and South Cambridgeshire discussed the high-level strategy for locating new homes in the region.
Councillors received a presentation from consultants and discussed what ought to be the County Council’s response to the East of England Regional Assembly’s review of their Regional Spacial Strategy (also known as The East of England Plan). The Assembly (EERA) is made up of 105 individuals, a mixture of elected representatives sent by their councils, along with unelected political party nominees and “community stakeholders”. I think EERA is an unnecessary layer of government, which is undemocratic, has a worrying amount of influence and is a waste of resources. It only has another year yet to exist before its planning role is taken over by the “Local Authorities Leaders Board” and the Regional Development Agency.
Key Areas of Agreement
The board agreed that the primary thrust of its response to EERA would be to request :
- Realistic rates of growth, in Cambridgeshire that equates to the current commitments for 75,000 additional homes with a higher figure of 90,000 to be planned for as a “fall back” option or to provide flexibility in the case some proposed schemes proved to difficult to implement. (Cambridge East – the airport site, was given as the top example of a currently proposed development looking less likely). The 75-90K range was stated as being the range the panel were comfortable with.
- Priority given to delivery of the current strategy, focusing on the quality of infrastructure and services.
- Improving conditions in the market towns as a prerequesite to growth there. The panel agreed: “We do envisage some market towns having capacity for growth in the right circumstances”.
- Addressing improving economic prospects away from Cambridge, had to look North and East of the county.
- Recognition that Cambridge is the major centre for economic growth and provision to be made for that.
Also agreed was the conclusion that a “mixed development strategy” ought be the foundation of the plans. (By this they mean a mixture of more development in and around Cambridge as well as development in the Market Towns (St. Neots, Ely etc.) and the option of a new settlement isn’t ruled out.)
The question of new settlements was quite contentious, while the panel agreed a statement that it was : “not at this stage thinking that additional new settlements have a part to play” Cllr Matt Bradney the County Council’s executive councillor for “just about everything” (Transport, Infrastructure and the Growth Agenda) did not agree to rule them out. He was even unwilling to include a categoric statement in the response from the County Council to EERA that the Mereham and Hanley Grange developments were unacceptable though this appeared to be the view of everyone on the panel apart from him. He accepted that Mereham was now, following the planning inspector’s rejection of the plans, “in a different category”. Cllr Bradney stated that the others potential new towns, including Hanley Grange: “need more testing, more evidence”. He said that the County Council’s Cabinet which will have the final say on the response to EERA on the 5th of May 2009 “will discuss that and take that forward”.
The list of apologies was huge, indicating perhaps that councillors are not taking this particular stage in the on-going debate about where, and how many, new homes to build in Cambridge too seriously. One councillor present joked : “It’s a good job we’ve got the A team left then isn’t it”. Sian Reid, Cambridge City’s Executive Councillor for Climate change and growth didn’t attend, sending Cllr Blair in her place. Cllr Blair did not make any contribution to the meeting at all. Cllr Ward, the other member of the ruling group on Cambridge City Council present made four brief contributions on behalf of city residents:
- Bourn airfield – he said if this was developed then there might be a knock on effect on developing the Cambridge airport site as it removed an option for some of Marshall’s activities to move there. He called for some assessment of interplay between the two. Cllr Ward had declared a personal interest as an occasional user of the airfield.
- He opposed a suggestion that references to Cambridge Sub-Region, or Greater Cambridge ought be taken to mean “Cambridgeshire”. He, and others, pointed out Cambridge and its surroundings were a real physical entity whereas Cambridgeshire’s borders are an accident of history. County officers had apparently wanted to simplify their work; it appears targets for number of homes etc. are likley to come in from the EERA and Government at the county level, so to the number crunchers the separate consideration of Cambridge City (beyond the City Council boundaries) was not useful. This shows how disconnected those driving these schemes are from reality. We need to be considering Cambridge city in it’s “real” context irrespective of local government boundaries.
- He said “Hear Hear” in response to an East Cambs district councillor who said the region had provided three new settlements (Bar Hill, Cambourne, Northstow) and that was more than enough. The South Cambs representatives noted they’d all been in their district.
- On the subject of the lack of public input to the process he said: “Any intelligent member of the public looking at the website will determine that it will take many hours of study to formulate an opinion and decide to leave it to us. I am a huge fan of representative democracy, and largely agree with Cllr Ward on this point. Too often consultation results in pressure groups having a disproportionate say and mob-rule. Do Cllr Ward’s constituents know his views on development? Does he know theirs? Does his party have consistent policies? Does he believe in them? The answers to these questions have to be positive in my view for representative democracy to work well.
Michael Williamson, Liberal Democrat County Councillor for Waterbeach, attended and used the procedure for members of the public to ask questions to address the committee on behalf of Waterbeach Parish Council. Despite being a county councillor he was given three minutes to speak. (When City Councillors speak, as members of the public, at City Council meetings they are given unlimited time).
Mr Williamson started by talking about consultation saying: “Frankly this whole process has not really hit the mindset of many who ought be consulted”. He drew attention to a report to the meeting which had stated an intention to contact parish councils. He said that Waterbeach would potentially be affected in a very big way and it was essential that parish councils be consulted, and consulted in plenty of time – especially if the process was ending in May. He said: “Parish councils can’t reply in short time scales”, and asked when parish councils will be consulted and if it would be in time.
Mark Vigor, the County Council’s “Head of Strategic Planning” replied, he said the County were about to launch are more intensive consultation process which would include letters going out to parishes. He said that there were to be two phases :
- Asking for an immediate response, accepting there is not a lot of time before the County Council has to form a view to send to the EERA
- A second phase, giving more time, before the formal consultation by EERA in the autumn
Later discussion revealed that the County Council were hiring consultants (“Corporate Culture”) to run the consultation; they even needed consultants to do the first phase of simply writing to parish councils. I thought it was absolutely shocking the County Council were not doing such a simple exercise in-house.
Mr Williamson asked a second question about Waterbeach. He said that in the 2001 structure plan Waterbeach and Northstow were the primary sites for development, but times have changed. He noted that in 2001 Waterbeach barracks looked as if they were going to be closed, however recently significant investment has gone in there and the cost to the Army of relocating from there would appear to be considerable. Mr Williamson said this was an important factor which needed to be taken into account.
County Officer, Mark Vigor, said: “Waterbeach couldn’t remain a realistic option if the MOD were not willing to release the site. Our understanding is that in the long term they are prepared to move out”.
County Cllr Tony Orgee decided to make the rather general point, given the question, that the real question was: “Is there a need for these new homes?”. He said: “strategy needs to be based on what we think the shortfall is. It concerns me that currently it appears to be developer driven, we have to focus on need.”
Cllr Nichola Harrison rather grandly said: “We have got to take some fundamental decisions, not only about scale but about distribution”. At least she was showing she’d read the agenda and knew what the point of the meeting was. She went on to accurately note that; “the public are not engaged with this current round of proposals”. She suggested this was because all of the proposals currently on the table had been considered before, and the public didn’t know if they were being seriously considered. She said that how to consult the public would depend on their advice to the EERA. Her view is that consultation ought to follow the decision. She explained with an example saying: “If there is any suggestion of support for Waterbeach [as a location for the development of new homes] we must go out to communities out there and tell them that’s what we’re doing and ask them what they think about what we are doing”.
I think that’s worth repeating. Liberal Democrat Cllr Nicola Harrison’s view of consultation:
tell them that’s what we’re doing and ask them what they think about what we are doing.
Lydia Macpherson, spoke representing the Stop Hanley Grange joint action group. She said that as Hanley Grange was on the “East of England List” it has to go through the regional spatial strategy process, but “it is not a new proposal and to pretend it is is ludicrous”. Saying: “Many people put hard work and money into establishing that Hanley Grange was not suitable”, she sought confirmation this had not been wasted effort. The site was, she said, still as unsuitable as it had been six months ago. She said that Tesco ought not be allowed to buy their way into building Hanley Grange (suggesting that Tesco’s offering might be looking more attractive as other proponents of schemes might not have the required funds at the moment).
Arguments against Hanley Grange were listed:
- Employment. The number of homes needed to support local high tech and biotech businesses is in fact small.
- Stations have lines into London. A new development will attract London commuters and not help the local housing shortage.
- The proposals are too big – out of proportion with the site and surrounding villages.
- Other parts of the region are making up the shortfall of dwellings, making Hanley Grange “numerically unnecessary”.
She said that the “Action group is still here and is not going away” and claimed that what she had said summarises local opinion. She said that Hanley Grange is in the most challenging and difficult category of the developer proposals on the table.
Cllr Tony Orgee, the local County Councillor, said that housing and jobs needed to support Cambridgeshire’s needs and we should not be looking at sites which encourage “out-commuting”, those which would be looked on favorably by local authorities from the south. He said there was a need to link homes and employment.
A member of the panel complained about discussing Hanley Grange specifically at this point saying: “We must look at the strategy first, that will dictate the options, we can’t go the other-way round”.
Councillors didn’t discuss the water supply or any other utilities in any depth. (There was one bullet in a presentation from the consultants). I think this is a major issue so have given it a sub-heading here. At Northstow the water companies were incredulous that they had not been consulted at an early stage. There is no indication that councillors have such key practical considerations in mind when discussing the location of new homes in the regions now.
Melbourne near Royston had appeared on one of the maps of possible new development sites in the presentation by consultants.
A councillor queried this, saying he didn’t think there was enough of a centre in the village on which to base an expanded settlement. “What’s Melbourne doing there?” he asked.
The answer from County Council Officer, Mark Vigor was: “We’re trying to get some feel for the cross-border issues in the Cambridge Sub-Region”.
That doesn’t strike me as a rational and responsible approach, what relevance has the presence of an artificial border nearby got to the question of if Melbourne is a good site for new development or not?
It sounds as if he’s drawn a splurge on a map simply to try and stir up some reaction from Hertfordshire. Totally irresponsible.
- “A City the size of Cambridge has quality of life advantages which would be lost if it gets much bigger.”
- “We must remember not to shoot in the foot the economic driving force in this county”
- A projected excess of homes over employment opportunities was presented by consultants.
- A District Councillor suggested putting information about the proposals on District Council websites and in their Newsletters
- A councillor said that consultations were ignored by parish councils, as they weren’t convinced they were listened to. Proposals might be tabled, but often weren’t debated.
- Another councillor, speaking about consulting parish councils complained : “nothing is going to change – we don’t have the power to change anything. Even if all the parish councils say they don’t want a development, 90% of the time we’re not going to take any notice of them, we can’t, we’re doing it because the government is forcing us to”. The apparent disconnect between “The Government” and the people of Cambridgeshire worries me, I think out local MPs ought be doing more to challenge the Government in Parliament.
- Cllr Matt Bradney said: “We have to go out to consultation, it’s about explaining and shapes / backs up our response to EERA”.
- Key recommendations from a stakeholder workshop in Wisbech were reported:
- Improve the conditions in market towns, if that’s done some have capacity to grow.
- Improve economic prospects away from Cambridge
- Recognise Cambridge and its environs provide focus for growth
- New settlement options did not look promising to make people, though perhaps they are needed in the long term.
- 75K was the emerging level of consensus for the number of new homes, with one group suggesting planning for 95K in case of failure to deliver.
- Reacting to the presentation by consultants a councillor said: “It is not sustainable to develop around the county when jobs are focused on Cambridge”.
- Carbon modeling data was requested, noting that the main changeable element related to commuting.
- An East Cambs District Councillor suggested “The Alan Sugar Approach” of “Hanley Grange, you’re fired. Mereham, you’re fired. Waterbeach, you’re fired.” He suggested “They’re all distractions to us all”. He expressed disappointment that a need for a new settlement was still being considered. Cllr Bradney said there was a need to show to EERA all reasonable options had been considered.
- Alconbury. Many councillors said this was an unsustainable site, and expressed concern it would be a dire place to live, primarily due to its isolated location. A proposal from EERA for long term plan to 2080 for 200,000 homes on the site was mentioned.
- Cllr Ray Manning, Leader of South Cambs District Council, said that a local consultation had asked people to choose between Waterbeach and Northstow. No one said they were getting both. He said he really didn’t like Waterbeach being in there.
- County Council officers said that Waterbeach coming on-stream might be an effect of challenges to Cambridge East.
- Discussing the potential to extend Cambourne – councillors were concerned Cambourne was “not emerging as a sustainable or deliverable way forward”.
- Wintringham Park at St. Neots was discussed positively, the most positively of all development sites. Detractor’s concerns about severance from the town were over played councillors said, with much being done to link the development with the town via walkways and green corridors.
- Cllr Harrison said she should have been given a comparison table comparing the sites. She said she had found it difficult to do a comparative evaluation. She said “This is crunch time, we want a proper weighted scoring process in a form which we can read”. I interpret her request as being for officers to make the decisions for her, as judgements on the weighting of various factors are exactly what councillors are being looked to to make.
- Cllr Bradney agreed with councillors who suggested the best way of determining when Northstow would be built would be to run a book on it.