Examination, Challenge and the Arc

No Examination in public is planned for the Arc strategy. Clearly to save time. The last RPG9 (South East) sat over 4 months and took 5 to deliver a report, plus time taken for SoS to respond and prepare that two years, plus in that case another year for judicial challenge.

However old school examinations, invitation only and real debate, were exceptionally useful. The Crow report on the South East panel was exceptionally useful in puncturing the arguments made by the conference to push numbers down. It embarrassed Prescott who wanted numbers down but that was a good thing. Ever since policy has to meet housing needs in full. Similarly the Eddington Panel on East of England stopped the London -Stansted-Cambridge corridor being an M11 and sprawl based ribbon, what a corridor was was never defined, and the London Plan panel for the last review stopped a horrible fudge of a small sites policy whose yield magically was the shortfall in numbers.

The Arc is different. The issue is not a conference trying to push down need and massage up supply, rather it is an issue of trust and the ability of voices being heard and the ability to challenge and debate. It is an issue of transparency. If the process is not transparent it will become enmired in JR.

Therefore I think the government needs to think through innovative means of debate, peer review and challenge. There could be an advisory panel for example at a series of rolling virtual conferences for debate and advice on key issues. You don’t need to wait months for results. I always admired for example Joyce Bridges ability to sum up key issues for review after only a few hours.

Here I think it should be in two stages, firstly debate on the jobs led numbers, what are the jobs levels and what should the housing levels cross arc be to support that. In a jobs led regional strategy the standard method doesn’t work, you cant add 35% to Birmingham for jobs in Cambridge or Oxford its ridiculous. The extra jobs require migration. Secondly a series of rolling conferences for each of the 5 counties to form and then test and debate the options.

Can there be a Good Plan for a Large Cambridge? Some Arc Options for Greater Cambridge

With the kick off of both the Governments Arc project and the new joint Plan for Cambridge and Greater Cambridgeshire I though I would give some thoughts on what the realistic options for the area might be.

I was responsible for a time for the submission of the Cambiddge local plan (now adopted) and brokering the Housing Market Area MOA on housing numbers so I do have some background here. Planning for Cambridge is not easy. It is a special place, a compact walkable (at least in the centre) city with a cycling modal split more like the Netherlands. Plans for its expansion have been fiercely contested however Cambridge has, uniquely, managed to develop a strategy based on expansion via transit and often (bit not always) of high quality. The sheer number of permissions for large schemes granted in recent weeks has set alarm bells ringing however that is a sign of success. When you have a local plan adopted in a high value area inevitably you will see a spurt of growth.

First some history. Until recently Cambridge was an east anglian backwater. The city was split between town and gown much more markedly, the univity population and residents of a market town servicing a poor agricultural population.

Planning was driven by the Wright-Holford Plan 1950. Like all major plans till the early 70s a joint endeavor between local staff and centrally appointed consultants. It was in line with regional thinking of the time which was to restrict growth anywhere South of Leeds/Manchester. Hence it tried to keep Cambridge as a small compact university Town. Holdford indeed said ‘there can be no good large plan for Cambridge’. The Holdford plan, unlike say the Maxwell Fry plan for Oxford, was largely though not fully implemented.

The refusal of office development certificates for white heat of technology firms had consequences. IBM abandoned plans to set up a Centre there. The Mott Commission. Cambridge University set up a subcommittee of the Senate in 1967 to to consider the planning aspects of the relationship between the University and science-based industry. The City Council supported this as it was frustrated by County Council’s limits on housing & employment expansion; and hence income from the rates. Local employers also supported it as they faced serious recruitment problems due to the lack of housing. The report took over a year to compile, with extensive consultation and debate, but represented a consensus. This led to the development of the science park.

This was the start of the ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’ with firms such as Acorn/Arm spurring major growth. Herman Hausner set up the Cambridge II group which is 1997 spurred Cambridge Furtures. This culminated in a big exhibition in 1999. The project was driven by Cambridge University Dept of Architecture. This led to discussion of options for growth in corridors along transit lines. One of these was adopted in the Structure plan and subsequent local plans. Basically growth was to the North via Longstanton and Waterbeach, two former airfields, and to the South at Trumpington and Attenbrookes. Cambourne was something of an interim measure and transit still lags behind.

This phase of growth basically is completed with the current local plans, which added growth at Cambridge North (shifting sewage Work), Bourne Airfield, and Cambridge Airport (lets hope it moves in full). These brownfield sites limiting Green Belt loss to the minimum.

The strategy then was to expand north of Cambridge to reduce commuting to London. Resisting development at Duxford being a primary driver. This strategy has proven out of date as traffic modelling shows that development close to the cambridge but to its South will reduce commuting to Cambridge by more than commuting to London is attracted. Hence there is less of an apiori restrictio to the direction of growth.

The advantages of a compact Cambridge cannot be denied nor some of its green assets which form its setting, such as the views of the sires from its west, Grantchester Meadows and Fen Ditton and the Gog Magog hills. Not all flanks are equally sensitive however. It really wouldnt be such a loss to see some development around Fulbourne or Great Shelford Stations easily accessible to job clusters in South Cambridge or the Science Park. I guess some development in the Green Belt is inevitable to optimise housing development at cyclable distances from jobs.

Beyond this the need for housing of a scale to fulfill a jobs led strategy will require either a new major corridor from Cambridge or development of one or more new communities just beyond the Green Belt. Here I think are the three major alternatives. These might not be mutually exclusive, it all depends on infrastructure.

  1. North of the A14/New Cambridge

The A14 has been a barrier to the growth of Cambridge but growth has simply been shifted to the four villages of Milton, Histon Impington and Girton. Cambridge Science Park wants to expand to the North and to do so would have to leap the A14. The Busway cuts diagonally across this land. The strategy would be simply to development business parks and new communities along new stops on the busway with new country parks between. Excavation of lakes for the country parks could act as recharge areas for teh local chalk streams and aquifers. As there are villages not towns there is no national policy issue of gaps between town in the Green Belt. There could be new pedestrian cycle bridges over the A14 to Cambridge North and Orchard Park.

2. Around Cambourne and Papworth Everard.

A large number of call for sites sites are proposed in this area. Its main advantages being the proposed northern route option of East West Rail and the proposed Western expansion of the Busway in the short term and CAM in the long term. Though I do not favour the Northern option if you go with this strategic development here makes sense. Much depends on whether East West Rail goes South of Cambourne (which has lower cpacity and more villages) or North (where the route is more circuitous. You could see an option where East West Rail goes south and the Busway goes North. This is a very large area with few constrains (especially north of the A428. The proximity ofthe A428 leads to risks of more car commuting.

3. Six Mile Bottom/Westley Green

This is being promoted and would require either a busway extension of more likely a new station. The issue here is phasing as creation of East West rail middle section Bedford to Cambridge comes first and development associated with that. Six mile bottom I can see in 20+ years.

4. South West of Cambridge/Royston

This options would either be around the existing railine through Royston (in Herts) and or along a more southern route of the East West Rail. If East West Rail were not to follow the southern option it makes sense only to cluster round the existing railway stations, if East West Rail were to go in this direction more development further north would be possible. One problem is the MOD changing their mind and not making RAF Basingborne redudant. This isnt a showstoper.

It is possible to masterplan each of these areas at over 100,000. That isnt to say how big each can be or how many go ahead. For that you need to do preliminary masterplanning capacity studies and infrastructure studies. Key will be studies of biodiversity net gain and studies of nature restoration on a regional scale (such as restoration of natural fenlands and chalk streams such as the River Rey) as well as creation of new potable water sources and strategic water recycling facilities. This option only really makes sense if done jointly with Herts Authorities as a means of accomodating Herts overspill.

Residents need have no fear of this process. Cambridge has managed to successfully plan for its growth and can do so again. Yes there can be a good plan for a large Cambridge as long as planning protects the special features of a small Cambridge Core and diret growth in transit zero carbon corridors. There will be trade offs. If you want o protect the western meadows and the Gog Magog hills setting from housing yuo have to have busways passing through both – a small price to pay.

How the Avocado Nimby Takeover at Buckinghamshire Led to the Return of Regional Planning

Cratus

The new Buckinghamshire unitary authority has wasted little time in making its intentions on planning clear. In a near unanimous decision, the Council voted to withdraw the joint Chiltern and South Bucks Local Plan following significant criticism from the Planning Inspector. 

The decision to withdraw the Plan comes as little surprise. The Plan had received criticism from the Planning Inspector and others, with Slough in particular arguing that the Plan failed to meet its unmet housing need. Potentially this could be as many as 10,000 homes.  

Despite the Planning Inspector viewing the Plan as too timid, since the new unitary Council’s inception in April 2020 there has been an increased sense among councillors that the Plan would release too much Green Belt. Civic groups such as the Beaconsfield Society have fought sustained campaigns against the Plan, gaining the support of new Beaconsfield Conservative MP Joy Morrissey.  To support their goals, groups have been taking an active role in Conservative candidate selections for the first election to the new authority in May 2021 – with anti-Green Belt release campaigners winning multiple selections. 

This build up of pressure has culminated in the unitary leadership of Council Leader Cllr Martin Tett and Cabinet Member for Planning, Cllr Warren Whyte deciding that keeping the Plan was too big a political risk. Given the difficult electoral environment, this was one additional electoral albatross the Buckinghamshire Conservatives decided they could do without. One can only speculate whether the inclusion in the draft Plan of a strategic housing allocation in Cllr Tett’s division was a factor in the decision to withdraw.  Ultimately, it was an easy decision and the Plan was ditched by an emphatic 165 to nil vote, albeit there were two abstentions – which notably included one of the architects of the Plan, former South Bucks Deputy Leader, Cllr John Read who has recently left the Conservatives. 

Additionally, it is worth noting that some councillors from the former Aylesbury Vale District sought assurances from Cllr Whyte that the Aylesbury Vale Local Plan, which is still unadopted, would not go the same way. Cllr Whyte made clear that the future of the Aylesbury Vale Local Plan remains in the hands of the Planning Inspector and its status is unchanged by this decision. However, of the four former Buckinghamshire District Council areas, only Wycombe has an adopted Plan in place, meaning in the short-term the other three Districts will be potentially exposed to speculative development. With much of Chiltern and South Bucks in the Green Belt or under other protective designations, Aylesbury Vale may soon be seeing a rise in speculative application.  

Buckinghamshire Council has sought to minimise this risk by seeking to fast-track a new pan-Buckinghamshire Local Plan which it hopes will be in place by 2025. This new Local Plan is likely to take an approach influenced by the principles outlined in the Government’s Planning for the Future White Paper.  Given the large amount of Green Belt and Chiltern AONB land in Buckinghamshire, there will be some difficult decisions about where exactly will be required to accommodate the thousands of new homes which will be demanded of Buckinghamshire. Crucially, this is now a decision which will be taken after the local elections at which the Conservatives are hopeful of retaining a comfortable majority. 

This is not the only recent high profile decision which has been taken by Buckinghamshire Council as it follows its decision to exit the Oxford to Cambridge Arc Leaders Group in preference to seeking a bespoke devolution deal. In withdrawing the Chiltern and South Bucks Local Plan, Cllr Martin Tett has demonstrated that he is prepared to chart his own course for Buckinghamshire and throw off some of the legacies of the former District Councils. We will see in May 2021 whether these decisions meet the approval of Buckinghamshire’s electorate. 

With Mathusian Avovado Nimbys holding political power in South Oxfordshire and Bucks it become impossible to pursue an agenda of local authorities leadinging on the Arc. They wouldn’t play ball and many held extreme build nothing views – such as development causing extinction of all insects. The government had no alternative but to lead on the Arc framework.