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.

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