What can we learn from the Southern Fringe (2): Community

Following on from my last post about what lessons regarding transport should be learned from the Southern Fringe survey, today I’m turning my attention to community.

When planners and developers talk about promoting sustainable development, they are supposed to give equal weight to all three pillars of sustainability – the economic, the environmental and the social – but all too often, even when the economic and environmental boxes are ticked on a project, the social dimension is treated as an afterthought. The Cambridgeshire Insight survey examined a wide range of aspects relevant to the health and resilience of this new community of over 3000 dwellings (say 7000 people) created across four green belt sites, all on the very edge of Cambridge.

There is too much detail to do justice to in one post, but it seems timely to pick out some headlines, given a swathe of alarmist headlines related to life on the development over the last year:

Hunt for gang of youths targeting the guided busway

Trumpington called ‘dumping ground for problem families’

Trumpington parents want a private security guard

Let’s start by looking at how long the respondents to the survey say they have lived on the site and how long they intend to stay. As you would guess, this is a very new community – 12% of respondents have lived at their current address for less than one year, 48% of respondents for between one and three years. But just as importantly in terms of community building, this is also a mobile population – just over 30% of respondents intend to move on within the next three years.

The survey also looked at tenure types, which vary considerably across the four sites; and at levels of occupant satisfaction with the local area as a place to live. Across the whole Southern Fringe, occupants in the private rented and social rented sectors reported being more dissatisfied than the owner occupiers and occupants with intermediate tenure (eg shared ownership); but the social rented sector also had the highest proportion of respondents who are very satisfied with the local area as a place to live – 32% compared to 21% from the private rented sector. Given this profile, it’s possibly not surprising that levels of reported satisfaction varied significantly between sites, for example 42% responded that they were “very satisfied” at Ninewells, which has the highest level of owner occupation and the smallest amount of private rented, compared to 23% at Clay Farm with its very different mix of tenures.

In addition, the survey asked specifically about occupants’ satisfaction with local services and amenities. What immediately strikes me here is that only 10% of responses across the Southern Fringe register as being “very satisfied” while just over 30% of responses register as either “fairly dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied”. This strikes me as a disappointing outcome for what is purportedly a flagship urban fringe development. When respondents were asked to describe in their own words the elements contributing to their (dis)satisfaction, there was “a clear consensus across the tenure types that there is a lack of infrastructure to support their social needs. The lack of shops and eating / social meeting places is the most commonly cited aspect that residents are most dissatisfied with.” Although residents were generally happy with the amenities that are in place, for example, the community centre and the library on Hobson Square, the report cites “an overwhelming feeling” that much more in the way of local services and amenities is required.

Finally, the survey looked at how strongly residents feel that they are a part of their local community. It’s great that 37% agreed or strongly agreed that they were part of the community; but I’m more bothered by the implications of the 67% who either weren’t sure or definitely felt they weren’t part of the community. Again this is broken down by tenure, revealing that 29% of respondents from the private rented sector either disagree or strongly disagree that they feel a part of their community.

Concluding comment

The themes captured in this report chime with my practical experience of trying to do community development in Queen Edith’s – without adequate provision of social spaces to bring together people, it is extraordinarily difficult to build any kind of social capital and resilience in the neighbourhood, or take advantage of the health and well-being benefits which could be achieved at both an individual and a community scale. That’s why I have been banging on for the last four years to secure the new pavilion in Nightingale Park; why I am paying such close attention to what’s proposed for GB1 and GB2; and why I am determined to get proper attention paid to the social aspects of sustainability in the next Local Plan may bring for our area.

There is a huge amount of detailed information sitting in this report but it is just that – information – not recommendations. I fervently hope that there is a process somewhere in our messy local government structure for refining our understanding of the relationships between the data sets; extracting the lessons that could be learned; and then making sure that they are codified and applied to future developments.

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