Officers from the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service have recently been running a series of online briefings for councillors about how the ‘Section 106 agreement’ system works. They have been very well put together and I’m grateful to everyone who’s been involved. But they do raise a lot of questions for this area.
So, firstly, what are ‘S106 agreements’?
- Planning obligations, also known as Section 106 agreements (based on that section of The 1990 Town & Country Planning Act) are private agreements made between local authorities and developers and can be attached to a planning permission to make acceptable development which would otherwise be unacceptable in planning terms. The land itself, rather than the person or organisation that develops the land, is bound by a Section 106 Agreement, something any future owners will need to take into account.
– Taken from Planning Applications – The decision-making process on the Planning Portal website.
S106 agreements can be applied to a wide range of topics, including transport infrastructure, provision of affordable housing and multiple different types of community infrastructure (sports facilities, community centres, public art, etc).
They should enable the delivery of public goods through urban development. However, as we have seen in multiple cases, both the content of S106 agreements themselves and the actual delivery of the commitments made within them, can be highly contentious. These include the notorious gaming of the affordable housing viability assessment process on the Grand Central development on Rustat Road; and the delays to the provision of community facilities at Darwin Green in the north of the city.
Lack of facilities
The final session run by the GCSPS looked specifically at S106 in relation to the provision of community facilities, and the officer leading the briefing rightly emphasised the role these play in creating a desirable “depth of resilience” within new communities.
Why is this a concern? Well, there is lots of evidence which demonstrates that when residents move onto new developments lacking adequate facilities, they struggle to settle and the health and wellbeing of both individuals and the community as a whole suffer as a result.
Moreover, we know that it’s not just the scale and range of facilities on offer which is important, but also the timing of their delivery – they really need to be provided right from the start of occupation, even though developers are often reluctant to spend the money before they’ve made a return from selling homes. Cambourne is acknowledged as an example of where mistakes were made at the outset, and as a prompt to do better in later developments.
The briefing was detailed but this is a huge topic and a one-hour briefing was never going to allow all aspects to be addressed. Two areas in particular strike me as worthy of further discussion, both tied to the overarching principle that S106 commitments are defined as a mechanism to mitigate the impact of development rather than to address existing deficits.
In effect, a developer can challenge the local planning authority’s S106 agreement if they believe they are being asked to address needs which are disproportionate to their development, or indeed unrelated to it. Obviously this can become a technical, indeed, legalistic minefield, while residents’ basic needs go unaddressed.
Out of our depth?
Last year I commented on the failure to include adequate sports facilities, most importantly a swimming pool, in the plans for the North East Cambridge project, which will eventually house over 15,000 people. Now, wind back the clock to 2016, which saw the publication of the joint City Council/South Cambs District Council Indoor Sports Strategy. That document identified a need for an additional 8-lane pool by 2031. It hasn’t happened.
The hope was that the University would provide this, through a S106 commitment, as part of its West Cambridge development; but it appears the University is in no hurry to deliver this. Yet the need still exists.
So can the NEC developers be asked to step in? No, because the anticipated population there will only give rise to demand for 80% of a swimming pool, and you can’t ask the developers to do more than mitigate the impact of their development. So the current proposal is that the NEC developers will ‘offset’ their responsibility via a financial contribution to the University scheme, even though there seems to be no urgency to getting that delivered, as it doesn’t rate highly enough on its own list of priorities. How should this conundrum be addressed?
Defining a ‘new’ community
I mentioned earlier that the needs of new communities for social infrastructure were deemed to be particularly high because of the influx of residents from disparate backgrounds, all trying to settle and make a new life on virgin territory. The intention is that the S106 regime is used to build that “depth of resilience” and create social bonds.
But I’m increasingly aware of the transience and diversity of population even in what we would instinctively think of as established neighbourhoods, and the impact this then has on the need for ways to foster social cohesion. I’ve been exploring the ONS 2021 Census data for Queen Edith’s as research for a paper I’m presenting in a couple of weeks, and in some parts of the ward the numbers are really quite striking.
Take “Output Area E00090767” (basically Wulfstan Way). The data exemplifies the melting pot that is modern Cambridge. For example:
- 52% of residents were born in the UK; 33% of residents arrived in the UK between 2011 and 2021; 8% had been in the UK for less than two years;
- 17% of residents had been living at different address one year prior to the census (13.4% elsewhere in UK and 2.5% living at outside UK address);
- 54% of residents describe themselves as having a ‘UK identity’ only; 37% say they have a ‘non UK identity’ only.
It does make me wonder exactly what degree of diversity and rate of population turnover does in fact qualify somewhere to count as a ‘new community’ – a real-life Ship of Theseus paradox on our doorstep!
To me the statistics absolutely build the case for significant investment in community infrastructure and development in our area – but if S106 is the main source of funding for this, and is tied to the mitigation of impact of new developments, rather than addressing deficiencies in existing communities, how can this circle be squared?
So a week with more questions than answers – but I think they are important questions.