It’s been quite a week. I’m sure many of you will have been as simultaneously fascinated and repelled by machinations on the national political stage as I have. But even as the psychodrama played out in Westminster on Wednesday, three things happened much closer to home which deserve our attention.
Collectively they reveal much about the way big business has decisively captured our planning system, our neighbourhood and our city.
City Council decision overturned
Let’s start with what is, in many ways, the least significant of the three – the installation of a 15m tall 5G mast and associated infrastructure in front of the shops at Wulfstan Way. The application, by Hutchison UK, was turned down by the City Council Planning Committee last year after a concerted local campaign – all three ward councillors, the local primary school and many residents wrote to oppose the application. However, the applicant, Hutchison, was not content to accept that decision …and this week the Planning Inspector overturned the City Council’s refusal.
I am not persuaded by the Inspector’s glib dismissal of concerns about road safety and impact on the local area. But more than that, I see this case as yet another example of the disparity in the resources which residents can bring to bear in the planning system against a determined corporate applicant.
This wasn’t about housing, it wasn’t about employment space. It was just a 5G mast – and while Wulfstan Way shops may offer the most convenient location for Hutchison, it is by no means the only possible location. But they demonstrated no respect for the community’s clearly stated views and no attempt to compromise and explore an alternative. They just slammed in an appeal – an option which is not open to residents who oppose an application which is approved.
Councillors unable to do the right thing
Similar themes underpin the second of Wednesday’s decisions, which I was there to witness at Planning Committee. This was the reading of the last rites for a safe and convenient walking/cycling link between the forthcoming GB1 ‘Netherhall Farm’ development on Wort’s Causeway and local schools and amenities in the existing ward to the north of the site. I have documented before the contortions of our planning system in maintaining the pretence that this development conforms to the definitions of sustainability contained in the Local Plan and Wednesday witnessed the final death throes.
My frustration with this one is that the committee members present (Cllrs Baigent, Bennett, Collis, Gawthorp-Wood, Porrer and Thornburrow, and Chair Cllr Smart) all very much wanted to do the right thing and find some way of forcing the site promoter, CEG, to deliver this northern access. But because of the way policies and conditions had previously been drafted, they had no mechanism of achieving that.
It was actually quite painful to watch the dawning realisation that they – or should I say we, the current and future residents of the area – have been left high and dry by inadequate planning safeguards and an applicant who was willing to simply come back time and again until they got their way.
Committee members were also given the now customary warning about the risk of being liable for the applicant’s costs if the decision was taken to appeal. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it made any difference in this case, as there was so clearly only one possible conclusion to be drawn, but I do continue to wonder about the chilling effect it might have in other circumstances.
The global investment opportunity across the road
My Wednesday concluded with a webinar entitled ‘Learning from the Best – maximising the potential of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus’. The full video is now available and I really do recommend you watch it, particularly the first presentation given by Emma Goodford, a partner in the Life Sciences division of property consultancy Knight Frank. She spoke with great conviction about the “explosive expansion” of funding into the Cambridge tech cluster; the fact that there has been a 100% increase in demand for lab space in Cambridge in the last five years; and the “truly international” opportunity it represents for global players such as BioMed Realty.
It was one of those webinars where you can’t see who the other audience members are and the chat is disabled, so I have no idea who else was invited and what they made of what was said. But despite some warm words about wanting to be a good neighbour, sustainable design, etc, I cannot see how residents’ interests can get any kind of fair hearing when set against the ambitions of the CBC project, and the resources which its promoters and investors will bring to bear.
I posted this question in the Q&A:
There was an interesting response, particularly from Emma Goodford, starting at 1:10:50. In it, she refers to Kendall Square, an innovation district in Boston (in the USA) promoted by MIT and others. References to the local impacts of tech clusters in other countries can be very misleading, due to differences in taxation regimes and local government arrangements to name but two factors, but I had a look anyway at the most recent development at Kendall Square, a parcel called VOLPE. It’s really interesting to see exactly what the 14 acre VOLPE site is returning in community benefits and I would love to see an equivalent presentation of the community benefits accruing from CBC which currently occupies 70 acres and is pressing for further allocations in the next Local Plan:
Taking a break
The relationship between the ambitions and deep pockets of big business; the quality of life of residents; and the ability of local government to mediate between interests where these are in conflict, is a topic I have returned to time and again in the last year. I don’t see any easy answers and in all likelihood the pressure on residents to budge up, put up and shut up will only intensify as we move into the next stage of the Local Plan process in the autumn/winter.
For that reason, I’m going to take a few weeks’ break from writing this blog, to regroup for what lies ahead. I’m also hoping my readers have better and more enjoyable things to do with their summer than read this! However, if you want to keep mulling over what’s going on, you might enjoy these articles. Think of them as some light homework, if you like.
- Greg Fell, Director of Public Health at Sheffield Council, has written a short article entitled ‘How health is created, why does that matter – and so what?’ This goes far beyond the normal platitudes about social prescribing, tree planting and bike lanes, instead issuing a challenge to the damage caused by current economic and commercial norms.
- You could supplement this with reading two of my reference texts, The Spirit Level (how we are all worse off as a result of growing social and economic inequalities) and Less is More (examining ecological breakdown and the system that’s causing it).
- This short provocation in the most recent issue of CAM (Cambridge Alumni Magazine) on page 13 also caught my eye. How can we apply this thinking about local governance and autonomy to our own neighbourhoods?
- Finally, I have recommended Deborah Potts’ presentation to the Cambridge Commons before, but if you haven’t watched yet do take a look at this very clear presentation on the reasons why we simply can’t build our way out of Cambridge’s housing affordability crisis.
Have a great time and let’s reconvene the conversation later in the summer.