Sam Davies

Big Business, little people

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.

You can watch the discussion in full, starting here at 22m, with my contribution at 30m.

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.

Have a great time and let’s reconvene the conversation later in the summer.

I add to this blog weekly if there’s something important to report. Get these posts by email by adding your name to the list, using the form on this page.

Don’t forget a regularly updated list of local planning applications can be found on this page here.

Sam Davies

6 comments

  • Stimulating read and will take time to look at further pieces cannot thank you enough Sam for your time, efforts and enlightening insights into the big picture we all tend to be so busy we live at the micro level often not seeing what is happening in our own backyard.
    You deserve a well earned break and look forward to reading more on your return Immy

  • Enjoy the break, Sam, and thanks for continuing to share your thoughts. It is always enlightening. I will also take the time to read your documents – thanks.

  • We fight with hands tied behind our backs and blindfolded it seems. Not fair or right but you and others do their all and for that I am very grateful.

    Enjoy your break Sam.

  • Thank you, as ever, for your blog.

    Something worth noting though:
    The appeal costs award regime has changed.

    Now, ordinarily, both parties to an appeal are expected to meet their own costs.

    Only in instances of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ does The Inspector have the discretion to make an award of costs, and only for the additional legal costs incurred as a consequence of that unreasonable behaviour.

    ‘Unreasonable behavior’ can be, for example, missing a deadline for submission of documents, or doing something that causes the other party to incur unexpected legal fees, by delaying proceedings, etc (it’s quite vaguely defined!)

    Despite the council having missed a deadline or two, in the Betjeman House appeal, neither side submitted a costs claim.

    If council officers are unaware of these changes, that’s a concern, and they ought to be updated, so cllrs are not mis-advised.

  • Another very enlightening view on our firmer great-place-to-Live city. The local govt/big business rot you describe is nationwide though, isn’t it? We’re just “lucky” enough to have more glaring example of it.

    Have a lovely break. You certainly deserve it.

  • I am greatly depressed by the difficulties with the balance of power in our planning laws. Localism is but lip service. I am immensely grateful for your persistence and wish you well in your regrouping task.

Sam Davies

Sam Davies was elected to Cambridge City Council in May 2021 as a representative for the Queen Edith's ward, and is the city's only independent councillor.
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