Sam Davies

Development: not even a level playing field

Several people have asked me in the last few weeks whether I know anything about reports that the government has backed away from the idea of the ‘OxCam Arc’.

The first thing to say is that the vast majority of Cambridge councillors were never invited to have any involvement with the whole concept. So, unsurprisingly, there has not been a briefing about any change of plans either.

The second thing is that even if central government is backing away, enthusiasm among the most vocal elements of the business lobby appears to remain undiminished. This week I came across a new glossy 168-page promotional report on the subject, Radical Capital, published by Bidwells in February. This has six recommendations for ‘supercharging’ economic activity within the Arc. But the authors recognise that there is a PR battle to be won with residents who don’t buy into the vision, and so there’s a section of the report dedicated to ‘Community Building’ which explains the challenge thus:

“Local authorities & developers will need to explain where the trade-offs might be to achieve the ambition of turning the Arc into a world-changing R&D hub. They’ve also got to build local excitement and pride in what it will mean for people to be part of that transformation”

Now there’s a prospect to relish.

It also proposes that: “The planning system is known to be the privy of those who have knowledge of the complex system and its legalistic language, and can maximise their own interpretation of what development change means for them.”

This is a statement I’d agree with, but whereas I observe the power of the developers in lobbying for their agenda, according to Bidwells all the cards are held by those wretched “mainly white middle and high-income residents in their 50s, 60s and 70s”.


Do they really believe that any residents – of whatever age, ethnicity or income – stand a chance of an equal fight against, well, for a start, Bidwells (and their multimillion-pound clients)?

Tireless professionalism from unpaid residents

Let’s take the example of the Trumpington Residents Association. For as long as I’ve been aware of this organisation’s existence, I have been impressed by its professionalism, particularly when commenting on planning and transport matters. There is a deep knowledge base, allied to a deep concern for the neighbourhood and the quality of life of Trumpington residents. And it is decidedly not a ‘nimby’ group – on the contrary, it has worked tirelessly for over a decade to help the new developments at Trumpington Meadows and Clay Farm integrate into the existing community.

However, when I say I’ve been impressed by its ‘professionalism’, that’s probably a misleading phrase. Because its members are not professionals, they don’t get paid, they don’t get trips to MIPIM or any of the countless other development industry junkets that take place, and they don’t get nominated to attend glitzy award ceremonies.

They do it as volunteers, because they care about their place and their neighbours.

Bearing all that in mind, I’d like to draw your attention to their latest comments on the Local Plan proposals for yet further expansion of the Biomedical Campus into the Green Belt. When the consultation on the ‘First Proposals’ opened in 2021, TRA strongly challenged the rationale for the expansion and they were referred by Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service officers to the Development Strategy Topic Paper for its justification.

The Development Strategy Topic Paper is 849 pages long.

‘Through the looking glass’ logic

The response produced by TRA volunteers comes in slightly shorter – at 30 pages! – and is available in full at the end of this article. They have produced what is, to my mind, a detailed and well evidenced note. You can also read its conclusions below.

However, whether or not you agree with those conclusions, it’s not hard to imagine the disparity in resources between any residents’ group and the businesses lobbying the Shared Planning Service for inclusion of their sites for development. How can anyone argue that there is even a level playing field, let alone that it is the residents who have the upper hand? But the businesses are doing just that. It’s the kind of ‘through the looking glass’ logic which you use when you are trying to force something on someone who is reluctant to buy what you are selling.

These same tactics can be applied in relation to smaller developments too. A neighbour of a property with a history of applications for over-bearing extensions wrote to me this week:

“You were absolutely right when you said there should be a better way of managing the development of our built environment. The current system is rather broken. There are many ways a wealthy and forceful developer can get their own way. Persistence – just grind down the opposition with relentless applications. Timing – pop in the application when the opposing neighbour goes on hols or is tied up with a crisis. Trickery – hoodwinking people with phoney reassurances, dodgy drawings and technical smokescreens. Social blackmail – suggesting the party objecting is unreasonable or somehow dishonourable for not supporting a development. I cannot imagine being able to fight a developer in my old age; who supports the vulnerable people in this process?”

It’s a good question.

Trumpington Residents Association’s Greater Cambridge Local Plan First Proposals, Cambridge Biomedical Campus – Policy S/CBC Note & Comment

Its conclusions:

The need for another extension of the CBC within the period of the new Plan has not been established. The Plan period runs to 2041 and, at the rate of development over the last thirteen years, there is up to twenty-one years’ supply available within the Campus’s existing land allocations according to the two councils’ assessment.

Removing this land would cause “high harm” to the Green Belt according to the councils’ own assessment. The councils have not shown that there are exceptional circumstances which justify removal of the land, as national planning policy requires. Their preferred development strategy excludes development in the Green Belt as unnecessary as well as harmful. There is a surplus of employment land, and housing needs can be met without development in the Green Belt. It is doubtful that correct application of the “Calverton” legal test would uphold a case for exceptional circumstances where the councils’ strategic conclusion is that development in the Green Belt for employment and housing purposes is not necessary and they prefer other strategic options for development in the new Plan. The councils and the Campus have not assessed the “other reasonable options” that exist to meet the Campus’s needs, nor have the councils taken account of the irretrievable loss of high value agricultural land the proposal would entail, contrary to their own policy (J/AL). The site-specific justification for exceptional circumstances to allow development in the Green Belt on the edge of Cambridge in the sole instance of the Campus is insubstantial and unconvincing.

If it can be shown that there is a need for development of the CBC within the period of the new plan, “other reasonable options” do exist as the two councils’ own employment land assessment shows – as listed in Part Two of this note.

Proposed Policy S/CBC should not be included in the new Plan unless the need for it within the period of the plan is clearly established AND all other reasonable options have been fully assessed and found wanting for good reason by the two councils and the CBC. The Association’s conclusion is that such an assessment will identify reasonable options which would live up to and enhance the Campus’s international reputation – and increase its contribution to Greater Cambridge rather than diminishing it, as use of yet more Green Belt land would do.

Successful collaborations in the life sciences exist between activities at a significant distance from each other. They do not have to be together at great cost to the Green Belt separation between Cambridge and its necklace of villages which successive local plans have stressed is key to Cambridge’s “special character”. Much of the land taken out of the Cambridge Green Belt in the 2006 Local Plan was in the “Southern Fringe”, a significant proportion of which was for the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. Yet more land for the CBC was removed from the Green Belt in the current 2018 Local Plan. Enough is enough. Other reasonable options exist which should be pursued to the exclusion of yet more land from the greatly valued Green Belt that remains.

Sam Davies


  • The quote from the property consultancy that “Local authorities & developers will need to explain…” says a lot from the outset: they assume that they’ll already have the local authorities on board. And they usually do. The only way to begin changing this narrative is to start electing people who really want to represent our interests, at all levels. They in turn might be able to start changing the culture in local authorities, and giving them the power and desire to stand up to business and its short-term untrammelled growth agenda.

  • Next Friday put a question to Peterborough and Cambridge Mayor covers all Dr Nik’s priorities including transport, can put it virtually. Thank you for this, as a newbie to Cambridge I have been impressed by Queen Edith’s Community Forum and Trumpington Residents Association giving time energy and skills for free to help both inform us and help us try to understand the different agencies and consultations that seem to be constantly happening in Cambridge. Makes my head spin!