Sam Davies

‘Dry ponds’ and other mysteries

It doesn’t take a genius to work out why people feel so disempowered when you look at the delivery of elements of the Ninewells estate on Babraham Road.

The Ninewells estate on Babraham Road shows all of us that while residents have to struggle to get their voices heard and continue to be held in such low regard, trust will continue to wither.

In November I went to a lecture held by the Royal Town Planning Institute about public trust and involvement in the planning system. The speaker was Professor Gavin Parker of Reading University and over the course of an hour he critiqued the current state of play, concluding that:

  • Efforts to date to build trust and engage widely and effectively with communities have largely failed
  • Trust in planning, in developers and in both local and national government continues to be low
  • The planning system needs to explore in a systematic way how to engage effectively, when, with whom and clarify the basis for community input.

His findings mirrored those of two other significant pieces of research on the subject: the Raynsford Review published by the Town and Country Planning Association in 2018 and the Rebuilding Trust report published by Grosvenor Development earlier this year. Articles such as this one published by The Observer today explain in very real terms how residents’ quality of life is compromised by a cycle of over-promising and under-delivery.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers to these issues, though as my previous blogs have demonstrated, I’m keeping a watchful eye on our local developments. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out why people feel so disenchanted and disempowered when you look at, for example, the fiasco surrounding the delivery of elements of the Ninewells estate on Babraham Road.

1. The ‘dry pond’ that is permanently wet

A dry pond is a grassy area designed to hold excess rainfall for a short period of time before allowing the water to discharge to a nearby drain or water course. The Ninewells development uses ‘dry ponds’ as a way of managing the flood risk in this low-lying area which is, in itself, prudent design. However, at some point in the planning process, the decision was made to combine two functions in this one location (presumably to maximise land use efficiency and therefore profit) and allow the placement of the major play area for the site in the dry pond.

On paper, the scheme looked good – the play equipment would be raised up on a gentle grass dome in the middle of the dry pond, with access provided via a ramp over wet areas and carefully maintained aquatic planting. The reality is somewhat different. Despite the fact that almost all the units on the site are already sold, and occupied and the developer has already moved off the site, the ‘playground’ has looked like this for at least the last three months:

Adding insult to injury, the notice reads “To preserve the surface of the dry pond no ball games please”. Perhaps that includes water polo.

It seems that the ground level inside the pond has not been built up high enough to either lift the play equipment out of the pooling water or ensure that the water drains away in a reasonable time frame. The contractors say they have been delayed in finishing the build because the area is permanently waterlogged; presumably that means it will also be inaccessible for months each year to children on the estate. Previous experience suggests that getting any kind of resolution will now require hours of effort from residents chasing the developer and the City Council while they pass the buck between themselves.

2. The cycle path to nowhere

The S106 agreement for Ninewells required creation of the cycle path running around the outside of the development, facilitating cycle and pedestrian access from Babraham Road to the Biomedical Campus. However, due to the predictable contractual wrangling between the developer and the council, work on the cycle path only started in September 2019 and progress has been grindingly slow.

It’s a route many people use frequently to get to the Nine Wells Local Nature Reserve and has been a permissive path for years. The construction works made it impassable for nearly three months but by Christmas the cycle path had finally got tarmac at both ends, and although the ‘flyover’ bridges across the ditch and into Ninewells were not officially open, it was possible to squeeze through with care. Imagine then the frustration of discovering today that the route has been blocked off again, without notice and without any commitment to when it might be reopened.

If you can’t take your child to the playground on a sunny day, why not go for a walk instead?

Even more frustratingly, it appears that all pedestrians (and equestrians?) will now be forced to go straight through the Ninewells development rather than being able to take the permissive path round the field edge which seems to have been deliberately banked up to deny access. Because it is a permissive path the landowner can withdraw consent at any time; but if that is what has happened, I find it bizarre that neither the landowner or the council have posted notice to that effect or attempted to explain the reason for the change.

Better put your wellies on.

One could argue that, given the overall scale of these developments, these are insignificant details. But they are not insignificant to the people whose lives who affected by such careless disregard on a daily basis. Clear communications between developers, local authorities and residents should be a basic requirement, and yet examples such as these speak loud and clear about who has the power, whose priorities get addressed, what the system values. And while residents have to struggle to get their voices heard and continue to be held in such low regard, trust will continue to wither.

Risa Sorkin, co-Chair of the Ninewells Residents Association, will be reflecting on her experience of living in Queen Edith’s first ‘urban fringe’ development at a Queen Edith’s Community Forum public meeting on 12th February. Also speaking at that meeting will be Paul Frainer from the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning service, promoting the current consultation about the next Local Plan and how it will identify further sites for housing and employment sites. Given that two further urban fringe developments are already approved for either side of Wort’s Causeway (GB1 and GB2), and more are likely to follow, this will be a good opportunity to discuss what has worked – and what hasn’t. Please come along and join the discussion.

Sam Davies


  • The play area at Nine Wells is a hideous joke. What was a rather elegant area with the stone maze within the grass area, is now a very ugly blockage of the view of the fields beyond. When I visited the Hill office to ask why they wished to drown the local children, the reply was that the Council had ordered it to be placed there, despite the fact that there is a dry playground a minutes walk away. This sodden pool was never designated to have the rather ugly play equipment placed there, and was not shown on the plans – although they are now. It was designed as a soakaway – which it now unable to do, as the foundations for the equipment are blocking this function. Clever stuff!
    As regards the slowest making of a short path (6 months so far, and far from finished – I wonder what it has cost?) it is on Council owned land and this field was originally considered for the Park and Ride site. So one presumes that as owners, they have not withdrawn the right of use, or does the left hand not know what the right one is doing. It is most annoying that the mud blockade is stopping local walkers using the old route through the small wooded area that gains access to the further field, but are forced to walk through the urban development.

  • One can add the path through from Nine Wells to Greenlands/Red Cross Lane which has been awaiting completion with its top dressing of tarmac for some months.

  • Very informative I live at Warburton House and it saddens me to see how awful the wet play area is for Children. Hill don’t give a damn, profit is the name of the game. City Council just bury their heads in the sand and are weak with no thought of facilities in the new developments.

  • Yes, given what a hostile environment Red Cross Lane is for bikes and pedestrians, you’d think it would be a priority to finish that link off and create a better alternative access to the Campus. It’s only about 6m long!

  • One of the reasons why we bought our house was because the model in the office showed play equipment for children in that area and we were told it was going to be for older children. At this rate my children will be at secondary school by the time it is sorted.

  • The flooded play area in the “Dry Pond” (item 1) is not surprising as during construction of the houses facing it there was a morning when Hill pumped slurry out of their construction site across the road and directly into the pond. This slurry clearly contained a lot of clay, i.e. very fine particles which would clog the soakaway from the pond. I saw this as I was walking to fetch my daily paper and although I notified the Sales Office, and the pumping had stopped by the time I returned, it subsequently became obvious that the damage had already been done.
    Hill did clean the pebbles in the swale down that side of the pond – but only by washing them off into the soakaway – and ever since then the drainage of water from the pond has been much slower than it was before the slurry was pumped over.

  • Nothing surprises me now! I heard this week about how contractors on a current local Council project had tipped their rubble into a connection to the sewage network, causing the neighbours’ sewage to back up and overflow. The developers have not yet offered to recompense the neighbours for the time and cost of sorting the problem, never mind apologised for the distress caused. Seems to be a bit of a habit.