Sam Davies

Is it time for our own Neighbourhood Plan?

Local people may remember that in early 2020, the Queen Edith’s Community Forum (QECF) carried out a ‘Place Standard’ survey to gather views on how people felt about the area. Place Standard is a credible and widely-used tool originally developed by the Scottish government. The survey received nearly 250 responses, and the results were presented at a public meeting in February 2020. You can watch my presentation on video here, and the results are still available here.

Why am I referring to this now? Because to the best of my knowledge, it is the one and only time that any organisation has actually asked local residents about the good and bad aspects of living here.

That’s right. Despite all the changes which have already happened in the 20 years since the creation of the Biomedical Campus, and all the changes which the emerging Local Plan envisages for the next 20 years, there has never been a systematic attempt to build an evidence base about how residents feel, or to construct any kind of vision about how this neighbourhood should co-exist alongside the Campus.

In the new Local Plan’s ‘First Proposals document’, there’s a huge amount about how the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service (GCSPS) proposes to deliver “thriving” new settlements. But there’s far less about managing the incremental changes experienced by the city’s existing communities.

Needless to say, I’ve heard from residents asking what can be done to address the issues arising from these incremental changes, other than responding to the First Proposals consultation.

I’ve also been asked whether a Neighbourhood Plan might offer a way forward.

What is a Neighbourhood Plan?

The Neighbourhood Plan structure was created by the 2011 Localism Act. A Neighbourhood Plan is “a community-led initiative giving local communities power to prepare a planning document that forms part of the statutory development plan for the area”. These plans have to go through a rigorous formal process before adoption, but once adopted, they have equal planning status to the Local Plan.

They cannot be used to propose less growth than is in the Local Plan, but they can allocate sites for development for housing/employment/community use, and help determine the type and design of new developments.

They are compiled using a detailed and wide-ranging evidence base, such as the information about windfall site distribution which I mentioned last week. There’s more local detail on the GCSPS website.

Eagle-eyed readers will note that while there are four adopted Neighbourhood Plans in South Cambridgeshire villages, and another 15 going through the process, there is only one under development in Cambridge, in South Newnham. You can read about that here.

Why might this be?

  • Does the Parish Council structure provide a better basis on which to undertake the work?
  • Is a village a more readily definable spatial concept than a suburb on which to locate a Plan?
  • Were officers from South Cambs District Council historically (ie pre-GCSPS merger) more active in promoting Neighbourhood Plans?
  • Are city residents just less bothered about what happens in their neighbourhoods?

I have tried and failed in the past to get an explanation of why there is such an imbalance. In fact, I’ve struggled to even get any acknowledgement that this imbalance might be significant and worthy of further exploration. You might also note that all the GCSPS material provided under the ‘Neighbourhood Planning Support Offer’ and ‘Neighbourhood Planning Toolkit’ headings still relates only to South Cambs, not the City. This could deter potentially interested city residents or make them think it’s not a viable option.

As you can see from the chronology given on the South Newnham website, theirs has been a protracted process which first started in 2016. I’m not for one moment suggesting that a Neighbourhood Plan is a quick or simple fix to the highly-contested debate about the future of our neighbourhood. That would need real commitment from a team comprising a minimum of 21 residents with relevant skills and experience, over an extended period. And its proposition would have to be sufficiently compelling that it secured approval in a referendum of all residents in the area, while also meeting the legal requirements.

But undertaking a Neighbourhood Plan process would actually provide a means of finding out what matters to people who live in this area and how they see the future. I hear many unfounded – and indeed unfair – assertions and assumptions about what people here think about planning, development and growth.

Maybe the time has come to actually find out. What do you think?

Sam Davies


  • If you start from scratch, you have a small chance to develop a NP that truly represents what a community wants.
    If you reside in a SCDC village, you will find that your initial group, normally a working group of the PC, will be led by your LPA, SCDC. There will be charts on the wall, maps, views, days at Camborne, free sandwiches and the like, but it will ultimately be top down. This is not what a NP should be.
    It therefor is status quo pre-conceived ideas; it will lack the vision of “what could be” and be stifled into a “what don’t we want” or “what you can’t do’. Hi
    This is not bottom up community led planning.
    It needs a very honest appraisal of what is the community, as you will otherwise have a working group that may have many volunteers chipping in, but could be led and steered from those with vested interest or political affiliations and not real representatives of the community, although they’ll obviously argue differently. Even worse, they may be steering towards a wider political agenda that fits some, but not with the best interests of the community at heart.
    In addition, where a PC has a working group building the plan you must have some sort of governance and understanding of what is going on, in detail. If you don’t, you have a PC who are effectively rubber stamping something that is not elected councillor led and your parish council may not really know/understand the detail or the work behind it.
    You end up with an inflexible plan based on what your LPA don’t want and offering no real method of ever creating something that your community actually does.
    My advice would be to ensure you have, as part of the LPA work, the modern and up to date thinking in planning in an area or village or wherever, that is different from the LPA views.
    That is the catalyst for some real community led ideas, vision and dare I say it, change.

  • I’ve lived in 3 different parts of Cambridge city and have seen development of various kinds in all of those. What local people wanted was assessed (for larger developments only) by inviting them to a kind of “show and tell” session. These sessions without exception had the feel of “box ticking” rather than trying to find out what local people wanted.
    For those sessions to have been more useful the local people of course would need to have a coordinated view of how they did want things to develop in their area. I am in favour of an intiative like a “Neighbourhood Plan” as a way of crystallising and unifying (as much as possible !) local views on how development should procede.
    To give a concrete example: I like to walk or cycle as often as possible and therefore improvements to or even new cycle and foot paths are a priority for me but I accept that others like to use the bus or prefer to use their cars. Finding some kind of common view should still be possible with attached priorities.
    In all cases where I have been involved in trying to influence local development it felt like local people did have strong and principled views but these were virtually never taken into account. The fact that we, as local people, did not have some kind of more formal “plan” didn’t help.

  • Neighbourhood plans are good but they do not have any power. Having been involved in producing a Plan for a large Suffolk village I note that Sam suggests that at least 21 dedicated, experienced people are required to construct and launch a N.P.
    I would add that amongst that 21 there needs to be a core of six that are prepared to dedicate a lot of their time over a period of around three years.
    There is also the question of costs. Surveys, questionnaires, photography, production.
    There also has to be close partnership with the local authority – we were working closely with the District Council, which structurally was simple – P.C. & D.C. Would our relationship with local admin be too complicated.

    If our local councillors worked as a team using some of the NP principles, could the same result be achieved more simply and cheaper?