Sam Davies

Planning, growth and happiness

I know I have mentioned this quote from environmentalist Donella Meadows before, but I think it’s a fantastic summary of the questions Cambridge should be asking itself at this point.

“Growth of what? For whom? At what cost? Paid by whom? What is the real need here, and what is the most direct and efficient way for those who have that need to satisfy it? How much is enough? What are the obligations to share?”

What’s prompted me to come back to it this week is an article published by Cambridge University about its relationship with Cambridge Ahead, and specifically a quote by Cambridge Ahead founder and honorary Vice Chair, Matthew Bullock. “Early on,” he explains, “we realised that to maintain the cluster’s momentum, we would need to understand its strengths and build on them. We were also conscious that local government would need to plan for the houses and transport links to support this increasingly buoyant ecosystem.”

There are so many critical elements in just that short extract which merit consideration.

  • Who are included in or excluded from the “we”?
  • What tools and what mandate does that “we” have to shape the city’s growth?
  • Why is the aim “to maintain the cluster’s momentum” a given?
  • Does “local government” have either the structures or the funding to deliver what “we” are expecting of it?
  • Are “houses and transport links” the only elements that are needed? If not, how will those other elements (healthcare, culture, community life to name just a few) be provided?
  • In what sense is the ecosystem “increasingly buoyant” and who is benefitting from this buoyancy?

Questioning Growth

These questions get right to the heart of the causes of our currently broken societal and environmental circumstances, and should cause us to question seriously the continued rhetoric that headlong growth is the best and the preferred option open to us.

For example, consider the significance of this line in the draft response from the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service to Cambridge Water’s proposed Resource Management Plan to 2040: “The Environment Agency has raised concerns as a consultee on planning applications (such as Darwin Green, an allocated site on the edge of Cambridge) requiring further information on the basis that the proposed development may through additional demand for potable water use, increase abstraction and risk further deterioration to water bodies in the Greater Cambridge area.”

In other words, we may not be safely able to serve the development already committed to in the 2018 Local Plan, never mind the massive further expansion being under the emerging plan covering the period to 2041.

And what of human thriving? We are constantly told that only economic growth can create the conditions for good lives but research from the New Local think tank indicates something very different, finding no significant relationship between personal wellbeing measures and local economic growth:

The Cambs & Peterborough Combined Authority has set itself the goal of doubling the GVA (Gross Value Added) of the area between 2018 and 2040 – will that make residents twice as happy? Is there another approach which might be better able to achieve that?

Are “we” (in the language of the CA article) even open to considering that possibility?

Rethinking planning

I’d encourage you to take a look at a great article (declaration of interest: authored by my former lecturers at UCL) on the need for rethinking the fundamental purpose of the planning system, beyond the assumption that it is there to service the growth agenda:

“As a discipline, planning has embraced eco-modernism, preferring to see itself as a champion of more ecologically aware forms of development such as eco-cities, carbon-neutral developments, and infrastructures for sustainable transport and for generating and transmitting renewable energies. As a result, it is almost always possible to label the pursuit of more development as sustainable, even where it seems clearly to be following a neo-liberal agenda. This has been achieved by a focus on assessing and trading-off environmental, social, and economic dimensions rather than considering more fundamental conflicts including over resource use. Promoting sustainable urban development through new development and meeting other policy goals using planning gain has become the acceptable face of green-growth/pro-growth planning”

Leading planners, such as Hugh Ellis, Policy Director of the TCPA, have also become increasingly vocal in their criticisms of who and what the current system is serving:

“The social contract that planning represents is an attempt to reconcile the needs of landowners and developers, the local and national state and the needs of the wider community. The system recognises the legitimate operation of the development sector but creates a framework of regulation and democratic accountability to ensure this market activity is broadly in the public interest. In the absence of a social contract no one has any obligation to play nicely. Landowners can collect unearned increments, developers can maximise profits and reduce standards and those with no financial stake in the development process are left crying in the dark. The result is the effective end of public interest planning in England.”

Over the last few years, it’s been very heartening to see increasing public interest in, and understanding of, the planning system which – despite its huge influence on everyone’s daily lives – can seem so remote and inaccessible. As part of my continued attempt to foster that understanding, I took part in the second Cambridge Challenges programme on the subject, recorded by Cambridge 105, in which I further try to explore why residents are so frustrated and mystified by the current system, and what needs to change. You can listen to it below.

As ever, please get in touch with your thoughts and feedback.

Cambridge Challenges

Sam Davies


  • We come back to the number 1 issue in Cambridge is – provision of the right sort of housing with a view on what place infrastructure will play in having Communities which are a true balance not just housing developments which only line the big guy’s pockets evenmore!

  • While I fully share the concerns about the ‘headlong dash for growth’, I believe one of the key issues is that this growth is employment led. Hi and Bio Tech companies see networking and ‘being where the action is’ as key drivers of where they set up or move to, and so like attracts like. There really aren’t many attractions in setting up in, say, Burnley or Bradford compared with Cambridge for such companies. This then drives housing needs. Developers, of course, love all of this.

    I don’t know what mechanisms our Councils and planners have for putting a break on this growth in jobs.