On Wednesday, Cambridge City Council’s Planning Committee debated the Outline Planning Application for the 200 home ‘Netherhall Farm’ development (a.k.a. ‘GB1’) on Wort’s Causeway. Here’s what happened.
This is the second of the two Wort’s Causeway former Green Belt sites to come forward: the ‘Newbury Farm’ (GB2) outline application (ref 19/1168/OUT), for the 230 homes opposite GB1, which is being promoted by another developer, was approved by committee on 2 September.
For those of you a bit hazy on the details of the planning process, securing outline planning approval marks the first stage of planning consent and “allows for a decision on the general principles of how a site can be developed”. Permission is granted subject to subsequent approval by the planning committee of one or more “reserved matters” via a further application submitted within three years of securing outline approval.
But – crucially – you can’t undo anything at the ‘reserved matters’ stage which was already agreed at the outline application. This point which sits at the heart of the notorious 2013 Wilton Terrace (Station Road) affair, where the planning committee decided to reject an element of the scheme which had already received outline approval; the developer appealed to the Planning Inspectorate and won costs against the City Council of about £300,000. Apologies for going into so much detail on this, but its significance will become obvious later!
The Netherhall Farm discussion took five hours. For convenience, I’ve summarised four major themes below, but if you’d like to watch a recording of the meeting it’s linked here, with the discussion of Netherhall Farm starting at 5m 30s. In addition, you can find the officer’s report to committee, explaining her recommendation to approve the application, here. And I did some real-time tweeting, starting here.
If you’re in a hurry, I’ll give you a shortcut to the end of the story here. The application was approved by four votes to three.
- Against the application – Dave Baigent (Labour, Romsey), Katie Porrer (Lib Dem, Market) and Damien Tunnacliffe (Lib Dem, West Chesterton).
- In favour of the application – Kelley Greene (Labour, Petersfield); Martin Smart (Labour, Kings Hedges); Katie Thornburrow (Labour, Trumpington); and Queen Edith’s own Jenny Page-Croft (Lib Dem).
But do read on. There’s plenty of food for thought.
Connectivity with the rest of Queen Edith’s and the wider city
I have been voicing concerns about how isolated GB1 will be from the existing neighbourhood for over a year because the developers have not made provision for a ‘back door’ walking/cycling route to facilitate access to our local shops, GP surgery, schools and community facilities in the Wulfstan Way area. Instead, all trips will exit onto Wort’s Causeway; use a new shared use path to Field Way; and then take either the narrow link from Bowers Croft to Almoners Avenue, or from Field Way to Rotherwick Way.
Anyone familiar with the area will know that neither of these is of an adequate size or in an adequate condition to accommodate 1000 new residents. Moreover, this indirect routing will significantly increase journey distances and times, deterring trips by bike/on foot and increasing still further the number of cars on the local road network.
With all that in mind, on Wednesday, I spoke to the Committee and asked them to reject the application in its current form as it currently fails to deliver the necessary connectivity to the rest of the neighbourhood. Matt Danish from CamCycle also spoke on the same point and had circulated this helpful explanation to committee members in advance.
Both of us felt that there was a strong argument against approval, as what was proposed contravenes the Council’s own policies for prioritising sustainable travel (Policy 80 and 81 in the 2018 Cambridge Local Plan). I also believe there is a strong Equalities argument to be made that what’s proposed is insufficient and it’s noteworthy that the City Council’s own Access Officer recommended refusal of the application.
The City Council case officer, by contrast, maintained that even with its deficiencies, the proposal was ‘policy compliant’. More than that, she proposed actually removing from the Outline Application Condition 35, which required the developer to provide evidence that it had made “all reasonable efforts” to secure convenient pedestrian/cyclist ‘back door’ access from the site. (This proposal was eventually rejected by councillors).
She also stated, more than once, that the absence of such a link wasn’t that problematic, because most pedestrians and cyclists would want to cross into GB2 and then onto Babraham Road. This seems most unlikely to me but perhaps she has better knowledge than I do about the number of times a week the new residents on GB1 will want to access the Audi showroom, as opposed to Queen Edith’s Primary school?
The transport discussion also considered bus access. The case officer suggested that it would be reasonable for GB1 residents to walk “500m” to the nearest stop, on Babraham Road. This was corrected by a County Councillor transport officer to “800m”. But again, a little local knowledge would quickly indicate that the Babraham Road stops are used by very few services. To actually get a decent service level, residents will have to walk to the Addenbrooke’s bus station, which is at least 1km away from the centre of the site.
Councillors’ enquiries about the possibility of a bus stop and bus service on Wort’s Causeway itself, to serve both GB1 and GB2, were met with the response that it wouldn’t be possible “in order to preserve the rural character of Wort’s Causeway”!
Of course, putting 400+ homes there and widening the road (also part of the proposal) won’t have any impact on its rural character…
As noted above, pretty much all of the community facilities in the south of Queen Edith’s (limited as they are) are located around Wulfstan Way, which will be at least a 20 minute walk from GB1 because of the connectivity deficit. It is therefore provisionally proposed that there should be some kind of community provision on GB2 to serve residents on both sites and which should be partly funded by the GB1 developer. However, although outline consent has been secured for the GB2 site, there is still no firm agreement as to what that might be.
Moreover, if the developer at GB2 decides not to put facilities onsite, both GB1 and GB2 will contribute to an alternative off-site facility, as described in this email from the City Council’s Neighbourhood Community Development dated 20/1/21:
In other words, if the GB2 developer thinks it’s more profitable or otherwise preferable for them to use space on their site for housing rather than community facilities, the funding they provide in lieu might be used to develop facilities at St Thomas’s Church, the other side of Birdwood Road!
I’m sure this is all ‘policy compliant’ but it seems inexplicable to me that the idea of creating a new facility elsewhere within Queen Edith’s is dismissed out of hand, given the acknowledged shortfall of community space within the area. However, it is at least comforting to see a reference to Nightingale Pavilion being “completed this year” after waiting more than five years for work on the project to commence.
Affordable housing and the ‘local lettings policy’
In common with all new developments in Cambridge, there is an expectation that 40% of housing will be ‘affordable’ ie social rent, affordable rent or ‘intermediate tenure’ (shared ownership). The maths is easy for GB1: 200 units overall will generate 80 affordable units, of which 60 will be social/affordable rent and 20 will be intermediate.
What is very unusual in this case is that although everyone eligible for this housing will be drawn from the main council housing register, an additional ‘local’ test will be applied such that 32 of the 80 units will prioritise people with a ‘local work connection’; 24 will prioritise those with a ‘local social connection’; and the remaining 24 will be offered district-wide (ie the rest of the city and South Cambs). More specifically, the local work connection requires a 2km walking catchment area and a 5km cycling catchment area. It’s not spelled out in the officer’s report, but to the committee she explained that a local social connection would be a 3km catchment area.
It’s obviously great that affordable housing is being made available to support people living and working locally but it’s also important to recognise that this is not reserved for ‘keyworkers’. There was a lot of rhetoric at the meeting about how the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of our local public service employees, particularly those in our hospitals. However, as far as I can see from both the outline application itself and comments by several councillors at the meeting, an applicant for housing under the local work connection could just as easily be a mechanic at the aforementioned Audi showroom or an office worker at ARM as they could a nurse at Addenbrooke’s or a teacher at Netherhall. There is no keyworker-specific clause.
Biodiversity ‘net gain’ and the mystery of the Green Buffer
Much was made of the fact that, using the official methodology, GB1 offers a 17% ‘net gain’ in biodiversity. This is higher than is required by current policy and the developers were congratulated for their commitment to achieving this. However, councillors rightly queried how much of this ‘net gain’ was actually just offsetting the net loss of biodiversity achieved (if that’s the right word) for the GB2 site.
Moreover, it became apparent that much of this ‘net gain’ comes from the 30m ‘green buffer’ which is required to shield GB1 when viewed from the Gogs or the approach along Wort’s Causeway. Fair enough, you might think. But this 30m buffer strip has been created from green belt land in addition to the site agreed for green belt release in the Local Plan!
Given that the removal of any land from the Green Belt was such a sensitive issue, it came as something of a surprise to discover that another 30m has been turned over to this use by officer say-so alone. Officers argued that this was ‘policy compliant’ and ‘not inappropriate’ but by allowing the use of land outside the original allocation for the buffer, the developer has been gifted the opportunity to generate more profit from the allocation itself by building more numerous and/or more expensive units. It seems like a very generous decision and it remains to be seen how much benefit it generates for the city as opposed to the developer.
There is a lot more I could say about what went on and I’m sure I’ll have cause to come back to it over the next few months.
I didn’t go into the session with particularly high hopes because I’m well aware of how nervous councillors are to the spectre of a decision going to appeal and being lost – and that spectre was invoked by name several times during the proceedings by officers.
Councillor Baigent from Romsey was adamant that he was not going to be dictated to, and would vote with his conscience. Perhaps others of a more nervous disposition were reluctant to challenge the officer’s recommendation to approve the application.
What I find frustrating is that – following the Wilton Terrace debacle – the Council instituted an Adjourned Decision Protocol such that if committee overturn an officer recommendation to approve an application, that is regarded not as rejection outright but rather as simply paused, while officers are given time to marshall fresh evidence, pursue further enquiries, etc.
This possibility was not discussed on Wednesday but I do wonder if invoking it would have created more favourable conditions for going back to the developer and asking them to look again, and more creatively, for solutions to the connectivity problem. Three houses in approximately the right position on Beaumont Road have sold in the last three years – sales which the developer has chosen not to take advantage of. But that’s not to say that other opportunities couldn’t come along in future. Or, to put it another way, (nearly) everyone has their price and the developer has very deep pockets.
A final observation is that I really would have liked to have seen councillors display a better grasp of local context. This is a major development site on Green Belt land. While I appreciate that COVID-19 restrictions may rule out field trips, it wouldn’t have been hard for councillors to have done a bit of exploring on Google Maps and Streetview. Then they could have seen for themselves the problems with the existing connections and maybe been in a position to press officers harder for better outcomes. The description of GB1 as ‘policy compliant’ does not, unfortunately, indicate that the bar it has cleared is very high.