On Thursday I attended the City Council’s Planning and Transport Scrutiny Committee. Two items on the agenda were of particular interest to me:
- A paper on how the process by which Neighbourhood Plans can be made and adopted in the city might be speeded up;
- The draft Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) for the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service.
The first of these was technical, and I mention it here mainly to raise the profile of neighbourhood plans as a tool which residents’ groups can use to manage the evolution of their areas, working alongside the Local Plan. I’ve commented before on the discrepancy between the number of neighbourhood plans now adopted or under development in South Cambs, versus the single example underway in the city, in South Newnham. The protocol adopted on Thursday is not going to kickstart an immediate flurry of activity, but hopefully it will smooth the path for any groups who do decide to start the process.
The draft SCI which was approved by Committee will now go out to public consultation. Again, it’s not the most gripping read but it does matter:
The SCI sets out how to engage in the planning process in Greater Cambridge. The SCI describes how the public, businesses, interest groups and individuals within the local authority areas can get involved in influencing the local planning policy, the planning application process and neighbourhood planning, and help to shape where we live and work.
Several of us raised concerns that the balance was tipping too far towards digital means of engagement. Not only does this run the risk of excluding people who don’t have means of digital access (because of hardware or skills constraints), but it also disadvantages the 16% of the population who are functionally illiterate. Anyone who’s tried grappling with the Planning portal to search for, or within, an application will know how hard it can be to track down even the most basic information. For large applications, both the volume of files and the obscure naming of them, can mean it takes even those experienced with the system hours to find what they are looking for.
I also raised points about resident involvement in setting S106 priorities; how Planning Compliance seems to operate like a ‘black box’ where you put complaints in but get very little back; and how the measure of success shouldn’t be driven by monitoring numbers of those ‘engaging’, but rather whether we get high quality input from that engagement, and then incorporate it.
All of these issues had extra emphasis in my mind because the previous day I had been at an event entitled ‘The Cambridgeshire Space Race – the Search for Industrial Space’, run by lobby group, the Cambridgeshire Development Forum. The argument being proposed was that due to:
- The explosion of lab and office-based employment space for knowledge-intensive sectors
- The extraordinary rate of house building in the area
- The switch to online shopping from the high street
- Brexit, leading to companies ‘on-shoring’ or ‘near-shoring’ critical activities.
…we have a massive deficit in industrial and logistics real estate, particularly larger units, and this needs urgently addressing in the next Local Plan.
It was an interesting event on several levels and it was good to see several other City and South Cambs councillors and officers there. There was much discussion of what Peter Freeman (Gove’s emissary leading the Cambridge 2040 Delivery Group) might be thinking or doing. Bizarrely he hasn’t yet spoken to the City Council’s Executive Councillor for Planning, Building Control and Infrastructure, Katie Thornburrow, but another attendee told me that he was “spending a lot of time in Savills’ offices”.
The CDF is chaired by Lord Andrew Lansley, previously MP for South Cambs. He now sits in the House of Lords and is Vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group Trade and Inward Investment, so clearly an individual with access and influence. His introduction set the tone for the whole discussion: “We have to say to the CDG ‘This is what we need’” – ‘This’ being sufficient provision to meet a suggested ninefold increase in demand, evidenced by speakers from Savills and Carter Jonas. I’m not sure if anyone from Cheffins was there, but if they were, they certainly didn’t speak up along the lines of their July press release about the risk of over-development killing Cambridge’s golden goose.
There was a great example during the public questions of how real the risk of this happening now is. The developer of the Bourn Quarter, ‘a unique net zero carbon production, R&D, life sciences and warehousing business park’ explained why he is unable to progress the Phase 2 expansion of the site (and I do hope my recollection does justice to the farcical situation):
- The Environment Agency has objected to a proposed 3500 housing development at neighbouring Bourn Airfield because it doesn’t believe there’s enough water to support it
- All the electricity grid capacity which would be required for his Phase 2 expansion is already reserved for the next 15 years for the (currently suspended) housing development
- The nearest fibre broadband exchange is full, so the expansion would need to be served via the exchange in Cherry Hinton.
How on earth do you square this with the proposition that the development which we are signing off is by any definition ‘sustainable’?
The morning ended with a robust challenge to the business sector from Cllr Thornburrow (City Council) and Cllrs Smith and Hawkins (South Cambs) to recognise how limited local government powers and funding are. None of the problems raised re Bourn Airfield (water, power, broadband) are rectifiable by our councils; supply is dependent on internationally-owned privatised industries. It’s a similar situation with the railways, whether we’re talking about the long overdue Ely Area Capacity Enhancement, to enable more intensive use of rail freight from the east coast ports; or the reinstatement of the Cambridge-Haverhill line.
So, an illuminating morning in lots of ways, and perhaps the business sector will be able to prove itself the ‘better pimp’ that I talked about in my Cambridge 105 interview last week. But meanwhile the pressure to keep squeezing more – more lab space, more offices, more housing, more industrial and logistics space – into Greater Cambridge is relentless, and the scope for genuine community involvement is diminishing.