Sam Davies

What goes around, comes around

Tomorrow sees the launch of the public consultation on the ‘First Proposals’ for the new Greater Cambridge Local Plan. This is a critically important document, as the final adopted plan will shape the development of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire until 2041.

I will be encouraging everyone locally to read, digest and respond to the proposals. The consultation will be open for comments until 13th December, but I suggest that you hold off rushing to respond, as there will be various public information events, and I will be posting more articles about various aspects of the proposals in the weeks ahead.

Learning from history

In common with local author and researcher Anthony Carpen, who publishes the excellent ‘Lost Cambridge’ blog, I think there’s a lot to be learned from revisiting previous local planning exercises. We can see who was involved in creating them; what priorities they identified; and whether reality played out as the authors of them suggested.

One of my recent acquisitions was this beautiful volume, on the Sudbury and District Survey & Plan, published in 1949:

There’s lots to admire and reflect on in this piece of plan making, particularly compared to how the process currently works.

The most significant difference is that this piece of work was commissioned by a grassroots local planning association, “an unofficial body supported by voluntary contributions” which, having secured the support of the Regional and County Planning Officers, then recruited their own planning expert on a contract which required him to move to Sudbury to “study everything in detail”.

The Association raised over £2,000 in subscriptions by local residents and businesses (equivalent to £75,000 today). In order to make the membership as wide as possible, rates started at just 2s. 6d. and “each member firm or individual, without regard to the amount of the subscription, was to have one vote”.

Real community involvement

The drive for inclusivity also extended to the researching, producing and promoting the plan itself. There was a ‘Planning Centre’, a converted shop in a central location, which acted as both drawing office and information centre, with the shop and its windows used for public displays. A significant proportion of the population was involved: the Women’s Institutes drew up and distributed questionnaires on housing conditions, public amenities and employment; secondary school pupils and their geography teachers undertook field surveys on land utilisation; and a team of model makers produced a large scale model of the replanned town centre so that local residents “could see in it exactly what their own town would be like if the plan was adopted and implemented”.

The final output of the study is a very readable 83-page report, written in plain English. The vision is clear to all in the title, while the attractive imagery on the cover speaks of the desire for both work and leisure, promotes the human and the natural realm in balance, and emphasises local distinctiveness.

And what of the content? It’s fascinating to see how many of the ideas it promotes are now coming back into prominence after decades of disregard:

  • It defines a two mile radius as the maximum reasonable distance for people to have to travel to work, shops or school, akin to today’s proposals for 15 minute neighbourhoods.
  • It talks about the importance of providing and protecting social spaces for “spontaneous and unselfconscious association” out of which strong asset based community development can occur.
  • It says that children’s playgrounds should not just have equipment but also “some wild parts suitable for exploitation by the imagination of the children” – a need which is recognised as being even more pressing in the 21st century, given children’s disconnection from nature.
  • It advocates large-scale tree planting, protection of flood plains, the creation of public parks, and improved rights of way including access alongside the River Stour, all of which would be captured in today’s planning language as ‘blue/green infrastructure’.
  • It even specifically identifies the need for housing of the right quality and in the right places to reduce the amount of “drudgery” in women’s lives, thus “releasing their energies and abilities to more creative ends”. This foreshadows by 70 years the predominantly female ‘core economy’ of domestic responsibilities now acknowledged in ‘Doughnut Economics’ and other frameworks trying to bring about a fairer and more equal society.

What’s really striking about the document is the spirit of optimism which underpins all its proposals. It was published alongside the coming into operation of the immensely influential Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which for the first time gave comprehensive planning powers to local authorities. It is most decidedly not a ‘Nimby’ publication – it welcomes growth of a type, at a scale and in locations which make sense to the local population.

Thinking outside of the boxes

One of the reasons it was able to do this is because, rather than being constrained by local government administrative boundaries, it was based on the functional “area of influence” of Sudbury, such that “although this extended into two Counties and included portions of four Rural Districts, the only boundary considered was that of the whole area as a neighbourhood”.

This is what our next Local Plan will attempt to do, by working across South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge City, but even this will not be able to consider the impacts of possible large developments just across the border in surrounding local authority areas.

The Sudbury report also recognised that transport and planning are intrinsically linked, a linkage which is unfortunately now broken in our own local governance arrangements, with planning being the responsibility of the City Council and various transport issues distributed across the County Council, the GCP and the Combined Authority.

Finally, it didn’t just pay lip service to community ‘engagement’ (remember Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation?). It was an ambitious community-led process, going far beyond what would today be possible as a Neighbourhood Plan, a mechanism which operates using powers conferred by the 2011 Localism Act but of which we have not a single example in Cambridge.

A sense of place and belonging

Throughout the whole report, there is an emphasis on fostering a sense of place and of belonging, which “although it may sometimes be tiresome from the point of view of administration, is of importance to human self-respect”.

I would love to see the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan be made as accessible, inclusive and human as the process documented in this report. Yes, times have changed; yes, the scale is different; but the core tenet should surely remain that:

“Planning, being concerned with the lives of men and women, should be everybody’s business;
there must be no idea that local wishes might, in the new conditions,
be ignored or over-ridden merely for the sake of administrative convenience.”

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how well we are living up to this over the next weeks and months. In the meantime, keep an eye open for the events and articles around the Local Plan proposals, and if you think any of your friends and neighbours should know what’s happening, please forward this to them – they can join the circulation here.

Sam Davies


  • Thank you, Sam, this is a very interesting and well researched read. I hope that you will find a way to get a wide circulation.

  • This is a fantastic insight. Oh to turn the clock back and erase spreadsheets and tick boxes and bland planning for places that people want and need, and can feel actually involved in.

  • Please add me to your mailing list. This information is essential if we are have a democratic say in the way whole of this area operates in the future. You certainly have my support.