Even as human tragedies and triumphs unfold in the real world, the planning system continues to grind on. Applications for the two large housing developments on Wort’s Causeway are now under consideration.
Let me explain.
Lockdown is contracting our propensity for – and ability to – travel. By doing so, it is putting many more people in touch with their local neighbourhood. We are now exercising locally, shopping locally, interacting with our local community by offering or receiving support, or by exchanging nods and greetings as we pass (observing social distancing, of course).
It is forcing us to really live in our neighbourhoods and spend time in our neighbourhoods in a way which as a society we haven’t done for decades. And, encouraged by the idyllic weather, many of us are exploring and appreciating our leafy streets, public gardens, parks and nature reserves on foot and by bike.
Focus on the Local
This sudden forced ‘focus on the local’ has been picked up and amplified by commentators and campaigners who have been pressing for a more socially and environmentally responsible form of growth for years. Now they can actually demonstrate how much more pleasant our streets could be if we can avoid the noise and air pollution inherent in ‘business as usual’. They can point to how our communities are made more resilient when we nurture social interaction between neighbours. They can measure the benefits to our mental and physical wellbeing from being able to exercise in green spaces close to our homes.
The narrative is being adopted by commentators and politicians saying that we can use this period of reflection about what’s important to help build a better future. See for example, these articles from professional planning body the TCPA and Wired magazine, or these tweets from Cambridge’s Executive Councillor for Planning Policy and Open Spaces, Katie Thornburrow:
Yes! How do *we* all experienced this period of crisis? What will be the #NewNormal
Measure our individual carbon footprints
Home & community cooking
Repairing & swapping
Safe urban spaces for wildlife
Adopting & watering our urban trees
— Katie Thornburrow (@cllrkatie) April 26, 2020
Community IT hubs
Allotment & community gardening
Divert road infrastructure funds to communications
Re-skill builders to focus on retrofitting
Measure air quality now, and set new minimum
Measure noise levels now, and set new minimum
— Katie Thornburrow (@cllrkatie) April 26, 2020
Surveys like this indicate that the public is also in favour of seeing these changes.
Positivity and imagination
So far so good. I welcome the outpouring of positivity and imagination around what the future of local communities could be. But the problem is that planning and development has a ‘long tail’. Decisions taken now (and several years ago) continue to influence that future for years to come. And that brings me right back to the applications for GB1 and GB2.
Take a look at this ‘walking catchment’ map from the GB1 (‘Netherhall Gardens’) application. The site itself is indicated by the red dot, with different colour areas radiating out and indicating walking distances increasing in 400m bands.
Is there any local facility whatsoever within 400m of the site?
Moreover, the only ‘facilities’ within 1.2km walk of the site are bus stops.
Everything else – schools, shops, medical facilities, community spaces – is at least 1.5km walk away, a distance which would take an average person 18 minutes and might take a child (going to school) or someone with mobility problems (going to the GPs or shops) considerably longer.
And note that those distances/times are from GB1. If you were walking from the GB2 site (the south side of Wort’s Causeway), it would take even longer.
How did this happen?
A reasonable question might therefore be how did GB1/2 ever get included for development? Isn’t there some distance-based requirement for access to local facilities before a site ever gets included in the Local Plan?
And the answer is yes, there is a requirement, but it measures distances as the crow flies, not as a human walks or cycles.
According to that criterion GB1 and GB2 are compliant.
There is also a bitter irony in that the nearest shops for GB1 and GB2 are actually on the Addenbrooke’s concourse, the same shops which were promoted to purchasers at Ninewells as being their most easily accessed retail outlets. Not quite so accessible right now!
What we have with GB1 and GB2 are applications which claim they will achieve the impossible:
- They do not include their own retail/education/health/transport facilities;
- They do not propose improvements to access to existing facilities;
- Yet they will not add traffic to our already over-congested road network.
Does anyone believe that’s possible? I certainly don’t.
Here’s the walking route described from GB1 to Wulfstan Way. Remember, this is the only practical walking and cycling route from all 400+ homes to local shops and schools.
This is what that route actually looks like:
Yes, this narrow path with misaligned dropped kerbs, intimidatingly badly lit at night, is deemed to be adequate pedestrian access for residents from both developments.
There is a lot more to criticise in both these applications on both social and environmental grounds. I have waded through them and they make depressing reading, particularly given the sensitivities around these locations. But in a sense, the developers of both sites are simply playing by the rules that were current at the time. And if these applications are assessed according to those rules, I’m pretty confident that their expensive consultants will have earned their keep by making sure that they do not need to give an inch in favour of social and environmental concerns.
Which brings me back to my starting place. This acutely painful period does offer the possibility of seeing what a better future could look like if we are willing to seize the opportunity and not be trapped by the mistakes of the past. So my challenge to the officers and councillors who will be determining the shape of this new extension to the Queen Edith’s community is this:
- Don’t wax lyrical about ‘lessons learned’ and ‘how much better our city could be’, and then fall at the first hurdle.
- Don’t now list all the problems which you believe have held our communities back – problems we can already see in the flesh at Ninewells – and then replicate those problems at Wort’s Causeway.
- Don’t let the long tail of the planning system wag the dog.
If you are interested in finding out more, and commenting through the planning system, the documents relating to GB1 are available at the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning website:
I should warn you that there are over 140 documents in each of these applications!