Hopeful towns around Cambridge – and how to make them

TL:DR – A substantial report demonstrating the complexity of social policy, the Hopeful Towns Report by Chris Clarke, Rosie Carter and Chris Fairley for the Hope not Hate Charitable Trust highlights a number of risks posed by the rapid housing growth in the towns and villages around Cambridge – as well as some hints on how to mitigate them.

Sometime back in the dawn of my childhood, one of the programmes I remember watching on early 1980s TV was Camberwick Green. I still sort of remember Windy Miller’s song – and certainly the rhythm of his windmill. Later in that same decade, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed a new Environment Secretary – in those days covering the housing and local government portfolio as well. This was Nick Ridley – who became controversial for bringing in the much-hated poll tax. He is also credited by some for coining the acronym “NIMBY” – Not In My Back Yard. Accordingly this made him a prime target for the latex-armed satirists at Spitting Image….and thus the Camberwick Greenbelt sketch was created.

The challenge Cambridge and surrounding towns & villages face

Inside Cambridge City alone another 14,000 homes are due to be built under the current local plan from 2018 to 2030, with the total for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire district council areas being just over 35,000. By 2040, the number of new homes required is estimated to be over 66,000. (This is for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire). Some of the population estimates from 2010-2036 make for sobering reading.

Above – from the Cambridge Independent 25 Jan 2020.

Above- from the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Memorandum of Understanding 2011 – 2018.

Some definitions from local history (feel free to skip this bit)

Looking at the second map above, you can see the some of the surrounding towns. For reference, in English local history the difference between a hamlet, a village, a town, and a city is not by population number. A hamlet is simply a gathering of houses. A village historically is defined by/as a parish and the presence of a parish church. A town is defined by having been granted a charter by the King or Queen to collect local tolls and taxes, host a market, and in effect be locally self-governing with a borough mayor and burgesses/councillors. City status is a mythical mix of the presence of a cathedral of a diocese – administered by a bishop (the ‘cathedra’ being the bishop’s throne), and in more later times again the designation of city status by Royal Charter. Just because a religious building looks very grand (eg King’s College Chapel) does not mean it’s a cathedral. Cambridge historically fell and falls within the religious jurisdiction of the See of Ely at Ely Cathedral. King George VI bestowed ‘city status’ on Cambridge in 1951 by Royal Charter. Hence Cambridge City Council was referred to as either Cambridge Town Council, or Cambridge Borough Council until that point.

What are the risks with all this development?

One of the biggest looming limits to growth is water supply. I wrote about it in this blogpost. The people of Cambridge are also protesting on a whole host of fronts which indicates that all is not well. I wrote about the protests here. This is not the same group of people going from protest to protest. This is different people protesting about different things even though we are still under restrictions in the face of the CoronaVirus Pandemic. The nature of protest is also changing compared to years gone by, in particular with the non-violent direct action tactics of Extinction Rebellion which won’t go away while tropical rainforests and boreal forests continue to blaze and the polar ice caps & glaciers melt at an alarming rate. And that’s before we mention the not normal heatwaves we’ve had not just in recent days but years too.

The social limits to housing growth

The model and structure that the authors of Hopeful Towns analyse the issues through is illustrated below.

The report is potted with interesting graphs, charts, diagrams and tables. Each of the issues above is summarised in the table below.

Above – from pages 8-9 of Hopeful Towns.

A lack of leisure facilities and green open spaces that are accessible to local residents. 

On my previous blog I went after the lack of leisure facilities as well as little attempt to address climate change in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Economic Review in 2018. In the previous year I called for the co-ordination of public transport services with leisure facilities. This was having discovered at an AGM of the Cambridge Area Bus Users Group that Stagecoach did not as a matter of routine have regular conversations with some of the large leisure and entertainment facilities in and around the city. But as far back as 2015 I was asking whether Cambridge’s leisure facilities had kept pace with the housing and population growth of the city – both the seasonal and more longer term.

Piecemeal growth will limit the opportunity to build large facilities for new communities.

South East Cambridge makes for a good case study of how not to do things. And this is my childhood neighbourhood.

Above – land south of Cherry Hinton Road via G-Maps, predominantly Queen Edith’s Ward built in the latter half of the 20th Century. Most of the green spaces in this low-density ward are actually inaccessible to the general public. Furthermore, the housing density as with other parts of the city with a similar development is too low to sustain the sorts of institutions closer to the centre of town.

But the low density of housing was a deliberate choice having learnt the hard way what happens if too many people are squashed together in poor quality housing without any sanitation. Unfortunately the city continues to face piecemeal densification as speculative developers by up detached or semi-detached family homes with large back gardens and replace with with more higher density flats in a system that enables them to avoid making more substantial contributions to community facilities that then need to be built in response to that densification.

Adding neighbourhoods to the edge of towns

Below – one of a pair of developments by Worts Causeway & Babraham Road between Addenbrooke’s and Wandlebury.

The problem with piecemeal development field-by-field is the incentive for the landowner to extract as much financial value from the site as possible given the local plan policies. This plot of land previously part of the green belt around the city was released for development even though some wealthy financial interests lobbied to have a far greater plot of land released for development. The problem is that even if larger plots of land were released, there is no guarantee that developers would be willing to build the community and leisure facilities needed to help communities function. As one planning professional put it to me a few years ago, developers build homes, not communities. Community facilities eat into their profits. Large open spaces eat into their profits. The issue isn’t individual developers but the financialisation of the planning system, which as we have seen has been broken for decades.

“So how do we get to a place where developers are building not just homes but communities, and communities that join together to create hopeful towns?”

At a superficial level (the report is huge and also needs to be analysed in the context of two local plans which go into over a thousand pages) ‘Greater Cambridge’ for want of another term is dealing with the rapid construction of a large number of homes. Therefore issues including:

  • Lack of cultural opportunities (k)
  • Lack of heritage assets (l)
  • Poor connectivity (m)

…will all be issues. Furthermore, competition for resources (f) and rapid change (g) will also be challenges.

One of the biggest errors that successive governments and councils made with Cambourne was not building the transport infrastructure in first before building all of the homes. The same is true with the biomedical campus – South Cambridge Railway Station should have been completed *ages ago* – along with reconnected rail or light rail links from Cambridge to Huntingdon, Haverhill, and Bedford. At the same time – and this is why co-ordinating public transport with leisure services is ever so important, having one-way travel only at rush hour is unsustainable. Historically much of it has been towards Cambridge – though this has changed somewhat with the technology parks between Cherry Hinton and Fulbourn. But yet again the railway station/light rail stop and segregated cycle paths should have been built long before building started on the industry buildings. They didn’t. As a result roads like Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road – certainly up until Lockdown, became far more congested and polluted.

A failure of public administration due to a structure based on the 1970s

You’ve seen me refer to this before. This structure creates conflict and makes it harder for anyone to work together. We are long overdue an overhaul of local government structures in England. I don’t have high hopes for what the current Secretary of State has in mind.

“What are the reasons to visit Bedford, Haverhill, and Huntingdon?”

If you asked me that question in the early 1990s, I’d have said the water slides at Bedford Oasis, the wave machine at Haverhill swimming pool, and Cromwell’s museum at Huntingdon. Different facilities will be on different people’s radars. For me, the acid test for any metro system (I’m still in favour of Cambridge Connect Light Rail based on existing technology rather than the current proposed system trialing an untried system similar to how Cambridgeshire County Council piloted the guided bus – the dispute now heading to the High Court).

So as well as giving people reasons to visit other places and not trying to cram everything within 2 minutes of King’s College Chapel, having bus and metro station stops that are literally on the doorstep of the leisure facilities. All too often the co-ordination is lacking between the bus companies, the engineers and urban designers, and the architects of the leisure facilities – the new Ice Rink in Cambridge missing an opportunity to have a bus stop next door to the main entrance. Instead you have to walk through a car park. (This can be remedied).

Art, drama, music and entertainment all matter in building communities

As I wrote earlier, I’m struggling without live music and the weekly music rehearsals which in my present condition are my only social contact with a large group of people these days. (Chronic illness means I can’t work full time or function full time anymore, and I can’t tell you how utterly soul-destroying it is to have to live with that).

All of these inevitably require the involvement of charities, philanthropists and/or the state. Raising the funds and resources necessary to build the anchor building for community groups to operate out of is a significant undertaking – all too often requiring resources beyond that of a local council – often a national agency or central government directly. It also requires a substantial amount of work done beforehand on what gets built where. This is why the indoor sports strategy for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire 2015-31 is ever so important.  One of the reasons why at recent online consultations I’ve reminded officials that the document still exists and if they could read it and incorporate it into their work.

“Imagine we are here in 50-100 years time. What would you want these currently new and soon-to-be-built developments and communities to be well known for in a positive sense?”

This is a question that lots of us need to respond to – in particular younger people and those most likely to stay locally when they finish formal education. The reason for this is Eglantyne Jebb’s 1906 study of Cambridge. I had a look through a digitised map of Cambridge dating from her time here – and blogged about it on Lost Cambridge. Today we celebrate Mill Road as being one of the most vibrant and diverse parts of Cambridge with a jam-packed winter fair every year. (Pandemic precautions for 2020 aside). But Romsey Town was still under construction when she arrived in Cambridge in the late 1800s. I wonder how locals would have responded to that question on what they would want Romsey Town and Mill Road to be known for. Because it is those early community builders, social reformers, public health campaigners and councillors that we celebrate and remember through things like The Mill Road History Society.

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