TL:DR Do we know how successful planners and developers were at building the homes that Cambridge needs? (And if one has been completed, could it be placed somewhere more high profile please?)
Local plans are periodically reviewed, with additional policies and documents added to them. But one thing I’ve not seen – and one thing that the public policy world is very poor at, ensuring in-depth evaluations of past policies are undertaken and then fed into future policy making.
The blurred line between technocratic public policy and popular local history
At one end you have historical documents like the now obsolete Cambridge Local Plan 2006, and at the other you have the image-rich photograph collections such as those compiled by local historian Mike Petty MBE. Each has their useful place.
What’s harder to call is how successful past plans have been on delivering against their stated aims. I didn’t really know what to make of the response from local transport planners when they told me at a public meeting that they had not examined any of the past transport plans when putting together their contemporary plans.
Above – Cross-examining Greater Cambridge City Deal transport planners at Shire Hall, Cambridge, 22 Sept 2016.
A few months later I included the above in a post about past transport plans for Cambridge, pondering how successful they had been and why certain schemes had not been delivered. This included the Cambridge Development Plan of 1950 – by Holford & Wright digitised by Cambridge City Council here. I thought their analysis to be first class – I just disagreed strongly with a host of the proposals they came up with on the back of them. But they reflected the motoring spirit of the age.
Many a historical tour undertaken by the late Allan Brigham included pointed references to the Holford Wright report. Furthermore, photographic publications feature old streets transformed on the back of the recommendations that stemmed from that report. These include the Elizabeth Way Bridge over the River Cam.
Did the Cambridge Local Plan of 2006 lead to all of the homes planned being built?
No. The big omission being the Cambridge Airport site – one that remained a point of political disagreement between Cambridge Liberal Democrats (then in control of Cambridge City Council) and the Cambridge Labour Party. The electoral record shows just like today, there were no Conservative councillors on Cambridge City Council in 2006. The diagram below is from the Cambridge East Action Plan here. It didn’t happen because the Marshall’s Group did not want to move. Fast forward to 2019 and the group announced plans to leave Cambridge by 2030, hence the site being made available for development and submitted as a proposed site for development 2030-40.
So, what did and did not get built?
Below are the proposals from a 2009 updated map. Note the proposal for building on the Anglian Water Sewage Works did not get built in this round, but did get incorporated into the 2018 plan – and are now the subject of a major consultation for a medium-high density development. At the same time, three possible sites for the new sewage works are now subject to some major local campaigns who quite understandably don’t want a major stench-producing industrial facility built on their doorstep.
Avoiding the affordable housing requirements.
The Cambridge Local Plan 2006 had an affordable housing requirement of 40% for developments with over 15 units. And developers used every trick in the book to avoid having to meet it – such as the viability assessments loophole.
Even where affordable housing is built, it does not always follow that the homes will be affordable to those on the lowest incomes.
Data exists on completions of affordable homes in Cambridgeshire and Cambridge here. But to make any sense of it requires a little bit of number crunching. For example subtracting the number of council homes sold under right to buy, through to those homes demolished or taken out of use for whatever reason. As mentioned above, ‘affordable’ has become a politically loaded term in more recent times. Whether a house is a council house, a housing association property or rented from a private landlord on the open market can make a huge difference to rents and bills.
There’s a postgraduate academic thesis waiting to be written for every past local plan of every planning authority across the country (in this case England as housing is a devolved issue) if any academic funding body is willing to fund such a massive research programme. The results of such studies could then be consolidated and fed into future housing policy development. I believe there is a strong public interest for local authority areas facing significant housing growth to have their past local plans properly evaluated to inform future local plans.