More planning woes at Greater Cambridge Planning, but where is the root of the problem?

You may have seen the headline:

The article from South Cambs District Council is here, ironically illustrated by one of the most ugliest pieces of architecture within 15 miles of Cambridge, one that aesthetically tells us nothing about what the function of the building is as far as local people are concerned. As things stand, the building is stuck out at the end of an identikit business park that isn’t pleasant to walk to from the bus stop on the main road that leads to Cambridge. (I’ve done that journey too many times. In the rain. And cold.) The only thing going for it in that image are 1) The rainbow flag, and 2, the coat of arms – providing some much-needed colour.

The meeting chamber, which is an anonymous multi-use large room us horrible to film in. Have a look below.

So no, I don’t like this place *at all* – though I can understand and appreciate why the council chose to move from Hills Road, Cambridge (almost next door to where Florence Ada Keynes & family lived on Harvey Road) to Cambourne. I just think that the people of Cambourne deserve far better than an anonymous bland administrative building stuck out on the end of a business park where few dare to tread willingly.

Above – Cambourne, west of Cambridge – it remains to see what gets built and where over the next decade or two (Have a look here), but having no public mass transit, and having the main secondary school and district council offices stuck out on the edge of town seems to me to be a classic example of how not to design and build a new town. I haven’t yet figured out who owns this decision.

“Where did it all go wrong?”

One of the best expositions of where things went wrong post-WW2 is by former Labour MP, and now director of the V&A, Dr Tristram Hunt in his book Building Jerusalem – the rise and fall of the Victorian City. A compelling writer but one who struggled to make his intellectual gifts count as a shadow Education Secretary facing Michael Gove in Ed Milliband’s front bench opposing the Coalition. I’d like to think he’d make political mincemeat out of ‘Mickey-G’ today.

The lazy stereotype would be to fall back into the line of how wonderful things were in Victorian times, but Hunt doesn’t do that. Essentially he writes about the history of local government. The part of the book that chimed with me was his description of how the town halls of the 1800s were designed and built as far as purpose was concerned, vs how local government offices are designed and built today. The difference between John Belcher’s design for Cambridge’s Guildhall (unexecuted 1898 & 1913) vs the present offices of South Cambs District Council reflect this. This will also shine a light on why things have gone badly wrong with the planning service as well.

Purposes of town halls

This is John Belcher’s design for the Cambridge Guildhall commissioned by Mayor Horace Darwin in the late 1890s.

Above – John Belcher (1898) Cambridge Guildhall proposed – unexecuted. From a tiny photo Mike Petty found in the Cambridgeshire Collection. (We’re still searching for the original painting!)

John Belcher is one of my favourite architects of the period, capturing the spirit of the age. At the same time as working on this project, he also published a book that I recently got hold of. (Cheap copies going here).

The plan to get his guildhall design built was finally sunk in 1913 – I wrote about it here.

Belcher’s design reflects what Dr Hunt wrote about the purposes of the 19thC town and city halls: They were places where people met, they were places where celebrations took place, and most importantly they were places where important collective decisions were taken. You knew that the building was designed and built to be a civic centrepiece. Anyone trying to argue that the same applies to South Cambridgeshire Hall is either utterly misguided or a scoundrel and a knave. Please don’t try to convince me that South Cambridgeshire Hall is anything other than a monstrosity or I might have to bring back Puffles.

Above – Puffles the dragon fairy at South Cambridgeshire Hall a few years ago. ***Please don’t let the dragon make a comeback!***

Dr Hunt says that today’s local government buildings are administrative buildings, designed and located to reflect that the big decisions are taken somewhere else (i.e. Whitehall), and that the role of local councils is either to do what central government tells them to do (as in the early days of Tony Blair’s administration), or as has been the case since 2010, to do very little other than the bare essentials in the face of a decade of austerity.

So where has planning gone wrong, and is it all the fault of the Lib Dems? Or the Tories?

You know what? I don’t think most of the general public care. Responsibility is now somewhat opaque given that the planning functions for Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council have merged into the Greater Cambridge Planning Service. But the problems go far beyond what the Liberal Democrats (who won control of that council in the 2018 local elections) have done – and even beyond what their opposing Conservatives did in the years prior, in what historically has been a safe as fortresses council and parliamentary seat.

A shortage of qualified planners, and high demand from a wealthier private sector

The root of the problem is the lack of specialist staff in town planning – because demand for specialists is absorbed by private firms that can afford to pay for higher salaries. (For an example of some of the differentials, see here, and note in Cambridge they are likely to be even greater). I’ve heard more than a few people complaining about how some firms simply poach the best performing town planners from local councils with the offer of much higher salaries. And who can blame them? Both my brothers are qualified town planners who worked in the public sector before moving to the private sector – though note to get qualified involves the studying for an undergraduate degree and then a postgraduate degree in town planning which is not cheap.

“Well councils should pay them more!”

They can’t because of austerity and restrictions on local council salaries.

“Tax the developers”

That requires the Chancellor to approve it and he won’t. Developers are also a huge lobbying interest and would effectively veto any such suggestion.

“So who should do what?”

The buck ultimately stops with ministers, but with the present administration and line up of ministers in the Ministry of Housing, don’t expect anything soon.

Part of the problem is the lack of a robust evidence base – as explained here by Peter Geraghty for The Planner, there’s no data on the number & qualifications of town planners in local government – so it’s hard to measure trends over time. Geraghty also explains that the shortage of local government planning professionals also is a risk for ministers and their growth agendas. The irony being that local government austerity was also on that same agenda, ministers and their advisers were too dim, dismissive of those raising concerns, or ignorant, to spot the impact that one would have on the other.

For all of the rhetoric of devolution and ‘giving power back to the people’, the institution of local government has been hollowed out by successive governments even if for different reasons. In Labour’s case it was bypassing local councils by establishing executive agencies of central government run by chief executives appointed by ministers. In the Conservative & Coalition case, it was austerity to cut back on what some ministers saw as ‘municipal socialism’.

“What happens now?”

In the very near future, we await the results of the audit announced by South Cambridgeshire District Council of what went wrong, and then we await the Chancellor’s spending review in the face of the Corona Virus Pandemic. It’s impossible to do any realistic long term planning given the amount of uncertainty that the virus and the collective response has created. The onus is on the Chancellor to make good the promises of funding made to local councils in the early days of the crisis. Because otherwise there is an increased risk of other councils going the way of Croydon. I hope our local councils are not in that situation.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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