“Tory property paymasters unveil new South Cambridgeshire monster town!”

…would be the headline I’d consider running with if I were a party political opponent. But as it’s ***ages away*** from Cambridge (halfway between the city & Letchworth, one of the first ‘garden cities’) slap bang in the middle of safe-as-castles Tory-voting land, I’m going to sit back and gloat for a bit given what the Tory-led county council has done to Cambridge in recent times.

Actually I’m not. Because when companies that donate funds to political parties of whatever political colour then go and bypass standard procedures of planning, & of community consultation, everyone suffers – even the firms in the end.

“So, what’s the story, Morning Glory?”

I first spotted this while waiting for my annual heart scan at Addenbrooke’s.

Followed by Paul Brackley in the Cambridge Independent.

You can read Mr Brackley’s article here. (Alternatively, the weekly paper is on sale every Wednesday so expect to see even more detail in it on the 9th Dec – as with the Cambridge News daily paper.)

“25,000 homes?!? That’s at least 50,000 people – if not more! Which is a town half the size of Cambridge!”

Exactly. If the developers get their way, ***it would create the third largest settlement of homes in the county*** – larger than either Huntingdon or Wisbech. The developer has not actually provided a map showing the land they own and/or have the agreement of the land owners to develop. But going by their description, the Liberal Democrats (who are in political control of South Cambridgeshire District Council) have come out against the plans – and have produced this map.

“Why are the Liberal Democrats against it?”

Many reasons – but one very simple one is *the developer did not inform South Cambridgeshire District Council or the ward councillors of their plans in advance*. Nor have they appeared to have done things the standard way by making an application through the new local planning process. Normally developers and land owners send in their offers of undeveloped land that they think could be built on. Quite understandably, the party has gone for the party-political jugular.

Local Democracy Reporter Ben Hatton went to have a look at the party political donations made by the developer. Have a look at the data yourselves in more detail.

In the past 18 months or so, the developer donated £275,000 to the Conservative Party – over £150,000 in the run up to the 2019 General Election. The developer reported the donations up to March 2019 in its most recent publicly available annual report.

Note this developer was by no means the only contributor from the sector to make donations to the Conservative Party in recent times. This by OpenDemocracy UK in June 2020.

Journalist Peter Geoghegan wrote this comment piece for The Guardian shortly after the Open Democracy piece.

The thing is, had they done this properly and worked with the communities affected, they could have put something interesting together. The problem is they haven’t.

This point rests on a series of assumptions – the big one being dependent on the scale that you are working to. If you are working at a national scale, AstraZeneca should never have been allowed to relocate its HQ from Cheshire to Cambridge. Instead, national government should have rebalanced the economy away from overheating Cambridge and have encouraged a new cluster in the North West – which would have come on stream just in time to respond to the Covid19 outbreak in which the North West is one of the most affected areas.

Had successive governments invested in rail and non-fossil-fuel-powered means of transport instead of austerity, towns like Haverhill and Wisbech may already connected to Cambridge with a much more efficient and popular method of transport. This would have encouraged (I believe anyway) not just Cambridge workers to live further afield, but have encouraged firms put off by Cambridge’s high rental costs to relocate at least some of their business functions to where rents are much lower.

Finally, there is the water shortage issue. This from the Chair of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations, Wendy Blythe.

Where are all these new homes going to get their supplies of water from given our already overstressed rivers and streams? Local environmental campaigner Monica Hone, who has been focusing on the state of the River Cam and on water supplies for some time now, has further questions on what will happen to the sewage from a new town almost half the size of Cambridge.

Here’s Mr Hatton again back in 2019 on the state of the River Cam. One group who will be gravely concerned will be The Cam Valley Forum.

What could the developers have done?

Had they done some proper research, they would have dealt with many of the environmental concerns and had solid proposals on how to deal with each of them – in particular the water shortage issue. For example having something public with Anglian Water (whose future plans are here) and Cambridge Water (for 2020-25, is here) to go with.

Why would anyone want to go to this newtown, let alone live there?

Which reflects why the initial marketing has been woeful – leading with a typical Cambridge University “money shot” (in their case the Wren Library of Trinity College with the River Cam in the foreground with punters on it) that has absolutely nothing to do with their development other than it’s in the same county. Let’s face it, going by the records of recent developments in and around Cambridge, chances are developments will looks something like what CEG tried to propose for the 2018-30 Greater Cambridge Local Plan below.

In the end, only small parcels of land on the edge of the city were released, but realistically it’s only a matter of time before the city expands to where the Park & Ride in the foreground is. Whether the developers & architects will be able to come up with more imaginative designs than the minimalist early 21st Century maximum profit, minimum cost disaster capitalism designs that are all too frequent…remains to be seen. Also, the historian in me is not going to pretend that previous eras of mass house building were full of splendid designs built by builders on decent wages working to excellent health and safety standards.

What is the plan for house building? How will the developers ensure variety? (Something that is inevitably lacking with a single developer working from a single pattern book). Former local MP Heidi Allen told me a few years ago she wanted to see large plots of land sub-divided and made available to small building firms and independent architects to get much more variety in new developments.

To come to the question of why anyone would want to live in a new town, you can’t make the long history of any place overnight. But you can create the places and spaces where people can make their own histories. This is where arts and culture matter. But they need the spaces, places, support, and funding to survive and thrive. The problem is that new housing estates don’t have the greatest record of delivering and building anything but the bare minimum of community buildings. And those that are there all too often are so flexible and multipurpose/multi-use that they have no identity to them at all. It’s like a Swiss Army Knife of community buildings – it has all these tiny little functions like screwdrivers, scissors, cork screw, blades….but does all of them badly when compared to each of those tools made separately. And like too many community buildings, they are too small.

Then there’s East West Rail

It seems like over a decade since I signed up to an online group in support of reopening the old Varsity Line. But given that the powers that be are scoping the Bedford-Sandy-Cambridge section that looks like it will go via Cambourne, a financial contribution from the developers to get the line to join the Cambridge-Hitchin line near Shepreth rather than Harston might have dealt with some of the public transport concerns.

Above – East West Rail west of Cambridge.

The same is true with the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s plans for the CAM Metro. Had they gone to Mayor Palmer first with their ideas, this wouldn’t have come as a nasty surprise for which the local media inevitably demanded an instant response.

“What have local Conservative politicians had to say about all of this? Especially given the party political donations?”

The Mayor for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough posted a short statement via Mr Hatton:

Given that the developer would stand to make significant profits from such a development, I can imagine Mayor Palmer would be demanding some very significant contributions towards the Cam Metro and transport infrastructure before giving support. With average house prices at over £300,000 in South Cambridgeshire (read it on the internet – must be true – well, on an online housing sales site anyway!), multiplied by 25,000 and you get a figure of £7.5billion. But that’s just a front-of-a-laptop-screen calculation.

The MP for South Cambridgeshire has expressed his opposition, but his party political opponents know he is caught between a rock and a hard place. He’s also been pulled up for his statement in the Commons just now on Brexit.

Compared with the Prime Minister here…

Cambourne – one that developers and planners got badly wrong, leaving the new residents to pick up the pieces.

Given that just up the road from the proposed site is the new town of Cambourne, where the housing was built before the transport and community infrastructure buildings were complete, you’d have thought a basic evaluation would have been in order. It is still work in progress but the very poor urban, civic and spatial design of the town reflects badly on the decision-makers involved. For a town that functions amongst other things as ‘Cambridge overspill’, it has been starved of the necessary resources a new community needs. Again, that is not the fault of the local residents who are doing their best in a set of unfavourable circumstances not of their making. The existence of the town highlights why both East West Rail and/or a well-designed, fast, mass transit from Cambourne to Cambridge needs to be completed and soon. The problem is the Greater Cambridge Partnership got itself into one hell of a mess over the proposed busway, and has never been able to reverse its way out.

What is the plan to avoid building another Cambourne? What is the plan to avoid the risks of further water depletion and environmental degradation? What is the plan to reinvest the wealth that the community creates back into the community, rather than having it siphoned offshore?

Food for thought…

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