Does anyone evaluate past housing developments?

And do such evaluations feed back into the systems of planning development and public policy?

Dolly Theis of this parish wrote the following in an exchange about the availability of fresh healthy food, and the obesity crisis, something that she is researching at the University of Cambridge for her Ph.D:

“…Must ensure … that we create an environment that enables us all to put that into practice easily.”

Towards the end of my civil service days, one of the things we explored was the multi-disciplinary nature of public policy, and how it needed to be informed by evidence bases that came from more than one public policy area. Dealing with the obesity crisis is one example that covers more than one public policy area – and thus more than one government department.

  • Department for Health and Social Care
  • Department for Education
  • Department for Transport
  • Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government
  • Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs

Those are the government departments that immediately come to mind of the top of my head – mindful that they are also devolved issues as far as Scotland is concerned. Therefore whatever Westminster comes up with will not automatically apply to Scotland. Furthermore, it might be the case that Scotland is ahead of Westminster in its policy development in this area.

Lifelong learning centres as part of the solution

This was one of my suggestions where centres could incorporate a host of knowledge-finding and ‘life skills’ workshops into their core offer to anyone who signs up to one of the centres. I wouldn’t brand/market them as life skills or even basic skills though. Not least because it risks coming across as too patronising for the target audience, many of whom might already be in middle age.

What you’d call them I’d leave it up to marketing experts. From a local public policy perspective, you’d want those having completed the workshops and courses to come away with greater confidence on how to improve their own lives through the more informed decisions they take. This is not a new concept – not for Cambridge anyway. Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, made increasing the independence of the poor from charity as one of the core aims of her campaigning.

“I was a long time realising that the social reform on the part of the Conservatives is like charity in the hands of a Lady Bountiful – everything to be made nice and pleasant, but the ‘upper class’ is to be respected and obeyed. The corruption of elections first opened my eyes and I came to believe that no social reform could be of use that did not promote the independence of the people.”

Eglantyne Jebb 08 July 1910 in the Cambridge Independent Press via LostCambridge.

It’s a similar theme many community development officers that I’ve met in my time have also related to – the ones with the greatest impact have told me that part of their job is to make themselves redundant. i.e. to have had such an impact on the communities they work for that they no longer need a community development officer to do things for them.

Adult education can only go so far on its own – it has to be consistent with approaches of other policy areas and political principles

The two that have very deep political roots are:

  1. That anyone may set up any business they like, and so long as they abide by the laws governing the nature of that business, the state has no further business in what it does
  2. That any land owner, subject to the laws governing planning and building regulations, can build whatever they like on whatever land they own. So land designated for a given use (offices, manufacturing, residential) can within planning law have any sort of building matching that designated use, built.

But this creates externalities that the individuals/firms financially benefiting from the developments may not have to pay for. Short term student accommodation in a city with high housing needs in Cambridge is one such example. Building a large office block that is far away from any public transport infrastructure (and therefore dependent on car commuting) is another example. Building a private college (or even expanding a state-supported institution) without building the additional accommodation and services needed, has a knock-on impact on the local community, as any university city will tell you.

How has Cambridge done with evaluating its own housing developments and past local plans?

One of my issues is that evaluations are not front-and-centre in the eyes of the general public when it comes to working up new plans. Let’s take the very start of the process that led to the current (2018) Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire/Greater Cambridge Local Plan.

“The current Local Plan for Cambridge was adopted in 2006 and it is now time to review it. The issues and options consultation marked the start of the process: a public consultation was held, asking the public for their views on the issues and options that should be covered in the Local Plan.”

Cambridge Local Plan Review – Issues and Options June 2012.

You can read through the June 2012 report here under Issues and Options Report.

Taking statements and scrutinising them

“The current Local Plan has been successful in helping to deliver new housing
and high quality development.”

Has it? Because the speech given by Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner to the House of Commons not so long ago undermines that assertion.

Some of the evidence that we have heard at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has also called into question some of the practices of various different parts of the building industry – concerns that head all the way to the board rooms of some very large companies, some of whom were summoned to the inquiry to give evidence on oath.

“A key aim of this Local Plan was to provide for more housing to redress the imbalance between houses and jobs. Land at the edge of Cambridge was therefore released from the Green Belt to provide for new housing, along with new community facilities, open spaces,
transport infrastructure, and local shopping, for use by both new and existing communities.”

Was enough land on the edge of the greenbelt released? Or given the [understandable IMO] desire to protect the greenbelt, and the Holford-Wright era aim of restricting Cambridge’s population to 100,000, were enough houses built in surrounding villages and towns? Was sufficient transport infrastructure built to meet the needs of those commuting in? If so, what is the evidence? If not, why not?

I could go through the rest of the report like that – but a lot has happened in the past decade, some of which we could not foresee or imagine even as recently as the London 2012 Olympic Games. Brexit and PM Boris? The Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn MP, former leader of the Labour Party? (And the Rt Hon John McDonnell MP, the former Shadow Chancellor?) And a pandemic that shut down life as we knew it for over a year and counting?

What do the residents of newly-built homes have to say?

I come back to Mr Zeichner’s statement to the House of Commons transcribed in my blogpost here (with video link too). There’s scope for something even more in-depth than the evidence and testimony collected by the MP for Cambridge.

There are a huge number of reports to wade through – if you have the time, resources, expertise, patience, and the willpower.

Also expect The Census 2021 to reveal more.

What we don’t have – not one that I’ve seen, are regular surveys of a large sample size of new residents of new homes in Cambridge/South Cambs giving feedback to developers and planners, and seeing how that is clearly fed back into local and national policy-making. We do read about (instead) how developers with deep pockets are able to contribute to political parties – in particular the one in Government. Faith in an already compromised system was further undermined by one major news item in 2020 – the Westferry Homes case.

It wouldn’t be cheap, but a large, high profile housing survey carried out say every five/ten years would reveal a lot into the state of housing in Cambridge. Either that or simply making the existing surveys much more high profile through a proper communications strategy and the smart use of illustrations, graphs, and infographics. What are the issues that can feed into, for example the debates in the run up to the local elections?

What is there for the local election candidates to debate on housing and planning?

…especially given the dominance of policy by ministers – and the lack of flexibility for local council planning committees.

There’s scope for some of the non-party-political institutions to take a lead here, and commission guides/short publications on what is and what isn’t up for negotiation as far as ministers are concerned. Because if ministers are not up for changing things, any arguments between local political parties are just noise – because nothing positive will come of it.

At the same time, local parties need to be clear about what their ambitions are, and what the legal and financial barriers are to stopping them. For example:

Proposal: “We want to take over Hobson Street Cinema – unused for a decade, and turn it into a community centre.”

Reasons for proposal: “Magnificent old interwar art-deco building, the only one of its type in the city, has sat unused for far too long.

Reasons against the proposal: “Property owner is not interested in selling – only in high-turnover retail.

Legal barriers: “Law prevents councils from compulsorily purchasing privately-owned assets that are unused. [citing the laws that prevent this].

Candidates need to go beyond the “we have no money” and “we have no powers” responses so that it leaves room for voters to respond with any offers to take part in a campaign to change things. At least that way it leaves room open for residents to write to their MPs to seek a ministerial response on why the law cannot be changed in response to said situation, and whether the minister has alternative suggestions to solving the problem. Thus having the extended benefit of getting new faces involved in local democracy and politics generally.

Resourcing an under-resourced local planning team in Cambridge City & South Cambridgeshire District Councils

This is where the planning and property professionals need to work with the already-mobilised community groups and charities that work in this field – such as Cambridge Past, Present and Future, the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations, and the Cambridge Cycling Campaign.

We know this was raised as an issue in Labour’s Planning Commission report of 2020, because one of the outreach meetings was held in Cambridge and many people from both the planning field and from civic society took part in one of the two sessions held at The Guildhall.

Political parties need to be clear on what level of resourcing they think Greater Cambridge’s Planning Service needs in order to function effectively (defining what ‘effectively’ means), compared with the situation we are currently at. What number/FTE of senior qualified planners do we need? What do we currently have? What level of junior staff and admin staff do we have and need? How is that likely to change over time? What are the schemes we can bring in to change things?

Fix term contracts for experienced high calibre planners willing to take a pay cut to work on a specific scheme or project.

I’m thinking of the model that Mike Bracken used when transforming the Government Digital Service. He was able to negotiate a derogation from existing civil service pay structures to bring in high calibre staff as permanent civil servants not on a consultancy basis, but where they very much believed in the public service ethos and of the mindset of protecting the interests of the citizens – and not just as tax payers. Furthermore they overhauled how they communicated their achievements in things like regular blogposts and videos.

What difference would it make if councils were able to bring in a similar system where a very large planning application likely to last a several years was one where the council could advertise the responsibility for leading its responses to it, and/or key analytical roles to this, as such fixed-term appointments where they make clear the successful applicant will be responsible for representing the longer term interests of the city? i.e. not just looking for someone interested in the higher pay, but someone who can bring in private sector experience *and* an ethos of working for the future of the city?

Conversion courses for professionals in allied fields

Arguably this could – and should have been done ages ago. Anglia Ruskin University’s town planning courses are based at Chelmsford. There should not be much to stop them from offering these and similar accredited courses and modules in Cambridge. Especially in this new era of online learning. In the post-CV19 era this should be accompanied by face-to-face / group sessions, and not restricted to planning per-se but our civic heritage, built environment, past plans, and our industrial heritage. The last few of these could be hosted by/delivered in partnership with a future local history institute.

In the face of eye-wateringly expensive university education, what are the options available for the many students that take A-level geography to move into the field of town planning? The staff shortages have been long written of – see this from 2019. It also had to outsource the processing of some applications, such was the imbalance of supply and demand. There are only so many times one can re-advertise vacancies to the same local job market.

We know there is huge interest in both the fields of town planning and of our civic heritage. In order to protect the interests of our city, there is a big opportunity for incorporating the acquisition of new skills and knowledge with that huge and growing interest. Is there something that councils and interested parties could put together that could get more people transferring from allied areas, and/or ones where if they are studying while working, they get a financial bonus for every module they successfully complete?

Which of the local political parties, and which of the candidates are going to make the manifesto commitments for:

  1. A lifelong learning centre in Cambridge
  2. Provision of courses and training to enable locals to fill the huge shortage of planning specialists?
You can put these points to your candidates at the local elections in May 2021

Type your postcode into to find out who your candidates are at the Cambridge City Council elections in 2021. The full list will be complete shortly after the closure of nominations on 09 April.

Alternatively, you might want to stand as a candidate! See for more details, or contact your local political party of choice. (Search “Cambridge + [insert name of party]” – it’s not that hard!) or if you want to stand as an independent candidate, see by the Flatpack Democracy Campaign. We’ve had a few independent candidates in recent years, including Sam Davies in Queen Edith’s, and Keith Garrett of Rebooting Democracy at the past few general elections.

And this little rapscallion from 2014.

…which is why there is a dragon slide in the local park [allegedly].

Above – the dragon slide at Coleridge Rec, installed a year after Puffles the Dragon Fairy stood for election in Coleridge Ward. ‘Vote dragon, get dragon’ I guess!

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