Cambridge University tells councillors it cannot commit to early delivery of long-promised swimming pool

Can we get a second opinion on that? Not least from the students, as well as any of the Masters & Scholars sympathetic to the interests of town-gown relations, in whose name the planning application for the West Cambridge site is being submitted?

Some of you may remember the headlines in 2019:

“A new swimming pool, indoor tennis centre and additional indoor facilities form part of the long-term strategy for sport at the University of Cambridge and the wider community.” (Cambridge Independent)

and

Plans in the works for amazing new Cambridge leisure facility and pool (Cambridge News)

The developer ARUP which is building the facilities, has even stated that the future phase will include a 50 metre swimming pool and. a tennis hall.

The thing is, the headlines go back to at least 2009. See HCM Here, quoting the Cambridge News.

It was a big issue for students back in 2009, coinciding with the run up to Cambridge University’s 800th anniversary. Turns out the University Authorities have had *quite a long time* to get things built.

“…land and planning permission (which has since been renewed) were acquired in West Cambridge back in 1999.”

The Hawk, Easter 2009 – by The Hawks Club – a private members club for elite sportsmen at Cambridge University (The Ospreys is the sister society for elite sportswomen) who reach a high level of competency in their chosen field – don’t underestimate the time commitment required to train at this level *and* study for a degree at Cambridge. It is *intense*.

Cambridge City Council Planning Committee Meeting – 29th July 2021, with 699 pages of things to get through

Due to something going wrong on their website, the City Council have had to throw all of the meeting papers together into one monster document and post the direct link out. You can read the papers for the applications here. There are two major ones.

West Cambridge – it’s big and it dates back to the Holford Wright Report of 1950

If you want to know why all of this town planning is ever so controversial in Cambridge, it’s because there is a very long history to it. It’s been like that ever since King Henry VI rocked up to the banks of the River Cam, observing the bustling community of townfolk & traders, declaring:

“What a splendid scene this is! You know what? I think I’m going to build a college here, and call it “Mine!” Not yours! Mine!”

From this earlier blogpost

When Clement Attlee’s Government got the Town and Country Planning Act 1948 through Parliament, things became more familiar with the systems and processes we see today. One of those results was the Cambridge Development Plan of 1950 – the maps in Volume 2 I’ve since digitised and uploaded here. The plan by Sir William Holford and Professor Myles Wright were to have the countryside to the west of the town centre sort of given over to the University and its colleges as their space to develop and grow. The then countryside to the north, south, and east formed the suburbs of Arbury, King’s Hedges, and Queen Edith’s. (That didn’t stop the colleges from founding science and technology campuses in the North and East of the City, or the Cambridge Biomedical Campus to the south.)

From the air, West Cambridge should look something like this when complete

Above – from the West Cambridge Masterplan. – you can see the athletics track at the bottom right of the photo. You can compare it with the image from G-maps here, noting that such is the pace of development in Cambridge that as soon as they’ve taken an aerial photo it very quickly becomes dated.

***Why have none of the roofs got solar panels on them?!?***

Good spot given the climate emergency that is very much here and now.

The land to the south of the site is known to be waterlogged and unsuitable for development – despite the attempts from various people and organisations trying to insist the opposite at previous local planning stages.

Even further south and you hit the Grantchester Meadows, and no one’s allowed to build there because of radical liberal activist and poet Rupert Brooke, who campaigned against the Tories in the 1910 General Election, and whose college friend and former local resident Hugh Dalton nationalised the Bank of England after becoming Attlee’s Chancellor in 1945.

(You can see the statue of Brooke in Grantchester unveiled by former Oxford student Margaret Thatcher here.)

***Not many trees in that part of town!***

Hence the Cambridge Tree Canopy Project. At school in the 1990s we were told that Cambridgeshire only had about 4% tree cover, one of the smallest in the country. Cambridge has more tree cover than Fenland and East Cambridgeshire. Much of that is a legacy of WWII when a lot of land was cleared for agriculture. If you look at old photographs of the fields of South Cambridge that now have houses on, the lack of tree cover is striking compared to the trees that are there today. So in that regard our civic ancestors did a good job.

Trees also came up in the report.

From Page 404. It refers to a tree condition survey from August 2008 on Charles Babbage Road.

They conclude that “All of the trees in phase 1 should be replaced once a maintenance regime has been devised that provides the information outlined at 5.2 and enables an appropriate watering regime to be implemented.”

I highlight this mindful of the Cambridge Tree Canopy Project.

Cambridge University tell Cambridge Planning Committee of the Swimming Pool issue

Let’s quote it in full – page 123 para 8.60 here.

“The existing sports centre at West Cambridge was constructed in 2011 and was an important step change in providing community and vibrancy on the campus.
The proposed development makes provision for two future phases of the sports centre, which would be extensions to the east and west flank of the building.
The next phase of the sports is intended to deliver a swimming pool on the site.


At present, an extension to the sports centre is not a KP1 project and the University cannot commit to its early delivery. Whilst the Council cannot mandate its early delivery, Local Plan Policy 73 advises that new City-wide facilities should, where possible, include in the proposal facilities which are open to the wider community to enhance both accessibility and the range of facilities available.

As such future public access to the swimming can be agreed through condition 10 – requirements for all reserved matters applications, where sub-section (s) requires details of how the development accords with the Amenities Delivery Strategy. Phase one of the existing sports centre already includes provision for public access secured through the Eddington development.”

Fiona Bradley of Cambridge City Council to Cambridge Planning Committee Ref 16/1134/OUT

Is it reasonable to ask councillors to invite senior Cambridge University officials to a meeting to explain the delays?

I think it’s worth commending Ms Bradley of the City Council for putting together such a comprehensive report. Planning Officers get it in the neck so when they do something well, it can’t go without comment & commendation. The criteria that she and colleagues would have had to consider are listed below – which I hope will enable you to pick out the parts of interest.

  • Principal of Development 105
  • Design and layout 114
  • Transport 126
  • Air Quality 145
  • Environmental Impacts and Residential Amenity 151
  • Landscape and Visual Impact 158
  • Impact on Heritage Assets 167
  • Impact on Trees 174
  • Ecology 175
  • Flood Risk and Sustainable Drainage 176
  • Renewable Energy and Sustainability 180
  • Utilities 186
  • Waste Management 187
  • Disabled Access 188
  • Public Art 188
  • Third Party Representations 190
  • Planning Obligations 203

I’m going to pick out just a few.

Planning history

This corresponds with the Hawks’ quotation earlier. In Para A2 Ms Bradley states:

“In 1999 an outline planning application for the site (planning reference 97/0961/OP) was granted permission for University academic departments (73,000 sq m), research institutes (24,000 sq m), commercial research (41,000 sq m), sports centre (10,120 sq m), shared amenities (including shops, food and drink and lecture theatre), 200 residential units, park and cycle facility and associated infrastructure. It was reviewed and updated in 2004”

ibid p10.

Site amenities

“The Amenities Delivery Strategy sets out the aims of the University in regard to food, drink and retail facilities, health and well-being facilities. For example, by providing public access to future phases of the sports centre including the
swimming pool, will ensure each reserved matters application is in accordance with the strategy”

ibid p217 para 9.5

The Amenities Delivery Strategy is buried in the original planning documents. So you’ll need to go to https://applications.greatercambridgeplanning.org/online-applications/ and in the Search option type in 16/1134/OUT, click on ‘Documents’ and do [Ctrl+F] for “Amenities” and click on the page magnifier icon in the ‘View’ column of the row highlighted

Sorry-not-sorry. [Avril Lavigne screaming: Why d’you have to go and make things so complicated?!?!?!”]

The Amenities Delivery Strategy (uploaded on 13 July 2021 although the document says Sept 2017] says

“The University envisages that further phases of development could provide indoor
tennis courts and swimming pool and would be delivered during the build-out of the West
Cambridge development proposals.”

But….

“The University cannot commit at this time to a timetable for the delivery of the swimming pool”

Why is the new swimming pool so important for the city?

Simple: Parkside is beyond its capacity, and existing smaller pools are showing their age.

Cambridge City Council & South Cambridgeshire District Council produced a joint indoor sports facilities strategy in 2016. It’s 494 pages long. But using the [Ctrl+f] function you can pick out the sports that are relevant to you.

I have asked Cambridge City Council to commit to providing an update on options and commitments. in that strategy, and also in the Major Facilities Sub Regional Facilities in the Cambridge Area – Review of Evidence and Site Options document from 2013. (it’s a tabled public question at Full Council on 22 July 2021). I don’t want a rushed job – I want them to take the whole of the summer over it, so officers can contact whoever they need to contact to get an informed answer in September or October.

The thing is, what Cambridge University does – and does not do, has a huge impact on the city. Their senior leaders need to acknowledge that their decisions affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary residents. Had they built the West Cambridge Swimming Pool soon after the completion of Phase 1 and the new sports centre (Which made for a much-needed venue to count votes in at the local elections in 2021), it would have freed up significant extra capacity at Parkside Pool. In particular during the evenings.

The options available to the councils are listed on p158 of the strategy.

  • Increase access to existing commercially operated swimming pools in the City
  • Open a new pool at the University with secured community access (minimum 8 lane x 25m, but preferred option currently is a 50m x 8 lane pool)
  • Open a new pool at the University (minimum 8 lane x 25m) with secured community access, and re-locate at least some club training time from Parkside Pools to the new facility
  • Develop additional swimming facilities in South Cambridgeshire as part of future facility strategy updates on needs generated by new communities at Northstowe, Cambourne and Waterbeach
  • Open a new pool at the University (minimum 8 lane x 25m) with secured community access, and re-locate at least some club training time from Parkside Pools to the new facility, and develop additional swimming facilities in South Cambridge District
  • Adapt Jesus Green Lido to enable an all year round opening and usage.
  • Investment and updates to the Frank Lee Centre and open to community use

It then goes onto appraise the options, which you can read in the strategy.

Does Cambridge need new swimming pools?

A fair question put to me by Mike Scialom of the Cambridge Independent.

The answer was in the indoor sports facilities strategy using a model from Sport England.

Appendix 6B page 305.

I was surprised to find that on Cambridge residents alone, the model found that Cambridge was *over-capacity* as far as swimming pools were concerned. ***However***. We also know that [Covid-19 aside], Cambridge has millions of tourists who visit every year. It has tens of thousands of language students who come to stay/learn/party – and more than a few of whom who use the swimming pools (and end up in trouble with regular users for not sticking to rules on lane swimming because the managers at their hosting institutions have not properly explained to the youngsters how things work. (I never blame the kids for these things. Always the managers and/or the people paid enough to deal with complaints.))

The other source that affects Cambridge are residents from surrounding areas – in particular South Cambridge. One argument for a unitary council for Greater Cambridge is that the residents are voting with their feet in terms of the services they use. It has been like that for over a century – Cambridge rate payers complaining of having to subsidise the public services used by residents outside of town who had lower rates to pay but who did not have the public services to go with them. The report puts numbers on this:

“This means that just 384, or 5% of the demand generated by Cambridge residents is modelled to be exported to facilities in neighbouring authorities. Based on the supply identified in section 1 it is likely that all of this is modelled to go to the Histon site in South Cambs.

In contrast South Cambs retains just 21.6% of its swimming participation. Whilst the national run report cannot provide detail of where this export is going directly it is clear that many residents will make use of facilities based in Cambridge.”

Cambridge & South Cambs Indoor sports strategy 2015-31, p311 para 9.6

While some may go to Huntingdon or St Ives to the west, or Haverhill in the East, that still leaves a very large portion going into Cambridge.

When you compare public/municipal pools with privately-run ones, the former are running at far higher capacities.

“At an individual facility level, Abbey Pool is modelled to be at 62% capacity and Parkside 98%. This indicates that Parkside is almost full and many users may experience lower quality swimming experiences due to how busy the site is”.

Ibid, p313 para 7.5

The Sport England figure of when they consider a pool to be ‘full’ is 70% of capacity. Therefore Parkside is clearly over-capacity. They also looked at some private providers.

“Cambridge Fitness at 69% is close to the 70% capacity line and The Leys is over at 87%. David Lloyd (37%), DW (56%) and Frank Lee (33%) are the only sites with any spare capacity in the city.”

Ibid.

“So what are. the options?”

“Parkside already at a modelled 98% capacity in the peak period, is driven by imported activity in to city based facilities, pre-dominantly from South Cambs residents. If there continues to be no additional offers that are more convenient to South Cambs residents this scenario is unlikely to change.

As a result if Cambridge City Council wish to meet the needs of their residents more directly there may be a need to provide a user system that provides advantages / priority to their residents”

Ibid para 9.5

Personally I don’t want to go down that route – not least because it is incompatible with a whole host of principles on making sport accessible for everyone. Using price to ration an under-provided-for public facility is not a long term solution. Also it goes against the Government’s Obesity Strategy.

I’ve argued for many years that the City of Cambridge is made up of the people that live, work, study, and play here. Many of those people don’t live within the municipal boundaries. Some of our public services have centuries-long connections with surrounding towns and villages. Go and look at Addenbrooke’s archives. The customer postcode data from the Cambridge Corn Exchange and the Cambridge Junction in a more contemporary age reflect the beyond-county boundaries that many people cross to get Cambridge for leisure.

In this age of local government austerity, the councils do not have the legal powers to raise the money necessary for new large facilities. It would be negligent of the sector not to lean on Cambridge University and invite them to dip into their pockets – not least given the most recent headline they’ve published.

Cambridge is the most unequal city in the country. And as Isobel Duxfield said to fellow Cambridge University members, if it wants to crack that problem, first it has to stop ignoring it.

Food for thought?

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