How does the draft Greater Cambridge Local Plan 2030-41 compare with its distant predecessors?

This may inform our generation of what we need to consider on behalf of future generations that will have to live with our decisions.

Let’s go straight to 1934 – W.R. Davidge’s Cambridgeshire Regional Plan

I digitised it and uploaded it here for everyone to read.

The context is straight forward: This was the first plan for what was Cambridge County Council – the Shire County area that back then was made up of Cambridge, South Cambs, and the southern bit of East Cambs.

Below: Cambridgeshire’s historical boundaries with the previous generation’s administrative boundaries in 1945.

Above – do the present day boundaries of Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council begin to make sense today?

If you want to see how the boundaries of our local councils evolved over time – and why Newmarket and Royston are not in Cambridgeshire, read the history here.

The Vice Chancellor’s guiding principles

The foreword to the Plan of 1934 was written by Prof Allen Beville Ramsay, the Vice Chancellor between 1929-31 (so at the start of the process), and who was Master of Magdalene College 1925-47. Interestingly enough, Prof Ramsay was not representing the University of Cambridge or his college. He was representing the newly-formed Cambridge Preservation Society on the Joint Planning Committee – today that society is Cambridge Past, Present and Future, and you can join them here.

He writes:

“General amenity and convenience have been the guiding principles in [the committee’s, [chaired by Dr Alex Wood of the Cambridge Labour Party and of both Emmanuel College, and the Dept of Physics at the University of Cambridge]] research and suggestions.

Above – Cllr Dr Alex Wood (Labour – St Matthew’s, Cambridge City Council), Chair of the Regional Planning Committee, and all of the Sub-Committees. This was as much his plan as Mr Davidge’s. You can read Ronald Speir’s mini-biography of Dr Wood for the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History here. You can join the CALH and attend their monthly meetings via this link.

Mr Ramsey continues:

“In [the committee’s] opinion the peculiar and interesting beauty of the County can be preserved under modern conditions without any loss of those material advantages which are obtained from progressive science and social improvements; and they believe that such a project is consonant with the most recent ideas of welfare can actually be achieved by the allied determination of the various authorities. There must always be varying local interests, but there is also a common cause which binds them together; and where the natural and historical features of a whole region are proudly preserved, and ugliness and congestion and squalor are repelled or banished, every separate community within that region is happier and more prosperous.”

The end of the Foreword is almost a warning from history – and of how more recent generations of planners, politicians, developers, financiers, and even us as residents, have failed.

I don’t think many of us can be overjoyed with the majority of the buildings or infrastructure that have been erected in recent decades. Which amongst other things indicates a broken system and broken institutions rather than blaming any individual for malpractice. To see a case list of ugly buildings, head to any local library in Cambridgeshire and borrow David Jones’ book from 2013 if you cannot find a copy for sale online.

Above – this is in Rock Road Library in Queen Edith’s, Cambridge. The nazis tried to fire-bomb the library in WWII but their munition didn’t go off, so we got lucky. They sent out a press release the following day or so saying their target was the airport. The late Cambridge swimmer, cobbler and author Jack Overhill wrote about this in his town war diaries – again also available to borrow, or from the Cambridge Records Society.

Sir William Holford and Myles Wright takes a different view in the face of the rise of the motor car. The Cambridge Planning Proposals 1950

Cambridge City Council digitised the first volume with the analysis here. They missed out the all important maps in Volume 2, so I digitised my copy which you can see here.

It’s easy to forget how war changed Cambridge – and it changed it in a very big way. For a start, we lost six years of continual improvement and house-building. As did everywhere else. The town’s population swelled to over 200,000 as evacuees from children to various London University departments and service personnel made their way here to escape air raids. The presence of so many fighter stations such as Duxford circling Cambridge made it a very difficult target with little of strategic value. Hence the damage that killed 31 people and injured over 70 was done by single raiding aircraft rather than the massed raids the history books tell us about.

Holford and Wright begin their introduction with a warning for us too.

“Those who are called upon to tamper with other people’s houses need to approach their task with care and confidence. Proposals which may alter the physical pattern, the daily habits, and eventually the character of a town must above all be careful and informed.” (Holford, Wright, 1950, p5)

That’s a reminder to today’s councillors and even more importantly, to senior council officers – because the former are more than likely to go ahead and approve whatever you come up with, irrespective of what protesting persons and groups might say.

And with the Greater Cambridge Local Plan 2030-41, the Climate Emergency not only encourages, but *compels and requires* councillors and planners to come up with proposals that must alter the physical pattern, daily habits, and characters of our city in order to achieve the massive reduction in carbon emissions needed to stave off the worst of the changing climate.

History repeating itself

Holford & Wright continue:

“We believe Cambridge is moving quickly towards a new phase of its existence:”

…and they also remind us of a Cambridge that we might rather forget ever existed.

“Incomparably beautiful in many things, miserably defective in others, Cambridge is still one of the most pleasant places on earth in which to live.”

You could write that about our city today and it would still be true. But if you want to get a feel for what the two gentlemen were getting at, have a look at Mr Robinson’s monologue of 1964 here.

On accessible green spaces – a lesson we must learn

They tell us on p6:

“Many things that are commonplace in Cambridge would be luxuries in almost any other town: the return home to lunch, the compactness of the centre, the open spaces and liberal gardens and allotments.”

Should Cambridge go for fast growth or slow growth? They recommended slow growth

“If, however, the citizens of Cambridge decide that they are out for quality – to make the best possible town of 100,000 or even 125,000, and then stop – then we think there is every hope of making Cambridge something very fine, not only in the centre but in its suburbs, in East Road and along its approaches”

How does that look seventy-one years after the plan was published?

When I look at Newmarket Road, East Road, Hills Road, Milton Road, Histon Road, Huntingdon Road, I see too many missed opportunities. Too much sub-standard, identikit architecture that could have been built anywhere.

I don’t blame any one person for this – although Mr Marples the Conservative Minister of Transport was a bit of a scoundrel, and I have no time whatsoever for Jenrick or his predecessors. Cathy Newman reminded us today of the low calibre of the current generation of Cabinet Ministers.

Choosing from a political talent pool that’s so small it’s more of a political talent puddle, her fellow political journalist colleague Isabel Hardman explored in depth why we get the wrong politicians.

Above – Journalist and author Isabel Hardman with Cambridge’s Puffles the Dragon Fairy at a recent Cambridge Literature Festival event pre-CV19.

A comprehensive ring-road network to deal with road traffic

This was the big idea for Holford and Wright. They looked at Davidge’s proposals and concluded:

“In the past, road improvements in Cambridge have been considered piecemeal. We determined that this mistake at any rate was one we would avoid, and we set out to see the traffic problem comprehensively, and to establish the existing relations between traffic and traffic flows of all kinds both in the centre of the town and on its approach roads.”

Which sounds reasonable until you start talking about flyovers across Stourbridge Common, a main road ploughing over Christ’s Pieces & Jesus Green, and the terraces in the neighbourhoods of Gwydir Street being collateral damage incurred in the building of a major road linking Cambridge Station with Chesterton. Just build a north-of-the-river railway station and be done with it damn you! After realising the limitations of the road building approach, said north station was built.

Above – a detail from the monster-sized Holford Wright Map (I’ve tried to upload detailed versions here) which has the aborted Stourbridge flyover that would have linked Abbey Ward with Milton Road. Three quarters of a century later and the Chilsholm Trail (which does similar but for cyclists & pedestrians only) is nearly ready.

John Parry Lewis has a go in the early 1970s

And like John Belcher the architect before him in the 1890s, he got paid a lot of money to come up with a radical proposal that councillors shrieked at and abandoned. Have a look at JPL’s plans here.

“Some change is natural and cannot be avoided”

This is a really useful analogy that Parry Lewis quotes in his opening remarks in his introduction on his first page. Furthermore, he ignores local administrative council boundaries. Davidge took a different approach and recommended merging a number of the very small districts into larger districts. Parry Lewis followed the economic activity and travel patterns.

Above – Prof John Parry Lewis’s study area for his Cambridge Sub-regional plan of 1974

When he started, Huntingdonshire was in a different county. Yet Huntingdon, along with the out-of-county towns of Newmarket & Haverhill (Suffolk), Saffron Walden (Essex), and Royston (Hertfordshire) were all included in his in-depth study. Places like Wisbech and March were far outside, not even mentioned on the map.

Parry Lewis was dealing with a study area that had grown by a third over the previous 20 years. The planners of Greater Cambridge are dealing with something similar – but not on the scale percentage-wise that the Victorians had to cope with. And they had neither the processing power nor the established institutions to cope with the social and municipal problems. Instead they had John Mortlock’s Tory corruptocracy robbing the town of its wealth at the behest of the Duke of Rutland, This meant their Whig/Liberal opponents had to spend half their time fighting (literally, not just with words) the corruption as well as trying to cope with the challenges of industrialisation. The radical press didn’t pull its punches. But then a political party that selects a former slave owner as their prospective parliamentary candidate is asking for trouble. Even more so when they paraded him around on Parker’s Piece in 1840. Cambridge town was in the hold of so much corruption that even the protests did not stop Grant from getting elected.

Parry Lewis’s proposal to double Cambridge’s population to 200,000 by the Millennium.

It was Prime Minister Harold Wilson who designated Peterborough to be a next-generation new town. In 1971 its population was around 100,000 – not that much more than Cambridge. Today, it’s not far off 200,000. Cambridge could have gone the same way – and Parry Lewis gave us two options.

Above – John Parry Lewis (1974) p68-70

His options were either:

Left: Build a new urban centre next to Cambridge Airport on the east side (so next to Teversham) and expand eastwards until you hit where today’s A14 (previously called the A45) meets the A11, or…

Right: Build a new urban centre where the Trumpington Waitrose is, and expand south-west-wards down the A10 till you hit Foxton, *and* south-east-wards down Shelford Road and keep going past Sawston until you hit the A11. Then build an eastern ring road between Trumpington and Cherry Hinton and say no one can build east of it – creating a green buffer for Fulbourn.

Three very different visions for the future

I’m still not sure how I really feel about each one. Davidge never really got the change to see his proposals implemented because of war. Holford & Wright’s were only partly completed. Now you know why Park Street Car Park was originally built (and is soon to be demolished) – it was to have served an inner spine road through Cambridge. Elizabeth Way Bridge – random dual carriageway – was designed to take large amounts of traffic from a road to the railway station…that was never built. Barnwell Road. Built as a dual carriageway…was supposed to have been part of an eastern ring road with a monster flyover…that never got built. And Prof Parry Lewis? He never got past full council.

Cambridge 2041 – what’s there to learn?

I think it’s for previous generations of councillors to defend the 2018 and the 2006 local plans. If there is one thing that is clear, those plans thematically feel much more narrow in scope and if judging by the planning committee hearings, feel like the parameters of what developers can get away with vs an unloved and underfunded planning authority charged with enforcing the local plan.

So when we look at Greater Cambridge 2041, is there a connecting historical theme?

“Our vision

“We want Greater Cambridge to be a place where a big decrease in our climate impacts comes with a big increase in the quality of everyday life for all our communities. New development must reduce carbon emissions and reliance on the private car; create thriving neighbourhoods with the variety of jobs and homes we need; increase nature, wildlife and green spaces; and safeguard our unique heritage and landscapes.”

Greater Cambridge Planning

Personally I’d have gone with: “We want to make Cambridge the greatest small city in the world. And this is how we’re going to do it”

And then whacked a soundtrack behind it.

But then I’m not in charge. Just give me the damn concert hall instead!

Actually, the first thing to ask is: “Where’s my concert hall?!?!”

Above – from the draft local plan 2030-41. Lots of lovely building icons but no sign of the concert hall!

Actually, don’t tell them this but the use of icons and how they have put together what is a very difficult and complex document has been first class. Collectively we should congratulate everyone involved in what has clearly been a significant piece of work involving a large number of people and institutions.

The limitations – of which there are many, are not necessarily to do with the work on the ground, but rather structural ones to do with national institutions. For example the formal separation of housing and transport does not make things easy. Worse – the two subject areas are being dealt with at two very different tiers of the state. Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire are district level (lower tier) councils dealing with this local plan, while transport is now dealt with by metro mayors via a policy change that had very little research and analytical input, resulting in many crossed wires with county councils – which previously held transport briefs. It’s fortunate that for now we in this part of the county have political administrations who are not just reasonably aligned party-politically, but have adopted more collaborative methods of working compared with their county predecessors.

“Yeah – what about Florence Ada Keynes’ new large concert hall off Harvey Road?”

Above – Peck & Stephen’s 1857 plan for a new guildhall in Cambridge. We only got the large assembly hall, not the twin towers like Wembley. Because of the climate emergency, we can re-use unexecuted designs to save on greenhouse gases and work with this to design a new large concert hall that numerous reports say we need, and we can name it after Mayor Florence Ada Keynes, the Mother of Modern Cambridge who got our city into a position where we could have local plans in the first place. No you can’t sell the naming rights to a tax-avoiding multinational.

Above – Cllr Florence Ada Keynes (Ind – Fitzwilliam, 1914-1919) by Palmer Clark in the Cambridgeshire Collection, colourised by Nick Harris, commissioned by Antony Carpen.

The serious point is the local planning process does not take into account properly for arts and leisure facilities. Which is why I tabled this public question to the city council just before the summer recess.

Above – Cambridge City Council full council 22 July 2021

The maps show us broadly where the current proposals for new housing will go.

Above – p29 summarising where new homes will be built according to the as yet unapproved proposals.

What the proposals do not indicate – and what I think they should indicate, is where some of the larger arts and leisure infrastructure will go. Ditto new accessible areas of large open green spaces that was previously agricultural land.

Taking each of what are the three proposed new towns, I would make the case that each of them should have the equivalent of a new town hall (one that actually looks like a town hall/civic building to the people that live there – thus involving them at design stage), a central square, and a public transport interchange at their hearts. I’d then ask what sub-regional leisure facility each of the new towns will have that will serve people from surrounding villages and Cambridge too. For example:

  • Waterbeach Town Cambridge Sport Lakes
  • Northstowe – An indoor rollerrink (for the Rollerbillies) and large skatepark. (Build it as close to the guided busway and cycleway as possible)
  • Cambourne – A very large adventure playground on a scale not seen within a 40 mile radius.

In reality we should be taking a leaf out of Prof Parry-Lewis’s book and putting the same challenges to Haverhill, Saffron Walden, and Royston while at the same time offering them support for new public and active transport links plus financial investment to build or improve upon leisure facilities that can serve both their towns and also surrounding villages.

Schools and colleges

We know that Gove has made a mess of the structures for schools and colleges with the academies programme – making it much harder for local councils to plan for future demand. Recall that Mr Davidge made proposals for the restructuring of local government in his proposals – ones that were broadly followed through. That is not in the power of the current local plan, but I’d like to think that our structure of local government in Cambridge will be much improved by 2041. The Combined Authority is still finding its feet having formally taken control of the Adult Skills Budget – I remain convinced that the Cambridge Airport Site would make for a splendid new lifelong learning college with the added benefits of protecting more of the open space from development through the provision of playing fields and open green space for the benefit of people’s mental & physical health. Exercise can include countryside walks, not just team sports or pumping iron at the gym. But the finances are still with ministers.

Have we properly evaluated previous local plans? Is it in an accessible format where people can easily find it?

Several older hands will tell me “yes” but I can’t find these things. For example what I would like to know include:

  • Of the number of homes that were proposed for each site, how many were actually built within the local plan period (broken down by housing type & bedrooms)?
  • Of the number of homes proposed, how many were built *after* the local plan period?
  • Of the number of homes proposed, how many *were not built at all*?
  • Of the number of social homes and council houses proposed, how many were actually completed, and what is the difference between the two?
  • What are the reasons that explain any differences?
  • Of the number of homes built, what percentage were found to have major defects, and which were the most frequent?
  • Ditto but minor
Back to the vision for Cambridge 2041

A recap:

“We want Greater Cambridge to be a place where a big decrease in our climate impacts comes with a big increase in the quality of everyday life for all our communities. New development must reduce carbon emissions and reliance on the private car;

That is a very significant change that they will be delivering, but in principle it meets the requirements set by Holford and Wright back in 1950:

Proposals which may alter the physical pattern, the daily habits, and eventually the character of a town must above all be careful and informed.”

Decades of climate research tells us this. The county’s independent climate report also tells us this. By 2041 the plan expects to have delivered on the massive decrease in climate impacts, and a significant reduction on reliance on the private motor car.

Being careful does not mean an absence of confidence, or the presence of timidity.

Those who are called upon to tamper with other people’s houses need to approach their task with care and confidence.” Holford & Wright 1950.

Rather, in order to deliver, those involved must be confident, but that confidence must come from in depth research and sound engagement with those most affected – which means a shared and involved problem-solving approach. It does not mean a boisterous reckless approach.

And finally

Some of you will have seen the latest iteration of the Cambridge Connect proposals in the latest newsletter of Rail Future East. (You can join Rail Future at

If like me you support the Cambridge Connect concept, please get in touch with Dr Colin Harris, whose idea this is, via My view is that the ambition of the Greater Cambridge Local Plan 2030-41 simply will not be met without both a new light rail underground metro on this scale (if not, even bigger), plus significant improvements to water supplies from external sources to reduce the pressure on our local chalk streams.

And even then I have a host of other concerns.

Which is why as I stated in my previous blogpost that the study of the plans by residents and community groups needs to be co-ordinated and broken down so that no one person or group is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of information contained.

Food for thought?

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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