Lessons from Cambourne published in 2007 to apply to new developments in Greater Cambridge

I was invited to comment on Northstowe’s thought-provoking and detailed town strategy by Cllr Sarah Cheung Johnson (Liberal Democrats – Longstanton, Oakington & Northstowe) on a recent thread on recent large housing developments in and around our city.

The headline relates to the 2007 document Lessons from Cambourne written by Stephen Platt.

This week’s Cambridge Independent has featured a number of housing and planning issues – such as Cllr Ian Sollom of the Liberal Democrats going head-to-head with the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire over the merits or otherwise of proposed housing numbers in the emerging new local plan, to a proposed new youth centre that has started construction that, on further investigation showed how badly served the people of Cambourne have been by the construction and development industry, and their professionals and consultants. And also the officials, civil servants, politicians, councillors and ministers of a previous era who signed all of this off.

In this I am potentially criticising people who I used to work with but then part of the learning experience has to involve acknowledging when we get things wrong, what went wrong, plus working out how and why we got things wrong. It’s one of the things that also drives my research into the history of Cambridge the town.

Above – the exchange – which stemmed from a debate about the descriptions of the new large developments and developing towns of Cambourne and Northstowe.

As I mentioned in my last-but-one blogpost, Greater Cambridge is not being managed as a single, complex unit. As a result, too many people and too many organisations are functioning in a manner that is not co-ordinated with, and sometimes works to the detriment of the whole of the city and district.

I mentioned the redevelopment of the Cambridge Railway Station area as a classic example – those with a strong financial interest in the developer that emerged from the ashes of Ashwell did splendidly out of it, but at the cost to the rest of the city. Olly Wainwright of The Guardian explains in full here – you only have to look at the comments in the responses to get a sense of how angry people were – and still are about it. As far as I am concerned, the issue will remain that what has since been built will never be as good as what it could have become.

“So, what are the lessons from Cambourne?”

Platt sought to answer two questions:

  • Firstly, does Cambourne meet the objectives of the original Master Plan? And secondly,
  • Can we learn lessons that can guide future large scale development?”

Do consider though that the world Cambourne’s construction started in, and the world that Mr Platt was writing in are very different to the one that we are now living in. These include:

  • The climate emergency – which is here and now. So the sense of urgency is far, far greater than it was a generation and two generations ago;
  • Brexit – leaving the EU – primarily political and economic;
  • The Covid19 pandemic – primarily a public health (life-and-death intense) and a social / ‘how we live’ shock, have changed the mindsets of what society thought was reasonable and tolerable;
  • The communications technology impact – the growth of social media and the ability for a critical mass of people to work from home and work flexibly;
  • A decade of austerity from central government – and a recession or two as well – with the inevitable knock-on impacts on employment levels and crime rates

Mr Platt’s conclusions of 2007 make me wonder whether a similar ‘lessons learnt’ paper should be researched and published for the mid-2020s. The reason being that Cambourne has doubled in population and size since Mr Platt reported. The planning permissions allowed for 4,250 homes, of which he said half had been built by 2007. In 2020, Cambridgeshire Insight tells us that the population estimate from ONS is 10,544. Which matches Mr Platt’s estimate. But both are still estimates. We will find out next year what the actual population will be for the town when the 2021 Census top lines are published – likely in April 2022.

“Given what we now know, would we build another Cambourne in the way the current one has been built?”

A rhetorical question almost – but then which things would we do differently, and why?

It was this image that struck me when doing background research on Gemma Gardner’s piece on the new youth club building getting financial approval. I’ll leave it to you to pick out the improvements you would make to the design of the surrounding area – and some of the basic urban design errors.

Above – From G-Maps here, the location of Cambourne Soul, a mobile-classroom-type structure serving as a youth club run in partnership with the Romsey Mill, who several of you will be familiar with in Cambridge.

The supermarket dominating the market square

p17 of Mr Platt’s report:

Above – no mention of rail or light-rail mass transit. The big assumption is that there will be sufficient bus transport. Which in the face of austerity has turned out to be a very big assumption. We are reassured though that the Centre of Cambourne is focused around a Market Square.

Above – from p17, somewhere in there is the Market Square. This was drawn by Terry Farrell (c) in 1995. The problem is that at the end of the 1990s…

“…the developers of the town working with South Cambridgeshire District Council as the relevant planning authority, assigned Cambourne Market Square to the supermarket site.”

Caring about Cambourne to Morrisons PLC, 10 Feb 2021

The privatisation of public spaces remains a huge issue. It was a trend that become prominent in the 2000s as Anna Minton wrote for the Guardian in 2009 here. (You can read more of Anna’s articles here on public spaces).

Try as they might, Morrison’s has not reached agreement with the town council for use of the market square. And that market square is used as a car park.

“The town council has attempted many times over the last twenty years to find agreement with Morrisons for use of the market square, sadly without success.”

Caring about Cambourne to Morrisons PLC, 10 Feb 2021

Above – Cambourne Market Square on G-Maps.

“That’s not a market square! That’s a car park!”

Whenever I’ve been driven to film public meetings in Cambourne, we’ve sometimes stopped in that car park to pick up things from that very supermarket. I had no idea that this was actually the market square and supposed to be the centre of the town! For years I had been complaining that there is no civic square for Cambourne – when in reality there is – it’s just occupied by two of the most unsustainable industry types – ones that are coming under huge pressure from both the Brexit fallout and the Climate Emergency: Just-in-time-delivery large supermarkets, and fossil-fuelled private transport.

[Updated to add:]

Above – longtime Twitterfriend Helene got in touch querying the precise location of the market square.

Above – from G-Maps here with the supermarket behind the trees, looking northwards. and…

…and looking eastwards. Every time I’ve been into and out of the supermarket from the front entrance – in particular on the occasions I caught the bus to the town several years ago, this open piece of ground did not even register with me. Again, my view is that the people of Cambourne deserve far, far better than this.

Both of these business models are utterly unsustainable in the era of a climate emergency. Whether air-freighted ‘fresh produce’ or driving to the supermarket in a 4×4, our lifestyles have to change – even the Prime Minister said so in his recent speech to the UN General Assembly. But that means making very tough decisions – and by tough I mean ones that will make executives of very large corporations very angry with ministers. At the same time, there is a huge opportunity for the people of Cambourne to turn that space into something special for everyone.

Wider context: A developers’ playground?

Let’s have a look at the wider geography.

Above – from G-Maps here.

Bourn Airfield is the next site to be developed – standing out like a sore thumb with the distinctive “A” of the runways. Have a look at the proposed masterplan here. The development for 3,500 homes received planning permission back in February 2021. Using the multiple that Cambourne had for its 2020 population estimate, Bourn Airfield will be almost as big. Given the housing expansion proposed in the emerging new local plan, a further 2,000 homes are proposed, which will bring Cambourne’s population up to around 25,000 people by 2040. Assuming they can sort out the water supply. Amongst other challenges.

One aspect that I think needs in-depth research is the separation of the different neighbourhoods by the large open green spaces, along with allocation of large areas of land for developers to single large companies. What impact did this have on variety of firms involved? In design and architectural styles? In the civic and community facilities? For example Cambourne West – included in the 2018 Local Plan has Bovis Homes already building nearly 800 new homes out of the 2,500 or so allocated. In the meantime the developers Hill have teamed up with South Cambridgeshire District Council to build 300 new homes close to the council’s HQ building – which I loathe with a passion.

And before I go onto tear the design of the council HQ to bits, we see time and again that the transport and community infrastructure is all-too-often seen as an afterthought rather than something that communities can be built around – and things that are so important that they should be built first. Why isn’t the Youth Club a central venue? Why is it stuck out next to a playing field with a dual carriageway at the other end of it? Again, the children and young people of the town deserve far better.

Moving forward, I encourage councillors and decision-makers to think of the future of Greater Cambourne as a single complex town that is greater than the sum of its parts. What does this growing town need in terms of civic and community facilities that could serve not just the growing future population, but the surrounding villages and even Cambridge itself – mindful of the looming East-West-Railway Station coming within the next decade. Could that be a new civic centre with its own central square, new civic hub/town hall and transport interchange? And or even a swimming pool and leisure centre?

Because the existing South Cambridgeshire Hall could easily be leased out to the private sector given the number of firms wanting to relocate or establish here. And it’s hardly the most inspiring building in the world – one that does not function as a civic social centre and one whose main meeting chamber has some of the worst acoustics I’ve experienced in a public building.

Which is presumably why in 2005 they gave the building an award.

You can read all about it here.

“The new town hall manages to achieve an appropriate civic image without the acres of marble beloved of previous generations. Stone and glass give a modern feel, edged by high-quality landscaping that benefits both the building and the surrounding business park.”

BCO Corporate Workplace Award Winners 2005

I feel like someone is gaslighting me. I guess I have different standards. Compare that to this design by William Milner Fawcett of 1893 for a new Cambridge Guildhall (see also below) which councillors rejected… ***because it was not grand enough!***

This was at a time when Cambridge’s population was only 40,000 – it’s closer to 130,000 today. Part of me is tempted to offer this to Cambourne or Northstowe and say ***Look! Build this! We have the plans already! It’ll save you money!***

But then as is inevitably the case, if you simply try and replicate old buildings as some sort of protest against contemporary architecture, you risk building something that is pastiche – which the Prince of Wales has often been accused of with his Poundbury development.

“Now that people are living and working in these new developments, can they have more of a say – and more of an influence about the design & styles of buildings?”

Again, something I’d like to see changes to the planning system incorporating: very early engagement – and meaningful engagement with local communities at design stage – i.e. before the architects have even thought about opening an Excel spreadsheet as their starting point! Basically what such an approach avoids is this:

Above – part of the Northstowe Town Centre Strategy, almost dictating what a civic hub should look like, based on three examples in Central London. Instead, I believe there are so many more inspirational examples that locals could be invited to look at – for example the many examples in The Architecture of Public Service, or even Victorian and Edwardian Town Halls. And invite the public to point out what are the features of buildings and spaces that would inspire them, What would make them voluntarily want to be in that space? What would make them feel more safe? What would make it easier for them to get to and from – without using fossil-fuelled-transport?

Northstowe learning from Cambourne. And Bar Hill. And Histon.

Their words not mine.

“Northstowe will be a new kind of new town. One with a keen eye on the future, whilst being grounded in its context and what has gone before.”

Northstowe Town Centre Strategy p3

“At its heart will be a new town centre to serve the 25,000 people living in Northstowe, residents in surrounding villages and visitors drawn to the town centre by its dynamic offer.”

Ibid.

The vision matters – and the challenge is to turn it into something meaningful rather than just having it as text to tick a box with. Otherwise it risks becoming meaningless, or worse – like the description of the architectural award for South Cambridgeshire Hall: something people treat with contempt.

There is a wider geographical context here

Above – from G-Maps here. Cambourne is bottom-left, Bar Hill in the middle (1960s large village), and Northstowe just to the east of Longstanton.

One aspect of the geographical context isn’t just Cambridge on their doorstep, but East-West-Rail providing a significant public transport link to Cambourne, and the guided busway (possibly later on converted into a light rail line) and the cycleway linking Northstowe. Residents in the new towns will inevitably go to Cambridge for some things. So what can both towns provide that Cambridge does not already have, and cannot provide for itself? (For example due to high land prices). I’m reminded of the now former Dry Ski Slope at Harlow – closed in 2018 despite protests. And the old Rollerbury in Bury St Edmunds – now Curvemotion. With that in mind, a large indoor skate park? I can imagine more than a few students would be interested in forming a longstanding student society that could then host competitions with other universities.

The ballpark figure I’ve seen used by academics studying urban geography is that a settlement needs to have a minimum of 20,000 people in order for it to sustain enough essential services for it to be self-sustaining. I.e. to avoid it becoming a dormitory settlement where people work and study elsewhere. Like Cambridge – which every day has thousands of commuters – from school children to college students to office workers to scientists to healthcare professionals. In South Cambridge I’ve suggested that the numbers are now unsustainable, and that local councils and ministers need to consider what new institutions to build and where (or which ones to move out) so that teenagers in particular are not forced to make such long journeys into a small part of Cambridge to do their further education courses. With that in mind, why wouldn’t Cambourne or Northstowe make an ideal new venue for Hills Road Sixth Form College? Or Waterbeach Newtown for The Perse? (They might even attach the Sports Lake as an incentive)

Northstowe asks the right questions:

To quote:

  • How do people want to work, shop and spend their leisure time today and how will this change in the future?
  • How should Northstowe be planned in this uncertain context?
  • How can Northstowe help meet the needs of Cambridge and diversify the offer?
  • How should this shape the identity of Northstowe?
  • How do we avoid the mistakes of other new towns?
  • How can we make Northstowe stand out?

It might be worth engaging with Cambourne Town Council and their community groups as Northstowe moves forward – if they are not doing this already. I’m sure this would be an action that academics and specialists in the field would be more than interested in following and learning from given the housing crisis that we have.

What could Northstowe’s anchor be?

They’ve started exploring this already.

“It is likely to be a cultural institution that provides Northstowe’s big bang, should it happen, reflecting the strength of South Cambridgeshire’s arts and cultural offer anchored by Cambridge University.”

Ibid p71

It does not necessarily have to be attached to Cambridge University. There may be existing things in Cambridge that may wish to relocate if Cambourne and/or Northstowe can provide larger premises at a cheaper price while maintaining the ease of access to visitors. Hence setting up close to a regular busway or rail stop is ideal. Picking one out of the sky, the Cambridge Science Centre. Could either new town provide much larger premises for a cheaper rent while still maintaining a decent level of public transport access?

Do you go for something that can be developed more organically? Take The Komedia in Brighton. This would be an ideal venue for poetry-slamming – stand up performance poetry seen in Cambridge with Hammer & Tongue. (Why didn’t we have this in the 1990s?)

“[The founders] modelled the venue on the cabaret theatres they had seen while touring with Umbrella in cities as Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Berlin; small informal welcoming venues that offered people from all walks of life a place to enjoy comedy, cabaret, and music whilst having a meal and a drink. There were no venues like these in the UK”

The Komedia, Brighton.

Given the number of green and environmental groups in and around Cambridge, could you create a new urban base for them to work from and allow local residents and visitors to learn about more sustainable ways of living in a non-confrontational environment? In Brighton again (I used to live there – and there’s now a direct train link from Cambridge), there is the longstanding Brighton Peace and Environment Centre.

Lots and lots to think about, but as soon as the first plans start to look like they are repeating the mistakes of the past, I hope residents and councillors will say to the developers: We demand better! Because given the experiences and the record previous rounds of large scale house building, our communities deserve it.

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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