The Greater Cambridge Local Plans will fail to meet housing demand and will under-provide for community facilities unless we see big policy changes in Whitehall

If you want to know why, have a watch of Cllr Sam Davies‘ presentation to the AGM 2021 of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations.

If you’re interested in the long-form presentation of the issues, Cllr Davies has recommended this presentation by Dr Deborah Potts to the Cambridge Commons.

The three massive policy changes needed to give the proposals any chance?

  1. Changes to HM Treasury’s entire approach to how property is bought/sold/taxed – with the effect of taking much of it out of the international property market
  2. Changes to how the utility companies are owned, managed, and regulated
  3. Changes to how UK political parties make local government policy at a national level

And that’s on top of a wider overhaul of the relationship between Central and Local Government that was last examined in any depth by the 1966-69 Royal Commission (you can read their assessment here – essential for anyone in a local council).

“Is there anything local councillors or town planners can do?”

In a word: No.

“Is there anything everyone else can do?”

(*Shrugs shoulders*)

The first two massive policy changes are far outside of the scope of what I’d normally cover, and I would not pretend to be an expert in those fields. But if we take one major estate agency active in Cambridge – Savills, they provide the figures publicly in their market briefing. You can read it here.

“Over a third of our buyers are international, and we saw a small uptick in their numbers. That’s a reflection of the appeal of the highly acclaimed schools and the global businesses that are based in Cambridge.”

Savills Cambridge Market Briefing, Feb 2021
“Could the post-Brexit UK ban the sales of property to overseas residents?”

New Zealand did that back in 2018 (see here) because they were facing similar problems to what the UK in the South East is facing. But that’s a national government competency which means that it’s up to the Chancellor to make the move. And he and his party won’t do that, whether because of ideological reasons (seeing it as interfering with the business transactions of private individuals) to not wanting to bring in policies that might upset a core group of wealthy donors. Hence the wider issues about political party funding: If there is a strong party political financial incentive to make a policy decision one way or another, then the political system is potentially corrupted because political parties cannot make decisions based on the collective values of their party’s membership + policy merit alone. (Furthermore it creates a massive disincentive for people to get involved in political parties if they see party policy-making driven by an elite few rather than something that is debated and discussed in much wider and diverse audiences – hence the importance of national party conferences as the primary policy-making forums).

The impact of ‘the wrong properties being built in the wrong places’

Is there such a concept? Those in favour of a free market in property might say in the current system there is not – whoever has the most money gets to buy the land to build what the system will allow them to. If anything, they’ll see the requirements to build social/affordable housing as an unnecessary intervention in the market by government.

If, however you take the view that villages, towns, and cities are complex entities that require continual management to deal with challenges such as public health, traffic control, and crime reduction, then the tools that should be at the disposal of local council leaders and their chief executives will inevitably contain things that will ‘interfere with the market’ – for example urban design that requires the zoning off of large areas of land for urban parks. Such as all of the college green spaces in Cambridge that the tourist industry waxes lyrical about. Wouldn’t it be better to simply let the free market rip and build executive apartments in front of King’s College Chapel? Because after all, it’s not as if the institution acquired the land through a successful economic strategy. (King Henry VI turfed out the residential inland port community that was thriving on the banks of the Cam and ordered that his college be built there – King’s College softens this account by saying it was an early form of compulsory purchase – which isn’t the impression I get from the Father of Modern Cambridge, Charles Henry Cooper, who gives this account. (More: “There shall be a college built here and I shall call it mine! Put it on a scroll please Lord Chancellor and see to it that Parliament approves!”)

Back to the present day

I’m not going to try and unpick the present Government’s policies – I don’t think there’s any point giving serious public policy scrutiny to a toxic administration that has chosen to break so many laws, conventions, agreements, rules, regulations and requirements that were essential to the Westminster system functioning. The most recent controversy being about Conservative backbench MPs voting to allow the highly profitable privatised water companies to continue polluting rivers and streams in England. Here’s the exchange in South Cambridgeshire.

Caroline Lucas MP (Greens – Brighton Pavilion – where I used to live many moons ago) put the question directly to the Minister Rebecca Pow. You can read their exchange in Hansard here… and again here in more detail.

The point remains…

….that successive Chancellors have not developed and implemented policies that will take UK housing out of the international (investment) property market. Therefore while the rates of return remain high, developers will have a much stronger financial incentive to build to that market. With land supply being fixed in the short-medium term, that means land built for luxury apartments for sale on the international markets cannot be used for the housing or building types that long term residents need – in particular for those that carry out the functions essential for cities and communities to exist. If we were to do an audit of Cambridge’s housing estates post-WWII we would find very few community facilities for the long term resident population.

North Cambridge on G-Maps above, from north of Chesterton Road to the A14 does not come up with any attractions listed. (There are a few, just not appearing here).

Above – what is effectively south and east of Parker’s Piece, which follows the expansion of the town in the 1800s (Mill Road, East Road), then southwards in the 1900s and towards Cherry Hinton post-WWII, only the Cambridge Leisure Park is the really notable addition – and even then its target audience is mainly the lucrative visiting private student market, a facility treated as a cash cow by the property owner Land Securities. (Again why wouldn’t they? The economic system incentivises them to do it and successive ministers have chosen to leave that system in place). On my old blog in 2016, I looked at the impact of a number of large developments around the railway station and on how developers gamed the planning system. Again, successive ministers have chosen to leave that system largely in place. As any civil servant will tell you, “do nothing” is your first option when faced with a public policy challenge.

New town plans for old?

Oxford: Here’s one they ruined earlier

I found Thomas Sharp’s takedown of University, city, and county of Oxford in the Amnesty International Bookshop on Mill Road. I’m still reading it.

…and you can get copies of Oxford Replanned from 1948 here. I think it’s essential reading for anyone interested in Cambridge’s planning and transport issues. Turns out that Oxford made all the mistakes in the first half of the 20th Century that Cambridge seems to be making now. Let’s take some quotations:

On motor traffic

“Today the heavy concentration of traffic is threatening to break down the entire organisation of Oxford as a centre for civilised life”

Oxford Replanned – Sharp, T. (1948), Oxford City Council / Architectural Press, p19

On rapid expansion, and on broken structures of governance

“In the last 25 years alone, 12,000 buildings have been put up, along with hundreds of miles of new streets. The City has doubled in size…Yet all the mistakes that could be made have been made. Nothing has been done well. Indeed nothing has been done well in Oxford for nearly a hundred years”

“Perhaps no one has been particularly to blame. Which means that everyone is to blame. Certainly the University is at least as responsible as the Corporation (City Council). The County Councils are as culpable as the University. Central Government has its share in responsibility as well as local government. And it is a tragedy which has not been enacted in Oxford alone”

Ibid p50.

On town vs gown in problem-solving

“The University’s deficiency in many necessary buildings is shared by the city itself. The setting up of a distinction between university and city in this, as in other matters, is, indeed both artificial and false, for the University is, or should be part of the city; and, in cultural buildings especially (though in shops and buses and much else besides), the requirements of citizens & scholars have much in common.”

Ibid, p67

On the arts – and lack of concert halls

“The practice and enjoyment of the arts should be easier in Oxford than elsewhere. It is easier than in most cities. But it is still not easy enough – mostly for the lack of satisfactory buildings. It is true that the city has two theatres, where intelligent plays may sometimes be seen. But it has no adequate concert rooms, public lecture halls, or assembly halls.

Ibid p67

On Oxford’s recent past (in 1948)

It is useless to regret what has happened as it is to try and assess the blame for it. Oxford has changed. It has taken on new activities. It has grown from a medium-small to a medium-large city. That has to be accepted.

Ibid, p73

On Oxford’s future (in 1948)

“Nevertheless, some of the trends that brought about these developments can be redirected or limited; much of the confusion that has arisen can be resolved; and many of the city’s deficiencies can be made good. The present state of affairs has come about because of a lack of a commonly accepted decision as to what kind of a city Oxford should be.”

Ibid, p73

Again copies of the book are for sale here.

Coming back to the crux of the problem

Then as now, the public sector and local government is fragmented and under-resourced to do what it is constitutionally required to do. Sharp was writing at a time when local government was even more of a mess than it is today – the reforms of the 1970s getting rid of many smaller local councils but still leaving us with a system largely unchanged to today for all but the largest of cities.

As I’ve mentioned previously, we have:

  • Cambridge City Council (borough/district tier) responsible for the local plan – sensibly they’ve teamed up with South Cambridgeshire District Council for the current and next local plan – so housing targets and conditions of construction
  • The Combined Authority/Mayor is now responsible for the Local Transport Plan having had it given to them from the County Council
  • The County Council had secondary schools taken away from them by Michael Gove when setting up academies – in a move that went in the opposite direction of the localism rhetoric. They have a public health function but without the funding necessary to do the job
  • The Police & Crime Commissioner
  • The various NHS commissioning groups – don’t ask me how they are structured (I don’t know if that was part of Lansley’s plan to make it too confusing for everyone so it was harder to scrutinise it properly!) but if you want to scrutinise/ask questions, go to your local Healthwatch to find out how.

Chartered Town Planner Richard Blyth of the Royal Town Planning Institute has this recommendation:

And he’s right – where does the Environment fit into all of this? Should that not be the primary document in all of this from which everything else stems from? That also means that house building cannot continue until the proper infrastructure is put in place, be that mass transit, new permanent water supplies, or the mass retro-fitting of ageing properties.

Why the Royal Commission on Local Government 1966-69 is such a useful document

I’ve digitised Vol.1 here.

It states clearly that the commissioners decided to build a new model of local government and explore the rationale behind the structures and powers they proposed. As a result its proposals do not suffer from the problems you get with nearly two centuries of piecemeal changes. (2035 is the bicentenary of modern local government in England). You can read a series of essays written on the 100th anniversary in this digitised publication celebrating a century of municipal progress in 1935.

Why the business sector and lobbyists are around Dr Nik Johnson like bees around a honeypot.

Because they want to see the Office of ‘Metro Mayor’ as being the ‘one stop shop’ for all of their complaints about local government. And ministers erroneously gave that impression that such post-holders would be able to ‘cut through red tape that gets in the way of business’. Something that Grenfell revealed to be nothing more than political grandstanding rhetoric that ultimately cost the lives of 72 people. The Inquiry continues.

Yet as The Mayor set out in his election campaign, the terms of office are limited, and the powers & budgets he has available even more so. Again, the fault lies with ministers for not going through a thorough and proper public policy-making process. They rushed it. As a result there is even more confusion as to who is responsible for what. Far better from my perspective for any local council body to have both those greater and wider powers of revenue-raising – and along side those, far stronger powers of scrutiny for council assemblies, and a far-better-resourced function of statistical research and data collection to inform decisions taken by council leaderships (whether mayors or executives) and approved by council assemblies.

Until then…

It will be very difficult for anyone to come up with a genuinely inspiring vision and plan for the future of their town or city. The reason being is that politicians will stick to the box that the system puts them in. Why talk about issues that are outside of the competency and influence of the office that you seek election for? Unless you want to stereotype student unions and claim that the election of radical candidate X to their union’s executive committee is the first step on the road to the liberation of country Y and the overthrow of evil dictator Z.

And that’s (a few of the reasons) why…

…you don’t see many inspiring proposals for the futures of any of our towns and cities.

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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