Ministers failing communities again – the serviced apartments planning loophole

A planning application strongly opposed by the residents of Romsey Town in Cambridge, but which received approval in 2019 has come back in late 2021 – something that will only anger local residents once more. And for what purpose?

You can see the files on the Greater Cambridge Planning Portal at https://applications.greatercambridgeplanning.org/online-applications/ and searching for Ref. 21/04559/FUL “Part demolition of the existing Romsey Labour Club building with retention of the BLI historic frontage and erection of 44no. serviced apartments”

The ‘community spaces’ are comically small. It’s all designed to squeeze as much money out of the site as the design professionals can get away with. In the grand scheme of things, the existence of the Labour Club building is an irritation if your aim is to maximise the return on investment – the investment being in the land. That’s primarily the asset, and the aim is to squeeze as many individual units into that small space (that was the back garden of the Labour Club) as possible.

Prediction: Assuming the applicant gets planning permission, he will shortly put the site up for sale with the accompanying planning permission and pocket the uplift

Only that’s what he did last time around. I wrote about it here having found out from a community leader in Queen Edith’s – Sam Davies…

…now Cllr Sam Davies MBE.

This is following a rejection of the 2018 attempt to build student apartments there – see here by Josh Thomas.

I’m not going to lose too much sleep over this – it’s not worth the angst. I’ve said much of what I had to say in my previous blogpost about how the broken system that ministers put in place affects places like Cambridge.

“Is the serviced apartment sector as insatiable as the luxury apartment sector?”

It’s simply doing what the financial system designed it to do, and ministers are not of the calibre of, and lack the political principles and moral fibre to do anything substantial about it. The big picture is as the housing charity Shelter describe in Manchester:

“The growth of short term rentals of housing units has become a noticeable trend across UK and international cities and has contributed to broader housing pressures across and beyond the Greater Manchester city-regional centre. It is intimately tied with broader processes of housing financialisation as institutional investors and sector specialists develop increasing numbers of units aimed, not at local residents but at visitors to cities.”

From Homes to Assets: Housing financialisation in Greater Manchester – para 2.2.

The late Cambridge Historian Allan Brigham had this to say of the 2019 application:

“Instead of using his business skills to develop new products [the applicant] has sold his company and gone into property because it is too difficult to resist the huge profits.This looks like the man – he seemed reasonable when we first met him, but the planning system almost forces even good men to turn bad. The profits are so huge and the regulations are so weak greed gets the better, even if those already very rich.”

The late Allan Brigham, Town Not Gown Tours, 24 April 2019.

In March 2018 I wrote the following:

With so much money to be made from property in and around Cambridge, over-stretched and under-resourced planning officers and councillors find themselves on the receiving end of a planning system imposed by Central Government that ties their hands and enables developments that are either of poor quality, poor design, irritate local residents, destabilise communities or a combination of all. 

Commenting on planning applications – A Dragon’s Best Friend, 30 March 2018.

As I mentioned, I’m not going to lose much sleep trying to critique such a corrupt Government with serious public policy analysis. What’s striking with the Shelter report is that no public policy recommendations for Central Government are included either. Most of its recommendations are for the under-resourced local government sector.

“Do we know how big Cambridge’s market is for short-term lets?”

I can’t find any in-depth studies, but the Manchester Shelter report was funded by an Early Career Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust. I’d like to think Cambridge’s various campaign groups might be able to persuade local funding organisations to fund a similar study for Greater Cambridge – especially given the impact the sector has on communities.

I’ll make the point again: Because land supply is fixed in the short and medium term, in places like towns and cities the use of land for one function means it cannot be used for another. Use the Romsey Labour Club for serviced apartments and you cannot use it for anything else. Convert a house into an Air BnB property and you can’t use it as a residential property. Convert a house into a student let and the same applies – noting that local councils also take a financial hit as no council tax is payable. (Note the solution to that involves the massive overhaul of how local government is financed in England, it’s not simply a case of making students – most of whom are already in huge debt, pay even more).

The Short Term Lets market has their supporters

And why shouldn’t they? Most other industries have their equivalents. The Cambridge Network featured one local firm which won an award from one of the trade associations for the sector. I can hear some of you shouting “Vanity Awards!” – a concept which I only stumbled across in my early social media days. But with specialist sector industry awards, I found out about these during my civil service days – the ones by the concrete industry being my favourite.

Above – from the “The annual presentation of The Concrete Society’s coveted Awards for Excellence in Concrete” in 2019.

Don’t knock them! They take place in expensive hotels where the drinks are on someone else! (Also I know which celeb I need to go to for my future concrete requirements. That’s right, Cambridge United’s Dion Dublin! (who probably has more experience given his long-running TV show on property renovation on daytime telly).

Above – me and Dion Dublin when I bumped into him in Grand Arcade. The last time I had seen him was in the Abbey Stadium in 1992 in the Playoff Semi-final against Leicester City. I was 12.

As an aside, I’ve mentioned before that Cambridge City Council should commission the recently-appointed Cambridge United director to run some events promoting the local plan consultation. Have a couple for the business sector, and a couple for the community sector. The corporate sponsorship just to be associated with Dion will be enough to cover his fees and the venue/catering/organisation costs to ensure that the community events can be free. (If I was running my own local construction firm I would jump at the chance of sponsoring such an event and having a photo taken with him & my staff).

City councils do not have the power to control the growth of businesses in their cities – but have the responsibilities for picking up the tab for the consequences.

Privatising the profits and socialising the losses?

Actually this concept came up in Thomas Sharp’s study of Oxford in 1948. The problem was associated with the Morris Motorworks at Cowley, which some say ruined the city. Sharp discusses the issues the firm faced with calls to move some parts of its production capacity to other cities – and the barriers involved. This was in response to concerns that the continued growth of the firm would mean Oxford’s local economy becoming over-dependent on one firm due to the mini-ecosystem of component-makers that had to be located locally.

The same could be said for Cambridge and some of its sectors, from the bio-sciences through to private colleges and language schools. Even the expansion of student numbers at Anglia Ruskin means that the function of the institution long ago outgrew the capacity of its cramped East Road site. But at what point can a municipal authority say to a privately-owned firm that it cannot expand its operations due to the negative impact it will have on existing communities in the city? For example expanding student numbers increasing demand for residencies nearby, raising prices for property. I can think of more than a few primary schools in Cambridge that have closed over the years as young families have been priced out. But is that part of the natural ebb and flow of cities? It’s very hard to take an historic perspective

We are at that point in history where we are about to undertake a big change in how we live – the biggest since the development of the motor car.

And yet when I look at the planning applications coming in, I’ve not seen anything showing industry is ready for it. To be fair to the Royal Commissioners overhauling the model of local government in England 1966-69, they recognised that the growth of the motorcar was a technological change that was having huge impacts on society, and it was one local government needed to respond to in the form of structural changes. Their comparisons of commuting patterns between 1921 and 1961 are striking.

When you look at the pilot areas for e-scooters – of which Cambridge is one, one of the biggest changes in the street scene is (mainly young adults) using these e-scooters. My main issue remains with the way the firm VOI leaves its bikes and scooters about on the street and not in docking stations. Such a simple move would take away much of the community’s irritation. Because in the grand scheme of things the technology is now available for people to use e-propelled micro-vehicles, whether scooters, mopeds, or small cars all powered electrically using technology we could not have dreamt of a generation ago. At what point will our transport infrastructure and road layouts be changed to reflect this?

Furthermore, what impact will the requirements to respond to the climate emergency have on the parts of Cambridge’s economy that are dependent on visitors from outside, whether domestic or from abroad? Will the era of mass flights and huge airliners make way for other forms of transport? Either way, we will need a planning system that is flexible enough to respond to these changes. But if the ministers in charge of it can’t deal with the very real impacts that the financialisation of housing and property is having on our towns and cities, I don’t have much hope for them dealing with much else. Least of all the climate emergency and the ecological emergency.

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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