Someone on Cambridge town planning is wrong. Again. This time it’s on swimming pools.

TL:DR – Rubbish assumptions make for rubbish decisions. Ditto rubbish data.

Or in civil-service-speak / local-gov-officer-speak:

“The unrealistic assumptions – ones which do not reflect the day-to-day reality of service users, – assumed in this report and used in the calculations result in a sub-optimal outcome for the community and our designated user groups. This is likely to result in dissatisfaction amongst residents and could have a negative impact on the image of local government and providers of leisure facilities across the sub-region.”


To be clear, I’m writing these blogposts from the viewpoint of:

We are Cambridge. We demand better.

Time-and-again the new residential developments for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire have under-provided for community needs. Developers in for the money have no financial incentive to provide for community facilities. Therefore it’s a battle between under-resourced councils and over-resourced legal teams for developers that thrash it out. The results speak for themselves in the lack of community facilities. Too many developers have built poor quality homes to the extent that Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner tore them to bits in a debate in the House of Commons earlier this year. The varying quality of newbuild properties is in the In-tray of the new Housing Secretary Michael Gove, who was cross-examined by MPs on 08 November 2021. You can watch how he got on here. Useful for those of you living in flats with cladding issues.

In the meantime, look at Cambourne. Desperately short of proper community facilities. Northstowe and Waterbeach new town risk making the same mistakes all over again – ones that date back to the early 20th Century when much time and resource was expended on future ideas for community things, with very little delivered. At the moment residents of the town have to go to Cambridge or St Neots to go swimming. A municipal pool should have been built years ago.

Before examining Cambridge’s strategy, a note on obsolete structures, boundaries etc

Cambridge’s city boundaries have not changed much since 1935.

Above – the Cambridge (Extension Order) 1934 – what we were following the expansion of 1911, what we could have had, and what we got.

The close partnership working between South Cambridgeshire District, and Cambridge City Council reflects what is likely to come in the future – as soon as we get a group of competent local government ministers to initiate the necessary policy reviews & commissions. As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, different council boundaries, structures, and powers could have resulted in something far more radical and beneficial for residents, with integrated transport, housing, and leisure strategies.

Above – the abandoned proposals for a Greater Cambridge unitary council from 1969 (From the Royal Commission for Local Government). I post these things to remind readers that the present structures are not set in stone. They were put in place by politicians, and they can be removed by politicians. Having Royston, Saffron Walden, Haverhill and Newmarket all within the same local government area frames contemporary challenges very differently to what we have today.

“So what was Cambridge’s strategy and who is wrong on the internet?”

First there is the Greater Cambridge Local Plan spatial options assessment
Infrastructure Delivery Plan
by Stantec – the water report people. (Recall the plans for a new Fens Reservoir). What follows shows why community groups and residents should double-check the assumptions made by consultants, because you never know which bit was written by the newly-recruited graduate employee and which bit was written by the senior consultant.

So I went off on one after finding the consultants said we could not have a new swimming pool.

“What did the report cover?”

It’s only about 45 pages so it doesn’t have to be a dense read if you’re only looking to browse through it. It’s also dated – it needs refreshing in the face of Dr Nik Johnson’s election.

The controversial bit is on p11 on the electronic version. Normally when people say to me that the City of Cambridge can’t have nice things but super-rich people can have more money instead I get stroppy. This was another example.

At the same time, me being stroppy also means me asking awkward questions such as “What are the assumptions you made in your scenario?” – only they have to be *very strong assumptions* (so strong as to be unrealistic) if that is the conclusion they came to.

So these were their calculations on how many new sports halls and pools we’d need. But I wanted to know their assumptions. Which they mentioned below.

Above – referring to a 2010 SPD – Supplementary Planning Document. Two things to note: Cambridge’s population is already well over 100,000. So why don’t we have two big municipal swimming pools? This is where things get a little murky. When is a private swimming pool designated as ‘open to the public’?

I couldn’t find the 2010 SPD but the figures matched the Open Space and Recreation Strategy 2011.

It’s worth noting that further down it says:

“All new developments should therefore contribute through financial contributions based on the provision of new sports halls and a swimming pool. New provision should be located to be accessible to the catchment population.”

Cambridge Open Space & RecreatioN Strategy para 5.27

Given the significant improvements being made to our active travel network, I think the council should refresh all of those assumptions, and ask if increased accessibility by alternative transport methods means that we might see increased demand from the existing population. Even more so with outdoor open spaces and sports pitches given our experience with the Pandemic and Lockdown.

Cambridge’s over-supply of swimming pools is actually an undersupply when you look at the people that actually use them, rather than just looking at addresses.

Above – from the Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire Indoor Leisure Strategy 2016-31. This report says Cambridge can have nice things. I like this report. You should read it too and ask your councillors and MPs if your part of the county can have nice things too!

The more serious point is that the consultants worked with existing local council boundaries. Amongst the many words missing in the Stantec report are ones such as ‘students’ (full time higher education, full time further education, full time language and private college), and ‘tourists’. Are they really assuming no students and tourists use Parkside Pools and the Jesus Green Lido? ***Really?***

Fast forward to 2018 and we see the report from Environment & Scrutiny Committee’s Swimming Pool Investment Strategy of June 2018 presented to Cllrs Johnson, Moore, and Smith. (Sorry Rosy & Anna!) Appendix 1 here is the Pools Strategy.

Furthermore at 1.7 the report states only two private pools (DW which is small, David Lloyd which is large but requires expensive subscriptions) and Frank Lee (for Addenbrooke’s workers only) have any spare capacity.

Therefore Cambridge – including Greater Cambridge – needs new swimming capacity.

So I conclude the consultants used unrealistic assumptions, input the scores, totted up the numbers and came up with the answer of: “Computer says “No!””

Above – from the final page – the consultant’s “Computer says “No you can’t have a new swimming pool!” model. The one that failed to account for any students, tourists, or anyone commuting in from outside of the county. Which as we know are ***very strong assumptions***.

This is the point I make about a proposed new concert hall. Look at the postcode data for other leisure attractions in Cambridge. Note the higher-than-expected percentages of people travelling in from outside the city and even county. Ask The Junction and The Corn Exchange – or even Cambridge United Football Club. If your facilities are good enough, people will make the effort.

Combine that with the improvements being proposed and made to our transport systems. (I still don’t think they are up to the standard I’d like, but the improvements like the Chisholm Trail will be a game-changer).

To conclude?

The consultants need to amend their assumptions in their models and re-run the calculations. They may find the conclusion they reach is a different one.

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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