‘Breakthruuuuuuu these planning rules of pain!’

I missed the initial early consultation at the time, but as the main planning application has not yet been submitted, it’s not too late for people to comment and share.

Breakthru? I’m thinking Queen on a train

I remember not liking this track at the time – my older brother liked it though, so it stuck.

But we are not talking about a song, we are talking about…

“…The global developer of life sciences real estate [which] is backed by a joint venture between Tishman Speyer and Bellco Capital, specialising in creating purpose-built, Class A office and laboratory spaces, whilst promoting elevated user experiences and providing companies with access to its world-renowned Scientific Advisory Board (SAB).”

S Conway-Jarrett 18 May 2022

So it’s a US-based multinational looking to buy into the UK sci/tech bubble. And on the other side of the table is a planning team within an institution formed to govern a settlement little bigger than a large market town – Cambridge City Council is a borough/district level council, enfeebled by successive governments and unable to stand up for itself in the face of huge property speculation and financial activity.

If it wasn’t this firm doing it, it would be another one. The problem is the governance structures of local government in the UK.

“The current state of the governance arrangements for England is a significant and pressing problem that has been neglected by successive Governments for too long.

The current funding arrangements for local government and combined authorities are ineffective.”

House of Commons Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee, 31 Oct 2022
“Where are they talking about, what’s there, and what do they want to replace it with?”

We’re talking about the northern edge of Cambridge next to the A14 – which also falls within the emerging North East Cambridge Area Action Plan that I tabled a PQ for at the city council earlier. The building is at the red bubble on the map below that Playfusion Ltd are located in – but that firm has nothing to do with the application being discussed in this blogpost.

Above – from G-Maps hereso villages north of the A14 within visible distance of it, this involves you.

“What’s there at present?”

The Vitrum Building, which looks a bit bland? Apparently it takes its name from the Latin word for ‘glass’. Read it on the internet so must be true.

Above – the Vitrum Building from G-Maps. Most business park and science park buildings round these parts are like that. One of the few that I quite like is the Napp Building – which in a very rare example of agreement is one even the Concrete Society likes as well!

“What do they want to replace it with?”

Potentially “the tallest building in Cambridge” according to an early objection from Milton Parish Council. See the Gtr Cambridge Planning Portal and see the screening opinion by typing in 22/05108/SCRE into the search box. You can also view the firm’s PR website here.

First iteration of a proposed new Vitrum House on St John’s Innovation Park

You can keep an eye on what one of the property forums is reporting about Cambridge here.

“We object to the height and bulk of this proposed building.”

Cambridge Past, Present, and Future

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon it is not. One of the tricks of the trade to watch out for with controversial planning applications is to cover plain buildings with foliage and hide them with trees. But as vegetation is not a permanent feature of the building…exactly.

“Look – we’ve been here before with Science Island from 1960”

And we threatened to have a riot if that got the go-ahead. Three concrete monsters that would have soared up to 200ft (about 60 metres) caused such a concern that planners sent up balloons and photographed them to see what the views would look like!

Above – From Mike Petty’s archives

Cambridge Past, Present, and Future also point readers to what Cambridge’s Local Plan states.

“Policy 60 and Appendix F of the Cambridge City Local Plan sets out the policy and guidance on tall buildings in Cambridge.”

CambridgePPF also goes onto state:

The Area Action Plan identifies that buildings in this location should be 3-6 storeys (10m-19m). Your proposal at 34m exceeds this policy.”

Okay, so let’s have a look at the Cambridge Local Plan 2018

“Cambridge should seek to maintain and, where appropriate, enhance the overall character and qualities of its skyline as the city continues to grow and develop into the future. Any proposals for new tall buildings will need to demonstrate how they have taken account of the prevailing context and more distant views to enhance the skyline.”

Para 7.20 / p187/194 CLP 2018

Does this block enhance the character and qualities of our city skyline?

Talking of landmark buildings, the site happens to be almost next door to the Napp Building mentioned earlier. Which is a designated landmark building in the Local Plan (Fig. F2 p340). Furthermore, with icons 12 and 13 on the map below being designated strategic viewpoints in the Local Plan, they will need something better than spreadsheet architecture to get it past the Planning Committee just to pass that test.

Above: Figure F.3. – Strategic Viewpoints

Scale and massing…oh boy…!

Above – feel free to read the rest of p347

“So…in conclusion?”

I don’t like it.

Take away the broken babylon-du-jardins features and what you’re left with is more identkit minimal cost, maximum profit spreadsheet architecture.

Above – bland, bland, bland.

Finally, the developers seem to be rushing the timeline for when they think they can get planning permission and start construction. This from their website.

With no council meetings in August due to summer holidays, mid July is about as late as Mid-2023 gets before we are into September and Autumn. It’s hard to see how the whole thing will be done and dusted by then. There are far too many alterations to the design that will need to happen to make it compliant with the Cambridge Local Plan 2018. Remember that if a planning application does not comply with an up-to-date local plan approved by the Secretary of State (and Cambridge’s one is up-to-date and approved), council planning committees have every right (if not a duty) to refuse such applications. And in the case of any appeal, Planning Inspectors must have very powerful reasons why any departures from local plans should be permitted. One of the reasons why Planning Inspectors are so unpopular within local planning campaigning circles is the frequency in which they seem to overturn decisions taken by local planning committees. But then you ask developers and they are just as frustrated at the planning system too. It is a broken system, and it has been for a very long time. However, I cannot see how the planning system can be improved without carrying out the even more difficult task of a major overhaul of local government in, and the governance of England – as recommended by the House of Commons Public Administration Committee a few months ago.

In the meantime…

Get your questions in to Cambridge City Council for their Joint Development Control Committee See here for the meeting papers.

Above – from the Agenda Reports Pack if you want to follow things or submit a PQ. For an example of asking a public question (which I submitted in advance) have a watch of my Qs to city councillors on all things town planning here.

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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