“How in the world did that monstrosity get planning permission?!?”

…a phrase heard far too often in these parts.

Every so often, second hand copies of this excellent book on some of Cambridge’s worst buildings come up for sale. Messrs Jones & Hall could easily publish a second edition given the buildings that have been put up since they published this a decade ago in 2013.

This blogpost is as much about process as it is about style – and is based on two emails I received today. One from the Editor of the Cambridge Independent, and one from a marketing executive in another part of the country inviting me to write about a new proposed building in Cambridge from an architectural practice based in London (although it turns out one of the partners lives locally to me).

The first was this by me on the public notices – where the editor invited me to explain further the importance of them.

‘Fair enough’ I thought – given the point I wanted to make was about how to highlight the important planning applications and make it more clear on how people can comment on them. Just before I left Cambridge and moved down to London in the civil service, I had a short stint on regional planning casework which included filling out advert forms for statutory notices in newspapers. What I learnt back then was the importance of such advertising revenues to local newspapers. The Law requires public notices issued by local councils to be advertised in local newspapers – which is also why they are able to charge that little bit more for them: the councils have no choice but to pay up.

The tweet above wasn’t making the case to get rid of public and statutory notices in newspapers – rather to overhaul them so that more people take notice of them and if necessary, respond accordingly. One of the several problems with the existing system is that the invitation to comment is in such a small font towards the back of the newspaper, and that such is the complexity of the planning system that it’s all too easy to submit an invalid comment that cannot be considered by a planning committee.

Above – it’s not the biggest invitation in the world to get involved in local democracy and local town planning issues.

Again, the problem is the system, not the local individuals. Any changes to the present system more than likely will require new secondary legislation (Regulations, Orders in Council made under existing Acts of Parliament, if not primary legislation (new Acts of Parliament).

In terms of online routine actions for local newspapers, a hyperlink to the planning portal page where an application is being hosted by the local council would be a big improvement.

“All the public sees is a wall of text – and the font and style has hardly changed for over half a century!

Below – from the British Newspaper Archive – the Cambridge Evening News 14 Jan 1972, the notice confirming the Compulsory Purchase Order of land and buildings to enable progress of the redevelopment of Lion Yard.

Walls of text are also one of my complaints browsing through the online weekly lists published by the city and district councils in the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service database here. My point here is that there’s no way of filtering the large planning applications from the applications for works to trees.

Political and democratic literacy – town planning style

Five years ago I wrote on my old blog about making the planning system more accessible to the public, and easier to understand for more people. Nearly nine years ago I came up with a series of questions trying to explain how complex housing policy is – and have copied and pasted them below.

It’s like I have more questions than answers:

  • Who owns which bits of land?
  • What are the land values of the various bits of land?
  • What are the current uses for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current demands for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current protections for the various bits of land?
  • Which bits of land need more protection?
  • Which bits of land are suitable for development?
  • What is the spread of housing demand across the country?
  • Who needs what types of housing in which parts of the country?
  • What are the financial gaps between the types of housing people need and the types of housing they can afford, and how does this vary across the country?
  • Who doesn’t have decent access to housing?
  • Who has too much housing and is under-using it?
  • What are the policies that can tackle under-use of housing and relieve excess pressure?
  • How would those with the housing assets try to ‘game’ the system to ensure they kept all of their properties at the expense of everyone else?
  • How does transport fit into all of this?
  • How does resilience to/adaptation to climate change fit into all of this?
  • What are the costs associated with improving the above-two points?
  • What are the likely future trends with housing demand and supply?
  • Which components cost what when building a house?
  • Which specialist labour types cost what?
  • Who do we need to be training in and in what levels in the future?
  • Where is the investment going to come from?
  • What are the international factors that impact the housing market?
  • Is what people need and what people want the same thing? (How do you manage expectations?)

The above are just a handful of questions. [From 13 Feb 2014 – A Dragon’s Best Friend]”

“Do these small public notices matter? Actually, they do”

Hence the title of this blogpost.

I’ve lost count of the buildings constructed/demolished between my teens and early 30s thinking: “If only we’d known about it we could have protested about it!” For example:

  • Victoria Road Congregational Church
  • The Drill Hall on East Road (former HQ of the Cambridgeshire Regiment
  • The Co-op HQ on Burleigh Street

All of the above-three historical buildings have long-since been replaced, yet I can’t help but feel our city lost some of our local history with their demolition.

Queen Edith’s ward/division in Cambridge is a classic case study of why the notices matter: it’s all too easy for planning applications to slip in unnoticed, yet the cumulative impact is the changing nature of the neighbourhood without the informed consent of the local residents and without the construction of new facilities that might be needed. I wrote about the piecemeal changes to our neighbourhoods in 2017, and how the system enables developers to make a fortune by replacing detached houses with large gardens into rabbit-hutch-style developments, banking the planning uplift while not contributing towards much-needed social housing given the proximity of Addenbrooke’s. And when it comes to developing sites while not providing enough community facilities, developments in Queen Edith’s have form – as Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s) explains here.

What the solution to getting more people involved looks like, I’m not really sure. But I am sure that we the people of Cambridge need to figure out how we communicate with each other and our institutions inside our citywhich I wrote about back in 2016 here.

“What about the email of the planning application from today?”

That’s just me being a grumpy old so-and-so.

I’m not going to do a ‘name and shame’ expose. That would be too easy. Also I recognise that some people quite like ‘old buildings and new buildings in modern styles’ being next to each other.

Above – have a look at the design and access statement for 70 King Street, Cambridge via the planning portal typing in 21/05614/FUL into the search box, clicking on the ‘documents’ tab, and scroll down.

The quotation provided to me in the email didn’t make me believe that the person who had the words attributed to them was actually a regular tennis player on the public courts next to the extension. If you are a property professional who likes playing tennis regularly, chances are you’ll have taken out membership of a private tennis club/gym/school with multiple courts that are inevitably far better maintained than what a cash-starved district-level council could manage. And at least three of those are easier to get to by both bike and car than the public courts near where this application site is!

But then hey – I’m not the target audience. I never will be either. There are however, others who are persuaded by such things and have the means to acquire said properties.

From the perspective of a grumpy old townie who doesn’t like modern architecture, I wouldn’t describe this as a prominent anything, nor would I describe the footpath (which today I learnt was called “Milton’s Walk”) as ‘iconic’. King’s College Chapel? Iconic. The side passage running alongside a very high brick wall that has broken glass on the top of it to stop intruders? Not iconic. But then that’s why I never went into advertising. I’m only moaning about the wording because it’s cold in here and outside, and also I saw a big billboard advertising the new homes (yet to be built but being marketed off-plan) at North Cherry Hinton having been to the village library earlier.

Above – the previous billboard between Cherry Hinton and Teversham in East Cambridge from GMaps.

“You have got a stunning one-bedroom home there, you young rapscallion!”

Said no one, ever.

The development’s design code was approved in September 2022, and includes 40% affordable housing – much-needed in this part of town. My concerns remain about the lack of allocated large open green space, community facilities, and genuinely iconic new community buildings that won’t make the continued housing growth feel like an extension of suburban sprawl.

The risk of suburban sprawl – not a new phenomenon.

This stems from a pair of books I found in G.David, Cambridge <<– (Go here if you want to find books about Cambridge town local history, and also to Plurabelle Books) and spent more money than I have on them (please help fill the gap if you can afford to!) because so much of what it covers chimes with the post-war experience of Cambridge.

The original piece by Ian Nairn in Architectural Review started a series of pieces under the title Outrage about things going wrong with all things architecture. Have a read of the columns here. Have a read of his Counter Attack against subtopia – also from the mid-1950s.

Beware of the culture wars regarding beauty in architecture

In early 2023 Robert Bevan published this piece in Open Democracy about the whole ‘build back beautiful’ agenda – which Michael Gove and others drove with the whole Building Beautiful Commission. See also the National Model Design Code.

The danger highlighted by Robert Bevan is that the desire for buildings and neighbourhoods that ‘look nice to the ordinary average citizen’ (whatever that may be, other than ‘the majority of what’s being built at the moment’) is that it gets rolled up by those that wish to expand popular support on one thing into another. History is littered with examples of this. The most recent is the referendum to leave the EU – with ministers demonstrably unable to deliver the promises the pro-leave side made to the electorate. In Bevan’s case he cites examples of those very prominently supporting ‘traditional classical designs’ also being controversial views about public morals. Or getting caught up in controversies such as King Charles III’s chosen architect for his development of Poundbury when Prince of Wales. Yet some of his sketches make sense to me when comparing what I’d like subjectively with what I’ve seen all too often being presented to local town planning committees in and around Cambridge.

Above – L Krier with three different design types at different scalesI bought the book of his doodles here.

The middle row illustrates my complaint about ‘spreadsheet architecture’.

And finally, on piecemeal expansion of Cambridge

The marketing brochures are all full of the tourist ‘money shots’ of King’s College Chapel and splendid chaps punting on the river as if us town people do this daily. In the meantime, the designs for developments on the greenbelt resemble this proposal from CEG which has been resubmitted (but not accepted) for the latest draft of the Greater Cambridge Emerging Local Plan 2031-40. (You can scrutinise the other sites developers submitted using this guide)

Above – It’s only a matter of time before more land on the edge of Cambridge is release for development over the next half-century.

Where is the landmark building that people can identify not just as a building of local pride but also as a local reference point? This perhaps comes back to one of Nairn’s & Krier’s themes that we should be able to identify what a building does in part by what it looks like on the outside, rather than hoping there will be something with writing on the outside telling people this. Inevitably that creates its own risks of looking pastiche. Isn’t there an alternative to the limited choice of modern identikit boxes or cheap imitations of old designs?

Back to the continually-expanding Cambridge

As I’ve mentioned multiple times, Cambridge has gone far beyond the size of what a single settlement can hold for a single urban centre. Hence why Prof John Parry Lewis proposed in the early 1970s building a new large urban centre for Cambridge as part of a plan to increase the population to 200,000 by the year 2000.

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection, JPL’s proposal for a new East Cambridge urban centre that goes far beyond anything planned even today. (I digitised my own copy here that I found for sale long after taking this).

“Will the 15 minute city concept change things?”

It might do. Have a look at the 15 Minute City here by Lisa Chamberlain for the WEF

Above – the 15 minute city by Micael at https://micaeldessin.com/

This works for me because in the mid-2000s this was the life I lived. Everything was within cycling distance and I cycled, exercised, worked during the day, volunteered and attended dance and evening classes in the evening. I lost it all when I had to start commuting to London.

One of the things I’d like to see emerge over the next decade or so are some inspiring designs (which incorporate the artistic creativity into the building design, rather than have an abstract sculpture funded by S106-style monies) that would be suitable for the new areas of development proposed. (Along with the much-needed guaranteed water supplies!) Whether we will remains to be seen.

Food for thought?

If you found this useful/interesting and are able to contribute towards my ongoing research into the history, current events, and the future plans for Cambridge, please consider a small donation at https://ko-fi.com/antonycarpen.

%d bloggers like this: