Cambridge’s challenges on town planning – on Cambridge 105 with former Chief Town Planner Peter Studdert & Cllrs Lewis Herbert, & Sam Davies MBE

It may feel like quite heavy listening, but it’s essential for anyone who wants to get a feel for how national policies set in Whitehall (my old neck of the woods) affects town planning decisions in local neighbourhoods.

You can listen to the full show here on Cambridge 105. See also Cllr Sam Davies’ commentary here.

“But we already know town planning systems, structures, and processes are a mess!”

And that’s why the House of Commons is going to invite expert witnesses in on Monday 13 March 2023 to tell them again.

Above – Richard Blyth (RTPI) and Kate Henderson (NHF) will be giving evidence to the Commons Levelling Up Committee tomorrow (at the time of typing).

The Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee has also expressed its displeasure to Michael Gove for his failure to respond properly to that committee’s report on the mess that is local government in England.

“So…it’s all a big mess then?”

Yep. Not that the blue party seems bothered – they seem more interested in whipping up culture wars in the run up to the local election while the BBC’s senior executives flap their feathers.


Mr Studdert got stuck in early on, calling for the abolition of Cambridgeshire County Council. If that proposal sounds familiar, it might be because I recommended the same thing on my old blog back in October 2017 after a particularly grim meeting of the County Council that saw the Conservative-led council vote through £900,000 of cuts to Cambridgeshire’s children’s services – despite desperate pleas from providers such as Neil Perry of the Romsey Mill to persuade them otherwise.

Above – from the Minutes of the meeting on 17 October 2017

One of the speakers that day was Ms Katie Olliffe who I was at school with, and who I had not seen for the best part of 20 years. We had a really interesting catch up afterwards on how we had both been failed by under-funded institutions in the 1990s at school – a conversation that has since influenced my thinking on how to respond to the present crisis. A few days later, this happened.

Above – relates to item 6 of this meeting.

With the move of Shire Hall out of Cambridge to Alconbury, the County Archives out to Ely, and then this, it felt like Cambridgeshire Conservatives were simply asset-stripping the county council.

Above – it was also here that I tried to make the case for having an extension to the Museum of Cambridge built on Castle Hill. Not least because as in 2023, there is a huge shortage of display space for some of the archaeological discoveries made since I tabled that question!

Furthermore, attempts to get young people interested and involved in local democracy were further kicked back.

Above – the Conservatives on Cambridgeshire County Council – back then the ruling group in 2017, vote down proposals to re-instate the Cambridge Youth Parliament. To this day, Cambridge has no representatives on the UK Youth Council.

“So…lots of reasons to overhaul the current system of local government?”

Those were just a few. From a town planning perspective, Mr Studdert took on the issue of almost non-existent co-ordination as a result of utterly broken structures.

Many Cambridge residents have their issues with the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the democratic deficit. Part of that comes from none of the councils having mandating meetings to approve the corporate position of the GCP’s board members. It didn’t happen under the Conservatives, it’s not happening now. Mr Studdert said he would do away with the GCP and the Combined Authority (so would I) and create a single council for Greater Cambridge with an elected mayor at the top, and not have an elected mayor for the regional tier.

“Where do you draw the boundaries for a unitary council?

Quite. The consolidation of the previously even smaller local councils (Along with the extension of Cambridge’s municipal boundaries to what they are today happened in 1934, & came into force in 1935 (See below left). The outer boundary represents the old Cambridgeshire County Council – sometimes called “Cambridge County” (as opposed to “Cambridge Borough?” – I still haven’t figured it out. Mr Studdert recommended a unitary authority based upon the old county council boundaries that were set in the 1889 Act of Parliament that created county councils. Based on the 2021 county council elections, you can see the party political advantages of such a move.

Above right – the results of the Cambridgeshire County Council elections 2021, where Labour dominated the city results but struggled outside, with the Conservatives losing a swathe of seats to the Liberal Democrats & Independents, and ultimately political control of the county.

The advantage with this restructure is everything could be done within Cambridgeshire’s boundaries. But this means the towns over the county border get missed out. This is not a problem with the proposals from Redcliffe-Maud’s report of 1969 when Lord Redcliffe-Maud led a Royal Commission on Local Government in England, which carried out an in-depth investigation on overhauling local and regional government. It was scrapped by Sir Edward Heath and replaced with a system that we are familiar with today.

Above-left – from Redcliffe-Maud 1969 (read the summary pamphlet here), and Above-right – Lichfield’s illustration of Cambridge’s economic sub-region 1966, with the market towns and their smaller economic spheres of influence.

The problem with the above-proposal is that this requires a massive overhaul of local government in England – something that the present Government has ruled out, and something other parties are so far uncommitted on.

The non-party case that Mr Studdert made was that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough do not constitute a single economic unit – for which I agree.

I think it would be far better to separate the two so that:

  1. Greater Cambridge could be granted far greater revenue raising powers to tax the wealth-making industries (and the speculators) to fund major capital projects as well as gathering much-needed revenues for essential maintenance and extended public services
  2. Greater Peterborough could get much more central government time, attention, and central funding for the infrastructure it desperately needs – for which it cannot raise the revenues from its own economic base.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a form of risk and resource management: Let Greater Cambridge go off and do its own thing subject to standard risk and auditing for similar council areas in a similar position, and focus limited civil service time and resources on those areas that really need the support. The problem is by combining the two into the system that we have and in the manner that ministers did in the 2010s, it has created a whole host of problems, the result of which has been seven years of minimal results given the amount of funding allocated.

The planning system as being a method to exclude people from getting involved

Cllr Sam Davies mentioned a list of reviews and documents trying to improve public input into the planning system (See her blogpost here). They start and finish with

  1. People and planning – the Skeffington Report (1969-70)
  2. The Raynsford Review 2019-20

…and contain a few in between. The problem we have is that for years we’ve had an adversarial planning system that pitches developers against communities – and in the case of large developments, the former is often powered by significant financial interests with a huge incentive on profit and no interest in sustainable communities. This was unpicked in the Grenfell Inquiry with the cladding scandal where a group of financiers established a development company as a limited company for the duration of the development – only to liquidate the company once their work is complete and any residual issues are signed off. The problem? There is no ‘return address’ to compel the original developer to make good the shoddy work they might have done before-hand because the developer has ceased to exist. Two years ago, Daniel Zeichner MP (Labour – Cambridge) tore into the developers who built new houses to poor standards at the expense of home buyers and renters in a speech to the House of Commons – you can watch it here.

There is no single policy that can overcome the twin problems of protecting our environment/reducing our carbon emissions, and responding to the desperate need for homes for people either homeless, in temporary accommodation, or in my case the ‘hidden homeless’ who would like a place of their own but cannot afford one so end up boomeranging back to their parents/childhood homes. Which then raises its own issue of whether the work that those people do (whether paid or unpaid) is an indirect subsidy to businesses and the cities they live in. It’s the same with firms paying below-minimum wages: I say that firms that do not pay their staff enough to live on in order to live a reasonably healthy life should not be in business. Others say ‘let the market decide’ – but people in low wage work don’t have the same economic power as employers. It’s not a meeting of two equal powers.

This comes back to the enforcement issue that both Mr Studdert and Cllr Davies raised – our local councils have been hit so badly by austerity that the first things to go are enforcement actions (and funding for children’s services – children can’t vote – hence one of my reasons for supporting votes at 16. The other being that earned income from employment by 16-17 year olds *is taxable income*. No taxation without representation. That goes for migrant workers/international citizens too. End of. No, I’m not negotiating on those points).

“Not or Yes, in my back yard?”


Having watched such debates over the decades, the one consistent thing that stands out is how the problems, benefits, and the costs are not shared.

Furthermore – and this was something that Mr Studdert commented in around 19 minutes in, was the lack of shared problem-solving. For example he listed a number of sites and said the alternative for not intensifying some existing sites (in areas with very low population densities, eg due to lots of detached houses with large gardens) is more building on the Green Belt.

My issue with intensification is that it is not done as part of a co-ordinated and well-informed plan – meaning that the sites that get intensified are the ones developers get hold of first, and then game the system to minimise their S106 or affordable housing contributions – for example by designating a site for student accommodation or an ‘apart-hotel’. The problem is that local councils do not have the resources to manage this, and communities are not involved early enough ‘at design stage’. When you look at the submissions to the emerging local plan, you can see that they already have comprehensive plans that don’t allow for communities to shape the developments at the start.

Above – a submission from the CEG for South East Cambridge by the Babraham Road Park’n’Ride, not included in the proposals for the emerging local plan 2031-40

Cllr Davies made the case from around 22mins in that the drivers of development all too often don’t account for the needs of local communities or the city – especially with affordable housing. Take Cambridge and the number of developments that have made developers a fortune while leaving local residents having to deal with increased congestion. This came up when they discussed 291 Hills Road. Or the impact that continued water extraction is having on our rivers. Or the release of untreated sewage is having.

Again, we have a failure of both privatisation and regulation – despite the promises the Conservatives made in the 1980s & 1990s.

Above – Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine on the benefits of privatisation, in 1994

The fragmentation of public services is hardly more efficient, and the re-sale of utilities and transport services to foreign-owned firms and investment funds is hardly an example of wider share ownership. So why have successive governments let it happen, and what are their proposals for their manifestos mindful of the looming general election?

No regional co-ordination, no trust

Cllr Davies raised the Grosvenor report – which you can read here.

Above – Grosvenor, which falls within the family trust of the stupendously wealthy Duke of Westminster, published this report. Controversy remains about how family trusts avoid inheritance tax – this from six years ago.

Mr Studdert on Cambourne and Regional Planning

“Cambourne was always going to struggle – it never had the infrastructure to make it work, and was never a sensible place to build. It has sort of become urban sprawl and will only sort itself out when the guided bus is built and when East-West-Rail arrives, when it can become a town”

Peter Studdert to Lewis Herbert

It’s worth looking at what Cambourne was promised, and what the 2007 review stated – which I blogged about here. Note there is still no news on what happens to guided buses when they hit Grange Road (I’m bored of asking this question that never gets answered) and have long been of the view that the people of Cambourne deserve far, far better than they were given by the institutions responsible for it. Whether national/local government, the developers, or the large employers and firms there. For me it speaks volumes that The Perse Upper School is getting their new large private swimming pool before Cambourne is getting their pool for its rapidly growing population. This reflects the structural inequalities of our city and system of local government – something that ministers are content to continue with.

The last regional plan for East Anglia – March 2010

You can read it here – even though Eric Pickles abolished it a few months after the general election of that year.

Above – the draft East of England Plan 2010-2031

This was published at the very end of the last Labour Government, under Gordon Brown.

For the parts that cover Cambridge and surrounding towns, scroll to p115.

POLICY CSR1: Development Strategy for Cambridgeshire and the Cambridge Sub-Region
This development strategy for the expansion of jobs, housing and infrastructure seeks to underpin the strengths of the Cambridge Sub-Region as a centre for learning, research and high technology, and to support the wider network of market towns in Northern and Eastern Cambridgeshire, recognising their close links to Peterborough. Market towns will be encouraged to expand their economic, service and cultural roles by regeneration of the urban fabric, infrastructure investment and exploitation of new technologies.”

East of England Plan (2010), p115
This is where the Greater Cambridge Partnerships’ busways plans came from.

Local history matters, kids.

The phrase “High Quality Public Transit/Transport Systems” is a phrase used repeatedly by the Greater Cambridge Partnership transport officers.

Above – note the ‘comprehensive and high quality network of bus services…. and enhanced rail services.’

Questions you may want to put to Conservative candidates at future elections ( :

  • Why didn’t you deliver these?
  • Why did you scrap these commitments?
  • Can you account for the poor bus services since your party came to power in 2010?

(Questions for opposition parties could include what they proposed to do about the mess of transport, and how they account for the decisions of the GCP over the past couple of years).

The big problem Cambridge has in the absence of a regional tier is that there is no co-ordination between decision-makers (elected or otherwise) on how different settlements relate to each other – and can support each other with shared problems. In particular where those shared problems have different impacts. Take rail transport.

Jonathan Roberts demonstrated to Rail Future back in December 2022 how regional transport planning could help deal with traffic congestion and the over-concentration of investment in/around Cambridge. In his presentation (which I wrote about here), Mr Roberts showed the diagram below which indicated the railway lines and stations that should be upgraded to reduce motor traffic.

Above – Jonathan Roberts to Rail Future East in Cambridge, December 2022

The problem is there is no regional tier that can manage the sort of work required for institutions that are structured on a regional basis (such as public utilities, the Environment Agency, Highways England, Network Rail, and so on), let alone any system of meaningful democratic accountability – local councils not having powers to summon regional decision-makers to account for their actions.

Net additional homes, net additional jobs – but what infrastructure is needed?

Again, the draft plan gives us the proposed additional jobs estimate for the county, broken down by district.

Above – in 2018 the jobs and homes figure was raised when the local plan was signed off for South Cambridgeshire.

“And for homes?”

Note that those figures came from the Cambridgeshire Development Study of 2009, and embedded into the Cambridge Local Plan of 2018 confirming that 14,000 net new homes number.

“How much are we spending on consultants to produce these reports again?”

Which reminds me – I need to buy this book:

For me, part of the challenge is monitoring the construction and completion of new homes – are developers building the sort of properties that meet the needs of our city and the people who make it, or are they focusing on designs that suit an insatiable international property bubble? If it’s the latter, the onus is on ministers to deal with that – something they have shown very little appetite of doing – and not helped by the rapid turnover of ministers in recent years.

Public Consultations

I wrote about our issues with public consultations – this being the third of three posts I published recently. At a local level I recommended:

  1. “Bring together communications representatives from as many local public service providers together as possible, and create an annual calendar of future consultation dates so as to avoid major clashes
  2. “Create a single system for multiple organisations – one that does not require people to have to fill out the same basic information every time. With proper data protection systems in place, it should be possible for consulting institutions to extract the anonymised information that can provide information on age ranges, parts of towns, income brackets and so on, enabling the public to focus on the consultation questions
  3. “Create a consistent template for multiple organisations so that the process of filling out consultation forms becomes familiar to the users.”

Because at the moment, little seems to be working. I’d love to see a splendid example locally of where consultation actually worked, and led to the creation of something magnificent that could stand the test of time. However, it’s not just locally that consultations happen. They happen in national government too. Only few people hear about them because as with national politics, you have to know where to look.

More public consultations – this one from ministers

These could be interesting – I just wonder how much policy capacity there is given that when I worked in the department back in the late 2000s it was already under-staffed in this area. Have a read of the letter from The Minister to the Chair of the Commons Levelling Up Committee. To explain the table at the end:

  • Amendments to the existing PDRs for solar equipment to support the British Energy Security Strategy – Permitted Development Rights are a huge problem with office-to-housing conversions, and ministers want to extend this system to solar energy due to the energy crisis. Will be interesting to see what land types they propose.
  • Consultation on the reforms to the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) consenting process as set out in the Government’s ‘Improving performance of the NSIP planning process and supporting local authorities’ policy paper published in August 2022. (Think the Anglian Water sewage works or the proposed Chatteris reservoir)
  • Consultation on proposals for a build out financial penalty (eg the Romsey Labour Club where developers don’t complete the works contained in planning permission on time – perhaps in the hope they will be able to sell the site on for a profit.)
  • Consultation on a planning use class for short-term lets (such as Air B’n’B – where many family homes have been lost to such ‘holiday lets’ or student accommodation – again weak regulation, poorly resourced enforcement, and a lack of economic planning to manage the sizes of student populations in cities)
  • Technical consultation on the detail of the Infrastructure Levy – will this have as wide a coverage as ‘Section 106 agreements’? For example the funding of community development workers for a fixed period of time, or will it just be ‘capital’ works?
  • Consultation on proposals for changes to planning fees and planning performance framework – which should deal with the problem of local planning authorities not being able to cover the costs of processing planning applications – especially the imbalance with large developments.
“What is a successful place? What is cookie-cutter housing?”

Cllr Davies contrasted Accordia development with what some in the profession call a ‘New Cambridge Vernacular’ which seems little different to the newbuild estates elsewhere.

“The development industry uses lots of buzzwords which don’t match what the final built properties look like… …and the promises of CB1 with the medical practice and the county archive all got eaten away. Planning is a process for weighing different interest and trying to arrive at an optimum outcome, but people don’t see that happening on the ground”

Cllr Sam Davies (around 30 mins in)

What rural communities have that urban communities don’t have.

The parish council structure enables rural areas to create neighbourhood plans (see – and a suggestion from Cllr Davies about creating urban parishes for Cambridge. If Greater Cambridge became a unitary council, the City of Cambridge Council would be established as a town-level council – see the House of Commons Library here. As things stand, urban areas don’t have an establish structure (not in Cambridge anyway) to develop neighbourhood plans in the way villages surrounding Cambridge do.

“So…what happens next?”

Let’s see what this week’s Budget 2023 says (it’s on Wednesday 15 March – when BBC local radio staff who are National Union of Journalists’ members are due to strike.)

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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