What would ‘transit-oriented development’ look like for the Cambridge sub-region?

Could it be a model that a future Great Cambridge Unitary Council adopt to help ease the housing and cost of living crises?

This blogpost stems from two tweets:

Andrew Jones:

Above: “This is what Cambridge should do…only permit new housing within 500m of a train or tram station. Watch developers suddenly become interested in building trams and rail stations!

Richard Blyth quoting Emily Hamilton.

and furthermore…

Both of these link to my previous two blogposts:

  1. On Labour’s proposals for a new economic model, along with their talk of devolving some but not the really important powers to local/regional tiers of government in England;
  2. On the new Local Transport & Connectivity Plan from the Combined Authority, along with bus franchising which shows how convoluted the structures imposed by Conservative governments are.

Meanwhile in the USA:

“In a particularly important case, the San Francisco Bay Area, house prices grew 932 percent in the past 40 years while overall consumer prices increased by 329 percent.”

Emily Hamilton 23 May 2023

And that’s before we’ve even looked at the change in incomes for the different income groups. How would Cambridge (UK) compare over a similar time period? (For example from the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Government to the first CV19 lockdown). If any of you want to search and crunch the numbers, start at Cambridgeshire Online. Compare house prices, rental prices, inflation, and wage/salary changes across income brackets over the four decades.

Note the the UK and US planning systems, internal structures of governance, and internal histories & geographies don’t easily compare. As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, the US has a written constitution that protects the rights of the different institutions of the state (eg city/municipal tier, the state-of-the-union tier, and the nationwide federal tier) in a way that would be incomprehensible to a system that is based on the principle that “Parliament is sovereign” and can legislate on whatever it likes. (Although in reality it legislates on whatever the government of the day tables in front of it – as unlike the USA the UK does not separate legislature from executive – an inherent conflict of interest?)

“Yeah, why d’you have to go and make things so complicated?”

It’s not my fault the Tories thought this would be a sensible governance structure for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

Above – in the Cambridge City Council elections in May 2023 I called for the abolition of the above mess.

Looking at the case study of Arlington’s transit-oriented development that Emily Hamilton writes about, she states:

“Planners engaged residents and developed a ‘bull’s eye’ plan for permitting dense development around these five stations, illustrated below. The quarter mile of land closest to the stations was intended for the most density. Today, several buildings stretching over 20 stories stand within these narrow radiuses.”

Emily Hamilton, 23 May 2023

When we look at the future for Cambridge in the face of house prices out of all sensible proportions to the incomes of people needed to ensure our city functions properly, we don’t see anything similar bar the city’s railway station which when we look at the changes in architecture since my childhood in the 1980s, looks more like a suburb or London than anything else.

When you look at London’s ‘travel to work area’ by train you can see towns and cities across the south east of England and East Anglia have all been affected by the UK Government’s chronic failures on housing and international finance policies over an extended period of time.

Above – from the ONS which I wrote about here

Above – from Cambridgeshire Insight in the same blogpost, note how the entries and exits at Cambridge’s main railway station doubled between 2004-18.

“Should a new Great Cambridge Unitary Council build new high density towers in the surrounding towns and villages in southern Cambridgeshire?”

The great dormitory towers of the Cambridgeshire villages? No. But if left to ‘the market’ that is what could easily happen.

Bringing us back to the studies from the 1960s which regular readers should be familiar with, the abandoned proposals from Redcliffe Maud’s Royal Commission on Local Government for unitary councils centred around Cambridge & Peterborough respectively (below left), and Lichfield’s illustrated map of the Cambridge sub-regional economy and the smaller market town economies within it that looked to Cambridge as the sub-regional centre (below right) still hold true today on the economic influence of Cambridge’s economy.

Above left, from Redcliffe-Maud 1969, and above right, from Lichfield 1965.

Just by looking at the above, then glancing at the proposals for a Cambourne-Cambridge-Haverhill light rail line through and underground at Cambridge by Cambridge Connect, the benefits of extending a Haverhill line to link up with Saffron Walden, the Wellcome Genome Campus, the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, and the Cambridge Biomedical Campus seem like a no-brainer as a long term plan.

Above-left – my concept using G-Maps extending a Cambridge-Haverhill light-rail line to loop round to Saffron Walden and head back to the city.

Above-right, upgrading the existing single-line track either to an electrified light rail or suburban rail to create a Cambridge-Newmarket-Ely-Cambridge loop.

“Yeah – where to the dormitory towers go?”

They don’t – not unless that’s what politicians and residents explicitly want, and are included in the planning and development process *at design stage*. Which seldom happens.

Far better and far more sustainable for Cambridge, the surrounding historic market towns (Huntingdon got its royal charter before Cambridge and Cambridge is over 800 years old as a borough) to come up with something that provides benefits for both, in particular:

  1. Provides a much-needed supply of long term rental and residential accommodation for some of the workers that are employed by firms and employers located in Cambridge – such as Addenbrooke’s Hospital and local state schools.
  2. Creates new communities around public transport interchanges that can also sustain new and expanded amenities and facilities that existing settlements do not have at present – such as sports facilities, performing arts, and leisure venues. i.e. building things that are within 15 minutes walking/cycling distance and at the same time creating a new facility in each town that can serve the surrounding towns, villages, and even the main sub-regional city (in our case Cambridge) with something that isn’t available in that main city. (For example something that needs a lot of land that cannot be found where land prices are extortionately high – such as an indoor sporting arena)

In order for the above to succeed, this requires central government to bring in policies and empower devolved and regulatory institutions to step in and correct for negative externalities such as all of the properties being bought off plan on the international property markets before anyone looking to ‘buy to live in’ has had a look in. That competency rests with ministers. Their continued failure/inactivity on this front is a Political decision, and one that must be solved through political processes. (Some of you may be interested in the publications by Dr Henry Tam in the area of community development. He was one of my former civil service directors when I worked in that policy area under the last Labour government).

New public transport interchanges outside the City of Cambridge’s boundaries as new medium-sized urban centres. New town squares if you will.

I wrote about these back in January 2022 here. When you’re stuck in a hospital bed wired up to a machine you have ***a lot of time*** to think about stuff. So I reflected on Cambridge’s finest ugly buildings that contemporary architects and the financial institutions that commissioned them had created in recent decades.

Above – Hideous Cambridge by Jones and Hall (2013) that every so often pops up for sale

A second volume of new entrants is long overdue!

The more serious point goes back to Andrew Jones’ point about transport hubs having medium-high density housing within walking distance of direct rail-based public transport routes onto Cambridge’s main employment sites. Hence why I think the sci/tech park owners should contribute substantially to that infrastructure. Furthermore, there’s a responsibility on the Chancellor to ensure that those that benefit from the land value uplift should be taxed when that uplift is realised upon sale of the land, alongside an overhaul of how businesses are taxed annually – with annual payments being billed to the owner of the land based upon the value of the land rather than to the tenant. That creates a further incentive to legislate stricter rules on property ownership (and transparency on) and the enforcement of tax payments associated with them. (Penalties could include the confiscation of the ownership by the Courts in the cases of non-payment where the local authority has exhausted all reasonable means of contacting and invoicing the land owner).

Commissioning new town squares for each public transport interchange

This could go to one of two extremes, but is more likely to end up somewhere in the middle. You either end up with an identikit design that’s cloned as per Network Rail’s design guide for small and medium stations as ‘Category D’ below;

Above – from Network Rail (2022) here (p18)

Or…you take the above illustration ***as a concept*** and then bring in local artists, local historians, local urban designers, and any local architects that want to break away from the ‘minimum cost, maximum profit, wealth extracted and transferred far away’ model and work with local residents and community groups in each town or large village to come up with their own unique design reflecting their local histories, local geographical features, and local artistic tastes – also giving them the option to fundraise to help come up with a new built environment that in itself is a work of art as well as a functioning piece of civic and transport infrastructure.

The sub-region-wide things that would need to happen (amongst other things)

For me, these include:

  • Accepting the scale of the existing problems – and that ‘doing nothing’ / ‘leaving it to the market’ will only make things worse. (See almost every single one of my previous blogposts going back to 2011 to see my point on this)
  • Helping people and communities learn about how our current system of governance functions and malfunctions, and facilitating conversations, workshops, and debates on what improved alternatives might be like.
  • Inviting people and communities to suggest new and upgraded public transport rail lines & netoworks to link up as many existing settlements as possible while minimising the additional time it might take to get from one end to the other
  • Inviting people and communities to suggest possible service lines including but not limited to commuter routes, and looped routes that reflect how people live their lives, not just journeys to work or college.
  • Inviting people and communities to come up with possible themes and design guides that reflect their local area, rather than identikit clones for each village/town/city. Inevitably there’ll need to be consistency on branding with service lines similar to how London Underground has, but that does not mean every town has to have an identikit pair of ‘H-blocks’. (One H being the lift & steps over the railway line, the other viewing the two platforms from directly above, with the central bit of the H being the bridge across the line). Huntingdon, Waterbeach, Newmarket, Haverhill, Saffron Walden – all have their own local histories. Reflect them in the architecture & art on the buildings
  • Invite people to come up with a list of medium-to-large scale facilities & amenities that the Cambridge sub-region does not have at all, or has no easy public transport access to, and see which villages or towns would be prepared to host them by their new station/interchange.
  • Invite people and local communities to come up with examples of things that have been built locally in the past few decades that they ***definitely do not want to see replicated*** – and have it written into the guidance for firms involved working on it that they need to account for this. It’s much easier to for the public to have that reference point of (for example) : “Here’s what Brookgate did. Don’t do that”. Or “You see The Marque at the top of Cherry Hinton Road? Don’t build anything that looks remotely like that”

All of this is dependent on overhauling local government (and local government taxation and financing) in England. Richard Blyth again.

Parliamentary select committees have already made the point in reports in 2021 here, and in 2022 here.

Will the government that is formed after the next general election be brave and bold enough to overhaul that tax system first?

Try asking your local MP or councillors at https://www.writetothem.com/ – see what they tell you.

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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