Greater Cambridge Plan: An opportunity for change?

This is the full text of Meredith Bowles’ excellent call for leadership and action at the “Big Debate” on the Local Plan, held by Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service on 18/2/20

Climate emergency

There’s no time to waste.  Cambridge trumpets itself as a world class city, a city that innovates, and attracts world talent.  We need leadership that’s prepared to stand up against central government to insist that in Cambridge we do things better. We need leadership to ensure that the planned growth for Cambridge will enhance lives and be zero-carbon; no small challenge. Other cities have done so, and we can too.

Over the last 20 years carbon emissions due to buildings and transportation have barely gone down at all despite all the fine words.  What does it mean to declare a climate emergency, unless we act like it’s an emergency? As a country we’ve failed to take responsibility; we make ourselves feel good that we have a success story about renewable energy which last year generated a third of electricity; in fact, it only represents 11% of energy consumed, the rest being mainly oil and gas1. Our carbon emissions as a country, if we include emissions due to imported goods- in other words based on our consumption, has stayed the same as it was in the 1970’s, at round 700 million tonnes2.

We have to make significant changes in all aspects of society; in industry, transport, the financial markets, aviation, agriculture, waste, energy, infrastructure- everywhere.  We have legislated for massive growth in our region. We can decide now whether to also legislate for a radical change in how this change happens, or simply stand by and witness adverse events as they occur.

Transport, connectedness

How can managing growth mean a reduction of carbon emissions? If we accept that growth is happening at all we must make massive changes. The growth of Greater Cambridge will double the population of Cambridge. Of the new settlements that have been built already, 77% of people travel to work by car3.  What else are they supposed to do? Chapter 10 of the South Cambridgeshire Local Plan-  Sustainable Transport and Infrastructure- puts the onus on applicants to show via a Travel Plan that sustainable travel is possible, whilst at the same time recognising that the model for all development is currently based around the private car- the same Plan assumes 2 spaces per dwelling are needed.

  • We must ensure a massively successful public transport system is attractive and affordable. Transport is now the largest single contributor to Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and private car journeys nationally have gone up year on year. We are about to add to this with an anticipated additional 25,000 additional daily car movements in and out of Cambridge4.
  • We must make cycling and walking a part of everyone’s day, so transport stops are within 800 metres of everyone’s house, and the new Cambridge Greenways cycling network is safe and attractive, and continuous.
  • We have to make a joined up strategic plan for transport that forms the basis of all future development plans. The integration of the Guided Bus, Local bus services, Rural Transport Hubs, the CamMetro, Greenways cycle routes must be at the core of all new decisions.

Dense cities, healthy cities, child friendly cities

Low density, suburban, sprawling places made up of detached houses make it almost impossible for people to live within easy reach of public transport.  If we live within about 800m of a tram stop we’re more likely to walk there- the same goes for schools or parks, or shops.  Intrinsically we know places like this work and feel good.  How many people go on holiday to suburbia, as opposed to enjoying places with streets and squares, that were built at the scale of a human on foot, rather than the car?

Community creation, happiness

Loads of studies have shown that developments that are denser and that encourage a sense of neighbourliness are beneficial; this is borne out in our National Wellbeing Survey – 62% of people valuing social connectedness, and 77% of people valuing a neighbourhood that feels safe to walk in at night 5. The Healthy New Towns Initiative, written by the Town Country Planning Association with the NHS, identified more compact, walkable neighbourhoods as fundamental to a place that encourages activity and social connectedness. It sets out the need for community hubs, and the positive effect of co-located facilities; schools, shops and healthcare alongside community rooms. It advocates green streets, and places that children can play in, both supervised and later, for exploration and discovery6.

What the problem is; the reality of now

Look at the 60,000 new homes that are currently planned. This is very much business as usual.  There is no strategic infrastructure plan that connects these disparate developments.  Individual applicants do their best to answer the needs of a Regional Spacial Plan, but it’s not in their gift to do so.  All of them are based on South Cambs plan with a density of 30 dwellings per hectare. No development that I’ve seen has at its heart a proper strategy for a wholly connected public transport system that relies on a series of interconnected modes of transport, because to date it doesn’t exist.  We’re locking ourselves into a series of isolated soulless commuter suburbs, driven by a planning system that cannot envisage something that doesn’t already exist.

But these are developments that are already in planning, 60,000 of them.  There’s an urgency to address this, and it has to be addressed by Local Government taking control of the process, becoming developers, employing designers and engineers, and if necessary upsetting a lot of developers along the way. Aside from the University’s land at Eddington, every development works by getting outline permission for the site, producing a Design Code, and selling off the plots to housebuilders. Housebuilders sell a product, they’re not interested in creating places. They have house types that make them money.  As far as they’re concerned anything more complicated eats into profits; profit margins being between 20-30% with absolute annual profits topping £1 billion7.

How it can be achieved.

Development needs to be lead by institutions that care about long term value, that genuinely seek to drive up standards, make places that put people first, and have a will to tackle the climate emergency.  We need zero carbon homes now, not some time later. We need green infrastructure with massive tree planting, we need places that are built around public transport.  We need an electricity supply built for a future supplying all cars and homes with power. None of this will happen if left to the market to provide it.  Legislation is designed to prevent people doing bad things, and can only encourage them to seek excellence.  We’ve had 20 years of encouragement and exemplars, which haven’t made much of an impact.  What we need is for Local Government to take a lead, to buy the land, make the investment, and run the systems for the common good.

In Zurich, they held a referendum in 2011 to make 33% of all housing in the city not-for-profit co-operative housing, owned and managed by the residents. The City ensures that not-for-profit developers get first option on development land. Last year a new development for 1400 people based on this model won the World Habitat Awards, creating a whole neighbourhood of not-for-profit housing, organised by the residents7. In Berlin, the City Government made a decision in 2012 to increase the amount of affordable citizen-lead housing by zoning control; taking land out of the general market and making it possible for local resident groups to build for themselves. The Government facilitates this by setting aside land, and providing professional assistance to groups in development financing and construction8.  In Hamburg 20% of housing land is set aside in this way. The resulting ‘Baugruppen’ developments offer families a secure home and a social environment that they themselves helped to create, usually arranged around communal gardens.

Cambridge trumpets itself as a world class city, a city that innovates, and attracts world talent.  It’s the city that won the Stirling Prize for Accordia, in part because of the interventions of the then head of planning, Peter Studdert, who insisted that standards should be higher if the council’s land was to be developed for housing.  Under Sian Reid and Rod Cantrill, the City raised the bar at the Council- owned Clay Farm, which was developed to Passivhaus standards, and again at Marmalade Lane in Orchard Park, assisting the co-housing group the build the largest co-housing project in the UK, and pointing the way to a more socially sustainable form of living.  It takes political leadership to decide to challenge the status quo.  We need leadership that’s prepared to stand up against central government to insist that in Cambridge we will do things better. We should have 100% Passivhaus buildings.  We should have an integrated local transport system. We should have a massive increase in affordable not-for-profit housing. We should have new neighbourhoods that have community parks, with shops and space for businesses and communities to grow. We should have abundant green.  We shouldn’t wait for change. We should be making it happen.

Meredith Bowles 18/2/2020

1 BEIS Energy Consumption in the UK (ECUK) 1970 to 2018 25 July 2019

2 Source: Eora, 2018, World Resource Institute, 2017 and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 2019b This graph has been compiled using data for consumption-based emissions from Eora, 2018, and territorial-based emissions from WRI, 2017 and BEIS, 2019

3 Cambridge sub‐region new development surveys 2006‐2012: summary and comparison 2012


5  Office for National Statistics: Personal well-being in the UK: April 2018 to March 2019