How developers game the planning system – a Cambridge case study

Summary

After researching and writing a previous blogpost, I was devastated to find that the deadline for formal responses had long passed – even though not all of the information was available at the time. What can we learn from this?

The post concerned is this one on my Lost Cambridge blog. I set up the blog as a means of documenting the various finds I’m making in archives about the history of the borough of Cambridge – something one day I’d like to write a history about. (Ideally with an up-and-coming woman historian as most of the books I’ve stumbled across on the subject are written by men).

The Belvedere, The Leisure Park, The Marque, Grand Central and CB1 – a toxic quintet of controversial developments in my neighbourhood

slide1

(From GoogleMaps)

  1. The Belvedere
  2. The Marque
  3. Grand Central
  4. Cambridge Leisure Park
  5. CB1 Development

“Toxic developments? That’s a bit harsh isn’t it?”

A mixture of a planning system loaded against local communities combined with local council incompetence/naivety (sorry chaps, there’s no other phrase I can think of) meant that for each of these sites, developers made a fortune and local communities got screwed.

Let’s not pretend that what was there on each of the sites before was pleasant. It really wasn’t.

cambridge_anotatedmid1950s

Cambridge station in the 1950s – from and with annotations at Disused Stations blog.

Fascinating from an historical perspective to look at the site, but note the following:

  • The number of chimneys and the amount of smoke coming from the engines
  • The footprint of the railway yards and the engine sheds
  • The small hotel at ‘O’ described on one site as a place where dreams were turned into despair

On the site of the Belvedere was the Cambridge Pine Merchant – a single story workshop/outlet. On the site of the old Marque building was Tim Brinton’s Peugeot dealership. On the Leisure Park was the old cattle market and a former park-and-ride site. On the Grand Central site was the Cambridge Water Company. All of these were operational during my childhood. I used to deliver newspapers around that neck of the woods in the early 1990s.

“So…if it was all ‘orrible and grotty as you say it was, what’s wrong with what they built?”

What has been built has not been sensitive to the views of the local community, nor has it gone anywhere near meeting the needs of the city in terms of affordable housing, and finally ***they have designed in crime and poor traffic behaviour***.

161003-sam_in_cam_policingsoutharea

The above from a South Area Committee meeting in Cambridge around the setting of the police priorities. The design of the CB1 development was so poor that it has actually led to an increase in reported crime to the extent local police have had to divert resources to deal with it. But will the developers foot the bill? No. The same is the case for Cambridge Leisure Park which also has issues with crime – ones that could easily have been designed out by more talented architects and more community-sensitive developers.

Let’s take The Belvedere.

Completed in 2004, they hoodwinked the local council on the commitment for affordable housing, making a financial payment instead – an amount that was minuscule in comparison to the huge profits made by the developers. Have a look at the exchanges between Richard Taylor and former Conservative Councillor Chris Howell (The last Tory councillor in Coleridge Ward, Cambridge) here.

I remember the adverts for The Belvedere on the hoardings as I cycled past them on my way to work off Brooklands Avenue and to/from dance classes. “45 minutes from King’s Cross” they proclaimed. “Luxury apartments from £350,000” (At 2004 prices remember – so today…exactly). The developers were effectively saying “Ha ha! Fuck you, peasants!” to all of the locals, while flogging the flats to the highest bidder on the London or on the international property markets.

Then there’s the very controversial Marque development

“There were 57 changes to the original design over a six year period before it was completed in 2013.”

“Residents campaigned against the design and scale of the building, which is on the corner of Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road.”

And…

David Jones, author of Hideous Cambridge, said: “It looks like a double bed set up on end.

“It’s too tall, it’s too intimidating and if you look at the building opposite, its light is entirely blocked out by this vast excrescence.”

An investigation launched by the council when Cambridge Labour Party took control found there were lessons to be learnt.

The Marque was even slammed by a celebrity – here’s BBC’s Richard Osman from TV’s Pointless

Lazy, hideous architecture which has a plain brick facing the east of the city that again says “Fuck You” to the whole of the local community. And for what? A couple of extra ‘luxury apartments’?

Then there’s “Grand Central” where the developers again ripped off the council over affordable homes. See local historian Allan Brigham below:

Now…what’s next? Oh Cambridge Leisure Park. For me a ***huge*** missed opportunity

The landlords, Land Securities wanted – and still want – to make as much money out of the site as possible, and decided that a site full of clonetown brands would be the way to go. Fools. But as with other developments it’s now private property with the public ‘invited to enjoy the facilities’. Hence why Cllr Lewis Herbert, the Leader of Cambridge City Council and also one of the ward councillors for the local area found himself accosted by security guards when taking part in an architectural tour with local residents. Astonishing contempt for both local democracy and the local community. And when they found they weren’t making as much money as they wanted, they tried to dump an ill-thought-out restaurant in the middle of the site – to uproar from the local community until it was dropped. Cllr Lewis Herbert enquired about space for independent outlets on the site but was told firmly that it was established [ie clone town] brands only.

As for CB1?

Despite my blogpost here, it’s actually too late to make a formal submission on the application on the old silo mentioned in my blog that’s due for a decision on 02 November 2016.

The old mill silo in the black and white photo is on the right – a building that was always a permanent presence in my childhood that you could see from the top of Lime Kiln Hill in south eastern edge of the city. In 2005 we were promised it would be incorporated into a redeveloped site. Then I found out by accident yesterday that its replacement following a very suspicious fire would be that ugly grey-brown block. Conspiracy theories in and around the city are that the developers paid a criminal to torch the silo so they could knock it down and put up a cheaper more profitable alternative, but there’s no evidence to substantiate this.

What made me flip last night were the following:

  1. The extent that the important papers were completely buried to the extent very few people would know what to look for, where to look for it and how to look for the information necessary in order to pass comment.
  2. That the illustration in the third picture above was only published ***after*** the formal consultation closed. Therefore most people would have no idea what was being proposed until it was far too late.
  3. How Historic England simply rolled over and accepted the developer’s case rather than standing firm and insisting they restore the mill.

To write the blogpost at https://lostcambridge.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/cambridge-to-lose-historical-silo-for-bland-block/ and then tell everyone required detailed knowledge of local history, local democracy and the planning system, and finally all things digital.

  • Local history to understand that the building is an historical building of local interest and part of our city’s industrial heritage
  • Local democracy and planning policy to know what things to look for and how to look for them
  • All things digital to know how to search online databases, extracting images, writing for the internet, and then social media in order to publicise everything. That sort of knowledge takes years and years to build up.

“Why were we not told earlier?”

We don’t have a system or a culture that compels developers to work with local communities, nor a system where local communities can be tipped off about future developments. See this presentation by local architect Tom Foggin.

Note in the seven steps for building a development, the community is only engaged at stage 4 – which in my view is far, far too late for them to be able to have any influence. Therefore we’re left with developers going for profit and profit only.

The planning application itself to replace the old silo contains 174 documents. But how many local people know that the idox planning system even exists, let alone knows how to use it? Has the council ever run planning awareness and user sessions on a systematic basis?

Then there’s the calendar of council meetings – have a look at it. How many local people would know which meetings are the ones go to for which subjects? For the planning meeting scheduled for 02 November the agenda and papers are here. But how many people know this? The drawing pack alone for that planning meeting is 52 pages. The public document pack for the same meeting? 410 pages. So…that’s over 600 pages of documents to read through just to try and make sense of a single planning application – one dealing with the demolition and construction of only two buildings.

“Crikey! No wonder people become exhausted and bewildered by the whole thing!”

Im just exhausted after writing this (and the previous blogpost) – these were definitely not blogposts written for pleasure. They required a fair amount of research too.

So…if anyone’s got any idea on how Cambridge can respond as a city to stuff like this, I’m all ears. Because at the moment residents are not finding out about unpopular developments until it is too late – which compromises not just councillors but undermines trust in local democracy and politics in general. And that can’t be good for anyone – even the developers.

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9 thoughts on “How developers game the planning system – a Cambridge case study

  1. One of the difficulties of the planning system is that there no set way of supplying the information. By that I mean not every developer or applicant is required to submit what they plan to do about cycle parking in their design and access statement. For example recently I had to hunt through nearly all the documents for one application online before I found the scant bit of info they had supplied. The other problem is which date do you accept as the cut off? And would most people know which it was? (It’s under important dates iirc.) You do have to be familiar with it to use it. And that is not ideal.

    If we want to include affordable housing and why there isn’t more of it, this is pretty grim:

    https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jun/25/london-developers-viability-planning-affordable-social-housing-regeneration-oliver-wainwright

    And if that isn’t enough, we have a planning system that means (as we know) that if a council decides to reject a significant application, they face the prospect of possibly having to pay the costs of the developer (who may well have employed some top lawyer to argue their case, because they can afford to) if they lose when it goes to the Planning Inspectorate. That really is not at all fair.

    So after that, there’s this: http://www.planningfinder.co.uk/

    which partially answers your question. Sadly, it doesn’t seem possible to broaden the area you want out beyond a mile which is a shame.

    1. Possibly not my best response. Thinking some more, for starters what about a guide to responding to planning applications? What planning officers will take into account and what they won’t. I would suggest a workshop too but I suspect it would have the usual faces attending [not that there’s anything wrong with them] rather than those who might, every so often, want to have their say about a new building.

      What it boils down to, in a way, is somehow empowering councillors to say no more often, I think, by making our voices heard more.

  2. I think the elected councilors, should be held accountable for letting the planners ,bully them in to dropping social housing which Cambridge needs so Much! Cash is only a small value of the property which would cost lots more to build , where are the shops, Dr’s surgery , chemists ,etc .
    If planning permission is granted UNDER NO WAY SHOULD THE BUILDER BE ALLOWED TO GO BACK & CHANGE THE PLANS . IT IS A BUILDER RIP OFF , The local council are to blame ? They should be fined too ! Wasting our money & time as I was at the 1st meeting for CB1 , I was excited about what was going to happen , ALL LIES , STUDENT ACCOMMODATION NOT BUILT HOW ARU wanted them, they were then blamed for not filling the empty property’s they did not request ? Not happy !

  3. If you subscribe to Cyclescape (a forum and toolkit website for people interested in improving cycling conditions) and draw in an area or areas you’re interested in, you will get a feed, updated daily, for those exact areas. This means you then have 6 weeks to look at an application.

  4. This is a brilliant post and should be read very widely. As to the solutions? A residents forum, including professional property lawyers, could be an idea. Otherwise lobbing our MPs to change the process, especially the way the risk of huge financial penalties falls on councils if they dare to reject a terrible plan and it goes to appeal.

  5. By all means criticise the planning system, it seems like there are a lot of screwed up outcomes.

    But I have to laugh at the idea that things were so great in the past.

    Most of Cambridge is covered with horrible 2-story, bland, grey, boring, mind numbing brick buildings. Like every other English town. Everywhere looks the same. Grey brick, grey sky, grey pubs, and narrow pavements blocked by cars parked by thoughtless people. The same old dreadful shops on every High Street. Mill Road is slightly better than most, but that’s not saying much! That Mill Road is rated so highly speaks to how terrible things are.

    All of the great buildings in the city centre would be illegal to build nowadays because of people who complain about anything built over 2 stories. They seem to believe that height is ‘evil’ without any evidence at all. The best part of Cambridge, architecturally, are the buildings that are taller than 2 stories. But all I hear is complaints about height, and no complaints about the dreary grey brick terraced houses that blight the land. I can just imagine the comments that might fly were we to build King’s Chapel today: “TOO TALL!!!!”; “Ruins the character of the town!”; “Built by some rich king for his rich friends!”; “Where’s the affordable housing?”

    Does that excuse poor architecture in CB1? Not at all! But let’s be fair: much of what was built in the 19th and 20th centuries was crap too. Not everything can be a marvel. If we want to achieve goals like affordable housing, opportunities for independent traders, and better public space then we need to focus on those goals specifically and not get caught up trying to make every building a masterpiece. Most buildings in a city are going to be unremarkable. People need places to live and work. Remarkable architecture is expensive. Ultimately, just like in the past, there’s going to be a large proportion of ‘bland’ buildings. Such is life. Museums are nice to visit but they’re no place to live. The row terraced houses were the ‘bland’ buildings of the past. I’m hoping that we can do better going forward.

  6. My gripe with local planners near me in Hampshire is that they spend so much time and energy opposing developments full stop, when they eventually conceed to an appeal, they have raised no objections to the features of the development that are unsuitable, and have nothing constructive to say whatsoever in terms of design, amenities, etc.

    You end up with bland developments that might have been okay with a bit of infrastructure.

    I just wish they’d argue for better homes sometimes instead of no homes!

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