Are big developers building in Cambridge oblivious to those of us that live here?


On the yawning gap between big developers and their agents selling ‘the city’ abroad and the residents that make the city what it is

I was keeping an eye on the UK Property Forum event being live tweeted by various people on the hashtag #Ceepf this morning. The head of the National Infrastructure Commission, Andrew Adonis addressed the meeting. In the grand scheme of things, he was one of the ministers in Gordon Brown’s administration who I rated as Transport Secretary – an indication why George Osborne appointed him to lead the NIC. (Remember Osborne and Brown didn’t get on – but did agree on Adonis).

Now, there have been numerous events, workshops, talking shops and seminars on all things Cambridge growth and the future of our city. I remain of the view that the biggest underlying root cause of Cambridge’s current and future problems is governance. The city is still governed by a large market town. Until it has the governance arrangements that can match what the money-men says it is (and it is nearly always men) – ie a small city with an international profile, it will always be subject to the whims of over-burdened low calibre here-today-gone-tomorrow ministers in Whitehall.

Having worked in Whitehall I learned that no minister or senior civil servant will ever have the information needed in order to take the decisions that cities need to take for them to run efficiently and effectively. There is simply too much going on. As a result, you end up with policy paralysis with local areas waiting for permission to go ahead with schemes and actions that really should be conceived, developed, funded and delivered locally. The way local councils are extremely limited in how they raise revenue solidifies these arrangements. Everyone in local government is looking towards The Treasury.

As far as the developers’ billions are concerned, that world of finance is light years away from the people that make Cambridge and other cities what they are. The controversial CB1 development around the railway station has made the developers a fortune. Yet despite their gushing PR in the Cambridge News in this article, scroll down to read the comments and there’s hardly a good word to be said. I remain a strong critic of the developments in and around the railway station mainly because of the missed potential. Interestingly, Historic England have offered to meet me and some local residents around the lessons learnt from this case. Note too the engineering problems as filmed by Richard Taylor below:

You’d have thought spending £1billion on the site, and £4million on the square alone they’d have got the basics right.

“How big should the voice of business be?”

Note this quotation attributed to Lord Adonis

Note recently, Sir Stuart Rose, the former M&S chief said the following after being on the losing side in the EU Referendum campaign.

“…to be honest, businessmen should stick to business and politicians to politics.”

In my experience, the voice of business is not a monolithic single voice. I’ve seen firms specialising in sustainable building and manufacturing arguing for stronger sustainability standards in the face of resistance from other firms lobbying to undermine them. Secondly, the voice of businesses that are genuinely at the heart of the communities that they operate in – ie they re-invest and spend generated profits in those communities rather than syphoning them offshore to tax havens, are more likely to have a different view of what their town/city should become vs a jet set chief executive who switches from apartment to five star hotel room to luxury villa at the drop of a hat.

Furthermore, just because someone may own or run a business does not mean that this is the only lens that they view the world through. They too feel similar emotions, passions and fears that the rest of us do. In the same way that Cambridge transport is not all cyclists vs motorists – I’ve lost count the number of times car drivers write in to newspapers in the face of someone complaining about cyclists saying that as a car driver they also cycle too.

Local residents not involved in decision-making processes early enough

Tom Foggin of the Cambridge Association of Architects gave a splendid exposition of the design and planning process at a recent event co-organised by the conservation organisation Cambridge Past, Present & Future and the business organisation Cambridge Ahead.

In the seven stages of development Mr Foggin took us through, it seemed to me that the public is only involved from the fourth – at which point it is too late. (Mr Foggin contacted me to assure me that this wasn’t the case, and that RIBA guidance for developers is to get local communities involved as early as possible).

Essentially our planning and urban design system builds in adversarial relationships rather than ones where we undertake shared problem-solving. One of the reasons I believe so many of the developments around Cambridge railway station have been so controversial locally is because developers and ministers have not been interested in framing such opportunities as shared challenges, but rather as a means for someone to make as much money as possible within whatever minimal social requirements they can get away with.

“Does this mean developers and ministers are evil?”


“Why not?”

Developers are doing what the system incentivises them to do – to make money. In the same sense, similar with career-minded ministers. Don’t rock the boat and you might get promoted. And all that. It’s not unique to Cambridge, but our governance, systems, processes and controls don’t incentivise developers to encourage and inspire local people to get involved in the designs of developments that they ultimately have to live with. Hence why all too often it feels like developers and their financiers impose big and locally unpopular developments on unsuspecting communities then run off with the money leaving communities to foot the bill when the design flaws become apparent.


Yes…in the developments by the railway station such was the poor design on all things crime and disorder that the area is now a local police priority. The area is probably stuck with this for the next half century.

And finally…

I’m still of the view that events looking at the future of Cambridge are too segregated and are lacking in diversity. (Where are all of the young people at these events?)

Until Cambridge’s governance can be overhauled (and I’m extremely sceptical about the county mayor proposals that Cambridgeshire’s councils approved this week), and until institutions start hosting events that bring together the communities that make up our city of Cambridge, we will see many more speculative developments that prioritise profit-making for investors that have no stake in local communities ahead of the needs of the people that make up our city. (By ‘the people’ I mean people who live, work and/or study in our city, along with those that need to visit regularly).



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