I’m bored of moaning about Cambridge’s bland new buildings


And the root of the clash between architects and local residents is in the structure of our systems of planning, politics and big finance

There was a powerful series of tweets by Oliver Bullough on Twitter earlier about how the UK Government is complicit through its inaction over ‘dirty money’ and its impact on UK house prices.

170412 OliverBulloughDirtyMoneyUKHousingThread

In 4/6 you’ll notice that, as with the planning system, public sector cannot compete with the private sector. I’ve lost count of the number of people locally who tell me that the private sector regularly poach staff from Cambridge City Council’s planning team. But who can blame staff for moving given these ratios of income to housing?

Earlier today, the Standard (which will see Mr Osborne taking up shop as editor, a widely criticised move given he has no experience of such a job) actually published a powerful article on the impact of ‘buy to leave’ by Simon Jenkins – a former newspaper editor himself. Do parts of Cambridge risk this? I note at https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/ local councils are willing to release some information about empty commercial properties, but not about empty residential properties other than the totals per year in a local authority’s geographical area.

Does The Government have a policy on reducing the prevalence of empty new homes?

12 months ago, ministers released this statement. What assessment have they made on the impacts of those policies? Are there datasets that they could be collecting but are not? Might be worth asking directly http://forms.communities.gov.uk/ – in particular the points that Mr Bullough has made above.

On design and planning permission

I’ve been attending and filming a number of planning committee meetings over the last six months. One consistent theme that comes up time and again is poor design. Unfortunately this is one area where local councils seem to have extremely limited powers to refuse planning applications – even though this useful blogpost on how to object to planning applications by Martin Goodhall, a Legal Associate of the Royal Town Planning Institute indicates otherwise.

“Isn’t ‘design’ a very subjective thing anyway?”

It is. Also, the last thing any place wants is one person imposing their views onto an entire city. I wouldn’t even wish for my home town of Cambridge to have my views on planning and design to be imposed on the city. In the grand scheme of things, I’m more interested in the fairness, accessibility and usability of the process by which the general public can get involved in shaping our homes, neighbourhoods and places we live in. (i.e villages, towns and cities). Unpopular architecture for me is a symptom that something has gone badly wrong with the controls, systems and processes by which a city functions. That London can be littered with empty tower blocks of unoccupied luxury apartments while ‘demand’ continues to rise (and few ministers are brave enough to address where this ‘demand’ is coming from, let alone do anything substantial about it) is a symptom that something has gone very wrong with our politics, our economics, and our societies. Even more so given the homelessness crisis that we have – something that remains visible in Cambridge.

Who has time to go through planning applications in detail?

This for me is one of the fundamental structural problems faced by many towns and cities – not just Cambridge. The culture of long working hours (in part made worse by high housing and rental prices) combined with long commutes means that fewer people in full time work have the time, let alone the energy to put their minds to what is happening in their communities. Scrutiny matters.

In Cambridge, we’re very fortunate to have a critical mass of of residents who have the time, passion, the education (it takes months to become familiar with the language and legalese used in these fields) and also the resources to scrutinise what’s happening to our city and make decision makers at least think twice about what they are doing. But resident groups alone will never be enough to face down big corporates on schemes valued in the £hundreds of millions. If anything, it’s that complexity that is a barrier in itself to more people getting involved. Given the technology we have, shouldn’t we be using maps and pictures much more instead of text? (He says…typing a blogpost).

Councillors, planners and architects in the firing line?

On one side, you could say they don’t help themselves. On the other hand, they are only functioning in a system that is not of their making – and get railroaded into things that were decided by much more powerful interests. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve posted on social media that the fault of unpopular developments is not the fault of councillors but of a system imposed by ministers lobbied heavily by developers and rubber-stamped by Parliament.

“So…now what?”

I’ve blogged about planning workshops and the like. But such things will have their limitations – not least a very small audience. Everything keeps coming back to the problems of how our city is run. But then that leads back all the way to Whitehall and Westminster who, in the grand scheme of things have no appetite to overhaul how our cities should be run.

And when you start looking at the scale of the challenge, you end up feeling very, very, very small. And overwhelmed. And crushed.



One thought on “I’m bored of moaning about Cambridge’s bland new buildings

  1. Indeed. Fundamentally, the planning rules need drastic reform to take all the power away from developers and give councils some of that back so that there is another penalty (**not a financial one**) if council staff or councillors make decisions that can’t be backed up. So that the context of a new building becomes more significant than it seems to be now.

    Personally, I’d also welcome a move to standardise the information required for an application so that in the design and access statement you will always find details of the car parking/footway/cycle parking issues addressed, for example. So you get a clear idea of what the building will look like using photos of how things look now in the elevation plans. (Odd how tidy and clean everything looks when it’s an artist’s impression.)

    And the chances of this are minuscule…. :¬(

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