The piecemeal changes to Cambridge’s residential neighbourhoods

Summary

It’s happening and there’s very little that residents and councillors can do about it because of rules set by ministers and laws passed by Parliament.

So I spotted these two tweets (screengrabbed) over the past day or so…

…and wondered what the event was that The Mayor turned up to. Turns out it’s another private college that has set up shop in Cambridge that does not provide its own accommodation in Cambridge.

The reason why this matters is that the growth of private colleges in recent years has had an impact on the availability of residential accommodation in Cambridge. Or ‘hard working families’ as politicians call them. Such has been the impact that the latest draft of the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire local plan blocks the development of new private colleges.

CambridgeLocalPlanPrivateColleges

We find out in the next few weeks (end of 2017) whether the planning inspectors approve of this policy and of the local plan in general. Paragraph 5.33 below is particularly interesting.

CambridgeLocalPlanPrivateColleges2

Essentially if private colleges want to expand, they will have to demonstrate how they deal with the accommodation issue.

I looked at the fees for the college mentioned in the tweets. £21,000 for a full year. Further up the road round the back of the state-run Hills Road Sixth Form College is another private college that charges £28,000 for a mix of GCSE/A-level retakes and  pre-university courses aimed at the international market – though it is notable that there is some accommodation on what was once an industrial railway site that was derelict for many years. You could say that at least someone is doing something positive on that site. It doesn’t speak well for our system of government that such prime sites were allowed to lay unused for decades at times when Cambridge still had housing issues.

Some of the private colleges have been in Cambridge for decades – it’d be irresponsible of me to say that the problems of recent years was entirely down to them. But there have been more speculative and/or have upset local residents who wanted to use vacant sites for other purposes – whether much-needed social housing or community centres. The Methodist Church came under fire in recent years when it sold off a site to a religious college rather than to a local community group that had matched the asking price of well over half a million pounds. There was another case of a religious college that set up shop on an industrial park in South Cambridge a few years ago, only to close a couple of years later due to financial issues. They acquired and converted a local guesthouse into student accommodation, but it’s not clear what’s happened to it since.

Cambridge’s magic pixie dust

It’s almost funny how some private colleges try to associate themselves with the University of Cambridge and its member colleges. Even some developers of luxury apartments have tried the same trick. In the grand scheme of things, the University of Cambridge is very poor at ‘managing its brand’. You only have to look at the number of organisations that have picture postcard images of familiar sites in Cambridge. Or more pejoratively, the ‘money shots’ that imply students at private colleges will be able to enjoy such facilities (they won’t) and that they will be studying in such illustrious premises and not some converted Victorian or post-war office block.

CEG Kings College

Will you be a member of one of these two colleges in the photograph, and sing in the choir in that chapel?

Now, at a personal level I don’t really care whether, as in the case above, the Cambridge Education Group uses photos of King’s College Chapel in its publicity. What I care more about is the ability of public and civic institutions to manage our city in the face of competing demands, remaining properly transparent and accountable to the people who make up said city.

The problems of our city are not the fault of the students or young people

In the grand scheme of things, they get a bad rap. Strange as it may sound, I’m actually more concerned that students and young people who come to Cambridge are getting ripped off by the price of some of their courses and accommodation. (Something I’ve repeatedly raised with both student groups and local political parties). For a start, developers who claim to be building accommodation for students at Anglia Ruskin University do not, as a matter of course engage in detailed discussions and proactive consultations with students at ARU – where I was once a post-graduate student. If developers did, they would find that students want cheaper, shared accommodation rather than the individual en-suite accommodation that costs a lot more. At least three former Anglia Ruskin University Student Union presidents and/or elected student officials have mentioned this to me. They have also mentioned it to Daniel Zeichner MP – the MP for Cambridge. Local political parties and their sister student parties are pushing at an open door on a joint local housing campaign that delivers both affordable and suitable accommodation for students while at the same time providing affordable social housing for locals.

The changing nature of Queen Edith’s ward – demolish a town house and replace it with half a dozen+ rabbit hutches

The case of 291 Hills Road is about to come up for a decision soon. I was commissioned to film the pre-development scrutiny hearing by one of the local residents associations – see the video here. This case is an example of repeated cases of a large single dwelling being replaced by a series of much smaller ones. But in a piecemeal manner.

“What’s the problem? We have a housing crisis. It’s a better use of space!”

Strategic planning and community consent are the issues. Ditto with former council houses being sold off then artificially broken up into houses of multiple occupation then marketed to the private college market. There are a number in South Cambridge that I used to cycle past every day on my way to school that are now language college accommodation. My concern for the students is that the accommodation is not necessarily suitable for students generally – in particular younger students from abroad not fluent in the language, who could really do with 24/7 live-in supervisors. Hence why I agree with the draft planning policy that closes one of the loopholes and tightens things up on the expansion of such colleges. But the way ministers have rigged the planning system, there will always be a way around given the amounts of money to be made from brand Cambridge.

If you are going to change a neighbourhood, far better to do it not just with the consent of, but the proactive participation of the people that live and work there. Historically, Queen Edith’s has been a mixed ward with council housing sitting side-by-side detached housing. But again, central government policies on not replacing sold off council houses means that it is harder for people on low incomes to stay in the neighbourhoods that like me they might have grown up in. Having to travel in from further distances means a greater strain on already congested local roads – hence the sell offs being a false economy here.

Furthermore, the sorts of flats that are being built to replace the town houses are not the family homes that are affordable and suitable for those who are on lower incomes but who do essential jobs in our communities. Personally I’d like to think that cities collectively have a responsibility to ensure those on low incomes are able to live close to their workplaces, and not simply let the market rip.

Cambridge needs a ‘second centre’ – but where?

Cambridge sits within a triangle of dual carriageways/motorways

Cambridge M11A14A11 triangle

From G-Maps, the points of the triangle are the Girton Interchange (top left), Six Mile Bottom (top right) and Great Chesterford (bottom centre).

Do you allow the city to expand by removing the green belt, thus giving an urban sprawl effect, or do you pick another set of villages within the triangle, for example at the southern point and build a new town there, ensuring it is properly linked by rail & light rail to ‘old Cambridge’ and have it purpose-built around two or three sectors that either the region currently lacks and/or ones that urgently need to or have the capacity to expand relatively quickly.

Where not to build

In the 1960s, the local councils commissioned another study of where Cambridge & district could expand to. They also highlighted areas that should be left alone.

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

The above from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The green-line-shaded bits are the ‘don’t build here!’ bits – a mix of much higher ground compared to the rest of the area, plus floodplain.

But our system of local public administration remains a mess

CambridgeGovernanceStructure

From Smarter Cambridge Transport/Edward Leigh.

Until ministers and Parliament are prepared to sort out the above, Cambridge will never be this wonderful great city that ministers claim it to be. Mayoralties and councils of other western cities have far greater powers than UK cities do. But until our political culture changes, the potential of our cities – not just Cambridge, will continue to be held back due to the political prejudices, whims and shortcomings of whichever ministers of whichever parties happen to be in office.

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