Instead of wasting time on vanity projects perhaps our local councillors should work at making planning in Cambridge more democratic.
Feel your job is pointless and irrelevant? Then just remember in Bavaria there is someone fitting mirrors and indicators to Audis. This joke at the expense of Audi drivers came to mind while reading an article in The Cambridge Independent penned by the leader of our local council. Unfortunately, attempts to raise her profile have not been restricted to a little soft campaigning ahead of next year’s general election and, as well as writing, Bridgit Smith has been experimenting with the introduction of 4 day a week working for selected employees of South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC). This has attracted unwanted attention from both the Taxpayer’s Alliance and Michael Gove, head man at the government’s Orwellian named ‘Department of Levelling Up.’
There is nothing wrong with a shorter working week, in the age of increased automation, it is an idea whose time has come. But, ironically, it may be timing which is the problem with this vanity project. Missing is robust base line data relating to the performance of the planning department, which is important as it is this department Bridgit claims to have already benefited from a shorter working week.
In late 2018 following the merger of the planning departments of SCDC and Cambridge City Council a botched integration of their respective computer systems saw the newly created Greater Cambridgeshire Shared Planning (GCSP) grind to a halt. On the heels of this near disaster came a year of Covid restrictions and the staff of GCSP working from home. Before, during and since the establishment of GCSP, planning applications have been delayed, mistakes made while processing them and oversight of the developments, once permission was granted, has been wanting. Consequently, it may prove difficult ascertaining whether the problems a more relaxed working environment are supposed to fix have been down to pressure on planners, poor management by those supervising them or five years of incredibly bad luck.
Due to an eyewatering rise in mortgage rates, Britain’s building industry is on the threshold of a slowdown which has already seen housebuilders applying the brakes on new and partially finished developments. Inevitable these companies will take a scythe to their inhouse planning departments which for the past decade have poached staff from local councils. At the same time the number of planning applications from small builders will fall, principally because these small builders will no longer exist.
Twelve months from now Bridgit may well have no problem retaining staff, instead her HR department is likely to be overwhelmed with job applications from unemployed planners. She might even struggle to find enough work for existing employees, even for four days a week, and they will be none too pleased with a PhD thesis suggesting more can be achieved with less. After all, the Unite and RMT trade unions are quick to point out hospitals and trains are stressful places to work, but neither have suggested the solution is a shorter working week. Nor will the residents of Cambridgeshire be smiling if Michael Gove’s response to Bridget’s determination to press on with the trial is sending in his shock troops and taking control of local planning. This assumes of course, when the scheme is extended to include refuse collection, Bridget does not find herself bogged down in negotiations with trade unions – or the two bank holidays in May 2024 result in a blue bin apocalypse.
It is late in the evening in Ingolstat, and at a table in the corner of Audi’s canteen sits a young man thinking if only he was allowed to install accelerator pedals, or even cup holders, he could turn his sorry life around. Meanwhile in the restaurant of SCDC’s offices in Cambourne, Bridgit might well be considering other ways to raise her political profile. Well, shoot be down in flames if I’m wrong, but how about a Liberal Democrat injecting some democracy into Cambridgeshire’s planning. Admittedly this might be an uphill task and obviously more difficult than giving staff a day’s break from the chaos in their office. It would also involve rolling back centuries of Cambridge’s history: releasing the stranglehold Cambridge University exerts on the region.
Once the city’s port and industrial sector were demolished creating what today is referred to as the ‘Backs,’ Cambridge became economically dependent on the scholars and academics in its midst. The recently adopted Cambridge City Deal merely confirmed what the people of Cambridge have been told for centuries, that what is good for the university is good for city. The City Deal was designed to accelerate economic development, which some felt was being held back by nimbyism. Which it did through the establishment of the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP), a commercial organisation removing the last remnants of control the public had over future development in their city.
The board of the GCP is made up of appointees from three local councils, each with a third of the votes. Also at the table are a representative from Cambridge University, currently Professor Andy Neely and Dr Andy Williams, who is appointed by Peterborough and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority Business Board.
Both Neely and Williams are also on the board of Cambridge Ahead an organisation which lobbies national and local government on behalf of local companies. Also, on the board of Cambridge Ahead is Dr David Cleevely who founded Cambridge Network and several major companies in Cambridge including Abcam which, like AstraZeneca, has a large building on Cambridge Biomed Campus.
While lobbying is quite common during the planning process it is unusual to have the lobbyists sat around the table during planning meetings. Anyone familiar with planning at parish council level will know that persons with a pecuniary interest relating to a new development are asked to remove themselves while the plan is discussed. One wonders, given the number of developments in which Cambridge University or members of Cambridge Ahead have an interest , how much time Andy Neely and Andy Williams spend stood in the adjacent room with the local line dancing club.
Cambridge has a planning system reminiscent of the one employed in the former East Germany between 1949 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The government of the DDR insisted, as citizens could engage with it at every level, the planning process was truly democratic. As a member of a residents committee, you could choose the colour of your apartment’s front door (availability of paint permitting) and the type of trees in the carpark. However, it was the government which decided where the apartment block was built and its design. You could of course vote for a change of government – there were five different political parties. Unfortunately, all five of these parties formed a permanent coalition led by the communist SED. Aren’t we lucky in Cambridge to have at least three different political parties independent of each other that we can vote for in local elections?
Imagine after the next local elections instead of council appointees to the GCP being made up of one Labour Party member and two Liberal Democrats there were two from Labour and one Conservative, or two Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat, what a difference this would make: none actually. Regardless of the political affiliation of council appointees the direction of the GCP would remain the same, to further the commercial interests of Cambridge University and members of Cambridge Ahead with a vague promise that some of the wealth created will trickle out into the wider community. If the two unelected appointees to the GCP were replaced by members of the East German Communist Party would anything change? Given that parts of Cambridge now resemble Berlin’s Alexandra Platz, probably not. And as in East Germany local decision making in Cambridge is restricted to the trivial: you can choose which flowers and bushes are planted on the embankments of East West Rail or the new guided busways but not the route which either takes through your community.
In the former East Germany you had little choice where you lived with apartments allocated instead of chosen. This, I was told by one of my relatives, who both helped build apartment blocks and lived in one of them, promoted egalitarianism. The party played mix and match with citizens and, if you were a factory manager or an academic, your neighbour was likely to be a manual worker. When I pointed out this appeared to infringe an individual’s right to self-determination, in contravention of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (not a discussion you had in public by the way) he asked how free I was to move to a more affluent part of Cambridge. Of course, he had a point.
There has grown a separation of the working and middle classes in Cambridge, the west being more affluent than the east, and a north south divide within the city itself. However, avoiding the same happening in East German was not the only reason the government controlled where you lived. Reducing the opportunity for people from similar backgrounds, and with common interests, to socialise frustrated efforts to form opposition groups. As by 1989 almost half the population had a common interest in overthrowing the government, housing them in different buildings, or even on separate landings was no longer feasible.
So, imagine if in Britain an undemocratic organisation employed social engineering as part of the planning process simply to further its interests. This brings us neatly to the proposed redevelopment of the Beehive retail site.
If you are the boss of high tech or biomed company, or perhaps the bursar of a university with science parks full of spinouts, what would be your ideal residential development? First, it would house predominately young, single or newlywed workers: so, lots of one- and two-bedroom apartments. No need for a GP surgery as most of these young workers will be fit: you want them to stay that way, so the development should include a gym and possibly a running track. There will be a small Waitrose or Co-op, a convenience store rather than supermarket, and a collection of eateries and cafés; Pret a Manger, Starbucks and Costa.
What you will not need are older workers with legacy skills, and those distracted by parenthood, so the number of 3 – 4-bedroom houses will be kept to a minimum. No need for any of the original Cambridge residents (often referred to as ‘locals’) either, so build over any allotments, convert corner shops and remove DIY stores along with anything else which encourages retirees and others with interests outside working in computing or life sciences. These people you will want to move somewhere else: Cambourne until East West rail expands, then hopefully out of the county altogether. You will need office space and laboratories integrated into the development so workers remain focussed and only form communities around their employment. These work-based communities will be anchored in virtual space, accessed via a mobile device and ephemeral, requiring little in the way of physical infrastructure.
Lastly, as an afterthought, the environment and biodiversity, there will be a small meadow, the obligatory board walk and some form of water feature. Ignore the expense and obvious waste of prime building land as, once passed, plans for the scheme can be amended and anything requiring maintenance covered with block pavers. Eventually a second plan will be submitted squeezing a few more combined laboratories and apartment blocks into any remaining open spaces. Hopefully no one will have visited the quayside development in Norwich so will not realise the CGI visualisation accompanying your planning application is purely aspirational. Nor will they be familiar with descriptions of life in Canary Wharf as a soulless existence.
In Cambridge we do not do gentrification, it is not in the lexicon of planners or even those objecting to new developments. This is because the young people displacing existing members of the local population are, rather than ‘gentry,’ the new working class. The developments in which they are housed resemble the tied cottages still common in villages in Cambridgeshire until the 1960s. And, as with those tied cottages, living in the new four-storey work camps, with their pernicious and claustrophobic juxtaposition of accommodation and work, will prove a narrowing, soul crushing existence from which it is difficult to escape.
At some point local councillors listening to your presentation will have to reconcile their stated ambition to improve the work life balance of people who voted them into power and employees in local council offices, with the plans laid out in front of them. Which they do, and vote in favour for want of any alternative.
Local councils have benefitted from an influx of younger workers who pay rates but require little in return, leaving the old and expensive in former industrial centres in the north of England. Unfortunately, the young workers eventually have children and then ask why the schools they were promised never got built. Someone in their twenties, who moved to Cambridge from the North of England in the 1990s, will have taken early retirement when their skills became obsolete. Worse still, they may now need a GP. So, who is going to pay for all these resources given the developer’s reluctance, or inability, to put their hands in their pockets?
It is no surprise Brigit Smith’s target for new houses in South Cambridgeshire exceeds even the most ambitious estimate for what the county needs. Filling those gaps left by developers requires ever greater influxes of rate paying young workers, and ever more extravagant schemes dreamed up by the university and members of Cambridge Ahead. Cambridge’s local councils are trapped in what amounts to a massive Ponzi scheme, and these seldom end well.
Obviously, there is a need for root and branch reform of local planning in and around Cambridge as well as an overhaul of the organisation tasked with the city’s development. Planning needs to take account of the wellbeing of residents and the long-term sustainability of communities as well as the environment in which they are based and not just the short-term economic interests of a university and a collection of businessmen.
Maybe it is time Cambridgeshire’s local politicians stopped fumbling around in the glove box with headline grabbing vanity projects and took a firm grip of the steering and, when necessary, applied the brakes.
Vorsprung durch Demokratie, as one might say.
Author of The Ghost In The Labyrinth