Cambridge’s Latest Export – Biodiversity

Tired and resigned, as one might be after six hours with only two breaks; one for lunch, one for afternoon tea, and a planning meeting dealing with two major developments which included representations for and against, amendments, conditions and comments from the highways, engineering and environment departments as well as a tree officer. All the time the distant clatter of hooves on the M11 as Michael Gove’s federal planners head towards Cambridge contributing to the feeling someone has called time in the last chance saloon. Hardly surprising minds wander: will Sainsburys be out of eggs by the time you head for home, if they are that is omelette and brown rice off the menu …

At last, the final submission, an afterthought, a development so small and insignificant it was almost possible to deal with while gathering papers and putting on your coat. Even so, while discussing the squeezing of eight houses onto a small piece of land at the junction of Addenbrookes and Shelford Road, a mere speck on the edge of a conurbation extending from The Cambridge Campus to open countryside to the west of the city, comes a comment made in passing just minutes before the cameras are turned off and computers shut down, which betrays a lack of understanding of a change in planning policy with implications far beyond the innocuous sounding application 22/04783/FUL.

Few people, even those paying attention will have heard of BNG offsetting. It came in under the radar, as things do while we are distracted, but nevertheless will play a greater part in shaping Cambridge than Peter Freeman of Homes England, bursting through the swing doors of Cambridge Council’s offices, firing a six-shooter into the ceiling and shouting ‘This town isn’t big enough for both of us. In fact, come to think of it, this town isn’t big enough, full stop.’

To avoid any accusation of selective editing, distortion through truncation or taking remarks out of context, here is consideration of application in full.

OK, welcome back. There are several issues raised by this video: one being the unintended consequences of the employee from the planning department of Greater Cambridge Shared Planning struggling with some basic features of PowerPoint. However, let us leave that for the moment and cut to the chase, BNG (Biodiversity Net Gain) offsetting.

Taken By The Trees

The site in question was formerly part of gardens at the rear of houses on Shelford Road. It will contain 8 houses and nine paved parking places so, given the site once contained Elms, shrubs and large Cypress trees, the loss of biodiversity will be near total. Rather than persuade the developer to reduce the number of houses the council is allowing it to purchase approximately a quarter of acre of farmland in the countryside to the south of Cambridge which, over the coming years, will be converted into woodland and meadows. This will provide the requisite Net Bio Diversity Gain, albeit five miles away on land owned by property consultants Bidwells. So far, so good and councillors were OK with this in principle.

Perhaps councillors should have carried out a little research to check if their own principles were being compromised because adjacent to Lower Valley Farm, home of Bidwell’s ‘pioneering, biodiversity net gain initiative,’ is a row of upmarket properties, one of which, also listed on Bidwell’s website was recently on the market for £1.3 million.

One of the key features of the property is ‘spectacular gardens which overlook open countryside.’

You might have noticed that, when examining plans for the houses in Shelford Road, council members struggled to identify anything resembling a garden, so the idea that any biodiversity the residents might have enjoyed, perhaps a few trees and shrubs to absorb car fumes and dull the noise of traffic on the busy road just metres from their front door, or perhaps a small patch of grass on which to sit and relax after work and where their children could play, had been magically transported out into the countryside to improve the aesthetics of houses in the more affluent parts of Cambridgeshire. To say the optics are bad is an understatement. However optics are only a problem when someone is looking and presumably in this case nobody is.

While in East Berlin during the 1970s I was invited to lunch by a member of the East German Communist Party and was surprised to discover he owned a Mercedes Benz: it was in this we travelled through the still bomb-damaged streets and past the vast grey, Corbusier inspired apartment blocks to his house in the countryside. It was obviously neither the time nor place to ask but, nevertheless, the question hung in the air, ‘exactly what sort of socialist are you?’ It was this man’s capacity to inspire cynicism in a young student which came to mind when a committee predominantly made up of people who claim to be socialists appeared resigned to class being a deciding factor when it comes to access to biodiversity. It was also slightly concerning, given the size of Bidwells’ Lower Valley Farm (140 hectares) how much biodiversity the residents of Cambridge could lose in the coming years.

See Emily (and Katie ) Play?

On the other hand, and with planning there are always at least two conflicting views, these 8 houses will be occupied by people with little time to sit and admire the view: even members of the political class are not so detached from the real world they do not realise this. Neither, as the one member of the public who commented on the plans alluded to, are these houses designed with children in mind. But in the unfortunate event some are occupied by families then, as was pointed out by the plans advocate, there is a play area nearby. Although, as some questioned, how near was ‘nearby?’

It fell to Katie Christodoulides the council’s Principal Planning Officer to answer this.

Austin Drive, from which the new houses will be accessed is a narrow private road: in some parts single lane. The play area is midway and two blind bends from the new houses and forms the centre of a square overlooked by the existing residents of Austin Drive. Once the new houses are occupied there will be at least another 16 vehicle movements around three sides of the play area each day in addition to post, grocery and Amazon deliveries. I think what was expected from Katie was something along the lines of this, which can be achieved with a few clicks on Google maps.

Open in Google Maps

What they got fell rather short of this and even when, belatedly, the PowerPoint malfunction was pointed out, still the whereabouts of the play area remained a mystery. There should of course been supplementary questions, such as how does someone, who appears to have minimal IT experience  become a Principal Planning Officer and why did it appear the inability to communicate important information was so amusing.

The End of The Road For GCSP?

This planning application was the second attempt by property developer Hawkswren to get houses built on the site, the first planning permission expired before work could begin. Hawkswren specialises in shoehorning houses into small spaces – what is sometimes referred to as ‘garden building’ – filling gaps larger companies find uneconomic to develop. The buildings have been designed by 29 Architecture Ltd to blend in with those in the adjacent Abode estate. While the addition of 8 houses seems insignificant this form of infilling increases housing density beyond that envisaged by Abode’s planners. Austin Drive was never intended as an access road for properties outside of the boundaries of the original development. Even so, in what appears to be a lack of joined up thinking by Greater Cambridge Shared Planning when it comes to highways in particular and transport in general, the road remains outside the remit of Jon Finney, the council’s Principle Development Management Engineer.

In November 2021, Greater Cambridge Shared Planning were considering plans to build a group of houses accessed from a busy road in the village of Coton. The entrance to the site was between the two blind bends well known to visitors to Coton Garden Centre, parents collecting children from the village school and anyone attempting to cross this road while hiking along Wimpole Way. Councillors were almost unanimous in deciding the plans were incompatible with existing transport policies and were minded to refuse permission. However, the council’s legal officer pointed out that as the highways department had offered no objection to the development the council would open itself up to legal action from the developer if the plans were rejected. And what chance a council, so under resourced it can barely scrape together funds for IT training, finding money to fight a court battle. So, the development went ahead. (Never did the phrase ‘asleep at the wheel’ seem more appropriate.)

The likelihood of the developer successfully suing the council for rejecting the Shelford Road development on the grounds of poor access is far higher than, given the council has no statutory liability, a parent gaining redress from the council if their child is hit by a car while playing in Austin Road. There are also wider issues with transport in the Trumpington ward extending beyond access to the Hawkswren development. A guided busway was supposed to provide an alternative to car use in the west of Cambridge. This however is out of action and until the Health and Safety Executive is convinced council engineers can prevent it killing pedestrians and cyclists there is a question mark hanging over the sustainability of both the Abode estate and the Clay Farm Development.

The Agent Of Change

There is a sweet spot into which every businessman would like to manoeuvre their company, that point where its customer is totally dependent on it as a supplier. Anyone who has worked in the high-tech industry will be familiar with the term ‘no one ever got fired for buying IBM’ will have also employed FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), and TINA (There Is No Alternative) and indulged in corporate misogyny (True it looks complicated, but don’t worry your pretty little head, because we’ve got it sorted.) This is very much how anyone in the property industry views local councils starved of resources and totally dependent on developers and land agents to carry out tasks which, ten years ago, would have been undertaken in house. Councils who once insisted land agents come up with something practical or their clients will not get planning permission are now having to beg the same agents to help them achieve house building targets.

Hardly surprising then the reverence with which Cambridge Council treats Peter McKeown who has submitted a steady stream of plans on behalf of Hawkswren. By contrast the one objection from a member of the public was treated very much like a bad taste in the mouth. The point this dissenter dared to make about parking was not unreasonable considering the one space per house will not meet the needs of households which, outside London own an average of 1.3 cars. Also, a valid observation, that the council should consider the possibility that some of the residents will have children, seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Extract from ‘Cambridge, Where Democracy Went To Die’

Water, Water Everywhere (none to drink or fit to swim in.)

The grilling Peter McKeown received from the councillors reminds one of Dennis Healey’s description of being challenged by Geoffrey Howe, which he likened to being mauled by a dead sheep. Like teachers with one eye on their school’s Ofsted report, councillors appeared keen to help McKeown with his homework. What are we to make about that comment regarding water usage …

… or the one about enhanced biodiversity.

For all we know Peter may spend his spare time planting hedgerows and pulling shopping trolleys out of chalk streams, but his day job is, according to the statement on his employers website (by Mark Granger, chief executive of Carter Jonas) is to ‘help clients realise their goals and aspirations.’ Hawkswren’s goals and aspirations, like those of most other property developers, is to maximise returns for their investors. Were Peter to tell Hawkswren, despite having got plans for the development on Shelford Road passed, he wanted the developer to forego the odd ten thousand pounds of profit and lower the water consumption and increase the size of gardens and the sites biodiversity. Quite likely he would have something unprintable done to him between his backside and breakfast time, either by the developer or fellow partners – quite possibly both.

During work on a previous Hawkswren development, for which Peter McKeown also worked on the planning application, a large amount of building waste was spread on a neighbouring meadow. Asked why the appearance of the meadow …

… now differed markedly from the pictures on the sustainability page of its website.

Lisa Simon, then chair of Carter Jonas’s sustainability group, pointed out it was not actually managing the land. This despite it putting forward the meadow to Greater Cambridge Shared Planning as a potential site for development on behalf of Hawkswren.  However, Lisa did agree to mention the incident to the company’s planning department. The response was probably much the same as that request for water butts.

Unreal City, under the brown fog of a winter dawn.

After the gold rush will Cambridge be left with its own wasteland, one resembling the Victorian back to backs or 1960s concrete jungles in which occupants remain trapped in poverty and deprivation until liberated by the wrecking ball? That only one person objected to the Shelford Road development should not be taken as an indication the residents of Cambridge are comfortable with these types of developments. Instead, they have merely learned over the years their opinion no longer counts. Developers shout ‘jump’ and the only question Greater Cambridge Shared Planning asks is ‘how high?’ There is still an opportunity to ensure our city does not repeat mistakes made fast growing industrial centres in the past although, unfortunately, neither developers or our civic leaders seem willing, or able, to grasp it.

Peter Kruger

(Extracts from the forthcoming book, ‘The Day The Builders Came’ form part of this article.)

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