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Conditional support for Cambridge Investment Zone proposals sparks political row

The leader of the city council has given “cautious support” to expressions of interest in creating Investment Zones in Cambridge - but opponents for clarity on the sites being put forward amid concerns for the environment.

The government unveiled plans in September for more Investment Zones, where development would be fast-tracked and growth encouraged by “cutting back unnecessary bureaucratic requirements and red tape”.

City council leader Cllr Anna Smith (Lab, Coleridge) said that while initial support had been given to some expressions of interest, this was dependent on “no relaxation of planning rules”.

Cllr Anna Smith, Labour leader of Cambridge City Council. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Anna Smith, Labour leader of Cambridge City Council. Picture: Keith Heppell

She was answering a question by the leader of the Liberal Democrat group, Cllr Tim Bick (Lib Dem, Market), at a full council meeting on Thursday evening (October 20) on whether any expressions of interest in Cambridge had been supported, and if so where they were.

Cllr Smith said the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority was responsible for the submission of the expression of interest bids and therefore she could only give a partial answer.

She said that deciding whether to support them was not an easy decision.

Cllr Smith said: “Politically the temptation would have been to refuse to have anything to do with them, to make a blanket statement immediately - political kudos all around, hurrah.

“But we are running [this council] in one of the toughest times it has ever faced and making a blanket statement at the start would have meant pulling out of the process before we got to find out whether the scheme might be made to work for Cambridge, and pulling out regardless of the nature or quality of the bids that might be submitted.

“Therefore, like many other councils across the country, we have given very cautious support to some expressions of interest we think may benefit the city.

“We have made it absolutely clear that our willingness to allow bids to proceed to further discussion is contingent on no relaxation of planning rules, no relaxation of environmental rules, no changes to workers rights, and beyond that a clear demonstration of social value and benefit to the community of any bid that goes forward.

“If we do not get the reassurance we want, we will simply withdraw that support.

“This is just about staying in the system long enough to work out whether this will have value for our city, because if we can find a way to make even a half-baked government scheme work for Cambridge, then we have a responsibility and the city’s leaders to look at that.

“I’m not planning to stand here today and justify the failing attempts to prop up a failing economy by a failing government, but neither will I make easy political statements at the expense of our residents’ jobs or our residents’ wellbeing.”

Cllr Tim Bick, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition on Cambridge City Council
Cllr Tim Bick, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition on Cambridge City Council

Cllr Bick said residents would find the support “astonishing”.

He said: “This is all very mystifying. A large number of councils have put out press releases identifying the sites in which they are supporting expressions of interest and others have stated publicly that they are supporting no sites in their area.

“Expressions of interest must have the support of the relevant local planning authority. We are a local planning authority. It is surely for the leader here to decide whether she wants to be transparent about this and it is not up to anyone else whether she should be transparent about it.

“Other councils have not had the same difficulty she has to be transparent.

“The knowledge, however, that support has been given to expressions of interest will be astonishing to people in the city. It is quite clear that all of the messaging around these Investment Zones is that they are designed to make development happen in places where it might not otherwise happen, not to lower the bar in places like Cambridge where developers are really falling over themselves to develop.

“The zones are already highly controversial to everyone defending the environmental concerns and interests, so does the leader agree that the people of Cambridge will find it odd what she has just said - that the council has supported some Investment Zones and when will she be transparent and accountable about which ones they are?”

Cllr Smith reiterated that the submissions were being coordinated by the Combined Authority and said she was “not going to break that confidence when it has been requested”.

She added that she would be “delighted” to share more information when she was able to, before reiterating the conditions on which the support had been given.

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