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Designing out issues hampering Cambridge city centre

Cllr John Hipkin. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr John Hipkin. Picture: Keith Heppell

Twelve points have been drawn up designed to help give crowded Cambridge a bold future.

Cambridge is not living up to expectations and has lost ground on other major cities, according to a city council report.

The report cites a lack of civic spaces, traffic congestion, poor air quality and other criticisms of the city using feedback compiled by a third party.

The council is looking to create a supplementary planning document – new guidance to advise on future development – for the city centre, with a new strategy and aims to deal with large-scale forecast growth and the shift away from a transport model prioritising cars and roads.

Included in the current draft document – which may be subject to change before public consultation – is a candid assessment of what needs to be improved, with a 12-point list of issues to tackle.

Independent Cllr John Hipkin said the report held no surprises, with commercial interests in the city centre coming ahead of residents.

“What the report is saying very much chimes with my own observations about the way in which I think the city is being allowed to decline,” he said.

“The familiar problems of congestion, poor air quality, long delays getting to work and this sort of thing are putting enormous strains on the city and I think are probably jeopardising the economy.”

Although he acknowledges that it is of a positive benefit in many places, Cllr Hipkin believes tourism is a contributing factor.

“We’re now in the region of eight million visitors a year, and that rose from five million only three years ago,” he said.

“The rate of increase in casual tourism in Cambridge is of such a scale that if things go on in the present trajectory, then five years from now, we’ll have 11 or 12 million – and I just want to know how they’re going to be agreeably fitted into a confined city centre.

“I’m also worried about the amount of the public domain which is being requisitioned by restaurants and cafés – I believe they go way beyond the limits that have been granted them under the licensing by the county council, but the county council doesn’t care.

“So they can go on taking up footpath space, spreading into the market square and so on, and no one will check them.

"I’ve argued and continue to argue that the powers of licensing restaurants and cafés for outdoor space should be turned over to the city from the county.”

Cllr Hipkin says the city centre is being increasingly degraded, largely by commercial interest.

“If you take, for example, the market square, which should be the jewel in the crown, it’s largely become a large outdoor kitchen, with various food stalls vying for custom and discharging cooking smells to the rest of the city.

“Things are being done by default, rather than by design, and the net effect of that is that the city is rapidly deteriorating.”

The city council is looking to tackle a variety of issues with its new supplementary planning document, establishing design principles and developing a public spaces network.

Included in the plan will be a “movement hierarchy” which “prioritises walking and cycling”.

But this will need to be well designed and enforced, said Cllr Hipkin.

“I don’t think that the rights of passage of both cyclists and pedestrians have been adequately sorted,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s sufficient enforcement in the city centre so that cyclists, as we well know, cycle recklessly in the wrong direction, often they take no notice of signage and, as a pedestrian particularly, one is always very anxious that a silent but swift machine may soon arrive and there will be a point of conflict, and possibly an accident.

“If we’re going to deal with problems of pollution and reduce traffic pouring into the city centre, we have to make the city centre a more agreeable place for pedestrians and cyclists.

“But it’s essential that cyclists and pedestrians have their own different pathways and that conflict is obviated as far as possible.”

Cllr Hipkin believes heavy tourism could see Cambridge residents move out of the city – the same has been recorded in Venice.

“The same will happen here,” he said. “More and more of the accommodation in this city will be for short-term visitors, B&Bs, that sort of thing.

"More and more properties in the city will be let for casual tourism, and more and more residents will look elsewhere for places to live where their interests and concerns are adequately looked after, because the feeling in Cambridge is that residents simply do not matter – their interests come last, rather than first.”

Cllr Tim Bick. Picture: Phli Mynott
Cllr Tim Bick. Picture: Phli Mynott

Liberal Democrat Cllr Tim Bick said he welcomed the plans but warned of losing “functionality” for residents and turning the city into a “pleasure park”.

He told the Cambridge Independent: “We have to reach a compromise between people who want to spend ‘dwell time’ in the city centre and people who need to work there – students and lecturers, people working in shops and offices and people doing business.

"If we lose sight of this, we run the risk of the city centre becoming a bit purposeless.

“I am keen to make sure we keep a functionality about our centre, so it certainly is a really nice place to be, but it also works for people on a mission.

“It is vital that we set a really firm ambition for it so that the transport planners are clear what they need to help us make possible.

“There has been a tendency to treat it and fund it like an overgrown market town, which it really isn’t any more, making it bound to disappoint.

“There needs to be more integrated management, more respect for the built and natural environment and much less dominance of motor vehicles with buses reorganised so their services can grow without creating conflicts.

“It is a tough ask with lots of constraints, but if this project is worth doing, we need to be bold.”

The 12-point list of issues to tackle:

1. A city with a global profile that has struggled to keep up with change and is not living up to expectations.

2. Lack of civic spaces and variable quality and maintenance of the public realm.

3. Congestion and conflict between transport modes as a result of too much being asked of limited space.

4. Vehicle dominance within the narrow streets is an intimidating and uncomfortable environment.

5. The allocation of street space has no winners and instead tends to be unfair to all that use it, particularly those on foot and the mobility impaired.

6. Congestion and routing contribute to poor bus service reliability and quality.

7. Increasing concern over impact of air quality on health and quality of life.

8. Cycling environment and facilities fall considerable short of the ‘City of Cycles’ billing.

9. Green spaces are underutilised and disconnected from each other and access to the river is limited.

10. Tourist congestion hotspots discourage locals visiting the historic core and greatly limit a positive and substantial tourist contribution to local economy.

11. Businesses need support while the evening economy could be expanded.

12. Stakeholders are frustrated by current conditions and want the city to be ambitious.

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