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Greater Cambridge planning director: ‘We must base our Local Plan decisions on evidence’

Stephen Kelly, joint director of planning and economic development at the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service, writes for the Cambridge Independent about the process of creating the next Local Plan.

Stephen Kelly, joint director of planning and economic development at Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service
Stephen Kelly, joint director of planning and economic development at Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service

A secure job and a home. Something most of us aspire to for our families and our children.

Few would dispute how, in recent years, Greater Cambridge’s extraordinary economic success has created challenges for the area and our communities. From congestion, to pressure on schools, healthcare services, power, and water. In addition, increases in house prices mean that the average house now costs over 12 times annual earnings. Our area is now one of the least affordable places to live in the country.

Commuting long distances to work in Greater Cambridge is now commonplace, not just for the lowest paid but for doctors and nurses, teachers and the large numbers of our essential workers.

Before I go any further, I do want to be very clear that at this point we have not committed to a figure about the number of new homes that should be planned for our area.

There are suggestions that the publication of our most recent evidence forecasting what could happen to the area’s economy by 2041 and the homes needed to support that, implies that both South Cambridgeshire District and Cambridge City Councils have plans to “concrete over the countryside.” Why would any council seek to do that?

Every day, my team and I hear about the consequences of failing to plan for the area’s needs – from longer queues at GP surgeries, pressure on schools, concerns about power and water supply and growing challenges around travel and affordable housing. The evidence of an extra 20,000 residents in Cambridge in the 2021 Census already suggests that earlier forecasts might not have adequately captured the area’s economic and population growth effectively.

Any good plan must start with a clear understanding of the places we are planning for. The National Planning Policy Framework indicates that Local Plans “…should, as a minimum, provide for objectively assessed needs for housing and other uses…unless… any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”.

The planning service has already commissioned a significant number of studies to ensure that the new Joint Local Plan (between Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council) is built on the best evidence. This includes not just economic and housing forecasts, but studies into water, heritage and landscape, the effects of development patterns on transport demands, wellbeing and the build-out rates of new homes.

You gave us clear feedback on our last consultation that you want the new Local Plan to secure wellbeing and social inclusion, climate resilience and a positive response to climate change, to deliver biodiversity enhancements and the protection of green space. And you want it to safeguard and enhance the quality of place we live in. Meeting housing and economic needs, or not, impacts upon each of these ambitions. If more jobs are created, and more people come to the area, how will we accommodate them? If we don’t want to build houses for the new workers here, where will they live and how will they get to work?

It is important that we share the findings of our work on these matters, even when that information poses difficult questions and raises significant challenges. The Local Plan will, after all, also inform the plans of utility providers, health and care partners, education and other service providers who deliver the future infrastructure needed in our area.

I emphasise again that the reports published recently by Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire District Councils indicate our assessment of likely future jobs in the area – and what it means for additional housing needs beyond the 37,000-plus homes already planned for on the sites in the 2018 Local Plans. The reports do not say how much of that additional housing need can be met. Before we can do so, we need to understand how many homes the water infrastructure can support without causing unacceptable harm to the environment.

Criticism of our detailed forecasts highlights how they differ from the lower housing need figures generated by the government’s cruder forecasting methodology. But if our forecasts are right and we don’t try and meet the needs of that growing population, we risk adding to the financial burdens already facing workers and our communities. We will increase the need for lower-paid workers to commute further to work because of competition for local homes. Exacerbating inequality. Increasing traffic. We will fail to realise our climate change and our wellbeing objectives. Those planning future infrastructure will plan for less.

In the next formal stages of the Local Plan, we will publish our ‘preferred options’. This will be later in 2023. By that time, we expect to have been able to review the plans published by the water companies and settle on a headline number for the new homes. Subject to both Councils agreeing, we will invite everyone to comment on the evidence we have prepared, on the plan, the sites and the policies we propose to guide future change.

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