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The Great Wall of North East Cambridge - who decides what gets built in our city?

Opinion | By James Littlewood, chief executive of Cambridge Past, Present & Future - with a response from Brookgate below

Who decides what gets built in our city? You might assume that it is the people that are democratically elected by us to make such decisions: the dedicated local politicians on the council planning committee, who give up their time on our behalf to consider what should and shouldn’t be given approval. Among other things, they consider the views of their constituents, that’s you and me.

The site in question. Picture: Cambridge PPF. Picture: Cambridge PPF
The site in question. Picture: Cambridge PPF. Picture: Cambridge PPF

But our local politicians are only a control on development, weighing up the pros and cons against a multitude of contradictory policies. What gets built is usually determined by property developers.

There are some good developers who, as part of the planning process, find out the views of the council, stakeholders and local people. They bring forward a development which balances those views and local context with their profit goals. They submit their plans to a design panel to help them improve it. We might not all agree with the outcome, but such developments are likely to be approved by our elected representatives.

Unfortunately, not all developers are like this. Others are more motivated to maximise profit and see the planning system as an impediment. They often know in advance that their application will be refused by our elected representatives, and they know in advance that they will launch an appeal against the council’s decision. They do this because it will result in a planning inquiry, which is an expensive legal process in which they can outgun cash strapped local councils and over-stretched council officers by buying a better legal and professional team. We have seen this on several occasions around Cambridge in recent times and sadly this strategy sometimes works.

James Littlewood, chief executive of Cambridge Past, Present & Future, outside some of Brookgate’s existing buildings in North East Cambridge. Picture: Cambridge PPF (62950534)
James Littlewood, chief executive of Cambridge Past, Present & Future, outside some of Brookgate’s existing buildings in North East Cambridge. Picture: Cambridge PPF (62950534)

This is the strategy being pursued by Brookgate [as part of the Chesterton Partnership with Network Rail and DB Cargo] to build a massive new development in North East Cambridge. It will loom over the meadows next to the River Cam, it will be what you see on the horizon when you walk, run, cycle, row, paddle or cruise along the river or when you are enjoying a picnic on Ditton Meadows, or a pint in the riverside garden of The Plough. It will change the skyline of our city, so it is a development that we should all be concerned about and want to get right, for now and for future generations.

What Brookgate is proposing will be 300 metres long and 22 metres high. Like a giant wall of ‘anytown’ architecture, it will be the Great Wall of North East Cambridge. There’s no need to imagine what it might look like, you can see for yourself because they have already erected two similar buildings which were regrettably granted permission by our councils. All you need to do is imagine this extended by 200 metres. Then ask yourself if that is the best that Cambridge can do? Is it what you want our future city to look like?

The application will be discussed by local politicians on March 22. Brookgate doesn’t want to wait for the outcome. They have already asked for a planning inquiry which has been scheduled for June.

So, what can we do as citizens to have a say in the future of our city? You can give your views to the council, and they will also be made available to the planning inquiry. Email planning@greatercambridgeplanning.org and reference ‘Land north of Cambridge North Station’.

You can also support charities like Cambridge Past, Present & Future, which will take part in the public inquiry, arguing for a better outcome for our city. You can read our responses to the application at cambridgeppf.org/planning-responses.

The site in question. Picture: Cambridge PPF
The site in question. Picture: Cambridge PPF

Brookgate responds - and says many consultation events have taken place

Brookgate has responded to James Littlewood’s article above, stressing that plans have been submitted by the Chesterton Partnership, a partnership comprising Network Rail, DB Cargo and Brookgate.

A spokesperson for Brookgate, on behalf of the Chesterton Partnership, said: “We are naturally disappointed that our extensive dialogue with South Cambridge District Council and Cambridge City Council over many years has not resulted in our June 2022 planning application being determined in a timely fashion by the local planning authority.

“The government has an aspiration to make the UK a ‘science and technology superpower’ and integral to achieving this is the development of the right buildings for the sector – along with supporting infrastructure such as inclusive places to live.

“The Cambridge North site is an important part of the development strategy for the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan but currently sits as untapped resource brownfield land. The development being put forward by our highly experienced team will deliver a high-quality, mixed-use neighbourhood ensuring environmental, economic and social sustainability throughout.

“We have seen no other option than to appeal against non-determination and will continue to work with local stakeholders to seek a positive outcome.”

Brookgate confirmed the planning application was validated by the council on June 15, 2022, with a 16-week statutory determination deadline of October 5, 2022. Brookgate agreed an extension to this of November 23, 2022.

After it was not brought before a committee by this date, Brookgate submitted an appeal against non-determination on December 19, 2022.

The spokesperson said this followed “five years of extensive consultation and pre-application meetings with the local authority”.

Brookgate also rejected the idea that the plans would create a “wall” and stressed that he plans are not for a single, 200m long building.

The spokesperson explained: “The plans submitted have varied heights between 22.1m and 13.4m – not, as stated, creating a ‘wall’ of 22m-tall buildings. There are three buildings on the eastern edge, all of lower scale than the hotel and office already built on this national strategically important site.

“Claims that consultation has not taken place are entirely untrue. Many consultation events have taken place, a website inviting responses was launched for the sole purpose of public consultation, and additionally Brookgate has liaised directly with various interested groups – including the Cambridge Past Present and Future group.”

Brookgate noted that the meeting on March 22 will discuss the application, but explained: “The council is no longer in a position to make a decision at this meeting.”

Instead, councillors will share their verdict with the inquiry.

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