Smarter Cambridge Transport

How can we fix the broken planning system?

On Wednesday 17 June 2020, the planning committee were asked to decide whether to permit Brookgate to build two more buildings on Cambridge station car park. The planning officers’ recommendation was to approve because they could find no grounds to refuse in planning law, regulations or guidance. In the event, the committee voted 5–3 to refuse permission. However, that is not the end of the story.

The council’s position towards the development is now ‘neutral’. Officers must produce a report describing in more detail whether or not the development complies with the Local Plan policies cited by councillors as reasons to refuse. Then councillors will be asked to vote again. Officers recommended approval because they believe the planned development is compliant – as their report explains in detail. More significantly, they do not believe Cambridge City Council could defend an appeal against a decision to refuse. If it lost, the council would have to pay Brookgate’s legal costs. That happened last time the council refused a planning application from Brookgate, to demolish Wilton Terrace.

The worst part of this planning application is a new multi-storey car park to replace lost surface parking. Should we not be reducing car parking provision and improving access to the station on foot, cycle and bus? That would align with current priorities to de-carbonise transport, improve public health and reduce road congestion.

Whenever I suggested reducing the number of car parking spaces, I was told the Department for Transport would never renegotiate a franchise agreement. Yet Greater Anglia did renegotiate its franchise agreement – to escape its obligation to provide more cycle parking spaces!

Greater Anglia guards the income from its car parking spaces because that’s part of the franchise agreement. But if the ground level of the new building were not a car park, it could be let for retail or business use. If that didn’t make up for lost income, would it not make sense for the government or Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) to compensate Greater Anglia in order to secure a better long-term outcome for the city? Sadly, nobody had the authority and motivation to pursue such an idea.

The planning system has baked in car dominance at the station for decades to come. We see something similar in almost every large planning application: it fits a brief drawn up years, sometimes decades, earlier, but is unfit for future needs as we now understand them.

The mechanism for setting priorities locally (the ‘Local Plan’) has become so unwieldy that it is no longer fit for purpose. But the government’s proposed solution is worse: in its near-panic to build more and cheaper homes, and ‘reboot the economy’, it wants to further relax planning rules and shift decisions from councils to development corporations. That will only strengthen the hands of landowners, developers and housebuilders. Most will continue to resist pressure to make new developments genuinely sustainable.

This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 17 June 2020. The first two paragraphs have been amended in light of the planning committee’s decision on the same day.

Edward Leigh

Edward Leigh is the leader of Smarter Cambridge Transport, chair and independent co-opted member of the Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel, chair of the South Petersfield Residents Association, business owner, consultant, and occasional blogger about making the world and Cambridge a better place to live.

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