Cambridge Local Plan submitted – but consultation a sham

We last wrote about the Cambridge Local Plan in Newsletter 103 (August/September 2012), so it’s time for an update. But what is the Local Plan, and why does it matter to us?

What is the Cambridge Local Plan?

The Local Plan is an extensive document which each Local Planning Authority around the UK (often a district council) is required to produce. It governs how and where housing and other developments will be permitted, so that there is a clear set of policies against which to judge proposals. Cambridge City Council is renewing its Local Plan now, replacing the 2006 Local Plan.

But why now? Well, the government recently replaced the thousands of pages of national planning guidance with a new set of policies called the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). A key requirement of the new planning system is that councils must have up-to-date local policies (in the form of a Local Plan) in place. If they do not, the national policies of the NPPF take effect instead. The result is that councils across the country have rushed to ensure they have a new Local Plan in place, to avoid developers getting away with whatever they want.

The NPPF has a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’ (a term which is extremely vague and could really mean anything). What this presumption means is that development will be permitted unless there is a policy preventing it. So councils are putting in place the policies relevant to their area. But they can’t just do what they want – each policy has to be compliant with the principles of the NPPF. And councils have to consult on the Local Plans, which is what Cambridge has been doing over the last 18 months.

Why the Local Plan concerns us as a cycle campaign group

The 2006 Local Plan will remain in force until 2015 when the new Local Plan is projected to be finalised. The 2006 plan contains many policies which we have relied on when we have sadly had to object to proposed developments.

The final consultation phase was a sham. Over 100 pages worth of detailed bullet points were made by the public and yet not a single change was made in response. In effect, there was no point consulting at all.

For instance, in 2008/9, Tesco made a proposal to deliver to its store on Mill Road by unloading from 34ft lorries on Mill Road (i.e. taking up one side of the road) twice a day for 41 minutes each time. The Local Plan had a clear policy which meant we were able to reject this:

‘Policy 8/9: Development proposals will make suitable provision for any required access and parking by service and delivery vehicles.’ with the associated note: ‘Service and delivery vehicles that park on the highway can cause an obstruction to other road users. Therefore, any development that will require regular loading or servicing must avoid causing illegal or dangerous parking, by providing appropriate off-street facilities.’

In the event, Tesco’s proposals were rejected by the city council. Tesco appealed to the government’s Planning Inspectorate, but the council’s decision was upheld because of the robust Local Plan policy which Tesco were clearly not complying with. This very sensible policy and explanatory note meant that developers have been stopped from obviously stupid proposals like Tesco’s, and moreover have encouraged developers to design their proposals properly in the first place. Sadly, the new Local Plan fails to include such a clear policy, instead using vaguer wording on sustainable transport.

Key policy areas that the 2006 Local Plan contained which have been of relevance to effects on cycling conditions have been:

  • Policies to avoid urban sprawl, in favour of high-quality more compact developments (which therefore reduce travel distances)
  • The requirement that developments do not have an unacceptable transport impact;
  • Financial contributions to offset transport impacts (which have funded various cycling improvements through the section 106 system)
  • The requirement that developments “give priority” to walking and cycling over cars
  • Protection of key transport routes, accompanied by a map which included cycle route proposals
  • The cycle parking standards, which require developers to provide specific levels of cycle parking
  • Maximum car parking standards, which have meant that developments have avoided providing excessive levels of car parking which undermine cycle use and which would cause congestion
  • The requirement (as noted above) that developments provide space for deliveries rather than push problems onto public space.
We are somewhat disappointed in the process so far. It feels like a very officer-led plan, with sensible policies of the 2006 plan lost and replaced with unclear general wordings that are full of loopholes.

These are all requirements that we wanted the new Local Plan to cover. Whilst many have been, we have failed to ensure that the new text is so clear. Indeed, many of the points now come under a fairly generic clause on sustainable transport. We feel this is likely to give carte blanche to developers, and represents significant carelessness on the part of the council which will cause umpteen problems in the coming decade.

Our comments on the first stage of consultation

In August 2012 we submitted our comments on the first stage of the consultation, called the ‘Issues and Options Consultation’.

You can read this at http://www.camcycle.org.uk/campaigning/issues/localplan/. The key points that we made in our submission are shown in the box below.

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  1. Cambridge should be aiming for 40% of trips by cycle. The level of housing growth in and around the city is such that any other policy will lead to even further levels of congestion. (See Representation 14949 and others nearby.)
  2. New developments must be planned to Dutch standards of provision for cycling and walking. The Local Plan should adopt this as a major new policy. (See Representation 14949 and others nearby.)
  3. Dutch-quality infrastructure, that we argue for, can be defined as follows:
    1. A network of properly-segregated cycleways that are more convenient than the road, with space properly allocated to enable this. These are not shared with pedestrians; retain priority at junctions (so they are safe and quick); are wide (2- 3m wide, usually on both sides of the road); are continuous (i.e. fully joined-up); are properly surfaced with proper foundations. Major roundabouts should have tight geometries and a separate cycle ring.
    2. For minor, residential streets: 20mph speed limit, avoiding long uninterrupted stretches, home-zone feeling.
    3. Good quality, secure cycle parking – which is above all convenient – is also provided in residential areas and at all destination points.
  4. In other words, the kind of infrastructure that actively encourages new people to cycle rather than use the car, and which existing confident cyclists would not hesitate to use.
  5. Improvements to the Cycle Parking Standards, to improve their enforcement and to fix various problems. (See Representation 15027 and others nearby.)
  6. The need to safeguard land for the Chisholm Trail against development.
  7. Various comments on area-specific issues.
  8. Various other points.

We interpreted the ‘Issues and Options’ stage clearly as a scoping stage. It was definitely not proposing text for people to comment on, but instead suggested broad policy options (e.g. allowing lots of car parking vs more restrictive car parking).

Proposed submission phase

The proposed submission document was consulted on during summer 2013. This contained the proposed wording that the council had decided on, based on the chosen options from the ‘Issues and Options’ phases. There were many responses from the public, including our- selves. Officers summarised these into well over 100 pages of detailed bullet points of comments. Every single one of these was ignored. Effectively, the proposed submission phase consultation was in our view a sham. Officers made quite clear in their report on the consultation that changes to this text were not permissible unless a new round of consultation took place. That was never going to be likely because it would have delayed adoption beyond the timescale wanted by the City Council.

You can see our response online at http://www.camcycle.org.uk/campaigning/letters/2013/C13014CambridgeLocalPlanMainConsultation.pdf.

We objected to 17 sections, and the main points we made were:

  • A general point that the process was unsound in that the draft, being the first time that actual wording of proposed text was being consulted on, would not be changed, with only a national inspector able to change it rather than local councillors resolve points first.
  • The section on Strategic Transport Infrastructure contained various weasel wordings which any developer could easily exploit. Furthermore, we proposed that an explicit target for levels of cycling that developers should be designing for, should be included.
  • We welcomed the section on Mitcham’s Corner but felt that the wording had to be improved so that the removal of the gyratory (as implied by the text) should be made totally explicit.
  • We expressed concern that the Eastern Gate Opportunity Area (basically the Newmarket Road roundabout at the junction with East Road), whilst a fine policy, seemed not to have anything actually being done about it at a time when lots of development is already taking place – there is the danger all the development will be completed but all the development gain money frittered away on other projects.
  • That the Mill Road depot should be a car-free site. It is probably the most suitable site for car-free development, which would facilitate lower housing costs here, in all of Cambridge.
  • A failure to replicate the old policy 8/9 requiring developers to provide proper unloading space.
  • A requirement that cycle provision should go further than national standards, which are totally unsuitable for a city with high levels of cycling. For instance, a 3m shared-use path might just about be tolerable in areas of the UK with little cycling culture, but in Cambridge is a recipe for conflict of the kind that every local councillor continually hears about. For such weak text to be retained in the draft Local Plan text is just sloppy and will store up problems.
  • The cycle parking standards contained loopholes, inconsistencies and retained historical deficiencies of the kind that Cambridge City Council should have taken the opportunity to address. We proposed specific wordings to address what is arguably now quite a messy wording.

Next steps

The final stage is the government planning inspector’s review of the submission, the objections raised, and a Public Inquiry.

We have asked to appear in person at the Public Inquiry stage on the issues of cycle infrastructure provision (e.g. our points about going further than national standards, and the cycle parking section). We fervently hope this request is taken on board.

In general, several key policies on transport are poor and so will leave the City Council in a weak position to defend itself when developers push for developments that will produce short- term profit at the cost of long-term harm to the city.

A national inspector is unlikely to be very familiar with issues relating to high levels of cycling and the infrastructure challenges that this brings. We spoke in person at the Inquiry for the 2006 Local Plan and this was, we believe, found to be useful. Indeed, the dialogue resulted in improvements to that text which have actively helped the City Council when dealing with planning applications.

Summary

We are somewhat disappointed in the process so far. It feels like a very officer-led plan, with sensible policies of the 2006 plan lost and replaced with unclear general wordings that are full of loopholes.

In general, several key policies on transport are poor and so will leave the City Council in a weak position to defend itself when developers push for developments that will produce short-term profit at the cost of long-term problems/disbenefits to the city. The result will be that the taxpayer is left to fix the problems resulting from the poor planning policies – as so clearly happened for instance on King’s Hedges Road with the (South Cambs) Arbury Camp development.

All we can hope now is that the government inspector agrees to run Public Inquiry sessions on the sections we raised concerns on, calls us to give evidence (as in 2006) and fixes the problems as a result of the evidence we wish to give.