Scrutinising county council advice on planning applications

For a long time, we have had concerns about the lack of democratic accountability in the way that developers are able to make changes to the public highway, which includes cycleways and pavements.

This has arisen again with respect to a planning application on Mill Road (see below), but it is part of a significant strategic problem that we are going to make much greater efforts to campaign on. Recent articles alluded to this issue, for example, Klaas Brümann’s article, ‘Developer creep’, in Newsletter 114, David Earl in Newsletter 115 and Hester Wells in the previous article.

There is currently a remarkable contrast between changes that are publicly- funded and those which are developer-funded.

There is currently a remarkable contrast between changes that are publicly-funded and those which are developer-funded. We have witnessed Area Joint Committee meetings where councillors have, for instance, spent half an hour discussing the removal of some trivial bollard, yet massive changes such as the hostile reworking of King’s Hedges Road in 2006 for the Arbury Park development did not go through any committee – and indeed had no democratic input whatsoever.

What is happening here? Basically the planning system rightly requires developers to ameliorate the effects of their proposed developments on the public infrastructure. For instance, a new housing development creates new vehicle movements and traffic. It is therefore reasonable for the county council to require that the housing developer fund changes to public highways to deal with this – otherwise the taxpayer foots the bill. This system of developer-funded contributions is called the ‘Section 106’ system.

The problem is that the exact nature of such changes is mostly agreed by negotiation between the developer and county council officers behind closed doors, after a planning application has been agreed. The planning committee has set conditions requiring the developer to submit plans (giving the detail of changes) to the county council’s satisfaction. But these changes do not usually go back to any committee and no consultation takes place. Any cycle campaigner will tell you that the devil is in the detail. There is a world of difference between a cycle lane that gives way at every junction and one that is continuous.

So, on King’s Hedges Road in 2006 for instance, the developers worked up plans to change that road, which officers at the county council commented on; plans were iterated until those officers were satisfied. The changes were then made. A series of build-outs which did not meet government requirements for safe passing widths meant that cyclists were becoming squeezed. (We later obtained, through Freedom of Information requests, details of safety audits showing that the problem had been recognised.) Yet had this been a publicly-funded scheme, there would have been enormous amounts of consultation; we would have objected to this and argued for a completely different approach to improving the road, involving proper space for cycling. You can see the history of this issue at http://www.camcycle.org.uk/campaigning/issues/arburypark/. This is but one example.

We’ve seen councillors spend 30 minutes discussing removal of a trivial bollard, yet the massive and hostile changes to King’s Hedges Road went through without any democratic input whatsoever, because they were funded by a developer.

A few years later, the county then spent over £100,000 of taxpayer money in the same place on King’s Hedges Road ameliorating the worst of the pinch point problems. This would have been avoided had there been some kind of public consultation on the changes.

Another, smaller, example is a developer-funded pedestrian crossing on Chesterton Lane which appeared without any public consultation. Its design created a dangerous narrowing. Crucially, the local councillor at the time told us: ‘The first time I knew about this crossing was when it appeared on – street!’ We think it is incredible that not even the elected local representative had been consulted.

Nowadays, documentation on all city council planning applications can be viewed online, at www.cambridge.gov.uk/planningpublicaccess, which is very welcome. These include all correspondence on each application.

Crossing installed (without consultation). The design of the road width here is so bad that the poor-quality cycle lanes had to be added in mitigation!
Image as described adjacent

Planning applications involve a period of several weeks when members of the public can submit their views, and potentially object. As part of this same process, the city council consults with statutory consultees such as the highways department of the county council, to ask their views on proposals. The county responds, and this becomes the official ruling on the safety or appropriateness of highway changes. Often, this view will carry very strong weight all the way through to a public inquiry, should the development be refused and the developer take it to appeal for a government inspector to determine.

Again, there is no way for the public to influence the county council highways department’s view. It is at this crucial stage that we are increasingly having concerns. It means that the decision of an officer who is perhaps not particularly interested in cycling issues, or does not agree with the principle of space for cycling, or who is unaware of potential improvements that the public (such as us) have earlier advocated, is taken as gospel in a way that is almost impossible to change later. This is scandalous.

These decisions have also been incredibly arbitrary at times. During the decision-making process on the Mill Road Tesco development in 2009 for instance, the officer responding on behalf of the county council initially wrote that there was no problem with a lorry stopping on Mill Road itself for 41 minutes twice a day. Any reasonable member of the public would objectively take the view that this is ludicrous, given the existing problems with deliveries to traders. Then, at a later stage of the process, the county council oddly (but thankfully) issued a different view taking the opposite stance.

When the county council issues a judgement on a proposed new development, their view goes through no public scrutiny, and it remains as unchallengeable gospel all the way through to the development being built.

The North West Cambridge development is a more recent case. It includes hostile changes to junctions which we have strong concerns about (see article in this Newsletter), but which have been approved following unchallengeable advice by the county council which never had any public scrutiny. They took the view, which we disagree with, that two-stage crossings would not be unfriendly to cyclists and pedestrians.

Yet, in the same location on Huntingdon Road, the recent and very welcome cycleway proposals, which will be harmed by these changes, had half a year of consultation and committee decisions. The junctions will have a far more chilling effect on safety, yet we are now stuck with them. Perhaps in 5-10 years, the county council will end up having to spend taxpayer money reworking the junctions, as happened on King’s Hedges Road.

In our response to the Local Plan consultation at the end of 2013, we wrote:

There is no mention whatsoever of public consultation over details of S106/CIL [Community Infrastructure Levy – a partial replacement for S106] agreements. There is clear evidence of unsuitable infrastructure being provided following negotiation in private between a developer and the council without any public scrutiny. Where changes to public realm are proposed, these should be subject to public agreement in committee, exactly the same as publicly funded changes are. http://www.camcycle.org.uk/campaigning/letters/2013/C13014CambridgeLocalPlanMainConsultation.pdf

The city council ignored this concern, though it is possible we might be able to raise it during the Local Plan inspection hearings soon.

There is a proposal for a loading bay here, outside 103 Mill Road, currently Mickey Flynns. Is there really space?
Image as described adjacent

We have started to take a more aggressive stance on this issue in an effort to open the internal decision-making process within the county to public scrutiny. We will be issuing Freedom of Information requests to the county every time we see their official consultee comments on planning applications to the city council proposing a view we feel is inappropriate or poorly evidenced. In this way, we will be putting the county on notice that we want decision-making to improve. We want space for cycling to be actively and properly considered when such views are produced.

We have recently made such a request with respect to a planned development at 103 Mill Road, where the owners of the pool hall have proposed putting a delivery bay in the straight-line path of the pavement. Pedestrians would have to divert round it, and it would inevitably be used by taxis and others making ‘quick stops’. Moreover, according to our own internal experts, a lorry cannot actually get into the space proposed without driving over the remainder of the pavement. The city council’s disability officer has told us he has concerns: we can see why – this is almost certainly problematic for the partially-sighted, for instance. Additional lorry movements are not, in our view, welcome in an area which is probably already the most chaotic stretch for vehicle movements in the whole of Mill Road (which itself is on the list of casualty black spots in the whole of Cambridgeshire).

The initial response of the county council’s highways representative is that they are minded to accept such a change. So we have submitted a public Freedom of Information request asking: how such a decision accords with the county’s stated policies to put pedestrians then cyclists above cars then delivery vehicles; how the risk has been assessed given the existing collision problem in the area; and whether the applicant’s assertions on lorry tracking have actually been scrutinised. We have also asked what public consultation would take place, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek attempt to highlight the contrast with the large amount of consultation on publicly-funded projects. If this was a change funded by the county council, there would be a lot of consultation, and probably a negative public response, we think.

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/background_information_for_highw#incoming-557601

We will be issuing Freedom of Information requests to the county every time we see their official consultee comments proposing a view we feel is inappropriate or poorly evidenced.

If you see any planning applications in play where the county council seem to have produced a poor highways judgement to the city council, please let us know and we can hopefully introduce similar scrutiny into the process. The Mill Road example above is far from an isolated case, as the other examples show, but is the first of a more pro-active approach to tackle arbitrary and poor-quality advice from the county council. Hopefully, the county will realise they are being watched, and do a better job.

Martin Lucas-Smith