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Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 18 November 2003. A Discussion was held in the Senate-House of the following Report:

The Second Report of the Council, dated 3 November 2003, on the development of the University's land in North West Cambridge (p. 149).

Dr N. J. HOLMES:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this Report is of considerable importance to the future of the University. There are three points I want to make.

First, I would have found it helpful if the Report could have given details of the current state of masterplanning of the North West Cambridge site. I have consulted the previous Report, published in 2000, as well as the Council's Notices of 2000, 2001, and March 2003. It is clear that an indicative use plan exists. Regrettably, I have been unable, since reading the Report, to take advantage of the opportunity to consult the proposals at the Estate Management and Building Service (EMBS). May I make what I hope is a constructive suggestion? The University has a well-developed website dealing with building and planning. It has a section on North West Cambridge including an outline site area plan at http://www-building.arct.cam.ac.uk/northwestc/sites_map.html. Readers of this Report could usefully have been referred to the website. If there were any further details available, these could have been added to the website ahead of publication of the Report. I ask the Council to consider using the Web to provide details of all future development plans. This means should provide Regent House with a convenient mechanism for obtaining detailed plans without the necessity of visiting the Old Schools or EMBS.

The second issue I want to raise is the timing of the start of this development. The Report (paragraph 2) says 'There are no immediate plans for development at North West Cambridge'. Of course I accept this as true, but I am not clear of the meaning of 'immediate' in this context. Indeed a reading of the earlier Reports, Notices, and the Cambridgeshire Structure Plan leads me to believe that development is likely to start before too long. For example, the Notice of 10 March 2003 says 'it is necessary to provide for current housing needs now'. Furthermore the First Report of May 2000 says 'plans are being considered for development of the 19 Acre Field and surrounding area and there will be a further Report on this development later this year' (i.e. 2000). What were those plans? Well, at the time, and I believe this still holds today, pending a review of the Cambridge Local plan, the land at 19 Acre field and Gravel Hill was scheduled for 'student hostel or affordable housing for the University of Cambridge'. Clearly in May 2000 there appears to have been an intention to bring forward plans at an early date and one wonders what happened to them. Perhaps one reason these plans did not mature is that they evolved into something more than the existing local plan might have permitted? Might we be told the status of plans for 19 Acre field and surrounding land today, and their nature if still intended for implementation? Incidentally I certainly think 19 Acre Field and Gravel Hill part of the North West Cambridge site and the site plan appended to the 2000 Report makes this clear.

The final issue is the only element in the present Report which is really new compared with the First Report, which is the inclusion of housing for sale on the open market. There is no doubt that the development of this site will require a very large amount of money. The idea that some funding might come from land sales seems superficially attractive, even logical. However, on reflection I ask why this particular site? If the principle of selling University assets to fund future development is agreed to be a sound one, why restrict it to one development? Is it any more logical to fund the subsidy of our 'key worker housing' by selling land within the same site than by selling land somewhere else? What about other assets? Should we dispose of these to fund such future developments? Will the proceeds from these sales be 'ring-fenced'? Can the Council give us a ballpark idea of how much of the land might be sold?

I recognize that the present Report seeks only to enable a Master Plan to be prepared but it does lay down the framework. I sense that the proposal to dispose of University land to part-fund this development represents a fundamental new departure. I do not suggest that we have never sold assets for profit, but tying the sale to a specific development seems new to me and of more importance than the Report acknowledges. I believe that the University has recently disposed of surplus sites elsewhere in Cambridge, or is in the process of doing so. I think that the proceeds of some or all these disposals will be going to help bring the New Buildings Fund, or Land Fund, or whatever, back towards a positive balance. However, the land at North West Cambridge is not surplus to requirements but supposedly vital for the long-term strategic needs of the University. Of course planning permission for housing makes the land worth about a thousand times more on the open market than agriculture. But I seriously wonder where we are going with this precedent. When we come to redevelop the New Museums Site perhaps part of that could be sold to help meet the costs.

Please could the Council make the case for this funding mechanism, including why the 'open market sales' option is preferred to other means of funding the building of affordable housing. The University has already approved a shared equity scheme. Here is an opportunity to do it without long-term investment of cash resources. We could build our affordable houses and recoup the entire building cost by selling an appropriate equity share to staff, which to judge by my own experience could be as little as half the 'market value'. I presume suitable covenants will also be applied to ensure that our affordable key worker housing remains used for the benefit of the University. I have always admired the way in which the University has retained long-term control over its land in Cambridge, preferring to lease land not wanted at present for suitable terms. Before we change that, let us hear strong arguments for doing so.

Dr D. R. DE LACEY (read by Dr D. A. GALLETLY):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, on Wednesday, 13 December 2000, the Council presented a Report on a new Master Plan for the Sidgwick Site 'developed by Allies and Morrison identifying the location and extent of new buildings'. Studies had been done by consultants and these architects to make 'Provision for a greater sense of site identity and 'presence'' (Reporter, 13 December 2000). There were public meetings. Gorgeous plans and concepts were drawn up showing five new buildings and all sorts of other eye-candy, based only loosely on Casson's 1960s vision. There was a Discussion. There was a ballot. We voted placet. Had we costed our time as well as others' fees, the total expenditure must have been enormous.

The first part of the realization of this carefully crafted dream was the submission of plans for the new English building (Reporter, 12 June 2002). The building was in a different place, and of a different shape, from those of the Master Plan. All the arguments of the importance of architectural and aesthetic coherence had presumably been overturned by some other considerations in the intervening eighteen months. The Council now regarded the Master Plan as mere 'general infrastructure proposals'.

Now once again we are being asked to fund a Master Plan although it seems unlikely that building could commence within anything like eighteen months. I do not object to forward planning, but would be grateful to see some greater justification for the expenditure of £600,000 than the Sidgwick Site experience would seem to provide.

Dr N. BULLOCK:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the University has a long tradition of forward thinking about locational strategy. The development of the University Library across the river between the wars, the planning of the Sidgwick Avenue Site in the immediate post-war years, and the Deer and Swinnerton-Dyer reports in the 1960s and 1970s are examples. The Council's proposals for masterplanning the North West Cambridge site are the latest development in the evolution of site strategy to accommodate the University's development.

The new policy background at Regional and County level recognizes clearly the importance to the nation of the University's teaching and research, and its role in the expansion of the knowledge-based economy. The special opportunity presented by the review of the Cambridge Green Belt allows us to plan coherently for future needs which might arise over the next thirty years. By developing a Master Plan for North West Cambridge we can produce a framework which will give the University options for new academic developments, collegiate provision, housing, and related research and development activities. We have the opportunity to plan a new urban quarter which will be exemplary in environmental terms, and will set the standard for the planning of the other sites released from the Green Belt around Cambridge.

The University's pursuit of these strategic opportunities has nothing, I emphasize, to do with current planning applications in this area.

Professor G. R. EVANS:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am one of the water-voles who are told we have everything to gain from these plans. I am also Chairman of the North West River Cam Residents' Association. I have asked Professor Evans to read my speech, because those of you who have read The Wind in the Willows know that we of the River Bank are often busy about our domestic arrangements. Professor Evans says she rarely allows domestic arrangements to detain her on Tuesday afternoons, but I have to wait in for the Planning Inspector.

I am quite a tough-minded water-vole as a rule. When I receive a cold call which begins in tones of the warmest and sincerest enthusiasm 'CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED FROM MILLIONS FOR OUR SPECIAL OFFER!' I put the phone down.

So I read this Report for Trigger Words designed to make me feel good and lucky. And they do: 'Vision'; 'Socially inclusive'; 'Sustainable balance'; 'Historic character'; 'Integrated transport systems'; 'Ecologically rich and accessible countryside'; 'Affordable housing'; 'Key worker housing'; 'Cluster of environmental science activities'; 'Facilitated'. Gives you a real warm glow, doesn't it? Especially the bit about the dear little water-voles whose needs the University will be taking special care of.

I thought at first that this 'Masterplanning' was going to be better than all that untidy scrambling for the next sum of money on offer. The repeated embarrassed collapses into the realization that it is going to cost much more than everyone said and the University is going to have to abandon it and write off the sums already spent are not doing the University's image any good. Oh yes, we on the River Bank read the Cambridge Evening News if a copy floats by.

But then I read what it says in the Report again. 'The Council believe that … action should be taken now to provide future generations with the ability to meet the needs of their time.' That assumes that there is no disagreement that the future lies in a bigger, much bigger Cambridge, with ever more buildings and links with industry (note those 'industrial research institutions' in para. 12), and a character inevitably changed as it grows too big to be an academic village busy with bicycles. So this isn't really open-ended, is it? The outcomes to be arrived at are already decided. The bicyle-riding public is more Pro-Vole we find. And we certainly don't want all the bicycles thrown away into our river to rust.

I see that the proposal is that 'the University' should 'engage in a process of masterplanning the North West Cambridge site' (para. 6). The Council's recommendation that 'approval be given for the preparation of a Masterplan' (para. 17) is a bit vague, surely? By whom is this preparation going to be done and who is going to know anything about it before Reports proposing particular buildings begin to appear? As Dr de Lacey's speech has just shown, suspiciousness may well be justified.

What exactly are you members of the Regent House being asked to approve here? Not a Master Plan but a Masterpiece of Clouding the Issue is before you. And if you approve it you let a small group behind the scenes do what they like, offering you a Report from time to time in which they tell you no more than they think is good for you about the latest building-scheme, in order to get your consent without you necessarily understanding exactly what you are agreeing to. Last Tuesday's Higher Education Guardian drifted past and I saw the article about all that. Oh yes.

If you don't believe this is all a well-spun bid to get the Regent House to sign a blank cheque, look at those two pieces in Varsity by the Director of the Estate Management and Building Service and Cambridge's MP Anne Campbell. You'd think the arguments are all one way, 'to continue development of this wonderful University, should that be decided'. Let's hear it for the problems.

We water-voles are not a little worried about the security of our homes when the actual building begins. 'There is a small bird and wildlife reserve,' says Dr Grove in a speech he gave at a time when a lot of rather similar promises were being made about that first expansion (Reporter, 19 June, 1996, p. 886). We small wildlife cheered. But the great crested newts didn't do too well when push came to shove on the West Cambridge Site. From what I hear, that doesn't look too Masterplanned, in the flesh, or rather the brick and glass and concrete.

I hope it will not be considered irrelevant if I end with a call for votes for water-voles when this Grace is put, especially water-voles who can spell 'facilitated'. I bet those 'industrial research institutes' will be listened to. We shall be annoyed if there is a Notice next week saying no one objected to this vague general go-ahead being granted. We do. We can make waves, or at least ripples, you know.

Professor Evans: And if I may just make my own speech now. I agree. Couldn't have put it better myself.

Dr D. C. NICHOLLS (read by Mrs S. BOWRING):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I must begin by declaring that I am Chairman of the Buildings Sub-Committee, and a member of the Land Use Working Group which has overseen the development of these proposals. I speak, however, in a purely personal capacity, as a member of the Regent House who has been involved over a long period in discussions on land use planning within the University, and having also had experience within the statutory town and country planning process.

The Regional Planning Guidance for East Anglia (RPG6), published in November 2000, has introduced a fundamental change to the planning framework for Cambridge and its sub-region. The historic policy of restraining development in Cambridge and dispersing housing and employment has been replaced. RPG6 emphasizes the importance of Cambridge as a world leader in higher education, research, and knowledge-based industries, and sets out a vision and planning framework to provide a balance between growth in jobs and housing, to promote sustainable and spatially concentrated locations for development, and to enhance the environmental qualities of the city.

That vision has been developed in the newly adopted Structure Plan for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The Structure Plan includes policies for a review of the Cambridge Green Belt in order to provide for housing and mixed-use development in carefully selected areas on the edge of Cambridge, including the University's North West Cambridge site. This site is allocated as a strategic employment site for mixed-use development including the expansion of education and research facilities. Such major Green Belt reviews are rare, and the changes arising from this review are likely to endure for a quarter of a century or longer. It is therefore essential that the University participate actively in the process. If it does not, the opportunity to meet the range of actual and potential needs outlined in the Council's Report will be lost, and future options will be seriously constrained.

The North West Cambridge site is the best site to provide for the University's long-term space needs. It is close to existing sites, it is owned by the University and, being intensively farmed, is not currently of high environmental quality. Through the masterplanning we have the opportunity to set the framework for an exemplary development in terms of sustainable travel, biodiversity, and the quality of the built environment. The current urban/rural interface is a creation of limited tree planting associated with ribbon development of the last century. With a Master Plan in place, appropriate landscaping measures could be undertaken well in advance of any future development, and the new north-western edge of the city would represent a significant environmental gain.

The Report suggests a range of uses for the site, and I endorse them. The provision of housing is a particularly pressing need given the well-known problems of recruitment and retention. The ability to provide key worker housing, with a range of tenures, early in the development will be critical to ensuring that we can continue to attract the best staff to Cambridge.

Professor A. D. CLIFF (read by Mr L. C. DANE):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak as Chair of the Council of the School of Physical Sciences. Where they affect the School's institutions, the Council of the School welcomes the proposals in the Report of Council on the Development of North West Cambridge. Along with the relocation of the Department of Materials Science from the New Museums Site to West Cambridge and the redevelopment of the Cavendish Laboratory, a shift of the Departments of Earth Sciences and Geography from central Cambridge to an appropriate new site is a key strategic planning objective of the School. Thus Council's vision of developing in the Madingley Rise area a number of environmental science activities and the full range of human geography would enable a central aim of the School's estates plan to be met.

The academic activity of the two Departments is currently fragmented in seven separate buildings spread across Cambridge from Lensfield Road, through the Downing and New Museums Sites, to Madingley Rise. Many of these buildings are three-quarters of a century or more old, and they are no longer adequate to support the range of teaching and research pursued by the two Departments. Such fragmentation also inhibits the development of natural academic synergies both within and between the Departments, as well as collaborative links which both have with other University institutions on the western side of Cambridge. If the Council's proposals come to fruition, the Departments of Earth Sciences and Geography will be able to construct buildings which will enable them to conduct the teaching and research to which they aspire and so maintain international leadership in their fields. The Council of the School welcomes these proposals.

The School also welcomes the opportunity that future developments in North West Cambridge will provide for the construction of affordable housing for members of the University.

Mr L. C. DANE:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am Lindsay Dane from the Estate Management and Building Service (EMBS). I head the section of EMBS which has dealt with the University's input into regional, county, and district level town and country planning exercises. My duties include being Secretary of the Land Use Working Group, the Group set up following the Council's first Report on North West Cambridge to discuss land-use planning, including possible future development of University land in North West Cambridge (Reporter, 26 July 2000).

The proposals being discussed today are a product of a fundamental reappraisal of planning in the Cambridge sub-region dating back to 1998 when consultation on the draft Regional Planning Guidance for East Anglia started. The draft RPG was subject to detailed scrutiny at a Public Examination in Ely in February 1999, followed by an independent sustainability appraisal, before being issued in its final form in November 2000. Its new vision and planning framework for the Cambridge sub-region recognized the importance of the University and of the research and technology based economy. It sought to promote more sustainable patterns of development by recommending a review of the Cambridge Green Belt to accommodate housing and employment development on the edge of Cambridge.

The RPG policies have been developed through the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Structure Plan. Again this has been subject to public consultation and detailed scrutiny at an Examination in Public held over a six-week period in autumn 2002. That has identified the North West Cambridge site as a strategic employment location for University-related development on land to be released from the Green Belt. It requires a masterplan or design framework to be in place before land is released for development.

Environmental issues have been prominent in the RPG and Structure Plan processes, and in the work done so far on bringing forward proposals for the North West Cambridge site. The Structure Plan Examination in Public Panel heard evidence from a wide range of participants, and concluded 'we see merit in the future needs of the University being met in a comprehensively planned urban extension which delivers high quality buildings in a high quality landscaped environment'.1

The Council have made clear in both Reports on North West Cambridge and in their Notice of 29 January 2001 the intention to achieve high standards of sustainability and environmental quality. This is consistent with the first strategic aim of the new Regional Environmental Strategy which is to 'accommodate population and economic growth whilst protecting and enhancing the environment'.

Considerable work on environmental issues at North West Cambridge has already been undertaken. This includes: an archaeological desk-based assessment and excavation of part of the site; ecological field work; a traffic noise assessment; transport studies including preliminary trip generation and access work; visual studies to assess views into and across the site; and preliminary studies of water resource and drainage issues. The masterplanning process will involve more detailed work on these issues and an overall Sustainability Appraisal of the proposals, using current best practice. It will also be subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment before planning approval can be given for the site.

It is the intention, subject to approval of the recommendation in this Report, to carry out the masterplanning with substantial consultation with members of the University, local residents, and interest groups. The presentations and exhibition carried out in March 2001 to announce the indicative proposals for the site were well received and produced useful feedback on the views of neighbours and other interested people. This open approach will be continued and events will be organized to ensure wide participation. We understand that neighbours will have concerns about these proposals, and will seek to address those through the masterplanning process.

1 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Structure Plan. Examination in Public, October - December 2002. Report of the Panel (February 2003) para 8.101 (www.camcnty.gov.uk/sub/eandt/planning).


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Cambridge University Reporter, 26 November 2003
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