You have to ask WHY?

This is a personal opinion, but WHY do planners think and behave the way they do? Why do we need to march and have to shout to make our case for a better solution? – hopefully you’ll be there on Saturday 2 September 2017 starting from The Backs, Garret Hostel Lane at 11.00am.

March on Saturday 2 September 2017

The former City Deal, now the ill-named Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP), is following a process along a time-line which requires them to consult at various stages.  Note that it doesn’t appear to require them to listen and take note of public views, and their track record is entirely to ignore them.

This was brought home to me at the July meetings of the GCP Joint Assembly and their Executive Board.  These appear to be the key “democratic” opportunities, drawing in councillors and selected representatives of parts of the community.  This appeared to be working at the Joint Assembly when Cllr Bridget Smith asked if any members would ever vote for a Park and Ride site at Crome Lea on top of Madingley Hill, near Madingley Mulch; since the majority said no, it was proposed and agreed that the Crome Lea site should be removed from further consideration.  Obviously, the transport officers servicing the meeting witnessed all this.

Democratic deficit demonstrated

However, at the Executive Board, the chair of the Joint Assembly was not present to explain what had happened and instead the transport officers recommended Crome Lea remained in consideration, essentially because it had been under their previous consideration (and that of their paid tame consultants)!  So it was put back in for further consideration.  Democratic deficit demonstrated,  transport officers clearly pursuing their own agenda, ignoring the public and the elected and selected representatives. So we plan to march and shout loud.

The GCP transport officers also hold “workshops” to try and engage local residents and their representatives in the detail of the planning process – many people recommend against participation since it can be used to say the community helped plan the details of an opposed scheme.  Bizarrely, the next one on the Park and Ride sites, including Crome Lea, on 22 August 2017 clashes with the Hardwick and Coton Parish Council meetings which are discussing the options for the guided busway and the Park and Ride sites….

Considerable criticism of what the planners have actually achieved

Transport officers and planners around the world have form on this, and quite a few have been recorded saying how they disregard public opinion to get their way.  BBC Four TV recently showed Citizen Jane: Battle for the City on 9 August 2017 (still on iPlayer till early Sept 2017) about the historic conflicts between planners and residents in New York, from which we can learn a lot.  There is also considerable criticism of what the planners have actually achieved.  Here in Cambridge there is not exactly a surge of praise for either the Leisure square around The Junction or the new CB1 around the Station.  And Antony Carpen (Puffles) has researched lots of past examples in Cambridge’s history of what has been lost for little gain.

The most current example is the frankly disastrous construction and maintenance costs for the guided busways from Huntingdon/St Ives to Cambridge and out to Trumpington (ironically built on old railway lines).  Originally estimated to cost £64 Million, it actually cost £181 Million and currently scheduled repairs will cost another £36.4 Million with suggestions from consultants that eventual repair costs will exceed the original construction cost! Smarter Cambridge Transport has reviewed this nightmare: and asks whether it is design flaws as well as construction defects.  Why did the County Council settle the dispute with their contractor out-of-court?  Apart from being dangerous and having more accidents than any railway, it now looks like costing much more than rail would have done, and runs slowest in the City where rail to the stations would not have been delayed.

Memorably described Cambridge as “being in the way”

What is hard to believe is that the same transport officers behind that scheme are the ones pushing a guided busway from Cambourne to Grange Road in Cambridge (Yes, it is odd that it doesn’t attempt to reach the City Centre, but Bob Menzies, the responsible officer, memorably described Cambridge as “being in the way” of their plans).  And it is “fake news” says Cllr Francis Burkitt that GCP are considering a bus interchange of some kind on The Backs at Silver Street, despite it being referred to in the papers for the Executive Board meeting in July and Atkins having worked on a study for one in May.

So what is it that motivates our planners and transport officers to build these daft schemes, which don’t meet any reasonable objectives such as improved journey time, but do damage the fundamentals of the Cambridge environment?  You will often hear arguments that this is corruption at work: close relationships between councillors who want to improve their city (sometimes to earn more council tax and business rates), planners, land owners and developers out to maximise their profit out of new development.  Unfortunately, in Cambridge add in the University as landowners, and a whole industry of consultants eager to spend public money to the planners agenda.  Ironically, we British criticise other countries where this happens, but accept it as our way of business life at home, and, more ironically, spend our limited public funding on helping it happen.

Network of interests refuses to listen or understand

Lobby as hard as we like against a “wrong” scheme, the network of interests refuses to listen or understand.  And as Upton Sinclair wrote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Dame Fiona Reynolds, former Director General of the National Trust and now Master of Emmanuel College Cambridge has written a book about this: The Fight for Beauty, published by OneWorld in 2016, which offers an alternative way forward, but documents the struggles to protect landscape beauty and the quality of the environment.  Dame Fiona will be talking about this at Coton Parish Hall on Wednesday 15 November 2017 in the evening.  Her book makes clear that if you admire beauty, and the coded words we use around it, such as the environment, bio-diversity, ecosystems, natural capital, sustainability, quality of life, you have to defend it and fight for it.  NIMBY-ism is a clever but meaningless criticism of people wanting to defend beauty against environmental destruction.  You can see why we march.


The residents of Newnham around the West Fields, Coton and Hardwick villages are not NIMBYs.  They know the Green Belt was created for a reason, that Cambridge Past Present and Future bought the land in the Coton Corridor to protect and preserve it, and the National Trust put covenants on the land to make it inviolable.  They know that the County Council could have improved traffic flows on Madingley Road years and years ago – there is room for bus lanes from Madingley Mulch down across the M11 bridge to the Park and Ride and High Cross.  We don’t know why some of the County transport officers lied about this to the Parish Councils?  We know the right answer is to keep traffic and buses on the A428 and create a transport hub and Park and Ride site with an all-ways junction for the M11 and A428 at Girton.  We don’t know why the County transport officers have not been lobbying the Highways Agency/Highways England for this for years, and indeed accepted the southbound connection being removed from the current A14 improvement scheme?  We don’t know why we are constantly told that options which many believe could be “right” answers are always “out-of-scope”.

A kind of aesthetic and sensitivity deficit

There are lots of arguments that many planners somehow don’t “see” the environment in the same way as the rest of us, a kind of aesthetic and sensitivity deficit, and that their experience of objections from people who do, makes them reject out-of-hand alternatives and objectives.  There are arguments that they see big over-riding change as necessary, imposing “order” and “over-arching vision” as the road to the future, and that somehow a new paradigm for quality-of-life will be created.  That often means residents and planners are talking a different language and a different agenda, and objectors are dismissed as NIMBYs.  You can see from their body language and behaviour in meetings that listening to public input is not a priority for their attention.

Better schemes, better solutions

We are not NIMBYs because we have always argued for better schemes, and don’t understand why the transport officers won’t consider them.  Cllr Grenville Chamberlain in Hardwick, along with Smarter Cambridge Transport, the Coton Busway Action Group and others argues that any extra busway should be light rail and run alongside the A428 to the Girton interchange, or buses run on the existing A428, where Cambridge Connect argues for a light rail/metro solution into and under Cambridge serving the City Centre and Station.  The new mayor of the Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authority wants light rail solutions from St Neots and Peterborough in the context of an over-arching strategy for Greater Cambridge.

The Coton Busway Action Group and Coton Parish Council has always recommended the low cost on-the-road option for Madingley Hill/Road, possibly tidal, through to High Cross where buses could enter the West Cambridge University site.  And Coton’s own Colin Harries who devised the Cambridge Connect plan is now discussing with Mayor James Palmer the light rail/metro solution.

GCP won’t pause while feasibility studies are completed

But GCP won’t pause while feasibility studies are completed – they may have already decided what the consultants conclusions should be – and press on regardless.  We are promised a final consultation after they are expected to announce their final solutions in September/October.  Do you really think they will listen then?  Yes we can take legal action, we can force a public inquiry, we can challenge them and their processes, and possibly slow the project down.  But fundamentally WHY is it not possible to get them to listen properly and change their minds for a more cost-effective solution?  So we are going to march and shout now.  Apparently we have our local MP, county councillor and the new Mayor on our side, but we don’t like the democratic deficit we keep witnessing.

For us in Coton – and apparently in Madingley, and Barton – we don’t have the support of our South Cambridgeshire District Councillor, Cllr Francis Birkitt, now Chair of the GCP, who champions the proposed guided busway over the better solutions, and against the views of his constituents.  He says he is standing down at the next election in 2018, so no reckoning at the ballot box, just increasing the democratic deficit for us until then.  Again, we ask WHY he is not representing our views and not taking them into account in decision taking?

Marching and shouting on Saturday 2 September 2017

So we don’t have an answer to many WHYs, and you have to understand why we are marching and shouting.  Be there on Saturday 2 September 2017 starting from The Backs, Garret Hostel Lane at 11.00am

Roger Tomlinson, member of the Coton Busway Action Group

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