Democratic deficits in The Fight for Beauty

Is Cambridge to be perpetually trapped in a war between those who want it to grow out of all recognition, inevitably becoming somewhere different, and those who want to retain as much as they can of a special cityscape and environment, while accepting that there will be growth? That is not a subtle distinction in the battle between aesthetic and financial interests.

Development doesn’t have to be destructive

Development doesn’t have to be destructive, but why is Cambridge littered with bad examples? Before CB1 at the Station, it was the Leisure Park around The Junction. Now under-delivering Brookgate, who so disappointed at CB 1 are proposing a CB 4 at Cambridge North Station, another under-whelming scheme. Cambridge needs innovation in transport, so how come the St Ives guided busway has gone so wrong in cost and maintenance terms? For a cycling city, we can’t even provide bus lanes that are safe in practice (or cycle parks in new offices that don’t involve stairs). It is not NIMBY (Not in my back yard) to want better solutions.

over 50 residents’ and community groups

While over 50 residents’ and community groups care about that, the majority of the public just trust the planners and their councillors until confronted by some scheme. Even then they assume there are laws and regulations. In practice, that proves over and over again not to be the case. Councillors seem remarkably easy to persuade to overturn planning guidelines, including breaches of the Green Belt, and developers promises seem easily reneged upon.

Of course, this is not new. There is a long history in England of battling to protect and preserve our heritage and landscape. The Green Belts came from opposition to relentless ribbon development, the National Trust to rescue declining estates, their mansions, and treasured beauty spots, and locally Cambridge Past Present and Future came out of a desire to protect the unique character of Cambridge.

What nobody seems to be able to answer is why some people are apparently blind to the value of the landscape they live in, and apparently consciously plan to blight it? We know recent governments have undermined the planning system so it can be dysfunctional. Are we really getting the future Cambridge our planners want? Why don’t we think of the planners as our friends; why so often do they seem to be enemies of common sense, and in thrall to the developers, their advisers and consultants, who are perniciously blind to the environment?

The Fight for Beauty

Dame Fiona Reynolds, former Director of the National Trust, now Master of Emmanuel College, has written about this history in her The Fight for Beauty published by Oneworld in 2016. You can hear her and James Littlewood of Cambridge Past Present and Future talking about this in Coton Village Hall on Wednesday 15 November at 7.30pm. Admission is free.

They won’t be talking about what the many residents’ groups across Cambridge commonly refer to as the “nightmare” of proposals from the former City Deal, now Greater Cambridge Partnership. That “Partnership” word is a misnomer, since it seems entirely to engage the very developers, their advisers and consultants, bent on changing greater Cambridge out of all recognition, and to exclude all residents. There is a huge democratic deficit, at a time when trust in councillors is at an all time low, with just a handful taking key decisions that affect the quality of so many lives. The notion of a ‘Big Conversation’ is a public relations exercise, since the Partnership has a history of not listening. The painfully embarrassing case of the Cambourne to Cambridge guided busway is a horrible example.

“nightmare” … “Partnership”

That it seems like a war is reflected in the new Mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority James Palmer saying he is completely opposed to the guided busway “It must not happen” with the support of Heidi Allen MP who told residents she would “Lie down in front of the bulldozers if necessary”. Meanwhile the Greater Cambridge Partnership stamps on its accelerator to try and push the scheme through as fast as possible. The Partnership starts a public consultation on this on 13 November 2017, though they remind us it is not a referendum and the public’s views count for very little in the formal evaluation.

Remember this is a busway, yet officers have withheld information, in some cases frankly lied, consultants have produced dreadfully biased studies riddled with inaccuracies, consultation documents and survey questionnaires are misleadingly designed, the public ignored, while councillors on the Executive Board keep nodding these proposals through, sometimes despite clear decisions to the contrary by lower tiers: the Joint Assembly and Local Liaison Forums.  More democratic deficit.

You would think a mechanism like these Local Liaison Forums (LLF), to engage local people, would be a good thing, but observing the two for the “Western Orbital” and “Cambourne to Cambridge Better Bus Journeys” it is easy to point to the trials and tribulations. They are still struggling to get a proper basis for journey times, estimated traffic levels, bus passengers, and so on, despite sterling work by Helen Bradbury, while consultants are engaged to develop their preferred schemes, and even rebut the collective views of the forum.

Even when the forum persuades the Joint Assembly to make decisions to consider the LLF alternatives, the Executive Board over-ride them. The LLF is even passing resolutions just to try and get the Partnership to give them the time to involve Parish Councils and residents groups in considering crucial decisions. The Partnership doesn’t develop LLF schemes on a comparable basis to their preferred off-road schemes despite promises.

Residents are disenfranchised.

Because Coton Parish Council, unable to get even agreed decisions of the Partnership to be honoured, wrote letters with a lawyer, the District Councillor for Coton, Francis Burkitt (also chairman of the Partnership), says he will now only deal with constituent’s concerns about this through lawyers.  Residents are disenfranchised.  That has disturbed many other councillors as completely wrong at a time when confidence needs to be re-built. And of course increases the democratic deficit.

Of course, it can seem for the councillors and the developers, including the University, and the strings of firms and consultants that service them, that these pesky residents just know too much. Here “not all the brains are under one hat” might be thought a troublesome impediment to be got round. The residents groups can tell you the detailed ‘network’ of inter-connected people who they think seem to be involved in so many schemes and proposals and the agencies and public bodies  with authority – the classic English “soft corruption” where declarations of interest seem to obfuscate instead of expose. Stephen Barclay MP for Northeast Cambridge has gone out of his way to try and expose how that undermines good government and affects his constituency.

Monstrously, this ignores the loss of our Green Belt

The argument has been put to me that we all benefit from rising house prices, so why stop the growth? Not everyone benefits and many are disadvantaged of course. Monstrously, this ignores the loss of our Green Belt land, the loss of that quality in our lives from space and beauty, the inevitable loss as a City Deal officer famously said “When Cambridge is in the way”. How has that turned into a juggernaut seemingly destined to turn Cambridge into something out of Blade Runner 2049? By that date, we’ll need the huge steel sea wall, as Dutch projections suggest the sea might have reached Cambridge from The Wash, unless we can find a better way to plan ahead responsibly and fight for beauty.

Roger Tomlinson.

Coton Busway Action Group and member of Coton Parish Council

These opinions are entirely my own.

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