The City Council met on Thursday night to vote through its “Local Plan”, which will direct development in the area for the next 15 years, and there were no surprises in the marathon four-hour session. It would be nice to say that the Council met to debate the plan, but there was never any chance that it would be overturned or even be substantially amended at this stage. However, it did give two residents’ groups, who had gathered together significantly-sized petitions, the chance to present their concerns. Of course, the Council was never going to delay or scrap the plan to make the substantial changes they would require, so this process was, in all practicality, just giving notice that their concerns would be submitted to the planning inspector along with the Local Plan itself.
A packed public gallery heard several members of the public make sometimes quite impassioned speeches (in the guise of questions) about different aspects of the plan. Subjects included the Ridgeons site and the protection of Mill Road. Most forceful of all was Robin Pellew of Cambridge Past, Present and Future, who asked if the Council would add a requirement to the Local Plan for all “brownfield” sites in the city to be developed before any building was permitted on the Green Belt. He cited a similar arrangement made by Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, which had been approved by the Planning Inspectorate. His request was dismissed by Tim Ward from the Council, who appeared to say that it was unnecessary.
(Above) Richard Taylor’s video of the meeting (Part 1). Robin Pellew’s speech is at 10:30. Jeremy Jones is at 24:05. John Hipkin is at 37:00 (excerpt). Sarah Brown is at 38:40 (excerpt).
The petitions brought one of the best speeches of the night (certainly the most popular in the gallery), by Queen Edith’s resident Jeremy Jones, representing the Save The Cambridge Greenbelt group. He focused on flaws in the Local Plan such as it not being based on the latest data, and that if members of his group had identified a brownfield site seemingly overlooked by the Council, how thorough had the research actually been? Unfortunately certain councillors then wanted to examine if this site really was suitable for development, rather than taking the point which it was illustrating. Councillor Bick replied that he believes there is a housing crisis in Cambridge, and the needs of the broader community would be sufficient proof to release land from the Green Belt.
The Council then moved on to a formal debate about the Local Plan, although as with so many political issues, this was never going to change anybody’s minds, as all the parties had already agreed how they were going to vote en bloc. Interestingly, the only dissenting voice, independent councillor John Hipkin, made by far the best speech of the debate, saying that he’d talked to residents and they didn’t want any further growth in the city, and that Cambridge was already getting obese and putting too much pressure on its heart. He also claimed that there would be further “necessary” incursions into the Green Belt – for example, there is already a pressing need for a new secondary school in the east of the city, and there’s nowhere else for it to go.
The only other impressive contribution to the debate was a fine response to this from Liberal Democrat councillor Sarah Brown, who likened John Hipkin to Canute, saying that growth was happening, like it or not, and the Local Plan would keep this in control. Most other speeches were fairly unremarkable, with the low point being a dismissal of the residents’ petitions by Labour councillor George Owers, who said that they represented just a tiny proportion of Cambridge residents. As John Hipkin reminded him, he was part of the council thanks to probably less than 20% of his own electorate.
Then a remarkable thing happened. One after another, the three Queen Edith’s councillors all got up and made strong speeches supporting residents concerned about the Worts Causeway development. Regretfully, each one said, they couldn’t possibly vote with their parties and approve the Local Plan as it stood.
Only kidding. They did nothing of the sort.
Now, I’ve not often heard the opinions of Liberal Democrat councillor George Pippas on much – he even seems largely absent from his own party’s regular local literature – but Labour’s Sue Birtles and the Liberal Democrats’ Jean Swanson are engaged councillors, who have both shown concerns about the Worts Causeway development, including in this very blog. So at the very least (and with an election coming up), I was hoping that they might re-state some sympathy. But… nothing. On an evening when it seemed to me like the majority of councillors present said their piece, the only contribution from our three councillors was a brief comment from Jean Swanson that if there was any flaw in the Local Plan, it should now be left to the planning inspector to determine.
The evening degenerated into half an hour’s nitpicking about some really trivial wording in one sentence concerning a development in Mill Road. Everyone was bored. Tweets flew around the Council Chamber. But finally, and almost in a blur, the vote was called on the Local Plan, it was approved for submission to the planning inspector by a vote of something like 21 to 1, and everyone went home.
You may be wondering: “There are a lot more councillors than that – where was everyone else?” They were there though. The reason for the low vote was that the Liberal Democrat councillors all voted for the plan, the Independent councillor voted against the plan, and the Labour councillors …all abstained. What this was supposed to prove, I simply do not know. The Local Plan may have been largely driven by Liberal Democrat policies, but I can only assume that the Labour party, which is likely to take over the City Council soon, recognises that some plan is needed, yet – disappointingly – still wants to be able to say later “don’t look at us”. Someone will probably tell me that abstaining is a legitimate and honourable thing to do – if so, my tin hat is ready.