A doughnutty perspective on the local planning process

Introduction

The Greater Cambridge Shared Planning’s First Proposals for the update to the Local Plan are now open for consultation until December 13th 2021, and we encourage you to read and comment on their plan.

In summary, the plan’s overriding objective for the area is aggressive economic growth: fuelled by around 40% more jobs and 40% more homes in the area in the next 20 years. That’s 40% more burden on the existing transport infrastructure, green spaces, ecosystem pollution, social inequality, shared civic space, and water supply…as if all these are not in a bad enough state already. Of course, it won’t relieve housing pressure because it implies huge numbers of newcomers to Cambridge to fill those jobs: note that Cambridge’s unemployment at under 3%, is already low, and well below national average: so we don’t “need” new jobs.

The plan’s rhetoric would have you believe a vision for Cambridge as “a place where a big decrease in our climate impacts comes with a big increase in the quality of everyday life for all our communities. New developments …(which)…increase nature, wildlife and green spaces; and safeguard our unique heritage and landscapes.”

In our opinion, the plan is really driven by the UK central government’s unhealthy addiction to economic growth, and the housing developers’ thirst for profit, which both  aim to turn Cambridge into a money-making machine, no matter what the consequences to the people who live and work in the city and make Cambridge what it is. The Local Planners currently have little political option except to go along with this, so the plan is a thinly disguised attempt to present unrealistic mitigation measures for the harmful effects of that growth, under the guise of ‘sustainable development’.  

CamDEAG is in the process of formulating detailed comments on the proposal. In the meantime, here is our perspective on what a Local Planning process should look like.

Our perspective

It’s 2021. The very real effects of the climate emergency are already ravaging countries and lives around the world. Cambridge has been identified as the most (socially and economically) unequal city in the UK, one of the most unequal developed countries in the world. It’s clear that these are both due to the effects of relentless economic growth. [1][2]

Despite this, the Government’s Local Planning process is still calling for more economic growth up to at least 2040, and even more concentration and acceleration of it in Cambridge. How can anyone really believe that a key way to make the region carbon neutral or water resilient by 2040 is to build thousands of new homes, offices, and associated infrastructure?  Isn’t it time for Cambridge citizens to speak up and give the Councils and Local Planners a new mandate? To call a halt to the spiral of sacrifice of our environmental and social capital at the altar of growth? Could Cambridge be the place where the tide first starts to turn?

If that is too ambitious to ask, then, based on Doughnut Economics, we suggest below a set of principles that can at least help to align aggressive development with the principles needed for a 21st Century economy, which respects the needs of a thriving society living in balance with the planet [3].

1. Set the right goals, that respect needs of the planet and future generations

Set metrics that fully recognise the ecological and social impact of developments.

  1. Take account of the full CO2 and other ecological impacts of the development, wherever the impact occurs: this includes water, sewage and waste management, raw materials and energy for construction
  2. Housing demand is not just quantitative. More importantly than thousands of new houses, we need habitations and settlements that are built to thrive, and to create communities where both ends of the widening economic rift in Cambridge can share facilities, activities, and mutually-enriching life experiences.

2. Recognise the economic importance of households, and of communities that share.

These turn children into functioning adults, and create social cohesion that makes our societies resilient –  as we have seen in the pandemic. Focus housing on family occupancy, not boxes for workers. Enforce proper provision of facilities where communities can build relationships: such as those used in Participatory Cities.

3. Create spaces and places that nurture.

Avoid piecemeal developments that force occupants to leave them for essential services like food shopping and education. Build fully self-contained settlements, with schools, library services, healthcare, entertainment, retail, access to green space and community/sports facilities. Set up circulation for a low-carbon economy, where people walk, cycle, or use scooters to move about.

4. Recognise the system effects on the housing market.

Acknowledge that the new housing market in this area is currently pulling in international investors faster than we can possibly build homes, so development is not making homes accessible: it is driving a vicious cycle of foreign investment and unaffordability that is making every new home even further out of reach. Turn off the fire hydrant of international capital that is making  home ownership something most can no longer aspire to. Set conditions on who can buy new homes. Penalise developers who market Cambridge houses in Asia [4]. Encourage and fund community-build projects, which are driven by the needs of the community, not external investors.

5. Design to be distributive

Attract and encourage new and existing businesses that are purpose-led and employee-owned, not ones which feed global platform monopolies like Amazon or Google. Use Cambridge’s powerful intellectual capital to build companies that distribute wealth rather than focussing it in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite. Help communities in developments distribute wealth by setting them up with community-owned land, enterprises, infrastructure, and facilities – funded e.g. by S106 (developer contribution) money.

6. Focus on regeneration

Regeneration of the environment and ecology, following the build and during occupancy. Set building standards that encourage re-use of materials in the build, and regenerative use and disposal of resources like water, waste, and energy by occupants: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regenerative_economic_theory. Help communities become socially regenerative by making sure that facilities, education, and infrastructure are accessible and available to everyone, regardless of their economic circumstances.

7. Set out to understand and measure the true consequences of growth

Growth magnets like Silicon Valley, Seattle, and London are now showing the true colours of unrestrained growth, as businesses and homeowners flee them for places that are not pressured to bursting. Use the next cycle of consideration for the Local Plan to systematically measure the effect which growth has on things that matter: like wellbeing, social equality, opportunities, quality of life, quality of the environment, and ecological impact. Focus these metrics on those that live here now: build for Cambridge citizens, not for the UK government, global investors or US tech-tycoons. Use this opportunity to understand the new dynamics of the 21st Century, so that when we ask the same questions in the next few years, we are better able to articulate the need to implement the principles above.

Public Comments are open until 13th December 2021.


References:

[1] Hickel, Jason (2021) Less is More. How Degrowth Can Save the World. Penguin Books

[2] Pickett, Kate and Wilkinson, Richard (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin Books

[3] Raworth, Kate (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Random House Business

[4] Hong Kong Buyers Attracted to Cambridge New Homes Development, Blog post from Business Shows Group, Posted on October 30, 2020, retrieved 1 December 2021. https://businessshowsgroup.co.uk/hong-kong-buyers-attracted-to-cambridge-new-homes-development/

A doughnutty perspective on the local planning process