Azara Blog: Development plans for northwest Cambridge on display

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Date published: 2006/10/06

Cambridge is expanding on its northwestern side. There was an exhibition today of some of the plans. The first site to be developed (excluding Arbury Park, which is already being built) will be the so-called NIAB site. This is a parcel of land bounded by the city boundary on one side, and stretching inwards towards Histon Road and Huntingdon Road, so that there will no longer be greenbelt inside the city boundary in that direction. This land was owned by half a dozen organisations, including NIAB (the National Institute of Agricultural Botany) and a couple of Cambridge colleges. David Wilson Homes is the lead developer.

The second site to be developed will be the remaining greenbelt land between Huntingdon Road and Madingley Road, stretching out to the M11. Currently this land is owned by the university.

The plans for the NIAB site are much further advanced. It will be almost entirely residential. There are no offices and so no jobs. And there is no decent shopping centre planned, since the Cambridge ruling elite think that the peasants who live northwest of the river should be forced to travel across the river (or way up to Bar Hill, or to Milton) to get to a supermarket. Urban planning in England is rather hopeless.

There have been a couple of workshops for local residents (mainly from the Huntingdon Road area, rather than the Histon Road area, since rich people seem to have more say in these matters). Local residents almost always oppose any new developments and the idea behind these workshops is to give local residents a way of letting of steam. Unfortunately the ideas they put forward are always for their own self-interest, rather than what might be good for the city as a whole, and in particular for the new residents of the NIAB site. People who attend these kinds of events are almost always anti-car, or at least anti anyone else's car. This means that the only car entrances to the new site are from Histon and Huntingdon Road, as far from the city centre as possible. There could also have been entrances from Windsor Road, Brownlow Road and Blackhall Road, but funnily enough the existing residents were not very keen on that idea and they seem to have won the day. This will no doubt cause all sorts of traffic problems at the two chosen entrances. (But some people seem to be deluded enough to believe that people who live on the NIAB site will walk and cycle everywhere.)

The NIAB site will apparently be required to have 40% so-called affordable housing, and the site built at around 45-50 households per hectare (so around 20 per acre). The former is bad news for the developer but the latter is compensating good news. Neither is good news for the new residents. The slogan might as well be "Building the slums of tomorrow today". The people at the workshops seem to have convinced the developer to make the housing lower density at the existing housing boundary and higher density further out. Surprise, surprise, this is for the benefit of the existing residents, not the new ones. In general cities should be higher density in the middle and lower density further out. The NIAB site should all be low(ish) density, since it is at the edge of the city. (As the city moves further out over the next century there would then be the inevitable infill.) The NIAB site will have a reasonable public green space (and apparently even allotments, bizarrely) but no decent gardens for houses.

The exhibition presented what will become the basis for outline planning permission for the NIAB site. Given all the idiotic restrictions mentioned above, the plan actually looks fairly sane, mainly because it is based on rectilinear streets, not the crazy (and inefficient) curved streets popular in the 1980s and 1990s. (Being Cambridge, it is flat, so there are no contours to follow.) The key will be whether the buildings are designed by decent architects or just by developers on the back of an envelope. The Accordia site on Brooklands Avenue (despite all its faults in terms of density) is the model to follow, not Arbury Park. Unfortunately the NIAB site is unlikely to command the silly prices found on Brooklands Avenue, so the developer will presumably not be that keen to spend good money on a good architect. More likely we will end up with Arbury Park II.

On interesting feature (about the only interesting feature) is a pond (or lake) at the northern end of the site. Apparently this is to aid water drainage from the site. The schematic plans showed a slightly artistic shape to the pond. Let's see what happens.

Meanwhile, the exhibition provided the latest chance for the university to show its plans for its land between Huntingdon Road and Madingley Road. The university representative at the exhibition claimed this development was not being done because the university was short of money, rather to provide some housing for university staff. The plans show such housing at the eastern end of the site, along with some new university buildings. But the rest of the site is "open market" (except for another small clump of academic buildings on Huntingdon Road opposite Girton College). So the university is not actually getting much in return in exchange for selling off this large tract of land. You could call it selling off the family silver. It has to happen some time, but you hope you get something decent in return, and it's not obvious that will happen here. But if Bill Gates (or whoever) stumps up a couple hundred million pounds, the university might change its mind and put a new Cambridge college on the site.

The transport links for this site are also not inspiring. The site borders the M11. To go south on the M11 you have to go out to Madingley Road. To go north on the M11 you have to go out to Huntingdon Road. Even worse, there is no easy way to go west on the A428 or east on the A14. This is because the M11 - A14 - A428 interchanges in Cambridge are badly, badly designed. (Although someone at this exhibition claimed that the M11 will finally get a northbound entrance, and corresponding southbound exit, at junction 13 on Madingley Road. This would help.)

The remaining piece of the puzzle is the tract of land adjoining the NIAB site, bounded on one side by the city boundary and on the other side by the A14. This is the responsibility of South Cambs, not Cambridge, which is why the NIAB site artificially stops where it does. Some day (in N years, N large) this land will also be built on, it makes no sense not to do so. (But development in England rarely makes sense.)

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