Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

The 'Cambridge Phenomenon' and the Challenge of Planning Reform

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

The 'Cambridge Phenomenon' and the Challenge of Planning Reform

Article excerpt

The 'Cambridge Phenomenon', the remarkable growth of research, innovation and high-technology industry, much of it linked to the city's world-class university, has achieved global recognition (SQP, 1985; SQWP 2011; Kirk and Cotton, 2012). Visiting the University's Molecular Biology Laboratory in April 2014, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne praised both the scientific achievements of the university and what he described as the 'extraordinary story' of its economic impact seen as a model for the country as a whole: 'What you've achieved here has been called "The Cambridge Phenomenon". I want it to be the British Phenomenon' (HM Treasury, 2014). Meanwhile, however, the Chancellor's ministerial colleagues in charge of the national planning system were playing out a potentially very different script. Radical reform of the planning system in England, culminating in the Localism Act 2011, had swept away both strategic planning in the form of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS)1 and also top-down targets for new house building at a local authority level (Baker and Wong, 2012; Boddy and Hickman, 2013; Gallent et al., 2013; Monk et al., 2013). This represented the dismantling of any form of strategic-level, spatial planning across England as a whole (Boddy and Hickman, 2013) - in marked contrast not only to Scotland and Wales but also mainland Europe, where the principles of strategic spatial planning remain central (Faludi 2010; Walsh, 2014).2

At the heart of the new 'localism' was the principle of 'passing new powers and freedoms to town halls' (CLG, 2011, 6). This led large numbers of local councils, especially across prosperous southern England, to announce significant reductions in levels of new house building which had been set out previously in RSSs (Tetlow King Planning, 2012). Many commentators saw this as a serious threat to both housing and economic growth. These opportunistic reductions were also concentrated in the sorts of places - particularly heartlands of electoral support for the Conservative Party (Hamiddudin and Gallent, 2012; Inch, 2012) - with the greatest potential to boost national economic growth (see Valler et al., 2012 on Oxfordshire and Boddy and Hickman, 2013 on Bristol).

In contrast to the picture across much of southern England, the five local councils within Cambridgeshire3 and the county council itself acted swiftly following the announcement that RSSs were to be abolished, issuing a joint statement publicly reaffirming their commitment to the existing planning strategy and to established plans for growth. There was also an explicit acknowledgement of the key role of the existing planning strategy in supporting the continuing economic success of Cambridgeshire (Cambridgeshire Authorities, 2010). The Cambridge region was one of very few places in southern England that, on revocation of RSS, remained committed to growth. This in itself makes it an important focus for attention. One aim of this paper is therefore to examine how planning reform, including abolition of regional strategy and top-down housing targets, has played out in Cambridge in the way it has. More specifically, we look at potential tensions between localism on the one hand and established plans for growth on the other, including the wider Cambridge Phenomenon which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had lauded as a model for the nation.

A second aim is to provide an updated account of the planning and development of what has become an iconic high-tech cluster of international significance, building on the work of Healey (2007), SQWP (2011), While et al. (2004) and others.4 As Healey (2007, 34) observed, Cambridge as a case study also has a wider significance in the sense that: 'It exemplifies the wider struggle in southern England to develop an integrated approach to urban development in a highly centralised state with a strong cultural resistance to development in rural areas'. We therefore explore the extent to which Cambridge represents a unique case study or whether there are conclusions of wider relevance to be drawn from the study. …

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