Will development corporations deliver big for Cambridge?

04.12.23 3 MINUTE READ

Microsoft Building, CB1 1

Planning Partner and Lead on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, Rob Hopwood, comments on the planning system and its effect on Cambridge's development. This piece was first seen in React News.

The rigidity of Britain’s planning system is subject to a few limited exceptions. Permitted development rights or the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime are two well-known examples. The expansion of these powers mooted in the Autumn Statement is a telling indication that even the Chancellor thinks that the planning system is better circumvented than tackled head-on. But what of Development Corporations (DCs)? Where do they fit into the framework?

The Government thinks it’s time for a Cambridge DC – something we’ve been calling for since we published our Radical Regeneration Manifesto in 2019. Back then we said that regional devolution would enable independent decision-making, pointing to the 2012 Olympics as an example of “planning big”. So, naturally, we think it’s a good idea.

Of course, a good idea doesn’t mean it’ll be effective if unattended. Jeremy Hunt didn’t elaborate on where the DC would be located or the extent of it. There’s still secondary legislation that we’re expecting to empower the creation of a Cambridge DC if this Government stays in post. The Cambridge Delivery Group is, we assume, the body that’ll help deliver it. And crucially, it’s remit would presumably be modelled on the locally-led Urban Development Corporation as defined in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act (LURA), which means a different set of stakeholders than the DC that built big for the Olympics.

Bidwells data suggests that roughly 10,000 sq ft of lab space is available in Cambridge relative to a demand in excess of 90-times that. Cambridge is also disadvantaged by a housing supply gap. Cambridge is the most concentrated high-performing R&D ecosystems in the world and it needs room to grow. It is absolutely critical that the Cambridge DC created is empowered to be a local planning authority for its own purposes, to bring it closer to a Mayoral DC model.

Similarly, a Cambridge DC can only make a genuine impact if it has a certainty of lifespan that does not expire in a political cycle. Short-termism is why we’re reviewing under-provision of housing, office, R&D space and infrastructure simultaneously. Only locally-led DCs that have certainty of constitution and are not hamstrung by a minimum operational term will attract the necessary investment needed to make much-needed growth in Cambridge possible.

Private sector expertise is crucial to drive delivery. Cambridge needs to leverage significant private investment in the absence of a red carpet rolled out at a national level. The governance make-up of a Cambridge DC must therefore blend private and public sector representation. In Cambridge’s case there is an existing Supercluster Board of which we are part. Still democratically accountable, but representative of the investment interests that will sustain a long-term vision.

The intention to remove the cap on the number of board sets contained within a DC is a small but material ingredient to make these models work for everyone. Earlier iterations of DCs have had mixed success because they were more exclusionary of private investors and only in certain circumstances – specifically in mayoral areas – have DCs been empowered through the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 to pursue regeneration.

In areas like Cambridge that require strategic planning, LURA must make it as practical as possible for DCs to take on and mimic the plan-making and development management functions of a local planning authority.

If properly endorsed, a Cambridge DC could be an effective mechanism to deliver big. On-the-ground constraints, particularly in infrastructure provision, suggest that this may be the best method we have at our disposal – providing strong powers to assemble land and speed up planning consent if LURA is implemented broadly.

The Government realises the potential for significant growth in science and technology sectors. Cambridge is world-leading in these areas. But beneath the headline aspiration for Cambridge to be a flagbearer of the UK’s pre-eminence in innovation, the groundwork has been, at best, patchy.

The last decade at least has brought forward the lesson that new homes, employment and R&D facilities cannot be delivered solely through tacit cooperation across local boundaries.

It might seem that national policymakers have an aversion to technical detail but now is really the time to examine how we can make locally-led DCs effective delivery bodies for the long-term. The designation process to set up a DC, their ability to facilitate public/private partnership; their plan-making powers, statutory procedures and enforcement capabilities, are the more prescriptive aspects that must be agreed for areas like Cambridge to truly benefit from their potential.

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Rob Hopwood

Partner, Planning

Rob’s infectious energy has driven two decades of planning success for promoters, developers and landowners across the Oxford to Cambridge Arc.

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