Visiting Alconbury Weald, Huntingdon

A couple of weeks ago I went on a fascinating visit to Alconbury Weald, a large and impressive Urban and Civic development on an ex-USAF airfield outside Huntingdon.

The development is supported by CPRE Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. I only really got a sense of its scale on a drive round the site. Not only is it the largest business park in the country by some distance; there are also plans for 5,000 new homes, three primary schools and a secondary school. There is huge investment in landscaping, heritage assets are being preserved (the heritage in this case is mostly of the Cold War), and a design code is in place.

In addition to 1100 acres of brownfield land occupied by the old airbase, 330 acres of farmland have been purchased, linking the development to the town of Huntingdon. Some of this land will be developed, the rest will act as a green corridor between the new settlement and the town. Alconbury Weald will not have a major retail centre; the intention is to support Huntingdon’s struggling town centre.

You can read about the development here and here. The visit prompted four thoughts in particular: developers can win consent for good developments, but they have to work for it; we focus on housing, but it is often the lack of infrastructure that stops housing getting built; we talk about the housing crisis (and the emergency of climate change) but then carry on pretty much as usual; the one crisis response is to weaken the planning system, in the mistaken belief that this will significantly boost house building.   

  1. Local input has been vital

Since Urban and Civic bought the site in 2009, it has met with the local parish council every six to eight weeks on average. It has also worked closely with a joint forum of neighbouring parishes, with other groups (including CPRE) and, of course, with Huntingdonshire District Council. Incredibly, the previous owners of the land kept the district council off the site – not a strategy conducive to building trust.

Given the scale of the development, Urban and Civic intend to be around for a good many years, so it has a stake in the area and in good community relations. This is not always the case with smaller sites, where the developer may be in and out in a few years. Meaningful engagement is hard work and takes long-term commitment. But it is essential to gaining consent for new developments.

One particular breakthrough in establishing trust was when Urban and Civic paid the parish council to employ a planning consultant to digest and advise on the volumes of technical detail surrounding the various planning applications on the site. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) may be a succinct document, but there is no getting away from that complexity, and without help parish councils and community groups can feel overwhelmed.

2. It is hard to replicate developments on this scale

Urban and Civic calculate that they will spend £100 million on this development before they get a return. They have had to spend £25 to 30 million on infrastructure in order to get other developers in. I am sure they will get a handsome return, but developments on this scale require deep pockets. For much of the post-war period, they would have been state-led and largely state-funded. Now they require large private firms willing to make a long-term commitment.

The difficulty in getting large-scale developments off the ground is illustrated by what is happening elsewhere in Cambridgeshire. The Cambridge Green Belt is under constant attack and the so-called ‘Cambridge ripple’ should, one would have thought, make any development near the city very attractive. But development in Cambridgeshire, particularly for employment, is remarkably hard to get going.

The national debate on housing focuses narrowly on targets and land availability. But as we know, providing land and planning permissions does not get houses built. Some of this is down to the economic model of the big house builders, who have no interest in quickly increasing supply (see below). Some is down to the loss of smaller builders. But a large part of the problem in getting houses built is the lack of infrastructure. Urban and Civic have a large well-connected brownfield site in single ownership, so they are able to tackle some of these problems. But with other sites, the main problem is not housing as such, it is getting the right infrastructure in place – or finding locations where the infrastructure is already there.

3. Crisis, what crisis?

Housing is always spoken of as some sort of national emergency, but it is not treated as an emergency. Business as usual prevails. Almost all the houses build at Alconbury Weald will be for private ownership and there are no social houses. The house builders expect to sell at a rate of about one house a week – one developer’s allocation of 200-250 homes will therefore take four to five years to be completed and sold. And as need has increased, so have the margins of the big house builders. One person’s housing crisis is another person’s economic opportunity.

Almost all the homes at Alconbury Weald will be for private ownership. There will be 10% affordable housing in the early phase of the development, rising to around 25%. Of course, the word ‘affordable’ these days deserves big scare marks. There will be no social housing. The local authority feels it needs to take the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and effectively this money comes off the affordable housing allocation. In any case, the local authority transferred its housing stock some years ago, and – like many local authorities – is in a poor position to build or manage new housing.

The state wants a big increase in house building, but it is not prepared to pay for it. It also vaguely wants green developments – politicians sometimes talk of climate change as a planetary emergency, but most of the time they carry on as if it were not happening. Urban and Civic are proud of the development’s low carbon credentials, but I got no sense that they are being pushed to be any more innovative than they want to be.

4. The five year land supply

Building out large developments slowly, by traditional methods of construction, for private sale rather than rent has implications for the way the planning system operates. In addition to all the other house building that is happening, not least in Peterborough, there are five large, long-term developments in Cambridgeshire: Alconbury Weald, Northstowe, Waterbeach (another Urban and Civic project, on 715 acres of ex-MOD land three miles north of Cambridge), Cambourne and Wyton. CPRE Cambridgeshire and Peterborough regards Wyton as a poorly connected site whose viability will depend on unacceptable new roads. It has broadly supported the other four major developments.

So across Cambridgeshire there are a good many homes being built, and many more in the pipeline. Local authorities are clearly planning to meet need. Indeed, they are generating need, going for growth: Alconbury Weald is creating jobs (or, arguably, sucking them from poorer towns in the East Midlands, which need them more) not just providing houses for local need.

But in spite of all this building, predatory firms like Gladman are winning planning appeal in Cambridgeshire on the grounds that there is not a deliverable five year supply of land.

The Government says we have a plan led system, but to many communities it appears to be development-led. If the planning system is not to lose all credibility, the Government must provide protection from speculative development for local authorities who are demonstrably planning to meet housing need.

Finally, many thanks to Urban and Civic and to Michael Monk, Chair of CPRE Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, for organising a very stimulating day.





1 Response to “Visiting Alconbury Weald, Huntingdon”

  1. 1 Andrew Carey September 11, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Some points you appear to have not included. According to the video to which you linked, U&C got a hand out from the taxpayer of £5m for infrastructure work. So the State is on board on this project.
    Also, all of the artist’s impressions are of 2-storey buildings, rising to 3 if an attic is included. It’s a fair bet there will be a higher education student population in Huntingdon one day, as well as urbanites with e-bikes who are not overly concerned about having an individual garden but do value shared green spaces. So if the UK is to make best use of its land, and offer choice to buyers and renters, then planning has to permit buildings of 6-10 storeys. Yet the CPRE seem happy to endorse developments where the vista is overwhelmend by 2 storey detacheds with a garden but not a worthwhile one, and to speak approvingly provided the development is on ex-Ministry land and not the site of a former farm.
    This is sad.

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