Conference Report: Capturing Smarter Growth - Quality in Our Time

Historic Towns and Smarter Growth: Cambridge - 30 April 2009

View the Speakers' Presentations here

Becoming smarter means we need to learn, and in the case of urban growth, learn from the past. Welcoming delegates to the conference HTF Chair, Sam Howes, stressed the attractiveness of historic towns, their strong sense of place, the good quality of life they offer and their ability at assimilate change. April 2009 and Cambridge were the right time and place to consider how in the early 21st century we capture smarter growth.

Trevor Beattie (Corporate Director, Homes and Communities Agency) set out the challenging context: recognising the national perspective; the realities of the economic downturn; how to make progress in this difficult climate; and the realities of developing new models. A national agency working locally, he stressed that the HCA's vision is: 'for people to live in homes they can afford in places they want to live' and for local authorities and communities to 'deliver the ambition they have for their own areas'. Even in difficult times we must create quality places to live and work. To do this requires effective use of the HCA's £17.3 bn budget, building on the opportunities offered by the national Budget and encouraging innovation by local authorities. The HCA is committed to a place-based model of working, especially through the 'Single Conversation'. Trevor called for housing to be greener, offer more choice of tenure, embrace new methods of construction, and ensure consistent quality standards. He emphasised the importance of the existing stock and supported an increased role for the public sector.

In 'New models and learning from Europe' Nicholas Falk (URBED) argued that the need for smarter growth arises from population pressures, climate change, increasing congestion, loss of local distinctiveness, the erosion of suburban quality and squeezing out the young. Stressing that positive planning brings benefits, lessons that he drew from Europe included: the importance of fairness in successful societies; the need for careful, step by step renewal; reconciliation of new and old; and focussing development around transport nodes and corridors. He proposed five principles for smarter growth - connectivity, community, character, climate proofing and collaboration. Nicholas concluded that moving forward effectively requires new planning processes, new forms of organisation and new financial mechanisms.

'Historic towns provide excellent models for accommodating growth and change' according to Peter Studdert (Director of Joint Planning, Cambridge Growth Area). He described the special qualities of historic towns, the key growth issues they face and explored the spatial response to growth in the Cambridge Sub-region. Examples such as the Accordia housing scheme and major development areas to the south and east of the City responded to the strategic challenges of accommodating quality growth. He concluded that, 'Historic towns need to take a strategic view to managing growth and form creative partnerships to maximise benefits.'

Simon Payne (Director of Environment and Planning, Cambridge City Council) and John Preston (Historic Environment Manager, Cambridge City Council) considered the impact of growth on Cambridge, posing the question: 'How is growth to be delivered without ending up with a 'two tier' City'? They set out the planning policies for Cambridge and explored concerns for the community, vibrancy and economic success, infrastructure requirements and transport issues, including a mooted congestion charging zone. Cambridge has a large core Conservation Area and the implications of growth for this were explored working through the Historic Core Appraisal. John expressed particular concern about the future of undesignated cultural landscapes and the impact of new transport links to accommodate growth. The City is adopting a multidisciplinary collaborative approach to tackling these issues.

The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment was represented by James Hulme, who spoke on 'Sustainable mixed use vs the housebuilders' model'. Drawing on the principles of sustainable place, tools such as codes, pattern books and Enquiry by Design, development at Upton and Sherford, and urban value studies, he considered a 'business model' for sustainable urbanism. He argued that common features of a new delivery model would include planning certainty, incremental phasing, front loaded costs, single or conjoined promoter/developer functions and retained ownership of retail and commercial development.

The afternoon of the Conference was devoted to parallel session workshops covering: community engagement (Dr Andrea Pellegram, planning consultant); learning from the past (David Grech, English Heritage); climate change and carbon modelling (Roger Milburn, ARUP); principles for good design (Ben Bolgar, Prince's Foundation); environmental capacity (Ian Poole, St Edmundsbury DC); and capacity building and prioritisation in quality outcomes (Alex Plant, Cambridgeshire Horizons). Ian Poole also conducted a study tour to the arc retail scheme Centros is developing in Bury St Edmunds.

Capturing smarter growth is a huge challenge and the learning curve is steep. However, as Peter Studdert said, 'The 21st century is but another layer of history ' let's ensure that it adds value and richness.'

Brian Human, Vice-Chair, HTF