Government Northstowe announcement decried

08:07 Thursday 4th December 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: ‘Unfortunate’. That’s the word that’s been used by the Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council to describe the local authority’s surprise at Government plans to take over housebuilding at Northstowe. In this week’s National Infrastructure Plan the Government announced a pilot project to build and sell thousands of new homes at Northstowe itself, rather than rely on developers. Here’s what South Cambridgeshire District Council Leader Ray Manning had to say when I spoke to him earlier on.
RAY MANNING: I think it was unfortunate that they didn’t choose to tell us beforehand, but I think the announcement has all the hallmarks of being done very quickly at the last minute to get in the Budget Statement.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Ray Manning also going on to say he doesn’t feel this shake-up is a direct criticism of the Council, because the recession is what slowed progress with the new town.
RAY MANNING: The truth is that we did have a recession, but there was money was difficult, and developers are not going to build houses unless the market is buoyant and they’ve virtually sold them off-plan. So what Danny Alexander said was quite true, that the Government can afford to build the houses without waiting to sell them first.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well the Government does say that with its involvement, development will be twice as fast as conventional routes, and it says it has been discussing Northstowe with the Council for years. Let’s talk to Sebastian Kindersley. He’s the Liberal Democrat councillor for Gamlingay on Cambridgeshire County Council. So Sebastian the Government say that you’ve already known about this. They didn’t surprise you with this announcement. What’s your reaction to that?

SEBASTIAN KINDERSLEY: Good morning Dotty. Well that’s simply just not true. The evidence for that is that I’ve seen now an internal communication from I presume HQ at the Liberal Democrats that describes the announcement as ‘the trial of a radical new way to build homes at Northstowe’. That’s all it says, but that doesn’t sound to me like the end of years of negotiation between the Government and the District or the County Council. And the fact of the matter is that everybody was surprised by it, nobody knew it was coming, and that’s not really the way to treat local authorities when you are on the other hand talking about devolution and getting local people to get involved in localism and all the other things that the Government has been going on about for the last four and a half years.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Ray Manning the Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council told me earlier that he hoped that they would be working in partnership with the Government, but he has to say he doesn’t really know how it’s going to work. Does that worry you?
SEBASTIAN KINDERSLEY: Well it doesn’t worry me, and it doesn’t surprise me. How are we supposed to know how it’s going to work when we’re told on the one hand that this is all going to happen and it’s all going to be marvellous, and on the other hand this has being touted as a brand new way of doing things. You can’t have a brand-new way of doing things if you haven’t actually talked to the people with whom you’re going to be doing these brand-new things. It seems a very peculiar way of dealing with a really very important subject, which is delivering homes for local people, affordable homes, and a new town in South Cambridgeshire, which everybody agrees is desperately needed.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Radical ideas, new ideas, can be good ideas. They can work.
SEBASTIAN KINDERSLEY: Oh yes. I’m not saying they can’t work. All I’m saying is that it would be helpful if we knew what they were. It would have been helpful if the Government had talked to the local authorities, which are after all made up of people elected by local people to represent them. How can we represent local people and particularly the people around the new town Northstowe if we have no idea what the Government is planning to do?
DOTTY MCLEOD: There does seem to be a real lack of detail at this stage on exactly how it’s going to work, whether the Government’s going to be submitting planning applications or what.
SEBASTIAN KINDERSLEY: Lack of detail; try absolutely no detail at all.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. You sound very cross about this Sebastian.
SEBASTIAN KINDERSLEY: I am a bit cross about this if I’m absolutely honest, because I think that not only is this just actually just .. it’s just rude and disorganised and unhelpful. But also I think what really local people would agree, again in addition to the houses, what we desperately need is the commitment from governments that it will deliver the proper infrastructure. How long have we waited for the A14, what’s going to be happening to the A10, all of this sort of thing. If the Government really wants to be super-helpful it could have said here guys, here is some money to make sure that the infrastructure for your new town is good, high-quality visionary infrastructure that we know that you’re going to need, instead of this piecemeal information coming out, we might do this, we might do that. And then we’ll wait for a couple of years and see what happens next. So I am a bit grumpy about it if I’m absolutely honest.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well absolutely honest is what we like here on the Breakfast Show, so please feel free. The Government says, and you have just said that you desperately need infrastructure, but you desperately need houses, the Government says that with them involved development will happen faster. That’s a good thing surely.
SEBASTIAN KINDERSLEY: Well it is a good thing if it’s true. But the bottom line is that you are still going to have the same brickies, the same carpenters, the same engineers actually doing the work, whether they’re paid directly by the Government or whether they’re paid by volume housebuilders. So I don’t really see how the Government is going to actually go out, put an ad up in the local shop saying, brickies wanted for Northstowe. Apply to H.M.G. I don’t see that happening. I think what will happen is that the Government will say oh yes, we don’t have any experience at doing this. We don’t know how to do it. The people who do know how to do it are the volume housebuilders. Let’s get them to do it, which is in fact what South Cambs and the County Council have spent the last fifteen years negotiating.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Is there an implied criticism? I asked this of Ray Manning earlier. I’ll ask you as well. There is an implied criticism here isn’t there, that local government hasn’t got this moving quickly enough, so the Government needs to step in and sort it out. Do you think that’s fair?
SEBASTIAN KINDERSLEY: I don’t think it’s fair actually. I’m not sure there is an implied criticism, attractive though that position might be from local authorities. I think this is actually slightly more opportunistic, that with the Autumn Statement and the National Infrastructure Project needing headlines. And certainly in and around the Greater Cambridge area it’s got its headlines. It’s come up with something about Northstowe about which none of us locally know anything.
DOTTY MCLEOD: That’s not fair, is it, for local people who are going to be living with the consequences of this decision
SEBASTIAN KINDERSLEY: Well exactly. It isn’t. That’s why I said earlier on I thought it was plain rude. That may be putting it a bit strongly, but the fact is that people, local people, particularly in the villages around Northstowe, have dealt with the shadow of Northstowe for so many years now, and have an idea of where this is going, because they have been involved. There are local forums where people are involved in the development of Northstowe. And then to suddenly read and top hear that the Government is actually going to do it all itself, without knowing any of the detail, it’s just wrong.
DOTTY MCLEOD: How do you think this is going to affect the relationship between South Cambridgeshire District Council and the Government? There’s going to be trust issues here, aren’t there Sebastian?
SEBASTIAN KINDERSLEY: Well I should think not only between South Cambridgeshire District Council and the Government, but also between the County Council and the Government. Because remember the County Council has got to make sure that the children from Northstowe are educated and that the roads going into Northstowe are properly built and all the rest of it. I think the Government has a lot of work to do now to make sure that local people and local representatives are actually brought back onside. because the bottom line is planning applications for Northstowe are already in, being considered. And indeed I think one has been granted already. So this is a little bit odd, isn’t it, for the Government to say oh no, we’re going to do it. Where are they going to do it? Which plots of land are they going to do it on? As everybody else has no doubt said, there is no detail for this. So we are somewhat flying blind, other than that we know the Government is going to meddle in Northstowe somehow.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Sebastian Kindersley there, the councillor for Gamlingay division on Cambridgeshire County Council, worried about a lack of detail, saying that the Government’s decision to just step in isn’t fair for people in South Cambridgeshire.