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Review: A Cambridgeshire scheme has the potential to become a distinctive fenland town   
13 May 2015 | Posted by Andy Thompson
Image courtesy of HCA
Northstowe must avoid becoming a suburb of Cambridge by offering a range of housing, urges Andy Thompson.

Northstowe is a planned community on the edge of Cambridge.

Housebuilder Gallagher Estates started work last month on the 'new town' of Northstowe, around five miles north-west of Cambridge, after nearly 20 years of planning.

The overall site, which includes a former Second World War airfield site, is jointly owned by Gallagher Estates and the government's Homes and Communities Agency. It was identified by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Structure Plan in the 1990s as a potential site to meet the housing needs of Cambridge's growing population.

After an extended planning process, the first phase of development for up to 1,500 dwellings, a local centre, a primary school and five hectares of employment land together with formal and informal public open space was finally approved in 2014. Phase 2 is currently stalled as South Cambridgeshire District Council is unconvinced by the limited amount of affordable housing being offered and the delivery of the community infrastructure.

The government announced in December 2014 plans to pilot an approach to speeding up delivery of the much needed housing on the HCA-owned land. Eventually, the town could have 10,000 homes with a population of over 24,000.

The vision

A council-led Area Action Plan in 2007 and then a masterplan, development framework and design code for the whole new town convey the vision of 'a vibrant 21st century town with a strong local identity ... with provision for more sustainable patterns of living and lifestyle choices ... and built to high environmental standards'. Four key themes of community, climate, connectivity and character underpin the design of the new town.

Local distinctiveness

Great efforts have been taken to draw inspiration from its location on the fen edge and its drainage dykes and ditches. The integration of water permeating the street network and areas of open space will become a distinctive element of the town's character. Strong green infrastructure, incorporating a linear park, greenways, habitat corridors, sports and community parks, is an integral design feature.

A detailed analysis of other Cambridgeshire market towns has resulted in a long linear 'high street' through the centre of the town with mixed-use town and local centres located along it. The alignment changes at key intersections where local centres, schools and community facilities are positioned to create walkable neighbourhoods. The town centre has a tight and dense urban form with vehicular traffic routed around it to encourage travel by bus, cycle or foot.

Links with the surrounding area

The new town is close to, but deliberately separated from, the existing villages of Oakington and Longstanton. All new dwellings will be within easy reach of the Huntingdon to Cambridge Guided Bus route and associated cycle path to discourage journeys via the busy A14, although this should be upgraded in the next few years.

The housing

The overall density is expected to be quite urban at about 40 homes to the hectare, with three to four storey houses nearer the centre and lower rise further away from it. The potential lack of affordable housing raises serious questions about whether Northstowe will meet its own vision of being a sustainable new town. There is a danger it will become another dormitory suburb occupied by those unable to afford the high house prices in the city. At the projected rate of building it will be 40 years before it is completed and potentially therefore subject to changes in political will, fashion and taste. The challenge is to embrace these outside forces to make it an organic, distinctive place.

Andy Thompson is a planner and urban designer and a founder director of Beacon Planning, a Cambridge- based planning and heritage consultancy.