NEWS FEATURE: A vision for Huntingdonshire

NOW that a Government planning inspector has endorsed Huntingdonshire District Council s core planning strategy up to 2026, it has become much clearer where 14,000 new homes will be built, where new businesses could locate and where the council will want

NOW that a Government planning inspector has endorsed Huntingdonshire District Council's core planning strategy up to 2026, it has become much clearer where 14,000 new homes will be built, where new businesses could locate and where the council will want new shops to serve an expanding population.

The Government has backed the planners' vision of how Huntingdonshire will be re-shaped over the next 15 years.

The council has already delivered or committed to a large proportion of that growth with about 9,000 of those new homes already brought forward.

Report by IAN MacKELLAR

ONE of the district's main problems - and many residents are left to cope with the consequences every day - is that many of the jobs are in Cambridge or London or Peterborough or Bedford, while the homes are not.

Huntingdonshire, therefore, has a huge out-commuting problem to solve through its community development and planning strategies.

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So what the new communities need - and 14,000 new homes is a huge expansion in short order of the 67,000 we already have - is for local jobs to be created to provide work for the extra people, as well as schools, health, leisure and other recreational facilities.

The expansion will take place predominantly in the areas around the market towns, particularly St Neots, Huntingdon and, to a much smaller extent, St Ives and Ramsey.

The expansion to St Neots holds a significant key to Huntingdonshire's future shape. Not only is a large segment of the new housing earmarked for there but, as already by far Cambridgeshire's largest town, its expanding population holds the key to its potential transformation as a vibrant community - with more jobs, far better shops and vastly improved social and leisure facilities.

In the meantime, the shorter-term plan to add 2,650 homes to the St Neots area housing stock by 2026, including the 1,250 or so planned for Loves Farm, has the inspector's endorsement.

So does the addition of 1,800 homes to greater Huntingdon, though the 1,200-home Northbridge plan for land north of the A14 near Spittals is still hindered by transport problems. Unless the developers can show how the new homes would not add to congestion at the Spittals interchange, the Highways Agency remains an immovable objector.

Upgrading the road at a cost of around �1.2billion will fix the problem, but that scheme, including a new six-lane Huntingdon southern bypass, will not be finished until 2015. Development of Northbridge could, however, start as soon as delivery of the new road is firmly in sight, because there will be no additional traffic generation until homes are actually built.

With brownfield land becoming available for mixed use, including housing, in two or three years' time at RAF Brampton, and with mixed use development west of Huntingdon town centre, the inspector's endorsement should relieve short-term pressure on HDC planners to concede greenfield development on the eastern extremities of Godmanchester, although for the longer term expansion in that direction is conceded.

The inspector agreed that there is limited scope for further expansion of greater St Ives beyond the 300 homes already planned for Houghton Road - and he agreed with the planners that there should be no westward expansion of the town with Houghton and Wyton.

He also endorsed the planners' determination that any significant development in the Ramsey area should be bracketed with sufficient job opportunities for the new residents - and an opportunity to improve the skills-base of the existing population.

One key point from his report was that, as well as very strictly limiting development in most of Huntingdonshire's 80 villages, there should be no more than a total of 250 extra homes shared between the three 'key services centres' (larger villages with shops, public transport and healthcare) of Sawtry, Yaxley and Fenstanton. With 190 of those homes accounted for by last month's appeal decision for Sawtry, and with brownfield re-development earmarked for Yaxley, the pressure is off for allowing greenfield expansion of Fenstanton.

What's in

The inspector backed the district council's plan to expand Huntingdon town centre towards the railway and for re-development of the older part of Chequers Court.

With a new road linking Brampton Road with Ermine Street - which is key to the westward expansion and further development at Hinchingbrooke - now well into the planning process, the prospect of an enlarged town centre with a much-improved retail 'offering' looks closer.

The link road will take so much traffic off the existing ring road that pedestrian flows to new shops, offices and homes to the south of St John's Street should be easily manageable as part of a town centre expansion. There will also be extra car parking on the railway side of the new road.

In St Neots, in addition to Loves Farm and sites already identified in the Eatons, there is clear support for the proposed 'eco-quarter' of up to 5,000 green homes south of Loves Farm, with the initial proportion of that planned growth to be delivered by 2026 and the remainder after that.

What will be needed first is a master-plan for the whole area, aimed at identifying not just where homes will go, but land for employment use, schools and other elements of social infrastructure. It will mean planners having to reconcile potentially conflicting aspirations from the county, district and town councils, the NHS, developers and, possibly, the Highways Agency if A428 dualling is to be completed as envisaged.

What's out

The inspector's endorsement of the overwhelming thrust of HDC's long-term planning policy is likely to mean other proposals outside of the policy will be turned down.

For example, HDC will now have little difficulty in rejecting a plan for around 650 new homes on the site of RAF Upwood. Not only would the proposal put additional housing into an area where the road network would be overwhelmed, but there would be no realistic prospect of delivering sufficient local jobs.

Similarly, pressure to expand the south-eastern extremity of Godmanchester can probably be resisted - at least for the foreseeable future. However, in the longer term that expansion is likely to happen.

The appeal decision allowing 190 new homes in Sawtry makes it much easier to resist development that would extend the boundaries of Fenstanton.

That is not to say, of course, that such pressures will not re-emerge in a decade or so as the Cambridge sub-region expands, particularly if Huntingdonshire is successful in attracting new employment opportunities in sufficient numbers.

The Alconbury mini-city

Based on a north-westerly sprawl from Huntingdon across the A1 and East Coast main line to absorb Alconbury airfield, this idea emerged earlier this year from a review of the East of England's regional planning policy.

The aim was to see how the East could absorb even more than the half million new homes already planned.

Although it is only one of a few possible expansion scenarios - further expansion of Cambridge is another - what worries HDC planners is that it is still being taken seriously by the East of England Regional Assembly.

It envisages a settlement, initially of 20,000 homes - more than double the size of Huntingdon now - possibly increasing to a population of 250,000, bigger than either Cambridge or Peterborough.

It should be obvious to anyone that it is unsustainable, and it would also disfigure the essentially rural nature of Huntingdonshire.

The obvious parallel is with Milton Keynes, which was created 40 years ago from three Buckinghamshire villages.

At the time, the area's proximity to the M1 and the West Coast main railway line were just too tempting for urban planners to resist.

A quick glance at the map and Alconbury offers similar temptations - the A1, the A14 and the East Coast main line.

The difference is this: in the 1970s, the M1 and West Coast line had spare capacity, with easy access to London and the West Midlands, then a manufacturing powerhouse for the nation.

The A14 is operating at beyond its design capacity, the A1 copes to the north because of recent widening but struggles to the south, and Network Rail would be hard pressed to conjure up a single additional daytime pathway on the East Coast mainline. Even after the planned upgrade between Ellington and Fen Ditton, the A14's capacity is likely to be seriously compromised.

HDC members and their planners are expected to fight the idea tooth-and-nail.