Alconbury ‘will be Huntingdon eco-suburb’, developer says

ALCONBURY airfield will not become the site of another new town, its owners have promised.

Whatever is built there will be employment-led, have first-class public transport links, and make Huntingdon a thriving and prosperous town, Robin Butler, managing director of Urban and Civic, the company that bought most of the 1,500-acre site in November 2009, told The Hunts Post.

Plans for the development are at an early stage – an outline master-plan is still six months or more away, and U&C is determined to carry the local community with it – but certain key principles will underpin whatever is eventually proposed for the former RAF airfield.

When that emerges, what it will certainly not be is the 20,000-250,000-homes mini-city postulated by consultants Arup a couple of years ago at the behest of the now-defunct East of England Regional Assembly – because it looked like a suitable location on a small-scale map.

That plan sank without trace when Communities Secretary Eric Pickles finally managed to get his head round ditching regional planning lawfully.

U&C is adamant that Alconbury will be the part of Huntingdon that is home to the high-tech knowledge-based jobs the town is currently short of. Green infrastructure will be built into the development, which will almost certainly be carbon neutral – or, if project director Tim Leathes has his way, carbon-positive because so many trees will be planted.

To a guided bus link with Cambridge – though unguided as far as St Ives – would be added a passenger railway station on or almost adjacent to the East Coast main line, and some form of affordable upgrade to the A14 to replace the �1.2bn scheme abandoned last October will have to come, Mr Butler believes.

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Making that happen will be a key task for the new local enterprise partnership, whose success will be interdependent with the strategic Alconbury project.

Mr Butler describes the employment U&C will seek to attract as “inspirational or transformational”. The site will be likely to draw major public companies, attracted by the impact the built-in eco-credentials of the site will have on their corporate social responsibility reputations.

“For want of a better word, ‘campus’ springs to mind. Something in which we have long-term ownership of the common areas, so that there’s cohesion and something that’s properly integrated into the surrounding area and benefits Huntingdon.”

To that extent, the airfield site will not be a self-contained community: although there will be some shops and other amenities, as well as listed bunkers, extensive new woodland and connections to the Great Fen, within the 11-mile-long perimeter.

“Crucially, we are not looking to put a large amount of retail space there, which would damage the fragile retail heart of Huntingdon. The stronger that can be the happier we are. We want the people who work here and live here to go into Huntingdon to shop.”

That will be music to the ears of councillors, planners and developers in Chequers Court and the about-to-be-expanded Huntingdon town centre. Such statements of intent from someone with Mr Butler’s track record of delivering developments – together with his cofounder Nigel Hugill, he was behind the Stratford 2012 site, Bankside, Elephant and Castle, Greenwich Peninsular, Paddington Basin, Westfield White City, all in London, as well as the ground-breaking town centre at Brierley Hill in the Black Country – will surely help to attract prestigious retailers.

“We want to see Huntingdon as a town wealthier and more prosperous, and we want this site to be one of the major growth areas for Huntingdon, Huntingdonshire and the wider LEP area [which includes Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and related surrounding areas].

So how many houses are those employees and shoppers going to occupy over the 20-30 years the development will take to complete? That is far from decided, Mr Butler said. “It will certainly be a lot smaller than the 9,000 planned for Northstowe.

“We don’t see this as a new settlement, but as an extension of Huntingdon.

“And we would want to be involved in the long-term management of the social housing,” he added.