Planning for Sustainable Travel

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Map of Northstowe, Cambridgeshire


Northstowe is a planned new community situated about 5 miles northwest of Cambridge in South Cambridgeshire. Approximately 9,500 dwellings are to be provided for up to 24,000 people; promoted by the developers as a ‘model’ for sustainable living. The new community will include schools, employment areas (around 9,000 job opportunities are expected), open space and a town centre. The core development area of 279 hectares is situated within a development area of 427 hectares on the former Oakington Barracks airfield, which is adjacent to the existing towns of Longstanton and Oakington.

The core development area is bounded to the north and east by the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway that is currently being built by Cambridgeshire County Council on a disused railway line between Cambridge and St Ives, ultimately extending to Huntingdon. The A14 runs to the south-west of Northstowe and will be linked to the development by two new roads.

Following an extensive consultation process, the Northstowe planning applications were submitted to the South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) in December 2007 and will ultimately be determined by a Joint Development Control Committee made up of members from SCDC and the Cambridgeshire County Council (CCC). The application is under discussion with the local authorities and developers, including consideration of the details of the section 106 agreement.

Towards Sustainable Travel

In 2006, 68% of South Cambridgeshire residents travelled to work by car (versus 61% nationally) and 35% travelled over 10km to work (versus 28% nationally). Both factors contribute to road-based transport CO2 emissions in South Cambridgeshire being double the UK average per person. Given the existing travel patterns in the Cambridge region, it will be difficult for the Northstowe development, and others in the region, to deliver sustainable travel behaviour. High income levels and mobility are prevalent.

The planned development at Northstowe illustrates a number of important issues.

Northstowe draft development plan showing Guided Busway through town centre

Northstowe draft development plan

Settlement Size

Northstowe is a contemporary example of a new community being developed outside of an existing urban area that aims to be large enough to support sustainable travel and a level of self containment. At full build-out, Northstowe is expected to house up to 24,000 people. This equates with the data analysis that suggests that population of at least 25,000 tend to exhibit shorter annual travel distances and lower car mode share than the UK average (although larger urban areas exhibit much more sustainable travel behaviour).

An earlier proposal for the Northstowe site consisted of a much smaller development plan (about 50% less homes) that would have been unlikely to generate sufficient travel demand to sustain a Guided Busway to Cambridge, although it was part of the original concept. The shift to a larger settlement size coincided with the involvement of English Partnerships (now part of the Homes and Communities Agency) in the developer partnership.

Strategic Development Location

The selection of sites for major new developments is often determined by the most easily available developable land; or development is ‘spread’ between districts, often following the existing urban pattern. Moreover, the site selection process can be highly politicised. Strategic decision-making should be much be much stronger here – the location of major new developments assessed robustly, including consideration of where travel by car is likely to be minimised, opportunities exist to promote the use of non-car modes, and good accessibility is available without requiring car use or relying on subsidised local public transport services (over the long term). This type of analysis tends to be missing in much of the development process and represents an important missed opportunity in the promotion of sustainable travel.

The selection of the Northstowe site as the preferred location for a new town in South Cambridgeshire was the result of a transparent, criteria-based process that compared numerous potential sites available for development in the area. Key site selection criteria included availability of public transport to Cambridge (or possibility for improvement), accessibility of key employment centres, and cost of external transport infrastructure. Non-transport criteria considered economic benefits, environmental impacts, site capacity, effect on Green Belt, and implementation costs (see Assessment of new settlement locations, Cambridgeshire County Council, 2001). Based on 34 specific criteria, Cambridgeshire County Council, working closely with other authorities, ranked the Northstowe site highest in terms of potential locations for a new town in South Cambridgeshire.

This site selection process took place within the context of a broader strategy for the selection of areas for (re)development as outlined in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Structure Plan 2003. The strategic objectives for prioritising the location of new development sought to reduce travel, encourage high public transport mode share and provide other benefits to the local environment and region. In order of priority, most new homes, employment, facilities and services in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough were to be provided:

  1. Within the main cities in ways which add to the overall quality of these places
  2. As expansions of the main cities including substantial mixed use developments
  3. In a new settlement close to the main regional centre
  4. In market towns
  5. In Rural Centres with a good service base and which meet specific needs.

(All but 13 of the policies in the Cambridgeshire Structure Plan were superseded by the East of England Plan in May 2008.)

Strategic Transport Network

The opportunity to support improved public transport in the region, and particularly to Cambridge, was integral to the Northstowe development plan. The 25km Cambridgeshire Guided Busway has been developed to provide an alternative to driving between Cambridge and St. Ives/Huntingdon, with Northstowe providing substantial patronage at a mid-point along the route. The Busway at Northstowe will comprise an express route with guided tracks along the northeast edge of the core development area and a bus-only road forming the central spine of the development. The Guided Busway is currently under construction and expected to open in 2009, in advance of major construction at Northstowe. It is one of few examples in the UK where new public transport is being delivered prior to new development so as to maximise the potential to influence travel behaviour.

The Busway nortwithstanding, Northstowe has been criticised for relying heavily on the already congested A14 link to Cambridge. The Northstowe development plans include applications for two new road links to the A14 and the widening of the A14 in the vicinity. While these measures are deemed necessary to accommodate the increased travel demand from 24,000 new residents in Northstowe, the additional highway capacity may shift demand away from the Guided Busway and encourage car travel instead.

Neighbourhood Design and Street Layout

All streets in Northstowe will be designed according to the approach set out in DfT’s Manual for Streets, such that they cater for, but do not encourage, the use of the private car (see for example paragraph 6.3.30 of the Northstowe Transport Assessment). The planning application promotes an integrated street pattern with a series of principal roads rather than providing a single high capacity route through the new town. The permeable street network is intended to encourage walking and cycling and to disperse traffic throughout the network thereby reducing environmental impacts. Speed limits will be kept to a minimum (20-30 mph) and compliance will be encouraged through street design.

The average net density of Nortsthowe will be 45 homes per hectare but the town centre design will result in higher density land use patterns with buildings up to 4-5 stories high. Higher density local centres with extensive pedestrian/cycle facilities are also integral to the masterplan in order to encourage the use of non-motorised modes for local trips.


This guide recommends that maximum parking standards for residential and business areas be used by local authorities discourage car ownership and travel. Parking in Northstowe town centre will be provided at a level equivalent to 64% of the South Cambridgeshire District Council maximum standards. This reflects a high expected incidence of non car trips in the town centre as a result of neighbourhood design and public transport provision, and a commitment to shared parking spaces among uses that incur peak demand at different times of day (e.g. office and cinema).

Outside of the town centre, the developers intend to allocate residential parking “within the curtilage or as close as possible to each group of dwellings” but “in order to ensure that parking does not become an overly dominant feature of the development some on-street parking will be provided where the proposed internal road layout allows” (Northstowe Transport Assessment, para. 7.5.21-24) . Reduced parking is expected for certain types of dwellings (e.g. apartments) and for areas with relatively high accessibility to the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway.

This general approach to keeping parking below the maximum standards set out by the South Cambridgeshire District Council illustrates the scope for new developments to promote non-car modes and a pleasant urban environment through careful attention to parking standards. This approach is feasible in the context of travel planning and good public transport provision within the development.

Enabling Conditions

Although every local planning context is different due to variations in economic, social and environmental circumstances, some general lessons about good planning processes and enabling conditions for delivery of integrated spatial and transport planning can be drawn for the Northstowe case study.

Cross-Authority Working

Due to its location in a two-tiered area, the Northstowe site is under the jurisdiction of two planning authorities - Cambridgeshire County Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council. In order to move Northstowe forward efficiently, a Joint Development Control Committee comprised of councillors from both authorities was formed to review and ultimately determine the planning applications submitted by the joint promoters to the SCDC as the local planning authority.

In addition to the two Councils, a vast range of stakeholders have an interest in the outcome of Northstowe (and other major developments in the area). In 2004, Cambridgeshire Horizons was formed as a key stakeholder group and development delivery vehicle. It was recognised at the time that “no single existing agency or authority could be expected to implement this planned growth [for Cambridgeshire] on its own”. Cambridgeshire Horizons has been an important means of moving Northstowe forward through a coordinated approach to broad stakeholder engagement (e.g. local councils, business community, hospitals, infrastructure providers, etc.) and a commitment to delivery.

Public Transport Funding

The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway and the Northstowe development site have had a symbiotic relationship from the outset. The Busway was necessary to make sustainable travel a real possibility at Northstowe but likewise a new development was necessary to generate sufficient travel demand to make the Busway commercially sustainable in the long term.

Funding was actively sought for the Busway using Government-imposed housing growth and Cambridge’s economic success as leverage. Ultimately, £92.5 million of the £116.27 million cost for the Busway will come from Central Government through the Cambridgeshire Local Transport Plan (2004-2011) with the remainder funded by developer contributions (along the route). The Busway will need an operating subsidy from Cambridgeshire County Council until Northstowe is fully built out but is expected to be operated commercially thereafter.

The economic success of the region and high demand for housing in Cambridge have almost certainly contributed to the Government’s willingness to fund the Busway but the strategic site selection process for Northstowe also provided the opportunity to make the Busway a realistic option for the County.

Planning Approval Processes

Finally, the Joint Development Control Committee has taken an innovative approach to managing the Northstowe approvals process in that the Section 106 agreement is being negotiated with the developers concurrently with the assessment of the planning applications by the Joint Development Committee. The intention is that areas of disagreement are identified early and once the application is approved the development can move ahead quickly rather than be stalled by Section 106 negotiations. Prior to this, the Northstowe Area Action Plan was also pushed forward in parallel with the Local Development Framework Core Strategy so as to reduce delays at the development plan stage.