Fenner’s Protected Open Space – at risk?

A guest blogpost from Protect Fenner’s Action Group.

Hughes Hall, which recently set up the Centre for Climate Engagement, is proposing to build student housing on protected green open space in the Mill Road neighbourhood. If this is approved, it will set a precedent that makes precious green areas in Cambridge much more vulnerable to development.

In November 2023, the President and Bursar of Hughes Hall told a meeting of local residents about their plans to expand their site, and to build accommodation for 100 more students on part of Fenner’s cricket ground. Fenner’s is a hidden gem that used to be open to the public to wander in, and we are already concerned that over the last 20 years Hughes Hall has privatised it with locked gates.

We haven’t yet seen the plans, but whatever the design details, we are shocked and angry that Hughes Hall feels entitled to build a large development on one of the most highly protected recreational spaces in Cambridge – a space that also acts as a vital green lung within our ward and our dense city centre.

Photo as caption
Recent cricket match on Fenner’s,
looking towards Covent Garden and the land Hughes Hall has purchased for development
(photo: Lionel Sheffield)

What stands out is the precedent this sets, and the choices the college is making. It is going against local, University and national policies aimed at saving green spaces to alleviate climate change, and increase community well-being. 

Fenner’s is formally designated as a Protected Open Space in the Cambridge Local Plan 2018 [SPO 18, Outdoor Sports Facilities, Fenners Cricket Ground, Petersfield Ward, p290].  Such a designation is a national planning tool that local authorities can use to preserve open spaces in areas or urban zones which are under increasing pressure from developers. This is an issue which the Greater Cambridge Planning Authority and the Universities are working together to address, as the city is rapidly expanding.

This mooted development could be considered to be in breach of the Cambridge Local Plan.

In protecting existing assets, including heritage assets, landscape and water management, development should:

  • seek to protect existing public assets, including open space and leisure facilities. Where the loss of such assets is unavoidable, appropriate mitigation should be provided, including where applicable the replacement of assets in an alternative location, in addition to infrastructure generated by the needs of the development;
  • ensure public rights of way are protected, and enhanced where possible;
Cambridge Local Plan 2018 Policy 14 f,g, p58

Not only is Fenner’s a Protected Open Space, it is also rated in the City Council’s Open Space and Recreation Strategy (October 2011) as the 10th most important Protected Open Space amongst 311 across Cambridge (SPO 18, p105).  It amounts to one third of the total open space in Petersfield Ward, and is hugely important in a ward which is densely built up, without much open green space.

Cambridge’s Petersfield Ward lies in the bottom 20% nationally of the ‘Environment Domain’ in the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation. Indeed, Petersfield Ward has only one public park – St Matthew’s Piece – vs 56 official parks in Cambridge’s other 13 wards.

Map of Protected Open Spaces in Petersfield Ward

Unfortunately there are caveats built into the Cambridge Local Plan Protected Open Space policy, with some potential overrides around education and sports need.  Hence our alarm to hear that Hughes Hall is buying land from the Cambridge University Cricket and Athletics Club Ltd (which owns the cricket ground), and commissioning architects’ plans to build a substantial amount of student accommodation.

However the National Planning Policy Framework [Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, December 2023] imposes duties upon local planning authorities, in regard to open spaces.

  • Access to a network of high quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and physical activity is important for the health and well-being of communities, and can deliver wider benefits for nature and support efforts to address climate change. Planning policies should be based on robust and up-to-date assessments of the need for open space, sport and recreation facilities (including quantitative or qualitative deficits or surpluses) and opportunities for new provision. Information gained from the assessments should be used to determine what open space, sport and recreational provision is needed, which plans should then seek to accommodate.
  • Existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless:
  • a) an assessment has been undertaken which has clearly shown the open space, buildings or land to be surplus to requirements; or
  • b) the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location; or
  • c) the development is for alternative sports and recreational provision, the benefits of which clearly outweigh the loss of the current or former use.
National Planning Policy Framework, Section 8, Promoting healthy and safe communities, Open space and recreation, ¶102,103

It is hard to predict how the National Planning Policy Framework may help our case until we hear what Hughes Hall and Cambridge University Sport offer in mitigation of any potential breaches of section 8 of the National Planning Policy Framework (above).

Hughes Hall recently set up the Centre for Climate Engagement About us – Centre for Climate Engagement (climatehughes.org).  The Centre’s mission “is to encourage academic excellence in climate law, governance and organisational change, and to translate and transfer this knowledge to corporate boards to accelerate the race to net zero emissions and climate resilience.”

Image as caption
Hughes Hall diagram of land purchased on Fenner’s for building student accommodation: proposal shown to residents, 30 November 2023

Given the College’s apparent commitment to environmental and climate issues, residents wonder why the development team hasn’t taken a much longer-term and environmentally responsible approach to secure buildings or brown field sites to develop close by – as Anglia Ruskin University has done over the last 20-25 years.

  • Anglia Ruskin University has made significant progress on the East Road site in modernising the faculty accommodation within the framework of the agreed 2009 masterplan. A planning application was subsequently approved and this work is now largely complete and provides around 9,000 sq m of new accommodation.
  • When the masterplan was written in 2008, Anglia Ruskin University needed around 12,000 sq m. The campus on East Road remains one of the tightest in the sector. However, implementation of the masterplan has left a shortfall in teaching space. The most recent Anglia Ruskin University estate strategy and corporate plan 2012-2014 has identified a need for at least 6,000 sq m of additional space. As well as catering for growth in student numbers, there is also a need to enhance existing space and recently redeveloped space, e.g. for laboratories, which are not meeting current requirements, and to reconsider the future of Anglia Ruskin University’s library on the site. This will require the masterplan for Anglia Ruskin University to be revisited.
  • The East Road site and area remain the most sustainable location for Anglia Ruskin University during the next plan period, and any future needs for this institution should, in the first instance, be met close to this site. Therefore, any development proposals that come forward in these areas should consider whether faculty development is an appropriate use.
Cambridge Local Plan 2018, Policy 43: University development, ¶5.27/28/29, p152

There are other alternatives too. The University of Cambridge has been working with Greater Cambridge Shared Planning to help Cambridge grow sustainably in the future.  They explicitly acknowledge the importance of ceasing piecemeal development in the city centre, and avoiding eating up existing green spaces.  The new development of Eddington to the north west of Cambridge is part of this wider plan, with spaces designated for accommodation, education, social, cultural and sporting activity– with which several colleges are already successfully engaged.

  • The University of Cambridge has plans to grow undergraduate numbers by 0.5 per cent a year and postgraduates by 2 per cent a year in order to maintain its globally successful institution. The University of Cambridge’s key growth needs are being met by the developments in West and North West Cambridge and around Addenbrooke’s, including those satellite centres where the plan is seeking densification and a broader mix of uses. The development of the University of Cambridge’s North West Cambridge site is assessed in accordance with the North West Cambridge AAP. The policy acknowledges existing plans of the University of Cambridge on sites outside of the city centre and also provides an opportunity for redevelopment of sites in the city centre where plans are evolving. The University of Cambridge has other, less advanced, plans for development of faculty uses, for example at Madingley Rise. These will be considered on their merits, and against other relevant policies in the plan – for instance, at Madingley Rise much of the open space is protected.
Cambridge Local Plan 2018, Policy 43: University development, ¶5.26, p152

Fenner’s Cricket Ground is an iconic and historic site existing long before Hughes Hall came into being. The land was formerly part of the medieval Open Fields of Cambridge. In 1846, Francis Fenner leased what was, by that time, a former cherry orchard, from Gonville and Caius College for the purpose of constructing a cricket ground. In 1848 he sub-let the ground to Cambridge University Cricket Club.

The local streetscape has been shaped by the boundaries of Fenner’s and the views and open space of the ground are characteristics of the Conservation Area.  This land has never been built on. Why does Hughes Hall think it is appropriate to build on it now, for their own benefit and to the detriment of others? 

Our green and open spaces are of fundamental importance to our city’s character, ecology, and our own wellbeing.  We must support all efforts to preserve them in the face of the constant drive to build and develop. 

Please email protectfennersactiongroup@gmail.com to support our local campaign to save Fenner’s and green spaces in Cambridge for future generations. We will let you know when further details are published and our petition is launched.

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Val Neal
Val Neal
24 June 2024 08:24

Agree 100% with Charlotte.

Thank you for this excellent article about an important issue. Protected open space (even if not public) provides a vital green lung at a time of increasing threat to both public health and our shared water supplies – from continued unsustainable development.

Should this piece be adapted for publication in Varsity, with an appeal to the University community to modify its approach?

Also: the City Council map included in this article showing public open spaces in Petersfield incorrectly designates the Mill Road Cemetery as public open space, it is not, although it certainly is a treasured and immensely valuable green space. It is a consecrated, active burial ground (where burials in family plots can and do still take place) and cannot therefore be correctly coded or considered as a public open space.

More information on this can be provided.

Charlotte de Blois
Charlotte de Blois
19 June 2024 15:36

In North Petersfield we need to protect every blade of grass and every tree. Front gardens are being paved over and the dangers of flooding and heat islands should not be minimized.

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