South Cambridgeshire District Council: using planning to encourage activity

In developing a healthy new town, South Cambridgeshire has re-considered its approach to developing play schemes and encouraging activity. A more adventurous approach is leading to what is being dubbed “playable landscapes”. This case study shows how district councils have improved the health of their local areas.

Northstowe is one of NHS England’s 10 Healthy New Town demonstrator sites. The project has been developed by South Cambridgeshire District Council in partnership with the local NHS, county council and Homes England.

There are three phases. The first will see 1,500 homes constructed and a new primary school opened. The second, for which infrastructure works are well under way, involves another 3,500 new homes, a secondary school, two primary schools and a new town centre, including a health and community hub.

The final phase, which is currently being master planned, will see another 5,000 homes added, bringing the total to 10,000 and making it one of the biggest new town developments in the country.

As a healthy new town, careful consideration is being given to all aspects of the development related to health and wellbeing. That includes designing homes that are sustainable for an ageing population and using innovative approaches to health services, such as social prescribing.

Another area of particular focus has been using the planning and design process to ensure neighbourhoods encourage physical activity.

Highlights of progress

Developing good play facilities and encouraging physical activity is a key requirement of each phase of the new town. The original Youth and Play Strategy for phase one fulfilled the basic requirements of South Cambridgeshire’s open space supplementary planning document from 2009.

However, the master developers, Gallaghers, employed a consultancy, Randall Thorp, which had worked in the area previously. The consultants challenged the council as to whether a strict interpretation of the SPD was the right course of action. They argued it could lead to the standard off-the-peg play provision – a few swings, a slide and play area – but little else. Instead, they argued for something more adventurous.

It was agreed the strict interpretation of the guidance could be relaxed and the result has been a more holistic approach to play areas. Gone are the standard fenced-in playgrounds.

In their place are open green spaces where play and socialising are being encouraged.

A virtue has also been made of the functional elements of the scheme. For example, an urban drainage scheme has been used which involves small canals of water draining into larger reservoirs. These sites are to become nature areas for people to explore.

Separately, thought has been given to how to encourage new residents to be physically active and make the most of the new sports facilities that will eventually include football pitches and tennis and netball courts.

The local sports partnership, Living Sport, has been tasked with encouraging residents to get active, utilising a Sports England ‘core markets’ grant award. It is running an Active New Communities programme that will target the 18 to 45-year-old age group in particular. Their workers are supporting residents to get physical activity groups off the g

Future plans

With phase one well under way, phase two is now progressing – and this progressive approach has been taken a step further. Rather than the standard strategy, the public sector master developer Homes England commissioned a Healthy Living, Youth and Play Strategy.

It sought to ensure the recreational needs of all residents of all ages were met to help them ‘age well’ by staying healthy and active into later life.

Alongside more traditional play facilities, the idea of a ‘playable landscape’ was developed. Intrinsic to the approach is the concept that thoroughfares and open spaces where there was greatest footfall should be the primary focus of play interventions.

To reverse the trend of children spending less time outdoors, the plan proposes ‘doorstep play’. The majority of streets will have a speed limit of 20mph or below, while in each plot at least one smaller street will be prioritised for pedestrians. The idea is to encourage more walking and cycling along with ‘play on the way’. This could, for example, include skate-boarding a

Lessons and key messages

Northstowe Healthy New Towns Programme Lead Clare Gibbons said: “We have perhaps been too cautious and risk-adverse as a society. It means children have become less likely to explore and play in the local environment. We realised we had to give them something more challenging – if you don’t, they just find it elsewhere.

“It meant South Cambridgeshire District Council had to relax its interpretation of the guidance. In fact, we are now going to review it altogether and look at changing it to incorporate the lessons we have learnt with Northstowe.”

But she said it was still important to seek feedback from residents. “As we progressed we consulted with the residents who moved in early on and also nearby residents. One of the concerns raised when we discussed the play areas was safety – people felt they should be fenced off. In the end we agreed to fence the toddler play area. You need to work with residents and consult – even if you feel you have got your plans right.”


Clare Gibbons
Northstowe Healty New towns Programme
Lead, South Cambridgeshire District Council