It was a particularly timely day to meet Peter Studdert, the director in charge of the Cambridgeshire growth areas. As many office teams wound down for the Christmas break, South Cambridgeshire District Council planners were taking delivery of the huge application for the Northstowe new settlement proposal.
Studdert talks enthusiastically about the scale of the 9,500-home project, pointing out the key features on a large wall map in his office. After just three months in the job he is starting to develop his role, which has been specially created to lead negotiations on growth between South Cambridgeshire, Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council.
Around 20,000 homes are to be built in the sub-region over the next 20 to 25 years, mainly though extensions east and south of Cambridge that will expand the urban area by around 50 per cent. This massive growth agenda requires someone to pull together the various strategies of the three authorities.
Studdert's appointment also follows the setting up of joint development control committees to determine major planning applications. He says the structure is already working well. "Although there are some policy differences, the quality of joint working over the past ten years has been good. The committees just take that process one step further," he argues.
The first applications to go before the committee will be for the 4,000-home southern extension around Trumpington, which will be considered late next month. "This will be the first real test of how it works," Studdert acknowledges.
Having spent the past three years as director for sustainable communities at Cambridgeshire Horizons, Studdert brings local knowledge as well as an experienced eye to the job. But what he is most enjoying is being back on the front line. "I'm in a position to negotiate on masterplans with more clout than I had previously and I can make sure that the strategies that I have been working on are embedded in emerging plans," he explains.
While there is a still a vast amount of work to be done before anything gets off the ground, much of the policy underpinning the growth plans is already in place. South Cambridgeshire was the first local authority to win approval for its core strategy and has swiftly followed this up with a series of area action plans. The most recent covers Cambridge East, the area's biggest urban extension, comprising 12,000 homes.
Studdert admits to concern that Cambridge authorities will see more growth pressure piled on top of their already ambitious agenda. The East of England regional spatial strategy includes a requirement for a further 4,000 houses. "We need to concentrate efforts on the growth already planned rather than fending off unsustainable schemes coming forward in response to half-baked regional decisions," he insists.
For the time being, the Northstowe application (Planning, 4 January, p3) and its "vast" section 106 agreement will take up the bulk of Studdert's time. Given that the scheme has been touted as a prototype eco-town, he is determined to push developers Gallagher and English Partnerships on sustainable energy.
"I hope that we will be able to fix up something like a combined heat and power scheme from the start rather than just relying on microgeneration, which can be done anywhere. Building a town from scratch does present certain advantages for basic infrastructure," he says.
Although Studdert holds a senior position, he is relieved to be spared from having to manage a large department. "I can devote myself to negotiations and provide an auth- oritative drive to move things forward," he declares. He has a direct line to the district and city's major development teams.
One of his greatest preoccupations is recruiting urban designers. He is currently trying to set up a joint urban design team that will sit between the three authorities. "There are still a few urban designers around who haven't either been snapped up by the Olympic Delivery Authority or are working for the private sector. If we can form a consultancy-style team then I hope that we can attract some young people to train up," he reveals.
This commitment to design stems from his own background. Studdert started out in architecture but was quickly drawn into planning after an encounter with former Newcastle City Council leader T Dan Smith, who inspired him with his ideas for the city. "I thought this was exciting stuff, powerful local politicians who have a vision for their area. I've been interested in this part of planning from that day."
Planners must keep their eye on achieving good development rather than getting bogged down in the process, he believes. Much of his role is about understanding the political territory. "Politicians are not just rubber-stamping something at the end of the process. They need to engage all along," he maintains. "That's why I find this job interesting because I have three sets of politicians to relate to with quite different cultures. The higher up you get in public sector planning the more important political skills are."
Studdert feels lucky to have landed this influential position. "My aim is to create a positive vision for Cambridge's growth in spite of planning bureaucracy and hand that on to inspire other generations to come through," he concludes.
Family: Married with three children
Education: BA in architectural studies and bachelor of architecture, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; diploma in town planning, Polytechnic of Central London
Interests: Theatre, music and Carlisle United Football Club
2007: Director of joint planning, Cambridge growth areas and Northstowe
2004: Director for sustainable communities, Cambridgeshire Horizons
1991: Director of planning rising to director of environment and planning, Cambridge City Council
1984: Principal planning officer rising to chief planner for urban design, London Borough of Tower Hamlets
1978: Senior planning officer, London Borough of Islington.