Rural Growth

Producing village design guides through community participation in South Cambridgeshire to support rural growth

Jul 01, 2019

This case study explores best practice principles for rural design based on the experiences of conducting collaboration and engagement with eight village communities in South Cambridgeshire. It was written by Hana Loftus following her 12-month placement at South Cambridgeshire District Council between April 2018 and March 2019.

Hana was part of the Spring 2018 Cohort.

Hana was matched with a role as a part-time Planning and Special Projects Officer. Before becoming an Associate, Hana was a co-director of her own private architectural practice working on civic, cultural and community projects. After her placement, she was promoted to Engagement and Communications Lead at the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service where she continued to work on community and stakeholder engagement. In 2022, Hana returned to focus full-time on her own practice, HAT Projects, working with clients across the private and public sectors.

Village Design Guides for South Cambridgeshire

Eight South Cambridgeshire communities: Caldecote; Fulbourn; Gamlingay; Histon and Impington; Over; Papworth Everard; Sawston; and Swavesey were selected as part of a series of Village Design Guides that South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) developed with funding from MHCLG’s Design Quality Fund.

The Village Design Guides have been developed by external design consultants working in collaboration with village communities. The consultants were appointed through an open procurement process, and are practices working within urban design, masterplanning and architecture as well as policy, with experience designing projects in rural communities. The process involved:

  • The village input has been led by a ‘project champion’ nominated by each village and a steering group of village representatives drawn from a wide range of backgrounds.

  • Each consultant tailored the participatory process to both their own perspective and expertise, and the requirements and interests of the community steering group. This led to a deliberately diverse range of approaches - for example, developing a village ‘fanzine’ with community members.

  • Different methodologies were tested with a view to understanding what works best to tease out the priorities and perceptions of the village community, produce robust and useable guidance documents, and make effective use of the resources available.

Over, one of eight villages that South Cambridgeshire District Council are working with to develop locally specific Village Design Guides.

Common approaches included:

  • a walking mapping workshop with the village steering group

  • other participatory workshops with groups such as children, elderly residents or village societies, and

  • taking part in community events already planned such as Apple Day.

Characterisation and evidence gathering was typically followed by several workshops with the village steering group to develop draft guidance principles. Some of the Village Design Guides have also been dovetailed with concurrent Neighbourhood Plan development processes, and have been particularly useful at the early stages of the Neighbourhood Plan to give communities a backbone of analysis.

Consultation meeting for Swavesey Village Design Guide


Draft guidance and findings from the villages have been used to inform live pre-application discussions with developers in those areas, as well as formal pre-application and application stage responses. The draft documents have also been reviewed by development management officers to test how useful and robust they are in the pressured environment of a live caseload.

At the time of writing, most of the Village Design Guides are in statutory public consultation prior to adoption as Supplementary Planning Documents.

And since starting the Village Design Guides initiative, further villages in the district have also expressed a desire to become involved with planning for appropriate growth.

Aerial sketch from Swavesey Village Design Guide

Clay Field, Elmswell, Suffolk by Riches Hawley Mikhail Architects


The work on the Village Design Guides shows that while there are specific issues that are highly localised, there are common themes and perceptions that emerge across the board from local communities. These can be divided into concerns about the planning and development process; and concerns about the design of developments themselves.

  • Communities are not anti-growth: In this case study nearly 20% of the villages in South Cambridgeshire formally applied to be supported in producing new village design guidance, which was explicitly framed in the prospectus as an initiative that would support, rather than resist, housing growth. Of these, many were small villages classified at the lower end of sustainability (Group or Infill Villages, in the SCDC classification) and their expressions of interest focused specifically on their desire to accommodate more housing in order to sustain and renew their communities, while controlling how this would be designed. In many cases, they view the Local Plan framework as placing too much constraint on development (such as through the village classification and Green Belt policies) while retaining a strong opposition to ‘typical’ housebuilder design approaches.

“We wish to secure a range of housing to meet the needs of all ages… We need to be ambitious about these and ensure delivery.” Village resident, Fulbourn

  • Communities want to be more involved in the early stages of developing proposals: Rural communities, through their parish councils, have a formal role as consultees, but it is clear that the relationship between parishes and planning teams often needs work. Communities can feel that by the time they are consulted – either by developers or as a statutory consultee once an application is submitted – the proposals have been ‘stitched up’ between planners and developers and their feedback is unlikely to have any impact in shaping the scheme.

“Had the developers come and spoken to the community, lots of the antipathy would have gone.” Village resident, Papworth Everard.

  • Communities find the planning system confusing: While parish councils are the statutory planning consultee, many parishes struggle to recruit and retain councillors, and training for parish councillors is patchy. The Village Design Guides project suggests that parish clerks should be the focus for training as they frequently serve more than one parish, continue in their role for many years providing valuable continuity, and are in regular contact with a whole range of other organisations and groups in the village, from schools to Neighbourhood Forums and more.
  • Developments are perceived to turn their backs on the existing village fabric: This is one of the key criticisms offered by the local communities about new development, and manifests itself in a number of ways:
  • New residents are physically isolated from the wider community: This impacts on the sustainability of the very transport links and services that have provided the logic for siting development in that community to start with.
  • New developments lack views out to anything that is locally specific: To adjacent homes or streets, or out to the rural landscape itself. This contributes to the sense of ‘placelessness’ and disconnection to the rural setting.

  • The edges of developments, to both the countryside and neighbouring built-up areas, are abrupt and uncared for: Poor boundary treatments to back gardens – such as close-boarded fencing – predominate, while the ‘fronts’ of new homes – facing the centre of the development – have higher quality hedging, fencing or walls. Landscape buffer strips frequently end up poorly maintained, filled with litter or a become location for anti-social behaviour. The edges of the development are what the rest of the community sees and encounters – both across the landscape and within the village, and this is perceived as both poor design and un-neighbourly.

“There are no sightlines in the development at all. Nobody will see a horizon. You won’t know you’re in the countryside.” Village resident, Caldecote.

If you'd like to learn more about this project, visit South Cambridgeshire District Council's website on village design guides.

This is an example of a project that an Associate in an Urban Design and Community Engagement role did during their placement. If you're interested in the role type, read more below.


Planning and Special Projects Officer