Cambridge’s hopes of becoming the’science capital of Europe’ are thwarted by reality

Michael Gove, the housing secretary at the time, set out plans for transforming the university city of Cambridge. He asked his audience to “supercharge” the “science capitol of Europe” by dreaming big.

He described a vision for a “new district” in UK’s leading hub of life sciences with thousands of affordable houses and labs, all set in green spaces that “rival not only the royal parks in London but also the best urban parks around the world”.

The response from local leaders and planning and property experts shows that there are many challenges to the “Cambridge 2040 plan” — part of the much-vaunted government’s ambition to make the UK a ” superpower”.

Gove’s ambitious plans will have to overcome the lack of water infrastructure and transportation, the tightening property market, and community opposition against more housing construction.

Stephen Kelly, Director of Planning for South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge City Council, said: “What we don’t need is another set of top down targets or new visions. We just need help delivering what we already have planned.” Kelly’s vision ignores the fact Cambridge has already planned to build more than 48,000 houses by 2041, which is above the government’s targets.

Greater Cambridge has recently increased its target for building homes by over 7,000 to accommodate the 66,000 new jobs that city planners expect will be created by the boom in investment in life sciences in the next twenty years.

According to council projections, despite the fact that infrastructure shortages are a problem and housing is affordable, fewer homes will be built than were granted planning permission.

Two miles outside of the city, in Eddington (named after Sir Arthur Eddington), flats were built with the latest technology, including centralised recycling and low water consumption. Not all the blocks are sold.

The area’s public and small squares are quiet and empty. Kelly said that it takes a while to build authenticity and to allow the market to accept new homes.

On the northern outskirts, the Waterbeach Development, which is a development of an ex-air force base, has permission to build 6,500 homes. Another 4,500 homes are on hold due to the Environment Agency’s objections over lack of water.

The council estimates that even with upgraded infrastructure, only 5,000 homes will be constructed by 2041.

Paul Mumford of Urban & Civic (the master developer for Waterbeach) says that the high inflation rate is also affecting the pace at which houses are being built.

Prices for four-bedroom homes will be around £700,000. Two-bedroom flats are priced at £290,000. These prices effectively limit the pace at which new houses can be built.

He added, “As a builder you hope to sell a house a week. At least, that was the case one year ago.” “But it’s about half of that now.”

In June, local government leaders warned Gove and Jeremy Hunt (the chancellor) that water shortages could “significantly undermine” the development plan.

The letter, which was seen, urged ministers on to speed up plans for two new dams that are under consideration. It also urged them to reverse the decision to stop construction of a pipe from Grafham Water Reservoir about 20 miles north-east of the city.

The report warned that without solutions, Cambridge University would not be able to issue planning permissions for 9,000 homes and 300,000 sqm of research space.

Another 380,000 sqm of commercial space, research and development labs and laboratory space was also “at-risk” of not progressing.

Boris Johnson’s government has changed direction with its decision to focus attention on the “Golden Triangle” , which includes Oxford, London and Cambridge.

Johnson put the plans for an Oxford-Cambridge ‘Arc’ on hold to focus on spending to “level up” the government agenda in order to reduce regional inequality.

After reports that 1mn houses would have to be constructed, local opposition was sparked.

In February 2022 a Cambridgeshire MP informed constituents Gove mimed to him, sitting on the lavatory, and pulling the chains, saying: “That is what happened to the Arc”. Sunak reaffirmed support for the plan in January.

The Ministers also have committed to the East-West Rail Link, which connects Oxford and Cambridge via Milton Keynes’ distribution centre, revitalizing the idea that was once known as the Varsity Railway.

Bridget Smith, the leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council who signed the letter, stated that the council was pleased with the recent shift in Sunak’s Government to focus investment on areas of high productivity such as Cambridge. However, she added that ministers needed to focus on delivering existing plans before announcing new ones.

The rate of construction has been slowed down significantly due to Brexit, labour shortages and cost of living. She said that the government must help accelerate this delivery.

Local opposition to the Cambridge 2040 Plan, which could lead to “as many” as 250,000 new houses being built has been fierce, with Anthony Browne, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire publicly calling it “ludicrous”.

Browne, in a Letter sent to Smith and Kelly at the end of last month warned that “the extraordinary scale” of housing construction in South Cambridgeshire is “unsustainable” unless improvements are made to water and transport infrastructure.

The government is still determined to move forward with its plans. It has appointed Peter Freeman, Chair of affordable housing organisation Homes England, as the leader of a “delivery team” with a PS5mn Budget to begin “scoping” work for the next quarter.

Kelly stated that there were several potential development sites, including a large area of land that is now the Cambridge Airport on the eastern border of the city and brownfields to the north that would require relocating a water treatment facility.

Homes England refused to comment on Freeman’s role. However, the department responsible for levelling up said that his group will now “work closely with” local people and leaders of councils, who weren’t consulted prior to the plan being briefed to journalists, to bring the vision to life.

The department said that this means unblocking problems like water scarcity in order to support development, where it makes sense. It also means shaping a vision of a new urban district, which ensures that people, places, and businesses can thrive together.