Cambridge dragon

What happens in Cambridge matters here.

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

J.R.R. Tolkien,The Hobbit

And so it is with Cambridge just 10 miles away and arguably the single biggest influence on the future shape and character of the northern part of Uttlesford.

In July 2023 the Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, announced a revamped national programme to build more homes. It includes proposals to turbocharge development around Cambridge City involving up to 250,000 new homes plus labs and science centres.

The reaction has been lukewarm at best, the consensus being that it is unrealistic and will be yet another failed idea; or worse, will leave a trail of poorly designed, car dependent cul-de-sacs in the middle of nowhere, devoid of the infrastructure that communities need for quality of life.

It is not long since Govt (specifically Michael Gove) pulled the plug on the OxCam Arc, a plan to develop housing and science-based employment between Oxford and Cambridge. The objectives included 1m houses and an east-west railway. This was not a Govt initiative, rather it was driven by a mishmash of private sector, institutional and developer interests lacking the weight of Govt-backed regional planning, which has been largely absent in England since the Conservatives came to power.

Local surprise

Gove’s announcement came out of the blue for Cambridge City Council and South Cambs District Council.  There is already planned growth of nearly 60,000 homes in the Cambridge area, with 37,000 of these within the city. The Govt plan will double the population to around 300,000 of whom 50% will be living within the city boundaries.

There is little land within the city that has not already been earmarked for development. To reach even the lower end of Gove’s expectation will mean putting 120,000 homes in an outer ring of new towns, or building a completely new and much larger city to which the existing city would be an annex.

Govt’s desire to make Cambridge the silicon valley of Europe will be led by the former chair of Homes England itself a major player in Northstowe, the partially completed development of 10,000 homes seven miles north of Cambridge city centre. Northstowe is presently mired in controversy after 1,200 homes have been occupied without a shop, GP surgery or community centre. It is also being blamed for the loss of ponds at nearby Longstanton, which started to dry out soon after construction commenced in 2015.

Water, climate change

Water is a burning issue for Cambridge and may yet stymie any large scale development in the short-to-medium term. The city is teetering on the edge of water crisis as massive over-abstraction of groundwater to meet population growth robs chalk streams of flow and destroys habitats.

Uttlesford also has water problems (over-abstraction, low river flow, pollution), which will only get worse in the foreseeable future as rising temperatures and erratic rainfall make the eastern region even hotter and dryer, amplifying the competing demands for water between agriculture, nature and household consumption.

Outlook for Uttlesford

 Any development at scale in Cambridge increases the pressure for the north western part of Uttlesford to function as a dormitory for Cambridge, especially for 4-5 bedroom homes that would be even more expensive on the outskirts of Cambridge. It is also the most profitable end of the housing market for developers. 

It is not however, what Uttlesford most needs in order to maintain generational sustainability of its communities, all the more reason for Uttlesford to get its Local Plan over the line and to focus on what the district really needs rather than what we are forced to accept when developers have the upper hand. 

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Our comment:

This Govt is brimful of visions and ambitions, but so far most have been little more than a deliberate distraction, often announced to shift the focus away from the failure to deliver a previous ambition. And so it seems with this latest set of proposals, all the more so when the timing is considered. The announcement followed soon after the Conservatives’ first lot of disastrous by-election results. That said, Cambridge is motoring ahead and whether by government design or under its own steam Cambridge will continue to grow and substantially.

The ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’ 40 years on.

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