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3,000 homes a year could be built in Greater Cambridge - and MP fears it would fundamentally change area



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Up to 3,000 homes could be built every year in the Greater Cambridge area under ambitious growth plans – but there are major concerns over water supplies, transport connections and the future character of the region.

It has been suggested that Cambridge’s special nature would be “destroyed” by this level of development, while South Cambridgeshire’s MP Anthony Browne said it would fundamentally change the district from “rural to urbanised”.

Anthony Browne. Picture: Keith Heppell. (42373466)
Anthony Browne. Picture: Keith Heppell. (42373466)

It follows the publication of new documents by Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council, which are working on a joint Local Plan that will set out a strategy for development in the area from 2023.

They suggest up to 62,700 additional homes will be needed in the next 20 years to cope with the 7,000 new jobs being created in the region annually.

Conservative Mr Browne came to office pledging to fight against his constituency being concreted over.

He told the Cambridge Independent: “These figures have confirmed the worst fears of residents. Growth is not a problem in its own right – indeed, it is essential for any thriving economic and social hub like South Cambridgeshire. The problem lies in unwanted, unsustainable and unprecedented levels of housebuilding. This would fundamentally change the character of South Cambridgeshire from rural to urbanised, with all the pressures on services that will bring with it.

“I have raised this repeatedly with South Cambs District Council, writing a letter to the leader in July to ask that the council does not seek to build any more houses than required by national government targets. These initial findings suggest that local planners are contemplating going even further than I feared, with up to 3,000 new homes being built every year for the next 20 years – an extraordinary increase.

“It is vital that we have as transparent a consultation process as possible. Local voices should remain at the heart of any proposals, and I will continue to seek reassurance that residents will be properly informed and consulted as the Local Plan develops.”

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The minimum number of new homes that would need to be built in the area, according to the government, is around 1,900 per year. This is about 180 more homes per year than are currently in the development pipeline.

However, the council documents published this month say that taking into account forecasts for jobs growth in the area, the need for homes could be 2,200-3,000 homes per year, to help reduce pressure on house prices and commuting into the area. This would mean finding sites for up to 1,250 extra homes per year.

Up to 3,000 new homes a year could be built in Greater Cambridge
Up to 3,000 new homes a year could be built in Greater Cambridge

A spokesperson for the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Association, David Plank, warned: “I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Cambridge’s special character would be destroyed if this level of development went ahead. And what people value about the city would be hugely diminished.

“The problem is this growth is market led. We are now adding 7,000 new jobs a year in the Greater Cambridge area, and many are jobs in life sciences and IT that draw in people from outside the area. This growth rate would double the amount of jobs by 2040. It’s completely unsustainable in terms of housing, education, health transport and other infrastructure that would be necessary to go with that.”

The consequences of this would be disastrous

David, who has just published a report through Cambridge Commons called Cambridge Growth Beyond Reason, added: “The consequences of this would be disastrous for Greater Cambridge. We are not a metropolis – we are a relatively small city with a hinterland and the consequences of that kind of growth would be densification beyond people’s imagination. The pressure to develop housing in Cambridge would be immense.

“It would have impacts on all of our natural resources including water, it would harm efforts to improve the very low biodiversity of Cambridge and its surrounds – the city council even declared a biodiversity emergency – and it would have a huge impact on the precious Green Belt. Transport links cannot keep up with this level of house building.

“The high-growth people in government, locally, are not thinking ahead. They need to consider if we got what we wanted, what would it look like? Could we actually deliver it? It would be awful. We are talking about environmental urban and rural degradation of a massive order.”

With Cambridge water supplies already under pressure, this level of house building could require new reservoirs or even water to be pumped in from outside the area.

The Greater Cambridge Planning Service, which brings together the two councils, published its ‘interim findings’ on Monday (November 16) as part of the Local Plan process.

Is there sufficient labour to build as many homes as suggested?
Is there sufficient labour to build as many homes as suggested?

The documents say: “Water supply analysis shows that the minimum required level of growth could be plausibly achieved through adjustments to current water resource management plans, such as greater water efficiency, reducing leakages and shifting to more sustainable water sources.

“Medium or high growth levels would need new regional scale infrastructure, such as reservoirs and transfer schemes, and this will inform plans currently being developed by the water industry. Under normal means of provision, these will take time to implement, and this could be a ‘deal breaker’ that means high growth levels cannot be achieved within the period of the new plan.”

Water management will also influence the location of new homes.

The councils said that from this perspective, “the best place to build new homes would be in new settlements, or to build large developments on the edge of Cambridge. This is because they can be designed from the outset for efficient and integrated water management, rather than having to ‘bolt on’ to existing infrastructure in the city or existing villages where there may be existing flood risk, waste water and water quality constraints”.

The planning service also suggests market-led development should be able to pay for 40 per cent of affordable housing in major developments.

Carbon emissions associated with each new home could equate to between six and 13 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, depending on the type and location of the home, but if ambitious zero carbon policies were brought in, this could reduce emissions to two to nine tonnes per home. Almost none of this would relate to the building’s own energy use, and only one tonne from building the home. The rest would relate to travel patterns – meaning new homes in villages would create three times as much carbon as new homes in denser urban areas.

Greater Cambridge had 121,000 homes in 2017. Under the current plans, there is expected to be 36,400 additional homes by 2040, with sites like Waterbeach new town, Northstowe, Bourn Airfield and Cambourne West contributing,

A map of the Cambourne West area
A map of the Cambourne West area

Last year, the councils said their initial estimate was that the new Local Plan would have to incorporate an additional 5,000 to 30,000 homes, meaning a total of between 40,900 and 66,700 new homes by 2040.

The latest figures show that the window has now been revised slightly to between 40,300 and 62,700 by 2041.

Cambridge Airport could provide up to 12,000 of these, and North East Cambridge development a further 8,000. Progress on the metro and East West Rail could have an impact on the most suitable sites for other major developments.

The councils’ summary says: “Our evidence suggests there could be real challenges in achieving very high levels of house-building due to market forces, but that the minimum level set by the government’s standard method may not respond to the current forecast growth in jobs in the area, potentially leading to higher house prices and more commuting into the area.”

Further studies are under way. The councils will then decide on a “preferred option” on the volume and location of development ahead of a public consultation next year.

Landowners and developers have already proposed locations for new homes, as the Cambridge Independent reported earlier this year. We have published an interactive table and map of all the sites they have put forward.

How Waterbeach new town could look. Picture: Urban & Civic
How Waterbeach new town could look. Picture: Urban & Civic

Cllr Katie Thornburrow, executive councillor for planning policy and open spaces at Labour-run Cambridge City Council, said: “These findings demonstrate some of the big challenges we face as we progress to a net zero carbon future. We want the new plan to show that we can live within our environmental limits at the same time as meeting the needs of all our communities, in terms of jobs, affordable homes and equal access to opportunities in the area.

“It is in everyone’s interest for the right amount of development to be achieved in a carefully planned way – and this evidence all helps to ensure that’s exactly what we are able to do.”

Cllr Tumi Hawkins, lead cabinet member for planning at Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire District Council, said: “We need to find the right sites for homes, jobs and local services, so that we minimise carbon emissions and improve the natural environment, while enabling communities of all sizes to be affordable and vibrant places to live.

“The process of developing a Local Plan has to meet a very high bar.”

Additional reporting: Ben Hatton, Local Democracy Reporter

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