‘Absurd’ and ‘enormously destructive’ – the verdict after report suggests Michael Gove wants to build 250,000 homes in Cambridge region
Disbelief and anger has greeted a report that levelling up secretary Michael Gove is proposing that 250,000 new homes should be built in the Cambridge region over two decades to turn it into the UK’s Silicon Valley.
Pippa Heylings, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire, described the project - dubbed ‘Cambridge 2040’ - as an “absurd” and “undeliverable” plan from a Conservative government that is “in its dying days”.
And South Cambridgeshire’s Conservative MP Anthony Browne pledged to fight the “enormously destructive” plans, which he said he had “no knowledge” of prior to them surfacing in a Sunday Times report today (July 9).
He predicted the project “will not happen” because of the water shortages in the region that have recently prompted the Environment Agency to take the unusual step of blocking developments in the region.
The Sunday Times said the proposals had been drawn up in recent months by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) as part of a “blueprint to fix England’s housing crisis and unleash growth in the life sciences and technology sectors”.
It reported that the proposals were at “concept” stage, but that officials were looking at “huge expansion” of Cambridge, and seeking to identify “large swathes of land to construct new business parks, laboratories and science hubs”.
A new rail, tram or bus network to improve connectivity was also being examined, the newspaper reported.
In a statement, Cambridge City Council said: “We note the speculation in the Sunday Times that suggests ministers are considering significant increases in housing in and around Cambridge.
“The city council has not been consulted on these ideas, which we note are described as being at the ‘concept’ stage.
“As the planning authority, the council would expect to be fully engaged in any proposals and the decision-making regarding the future of our city.”
Mr Browne, who will switch to fight new St Neots and Mid Cambridgeshire seat at the next General Election, responded: “I had no knowledge of this, and needless to say I will be fighting it. It would be enormously destructive of our environment and way of life.
“It also will not happen: there is no water for these houses. The Environment Agency is already blocking all the major developments around Cambridge being pushed by the Lib Dems, and their South Cambs candidate, who supports their plans for massive over development.
“I have already made my views clear to Michael Gove, the housing secretary, and will discuss it with him next week.
Mr Browne has been a vocal opponent of the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan proposals from Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire District Council and Labour-run Cambridge City Council, which envisage nearly 49,000 new homes across the two areas by 2041.
He has previously argued the councils’ plan goes well beyond any house-building targets set by the government.
But one source was reported by the Sunday Times as saying the project was like “taking the Local Plan and putting it on steroids”.
Cllr Heylings, who will oppose Conservative Chris Carter-Chapman in South Cambridgeshire at the next General Election, said she would write to Mr Gove about the plans.
She was alarmed by the Sunday Times’ claim that No 10 and the DLUHC are considering changing the environmental restrictions requiring developers to prove new homes will not lead to more phosphates and nitrates polluting our rivers, potentially by offsetting it elsewhere.
She said: “After years of being taken for granted by this government, it is time ministers realised the true potential of Cambridgeshire. We are already world leaders in numerous industries and would welcome support from ministers to further that work. However housebuilding of this scale - essentially tripling the size of Cambridge - with such disregard for the environment, would be catastrophic.
"And yet again, the Conservatives say one thing - but do another. Local Conservative MPs say they care about protecting our water supply and local countryside, but these plans paint a very different picture. We just can't trust the Conservatives - with our environment, with our future, or simply to tell the truth.
"The proposals to weaken environmental protections are particularly alarming in a water stressed area such as Cambridgeshire and where our rivers are already suffering from pollution.
"These are absurd and undeliverable plans for a Conservative government on its way out and in its dying days. If the Conservatives really want to support our area in their final few months of power, as I've said before, they need to take action to fix our water supply issues and clean up the sewage dumped in our rivers on their watch."
Asked by the Cambridge Independent to verify the report, a government spokesperson gave an initial response, saying: ‘‘We are determined to help more young families own a home of their own - and that means working with local communities to build more of the right homes in the right places.
“We know that development is only welcomed when new homes are beautiful and built alongside new GP surgeries, schools and transport links.
“Our reforms have democracy, environmental enhancement and new neighbourhoods at their heart and will help us reach our target of one million new homes this Parliament.”
Answers to further questions about what region the 250,000 homes could be built in, whether the area’s water infrastructure has been considered and whether the East West Rail line would drive these plans are awaited.
The East West Railway Company recently suggested the possibility of massive expansions at Tempsford in Bedfordshire, and in Cambourne - both of which are due to get new stations on the line.
Cheney Payne, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, said: “Firstly, it's absurd for Michael Gove to draw up plans for the next 17 years when he’ll be kicked out of government within the next 17 months.
“It is clearly not a plan to provide Cambridge with what it needs; which is affordable, sustainable housing, with proper public transport infrastructure and community facilities at its heart.
“Gove has exposed the Conservative’s real view of Cambridge – just another part of Britain that can be sold off to the highest bidder.
“It also flies in the face of local Tory MP Antony Browne’s repeated attacks on our council’s current plans to build tens of thousands of new homes by 2040, which actually try to balance the need for homes with the need for proper infrastructure, a more secure water supply and improved biodiversity. I think we’re all used to this kind of hypocrisy from the Tories by now.”
And while the region has long been dubbed Silicon Fen, it does not need to go down the Silicon Valley route, she argued.
“San Francisco’s Silicon Valley is not what Cambridge needs. There, wealth has been created for a select few, but it has also generated inequality, poverty and pollution. Cambridge can do much better,” she said.
“We do not need to aspire to be somewhere else; Cambridge is already an inspiration for the world, with unique heritage and a world-leading science and tech sector.
“We must build more homes: the city is growing and we have a lot to contribute to the world over the next 20 years, but we need to build for our community, not despite them.”
“Liberal Democrat-led councils have built more homes over the last decades than the Conservatives have, but they have done this by putting people at the centre of urban design and planning.
“We know a lot of large companies want to be in Cambridge, and we know there is a huge potential for start-ups in our region. This is important and the right way forward, but only if it raises the standard of living for everyone who wants to live here”.
“If the Tory government wants to actually do something for Cambridge with their last few months in power then they need to solve our region’s water issues; build reservoirs, build pipelines and work with all parties to develop a long-term plan to support growth where it is needed.”
South Cambridgeshire District Council was similiarly in the dark about the proposals.
Cllr Bridget Smith, the council’s Liberal Democrat leader, said: “We had no knowledge of this concept Michael Gove and his department are reported to be working up. We will be contacting him to find out more, as this is simply not appropriate. The scale of this plan is vast when compared to the growth our evidence has shown is needed here, and for it to even be suggested that the environmental standards could be relaxed is a huge concern.
“We know we need to deliver some growth, but that must be in a managed way, and for any meaningful growth to take place here we need assurances over a water supply that does not have a negative impact on the environment.”
There was criticism from conservation groups too.
Craig Bennett, the Cambridge-based chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, tweeted in response: “The #EastOfEngland in general, and #Cambridge in particular, is one of the most water-stressed parts of the UK.
“So where is the additional #water going to come from @michaelgove?
“We need answers to this question before any such announcement is made, not just to try and figure it out as an afterthought.
“And the idea that the biggest scale developments are exempt from environmental rules is absolutely absurd; these are the developments where such rules should matter most.
“How on earth is this proposal compatible to halving nutrient pollution in our rivers in the next 6.5 years, a promise your government made at @UNBiodiversity #COP15 just 6.5 months ago?!”