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Cambridge 2040 is ‘dead in the water’, MP tells Michael Gove

Government plans for a “new urban quarter” in Cambridge are “dead on arrival” without a solution to the city’s lack of water, an MP has said.

Housing secretary Michael Gove announced proposals to “supercharge Europe’s science capital” as part of a government plan to densify the UK’s cities.

He said the government would “write the next expansive chapter in Cambridge’s story of scientific endeavour”.

The news came after the revelation that the housing secretary was drawing up proposals for 250,000 new homes in a project dubbed ‘Cambridge 2040’.

“Without sorting out the water supply issues, plans for new quarters are dead on arrival,” the Conservative MP said.

Mr Browne underscored the scale of housebuilding that is already taking place, with Northstowe and Waterbeach as well as the significant developments at Trumpington Meadows, and further afield at Alconbury Weald and St Neots.

He also made clear that Cambridge already has several ‘new quarters’ at different stages, including East Cambridge on the airport site, North East Cambridge, West Cambridge, and Eddington.

South Cambridgeshire had the second highest housebuilding of any district in the country last year, higher than any London borough.

Mr Gove said in his speech: “Cambridge has been one of the intellectual centres of the world for eight centuries – the birthplace of generations of innovation.

“But Cambridge’s future potential has been circumscribed by a lack of new space for lab capacity and research activity, and also by the constraints on new housing, which have priced new graduates out of the market and have also made attracting and retaining talent harder.”

The Greater Cambridge area already has identified a need for 57,000 new homes by 2041 under plans for the new joint Local Plan.

However, Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council have been clear to point out that growth could only be delivered if the challenge over water supply could be solved.

The Environment Agency recently confirmed it had formally objected to five large housing developments in South Cambridgeshire because of fears they did not have sustainable water supplies.

Mr Browne told Mr Gove that any further deterioration of the county’s water supplies would not be acceptable, and urged the secretary or state to make a public commitment to that effect. The issue of water supply remains a red line for Mr Browne.

He also noted that development around Cambridge has garnered a negative reputation and referenced the significant lack of amenities in Cambourne and Northstowe.

Under the government’s plans, a Cambridge 2040 Delivery Group will be set up to lead the development of the city, backed by £5m and led by the chairman of Homes England, Peter Freeman.

Mr Browne also shared his views with Mr Freeman in a separate meeting. Mr Freeman will work on the “detailed vision for Cambridge’s future” including what it means for housing, businesses – including in the technology and life sciences sectors – transport, healthy living and green spaces.

The delivery group is charged with developing a master plan, enforcing “high-quality design standards”, buying land, approving planning and working with developers, Mr Gove said. A Water Scarcity Working Group would be established with the Environment Agency, water regulator Ofwat, local government and industry to try to address the issue.

There would be a £3m fund to improve the water efficiency of existing homes and commercial property in the city “to help offset demands created by new developments”, Mr Gove said.

Mr Browne responded after the meetings: “During my meetings this week, I stressed how Cambridge is already expanding very rapidly, with mass housebuilding already taking place, and the disastrous plans to accelerate this by the Lib Dems at South Cambridgehire District Council.

“Last year, Cambridge saw more housebuilding than most major cities in the country, with little thought for our dwindling water supplies or services for residents. Where they are building houses, SCDC is slow to secure key facilities like GP surgeries or even shops. In Northstowe, you can’t even buy a pint of milk.

“The government must learn from these errors and find a comprehensive and sustainable approach to Cambridge’s development, looking at all the issues from water supplies, laboratory space, electricity supplies, transport infrastructure and services to residents.”

Cllr Bridget Smith, the Liberal Demcorat leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, said: “The Greater Cambridge area already has identified a need for 50,000 new homes. Our plans for how that need could be met have been prepared following local consultation and we have a robust evidence base to back up what is being suggested.

“When we published those plans earlier this year, we said very clearly that that level of growth could only be delivered if the challenge over water supply could be solved, and the environment, including our vital chalk streams, is enhanced and improved. On the face of it this announcement seems to centre on what we are already planning to deliver in Greater Cambridge, hence why we need more information.

“Until we have that we, along with our local communities, will remain concerned. We have tens of thousands of homes already agreed to be built in new towns and villages in this area and we’d much rather the government worked with big developers, including the government’s own agency Homes England, to incentivise them to build these sites out faster and with a wider range of homes for all to help with the affordability of housing in the area. If this announcement does that then it will be welcomed.”

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