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Cambridgeshire leaders waiting for answers over water shortages as Michael Gove plots 150,000 homes for Cambridge

Cambridgeshire leaders say questions remain over how the government will support current house-building given chronic water shortages in the region following the announcement of plans to expand Cambridge.

Michael Gove announced this week that a new development corporation will oversee the delivery of more than 150,000 homes around Cambridge.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove

In a speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects on Tuesday, the housing secretary said his vision for the city will “exemplify what it means to fall back in love with the future”.

He hopes to maximise its potential as a leading centre for science and technology.

But local leaders say they are still waiting for answers over how the government will support current house-building.

Cllr Mike Davey, the Labour leader of Cambridge City Council, told the Cambridge Independent: “We can’t deliver against our own Local Plan without significant improvement in terms of water access, and sustainable transport.

“And without those things, we can’t even deliver the 50,000-plus homes that we’re trying to sort out. There’s enough going on at the moment, without thinking about what might happen in 2050.”

The Environment Agency (EA) has already objected to plans for thousands of homes in and around the city over “water scarcity” – and Mr Gove also acknowledged that Cambridge is “already water stressed”.

In a joint statement, the leaders of Cambridge City, South Cambridgeshire District and Cambridgeshire County councils and Combined Authority mayor Dr Nik Johnson said it was “deeply disappointing” that government plans for the city were “being negotiated through the press”.

They said: “We have written to the secretary of state a number of times over the past month to stress the importance of committing to sustainable growth, and to reiterate the support that is needed to enable us to plan for the homes set out in the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan. This includes prioritising sustainable public transport,community infrastructure such as schools and GPs, and water shortages in the region, which are putting our chalk streams under extreme pressure – an issue which the Greater Cambridge Planning Service warned in January 2023 could delay existing plans for house building if not addressed by the government.”

Mr Gove was quizzed about the government’s plans to tackle the issue of a lack of water in and around Cambridge following his speech.

He was asked whether the government would be stepping in to help progress Anglian Water’s plans for a new reservoir near Chatteris, which will not be built until 2029 at the earliest.

“There is more we need to do in order to unlock necessary infrastructure and we absolutely must. Cambridge is already water stressed at the moment, it must grow and we must have the new water supply as well as the adjustments on demand that I mentioned,” he said.

In July, Mr Gove announced the Cambridge 2040 plans for a new urban quarter in the city to bolster its status as a science and technology capital. He argued that its growth is being slowed by a lack of laboratory space and new housing.

Following a visit to Cambridge by the Cabinet minister in November, local leaders along with the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) and business representatives wrote to urge the government to commit to supporting sustainable growth in Cambridgeshire.

This commitment would involve resolving the area’s water supply challenges, providing £162million to support a Transport and Works Act application for the Cambridge South East Transport (CSET) scheme – currently paused by the GCP – and supporting the GCP to provide a “deliverable solution” to current growth.

It also called for support for planning authorities and for investment in health and social care to match population growth.

Tens of thousands of new homes are also to be built around Cambridge under the proposals.

“Nowhere is the future being shaped more decisively than in Cambridge. But until now, as I pointed out, its growth has been constrained,” said Mr Gove.

He continued: “Delivering our vision means laying groundwork for the long term and that starts now. We will establish a new development corporation with a broadly based board to steer its efforts.

“These we will arm with the right leadership and the full range of powers necessary to marshal this huge project over the next two decades regardless of the shifting sands at Westminster.”

The new statutory body will have the power to compulsorily purchase land.

Mr Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, added: “We recognise the scale of development we’re talking about will require an upfront investment that is commensurate with our level of ambition across both the public and private sector. And we must also ensure we have an approach towards water that reflects the nature of Cambridge’s geography.

“That’s why we’re announcing today new steps to help manage demand for water in new developments and we will say more about new sources of water supply in the new year. Because our vision for Cambridge has been to exemplify what it means to fall back in love with the future.

“It’s going to set the standard for how we protect and preserve what makes a city special, and also how we design and equip it for the century.”

Taking questions from the audience, Mr Gove confirmed the government’s ambition is for 150,000 homes around Cambridge, but said he did not want to “constrain the ambition of the development corporation”, adding: “For me, more is better.”

Cllr Mike Davey, leader of Cambridge City Council Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Mike Davey, leader of Cambridge City Council Picture: Keith Heppell

Mr Gove also announced a series of measures in his speech to boost planning performance across the system, including naming and shaming local authorities that are too slow to respond to applications.

The government will publish “robust league tables” to reveal councils’ poor performance on planning, he said.

But Mr Gove added local authorities will be able to reject development if it would significantly alter the character of an area or have an impact upon the green belt.

Mr Gove said in his speech: “Local authorities have the comfort of knowing that they need not redraw the green belt or sacrifice protected landscapes to meet housing numbers.”

He insisted his plans make clear there is “no excuse” for local authorities not to have a housing plan in place and there would be “no excuse for not delivering against that plan”.

Wendy Blythe, spokesperson for the Federation of Cambridge Residents Associations (FECRA), asked why residents have not been asked about the proposals for Cambridge.

“Residents are asking – where is the democracy in this? Everywhere else gets a say but not Cambridge? In a city of 55,000 houses, adding 150,000 houses is not an ‘urban extension’. Do our city councillors support these plans?’

“We don’t have the infrastructure or water to support the population we have now, and growth on this scale is not sustainable without causing huge harm to the environment.

“These are not homes for local people, but for those moving here for jobs. Cambridge does not have an unemployment problem, but other parts of the country do.

“How is bringing even more people here to work here and needing homes ‘levelling-up’?

“Is Michael Gove’s message to young people in the UK: ‘Get on your bike, come to Cambridge?’”

The plans for Cambridge’s expansion were previously opposed by Tory MP for South Cambridgeshire Anthony Browne, who in July pledged to “do everything” to stop the “nonsense plans to impose mass housebuilding on Cambridge”.

At the time, Mr Browne said the area had “quite literally run out of water”.

Reacting to Mr Gove’s speech, Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner slammed the Tories for making plans without involving residents or their representatives.

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