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Fury at plan for ‘another unaccountable body’ to decide on 150,000 homes for Cambridge

Cambridge does not need another “unaccountable body deciding its future”, a leading councillor has argued, after the government announced that a development corporation would oversee plans for 150,000 new homes around the city.

City councillor Cheney Payne, the Liberal Democrats’ Parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, says the government should be helping local authorities to deliver existing housing targets. Thousands of new homes – such as those at Bourn Airfield and Darwin Green – are being held up because chronic water shortages in the region have prompted objections from the Environment Agency.

Lib Dems Tim Bick and Cheney Payne
Lib Dems Tim Bick and Cheney Payne

Cllr Payne was responding after housing secretary Michael Gove announced last month that a new development corporation will oversee the delivery of more than 150,000 homes in an unspecified area around Cambridge. There are currently around 120,000 houses in Greater Cambridge.

Mr Gove’s ‘Cambridge 2040’ vision – initially purported to involve 250,000 homes – is intended to maximise the potential of Cambridge as a global centre for science and technology.

Cllr Payne said: “Michael Gove first announced his ‘half-baked’ plans to turn Cambridge into the next Silicon Valley in July. Five months later, while there is some progress in dropping the number of homes to be built to 150,000 – another number presumably picked out of the sky – he announced his plans to make Cambridgeshire governance even more complicated by imposing a new ‘development corporation’ from Westminster. The last thing Cambridge needs, as it wrestles with the complex problems of how and where to grow, is a new unaccountable body deciding its future.”

Writing for the Cambridge Independent this week, James Littlewood, the chief executive of charity Cambridge Past, Present & Future, questions why a development corporation is needed when the city “already has a good track record of planning for and delivering new houses”.

And he writes: “What about the water supply issue? At the moment Cambridge can’t build any significant new housing, let alone 150,000, because there is not enough water in the aquifer to meet the needs of both humans and the environment.”

The concerns echo those of the leaders of Cambridge City, South Cambridgeshire District and Cambridgeshire County councils and Combined Authority mayor Dr Nik Johnson, who say questions remain over how the government will support current house-building plans given chronic water shortages.

Anglian Water is planning two new reservoirs to serve its region, but these are not due to be ready until the mid-to-late 2030s.

The responsibility for guiding future development usually rests with local authorities. Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council, working together as Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service, are working on a Local Plan that envisages up to about 57,000 new homes in Greater Cambridge by 2041. Tens of thousands of these are already planned, such as at the new towns of Waterbeach and Northstowe. The government, however, has powers to set up development corporations to facilitate developments in areas that need large-scale co-ordination of investment and planning. They are statutory bodies designed to regenerate a designated area and act as the planning authority.

But Cambridgeshire is already served by a web of councils and public bodies, including the county council, district and city councils for South Cambridgeshire, East Cambridgeshire, Cambridge City, Huntingdonshire and Fenland, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

Housing Secretary Michael Gove will give a speech on planning Picture: James Manning/PA
Housing Secretary Michael Gove will give a speech on planning Picture: James Manning/PA

A campaign was launched last year calling for a simplification of Cambridgeshire’s highly complex system of local government.

The Cambs Unitaries Campaign is pushing for a reorganisation of authorities within Cambridgeshire and Peterborough into at least two new unitary authorities.

The campaign has been launched by residents Chris Howell, Martin Lucas-Smith and Phil Rodgers – the Cambridge Independent’s political columnist.

Phil said: “The Cambs Unitaries Campaign isn’t aligned to any particular political party, but we certainly think that the local government arrangements in Cambridgeshire are too complicated already. They make it difficult for residents to know who’s responsible for what, and how to hold them accountable. We think that unitary councils for Cambridgeshire would be a simpler and more effective way of doing things. Adding a development corporation for Cambridge would make things even more complicated, and there will certainly be questions about how accountable it would be to local residents.”

Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner has also slammed the Conservative government for making plans without involving residents or their representatives.

Cllr Payne said: “Cambridge needs to grow if we are to have any chance of providing the homes we need for our young people and our key workers. However, this must be done carefully, with the sensitivities of the area in mind.”

She continued: “Over the last few years, great care has been taken within the emerging Local Plan to outline how we will build the 50,000 homes Cambridge is likely to need by 2040. Local leaders have asked the government repeatedly for the help we need to meet these targets, notably how we ensure the water supply needed and manage transport and infrastructure constraints.

“Before they add yet another body no one really understands to make decisions for us, the government should help us first meet the ambitious housing targets already planned, so we can do more in the future in a way that will succeed.”

Mr Gove has argued the city is a “unique and special case” and its importance nationally means “a different approach is going to be required”. He added: “Nowhere is the future being shaped more decisively than in Cambridge.”

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