Michael Gove to send ‘super squad’ of planners to Cambridge to ‘supercharge Europe’s science capital’
Government planners are heading to Cambridge to develop plans for a “new urban quarter” and “supercharge Europe’s science capital”.
Housing secretary Michael Gove announced the move this week as part of a government plan to densify the UK’s cities.
In a speech in London, he said the government would “write the next expansive chapter in Cambridge’s story of scientific endeavour”.
But Mr Gove left the city with more questions than answers, with no details of where the new quarter might be.
And the announcement prompted anger and frustration from local politicians, with Liberal Democrat Cllr Pippa Heylings warning the government that it risks “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” with the plans. Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire Anthony Browne went to war with his own government by vowing to “do everything” to stop the “nonsense plans”.
The news comes after the revelation earlier this month that the housing secretary was drawing up proposals for 250,000 new homes in a project dubbed ‘Cambridge 2040’.
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.”
Mr Gove said Boston in 2021 “had six million square feet of lab space under development”. But in an average year, Cambridge and Oxford “together managed just 300,000 square feet”.
Mr Gove announced a Cambridge Delivery Group was being set up to lead the development of the city, backed by £5m and led by the chairman of Homes England, Peter Freeman.
Mr Freeman will work on the “detailed vision for Cambridge’s future” including what it meant for housing, businesses, transport, water supply and public services.
It will also consider options for an appropriate delivery mechanism that will be needed to lead the long-term work on planning, land acquisition and engagement with developers, starting in this parliament but running through the “next few years” as development takes shape.
In the meantime, it will “take forward immediate action to address barriers such as water scarcity”.
A water scarcity working group will be set up with the Environment Agency, Ofwat, central and local government and innovators across industries to identify and accelerate plans to address water constraints.
“I want to take a moment to paint a picture of the kind of evolution that we want to see in the city by 2040,” said Mr Gove, describing a quarter “in keeping with the beauty of the historic centre” and “shaped by the principles of high-quality design, urban beauty and human-scale streetscapes”.
The new quarter would have “a high proportion of affordable homes” with some set aside for key workers and young academics. It would connect, he said, to the rest of the city “with a sustainable transport network that sees current congestion becoming a thing of the past”.
Cambridge’s Labour MP, Daniel Zeichner, said Mr Gove has “completely misunderstood what needs to be done”.
“Years of underfunding the planning system will not be solved by imposing a few people from outside. He would do better to press the Prime Minister to explain why he continues to veto the deal to get the UK back into EU research programmes – the Tories simply don’t understand Cambridge and why it is successful,” he said.
Mr Browne, who will switch to fight for the new St Neots and Mid Cambridgeshire seat at the next General Election, said: “Cambridge is an odd place to start a house building initiative. For one thing, it doesn’t have the kind of brownfield areas the government seems to want to focus on. Any new building in Cambridge city can only be on the countryside, and South Cambridgeshire is already taking its fair share of that, with three new towns being developed here alone. We are doing our part.
“Aside from that, any major house building plans in our area are currently undeliverable for one simple reason – we don’t have the water.”
Mr Browne has previously been highly critical of the emerging Local Plan being jointly drafted by South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge City Council, which envisages nearly 49,000 new homes by 2041. He has argued that figure is well beyond any government-required housebuilding target.
In response, Mr Gove said he believes his colleagues will be won over by the detail of the plans.
The senior Tory said: “It will be the case that, I’m sure, Conservative backbenchers and others, once they have a chance to look at our plans, will realise that this is in the national interest and that’s why we’re acting.”
Cllr Pippa Heylings, who is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire, said the government “risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs”.
She said: “There are indeed big infrastructure issues to resolve and we have been asking the government for investment to help resolve them.
“However, these latest top-down imposed plans from Michael Gove risk riding roughshod over local community voices, over the new Local Plan and over local environmental concerns.
“They are taking local people for granted once again. They are taking away local democratic accountability and replacing it with decrees from on high in Whitehall.”
Dr Alan James, chairman of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CPRE, said Mr Gove’s plans to relax planning rules to create more homes in Cambridge “are nothing short of madness”.
He said: “Cambridge is on the edge of the Fens and very low-lying. Climate change means the rate of annual sea level rise has now increased from 3mm a year to 3.57mm. That, coupled with the predicted effects of melting glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, up to 12 feet globally, means Cambridge is a very silly place to build indeed.”
Cambridgeshire’s mayor Dr Nik Johnson said he shares concerns “that Cambridge infrastructure is currently not ready for such a development”.
“Water scarcity is a very real issue that is limiting the growth of our marvellous city,” he said.
Dr Johnson continued: “My call to the government is simple, utilise the existing institutions in our region to deliver your ambitions: 6,000 sustainable, genuinely affordable, well-designed homes, as well as schools, parks and more than one million square feet of much-needed commercial life science research space, is not unwelcome. Especially if the delivery of that will solve the current water crisis in Cambridge.”
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, the Lib Dem leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, said she has “a number of serious concerns” about what exactly is being “offered, or threatened, for Cambridge”.
She said: “Any offer of support to tackle the crisis of water sufficiency in our area is much needed, and very welcome. This is an issue all local councils have been raising regularly with government, and we are relieved if the urgency of the situation is now recognised.
“However there are other elements of the proposals which I find very worrying. One of those is the emphasis on control from Whitehall. The idea of a planning super-squad descending on Cambridge is not something I am reassured by, and I find the idea that a secretary of state should be the arbiter of what is beautiful for Cambridge deeply concerning. Cambridge is full of fantastic architecture, with a huge variety of different styles. I would be very concerned at the idea that we would have the future design of our city dictated by any minister, or ministerial appointee.
“Local places are far more successful if they are designed and developed with the support of local people. The fact that local leaders were only briefed on these plans a matter of minutes before Mr Gove’s speech does not give confidence that the views of local people will be at the heart of any new proposals.
“I am also very concerned that there doesn’t seem to be any indication in these plans that government are listening to our concerns over fair funding for Cambridgeshire. The funding for Cambridgeshire’s health and care services is based on figures which are at least 10 years out of date, meaning our hospitals are full and GPs stretched to breaking point. I would ask that government offer help with these existing issues, if they are going to ask for even faster growth for our area.”
Cllr Bridget Smith, the Liberal Democrat leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, said more information was still needed about the government plans.
She 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.”
Cambridge Labour has said it is “still unclear” about what the government’s plans will actually entail.
A spokesperson for the group said: “The government must recognise the serious issues which we have consistently raised as we develop our emerging Local Plan, most notably the water crisis, lack of transport infrastructure, and a continuing housing shortage.
“We urgently need the government to commit to all necessary measures to resolve this. This includes measures to reduce domestic, industrial and agricultural abstraction of water use and investment to clean our rivers and chalk streams.”
The leader of Cambridge City council, Cllr Mike Davey, said the authority would work with the government to “ensure we can build a sustainable and beautiful Cambridge”.
“We urgently need the government to commit to all necessary measures to resolve these problems with the council and our partners. This includes innovative measures to reduce domestic, industrial and agricultural water consumption and investment to clean our rivers and chalk streams.”
Cllr Naomi Bennett, leader of the Green Party group at the city council, said Mr Gove’s speech “raises more questions than it answers”.
She said: “There are already large and controversial plans to convert the Beehive and Grafton retail centres to lab space with several other major lab space projects in the works.
“It’s really hard to see how any more can be fitted in. Michael Gove talks about pricing new graduates out of the housing market but his vision of funnelling even more jobs into Cambridge will make things much harder for all Cambridge residents.
“It’s also not clear how his new quango will work with the council’s existing planning service or the Greater Cambridge Partnership, which would appear to have overlapping roles. Despite the occasional Cambridge reference, this does not read like the speech of someone who knows or understands Cambridge.”