Town v gown battle in Cambridge over green belt plan to solve housing crisis

City jobs boom brings need for more homes – but proposals could lead to the loss of protected land

It has all the elements of a Tom Sharpe comic novel, a town versus gown spat in which wealthy colleges, politicians and conservation groups slug it out to shape the future of Cambridge. Who emerges victorious will reveal much about how Britain could look decades from now.

The seeds of the row lie in the city’s economic success. Thanks to the draw of its university, Cambridge has become a magnet for technology and biomedical firms. But this brings attendant pressures. Between 2001 and 2011, the population of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire increased by 14%, from 240,000 to 275,000, placing huge demands on housing. The average house price in the city is now above £500,000.

“We’ve got an economy where jobs growth in recent years has been 7%,” said Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council. “But housing has been growing by 2.6%. We’ve got to balance the number of jobs with the need for more housing. People on low incomes are being forced out.”

A study commissioned by the council suggests there will be a need for another 34,000 homes in the area by 2031.

But some in the Cambridge development lobby want to go much further. They talk of transforming Cambridge (population: 125,000) into a city of 600,000 inhabitants and a million workers. It is a vision that has captured the attention of the government, which talks of building a new “Silicon Fen” between Milton Keynes and Cambridge.

A group of Cambridge colleges believe one partial solution is to build homes on green belt land they own to the west of the city. The group comprising Downing, Jesus and Corpus Christi colleges, along with the university as a whole, claims that more than 41,000 homes are needed in the area by 2031 – 7,000 more than the council estimates – and this makes a compelling case for lifting green belt protection.

The group proposes to build about 1,400 new homes, 40% of which will be affordable with community facilities and a primary school on green belt land. A university spokeswoman said: “This proposal is aimed at creating a community of people who can walk, cycle or take the bus to work throughout the city. This will help meet the considerable challenges relating to transport and the affordability and supply of housing in Cambridge today.

The city council’s Herbert, however, sees the colleges’ plan as “premature”. Instead, the council has approved up to 15 new developments on brownfield sites miles away from Cambridge.

To alleviate pressure on infrastructure, the Greater Cambridge City Deal, a body set up by local councils, is considering plans for a dedicated busway, up to 20m wide and with the potential to take driverless cars, through the fields and water meadows west of Cambridge.

A confidential memo from planning officers to the City Deal board last month explains that while this plan has environmental impacts “these are not as great as some claim”.

But conservation groups claim that the fields are an essential part of the city’s rural character. An online petition against the plan quotes a book written by two Cambridge academics in which the fields are described as “Cambridge’s most neglected monument”.

In 2008 the high court blocked development plans for the west of the city. Now there is a fear that if the busway is approved, further developments will not be far behind. Rod Cantrill, a city councillor, recently warned: “It will remove one of the key reasons that stopped developers from developing the land.”

Colin Brown, of estate agents Carter Jonas, which is acting on behalf of the Cambridge colleges, conceded that they could see some value in building the busway. But he said the colleges favoured a “more sensible strategy” that would allow some building on their green belt land to take pressure off the city’s infrastructure. Mal Schofield, a former city councillor, said those who opposed developing the land were labouring under “ultra conservatism with a very strong element of paranoia.” But Stephen Coates of the Save the West Fields campaign group said the vast majority of local people opposed the plan and claimed that Cambridge was now at a ”tipping point”. “What’s more important,” Coates asked. “Protecting this world heritage site or saying ‘to hell with it, let’s build out and sacrifice everything for science parks and houses?”


Jamie Doward

The GuardianTramp

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