Cambridge vision

Cambridge 2000 memos

March 2000

The university and the hi-tech industries are the two golden geese for Cambridge.

The first golden goose normally gets what it wants and the colleges own much of the property in and around Cambridge, so university institutions have little problem obtaining permission to expand, leaving only the difficulty of raising funds, which the university has been very successful at recently.

The second golden goose, which will provide most of the future prosperity of Cambridge, is not treated with sufficient respect by government, in particular the fairly arbitrary planning policy is not designed to encourage worthwhile growth in or near Cambridge.

In the year 2000 there is a specified and somewhat rigid boundary around Cambridge (and other towns in the UK) outside of which is the so-called greenbelt. On one side of the magic line land is worth 500000 pounds or more per acre (2 million Euros per hectare), on the other side it is worth 1/100 of that. Except that the people (or organisations) who own the greenbelt land near Cambridge would never sell it for what one could buy similar land in the middle of nowhere, because they expect the city boundary to move outwards at some point in the next few years or decades. But this imbalance in prices already says that the property market is vastly distorted, to the benefit of nobody except property developers. It makes the cost of living higher for everybody else.

In Cambridge the greenbelt is mostly boring fields on which are grown European Union subsidised crops, in effect the land is unproductive and it could perfectly happily be used for housing and commercial activities. There is plenty of land around Cambridge, but the current governmental bodies have decided that this land should not be used (with occasional exceptions made for powerful organisations). This means that house prices in and around Cambridge are higher than they need to be. The national government has made some indication that this might change in the near future, only if it does change this will only happen in a piecemeal and arbitrary fashion.

Historically Cambridge has never been a rich town, aside from a few academics, so the existing housing stock is of fairly poor quality. It is only now that money is starting to pour into town as a result of hi-tech activity and continued university expansion. In an equivalent American town this would mean that beautiful new houses would be built. In Cambridge the opposite happens, the government has decided that rather than build new houses on the boundary of Cambridge it is better to squeeze more and more houses into the existing Cambridge. So, for example, people get planning permission to knock down their garage and put up a new house in its place, making the existing housing stock ever more crowded and unattractive.

It is also unfortunate that many of the high-quality houses are on main roads, such as Huntingdon Road, Hills Road, Madingley Road and Barton Road, or on busy roads, such as Grange Road and Storey's Way, so in fact are not that high quality, if peace and quiet are considered.

When new houses are built around Cambridge it is often in very large quantities and densely packed such as in Bar Hill and Cambourne, and these are so far from Cambridge that the only way into Cambridge, where most jobs are located, is by car (or in theory public transport), not by foot or bicycle.

The current planning system is stacked in favour of organisations, who can afford to wait many years to get planning permission because when they eventually get it they will build hundreds or thousands of homes on the land. Individuals do not have that time to wait, or the money to waste fighting their corner. The system should be turned around, individuals should be allowed to build houses almost anywhere, organisations should not.

High-density housing might be appropriate in London but it is not appropriate in Cambridge. There is plenty of land for low-density housing very near Cambridge if only the political will was there to use it.

As an example of what could be done, there is a large field bordered by Cambridge on one side (Huntingdon Road and Histon Road) and a major road, the A14, on the other. This area, over 250 acres (100 hectares) in size, should be turned into a major new residential development, where each house is on a plot with minimum size 1/4 acre (i.e. low density). Commercial buildings should be set on the land immediately adjacent to the A14, to act as a buffer.

The people or organisations who own the land in this field should not become instant millionaires. The government should appropriate the land and give the owners twice the current (greenbelt) value of the land. They should then get an urban planner to create an overall plan which splits the land into (wide, tree-lined) roads, (separate) bicycle paths, housing plots, etc. Each housing plot should be auctioned to the highest bidder and the resulting money should be used to help develop the infrastructure. Only individuals, not organisations, should be allowed to bid for the plots. With a suitable environment people might be encouraged to walk or cycle to work. There should be a decent cycle path from this area to the Science Park and into the city.

Further, the A14 should be upgraded to a 3 or 4 lane motorway and the M11 near Cambridge should also have commercial developments (such as shopping centres) along it, to reduce the car traffic into Cambridge from the nearby villages. And it would be sensible to have another motorway connecting the M11 at the south side of Cambridge to the A14 at the east side of Cambridge, the A11 is too far away to serve this purpose. There would then be a proper ring road similar to the M25 around Cambridge.

It only takes vision.

Cambridge 2000 memos