10 July 2023

Ignore the Hupperts: Cambridge 2040 is an economic and political necessity


‘Yes we need some more housing – especially affordable housing.’

One can already imagine the rest of this tweet from Julian Huppert, the former Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, without any need to read it. He actually takes two whole sentences more before getting to the inevitable ‘But…’.

Conservative MPs may be useless about getting planning reform through whilst they’re actually sitting, but there has at least been some tendency for them to find their voice on the housing crisis once they are standing down or have left the Commons. No such luck here; perhaps, to paraphrase Lloyd George, Dr Huppert has wielded the veto so long the red tape has entered his soul.

The object of his ire is the spectre of a government plan to dramatically expand Cambridge. According to the Times, under early proposals dubbed ‘Cambridge 2040’ ministers want to see between 200,000 and 250,000 new homes built in the city – a transformative expansion for a city with a current population of around 150,000. ‘Officials are also discussing proposals for new rail lines, as well as a tram or bus network to support the expansion’, the paper adds.

Anyone who has been following the Tories’ writhing about on housing can be forgiven a measure of exasperation with this announcement. It was, after all, Michael Gove who first killed off the Ox-Cam Arc, the original plan for a joined-up push to develop what ought to be one of this country’s most productive regions.

There is also a whiff of fin de régime bravado about sketching out a project this ambitious so close to what looks set to be a heavy election defeat. Just as with the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, the odds of the Conservatives being in office during the critical years between now and 2040 seem long from here.

But those of us who want this country to develop can’t afford to lapse into comfortable, easy omni-cynicism. Turbo-charging Cambridge is a great idea, and if Gove can bequeath Labour a viable project, that will be an honourable entry in his tenure as Housing Secretary.

Along with London, Cambridge and Oxford really ought to be the engines of British prosperity over the next couple of decades. As Zachary Spiro set out in a recent research paper for the Centre for Policy Studies, there is vast demand in both cities for lab space.

Absent the constraints of the planning system, either or both would by now be developing into the laboratory of the world – just as England revelled in the sobriquet ‘workshop of the world’ in the 19th century.

A recent report shows that the UK is home to more ‘future unicorns’ – private companies valued at $1bn or more – in Europe. Yet at present, more often than not companies and technologies born in Britain are bought and taken to maturity in places such as the United States. Letting Cambridge off the leash would be a key part of any policy agenda aimed at keeping them, and the benefits they bring, in this country.

There is no getting away from the fact that doing this would involve huge change. But as even our Nimby-beholden political class seems finally to be recognising, that is what prosperity requires. ‘The same, but rich’ is not an option, except for the generation who already hold property and extract fabulous rents from the status quo.

Becoming the industrial heartland of a globe-spanning empire required the wholesale transformation of the north of England. Would we be better off today if some 18th-century Huppert had managed to stymie the development of Manchester, in order to protect ‘what is special’ about the charming medieval hamlet it grew out of?

Even in the 20th century, such dramatic change has often followed industrial and economic change. In the 20 years after 1950, the growth of manufacturing led to huge migrations in Italy, for example: the population of Turin almost doubled, from just over a million to over 1,750,000, in just two decades.

Trying to preserve the settlement patterns of our most potentially dynamic regions in aspic is a recipe for stagnation. So too is trying to redirect the economy into those areas where we deign to build things, as Britain’s post-war planners could tell you.

So, the question is not whether we expand Cambridge, but how. Happily, our understanding of both the environment and urban planning has come a long way from the slag heaps and smokestack sprawls of the Industrial Revolution. 

There is no reason that a properly planned expansion of Cambridge could not come to be cherished. Few would today lament the construction of Edinburgh’s New Town, for example. But there is no doubt that the local Hupperts would have decried it as an assault on the historic character of the city, had they possessed the instruments of obstruction we grant them today.

Much therefore will hinge on the content of Cambridge 2040. We have scant details at present, although the news that new developments will have to be in keeping with the city’s historic architecture is a welcome start.

But if Gove were really feeling ambitious, he could use this project as a laboratory experiment in itself: completely rewrite the planning system and see what happens. How? By wielding the neglected superweapon of anti-Nimbyism – development orders. 

Set out in Section 59 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, development orders are instruments of extraordinary potential scope. Here are the two most crucial bits:

  • Paragraph 2(a): an order may ‘itself grant planning permission for development specified in the order or for development of any class specified’.
  • Paragraph 3(b): an order may be made ‘as a special order applicable only to such land or descriptions of land as may be specified in the order’.

Had he sufficient will and political backing, the Housing Secretary could effectively year-zero the planning system in the area governed by Cambridge 2040, by fiat, attaching a new planning code to the development order and granting permission to any development which fits into it.

Crucially, this would allow his department to create, locally, a zoning or masterplan-based set of rules. This is crucial for small developers, as it delivers certainty that a project which meets the specifications laid down in the masterplan can go ahead. One of the main reasons we have ended up over-dependent on a small number of big developers is the huge costs imposed by the present system, both from navigating the legal process and from needing a large cushion against sunk costs for projects which are stalled or even cancelled late on, often for terrible reasons.

Done right, this project could thus not only be a major boost to the economy and salve for the housing crisis, but it could also be a lifeline and incubator for a new ecosystem of small developers who could make our construction sector more competitive, and a test-bed for a new approach to planning that would undermine the oligopoly of the big builders.

A pipe dream, perhaps. But if it comes off, I’ll see you in 2040 for the big party in Gove Square, New Cambridge.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.