25 July 2023

The Cambridge plan is a great idea – but it isn’t a model for solving the housing crisis


In recent months, a widespread assumption has formed that housing reform in Britain is dead for the remainder of this political cycle. The Government’s 2021 reforms had failed; national planning policy is being revised in a restrictionist direction. Aside from continuing skirmishing about niche topics like nutrient neutrality and window regulations, it seemed that the housing policy world would have to wait on a Starmer government for renewed political drama.

Then yesterday, a political asteroid struck: the Government announced that it was going to drastically expand the city of Cambridge, adding a dense new quarter comprising a mixture of housing and laboratory space. Technology entrepreneurs rejoiced. Rumours circulated of astonishingly ambitious figures for the scale of the development. High drama had returned to housing policy.

Rumours notwithstanding, we do not know how many homes the Government is going to permit in Cambridge, nor where it is going to build them, nor what delivery mechanism it will use. Until we know these things, comment on the Government’s plans will tend to be premature. But there are at least two points that we can make with some confidence.

First, as I have argued for some time, building homes and laboratories in Cambridge is a very good idea. The case for laboratories is obvious and well known. Famously, in 2021, Boston had 6 million square feet of laboratory space under development, while Oxford and Cambridge together deliver about 300,000 in an average year. Without more laboratory space, Cambridge will lose the world-leading position it has in technology and life sciences, and the country will thereby lose one of its greatest assets.

The case for homes in Cambridge is also clear. As I discuss in this blog for Create Streets, Britain’s housing shortage is overwhelmingly concentrated in a small number of places – essentially, London, Oxford, Cambridge and the towns in their commuter zone. Floorspace in these places is many times more valuable than it is in, say, South Yorkshire or County Durham. Building homes in Cambridge is thus a far better targeted way of addressing this shortage than building them in low-demand areas.

Second, however, the Government’s plan for Cambridge is not in itself a complete model for solving Britain’s housing shortage. Whatever plan is ultimately adopted, the extension of Cambridge is a massive top-down intervention, resulting in much more building than the local authority would have permitted if left to its own devices. Though it is very much in the long-term interests of Cambridge to solve its housing shortage, there will undoubtedly be local resistance. As I have argued repeatedly, a durable solution to Britain’s housing shortage cannot rest on this model of confrontation between central and local, or between existing residents and potential ones.

The Cambridge proposals should therefore not be seen as a model solution to the country’s housing problems. They should be seen as a solution to the specific ‘Problem of Cambridge’ – the question of how Britain can preserve Cambridge’s extraordinary ascendancy in a range of research fields, and the almost incalculably valuable spin-out companies that this generates. This is a huge question, of immense importance to Britain’s future: if the Government really does solve it, it will have solved one of the country’s great problems. But it won’t thereby have a template for solving the wider housing shortage.

Still, the Government’s plans for Cambridge do indicate something valuable about its thinking, namely that it is focusing on building houses in the places where the shortages are really acute. And if this is so, then, inevitably, our thoughts must turn to the place where the shortage is greatest and most acute: London.

The Government’s announcements did include some mentions of the capital. It announced more support for several regeneration projects of contaminated sites in east London, as well as allowing the substantial Affordable Homes Programme to be used for regeneration. These are good steps. But it should be obvious that London’s housing shortage is not, fundamentally, caused by a lack of resources. Sales prices in London are some four times higher than build costs. The reason the city doesn’t have more building is not a shortage of demand, but a shortage of permissions.

So if the Government wants to maintain its focus on building in high-demand areas, what could it do about this?

Realistically, green belt reform is out of the question for the time being, however strong the arguments may be for it. I have spent several years arguing for enabling more suburban intensification, but my view is that the street votes legislation the Government is already passing is the best way to do this, and that other measures are likely to be counterproductive.

That leaves two possibilities. One is allowing industrial, retail and logistics sites to be redeveloped for housing. Somewhat surprisingly, there is actually a lot of scope for this. The reason is that the London Plan contains an amazing ‘Strategic Industrial Land’ policy that essentially bans housing on vast swathes of the city, requiring that they be used for industrial or retail purposes only. This is why swathes of inner London are still covered by one-storey light industrial sheds surrounded by surface-level car parks – what Create Streets call ‘boxlands’ – an astonishingly inefficient land use in a city with some of the most expensive housing in the world. Allowing some of this to be redeveloped as dense, mixed-use, traditional urbanism would make a considerable contribution to addressing the housing crisis.

The other is reviving estate regeneration. Forty per cent of Inner London is social housing, generally built at fairly low densities after the Second World War. Redeveloping these at higher densities not only creates additional homes, but the revenues from selling those can fund hugely improved replacement homes for the existing residents. Experience shows that when it is done well, estate regeneration is popular with existing tenants: of the 30 ballots on estate regeneration held in London since the introduction of balloting in 2018, 29 have passed, and the one exception passed on a second attempt. Regeneration is also an opportunity for urbanistic improvements: most London estates were built during the post-war modernist hegemony and reflect its discredited orthodoxies. They can be rebuilt with the traditional street-based urbanism whose merits are now so widely acknowledged.

Estate regeneration has the potential to create a truly enormous amount of housing in the places where it is most needed, while improving the often poor housing conditions of existing residents. In the mid-2010s, the Cameron Government was planning to ballot 100 London estates on regeneration schemes. This scheme fell from sight after the Brexit referendum. Reviving some version of it is the most powerful thing that the current Government could do to address housing scarcity – and to do so in a way that has the demonstrable support of existing residents.


If the Government delivers on its proposals, it will have solved one of Britain’s great policy conundra – the Problem of Cambridge. But it will only be at the very beginning of solving the greater problem of housing. The Government has immense powers at its disposal to do this, even without fresh primary legislation. We must hope that yesterday’s announcements reveal that it has the focus and ambition to use them.

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Samuel Hughes is Head of Housing at the Centre for Policy Studies.

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