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  • Writer's pictureMike Spicer

Denser English cities won't happen without house building on the Greenbelt - as Cambridge shows

Updated: Feb 22

In the July 2023 roundup episode of LED Confidential, Mike and David discuss UK government plans to densify England’s cities. The announced intention is to increase house building while protecting the Greenbelt. Among the proposed measures is a new ‘Urban Quarter’ for a part of central Cambridge that was previously home to LEDC co-host Mike Spicer! Here’s a Q+A based on the episode.

Aerial view of Cambridge, UK
Central Cambridge, UK

Why is Cambridge seen by policymakers as nationally important to house building in England?


Cambridge, UK, is famous as the home of the world-leading University of Cambridge and allied research institutes. As one corner of the Golden Triangle (with Oxford and London) the city and its hinterland have a strong claim to being the country’s tech capital with nearly 3,000 ICT employers and over 600 life sciences companies. UK tech champion ARM is based there, along with many other leading players of global significance, such as Apple, Microsoft, and AstraZeneca. According to the UK government Cambridge is the leading UK city outside of London for ‘new economy’ activity due to its ‘high levels of VC funding, venture capital rounds, advertised tech salaries, number of unicorns …and futurecorns’.


The potential for growth in Cambridge’s economy to support the wider development of the UK’s tech and life sciences sectors is huge. But there are barriers to growth. The city is chronically short of lab space – average rents on facilities have jumped nearly 50% since the pandemic. Available housing for its growing workforce is rare – it’s one of the UK’s least affordable places to live. And the intra-city transport infrastructure needed to connect people to jobs lacks capacity.


Put simply – without more housing, space for new commercial development, transport connectivity, and the funding and planning decisions to make these happen, Cambridge’s economic growth risks being throttled, to the detriment of the country as a whole.


What might the UK government achieve by sending ‘super-squads’ of planners to Cambridge and other cities?


Planning for growth is complex in Cambridge. The bulk of the leading-edge companies in the ‘Cambridge Cluster’ are concentrated within 7km of the city’s centre – an area that despite its small size is covered by multiple strategic authorities, including: two Local Planning Authorities (Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire), a Mayoral Combined Authority (CPCA), a City Deal delivery authority (Greater Cambridge Partnership) and a County Authority (Cambridgeshire County Council).


According to Tom Forth’s Population Around a Point mapping tool, this area is set to be home to around 175,000 people by 2025. When compared to Cambridge’s international peers it’s clear that this is sparse for a technopole. Central Boston’s 7km radius (which includes the ‘other Cambridge’ and its biotech cluster) and San Francisco’s will both be home to over 850k people within two years. Closer to home, Munich’s 7km radius is set for over 1 million residents.


So there is massive scope for densification – on paper. In practice – this will be difficult to achieve. Much of the built environment of the area that is being proposed as a densified, new ‘Urban Quarter’ is listed and therefore protected from development. Previous attempts at modest densification in the city’s centre have faced organised opposition – as has almost all new construction work of scale across Greater Cambridge. And densifying the housing supply would require densifying the city’s transport infrastructure: Boston, San Francisco, and Munich all have mass transit systems. Nothing like this is currently on the cards for Cambridge. At the time of writing, the most radical plans for intra-city transport involve improving its bus services, funded by a politically-contentious congestion charge.


Bringing in national capacity to resolve technical and political challenges at city level is far from new in the UK. There are relevant precedents in both postwar reconstruction and the London Olympics. Experience suggests that in these cases integrating local insights and expertise with a national vision is essential to successful development. A ‘super squad’ of planners could be beneficial for large-scale projects but it should work in tandem with local stakeholders to respect Cambridge's unique dynamics.


Can DLUHC’s proposed densification of Cambridge meet the city’s growth needs without further release of Greenbelt? And could this approach work across England?


Densifying cities should be a goal of national policy. It’s clear that outside London many UK cities are under-populated compared to their relevant international peers – at least in terms of their functional economic areas. The consequence is that, compared to many other developed economies, a smaller percentage of UK residents can access the kind of new economy jobs that only large clusters found in cities can provide, and vice versa. As fast-rising lab rents show, post-pandemic patterns of working have not altered these basic facts of economic geography for Cambridge.


But the example of Cambridge shows how difficult it will be in practice to densify cities in England without building on Greenbelt because it’s not always an either/or choice. Even if the pre-requisite funding and powers over infrastructure were in place for local leaders, there are regulatory, political, financial, and environmental constraints on building taller and denser in central areas. Delivering the 50k new homes currently in the planning pipeline for Greater Cambridge involves densification but also relies heavily on the release of Greenbelt, such as the land adjacent to the city’s airport. New road and rail connections between Cambridge and Oxford – another UK government priority to support the tech and life sciences economy - are also likely to generate pressure for greenfield development on land currently designated as Greenbelt. If it were easier to densify and accommodate Cambridge’s population growth by avoiding building on Greenbelt altogether, you can be sure this would be the plan already.


How can Cambridge's growth be pursued while ensuring a well-rounded approach to community well-being?


Densifying Cambridge and other cities will require reform to local funding, powers, planning processes, and built environment regulations that go well beyond what is currently being proposed by government. Construction on existing sites isn’t always the easier, or more sensitive option when those sites are subject to complexities of ownership or listed building status. But beyond these concerns Cambridge's growth will need to involve comprehensive planning beyond housing, encompassing healthcare, education, and infrastructure – such as overcoming current capacity constraints on water. Achieving balanced growth will require addressing all dimensions of community well-being.


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