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Gove’s plan for thousands of Cambridge homes at risk from lack of water

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Michael Gove’s plans to dramatically expand Cambridge by 2040 with 150,000 new homes are “nonsensical” because of the city’s lack of water infrastructure, the leaders of three Cambridgeshire councils have warned.

The secretary for housing and levelling up announced plans to develop a new science quarter in Cambridge last December via a new, top-down development corporation armed with the “right leadership and . . . powers” to rapidly expand the city.

Mike Davey, Labour leader of Cambridge City Council, said Gove’s vision ignored the reality that Cambridge was already struggling to deliver existing plans for 50,000 houses by 2040 because of a chronic lack of water supply.

“The 150,000 homes would appear to just be nonsensical, if I’m honest, because the infrastructure just isn’t there,” Davey told the Financial Times.

The combination of water scarcity and the growing conflict between Cambridge’s local leaders and central government highlights the challenges the UK’s faces in delivering big building projects after decades of under-investment.

The Environment Agency, the public body that polices water conservation, has put 9,000 houses and some 300,000 sq metres of research space in the Cambridge region on hold because planners were unable to demonstrate there were sustainable water supplies.

Infrastructure impasse

This is the third in a series of articles on the infrastructure challenges facing the UK

Part one: Building up Birmingham
Part two: Budget blowouts and delay
Part three: Cambridge plan at risk from lack of water supply
Part four: Can the UK afford its infrastructure bill?

Bridget Smith, Liberal Democrat leader of the South Cambridgeshire district council where the new development is expected to be focused, accused Gove of failing to engage seriously with local leaders. 

“We are a pro-growth council, but we’ve run out of water. So that leaves us with a lot of questions about how this can be delivered. Gove has to solve the water problem and the energy problem or it can’t be done,” she said.

Lucy Nethsingha, Liberal Democrat leader of Cambridgeshire county council, added that Gove’s top-down intervention risked making development slower, not faster. 

“They are revisiting work that has already been done; revising yet again transport schemes that have been approved to allow the current level of building,” she said. “The scale at which we keep reinventing things and failing to deliver is alarming.”

The National Infrastructure Commission, a government advisory board, last October warned in its five-yearly assessment of UK infrastructure that “significant deficiencies” were holding the country back. These included the failure to build a single large water reservoir in England in the past 30 years.

Davey said the government had provided £9mn to fund a Water Scarcity Group to help retrofit homes to reduce water consumption in order to free up supply for future developments. 

“That will help, and it will mean we can retrofit existing housing stock, but we need swifter action on potential reservoirs,” he added.

Gove unveiled his plans in a speech last July, when he promised to deliver “a major new quarter for the city” with “beautiful integrated neighbourhoods” while “supercharging innovation and protecting green spaces”. His department initially planned for up to 250,000 new homes, according to reports at the time.

He appointed Peter Freeman, chair of Homes England, the government body that funds affordable housing in the UK, to run a Cambridge Delivery Group to begin scoping the work, backed by £5mn.

Gove reduced the planned number of homes to 150,000 in subsequent comments last December to The Times, which described a map showing plans for developments on the wall of his office.

Smith said council leaders were still waiting to be told who was on the delivery group, or whether they would have a seat at the table, more than six months after it was first announced.

She added they had not even been able to see Gove’s map of the plans. “Those plans are not being shared with us. We ask to see [the map] all the time. The lack of transparency is truly extraordinary.”

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities acknowledged that Cambridge faced water scarcity issues and had established the development corporation to improve delivery of the plan.

“From the beginning we’ve been open about the challenges Cambridge faces, which is why we created a delivery group to work with local people and councils on our vision for the city,” a spokesperson added.

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