Sam Davies

It’s growth which is unsustainable

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the saying “You can’t get a quart into a pint pot”. It’s a proverb which dates back to the nineteenth century. However, the discussion this week at the City Council’s Planning and Transport Scrutiny Committee of the proposed North East Cambridge development (‘NEC’) suggests that decision makers in Cambridge aren’t interested in such old-fashioned thinking.

The NEC development area will be the city’s largest urban fringe site to date: 182 hectares incorporating both residential and commercial elements. It will include facilities already built, such as the Science Park, Cambridge North Station and Cambridge Regional College, complemented by extensive new construction including on the site of Anglian Water’s sewage works.

The sewage works will be relocated to Honey Hill near Fen Ditton, a move which has provoked considerable opposition because of loss of Green Belt land, impact on local residents, and the carbon footprint of demolishing and rebuilding a facility which has been upgraded relatively recently and should have another 30 years of operation in its current location.

Extraordinary scale of building

As a brownfield site on the edge of the city, NEC has been advanced for years to be the most ‘sustainable’ location to accommodate the additional housing and jobs which are desired by pro-growth voices in Cambridge and beyond. The scale is extraordinary. It is slated to host 8,400 dwellings (mostly flats), to house an estimated 16,000 residents, and to provide employment space for 15,000 workers.

To put it in context, that’s very nearly the combined populations of Queen Edith’s and Cherry Hinton wards compressed into one third of their combined built-up areas, hemmed in by the A14, Milton Road and the railway:

This will be an experiment in large-scale high-density building the like of which we have not seen before. There will be more than twice the housing stock of the largest urban fringe sites so far, in Trumpington or Eddington, built at what (in Cambridge terms) is very high density. Even its lowest density areas will be comparable to the average density of build last year in the city as a whole (70 dwellings per hectare); and the average density will be around 100 dph. Areas at the centre will be between 200 and 300 dph, achieved by building blocks up to 10 storeys high.

Removed from reality

Five strategic objectives have been identified for NEC:

  1. North East Cambridge will be a low environmental impact urban district, addressing both the climate and biodiversity emergencies
  2. North East Cambridge will be a vibrant mixed-use new district where all can live and work
  3. North East Cambridge will help meet the strategic needs of Cambridge and the sub-region
  4. North East Cambridge will be a healthy and safe neighbourhood
  5. North East Cambridge will be physically and socially integrated with neighbouring communities.

These are worthy aspirations but the reality is likely to be far removed from this. The pro-development lobby may trumpet that this is the most ‘sustainable’ location to accommodate the desired growth, but what will it take for there to be any acknowledgement that it’s growth per se which is unsustainable in terms of carbon impacts, water availability and quality of life?

I asked the committee members to consider whether they would like to live in a development so poorly provided for in terms of green space, sports facilities and other community spaces.

To give you one example, 14 hectares of the total 36 hectares of open space specified for the site are actually accounted for by land within the boundary of Cambridge Science Park! Are NEC residents really going to want to cross Milton Road and take their children for a Sunday afternoon stroll to see the NAPP building?

A more attractive alternative might be Milton Country Park – but this is already at capacity. How on earth is it going to function as the main recreational site for an additional 16,000 people?

No contribution

NEC was originally supposed to supplement the deficiencies in leisure and community amenities in the surrounding wards. However, under the plans approved on Tuesday, NEC will contribute nothing worthwhile to its neighbouring communities, and its residents will be forced to travel out of the area to access anything other than very narrowly defined ‘day to day needs’.

As I see it, there are two reasons for this.

The first is the pressure to minimise ‘economically unproductive’ use of space – after all, every square metre given over to green space or a children’s playground removes a square metre of space which can be built on and sold/rented.

The second is an undesirable consequence of the ‘trip budget’ framework, which requires that there must be no increase on traffic on Milton Road attributable to the introduction of 16,000 NEC residents and 15,000 people working on site. Hence NEC must not contain any facilities which might cause it to become a ‘destination location’, regardless of the impact on quality of life.

Not learning lessons

I asked Committee members to think about lessons we have learned from other development schemes.

  • Cambourne residents suffered significantly from its lack of facilities and isolation. Yes, North East Cambridge is “only 15 minutes bike ride from the city centre” as the planning documents repeatedly emphasise, and yes, it would be great if all 16,000 residents of NEC are keen to hop on their bikes. But let’s not get overlook the fact that a 15 minute bike ride is nearly an hour’s walk. And there are no guarantees about what public transport connections might be in place. So outsourcing almost all facilities feels like a risky strategy to me.
  • CB1 is perhaps a more obvious comparator for NEC in terms of its high density. The developers here, Brookgate, also took the decision to outsource green space provision, with the hope that residents would be willing to travel to Coleridge Rec. The subsequent history of anti-social behaviour and tensions between groups of residents with different lifestyles forced to live in close proximity to each other suggests that this has had a damaging effect on quality of life.
  • Accordia has won many design plaudits, helped by the fact that large swathes of green space and mature trees were retained when the site was redeveloped. However, it is still perceived by many in the surrounding area as a gated/private community and they would not feel comfortable entering it to enjoy of those green spaces. (In the same way, we know many Queen Edith’s residents do not feel like they have any right to be use the grounds of the Biomedical Campus for leisure purposes.) This experience adds to my scepticism about the likelihood of NEC residents feeling free to roam around green spaces on, for example the Science Park.

No room for improvement

Sadly, the bureaucratic process which is driving NEC forward did not allow for any revisiting of any detail of the proposals. The Lib Dem committee members, Cllrs Bick and Porrer, proposed an amendment which would defer approval until more consideration could be given to the green space proposals. But officers advised councillors we either had to vote for or against the entire package of NEC proposals on the table; there was no mechanism for sub-dividing it into elements we were happy to approve and elements we wanted reworked.

I voted in support of the amendment, but that was lost to a unanimous vote from the Labour councillors.

And so the NEC bandwagon rolls on, and points the depressing direction for future development across the city.

You can read more comment in this excellent report by Alex Spencer in the Cambridge Independent.

Sam Davies


  • The planners are agreeing to put an equivalent population to Queen Edith’s and Cherry Hinton combined into a new area which is less than a third of the size of the built-up area of those wards (and less than a quarter of the actual size of those wards, including their remaining Green Belt). And with no leisure and community amenities to speak of? It seems like yet another scandalous failure of local government in the face of developer £££, and all to support a ‘growth’ agenda which flies in the face of the sustainable future I’m sure most of us want for our city.

    Whoever credibly claims they’ll address this radically will get my vote in the next local elections. Over to you, Green Party? I can’t see any hope elsewhere.

  • Really well made points you have raised here. I know developers have been saying the density of NEC is no more than central Paris (which also has few green spaces), but I don’t think anyone thinks this will be a bit like Paris.

  • You can bet the developers won’t be living there. How on earth do they think could possibly garner harmonious stress free living?
    Boggles the mind.

  • I can’t see the owners or occupants of the science park particularly wanting residents from the new housing hanging out there, not that there’s anything much to attract people there in the first place if not for work.

  • The proposal looks like an excellent recipe for the slums of the future, for disaffected youths who vent their spleen by vandalising the area.

  • Of the five strategic objectives identified for the NEC:

    2 “. . . district where all can live and work” = self-contained and no need to go elsewhere very much, except perhaps e.g. to Chesterton or Landbeach, to gain “social integration with neighbouring communities” (objective 5). Really?

    4 “. . . a safe neighbourhood”: how safe – police station, patrolling police officers, clinic/treatment hubs . . . ? mmm.

  • Cambridge has been around for 500 years. What will it be like in after even 100 years more at this rate of growth? I have lived in Cambridge on and off for nearly 70 years and am dismayed at the lack of empathy of the developers for future generations especially the elderly who may not be able to cycle and will be denied anywhere to park their electric car. How many councillors who voted for this high density development would actually wish to live there?

  • Hugely depressing, but not surprising. Our planning committee, planners and senior political players have been working up to this fine achievement, but by but by but. Each development since Accordia has been worse than the last, in terms of society.
    And we electors have stood idly by.

    I can understand why we have so few independent councillors in Britain today, but fervently hope for more.

  • It is a well known lab. experiment that if rats are kept in overcrowded cages, cannibalism starts. Maybe the future residents will not start consuming each other but I foresee violent knife crimes, drug use and general misery. At least the people of central Paris are surrounded by cafes, shops and nightlife. This scheme is doomed to become an area of Cambridge to be avoided.

  • Sam, Thanks so much for your hard work reviewing the proposals and bringing them to people’s attention. This really is a sad indictment of out council and planning system. No lessons appear to have been learned from the problems experienced at Orchard Park and other new developments i.e. anti social behaviour and lack of community cohesion. The casual despoilation of the green belt and cut-price urbanisation of Cambridge will reduce the quality of life of people who live here, when we need to be ensuring Cambridge is an attractive, safe and healthy place, where people want to live and raise their family. Cambridge is a gold mine for developers. It can and should demand so much more from new developments than is currently being asked for.

  • Argh .. this drives me bonkers! I am fortunate in that the community I live in get on fairly well and we have a sense of togetherness. However, it isn’t all plain sailing.
    We have issues with parking. There are issues about space for 11-16 years old. A lot of the time they just want somewhere to hang out with their friends and kick a ball around, play Frisbee or badminton but they can’t here for fear of hitting a car parked in the parking bay surrounding the edge of the park areas. Or a house. Or the area being a no ball games section.
    There is ongoing issues with the drainage system around the site. Our aqua park can be a sight to behold after heavy rainfall! And the idea is to build on a site nearby which has the same issue!
    Moving the sweage works to Honey Hill seems insane. The cost will be huge! We can’t keep going like this.
    I’m Cambridge born and bred. As were my parents before me. Affordable housing? Yeah right! I can pay £800 a month in rent but I can’t get a mortgage!
    Something needs to change before everyone and everything ends up moving away from Cambridge.

  • I tried to take the children around the science park gardens in lockdown, and the Napp/mundipharma security guard kicked us off their site.

  • Do they really think people want to live in an area denser than the densest parts of inner London? Has covid taught them nothing? People are moving for space. Not shoe boxes and overcrowding.