Sam Davies

We’re planning for a Horror Story

As a councillor I now receive the Local Government Association’s monthly publication, ‘First’. In October’s issue, there’s an article on the importance of councils building a strategic narrative: “a single compelling story created from different elements of information from across a complex organisation … a fundamental element of the organisation’s communication strategy”.

This has prompted me to think about narratives in relation to the ‘Greater Cambridge Local Plan: First Proposals’, a document which is being discussed at this evening’s City Council’s Planning and Transport Scrutiny Committee, prior to the launch of a public consultation on 1st November.

The document and the consultation will form the starting point for the new Local Plan, covering the jurisdictions of both Cambridge City Council and South Cambs District Council, now referred to as ‘Greater Cambridge’. The Local Plan will guide development in the area until 2040.

The Jobs/Housing Relationship

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, there is a huge volume of material to consider – 395 pages in the main agenda pack plus thousands of pages of supporting material. Today I’m going to attempt to tease apart just one element of this complexity: the relationship put forward between jobs and housing numbers.

On page 22 of the Plan (page 66 of the Committee documents), it says “Over recent years, jobs have been created faster than new homes have been built and this has contributed to higher house prices”. The proposal is therefore that, in recognition of “the continuing strength of the Greater Cambridge economy and its national importance”, we should now base our Local Plan on an employment-led approach to quantifying housing need rather than using the National Planning Policy Framework’s standard method:

Using this employment-led approach, the ‘First Proposals’ suggests that Greater Cambridge should aim to deliver an additional 44,400 new homes between 2020 and 2041, compared to 36,600 using the standard method. Those are both big numbers but, as the First Proposals document points out, we already have almost 31,500 prospective homes either in our adopted Local Plans or with planning permission set to be delivered by 2041.

In other words the total number of additional homes being suggested on top of those already ‘baked in’ is 7,200 – plus “a 10% (4400) buffer for flexibility”. It’s illustrated like this, with each house on the graphic representing 2500 homes on the ground:

The homes we have already are shown in brown, and the new ones already baked in are shown in dark green. So we’re given the impression that the additional need (lime green) and buffer (turquoise) are relatively insignificant compared to the rest.

But what does this mean in reality? I’ve produced an amended version, using data from Cambridgeshire Insight, highlighting (in red) the new housing we’ve seen built in the last 20 years:

The story here then is that all the growth we’ve seen in the city and South Cambs in the last 20 years amounts to just over half of that proposed for the next 20 years (27,400 vs 48,840).

I find this quite a sobering thought, to put it mildly.

Now let’s go back to the employment side of the narrative. There is plenty of support in national planning policy for advocating housing numbers in excess of those indicated by the standard method when growth strategies are in place such as a City Deal. As we know, there are influential bodies at all levels who are vocal in their support of stimulating further employment growth in Greater Cambridge:

So it’s no surprise that the ’employment led’ approach to defining housing need has prevailed.

But of course, since Greater Cambridge has enjoyed very low unemployment rates for decades, jobs created (or, like Astra Zeneca, relocated) here necessarily involve importing workers from elsewhere. The CPIER explicitly refers to an approach of “attracting knowledge-intensive businesses which would not locate elsewhere in the UK”, akin to something you might also have seen expressed in more menacing tones, along the lines of ‘if businesses cannot meet their needs in Cambridge, then they will flee not only Cambridge but the UK’. (If someone can point me to real-life examples of this happening, I’d love to hear about it.)

So what is the story captured by the Local Plan: First Proposals?

The short answer is that it’s confused and there are chapters missing.

It maintains that housing growth has not kept up to date with employment growth, hence the city’s well-documented housing affordability problem.

It proposes an inevitable massive supply-side housing expansion [1]; but doesn’t even mention as a possibility doing anything to moderate the employment trajectory.

On the contrary, the Greater Cambridge Employment Land Review and Economic Development Base, included in the supporting evidence, simply documents the previous decade’s staggering expansion in employment, and then extrapolates that forward, describing it as “planning positively for growth”.

The pattern is set. We are planning twice as many houses as we’ve already built over the last 20 years, yet this will still lag behind job creation.

How this fits with the national ‘levelling up’ agenda, spreading prosperity outside the south east of England, is a mystery, as is its co-existence with commitments by both councils to ambitious net carbon zero targets for their areas [2].

Sprinkle the word ‘sustainable’ as many times as you like throughout the Local Plan, but it’s still a horror story.

[1] For an explanation of why the housing market doesn’t respond to simple supply-side measures, I recommend this video by Dr Deborah Potts of Kings College London at an event hosted by the Cambridge Commons group.
[2] For a ‘long read’ exploring the relationship between planning, levelling up and climate change, try this article hosted on the TCPA website – authors include Professors Janice Morphet and Michael Edwards from the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL.

Sam Davies


  • If Cambridge exists for another 100 years a 10% p.a. growth of the housing stock requires nearly 14,000 times as many houses as at present. A 5% p.a. growth leads to 130 times as many houses. Growth is an uncomfortable existential problem requiring materials, energy, water, food and land that will not be available. Limiting growth is essential to limit climate change.

  • A horror story indeed. You get to the crux of the issue, the very opposite of levelling up. There is another aspect to explore and that is to question the assumption that jobs growth demands housing growth, whereas often the opposite is The case – every ten new households formed results in eight or nine new service jobs catering for the new residents, all service jobs. It’s an inefficient and totally unsustainable way of getting these high powered science based jobs that Cambridge apparently craves. It’s as if the local plan had never heard of Zoom and working from home.

  • Mark, could you point me to the source of the ‘every ten households formed results in eight or nine new service jobs’? It’s not that I don’t believe it, I’d just like to be able to cite it. Thank you!

  • Sam,

    I don’t think this is a matter which has ever been subject to any academic research that I know of. It is derived from the fact that 80% of our jobs are in the service sector which is largely about keeping everyone fed, healthy, educated and housed. It therefore stands to reason that if you build 48k new homes, and create similar number of “new” jobs, then 80% of these jobs will essentially be servicing the residents of these new homes. That’s not a clever way of creating jobs, it’s very dumb. Cambridge wants to cherry pick brainy talent from all over the world, but the way it’s going about it is anything but brainy.

    I used to blog about this topic extensively back in the noughties, frequently questioning the housing demand figures. The figures are a little out of date, but the aguments remain the same.

  • What I would like to know is who are all these new homes for? Indeed this is a Horror Story and thank you for imparting such a detailed summary. We live on a massively over crowded island already, more infrastructure will be needed, more private cars will come onto our roads which make driving anywhere hazardous, small wonder the shortage of HGV drivers bringing food to the shelves, who wants to take the challenge of driving on such crowded motorways with schedules to meet? Upon the Continent they are countries, not islands, motorways have lanes for HGV vehicles making schedules easier to meet. Here, homes will be needed for the 5,000 people from Afghanistan who are due to arrive, these will multiply, more cars and jobs taken and so it goes on!