If developers want their post-2030 bids in South Cambridgeshire to be accepted, they need to get behind Cambridge Connect Light Rail

*Declaration of interest: I’ve been supporting the concept of a light rail underground from Cambridge Connect since first hearing about it. I run its Facebook page as a volunteer. This is also an opinion piece by myself speaking only for myself, and not for any institution, organisation, alliance, collective, association or group.

Looking through the site bids for inclusion as development land for the 2030-41 Greater Cambridge Local Plan (see here) that I discussed in my last blogpost (see here) I noticed a number of very well-prepared bids (perhaps refreshed from a previous round and re-submitted) that built in an assumption that the CAM Metro as proposed by the former Mayor for Cambs & Peterborough, Mr James Palmer, would be built. The electorate made their judgement and voted for Dr Nik Johnson to become the new Mayor at the local elections in May 2021, along with a county council now run by a Joint Administration of the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and Independent Councillors.

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson has confirmed he will be scrapping the plans for CAM Metro, and that a Greater Cambridge mass transit would not be a priority for him given his short (4 year) term of office. He has also said that the door is not closed to the principle of a mass transit, but that his focus would be elsewhere – in particular on electric buses and a much more frequent level of bus services across the county.

This means that the onus is now on developers to work with the only scheme that is left (i.e. Cambridge Connect), or to some how come up with their own proposals.

Cambridge is witnessing phenomenal and unprecedented economic expansion and population growth. Between 2011 to 2031 the population of the greater Cambridge region will increase by ~120 000 people, the equivalent of the population of Cambridge city again over a period of 15 years.”

Cambridge Connect Light Rail

Which is the equivalent of the present city doubling in population.

In my previous blogpost I included a short guide on how residents can scrutinise the bids for new sites suitable for development for the next Greater Cambridge Local Plan – i.e 2030-41. Below is a screen grab of Cambridge & South Cambs. The Green-shading is the Green Belt. The sites shaded in Purple and Red indicate bits fo land to be designated as suitable for residential or mixed developments. You can explore this map here. My guide shows you how to locate the relevant documents. And these documents matter.

Below: Several of the larger bids from developers have been put together by consultants and have had a significant amount of money spent on corporate advisers and commissioning of professional/expert assessments. That does not mean they will all come tot the same conclusion. The Burl Happold conclusion on the state of Cambridgeshire’s water crisis does not align with the one done by Stantec for Cambridge City & South Cambridgeshire District Councils. The latter says no development post-2030 if it involves extraction of water from the aquifer. The Buro Happold tries to make the case for mitigation actions.

My take is all of these developers need to sit down with both Anglian Water and the Cambridge Water Company to push for significant new investment in assets that can both bring in additional water supplies and fund significant efforts to reduce leaks and reduce demand.

My view is that large commercial & industrial buildings should be retro-fitted with technology to make use of greywater harvesting (for example here). The fields of industrial agriculture around Cambridge also need to be adapted to reduce significantly stormwater surface runoff. (See here for some examples). There’s a role for councillors to get businesses to talk to each other, to help organise events for where firms that have already done this can showcase what they’ve done to their peers. (In my experience the pioneers that do this really like doing this, as it puts their firms in a good light and is effectively free advertising too). Furthermore they can use such events to invite firms that install such things to showcase what they do, and how they do it.

Again, if developers and their consultants want to get permissions for the sites they have put in bids for – in particular the consultants, they need to start spreading the messages to others in their industry with existing properties to get them to invest in and retrofit their buildings with water-saving technologies. This is for the property professionals – the Bidwells & Carter Jonases of this world. I’d like to think that is what their family founders of times gone by would have wanted.

Supporting Cambridge Connect Light Rail

Cambridge Connect is now at the point where significant investment now needs to be made in order for the proposals to be made substantive. But that investment is unlikely to come from the Mayor – not least because he does not have the budget, and his predecessor was unable to develop proposals on how the further work was going to be funded. Too many people did not read the small print on how little their budgets were.

“Each devolution deal includes a capital investment fund of between £450 million and £1.1 billion, paid in yearly instalments over three decades. These funds can be used to finance transport, housing and other infrastructure projects.”


At the time (2016) I commented that the funding proposed by ministers (Up to £1.1billion over 30 years, so maybe around £30million per year) was not going to pay for much. Maybe half an A14 if they were lucky. One proposal the former Mayor had was to tax the land value uplift from when land was designated as having development permission, and also if/when it was designated as having a light rail stop built on it. A principle I supported at the time – though noted that it would require a change in the law to get it delivered, so was dependent on The Treasury and in particular the Chancellor of the Exchequer for support.

Developers’ proposals dependent on light rail

I’ve picked out some proposals that simply cannot go ahead in the face of a climate emergency without significant transport and water infrastructure.

1) Gonville and Caius at Duxford.

A light rail stop would be a huge benefit here because it would service the Imperial War Museum heritage attraction.

2) Babraham

– you can see on the map below a proposed CAM Metro line already planned for in their proposals. Therefore they cannot simply have this submitted without a mass transit and run with the same assumptions. Something has to give. Furthermore, anyone opposed to this plan has a strong argument against it (i.e. that it’s unsustainable transport-wise in the absence of a mass transit).

3) Land north of Cambourne

– another 10,000 residential units – so another 20,000 people, making Greater Cambourne effectively a West-Cambridge New Town with up to 50,000 people by the middle of the century. While an East West Rail station might mitigate some of the traffic, it won’t be enough to disperse commuter traffic to the employment sites in Cambridge that a light rail would. Furthermore, at 50,000 people the town becomes large enough to sustain its own industries and leisure infrastructure. But where is the large community arts centre? Why not larger ambitions for the town?

4) The Thakeham plan near Royston for 25,000 units

Remember the headlines and the party political controversy? The purple patch where the red balloon is below, is for 4,500 units alone. The other patches will have thousands more. There is no way that the present Royston station can cope with that amount of additional commuters. This development as well becomes unviable without some sort of integrated transport system that involves links to the proposed and current high tech parks between Cambridge & Royston, to say nothing of London overspill.

5) Linton new village

This caused a bit of a spat between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the run up to the mayoral elections – the proposals for Linton (Where the zoo is -> http://www.lintonzoo.com/). Again, the development can’t go ahead without some sort of mass transit system in part because of the case the Mayor made for it with CAM Metro.

6) Cherry Hinton and Fulbourn

Like a zombie that refuses to be vanquished, this keeps on coming back. All of these proposals (and I can see them being completed by the end of the century – even though I will be plant food by then!) effectively swallows up Fulbourn into the city of Cambridge – a similar fate that befell Cherry Hinton in the post-war years as housing estates crept down Cherry Hinton Road towards the village.

7) Six Mile Bottom

That’s this one, which has also been included.

Remember these are only bids from developers.

The councils have made no judgement on whether they are suitable or not. For some of them that were rejected the last time around – for example the land is a flood plain, if nothing has changed then chances are they will throw the bid out again for the same reason. Furthermore, developers and councils then have to go through the pain-staking long process of assessments, hearings, objections and the like. Something proposed does not mean something built.

But it does mean that it is worth scrutinising, and that also means it’s worth asking:

  1. Where will the water come from?
  2. Where will the water come from? (Again)
  3. How much extra from your profits will you be paying for the water to be supplied?
  4. What conversations have you had with the water companies?

And not just water and the environment, but civic infrastructure and new leisure facilities. How much of their financially valuable land holdings will developers be setting aside for large open green spaces in the first instant? Because as we’ve found from Lockdown, they will need to substantially increase that lest we end up with the sort of suburban sprawl with minimal community facilities and open spaces that parts of South East and North West Cambridge have become.

The process of burying these proposals in hard-to-find places is all wrong, and only ends up intensifying local opposition. Ministers, councils, and developers have to come up with better ways of working with communities and campaign groups

For me that involves having a much more honest and holistic approach – one that asks ministers whether it was wise to encourage Astra Zeneca to relocate to Cambridge from Cheshire. Also ‘letting the market rip’ might be an industrial strategy of sorts that some might endorse, but it is not without serious economic, social, and environmental consequences.

Councils in particular should be facilitating meaningful conversations between developers, local residents, campaign groups, academics, and industry professionals looking at Greater Cambridge as a whole. Click on the Cambridge & South Cambs Indoor Sports Strategy 2016-31 at the foot of this page. How many of the recommendations have been completed? We’re over 5 years in, with 10 to go. Are things like the additional swimming pools and an athletics track/community sports stadium in the pipeline? If not, what needs to happen to get them going?

There is also the fallacy of composition in assuming that the best that each development can do for its small area is one that will meet the needs of the wider city & region. Each development building its own ‘pocket park’ will not provide the much-needed wide open green spaces large enough for team games and long leisure walks that we found out we really needed during lockdown. How can developers alone provide for Cambridge Great Park? It needs pressure from and the co-operation of local residents, organisations campaigning in the interests of the people who make up our wider city, and specialists who can unpick the difficult issues and raise for debate things that might be overlooked – like sensitive environmental sites to things that only a local historian or a longtime resident might know. Such as the presence of an unregulated tip from the 1930s long since grown over.

So as well as talking to the water companies and to Cambridge Connect (see here), developers also need to start meaningful conversations with the residents and communities that their proposals will effect – especially those who have already got the glossy brochures that have been uploaded online. Because so many developments in Cambridge have invited people like me to ‘be part of it’, but I don’t have the hundreds. of thousands of pounds to be part of the development being built in my childhood neighbourhood where I live with my parents. (Chronic fatigue is not fun).

Above – I’ve been like this all week

What will your proposals offer to people who are on low incomes? People with disabilities? Teenagers? Single people? Elderly people? People with limited mobility who cannot get out and about?

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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