It is rarely good news when the government makes an announcement just before holidays and when everyone’s attention is elsewhere. This was the case, just before Christmas, when the Secretary of State for Housing, Michael Gove MP announced significant changes to the national planning system, alongside statements that he plans to build 150,000 houses to support Cambridge’s economy.

Greater Cambridge (that’s the City Council and South Cambs District Council) has one of the fastest house building rates in the UK and between 2010-2020 Cambridge was the 5th fastest growing population. There has been rapid growth for over 15 years and this pace is continuing at a rate which is as fast as the market can deliver, an average of 2,000-3,000 new houses a year. Even at this express pace it would take another 60 years to build 150,000 houses. To put this into perspective there are currently around 120,000 houses in Greater Cambridge.

In case you are wondering, we don’t have a shortage of plans for houses, there are already outline permissions for 12,000+ to be built over the coming years and our councils were already progressing plans for nearly 50,000 houses to be built by 2041 – which many commentators already consider to be overly ambitious and unsustainable.

Setting aside the very troubling fact that there is not enough water, electricity, transport and other services to sustain such growth, these figures tell us that the possibility of building 150,000 houses in Cambridge by 2040, or even 2050, is completely unrealistic. So what is Gove talking about? In his statement to parliament there was no mention of 150,000 houses, nor has he mentioned a timescale or a spatial boundary. Cambridge has one of the largest journey to work areas in the UK, covering a swathe of eastern England including the likes of Bedford, Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill. Would it be possible to build 150,000 houses in this journey to work area over the next 25 years? That is more realistic, but it is not what people conjure in their heads when a minister says he wants to build 150,000 houses to support the growth of the Cambridge economy, nor does it grab headlines in an election year.

Mr Gove does want some of the 150,000 houses to be built near Cambridge, in what he describes as a “new urban quarter”, and he has said that he wants to set up a development corporation to oversee the planning and building of these houses and the associated infrastructure. It is unclear how many houses, where, when and what they might look like – all of these will determine whether or not there is any local support for it.

In a classic piece of politics, Mr Gove has reasserted that new houses should not be built on Greenbelt land, whilst at the same time he is pushing forward plans for a new quarter for Cambridge that would inevitably have to be built in, you guessed it, the Greenbelt!

What about the water supply issue? At the moment Cambridge can’t build any significant new housing, let alone 150,000, because there is not enough water in the aquifer to meet the needs of both humans and the environment. The earliest any water can be supplied from elsewhere is 2032. So what’s Mr Gove’s plan? He has suggested that Cambridge can require developers to build houses that are more water efficient, and he has allocated several million pounds to test some ideas for reducing demand for water. While we support measures to improve water efficiency, these will not prevent harm to our environment from additional housing in the short-term. This will mean that we all need to use a lot less water to help reduce the impact on our rivers, streams and wetlands and the wildlife that depends on them. Perhaps a good New Year’s resolution for us all.

Why do we need a development corporation when Cambridge already has a good track record of planning for and delivering new houses? This is also unclear. Gove appointed a task force to advise him how to accelerate house building in Cambridge, but we have seen nothing from them to tell us why we would need a development corporation to achieve that. Perhaps it is because Mr Gove recently gave himself powers in a new Levelling Up Act to create development corporations at his whim and now, like a child with a new toy, he wants to use his new powers. There is no requirement to have any locally elected representatives in charge of such development corporations. This is essentially a power grab by central government which undermines local democracy; for what is the point of us citizens voting to elect local councillors to make decisions on new development if they are unable to do so?

Undermining local councillors seems to be a theme of Mr Gove’s planning changes. He has suggested that elected councillors should not refuse any planning applications that have been recommended for approval by planning officers. Planning decisions are very often a matter of balance, weighing up the harm against the benefits. Why would an officer, possibly new to their job and the area, be better at this than a committee of dedicated people representing their community?

Should we be worried about all of this? Yes and no. If it happens, we should be very worried. But with a general election looming will Mr Gove have time to implement his ideas? Probably not. Would a new Labour government wish to pick up the baton and usurp the powers of a Labour controlled council? Probably not. But these are the sorts of question we should be asking parliamentary candidates in the year ahead.

You can read about proposed changes to the planning system, a mixture of the good, bad and the beautiful at

James Littlewood, January 2024