On the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, in the last days of a monied Britain, Gordon Brown had a rare vision for the country. Amid the burgeoning housing crisis, 10 new eco-towns, a model of future sustainable living, would be built. It was a fit of idealistic planning not seen since the Second World War. “Northstowe”, located on the site of an immigration detention centre north of Cambridge, would be Britain’s largest new urban settlement since Milton Keynes.
In a local competition organised by the developers, schoolchildren presented contending utopias: green arches adorned with solar panels; a tram to ferry residents between parks and leisure centres. It got the adults talking, too. The town, it was proposed, would have its own community-based energy company. This would be an “innovation market town”, capable of sustaining local employment in an eco-idyll of tree-lined cycle lanes and allotments, a sustainable suburbia for 21st-century England.
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Nearly 15 years on, the dream is dead. Visit Northstowe today and you are greeted by a Portakabin community centre that, as one local suggests, looks like a “pop-up STI clinic”. Bored children on bikes circle aimlessly, and a steady stream of cars forms an exodus from the leaden townscape of roofs and sky. There is, as one terminally bored 14-year-old tells me, “absolutely nothing to do”. No shops. No leisure centre. No green arches or trams. And certainly nothing that would give this place a collective hearth: a high street, town hall or a pub.
At the entrance to the town, I meet Richard of nearby Cambourne, who takes daily walks through Britain’s newest town to “try and work out what it all means”. Surveying the sprawl of identikit new-builds that stretch into the distance, he pronounces: “I have come to realise that this a soulless place built for a new generation of soulless people.”
Were it not for Michael Gove’s own fit of master-planning ambition, the absent soul of Northstowe might have gone further unexamined. Cambridge 2040 was announced at the end of July, a pipe dream of Scrutonian aesthetics and early 20th-century Californian boosterism. Gove envisaged an annexe of up to 250,000 “beautiful” houses around the nation’s most valuable innovation real estate.
Tied up in this lofty ambition is an urgent necessity. Cambridge is the dusted jewel in Global Britain’s future economic crown, its fastest-growing region held back from becoming a powerhouse by a shortage of lab space and housing. Yet Northstowe, a half-built eco-modernist outpost on the periphery of this vision, offers a foreshadowing of future problems for developing this area: water shortage, unsold housing, a failure to build at the pace and scale desired. Two decades on and Britain cannot even give birth to a modest new town, let alone a Victoriana Silicon Valley in the East Anglian Fens.
Housing will be one of the biggest issues of the 2024 election, a protracted British crisis now as old as the days when Brown first dreamt of Northstowe. And the proposed solutions are nearly as old. Building “beautiful” houses has been discussed in Tory circles for years, most prominently with 2019’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which mouthed the rhetoric of a “conservative” built environment that has wafted around the party’s attendant think tanks for years. But talk aside, its achievements were minimal. And meanwhile, a donor-driven relationship with property developers (in 2021, a fifth of Tory donations came from the sector) has kept them in the driving seat, carpeting England with unimaginative, and all too often poorly built homes at a rate of about 200,000 a year. The few exceptions to the rule, such as the King’s Poundbury, have already become unaffordable, by virtue of their marked difference. Northstowe therefore stands as a monument to the new-build Britain we’re left with: a vision unfulfilled, undesirable, unloved.
Yet the facts of supply and demand are intractable. Whoever wins the next election will have to build, both to accommodate the record numbers living with their parents and new arrivals to the country over the coming decades (new immigrants are expected to form 57% of new households in the next 20 years). Keir Starmer has not ruled out building on the Green Belt, and has unveiled plans to allow local authorities to buy land cheaply for development to “tilt the balance of power” away from landowners. Sunak, meanwhile, has already been urged to consider a generation of new towns in the upcoming Tory manifesto. New developments on the scale of Northstowe therefore seem inevitable. But the question remains of what we build.
You would hope, then, that Northstowe would be a compulsory stop on the 2024 election circus. A warning for new-build Britain, the poorly conceived and ill-executed end product of what a housing arms race might plaster across England. Does either party have the political will or skill to stop this happening?
Something of an answer lies in the last time the country was forced to build at scale. The post-war building boom was unprecedented in Europe, creating 22 new towns that became home to 2.7 million people. Northstowe’s predecessor, Milton Keynes, now feels like an infrastructural marvel from a more confident age, the post-war equivalent of the Victorians’ Crystal Palace. It was conceived in 1967, progressing (unlike Northstowe) through the austerity of the Seventies to offer its new population an idiosyncratically English hodgepodge of the garden city movement and the car-friendly suburban utopias of Fifties America. Its legacy has always attracted a seam of snobbery: a “bland kitsch, Thatcherite reality”, wrote the architecture critic Owen Hatherley, “the non-place it was planned to be”. Despite this, Milton Keynes grew and grew, and has become one of Britain’s most economically successful cities. Now, by way of grim irony in 2023, both the scale of its conception and the pace of its execution seem a much needed luxury.
No surprise, then, that the Milton Keynes “development corporation” model has been invoked by both parties in their attempts to confront housing, the Tories in 2018 and Labour earlier this year. But such a model demands a vision beyond mere house numbers. And this is what haunts Northstowe. Unlike Milton Keynes, the fact that it is “driven by developers”, as one councillor told me, has left it open to the vagaries of Britain’s long-term economic malaise. The pandemic has been widely blamed by developers for slow operation, but this didn’t prevent Savills gushing in November 2021 that the site of a town centre represented a “significant milestone”. But two years on and there is still nothing that might offer a sense of place or identity. A tangle of contracts and obligations compels developers to wait for houses to sell before delivering on promised infrastructure and facilities in stages (dependent itself on “market conditions”). Let them come, then build it, is the future of Northstowe.
Amid the Yimby call for housing at any cost, this model poses a warning, accentuated by the proximity and symbolic contrast between Cambridge and Northstowe. The former, a city trying to escape stagnant Britain via an Anglo-futurist mix of historical prestige, accelerated building and scientific innovation. The other: already more of a relic than Cambridge’s honey-gothic landmarks, tethered both spiritually and contractually to a decade of economic stagnation and political amnesia. A visionary piece of planning that has turned into a housing estate without a pulse or purpose.
There are faint idols to its old conception of an “eco-town” in its fledgling trees, sparse allotments and bike lanes to nowhere. But half-built sustainable suburbia places its residents, and the surrounding area, in new-build purgatory. House prices still demand around £150,000 above the national average, deterring the mass influx of future arrivals needed to complete the town in haste. While its present residents wait, the lack of infrastructure has pushed them into nearby communities, enraging locals and only mobilising them against future developments around Cambridge. To solve the housing crisis, we don’t just need more houses, but new places where people want to live.
I get lost as I try to leave, and spend an hour frustratedly wandering around this surreal array of building sites and newly christened homes. “What god cannot do does not exist,” reads a sticker plastered on one front door. Electric cars buzz by like bloated, dull insects. Here is Britain’s most recent lunge into the decade of change and construction ahead: and it’s a purgatory between the built and unbuilt, the desired and the unsatisfied. Northstowe has inadvertently been burdened with all the disappointment of a country that has failed to plan for its future. But it will endure as a symbol, a visual reminder of our politics’s failure to execute any sort of aesthetic or functional vision for Britain.