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Michael Gove’s Cambridge folly His housing plans are a monument to government hubris

Contemplating Govetown. (JOE GIDDENS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Contemplating Govetown. (JOE GIDDENS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


April 16, 2024   5 mins

In 1569, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great celebrated his conquest of Rajputana by laying the foundations of an ambitious new capital, Fatehpur Sikri (“City of Victory”). Its red sandstone buildings still stand today, a Unesco World Heritage site. There is, though, one very notable absence: people. Some historians maintain a lack of water prompted the city’s fall from imperial grace. Or it may simply be that Akbar lost interest in this idealistic architectural and planning venture, meaning by 1610 it was effectively a ghost town.

Might “Govetown”, an ambitious “new quarter” of Cambridge proposed by Michael Gove at his all-purpose Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, be his very own Fatehpur Sikri? He imagines 150,000 new homes here in the next 20 years of the quality and “gentle density” of Marylebone, Clifton, Toulouse and Utrecht. But Cambridge is already challenged by a lack of water. And the Government by lack of voters.

Quite why Cambridge needs to build at least three times the number of new homes than even its own planners would like to — the City of Cambridge currently only comprises 53,000 — is a hard question to answer. Gove’s aim and that of the Cambridge Delivery Group, a new government team set up to “advise on and drive forward the government’s vision”, is to “supercharge this scientific and economic supercluster”. In other words, as Cambridge’s hi-tech and bio-medical sectors are thriving, let’s jump in and see how much bigger these can be grown, fattening government coffers along the way, rather than investing in towns and cities in real need of “levelling up”.

Numbers aside, a civilised Marylebone-like extension to Cambridge would certainly be an infinitely better proposition than the ever-growing, car-dependent, jobless, shop-less, medical and civic-free sprawl now wrapped around the city like some tectonic boa-constrictor. But quite who would be willing to pay for such high-quality streets and buildings, though, is an unanswered question hanging over the Case for Cambridge.

Perhaps Gove’s authors took a cue from one of Cambridge’s most famous academics: “What we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence.” This is Wittgenstein, of course, who, working as a consultant in the late Twenties on the design of a new house for his sister in Vienna, had a newly completed ceiling in one room removed and raised by 30mm to give it perfect proportions.

But when Gove’s similarly rarefied homebuyers move in, can they expect such attention to detail? When, for instance, they turn the elegant taps in their splendid kitchens, will they expect water to flow? It’s not such a silly question. Water is not a given here. There are no local reservoirs. Cambridgeshire water comes from underground chalk aquifers supplying rivers, including the punted Cam, as well as homes, colleges and the recondite labs of “Silicon Fen”. There is a plan for a reservoir north of Chatteris in the Fens, but this is subject to public consultation and unlikely to be completed before 2040. And there is another for a pipeline from Grafham Water, one of England’s largest reservoirs, 25 miles north-west of Cambridge.

If Govetown were a less ambitious proposition in terms of numbers, it might be built and supplied with just enough water. Here, though is the rub. “Our water scarcity issue”, Stephen Kelly, Chief Planner for Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire District Councils, has told Building magazine, “makes it slightly indulgent to try and meet the country’s housing need in a place that doesn’t have any water”, especially when the Environment Agency plans to cap water abstraction licences in Cambridgeshire in two steps in 2030 and 2040.

But Govetown is flawed most of all because it conflates the possibility of a new “urban quarter” of hi-tech, high-income Cambridge with solving the nation’s need for millions of new homes. If these are to be built properly, rather than rushed up in unsuitable locations, including Cambridge, simply to meet pie-in-the-sky government targets, they need to be part of a genuine policy of “levelling up” towns and cities the length and breadth of the country. New housing must be a life-enhancing part of new and revived industries, supporting opportunities, education, jobs, wealth creation, health and welfare, and integrated transport networks. They must be a part, too, of places with true centres, or hearts, with all this implies in terms of delight and of the only wealth that truly matters: life. And, certainly, they must not just be plonked down, isolated, on fields, meadows, flood plains and former airfields. Think of how in the 1840s the Great Western Railway set up its workshops in rural Wiltshire. With so many skilled jobs on offer, Swindon prospered and grew, with new homes arriving in the wake of its economic ascendancy. In time, Great Western built a system of education and healthcare — a precursor of the NHS — demonstrating along its metalled way how a progressive new town might be formed and prosper.

If the Case for Cambridge is a product of both wishful thinking and a squintingly focused political imagination, it is also case study of governmental as much as spatial sprawl. Stephen Kelly, whom we met earlier, leads a shared planning service of 140 or so professional and technical staff managing what is already enormous growth — 61,000 new homes — across the Greater Cambridge area. But Kelly’s team was not invited to join Gove’s Case for Cambridge discussions. Now a new governmental body, the Cambridge Delivery Group headed by Peter Freeman, Chair of Homes England, a national body with a “crucial role in delivering the government’s housing, regeneration and levelling up priorities”, will set up a dedicated “Growth Company for Cambridge as the next step towards a Development Corporation”.

The Growth Company’s remit will be to enable and accelerate developments, to establish a “Cambridge presence and brand… including a website”, to “identify… solutions to complex constraints” and to discuss the future of East-West Rail, that is the Cambridge to Oxford railway line hacked to pieces by Lord Beeching in the Sixties, and along which many thousands of  new homes will surely sprout in years to come as trains return. It is hard not to think that all these fast-breeding official bodies talking 19 to the dozen about “delivery” — once the preserve of milkmen — seem a little remote from the earthy processes of pouring concrete and laying bricks.

My own experience of housing and planning ministers and the expert bodies and quangos they have spawned, from Mrs Thatcher’s governments onwards, is of a “passionate” commitment to architecture and planning that has tended to burn out before you could say Perpendicular Gothic, Milton Keynes or “the next election”. So many ambitious politicians and well-paid experts hanging on to their coat tails, so few buildings. I have been shown plans for a Barcelona-style “Greenwich Village” (all tram-adorned boulevards and New Labour café culture), for Gordon Brown’s Eco-Towns, George Osborne’s Ebbsfleet (a Garden Suburb, of 150,000 people), Nick Clegg’s vague new garden cities, and some administration or another’s Thames Gateway, a Cockney Siberia intended to smother the Essex marshes.

“Britain will need something like five new cities the size of Birmingham even before Govetown is, if ever, completed.”

The supply of and demand for new housing have been out of kilter for decades. Where, until the Eighties, there were four key methods by which houses got built — private housebuilders, housing associations, local authorities and New Towns — only the first two, with very mixed results, remain at work today. Gove appears to be harking back to the halcyon days of New Town Corporations. These were certainly effective in terms of getting homes built. Idealistic, too. In September 1948, a year before the Essex New Town got under way, Lewis Silkin, Clement Attlee’s Minister of Town and Country Planning addressed a packed local public meeting. “Basildon”, he proposed, “will become a city which people from all over the world will want to visit.” Really? No, not really. Yet the New Towns were built. Today, especially with high levels of immigration, Britain will need something like five new cities the size of Birmingham even before Govetown is, if ever, completed.

Given the problematic scale of the British housing question, is Govetown just a case of re-arranging deckchairs on a sinking ship? Not quite. Yet the intense focus on Cambridge seems, at best, overwrought, and the advisers as misinformed as the architects and planners of Fatehpur Sikri. And where Akbar rode out and away from his short-lived dream city, surely Gove can only follow.


Jonathan Glancey is an architectural critic and writer. His books include Twentieth Century Architecture, Lost Buildings and Spitfire: the Biography


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Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

If we were to limit annual net immigration to 100k – as Michael Gove’s party manifestos committed to in 2015 and 2017 (and by implication in 2019) – we would not need to build so many new homes.
Before 2003 and the eastern expansion of the EU, the UK population grew by an average of 100k per year. Average house prices were 3 times average salaries.
Since then the population has grown by 450k per year. Average house prices are now 9 times average salaries.
As well as sky high house prices and rents, we have over-extended public services and infrastructure due to the massively increased demand.
You cannot build your way out of this problem, you need to control demand.
We left the EU so the government could control this situation. They have failed to do so. No wonder they are getting such a kicking!

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

Agreed. Canada appears to have a similar problem.

Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

You are wrong to blame house price rises on immigration, It has more to do with low interest rates implemented by our elites and corporations primarily due to their folly and subsequent self-enrichment. We need people who are prepared to work in this country, not people who would rather be on phones and Netflix all day (and Starbucks). Our country is going downhill and our peoples’ attitudes stink in my opinion.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Carl Valentine

No the problem is excess demand caused by unprecedented immigration. If the demand for housing wasn’t there then no one would be borrowing money to buy properties regardless of the cost.

And where is the evidence that Brits are lazier than foreigners. I’ve worked with people from many countries and haven’t noticed it.

tom j
tom j
1 month ago

If Michael Gove’s ‘folly’ is still standing in 400 years, then I think I’ll take that as a win.
This is such a silly article, just a list of reasons. There are always reasons, for, against, anything. Just get on with it.

Matthew Freedman
Matthew Freedman
1 month ago

Regardless Britain needs more homes. I honestly prefer the idea of having gentle densities of 5 storey mansion blocks than wasteful little detached houses densely packed. Britain is a rainly climate. I’m sure there will be enough water. The bus route out to St Ives has multiple lakes and bogs.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Nonsense (and I live in South Cambridgeshire).
The reservoir problem is easily solvable. All that is missing is the will.
And why would you not want to build on success ? There’s plenty of space to expand in Cambridgeshire. And huge demand for housing. And plenty of employment. Glancey’s “jobless sprawl” doesn’t exist. But I doubt he’s spent that much time checking on the ground.
I spent Saturday morning with some friends at the London Museum of Steam and Water in Brentford. 100 years ago with inferior technology and in a much less wealthy country, London managed to build and maintain a world class water system so good that it survived bombing in two world wars and lasted (just about) until today, even with a long investment holiday.
There is no practical problem at all in creating new reservoirs needed to grow Cambridge. A quick check on Google earth shows the very low density of building over huge parts of the country north west and north east of Cambridge.
What is missing is the will. A local Lib Dem councillor recently told me that “it’ll take 10 or 20 years to build a new reservoir”. The implication being (that as with nuclear power stations) it wasn’t worth bothering.
It didn’t take 10 years in the 1930s. Probably 1.
The only difference is the clowns now in charge who think their job is to stop stuff getting done rather than doing it.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Because NIMBY, and because building new homes creates lower housing prices (supply and demand) and more competition for existing public services. So NIMBY it is !

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Hm … my comment got posted and has suddenly just disappeared … what on earth is going on here ?
… it’s back !

Rob Keeley
Rob Keeley
1 month ago

As always, the sinister Gove is several important steps away from reality. How this supposedly intelligent man has so much power is beyond extraordinary.