Britain does not have one single housing crisis, but a collection of localised housing crises, concentrated in the country’s fastest growing and most economically prosperous centres. Affordable housing availability in Cambridge – a city whose economy is among the strongest and population growth among the fastest nationwide – is particularly desperate. More than this, the enormous gap between supply and demand is fuelling a rapid rise in house prices: in Cambridge they have increased by 18 per cent in the last half decade, so that the average price of a home in the city is now over £500,000.
An endless cycle of gridlock ensues, with existing residents opposed to development that they fear will threaten the value of their own homes. That a home is increasingly perceived as a commodity has roots in Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’, and has generated a culture in which attachment to a community has been replaced by an urgency to protect valuable investment. Though nimbyism is not unique to Cambridge, it has put huge pressure on local leaders to tread carefully on an issue that requires immediate attention. Indeed, identifying sites for housing is not a physical challenge, but a political one, with overwhelming resistance to even the slightest suggestion of construction on the green belt.
Housing shortage in Cambridge has produced significant disparities in wealth and forced many people – unable to afford the cost of housing – out, making the city the largest travel-to-work area outside London. In addition to the implications of this on people’s wellbeing and life choices, it matters for the economy, with businesses unable to access the workforce they require.
That is not to say that Cambridge’s housing crisis has been overlooked or disregarded by its leaders. On the contrary, housebuilding is increasingly a priority for parties of all colours. £170m is being allocated to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to deliver 2,500 new affordable homes, of which £70m has been ring-fenced for a housebuilding programme in Cambridge, led by the city council. Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire District Councils are progressing with their joint Greater Cambridge Local Plan and are engaging with the local community to help shape development. There is also keen interest from developers, looking to meet housing demand with innovative, affordable and sustainable proposals.
Yet if the urgent housing challenges facing Cambridge and cities like it are to be properly addressed, we need to adopt more radical policies. New towns like Cambourne, and the recent Thakeham proposals, should be treated not as unsightly blotches on the landscape, but as opportunities to develop sustainable and local communities, with diverse housing options and good access to work, schools and leisure facilities. Covid-19 lockdowns – which have seen people spending more time locally, working from home and replacing their cars with bikes – have highlighted more than ever the importance of the so-called “20-minute neighbourhood” concept. Achieving this in Cambridge(shire) will, above all, require developing decent and sustainable transport infrastructure, that connects people to their work and to public spaces.