Waitrose-grad vs the ‘NIMBocrites’
Could Cambridge come to rival London?
Development has always attracted a certain romantic opposition, so much so that many works of English literature were inspired by the distaste writers felt for their childhood idylls being built over.
HG Wells hated the suburbanisation of his native Bromley and lamented that ‘All my childish memories are of digging and wheeling, of woods invaded by building … I realised building was the enemy.’ The River Ravensbourne, he bitterly recalled, ‘became filled with rubbish – old iron, rusty cans, abandoned boots’. JRR Tolkien’s fantasy of the Shire reflected a sadness about his native Worcestershire and the hamlet of Sarehole being swallowed up by Birmingham.
Perhaps there is a budding young novelist growing up right now in Grantchester whose epic fantasy or dystopian future visions are influenced by the rise of Greater Cambridge, with perhaps a Sauron figure based on Michael Gove.
The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is drawing up proposals to turn the university town into our own Silicon Valley, with plans for 250,000 new homes built over the next two decades, dwarfing its current population of less than 150,000.
From an economic point of view this makes absolute sense. Housing costs are a huge impediment to economic growth, and Cambridge is among a number of southern English cities suffering the most extreme mismatch between average property prices and average incomes. Almost all are historic towns featuring medieval or Regency centres, with Cambridge in sixth place, behind Winchester, Oxford, Bath, Truro and Chichester.
All of them are being strangled by planning rules, and before the mid-20th century would have naturally expanded far beyond their current size. Although home owners in these towns no doubt prefer them as they are, these restrictions are driving out families and immiserating locals, priced out of the market. Clearly Cambridge needs to expand, even if it will damage the particular atmosphere of certain outlying areas.
I admire Gove’s vision although I’m not particularly keen on the grande idée, which feels a bit continental and even Napoleonic for my tastes. It would surely make more sense to allow the most expensive cities to continue to expand at a more modest rate so long as their homes:wages ratio remains above a certain level.
I also don’t trust anyone but King Charles to actually build it. Despite some interesting developments, most of the housing that gets built in Britain is still uninspiring and a new Cambridge is not going to match previously designed cities like Edinburgh, Bath or Newcastle. The sensible option would surely be for the department to draw up a list of Britain’s 250 most beautiful streets and just allow the developers to copy them. (As an aside, I’ve tried making a thread of NIMBY objections and, as unreasonable as they genuinely are, many proposed developments I see are so often terrible.)
Despite this, there is something appealing to what Aaron Bastani called Waitrose-grad, and he is right to suggests that ‘Making the Cambridge cluster a full blown city-region with tonnes more housing, office and research space, and low carbon transport infrastructure, is probably the single best thing you could do to improve productivity in the U.K.’
I have a soft spot for romanticism, but I’m quite honest in stating that my traditionalism is ersatz. It’s much better to be rich than poor, and picturesque views are of no use if families can’t afford a home or a weekly shop; Britain cannot merely survive as a Harry Potter theme park drawing tourists to its pleasant historic sets while so many of its residents suffer in poverty. We ought to be wealthy, and while it’s perfectly understandable to have a romantic attraction to one’s small, bucolic town ultimately – if it’s pricing out younger people – it’s essentially self-defeating, if not selfish.
It is also true, from an economic point of view, that it makes more sense to invest in cities, not towns – even if this doesn’t make political sense to the Conservatives, because Tory voting now heavily correlates with lower population density.
The main problem is that, even if Waitrose-grad gets built it will only absorb about a year’s immigration at its current rate – cotton wool into the furnace. We’d need a dozen of these new megacities around the south of England, and no one wants them in their backyard, least of all the pro-immigration MPs who represent these constituencies.
Gill writes that:
‘These are liberal types who advocate population growth – wanting more immigration, often mourning the end of free movement and a “compassionate” approach to asylum – whilst doing everything they can to stifle the infrastructure needed to support this.
‘Similarly, millions of renters, young and now increasingly old, suffer the consequences when politicians across the spectrum push for greater immigration without the infrastructure to accommodate it. It is no coincidence that rents have reached record levels as net migration has done so too. The people calling for more liberal immigration policies say it’s the Government kicking away the ladder whenever there’s talk of secure borders. What about them? What’s the point of a ladder if there’s nothing to get to?’