Proposed development for Wintringham, formerly a tiny hamlet, now earmarked for 2,500 new homes
Artillery Row

Soulless suburbia

London overspill is ruining once-distinctive towns

The other day I received a glossy brochure entitled, ”Making Meaningful Connections”. It was about a proposed new railway line between Oxford and Cambridge and stopping at my home town of St Neots. 

The brochure contained idyllic pictures of people boating on the Cam and happy smiling faces of the staff of the East-West Railway Company. 

However, what has happened to St Neots and the former county town of Huntingdon is far less idyllic. These once distinctive Georgian towns have been swamped by huge housing estates, and with many more to come. St Neots, in my time a little market town of around 5,000 inhabitants, now has a population of 40,000 and is set for a further 26 per cent growth by 2036.

The expansion — or the rot, however you like to look at it — started in the 1960s

Indeed, the whole of Cambridgeshire has been earmarked for unprecedented growth as tens of thousands of new homes are planned for what were once little villages. The tiny village of Bourn, 10 miles from St Neots, is to have 3,500 new homes and 10,000 are planned for Northstowe, making it the biggest new town since Milton Keynes.

All this means that towns and villages in Cambridgeshire have grown and are growing much faster than the national increase in either population or households. Why is this? The expansion — or the rot, however you like to look at it — started in the 1960s when St Neots and Huntingdon, along with some other towns such as Peterborough, started to accept the London “overspill”. As a result, the population in St Neots grew from 5,554 in 1961 to 15,204 ten years later. Once this growth started, it was unstoppable. By 2011 the population had doubled to 31,165.

Initially, local councils and businesspeople welcomed the influx, believing it would bring new customers to their shops and businesses and revitalise the towns. In fact, the exact opposite happened, and instead, big stores and chains came to the area, driving out the independent shops. In St Neots today, there is just one business remaining from my day: Brittains furnishers. It is the same story in Huntingdon, with Elphicks furniture store the only old-established family business still there. 

The drift to the south began in the early 1960s and accelerated under de-industrialisation of the North and Midlands in the 1980s and 90s. Now, those areas have been left behind as Cambridgeshire continues its relentless expansion. 

Of course, people have to live somewhere and opposition to once picturesque villages being swallowed up by nondescript housing estates is often decried as nimbyism. Here, local resident Michael Monk, a retired town planner for Cambridge and now campaigning with the Council for the Protection of Rural England, (CPRE) has some strong words.

Ah yes, this old lazy jibe, nimbyism. It’s inevitable that people will object when they see places they love being threatened by overdevelopment, or development in the wrong place.

We at CPRE are not opposed to development, and strongly support the construction of proper affordable housing. When we had the years of greatest housebuilding after World War Two it was largely because local authorities were building as many homes as the private sector. Nowadays, issues such as immigration exceeding emigration, people living longer, more divorces leading to two households instead of one, all mean that more housing is required.

But, according to the CPRE, it is over-concentrated in the South. Massive expansion along what has become known as the Oxford-Cambridge arc, is being justified, argues Michael Monk, by businesses wanting to locate in areas already economically successful:

This huge expansion sold to local communities is on the basis of more jobs for you and your children. Job forecasts are often wildly over-optimistic, but they continue to be used to justify house building projections.

There are virtually no jobs left in St Neots as most local factories and industries closed down years ago and the town has become pretty much a commuter base, with the majority of residents working in Cambridge, London or Peterborough. The town once had 47 historic pubs and coaching inns. These have mostly disappeared, along with the former sense of community. In 2021 St Neots was named as one of the 10 worst places in the country to live. 

St Ives, the other historic town in former Hunts, has largely escaped this awful fate

Huntingdon is not much better. Oliver Cromwell’s home town, where he went to the grammar school is now almost impossible to enter, surrounded as it is by endless ring roads and marooned by huge housing estates on all sides. It is noticeable that St Ives, the other historic town in former Hunts, has largely escaped this awful fate by refusing to accept the London overspill in the 1960s. As a result, there has been none of the vast expansion which has ruined the other two towns and St Ives, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, retains much of its olde worlde charm. 

But all is not lost. Already, intense campaigning has put a stop to the proposed Oxford-Cambridge motorway, which would have meant ever more strings of new housing estates. And I, invited to respond to the consultation document for the East-West Rail Project by 9 June, will give the planned new railway line a resounding no. 

I just have to hope this glossy brochure is not just window dressing, and that dissenting voices will be taken into account before the whole of Southern England coalesces into a continuous housing estate. 

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