This is Roger Hume. Five years ago, he and hundreds like him bought a house in a brand new Cambridgeshire village. Then the developers decided to increase density in line with planning policy and the residents hit the roof. Have the government and middle England parted company?

Rows of cottages, the village green and a market square with stalls overflowing with fruit and veg. Five years ago, Roger Hume came across these alluring clichés in marketing material for Cambourne, a new village that was to be built about 10 miles west of Cambridge where he lived. When his wife got mugged in Cambridge city centre, they decided to buy into the village idyll. Today, Roger and his wife live in their new house and the scheme is halfway through development. But the pastoral dream is not turning out quite as he expected. Rather than a scene from HE Bates, Cambourne has become a battleground in the government’s struggle to build high-density housing in the South-east.

The village came to prominence last year when its developers, Bovis, Bryant and George Wimpey, decided to bring future phases into line with PPG3 by increasing housing numbers. So, after a project review, they applied for planning approval to increase the number of homes on the 1000-acres site from 3300 to 4859. Under its proposal, called Cambourne Enhanced, the developers would not only add more housing, but also revise highway design and landscaping.

At other residential sites across the South, such density increases are winning planning approval with little opposition from authorities or from those who have already bought on schemes.

But at Cambourne, a different view prevails.

The residents are talking of taking legal action against the developers, and South Cambridgeshire district council has turned down the application to increase density and has forced the matter to a public inquiry, which was heard in June.

What is happening at Cambourne is deeply troubling for those concerned with implementing housing policy in south-east England.

Most worrying is the impact it may have on the London-Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough housing growth area, where draft planning guidance is being reworked to increase housebuilding targets. Roger Humber, housing expert, says the prospect of growth in the Peterborough and Stansted area is “highly controversial”, as is the Stansted airport expansion. “Further south in Essex and Hertfordshire there is resistance even to the existing housebuilding targets,” he says. “All through the area, growth is being fought. The government is having a real struggle to deliver.”

The discontent at Cambourne signals a growing concern that the government is trying to impose something on middle England that middle England doesn’t want.

The residents thought they were buying into a nostalgic recreation of English rural life. When Cambourne was masterplanned nine years ago by Terry Farrell and Partners, it was one of the first generation of schemes to follow in the footsteps of Poundbury, Prince Charles’ model Dorset village, in delivering something more than a basic housing estate. It was designed to provide 3300 homes in three distinct areas called Upper, Lower and Great Cambourne. It was also to have a 750,000 ft2 business park, shops along its high street, and other amenities, as well as an 86-acre country park and 160 acres of woodland.

It was an attractive formula for homebuyers – but it is not what the government regards as sustainable development. Housing density levels are low by today’s standards (see “From micro to macro”, overleaf), and there are not enough people to make bus routes viable.

And only 7% of the scheme’s residents work in Cambourne; the remainder commutes to jobs in Cambridge or London.

After an audit of the scheme that took into account design, environmental and transport considerations, the developer is pressing to build 1559 more homes. “We were trying to achieve a number at the lower end of the PPG3 spectrum and thought it would be palatable,” says David Chare, project director of Cambourne. The housebuilder consortium proposes to build most of the extra homes within the yet-to-be developed Upper Cambourne.

The density increase will be achieved not by building on open green space or by building higher, but by improved design, says Karl Kropf, senior associate with Roger Evans Associates, masterplanning consultant for Cambourne Enhanced. “The range and types of houses to achieve the increase have already been built in the village. But it is how they are put together that is changed under Cambourne Enhanced,” he explains. “Design allows you to put homes more closely together if you work in streetscenes.”

The consortium has attempted to win over Cambourne buyers with direct mail and exhibitions at local schools, but with little success. “Turn-out at the exhibitions has not been that spectacular, and the reception has been mixed,” says Chare. “There are people who don’t want one more than 3300 houses built here and others who are more philosophical.

You don’t hear about the silent majority; you tend to hear from the vocal minority.” Chare is more surprised by the council’s dismissal of the application. “We are following government guidance – but that’s politics,” he says.

The district council rejected the proposal because it feels a moral obligation to stand by its original decision. Cambourne residents believe that the developers are going against their word. There has been talk of taking the developers to court under the Property Misdescriptions Act, which makes it an offence for developers or estate agents to make misleading statements, and of picketing showhomes.

Roger Hume, who bought at Great Cambourne, says the community are not nimbys but are fearful that the vision of village life that the developers marketed to them is being diminished, and that Cambourne’s three distinct areas will be turned into sprawl. “The developers don’t refer to Cambourne as a village any more. They refer to it as a town now,” says Hume.

The reality of living in a housing growth area is also starting to hit home. “There’s a proposal for a 2500-home development for an airfield site next to Cambourne, a consortium wants to build an 8500-home settlement on the other side of the A428 and there’s another proposal nearby. Development is joining villages up and swamping them,” says Hume.

The consortium’s Chare, however, maintains that intensification of Cambourne could help to prevent sprawl elsewhere. “This is a golden opportunity – it’s a fantastic development, and densification here will take pressure off other areas. To have 1000 acres with 3000 homes on is a waste of land,” he says. Planning inspector Dennis Bradley may concur with that view when he gives his verdict later this year, but that is not going to make building in the growth area any easier.

From micro to macro

The resident
“We’re not getting what we were sold” is resident Roger Hume’s view of Cambourne Enhanced. Hume moved from Cambridge to Cambourne four years ago, his choice driven, as so often, by location. “We were attracted by the ease of the commuting journey, the choice of homes and the concept of facilities like the health centre. Then when my wife got mugged in Cambridge that decided us,” he says.

Hume says the scheme has failed to live up to its promise in other ways, too. He catalogues amenities, from sportsfields to shops, that are being delivered late. He complains that the 40-bed hotel has become a 120-bed one, and the proposed country foodstore has been replaced by a Morrisons supermarket.

The village square, shown in the development consortium’s illustrations hosting a thriving market, has not witnessed a single turnip, although the residents have tried to get permission for a farmers’ market. As a result of such issues, Hume describes relations between residents and developers as “pretty fraught”.

Now Hume is concerned that the extra homes will generate sprawl and overstretch roads and schools. He accepts that Cambourne has become a dormitory settlement. “A stream of taxis leave here for the station at seven o’clock in the morning,” he says. But he blames the developers for marketing homes to Londoners. “It would have been better if it had been marketed in the local area,” he says.

The development

The development
The development

The consortium’s proposals will change not only the housing density, but the streets and landscaping of Cambourne. Homes are divided between Lower and Great Cambourne, which are under construction, and Upper Cambourne, which is still unbuilt, and the target for most of the densification. Lower Cambourne is being developed at an average density of 12.5 units an acre, and Great Cambourne at about 13.3 units an acre. The average density of Upper Cambourne under Cambourne Enhanced’s proposals is increased to 15 units an acre. All areas will have the same types of houses, which range from detached to three-storey apartment buildings.

Changes to highways design and landscaping will include such measures as making walking more attractive for pedestrians by increasing the number of connections between routes. The proposal has been undertaken with input from masterplanner Roger Evans Associates, transport consultant RPS Transport and planning consultant Wood Frampton.

Karl Kropf, a senior associate at Roger Evans Associates, says his firm has taken into account the “enormous amount of guidance that has come out since 1995”, including PPGs 3, 6 and 13; Places, Streets and Movements; and the Urban Design Compendium. “But we’re seeking to work with the original masterplan, to maintain what everyone sees as something positive.”

The policy
The Cambridge area is a focus for residential development, through the London-Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough housing growth corridor.

How the area will accommodate housing growth will be defined by the new regional planning guidance RPG14.

RPG14 combines the old RPG6 (covering East Anglia) and RPG9 (covering the South-east).

The East of England Regional Assembly’s map of the area is peppered with potential development activity; a growth area here, a regeneration area there. There is a lot going on there, or should be: the RPG14 territory contains parts of three growth areas: London-Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough, South Midlands and the Thames Gateway.

RPG14 is still in the making because the government wants to increase housebuilding numbers in the London-Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough growth area. The target in the first draft of RPG14 was 23,900 homes a year, but the government wants that figure increased by 900. The guidance is timetabled for publication in 2006.