Cambridge University Self-Build Society

North-West Cambridge site

The University of Cambridge owns 120 ha of land between Madingley Road and Huntington Road, most of which is currently in agricultural use. The University has applied for this land to be released from its current green-belt status, and this request was granted by local planners in the 2006 local plan. It plans to develop this land gradually over the next decade and intends to make a substantial fraction (> 70%) available for staff housing and as housing to be sold.

The site seems ideally suited for University members interested in a self-build project:

  • it is located within convenient cycling or walking distance of major University facilities (especially the West Cambridge site) and the city centre, and is therefore particularly attractive for those keen on a car-free life style;
  • the fact that the land will be sold by the University and that a part of it is promised in the masterplanning application for affordable staff housing may make it easier for a group of University employees to negotiate a reasonable deal;
  • thanks to the close proximity of other University facilities to the site and because the infrastructure still has to be built, it might be very easy to extend the Granta Backbone Network in some form to the new homes, for the benefit of University employees who need a high-speed computer connection to their departments to be able to work effectively from home.

This drawing by the masterplanning consultants shows the extent and features of the site:

North-West Cambridge site map

During the public consultation that the University’s consultants organised as part of the master planning process, the following arrangement of new developments was presented as one of the preferred options, which gives a rough idea of what the site could look like eventually:

North-West Cambridge masterplanning option

During the consultation, current neighbours of the site, along Huntington Road and Storey’s Way, expressed a clear preference for a row of lower density housing with back gardens facing their existing properties. This goal would certainly be compatible with allocating a substantial number of ~500 m² plots for self builders.

The exact dimensions and National Grid coordinates of the site are available on this Ordnance Survey map (scalable PDF version):

North-West Cambridge Ordnance Survey map

According to the 2006 local plan (adopted on 20 July 2006, see policy 9/7, pp 114–116), the first phase of development will be limited to site 9.11 on the local plan, which consists of three areas that were described in previous local-plan drafts as “19 Acre Field” (7.81 ha), “East of Gravel Hill Farm” (2.49 ha), and “Part of Gravel Hill Farm” (1.53 ha). This part of the site was declared to be available for immediate development back in 2006, however the University preferred to await the completion of the North West Area Action Plan for the entire site before starting with any detailed planning permissions and construction of infrastructure.

Current status

We had an initial discussion and some correspondence with Estate Management officers in February/March 2005. They were clearly interested and said that the concept of allocating land to self-build plots is certainly something the University would be prepared to consider subject to there being an identifiable need amongst its staff. They recommended that we establish the level of interest, which triggered this web page and initiated the CU Self-Build Society. The idea was also favourably commented on in the Eleventh Report of the Board of Scrutiny: "Alternative routes to increasing the affordability of local housing should be considered. The Board is aware, for example, that there is a small but enthusiastic group of staff interested in self-build housing. There ought to be room for this kind of imaginative solution in a diverse community with breadth of vision.".

Even without advertising the idea, we have already been approached by more than a dozen people in the Computer Laboratory and nearby other departments, who are interested in a self-build project in this time frame. It should therefore not be difficult at all to find within the University and its colleges enough people to fill at least a small road on this site with self-build projects.

The North West Cambridge Area Action Plan was adopted in October 2009, after a lengthy consultation process. It released the site from the Green Belt after the government inspectors approved the University’s preferred layout of the site. Since then, the University has been preparing an outline planning application and published a green paper for discussion. We've also had some initial discussions regarding self-build opportunities with Roger Taylor, the University’s North-West Cambridge Project Director.

What needs to be done?

Since most of the potential plots on the site have at present no infrastructure nearby (road, gas, electricity, drainage, telecoms, etc.), these aspects would have to be arranged with the University as part of their overall planning for the site. Then a contractor would have to set up at least basic infrastructure (temporary road), before individual projects could start. Any of this is unlikely to happen before 2011. However, there are some corners where development of a small group of houses could perhaps start rather quickly, and initially independent of the main site.

We have no real information yet, in what price range plots might be and under what conditions they would be available. Discussions with EMBS officers back in 2006 suggested that the University (in form of a Planning and Resources Committee working group and the North-West Cambridge Strategy Committee) has yet to make up its mind on this issue, and that a range of options are imagineable, from open-market free-hold sale over 999-year leaseholds to schemes specifically targeted at employees. (An example of the latter would be the Residential Ground Lease Program of the Stanford University Faculty Staff Housing facility in California.)

Related information