The population of Cambridgeshire is growing1 and there’s plenty of demand for further growth2, but developing new places for people to live, work and play in Cambridgeshire is tricky. Cambridge itself is surrounded by green belt that few seem willing to sacrifice, despite much of it being described as dull and featureless.3 There’s lots of development around Peterborough, but it cannot be expected to handle all of the population growth. A few new towns are being developed (Cambourne and Northstowe), but these are not well suited to grow beyond a certain size.4
Notably, Cambridgeshire is curious in that it has two small-ish cities but does not yet have any large towns like Wellingborough, Corby and Kettering in neighbouring Northamptonshire. Many of the bigger towns to the east of the county (March, Wisbech and the city of Ely) are surrounded by flat, low-lying land that’s at risk of flooding by both river and, in the longer term, sea. On this basis5, I would suggest that these towns should not be top of the list for future growth. However, the bigger towns in the west of Cambridgeshire are better suited to handling significant growth and providing Cambridgeshire with some large towns: Huntingdon and St Neots.
There are some good reasons to be pro-development, such as:
- One of the most certain ways to ensure the maintenance and perhaps even growth existing facilities if by growing the population they serve. For example, the argument for keeping the current range of services at Hinchingbrooke Hospital would be increasingly difficult if the Huntingdon area did not soak up much of Cambridgeshire’s population growth. A growing population is already acknowledged as a factor in future investment decisions.
- By allowing large scale development, such as Alconbury Weald, you generally end up with a well-thought-out development with appropriate new facilities, green space, utilities improvements, etc. Conversely, by resisting large scale development you end up with somewhere like Cambridge or London where the quality of homes is decreasing, the price of homes is ridiculous and there are few improvements to facilities, green space, etc.
Obviously there’s far more discussion and debate to be had in this area, but the point of this post is not to fully examine Cambridgeshire’s growth and development opportunities or the nationwide need for growth and development. Instead, like Cambridge Automated Metro, I’d like to present a “What If” scenario.
What if we strategically grew Huntingdon and St Neots towards the size of Wellingborough, Corby and Kettering?
I’ll focus on Huntingdon in this post for a variety of reasons:
- It’s well placed to be a focal point for Cambridgeshire other than Cambridge and Peterborough: as well as geographically, various county-wide services are headquartered there, Cambridgeshire County Council will soon be moving its headquarters to the area and it’s where a number of major transport routes (significant well beyond Cambridgeshire) meet.6
- There are some significant settlements (e.g. Godmanchester and Brampton) that have functionally been suburbs of Huntingdon for a long time.7
- There’s plenty of housebuilding occurring locally including, most notably, Alconbury Weald.
- The local road network is about to change significantly: the ongoing A14 upgrade will see significant sections of dual carriageway in the area (Cambridge Services to Huntingdon town centre, Alconbury to Hinchingbrooke, Stukeley Meadows to Brampton Hut) become significantly underloaded, and the Alconbury Weald development is nearing the point of having its own road connection to Huntingdon.
- Cambourne and Northstowe, like Alconbury Weald, have been built to be dependent on a larger nearby settlement for a larger range of facilities (e.g. retail, leisure, hospitals, work). The intention was probably for these to depend on Cambridge, but they also have good access to Huntingdon.8
- There are likely to be significant changes to the south of St Neots, with the Oxford to Cambridge expressway and railway due to run in that corridor, but these are still in early planning stages (e.g. the precise routes each project will take have not yet been decided).9
An interesting question, relevant to the section below, is the relationship between St Ives and Huntingdon. As both grow, are they close enough and related enough to be considered parts of a single greater area? The distance between them is an argument against, but it’s notable that much of the gap between them is also populated (via the villages of Houghton and Wyton) and in a number of ways St Ives and Huntingdon are treated as one. For example, there’s no overlap in terms of major supermarkets: Huntingdon has Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Lidl and Aldi whereas St Ives has Wairtose, Morrisons and a Co-Op.
Some of the benefits of creating a “Greater Huntingdon”, incorporating nearby settlements and development, could include:
- A larger budget for events in the area and for marketing of the area for retail and tourism.
- The significant population of the area being more easily recognisable to those looking to visit or invest in the area.10
- Better strategic planning for the area, hopefully resulting in long-term improvements to roads, public transport, amenities, etc.
The Greater Huntingdon Map
The main point of this post, like Cambridge Automated Metro, is to exhibit a “What If” map. Putting everything above together, along with a variety of developments, improvements, etc. that have been proposed or are under construction, produces an idea of what Huntingdon and the surrounding area could look like. Please note that my research has not been overly thorough, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find some significant or insurmountable obstacles (e.g. wind turbines, historic landfill sites) to some more speculative features on the map. However, I have done my best to take account of many non-obvious restrictions such as SSSIs and other important green space, A14(M) and A1(M) borrow pits, and land prone to flooding. The research process has certainly been interesting and I’ve learned a lot about the history of the area. I am also bound to keep tinkering with the map and quietly updating this post: every time I look at it I see at least one thing that’s not quite right.
I present to you how Greater Huntingdon could look in a few decades, with a population of approximately 100,00011:
- Darker blue: motorway*
- Mid-blue: rivers
- Green: major A-roads*
- White: other roads of significance*
- White dotted: proposed other roads of significance*
- Black: railways
* Note that thicker lines represent dual carriageways and thinner lines represent single carriageways.
- Mid-blue: lakes
- Red: residential (and some associated things such as schools)
- Purple: notable establishments (e.g. hospital, railway station, council HQ)
- Yellow: retail (and similar establishments such as restaurants, hotels and museums)
- Pink: other employment
- Green: large public green space
- Light blue (and very fuzzy): potential areas for further development
Notes on map features:
- The level of detail on the map is fairly arbitrary: clearly I’ve taken more interest in some areas than others. For example, the whole of Huntingdon town centre is marked as retail (despite the substantial number of homes, Huntingdonshire District Council HQ, etc.) whereas the new Cambridgeshire County Council HQ gets its own purple blob. It would be extremely time consuming to add a great amount of detail across the map, such as an appropriately coloured blob for every shop and green space.
- I’ve given names to some future developments to help make the map more intelligible. For clarity, I’ve generally reused existing placenames and augmented them. For example, as well as Stukeley Meadows, we now have Stukeley Hillside. They’re very much just placeholders though and many could be improved.
- This map deliberately doesn’t make it clear what is within Greater Huntingdon and what’s just near it. Exactly where the line could and should be drawn is up for debate. As discussed above, Godmanchester, Brampton and Alconbury Weald are very strong candidates. Given Alconbury Weald, the Stukeleys and the Alconburys are not unreasonable candidates too. St Ives is more debatable, though it will soon be connected to Huntingdon and Godmanchester by a dual carriageway virtually dedicated to the three towns and, as discussed above, Huntingdon and St Ives are already treated as one on some levels. If St Ives is included, it makes sense to include everything between Huntingdon and St Ives. The population figure includes all of these as well as Fenstanton, the Offords and Buckden, as these would be close satellite villages.
- I’ve included a third river crossing as it has been in the news again recently.12 From what I can remember, any time there has been talk of a third river crossing, it has been from Godmanchester to Hartford. I’ve included that on the map as a dotted line, along with two alternative options, from Godmanchester to Hinchingbrooke and Godmanchester to Brampton. There are a couple of reasons for this: Brampton Road and its junctions (specifically Hinchingbrooke Park Road and the train station junction) are well known for being overwhelmed for a number of hours every day (this seems likely to get worse with the A14 upgrade) and both options would also provide a fourth vehicular route for crossing the East Coast Main Line.13 As usual, there has been thinking about some detail (e.g. notice how the Godmanchester-Brampton link follows some of the path of the old Huntingdon-Kettering railway), but there’s plenty more that I’d need to investigate before considering the proposal serious. The Godmanchester to Hartford crossing is still a useful and valid option for allowing A1307 and A1198 traffic to reach the A141 without going through Huntingdon.
- An improved A141 (partially on a new alignment), which has been a distant plan for some time, is included. I’ve suggested dualling this to Wyton airfield as it’s already quite busy at peak times and will be made yet busier by the new developments. It would be nice for some of junctions it has to be grade-separated, but that would require a more significant upgrade proposal (it would have to have far fewer junctions spend much of its length running significantly below or above the natural ground level).
- Given the third river crossing and improved A141, I’ve included the development of Wyton airfield (including plenty of new green space), which would become much more accessible.
- After researching and drawing the map, potential future areas for development (beyond specific current proposals) became clearer, and I’ve marked these as very fuzzy light-blue blobs. Topography14 and major roads make much development to the west difficult. There is much more potential around the southern edge of Godmanchester and to the north and north-east of Huntingdon though.
- There are various other minor interesting things on the map, such as an extension of Huntingdon Retail Park to the north of the A141 and something interesting on Views Common15 (to make the most of the good access) but, as with Cambridge Automated Metro, I’ll leave such details for others to find and think about for themselves.
- There are a variety of good reasons for this, such as great employment opportunities in Cambridge itself and the Metropolitan Green Belt covering much of the land between Cambridgeshire and London. [↩]
- The house price to wage ratio in the county is currently the highest in the country. [↩]
- I recall reading a news article where a developer used words to this effect several years ago in Cambridge News. Unfortunately their website does not keep articles around for very long (for example, the Cambridge Automated Metro article has disappeared), so I can’t provide a reference. However, it’s not difficult to see their point, even if you disagree with their implication that the green belt should therefore not be kept. [↩]
- For example, there are reasons there weren’t towns in those locations in the first place, though that doesn’t mean that further growth is impossible. [↩]
- There are other reasons to discount these towns too, such as poor transport links. [↩]
- North-South routes are: A1, A1198/A10, A14/M11, East Coast Main Line. East-West route: A14. [↩]
- Huntingdon and Godmanchester were briefly joined in the past, both Brampton and Godmanchester are considered part of the “Huntingdon Spatial Planning Area” and even in this recent Alconbury Weald document there are maps from local authorities showing (or coming close to showing) Brampton and Godmanchester as continuations of Huntingdon. [↩]
- The problems with transport to/from and within Cambridge are well publicised and the city centre itself can also get extremely busy. These problems can be lessened by attracting Cambourne and Northstowe residents to Huntingdon instead, where possible. [↩]
- The preferred route of the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet upgrade has recently been announced and the preferred railway corridor is currently being consulted on. [↩]
- This is something St Neots does better, through direct expansion of the town. The current populations of Greater Huntingdon in its most limited scope (i.e. predominantly Huntingdon, Godmanchester and Brampton) and Greater St Neots are probably fairly similar but, due to its unambitious boundaries, Huntingdon proper has a substantially smaller population than St Neots proper at the moment. [↩]
- An estimate of the population of Huntingdon itself is 30,000, when you consider developments since the last census, the not-a-Sainsbury’s site (300 homes) and developments beyond Stukeley Meadows (1000+550 homes). Add to that the population of Godmanchester including Roman’s Edge (approx. 8000), Brampton including developments to the south (approx. 6300), Alconbury Weald including Grange Farm (approx. 15,000), the Stukeleys and Alconburys, (approx. 3700), Houghton and Wyton (approx. 1800), Wyton-on-the-Hill including potential development of Wyton airfield (approx. 11,000), St Ives including various developments there (approx. 19,000), the Offords and Buckden (approx. 4100) and Fenstanton including the ongoing developments there (approx. 3600), giving a total of 102,500. Notably, I’ve generally not included cases where development hasn’t yet been approved in principle, with the exceptions being the proposed developments between Stukeley Meadows and the Stukeleys as these tie in nicely with A141 realignment. Also notably, where I’ve only been able to find the anticipated number of homes rather than the anticipated population, I’ve multiplied the number of homes by the average household size according to the 2011 census (2.3). This figure could be an underestimate (due to homes being of a generous size) or overestimate (due to unoccupied homes), but at least gives us an indication that Greater Huntingdon would be comparable in size to the large towns of Northamptonshire given as examples above (which will probably have also grown significantly by then). [↩]
- Specifically, the mayor is planning to commission a feasability study. [↩]
- The A14(M) will provide a similar link between the two settlements, though it’s not clear if Highways England planned for such local traffic to use it: one of the major reasons the Cambridge Northern Bypass has become overloaded is because it serves as both a long-distance route and an outer ring-road for Cambridge. [↩]
- The new A1(M)/A14(M) borrow pits are particularly frustrating, taking up valuable land in perpetuity. As a relatively fertile and low-lying area of the country, it would have been good for multiple reasons if material for building the new roads had been imported from elsewhere. [↩]
- Perhaps some sort of visitor attraction? Other than new country parks, the rest of the map is lacking something new of this nature. The strange, certainly man-made undulation of the land on the west side of the current A14 here makes me think of this, but the area already has an unfortunately strong connection with war through many (now mostly closed) RAF bases and a famous resident. [↩]