Anglian Water’s embargo on all new house building – 1974-78

If this is not a warning from history, I don’t know what is.

Before I begin, for those of you willing/able to help support me in my various pieces of work on Cambridge town’s history and reporting on contemporary issues, please feel free to help feed the Town Owl (inspired by the owl sat next to the clock at the top of the guildhall overlooking Market Square!)

In the post-war years the housing growth / construction boom following the war years also required massive investment in infrastructure. Cambridge fell within the old Great Ouse area – with the various organisations based in Cambridge, at the time the town becoming one of the regional centres of a growing central government. (The River Cam is a tributary river of the Great Ouse of which it flows into just before Ely).

Being a largely agricultural county, dealing with sewage and dealing with land drainage for agriculture (the low-lying Fens being north of the city) inevitably overlap each other. It’s easy to forget just how much effort and expenditure went into creating the flat fields of crops that we are familiar with today. One of the responses to the climate emergency is to re-wild areas of agricultural land, such as at Wicken Fen.

More houses, more people…and more poo!

It’s not just our generation that has been dealing with this issue.

Above – protesters campaigning against Anglian Water’s failures to keep our rivers clean, from Sept 2021

Fast forward to today and Anglian Water along with the rest of the water industry say ‘sorry’. But is it a meaningful apology? Furthermore, the present crisis is happening under a privatised industry while the previous crisis happened under a nationalised industry.

I’ll leave it for public policy people to debate that one.

Cambridge Sewage Report 1965

In March 1965 Cambridge City Council published a report on sewage treatment capacity.

Above – I found a copy for sale recently (at G.David) so bought it and digitised it here.

That report tells us the post-war history of assessments and recommendations – and also what got funded/refused, when and why.

“So…how did we end up with an embargo?”

I refer you to Mr Burrows, the City Engineer and Surveyor

Above – I don’t even know if we have an official city engineer and surveyor today!

Demand rising faster than anticipated – a bit like Holford & Wright with motor car use.

“The population of the drainage area and water consumption have increased at rates greater than envisaged twelve or more years ago, with the result that the sewage works is now treating the maximum flows for which the extensions completed in 1958 were originally designed to ultimately receive.”

T.V. Burrows, Cambridge City Council Engineer & Surveyor, March 1965

So the timeline is:

  • Somewhere between 1945-52 – Mr Burrows is commissioned to write a report on Cambridge sewage and drainage
  • 1952 – Mr Burrows reports that the infrastructure needs upgrading
  • 1958 – Recommendations for upgrades completed
  • 1965 – Mr Burrows reports that more upgrades are needed to increase capacity.

If we look at the census data, we can see a significant population increase in Cambridge from 81,500 in 1951 to over 95,000 by 1961 – rising to nearly 100,000 in 1971. (The 1981 census took place in a university holiday, hence the lower number – and note the 2021 figure of over 145,000 took place with many researchers and students studying from home). So Cambridge’s infrastructure was dealing with a 20% increase in population also at a time when the new homes being built had a higher water usage – certainly more than many of the slums that they replaced.

Bringing in the embargo.

The Cambridge Evening News tells us of the shock to local government – and the newly-extended South Cambridgeshire District Council (that had only been in existence since April following the overhaul of local government – the results of which we are broadly stuck with today).

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive here

That ban stayed in place throughout the mid-1970s until Anglian Water had completed the necessary upgrades of the sewage works at Milton.

Above – the estimated lifting of the ban on house building given as 01 Jan 1978 in an announcement just over 12 months before. Cambridge Evening News in the British Newspaper Archive

The problem was that various parts of the regional network needed investing in. Note the state of Newmarket over the county border – which may tell a tale about local housebuilding in the 1980s.

Above – The Newmarket Journal, 12 Feb 1987, from the British Newspaper Archive

“Are we looking at similar scenarios in the future?”


“There is no environmental capacity for additional development in the new Local Plan [2030 ono] to be supplied by with water by increased abstraction from the Chalk Aquifer. Even the current level of abstraction is widely believed to be unsustainable”.

CambridgeTownOwl 19 Jan 2022 citing Stantec’s Water Resources Report to Greater Cambridge Planning, Nov 2020

We know that Water Resources East have a proposed new reservoir at Chatteris but the development timeline indicates that won’t come on stream until 2037 at the earliest. Which leaves at least a six year gap between the end of the present local development planning period/start of the next one, and when new house building for that next one can commence ***unless ministers can somehow direct the water companies to build new piping infrastructure to bring in supplies from outside***. In the meantime, Anglian Water forgot to do one of the most basic things in a major policy options assessment: A full appraisal of ‘do nothing’.

Hence the Planning Inspector has sent the firm’s representatives back to go and do a very expensive piece of homework. Will history repeat itself or will Cambridgeshire avoid a scenario where a lack of investment in water infrastructure brings building work to a halt? (With the inevitable knock-on effects that will have on housing & employment)

Food for thought?

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