Anglian Water’s ban on housing development in South Cambridgeshire – 1974

Following on from my previous blogpost, this one looks at the villages surrounding Cambridge in the then expanded South Cambridgeshire District

The South Cambridgeshire District we are familiar with today is a relatively recent creation – only getting up and running in 1974 following the overhaul of local government by Sir Edward Heath’s Conservative Government. The earlier South Cambridgeshire Rural District Council itself did not last long – itself only being established after the changes to local government in the 1930s – being formed out of the rural districts of Melbourn and Linton, and the southern half of the old Caton and Arrington Rural Districts. (Chesterton taking the northern half, plus Swavesey Rural District before they were all lumped together in the 1970s).

Above – From Davidge (1934) what local councils in and around the old Cambridgeshire County Council looked like before the changes in the 1930s.

One of the big changes in powers was the switch from county to district levels of the planning authority competency. So councillors on South Cambridgeshire had been told to prepare for exercising these new powers – when the Anglian Water Authority applied to the Department for the Environment (itself only a recent creation in the early 1970s) for right to object to new developments until they had upgraded the capacity of their sewage works.

The list of villages facing complete prohibitions were as follows:

  • Shelford,
  • Stapleford,
  • Histon,
  • Impington,
  • Girton
  • Horningsea
  • Fen Ditton

Limitations on building were also listed for:

  • Over
  • Willingham
  • Swavesey
  • Longstanton
  • Conington
  • Fen Drayton
  • Haslingfield,
  • Harston
  • Hauxton,
  • Harlton
  • Newton,
  • The Eversdens,
  • Barton
  • Grantchester
  • Comberton
  • Toft
  • Gamlingay
  • Bassingbourn

The water authority did not have a direct power of banning development. Rather it was through the legal requirement for developments to maintain public health – something that the water authority had the power to object to developments on. Accordingly, this also created a power to appeal to the Environment Secretary to get planning permissions blocked on public health grounds. What also made things awkward for Central Government was that as water was a nationalised industry it was their responsibility to maintain and invest in the water infrastructure to enable development to take place. And this was in the turbulent era of Sir Edward Health’s Government coming apart at the seams in the face of a major strike by coal miners that led to restrictions on electricity and the three day week. It ultimately brought down the Government – in which Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary – and something her and her allies would not forget.

We catch up with the Cambridge Evening News of 10 Sept 1974 from the British Newspaper Archive here.

“The Anglian Water Authority have asked South Cambridgeshire District Council to refuse permission for any new development in nine villages near Cambridge and to severely restrict building in a further 19, because of the overloading of sewage treatment works. This was disclosed by the council’s Chief Executive, Mr James Flint, who said a complete embargo on development in the nine villages which feed into Cambridge city’s sewage works. In the remaining villages, only applications involving one building would be approved.

“A report on the embargo request will be considered by the district council on Thursday.” [Note to researchers – go to the County Archive in Ely and ask for the South Cambridgeshire District Council report on the building embargo as requested by Anglian Water Authority, dated 12 September 1974. See what it says].

“The ban would apply to all applications for outline planning permission. Cases where planning permission had already been granted would not be affected, he said. Mr Flint said that if accepted, the ban in the villages would not be too drastic as many unused sites in the area had planning permission. A large number of applications were for single buildings which, in most of the villages, would not be affected. He said that his council had enough planning approval for enough land to last them for two years.

“Whether the embargo plea includes Cambridge itself is uncertain. Mr Flint said that he understood that the embargo covered the whole of Cambridge. But inquiries by the “News” met with conflicting replies from Cambridge city and water authority officials. City council chief officers said they had not been informed of any embargo and as far as they knew, none was in operation. But an official of the Great Ouse River Division of the water authority said his division had been objecting to new applications in the city for some months.

“Cambridge sewage works have been overloaded for several years [see p3 of the Cambridge Sewage Report 1965 here – the summary by Mr Burrows the Council’s Chief Surveyor and Engineer] and since the water authority took over responsibility for sewage treatment this year, both Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire Council have pressed the authority to carry out extensions to the plant as soon as possible.

“The acting divisional scientist for the Great Ouse River Division, Mr J.B. Livesey, said that although no formal agreement had been reached with the council, “as far as we are concerned, we are objecting to any new development in Cambridge”

“But the deputy city planning officer, Mr David Urwin, said that they had no applications objected to by the water authority on the grounds of the overall sewage problems in Cambridge. He agreed that the explanation might be that there had been no new major applications recently likely to affect the sewage works.

“The City Council’s Chief Executive, Mr Geoffrey Datson, said they had not been notified of any embargo and were not operating one, although they realised that the sewage works were badly overloaded.

“The water authority’s Public Relations Officer, Mr Norman Thompson, said there was a gentlemen’s agreement between the city council and the local sewage and river divisions that there should be no further development into the city which would discharge into the River Cam. This informal agreement had been inherited from the old Great Ouse River Authority and was considered to be still in operation. The sewage division would object to every planning application which would affect the Milton Sewage Works. As far as the villagers are concerned, Milton, whose drains lead into the Cambridge Works has suffered from a development embargo for the last four years.”

The article then lists the villages (see top)

“In 19 villages which feed into the sewage works at Over, Haslingfield, Gamlingay, and Bassingbourn, planning permission would only be given to one-building applications only. All of these sewage works have been overloaded for some time and plans are underway for extensions to them. But cuts to public spending have prevented the Anglian Water Authority from going ahead with any of the schemes.”

“Mr Flint [Chief Executive of South Cambridgeshire District Council] explained that the water authority have no power to direct refusal of any application. They could only lodge an objection. But the planning authority must take account of this for public health reasons. He thought it was likely the Department of the Environment would uphold the water authority’s objections if an application went to appeal.”


The problem of raw sewage being discharged into the River Cam has not gone away. In the Cambridge Independent of 07 April 2023 exposed just how bad the problem had become:

“Raw sewage was dumped into rivers more than 16,000 times last year by Anglian Water according to shocking figures published by the Environment Agency.”

Alex Spencer, Cambridge Independent, 07 Apr 2023

The public might ask why developments continue apace when it’s clear the existing infrastructure cannot cope, and that in spite of huge profits Anglian Water has not invested nearly enough in infrastructure to put an end to such discharges. Furthermore there is the outstanding warning on future building from the councils’ consultants on the emerging new local plan for 2031-40:

“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”.

Stantec Report for Greater Cambridge Planning, p17.

It’s striking to compare and contrast the two different approaches to the same problem over that fifty year period.

Something to consider for those of you into local and national politics?

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