Every day Britain’s world-beating universities make incredible discoveries from life-saving vaccines to ground-breaking advances in AI. But, Britain isn’t making the most of these national assets that other countries would love to have. The problem is that Oxford and Cambridge have the most expensive housing outside of London, while the labs for businesses developing new materials and medicines have not been built. 

Britain’s science-based businesses want to build new labs, but face planning barriers. The result is that investment that would come to Britain goes overseas. The rest of the world is building. In America, Boston has more than five times as much lab space under development than Oxford and Cambridge combined.

We need bold action to build more labs near our world-beating research institutions and we need to build more homes so the people that work in them can afford to live nearby.

There is a government-backed plan to build 150,000 new homes by 2050 in a new urban extension to Cambridge. It is the right scale of ambition and if seen through is estimated to boost the UK economy by more than £6bn per year. Britain Remade believes the same ambition should be shown for Oxford with 150,000 homes and new lab space built in a new urban extension that preserves what people love best about Oxford.

To get Britain growing again and solve our biggest problems, we have to back our scientists, engineers, and inventors. This is a national priority because what’s discovered in the labs in Oxford and Cambridge is soon on the factory floor in places like Liverpool and Macclesfield.


Using Special Development Orders to create new science quarters in Oxford and Cambridge

Britain’s status as a scientific superpower is under threat unless Cambridge and Oxford are allowed to expand. Building more homes and more labs in both places should be a national priority. Special Development Orders (SDOs) are a powerful tool allowing national government to quickly enable development on a large scale. For example, they were used to redevelop the Cardiff Bay area attracting massive investment and creating thousands of jobs.

In Cambridge and Oxford, new SDOs should be used to create new science quarters mixing new homes built at the gentle density of Bloomsbury with purpose built labs. In the past, urban extensions have been built at low ‘sprawl’ densities far away from the main city forcing residents to be dependent on their car. New urban extensions should be built differently, based around walking and cycling with housing mixed with shops. Crucially, like Edinburgh New Town, they should be part of the city itself. The massive uplift in land value from the SDO should be captured to fund new rapid transit systems.


Fast-tracking new reservoirs in Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire

One key barrier to building 150,000 new homes in Cambridge is a lack of water. Cambridgeshire is famously the most water-stressed part of Britain, but this is not because Cambridge is particularly dry, at least not by international standards, it is because Britain has not built a new reservoir since 1992. The problem is that risk-averse regulators have not approved new investment in building reservoirs in anticipation of future demand and while planning processes are too slow to respond.

In fact, of the 15 years it’s estimated to take to build and fill a new Fens reservoir, half will be spent obtaining planning permission. Likewise, a new reservoir in Abingdon, Oxfordshire has been talked about since the 70s but construction won’t begin until 2028 at the earliest. To ensure that a lack of water isn’t a barrier to housebuilding, the next government should use their planning powers to create a fast-track for new reservoirs. Where possible, new reservoirs should be funded by bill supplements on new homes built in urban extensions.