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Cambridge City Council

Water and environmental assurances needed as caution urged on plans for new homes

4 January 2023

Leading councillors say plans for more homes and jobs under the new Local Plan for Greater Cambridge can only go forward if there is certainty on water supplies, and evidence they will not cause unacceptable environmental damage.

This follows the publication of an update about the development strategy of the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan today (Wednesday 4 January). The report from the Joint Director of Planning for the city of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire says:

  • The environment and water supply must be protected alongside a need for new homes – including addressing the shortage of affordable homes.
  • Greater Cambridge is one of the most important research and innovation employment locations in the UK and is growing fast as new jobs are created.
  • National planning policy says significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth – but Councils say the environment must be protected at the same time.

The Councils’ latest evidence points to an expected need for more homes and jobs than previously envisaged due to the success of the economy and expected increase in job numbers.

Leading members of South Cambridgeshire District and Cambridge City Councils however say that before plans can be finalised, greater clarity is needed about where water will come from in future, and assurances are required that providing the necessary water will not cause unacceptable environmental harm. The report also notes that getting developers to increase the number of new homes built, including affordable homes, may not be straightforward.

Both Councils’ existing Local Plans already provide for around 37,200 additional homes for Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire between now and 2041.

Because the latest economic forecasts from planners point to a likely increase of around 66,000 jobs across Greater Cambridge area by 2041, these additional new jobs, some 8,200 more than previously expected, result in a need to also plan for additional homes, over and above the earlier plan proposals.

This would result in a need for a further 19,900 new homes, on top of those contained in the adopted 2018 Local Plans for the area, by 2041. During the 2021 First Proposals consultation, as part of the work to create a joint Local Plan, the Councils set out an ambitious vision for minimising carbon emissions alongside improving the quality of life for residents, with all new homes to be carbon neutral. These elements remain central to the developing Local Plan.

The earlier proposals included 19 new sites for homes and business space, with the majority of extra development proposed for North East Cambridge, the Cambridge Airport site and at Cambourne. There were a range of new policies to meet the environmental challenges facing the area – including tackling carbon emissions and increasing biodiversity. However, the First Proposals explicitly said that they were dependent on evidence coming forward to confirm that there will be adequate water supply to support the new homes

Water Resources East has recently published a high-level draft Water Resources Management Plan for the whole of the East of England. This proposes additional water supply to the area through routes such as a new reservoir in the Fens and transferring water from elsewhere, to come forward over the next decade and beyond. These large-scale projects, which alongside measures to manage current demand will go a long way towards addressing the existing environmental concerns, will not however be available until much later in the Local Plan process.

Local water provider Cambridge Water’s plans for supplying the area’s water needs have not yet been published. Until their draft Water Resource Management Plan is available, it is not clear whether there is enough water to supply the new homes and jobs required to meet future needs for the area, without causing environmental harm. 

Today’s report notes that Councillors should also consider the impact of not meeting all local needs, such as increased competition for new homes driving up house prices and the wellbeing, and climate impacts from increasing travel from outside the area to work in Greater Cambridge. Until central Government and water companies can provide assurance that the strategy for increasing the water supply to Greater Cambridge allows the Councils to balance their obligation to the environment against the need to provide homes and jobs, the Councils say they cannot confirm if the need for the additional new homes and jobs can be met.

Before it can be adopted by Councils, a Local Plan must be reviewed by a Government Inspector, who will decide whether it is ‘sound’. A key consideration for the Inspector will be looking at the strength of the Greater Cambridge economy, and whether the number of new homes being planned matches with the pace of economic development in the area, and if not whether there are good planning reasons for the mismatch. Whilst consulting on changes to the Planning System, the Government has also recently stressed to Councils how Local Plans should also carefully consider how they can make more efficient use of land, particularly brownfield sites, and to consider what should be protected in an area – such as green spaces, heritage assets and the special character of an area.

The update published today also re-affirms the long-term vision of the Councils to bring forward new homes and jobs on sites that support low-carbon living, including at North East Cambridge, at Cambridge East and on the allocated area at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, with a possible extension of the site. These significant sites are seen as the most sustainable for future development but because of their characteristics, they would also not see significant new development come forward until the next decade – when indications are that water supply concerns should have been addressed.

The Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith, said: “We have said from the very start of our work to develop this Joint Local Plan that it cannot be growth at all costs and that the environment – particularly the water supply – must be a central consideration. We are also however aware of the consequences of not meeting local needs – including potential increases in housing costs and commuting which will add to our impact upon climate change. We already have a pipeline of new homes and employment sites across Greater Cambridge through the 2018 Local Plans. But we now need assurances about our future water supply before we can even consider bringing forward any more new homes than we have already planned for. Noting the Government planning policy expectation that we should plan to meet our housing needs, right now it is not possible for us to say with certainty how many new homes we should have in the next Plan. There is a delicate balance to be struck between ensuring that we are providing the new homes – including affordable housing – that our children and grandchildren will need, and the protection of our environment. It is however impossible to ignore the strength of the Greater Cambridge economy – which has continued to grow apace despite the pandemic – and created this need for housing and space for jobs required to support it.”

Cambridge City Council’s Executive Councillor for Planning and Infrastructure, Cllr Katie Thornburrow, said: “The protection of our water supplies, as well as the area’s historic chalk streams, must continue to be at the front and centre of our work to develop a new Local Plan. I am concerned about the effect upon living costs in the city of Cambridge if we do not make adequate provision, in locations that are accessible to everyone, for future homes and jobs. But as things stand, we cannot confidently outline how we can support further sustainable development and new homes without more concrete plans about future water supplies and an understanding of its environmental impact. Our proposals do try to recognise those longer-term locations for future development that take advantage of brownfield sites or help Cambridge to continue to thrive as a centre for life sciences. But this is not about growth at all costs; it is about protecting our environment and the special character of the area whilst acknowledging that we have a growing economy that is a key part of the economy on a regional, national, and international level.”

Residents who would like more information about the Greater Cambridge Local Plan Development Strategy Update are invited to join a Zoom webinar on Wednesday 18 January at 12pm. Visit our Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Local Plan page for details and the Zoom link. The webinar will be recorded and made available online, so those not able to attend can watch it back at their convenience.