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Trouble in Paradise Nature Reserve: Friends group opposes Queens’ College development plans in Newnham, Cambridge

By: Newsdesk Cambridge newsdesk@iliffemedia.co.uk

Published: 10:34, 10 June 2022

By Siobhan Middleton

A row has broken out between supporters of Paradise Nature Reserve in Cambridge and Queens’ College over development plans in the area.

A petition has been launched against the proposals for four accommodation blocks beside the reserve in Newnham, which critics warn will “seriously impact” the “unique wild space”.

But Queens’ has said its plans will have “significant biodiversity benefits” and preserve “the ecological value” of the site.

The location plan. Image: Queens' College - https://www.owlstonecroft.co.uk/ (57239801)

The planning application, which is out for consultation until June 21, proposes 60 rooms for postgraduate students across the four blocks, and the demolition of the University of Cambridge college’s Owlstone Croft Nursery, which was built in 2015 and accommodates up to 25 children between the ages of three months and four years. The application pledges that demolition of the nursery building, whcih is well used by fellows and staff, will not take place until a replacement facility is operational.

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The petition opposing the application was started by Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve, an organisation aimed at the preservation of the green area. By Friday morning (June 10), the number of signatories was edging towards 1,000.

Chair of the Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve Pamela Gatrell, on the site in Newnham. Picture: Keith Heppell

Pam Gatrell, chair of Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve, said: “Paradise is an iconic local nature reserve and a priceless amenity. It is for wildlife first and foremost, not a scenic backdrop to enhance an asset for the college.

“Paradise is a unique wild space within the city and is a green lung for Cambridge. It has protected species of bats and water voles and a wide diversity of flora and fauna, all of which would be seriously impacted by the proposed building.

“Once wildlife has fled, it is very unlikely to return to a heavily populated light and noise-polluted urban environment.”

Queens' College vision for the development at Owlstone Croft. Image: Queens' College

According to Pam, a survey by the South Newnham neighbourhood Forum in January and February 2022 showed 130 people visited Paradise Nature Reserve during fine days in the winter. The most common descriptive words used by visitors were ‘wildness’ and ‘beauty’, followed by ‘tranquillity’, ‘greenness’, ‘views’ and ‘landscape’.The survey showed some people like to visit daily.

Newnham environmental campaigner Jean Glasberg said: “People are very upset about these plans. The main issues are the light, noise and disturbance caused to Paradise Nature Reserve and the fact that these buildings will be far further forward than any other building line in that area, along the river corridor.

“The college is proposing to build next to the boardwalk, which is actually the narrowest and most fragile part of the nature reserve – right next to the river. The boardwalk was put in to enable disabled people to enjoy the nature reserve.

“Having student accommodation here would urbanise the area, meaning those on the boardwalk would not experience the kinds of views they currently can.”

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But Queens’ College said it had responded to a consultation.

An illustrative vision for the development at Owlstone Croft, showing how it would integrate the wetland and woodland reserve character. Image: Queens' College

Andrew Bainbridge, domestic bursar at Queens’, told the Cambridge Independent: “Queens’ recognises the importance of, and is committed to having, an open and continuing dialogue with its neighbours in Newnham and has proactively sought to engage with local stakeholders and members throughout the pre-application period.

“After a number of constructive conversations, the team worked hard to address and respond to the matters raised by residents and stakeholders which are reflected in the final design.

An illustration of how the ground floor of a student house might look at the Owlstone Croft development. Image: Queens’ College

“We are disappointed that the Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve repeatedly declined our offers to discuss the landscape development, and changes we were making regarding lighting and biodiversity, as these plans will provide sustainable, high-quality modern and community-focused housing for our students whilst providing significant biodiversity benefits and preserving the ecological value of the surrounding area.

“We are committed to continuing to engage with members of the local community throughout the planning process and beyond and remain willing to sit down with anyone who is interested to discuss how we have responded to the community’s feedback.”

Paradise Nature Reserve. Picture: Keith Heppell

The rooms would be built across 13 terraced homes, and there would be a study centre, seminar room, gym, cafe and cycle parking. The college said it had commissioned additional assessments following feedback to a 2021 consultation from the Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve and local residents “to address concerns about the impact of lighting on biodiversity and the adjacent nature reserve”.

The result will be “landscape-led and will incorporate and link the created site habitat with the nature reserve”, the college said.

It pointed out that assessments showed there would be a net gain in biodiversity of 51 per cent, resulting from the creation of grassland and wetland habitats, the retention and enhancement of existing trees and hedgerows and new woodland planting across the site.

A leaflet produced by the Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve in relation to the Queens' College development

And assessments of the lighting concluded “light levels will not adversely effect the ecological value of the nature reserve”, with surrounding planting provide additional filtering.

But Terry Macalister, from Friends of the Cam, a campaign group committed to restoring the health of the River Cam, argued this was not the right place for the development.

“With a climate and biodiversity emergency declared, the university should be doing everything it can to protect our environment and nature. In that context this building project is thoughtless and provocative,” he said.

Paradise Nature Reserve. Picture: Keith Heppell. (57149932)

“There must be better places to build if the college is determined to increase its numbers and put more pressure on the city’s already overburdened accommodation resources.

“The website of Queens’ College explains to prospective students how much it cares about sustainability and the environment. It is wrong to use these commitments as a selling point for the college, and then act in a way that disregards an area as ecologically sensitive and important as Paradise Nature Reserve. We are all more aware than ever that people have a deep need for accessing nature to bolster mental and physical health, as a result of the Covid lockdowns. This was demonstrated by the dramatic increase in the numbers using Paradise Nature Reserve during the pandemic.”

Alongside a variety of trees, plants, birds, mammals and insects, six species of bats and the rare musk beetle have been recorded at Paradise Nature Reserve.

The petition can be found at bit.ly/3tI1Dr1. More information from Queens’ on the plans can be found at owlstonecroft.co.uk.

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