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Biodiversity expert Sir Partha Dasgupta raises fears for Paradise Nature Reserve in Cambridge as appeal held over Queens’ College plans





A world-famous biodiversity expert has spoken out about his fears for a city nature reserve if a University of Cambridge college wins a planning appeal.

Queens’ College was refused permission by Cambridge City Council to build 60 student flats on the border of the Paradise Nature Reserve in Newnham in January.

Queens' College vision for the development at Owlstone Croft
Queens' College vision for the development at Owlstone Croft

But it is appealing the decision at a planning inquiry being held at Cambridge Guildhall that began on Tuesday, September 26 and is scheduled for six days.

A patron of Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve, St John’s College fellow Sir Partha Dasgupta has written an open letter to the inquiry stating his concerns about the impact of the construction project.

He said: “Paradise Nature Reserve is a tiny, wooded area amidst an increasingly sprawling urban landscape that is Cambridge. In addition to populations of birds, insects, and other creatures, it is home to eight species of bats. It is also a place of solace and contemplation for those who seek them. Now it is threatened by the proposal to further encroach upon it by an extension of housing facilities for students at Queens’ College, Cambridge.”

Sir Partha, who is Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics and author of the government report The Economics of Biodiversity, added: ”The insistence by the college’s authorities that the extension should trump preservation of the reserve even though the additional student accommodation could be made available in an urban space nearby is, unhappily, all too familiar; for, similar arguments have been routinely invoked in other places and at other times.

Paradise Nature Reserve - chair of friends Pamela Gatrell . Picture: Keith Heppell
Paradise Nature Reserve - chair of friends Pamela Gatrell . Picture: Keith Heppell

“Over the centuries populations of species have been obliterated by human encroachment. Millions of square miles of forests, for example, have been decimated, bit by bit, on each round because the ‘economic case’ was argued to be overwhelming. That bit-by-bit encroachment in the UK has meant that the country’s ecological footprint is much larger than the global average. It is the public recognition of our vanishing biodiversity that led UK’s Parliament to legislate our environmental laws.”

Councillors cited the “excessive height, scale and massing” of the building next to the reserve, concerns about the project’s impact on the bat population and the adverse effects on the wetland habitat.

The Friends have raised concerns that a line of poplar trees along the border of the reserve, where bats have been recorded, will be chopped down to ensure drainage.

Queens' College vision for the development at Owlstone Croft
Queens' College vision for the development at Owlstone Croft

If the decision is reversed, the project would mean the demolition of a nursery building, as well as partial demolition, refurbishment and extension of other existing college buildings and the erection of four accommodation blocks containing 60 rooms for postgraduate students. There would be associated landscaping, car and cycle parking, refuse and other storage and a new electricity substation within outbuildings.

The college says it would create a “high quality, highly sustainable, landscape-led, well-designed and well-considered scheme”.

Sir Partha Dasgupta’s letter in full

From: Patron, Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve, Cambridge

Paradise Nature Reserve is a tiny, wooded area amidst an increasingly sprawling urban landscape that is Cambridge.

In addition to populations of birds, insects, and other creatures, it is home to eight species of bats. It is also a place of solace and contemplation for those who seek them. Now it is threatened by the proposal to further encroach upon it by an extension of housing facilities for students at Queens’ College, Cambridge. The insistence by the college’s authorities that the extension should trump preservation of the reserve even though the additional student accommodation could be made available in an urban space nearby is, unhappily, all too familiar; for, similar arguments have been routinely invoked in other places and at other times.

Over the centuries populations of species have been obliterated by human encroachment. Millions of square miles of forests, for example, have been decimated, bit by bit, on each round because the “economic case” was argued to be overwhelming. That bit-by-bit encroachment in the UK has meant that the country's ecological footprint is much larger than the global average. It is the public recognition of our vanishing biodiversity that led UK’s parliament to legislate our environmental laws. In effect the college authorities are now asking that implementation of the laws should be weakened.

The UK has been able to live well despite the decimation of its biodiversity because it has been able to clear the landscape of regions far away that were once rich in biodiversity. In effect the UK, like other rich countries today, has outsourced its needed supply of “biodiversity’s products”. Which is a strong reason why the college's application should be rejected.

There is a further, tactical reason for rigidly applying our environmental laws. To do so would reduce the UK’s effectiveness in persuading other wealthy countries to take steps to reduce their global ecological footprint, or for that matter, persuading nations rich in natural capital to not convert them into plantations and cattle ranches. The argument countries rich in tropical rainforests offer in justification of their deforestation programmes is no different, qualitatively, from the argument offered by the authorities of Queens’ College that human convenience should invariably trump ecological sustenance.

Sir Partha Dasgupta



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