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Cambridge is at ‘significant risk’ of water shortages due to development and climate change

A major increase in population, combined with rising temperatures and low rainfall, will pose a “significant risk” to water supplies in Cambridge, a new report for Anglian Water warns.

It shows the climate and water challenges facing the region are some of the severest in the country, second only to London.

Cambridge is at ‘significant risk’ of water shortages Picture: iStock
Cambridge is at ‘significant risk’ of water shortages Picture: iStock

Anglian Water says it needs to spend £9billion on improvements to infrastructure if it is to meet demand.

Its dire warnings came days after Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, visited Cambridge to forge ahead with his proposals for 250,000 new homes in the region by 2040.

Cam Valley Forum has warned Anglian Water against saying yes to every demand made of it if it wants to protect the River Cam and the chalk aquifers that feed it.

Stephen Tomkins, from the environmental group, said: “Cambridge will not be Cambridge without a living River Cam. Anglian Water are awake to the predicament that they are in. What they ask for is still based on the premise that the status quo will be improved by saying ‘yes’ to whatever water demand or population demand is made of them.

“They are, as a water company, obliged to provide such services. A more intelligent approach would be to demand, first of all, that we achieve an ecological sustainability with our present environment. Successive governments of all stripes have never done that. The Cam is a case in point. We take water from its aquifer uncritically and in drought it is increasingly dying for want of flow. Our fenland is very short of water and our sewage treatment works are all overloaded with phosphate to the detriment of wildlife. There is an old saying, ‘Cheat nature and nature will cheat you’!”

The sobering ‘Thriving East’ report, commissioned from Capital Economics by Anglian Water, explains temperatures in Cambridge will be hotter than the national average, and projections from the Met Office show record low rainfall, at 1.9mm per day – less than anywhere else in the UK.

The report adds that the city of Cambridge is growing fast, with a predicted population rise of six per cent by 2043, and it is home to the largest commercial research and development centre in Europe.

If government plans to “super-charge” the area get the go-ahead, the population could rise further.

As a county, Cambridgeshire contains some of the UK’s most fertile agricultural land, and lots of it: 79 per cent of the county is farmland, compared to a national average of 63 per cent, and this is heavily dependent on water resources. Half of the UK’s most fertile agricultural land is in the fens, providing a fifth of the nation’s crops and a third of its vegetables. It is on the frontline of extreme weather patterns and lies within a few metres of sea level.

Two-thirds of non-household water consumption in the region — 10 per cent of all water — is used by agriculture, according to the report. In contrast the West Country, the next highest region, sends 2.7 per cent of water supplies to agriculture.

The report states that Anglian Water will “work to balance demand for water with supply by continuing to drive down leakage rates, which are already one of the lowest in the country”.

Anglian Water has been laying new pipelines from wetter areas to the Eastern region Picture:Tim George
Anglian Water has been laying new pipelines from wetter areas to the Eastern region Picture:Tim George

It adds: “We are aiming for a 38 per cent reduction in leakage by 2030 from our 2017-18 baseline. We will support our customers to reduce per capita consumption of water to 124 litres per person a day by 2030, a 6 per cent reduction from 2025, supported by our ambitious roll-out of smart meters across all households.”

There are plans for water pipelines into Norfolk and Suffolk from wetter areas to supply those customers and to build two new reservoirs, one of which will be in the fens. The reservoirs are not expected to be in place until the mid to late 2030s.

However, these constraints have not deterred Mr Gove, who appointed Peter Freeman – the chair of Homes England - to lead a Cambridge Delivery Group, backed by £5million to start scoping work on how to “supercharge” Cambridge, reinforcing its position as “Europe’s science capital” with significant amounts of new lab space and 250,000 new homes.

The Environment Agency, however, is already blocking new developments such as Bourn Airfield until water supply questions are answered.

And the Anglian Water report explains the company is already refusing businesses that request extra water supplies.

The report says: “Development of green industries and wider economic growth will require a significant increase in water... We are seeing a large increase in requests for water for business and commercial... which we are having to reject as currently we do not have the resources.”

Among the £9bn it says it needs to invest is £218million for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, including:

- £13.7m to install new filter technology at four sites and create a natural wetland at Hail Weston Water Recycling Centre; this will remove the amount of phosphorous in rivers, protecting river water quality and wildlife.

- £10.1m to remove perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals, from raw water to improve drinking water quality.

- £6.7m to lay more than 9km of new water mains in Haddenham.

Peter Simpson, chief executive officer of Anglian Water, said: “Our purpose is to bring environmental and social prosperity to the region we serve. Our region relies on water to facilitate economic growth, tourism, and to feed a significant part of the population.

“Our role is to facilitate growth and prosperity in the region through significant investment, with our most recent business plan for 2025-30 – our largest ever – outlining a proposed £9bn of essential investment in the region. This plan, created in consultation with regional stakeholders, is designed to address precisely the challenges Thriving East sets out.

“But to achieve this it will require close collaboration with local authorities, businesses, community groups and regulators to unlock opportunities for generations to come. We hope that this acts as a rallying cry to help bring together everyone who shares our ambition to capitalise on the many opportunities and in delivering a prosperous, thriving future for the region.”

MP Daniel Zeichner. Picture: Keith Heppell
MP Daniel Zeichner. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner said: “The Thriving East report makes clear ours is a region where long-term economics, social trends, and geography, pose significant challenges, but which also offer major opportunities. In a few short years, our region will look and feel very different.

“In this important report, Anglian Water highlights how it is adapting to these challenges, thinking differently, and planning for the future. The report also, rightly, highlights the importance of partnership working with our communities towards a shared vision for the future, something we wholeheartedly endorse.”

The report comes as research was released by Cambridge Ahead showing job creation continues to boom in the city, drawing more people to the area. Corporate employment growth rose to 8.5 per cent in 2022-23, it found.

Cambridge Ahead said it was “calling for recognition of the fact that if critical infrastructure – like transport – is not delivered, it will seriously negatively impact the quality of life of existing and new communities alike”.

It added: “Congestion across transport modes, housing unaffordability, and usage of resources like water and energy would be driven up unsustainably, to the detriment of residents, by not delivering new infrastructure at the same time as more and more jobs are being created here.”

The government’s position is that the water challenge must be resolved by water companies, while working together with Environment Agency, Ofwat and local government.

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Our ambitious long-term plan for housing will unleash Cambridge’s potential and provide the homes this city needs.

“We recognise the need to address the water constraint issues in Cambridge and our Delivery Group is working closely with the Environment Agency, Ofwat and local government to provide sustainable water supplies.”

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