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Cambridge’s green belt is under attack as never before, warns charity

Cambridge’s green belt is “under attack as never before”, a charity has claimed.

A new report from the countryside campaign group CPRE argues the green belt should become greener, wetter and more biodiverse.

Eddington, the University of Cambridge development
Eddington, the University of Cambridge development

The charity says the green belt can represent a key weapon in the battles against climate change and the decline of nature, especially amid food security challenges.

Dr Alan James, chairman of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CPRE, said: “It was established 30 years ago. Its job was to protect the historic city from urban sprawl and to encourage the redevelopment of brownfield sites. In theory the green belt is protected by national planning policy. In practice, in recent years land has been released to allow a number of developments.”

There are 23,230ha of green belt land within South Cambridgeshire and 970ha within Cambridge city, extending around three to five miles from its edge. This incorporates a number of inset villages lying within the district of South Cambridgeshire.

Dr James said University of Cambridge colleges are behind many of these incursions, with more pending.

CPRE noted that:

- Trinity College has applied to double the Cambridge Science Park on green belt land north of the A14;

- Queens’ College has appealed the refusal of the accommodation blocks bordering the Paradise Nature Reserve;

- The South Barton Road Consortium of colleges wants to add development to the green belt between the M11 and the city south of the Barton Road to the Local Plan;

- The North Barton Road Consortium of colleges wants to do the same north of the Barton Road;

- Eddington will eventually be made up of 3,000 homes, accommodation for 2,000 postgraduate students and 100,000 square metres of research facilities; and

- Cambridge Biomedical Campus is planned to expand on farmland within and outside the green belt.

“These are just a handful of examples,” said Dr James. “Cambridge University needs to work out whether it exists to develop young minds or develop the countryside surrounding this historic city.

“It’s not just about causing irreversible damage. It’s about heeding the reality of climate change and acknowledging the role of the green belt in biodiversity and food security. We won’t get a second chance.”

Cambridge green belt map Picture: Open Street Map
Cambridge green belt map Picture: Open Street Map

He warned: “The Cambridge green belt is under attack as never before.”

Dr James also pointed to housing secretary Michael Gove’s recent announcement of plans for a “new urban quarter” for Cambridge.

This came after Mr Gove announced he was drawing up proposals for 250,000 new homes in a project dubbed ‘Cambridge 2040’.

In its latest report the charity argues that the green belt, which protects 12.5 per cent of England’s land area from development, should become greener, wetter and more biodiverse.

It shows that thousands of new homes are built and proposed on green belt land every year, but most of these homes will not address the housing crisis – only five per cent will be delivered as social rent and at best only 31 per cent will meet the government’s controversial and highly-contested definition of ‘affordable’.

It says rewiggled streams – meaning ones with bends added back in – new wetlands, restored peatlands, expanded woodland and revived hedgerows could help the countryside around towns and cities soak up more water to protect urban areas from increased floods, droughts and other natural disasters.

Food security could be strengthened by creating nature corridors that link rewilding projects with farmland and encouraging people to buy food produced locally that enhances the environment where they live.

Tourism and recreation should be encouraged, with better footpaths, facilities and public transport links, so that people get maximum benefit from the improved environment.

Roger Mortlock, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “From the food we eat to the nature we need, the green belt is treasured today and envied by many other countries. But it has the potential to deliver so much more. It could yet become a pivotal solution to the climate, nature and food security challenges bearing down on us, not to mention the countryside next door for 30 million people living in nearby towns and cities.

“CPRE wants to see the green belt valued and protected for what it is but also delivering more in the future. Climate change promises more floods, more droughts and increased risk of wildfire.

Eddington was built on green belt land Picture: Keith Heppell
Eddington was built on green belt land Picture: Keith Heppell

“To protect the green belt is also to help protect the towns and cities it surrounds. Relatively small investments in rewiggling streams, creating ponds and wetlands, planting trees and hedgerows could help the countryside manage water naturally and protect nearby towns from flooding.

“To reverse the decline of nature, improve food security and provide the affordable homes local communities need, the answer is to be found in integrated planning, farming and forestry policies. We need all the main political parties to commit to keeping green belts for the long term.

“Current green belt policy already allows for building more genuinely affordable homes on brownfield sites or the edge of villages. But more needs to be done to deliver these homes, as currently most of the housing being built in the green belt is larger open market housing.

“We must be clear about the challenges ahead and put nature at the heart of the solution.”

Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, said: “CPRE is a very well respected campaigning organisation and this report raises some key points about the vital role that the green belt plays in preserving our natural environment, addressing climate change, and ensuring food security.”

He continued: “It remains a key tenet of my thinking when it comes to development, and I’ve urged both the government and our local planners to recognise the value of conservation.

“My focus will remain on maintaining the balance between much-needed infrastructure and the necessity of conserving these green spaces. Finding a comprehensive and sustainable approach to Cambridge’s development, looking at all the issues from water supplies, laboratory space, electricity supplies, transport infrastructure, and services for residents, is a challenge we must rise to. Reports like this play a crucial part in framing this debate, and I will be urging all those involved to pay heed to such concerns.”

The University of Cambridge was invited to comment.

Recent proposals to change the planning system have once again brought the green belt to the fore, with some commentators arguing that the need for housing will only be met if development takes place on the green belt.

Think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs have argued that the release of at least some green belt land could help “solve the housing crisis”.

The Centre for Cities has suggested releasing green belt land within a short distance of train stations that serve major cities for development.

Property agent Savills has suggested that losses in green belt land in one area could be offset by the designation of land as green belt elsewhere.

Where land is released from green belt for development it is a requirement of the National Planning Policy Framework that compensatory improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of surrounding green belt land must be made.

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