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Councillors reject Queens’ College student blocks next to Paradise Nature Reserve in Cambridge

Plans to build student accommodation next to a nature reserve in Cambridge have been unanimously rejected by councillors.

The decision comes after a petition against the proposal was signed by more than 2,000 people and almost 200 letters of objection were lodged with the council.

View of proposed development at Owlstone Croft from Paradise Nature Reserve (61825848)
View of proposed development at Owlstone Croft from Paradise Nature Reserve (61825848)

Queens’ College had submitted plans to Cambridge City Council to build four student accommodation blocks containing 60 rooms next to the boundary of Paradise Nature Reserve.

But fears were raised that the proposed blocks could impact bat populations in the nature reserve due to light pollution from the buildings.

Some groups also raised concerns about the impact the development would have on the conservation area and that noise and dust from the building site could affect the neighbouring Newnham Croft Primary School.

Objections were sent by ramblers, the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations, Living Streets, Cambridge, Past, Present and Future, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), Friends of the Earth, Friends of the Cam and the Wildlife Trust as well as the Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve group.

The proposed Queens' College accommodation. Image: Queens' College (61825851)
The proposed Queens' College accommodation. Image: Queens' College (61825851)

At a meeting of the city council’s planning committee yesterday (Wednesday, January 11) one objector said that the plans would be a “blight” on the neighbourhood.

Meanwhile Pam Gatrell, chair of the Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve, claimed concerns raised by the group had been ignored.

She said: “It is not an exaggeration to say this development, with construction lasting around two years, will have a disastrous impact on wildlife and biodiversity in this small area.

“It was claimed bat activity was negligible, but bio surveys found at least eight species. They claimed there would be no harm to the bats as they accustomed high levels of light, this has been proven to be incorrect.

“Paradise is a priceless natural asset which should be being protected rather than exploited as an asset for a building project.”

However, a representative of Queens’ College said the proposals helped make “sustainable use” of the land the college “loves and respects”.

The spokesperson said the plans would increase biodiversity on the site by 50 per cent, and explained that they would be reducing the artificial light at the site boundaries to the nature reserve.

When the development was completed they said it would see a reduction in traffic to the site, and would create “sustainable long lasting homes”.

An illustration of how the study area might look at the Owlstone Croft development. Image: Queens' College (61825866)
An illustration of how the study area might look at the Owlstone Croft development. Image: Queens' College (61825866)

A student also spoke in support of the plans, saying there was a “severe” shortage of student accommodation in the city, and that many students were pushed into the private rented sector, which was “unaffordable”.

Committee councillors extensively debated the plans, including questioning planning officers about the new information referred to by objectors, in particular the reference made to a protected species of bat they said could be impacted by the development.

An officer explained that a protected species of bat that was particularly sensitive to light had been identified flying through the nature reserve. The officer said the findings showed there was likely only one or a small number flying through the area and that the evidence showed it was not roosting in the nature reserve.

The officer explained that in their view the plans should not have a negative impact on the bats, and that the information referred to by the objectors was not likely to change the condition proposed on the application to control the light levels.

Owlstone Croft plans from Queens' College. Map: Queens' College (61825854)
Owlstone Croft plans from Queens' College. Map: Queens' College (61825854)

Cllr Katie Thornburrow (Lab, Petersfield), executive councillor for planning policy and infrastructure said the nature reserve was a “tremendous asset”.

She said the size of the buildings did not “step down” as they got closer to the nature reserve and it therefore did not “reflect the change in nature approach to Paradise” .

Cllr Katie Porrer (Lib Dem, Market) said she took on board that the accommodation had been designed as houses rather than blocks, but said she thought it could have still reduced in size nearer to the nature reserve.

Cllr Martin Smart (Lab, King’s Hedges) said he disagreed with this and that in his view the massing worked well.

Cllr Jenny Gawthrope Wood (Lab, King’s Hedges) raised concerns about some of the student rooms overlooking the neighbouring school playground.

A planning officer recognised there was some overlooking and suggested that the stairway windows could be obscured, but said the overlooking bedroom windows could not be.

Cllr Dave Baigent (Lab, Romsey) said he liked the design of the proposed buildings, but said he did not think the site should be developed as proposed.

“I recognise completely the sustainability of this small piece of woodland, a sort of little place people can go, bats can breathe, and animals can propagate; this is so important, despite the fact that houses have been built right up to this site,” he said. “I think from a sustainability point of view, I think absolutely essential for me is the sustainability of this woodland site far exceeds any suggestion that this green field should be built on. It is a protection area that keeps this site safe.”

Cllr Porrer said she welcomed how the proposed homes were planned to be built to an energy efficient standard, and included air source heat pumps. However, she said she shared Cllr Baigent’s concerns about the impact on the nature reserve.

The majority of the committee rejected the officer recommendation to approve the plans and went on to unanimously vote to refuse the application.

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