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Government plans ‘water credits’ system to unblock housing and commercial space in Greater Cambridge

Developers in Cambridge will be required to buy and sell “water credits” for new homes and unlock 9,000 homes and 300,000 square metres of commercial space in the city.

Meanwhile, residents in Greater Cambridge could be offered free shower heads and taps in a drive to help the region save water.

Anglian Water supplied photographs of new pipeline (Harmston, Lincolnshire) . Pictures: Tim George
Anglian Water supplied photographs of new pipeline (Harmston, Lincolnshire) . Pictures: Tim George

The government published its ‘Addressing water scarcity in Greater Cambridge’ report after Wednesday’s Budget alongside its ‘Case for Cambridge’.

The report unveils plans to test a new water trading market in the area, which will enable developers to offset their water usage through the purchase and sale of water credits to ensure they have a neutral impact.

The £9m scheme will require the establishment of a new market framework and operator, which would match buyers and sellers of water credits.

The Environment Agency has blocked the construction of more than 9,000 homes and 300,000 square feet of lab space due to water issues, including schemes at Bourn Airfield, Darwin Green and the Beehive Centre.

It has advised that some water bodies in the Cambridge area are at risk of deterioration, and that any new development that takes place must not increase abstraction and risk deterioration to water bodies in Greater Cambridge.

The government has also primed the pilot scheme with £4.5m for retrofitting commercial and public buildings with water-saving devices.

The Cam Valley Forum has said it is very concerned the water credits system will be based on “unsubstantiated estimates” of future savings, which could be used to justify new developments that will increase water usage.

“Concerningly, this sort of water credits offsetting scheme has not been done before, there is no evidence that it will work, and the detailed design work has not yet started,” they said.

Cambridge Water said in its latest five-year plan that it was aiming to cut household consumption to 110 litres per person, per day by 2050 through meter installations. It calculated that on average using meters reduced household consumption by 13 per cent.

The report also sets out plans for a water transfer pipeline from Grafham Water and a new reservoir in the Fens between the towns of March and Chatteris. However, they are not due for completion until 2032 and 2036, respectively, meaning water-saving measures are required to deliver additional capacity in the interim.

The pipeline transfer from Grafham reservoir into Cambridge Water’s supply zone will deliver 26 megalitres per day until 2036 when the new Fens reservoir will deliver 43.5Ml/d.

The Fens reservoir is proposed as the main strategic supply option to secure water to customers of Anglian Water and Cambridge Water.

A new pipeline from Grafham Water is planned. In the meantime, Anglian Water has also been laying a pipeline from the wetter north to the region Picture: Tim George
A new pipeline from Grafham Water is planned. In the meantime, Anglian Water has also been laying a pipeline from the wetter north to the region Picture: Tim George

The Grafham transfer is a proposed transfer of 26Ml/d of water from Grafham Water into the Cambridge Water supply zone as an interim solution before Fens Reservoir is forecasted to come online, according to the report.

This water will be available until 2040 and therefore will continue to provide a supply of water to Cambridge Water until Fens Reservoir is available. The Fens Reservoir has also been designated a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project.

The government has also set out plans and committed more than £1m for “nature-based solutions”, which can “effectively enhance the long-term flow of water bodies, improve resilience to floods and improve biodiversity”.

A further £1.45million in agriculture will position Cambridge as a “trailblazer area” for the government’s national approach to water management in the agricultural industry.

“We are confident this overall package will be sufficient to address the EA’s concerns,” the government says.

The average water use per person per day is 142 litres in England and Wales. The government has set a legally binding target under the Environment Act 2021 to reduce the use of public water supply in England per head of population by 20 per cent by 2038.

The ultimate aim is to reduce use to 110 litres per person, per day, a 50 per cent reduction in leakage and a 15 per cent reduction in non-household water use by 2050.

The government says the installation of water saving measures in homes can save on average 32.5 litres per household per day whilst businesses such as schools can save up to 3,100 litres per day.

“Over the next 12 months, government funding will be used to deliver retrofits across Greater Cambridge, targeting initial retrofits at commercial premises, and social housing stock, including local authority owned stock and housing association homes,” the paper says.

However, Cam Valley Forum says its members’ experience shows water use currently depends very largely on the household’s choices, with only a small impact from water-efficient appliances.

“Regulators and water company’s efforts to influence and support those choices have so far been pathetic, and so we suspect that an offsetting scheme is unlikely to make a significant difference,” they said.

The feasibility of retrofitting has also been questioned by Edward Leigh, formerly of Smarter Cambridge Transport.

“About eight existing homes will need to be retrofitted to make way for each new home. There are 131,640 domestic properties in Greater Cambridge. If every one of those were retrofitted, they would offset about another 16,500 new homes,” he said.

“So, retrofitting all existing homes and schools in Greater Cambridge would release about 17,000 new homes to be built over the next 8+ years.”

The news of help to tackle the city’s water scarcity has been welcomed by local politicians, but they say many important questions remain.

Cllrs Mike Davey and Bridget Smith, leaders of Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council respectively, welcomed the government’s proposals.

However, they argue that the announcements come after both councils warned ministers before the Spring Budget that uncertainty about key issues outside of their control, including the Government’s aspirations for significant extra growth around Cambridge and the future of the area’s water supply, meant work to develop a new Local Plan for Greater Cambridge was being impacted.

Both councils have existing Local Plans which were adopted individually in 2018. Work on the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan – the first joint Local Plan for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire – is well under way.

The councils’ current evidence in the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan identifies a need for a further 14,500 homes between 2020 and 2041, in addition to the 37,200 homes already provided for by the 2018 plans, as well as additional commercial and lab space to support the creation of 66,000 jobs over that period.

While this is ambitious compared to Local Plans being developed by other authorities, it is still some way off the government’s aspirations for 150,000 new homes around Cambridge.

In a joint statement from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency and Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service, they say they are committed to supporting the growth of Greater Cambridge in a way that is “sustainable, supports the economic potential of the area, protects and enhances the quality of life for residents, habitats and the environment”.

The statement, published alongside the government’s water report, says that “long-term, and in line with statutory requirements, the water needs of the Greater Cambridge area will need to be met by the water company”.

The statement continues: “We expect Cambridge Water to publish and deliver a WRMP to provide a sustainable, safe, sufficient supply of water to meet all of the planned development in the future across the Cambridge area.

“The water company will need to work closely with other water companies to ensure delivery of major new water resource infrastructure. This includes working with Anglian Water and Affinity Water to develop new transfer of water to Cambridge from Grafham Water, and supporting work from Anglian Water, to develop a new reservoir in the Fens. We are committed to working together to support this longer-term work in our respective roles.

“For those sites where environmental concerns have been raised through the planning process, we must continue to explore how to support sustainable development to come forward.”

It goes on to say that the water credits scheme is currently being designed and “will be tested shortly” together with a launch of wider communications to allow the people and businesses of Cambridge to use water wisely and help protect the environment. The scheme will be operational for “as long as it is required”.

The scheme could bring direct benefits for those living and working in the Greater Cambridge area, who will be able to access free water-saving devices such as new shower heads and taps.

“Modelling undertaken by DLUHC demonstrates that the scheme should deliver water savings that are sufficient to address concerns raised around sustainable water supply to the Cambridge area. Ongoing monitoring, undertaken with partners including the Environment Agency, will aim to ensure the savings are realised to an agreed timeline,” the statement says.

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