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Owlstone Croft: Cambridge City Council accused of ‘fatally undermining’ its own case against Queens’ College student homes plan beside Paradise Nature Reserve





Cambridge City Council has been accused of “fatally undermining” its own opposition to plans to build new student housing next to a nature reserve.

The authority lost a planning appeal last month to stop Queens’ College building four student blocks at its Owlstone Croft property next to Paradise Nature Reserve in Newnham. Councillors had refused the application in January after raising concerns about the impact of the development on the reserve.

Illustrative image of the student accommodation in Owlstone Road Picture: Queens' College Cambridge
Illustrative image of the student accommodation in Owlstone Road Picture: Queens' College Cambridge

However, a planning inspector overturned the decision and ruled that, with an agreement to control the lighting level, the development would not harm the ecology and biodiversity of the reserve. Sixty rooms for postgraduate students will be built.

Newnham resident Hugh Clough told a meeting of the full council on November 30 that the outcome has “worrying consequences for the whole city”.

He said: “While the planning committee unanimously refused the application, its position at appeal was fatally undermined by a set of favourable officer reports and weak, hastily-drafted reasons for refusal despite a raft of policy grounds on which to reject the application.

“This represents a complete and catastrophic failure of the planning system at all stages – a system intended to protect our communities, schools and environmentally unique nature reserves. The interpretation of the biodiversity policy requirements by the inspector, if unchallenged, seriously undermines their efficacy in future developments in Cambridge. What action will the council take to address this?”

Campaigners outside The Guildhall before the planning inquiry regarding the Owlstone Cross development by Queens’ College. Picture: Keith Heppell
Campaigners outside The Guildhall before the planning inquiry regarding the Owlstone Cross development by Queens’ College. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Katie Thornburrow (Lab, Petersfield), executive councillor for planning, building control and infrastructure, said the council was reviewing the appeal process to learn lessons from it. The authority has already done so with its pre-application process.

“I was on the planning committee that refused the application and I attended some of the appeal proceedings. This matter is very important to me along with any other application that has a bearing on nature in and around Cambridge,” said Cllr Thornburrow.

“I brought the motion of the biodiversity emergency to this council in May 2019 and I continue to seek, alongside all councillors in this chamber and on the planning committee and with our officers, to recognise what biodiversity we have in and around the city and how to protect and enhance it. I also know that the climate and biodiversity crises are worse than we imagined and that legislation is not reflecting the reality nor providing anywhere near the adequate action plan.”

Cllr Thornburrow said the authority’s refusal was based on its “assessment of the evidence” but “the inspector then decided that those reasons were not sufficient”.

View of proposed development at Owlstone Croft from Paradise Nature Reserve
View of proposed development at Owlstone Croft from Paradise Nature Reserve

The Labour councillor added: “It may be small comfort, but the outcome of the Owlstone Croft appeal was considered on its merits in relation to its landscape design and siting of the student buildings, and there were no wider issues of a precedent that have been set in terms of the council’s approach to ecology or biodiversity. I am sure that there are no wider implications in relation to the effectiveness of the council’s policies. They will continue to have weight and will be fully considered as part of planning proposals.

“Although that does not mean we will not keep them under review.”



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