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Supercharging Cambridge: Is sustainable growth even possible?

Opinion | Edward Leigh, of Smarter Cambridge Transport, share his verdict on house-building plans for the region.

Clearing the housing waiting lists in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire would require about 3,000 affordable homes to be built.

Forecast natural growth in the local population over the next 20 years requires another 3,000 homes. So, why do our Local Plans clear the way for 66,000 new homes?

The Local Plan proposals from Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service
The Local Plan proposals from Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service

Because the government wants to supercharge the local economy. It is why Cambridge is at the end of three ‘growth corridors’: the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, UK Innovation Corridor and Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor.

The Faustian pact – with government and developers – is that only growth can ‘unlock’ the funds to build affordable homes and fix the creaking infrastructure we use today. Councils accept this because it’s the only deal on the table.

But what if ‘sustainable growth’ is an oxymoron? Most building involves ripping up productive and ecologically vital land, and then deploying vast quantities of cement, steel, aggregate, glass, polyisocyanurate, polyvinyl chloride, copper, bitumen etc. Their production incurs huge carbon and ecological costs, which cannot be offset in this decade, if ever.

A cavity wall blanket is installed in a new home
A cavity wall blanket is installed in a new home

And growth doesn’t solve the challenge of retrofitting buildings with insulation, new windows and heat pumps; or re-plumbing the drains in urban roads so they don’t flood the sewers whenever there’s torrential rainfall. Neither business-as-usual growth nor technological innovation is going to save the day.

We and our representatives must accept that the Earth’s ecological boundaries are non-negotiable, not something that can be ‘mitigated’ after having decided to build more houses at Cambourne, or to dual the A10, or to build a busway over the River Granta, or a 2,150-space car park at Hauxton, or a waste incinerator at Wisbech or to rebuild the Milton water treatment plant.

Local councillors now accept that the region’s limited water supply is a constraint on growth. But reducing carbon emissions within a 1.5°C carbon budget is an even stiffer constraint. Arguably, eliminating deaths from air pollution and traffic collisions should also be treated as non-negotiable.

Those then should be the starting points for all discussions about development, new infrastructure and offset schemes to ‘double nature’.

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Interactive: Where, when and how to have your say on Greater Cambridge Local Plan, covering 48,794 homes and 19 new developments

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