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Why we must be sceptical of those pushing the growth agenda for Cambridge

Opinion | Terry Macalister, of Friends of the Cam, responds to Cambridge Ahead’s vision for how the region should develop

Terry Macalister
Terry Macalister

Business organisations pushing for more economic growth in and around Cambridge have discovered some new marketing mantras.

They talk of “quality of life”, “sustainability” and “natural capital” (all of which must apparently be created by new home, office and infrastructure developments.)

The spectre raised by neglect of economic growth, they claim, is that Cambridge will “stagnate and even decline with time”.

Two major articles written by leading lights from the Cambridge Ahead lobby group published in the Cambridge Independent have pushed this agenda.

But should we be guided by an organisation whose members are primarily driven by how to make money out of the city?

You would not go to an ecologist or faith leader for advice on house building, so why listen to a property developer on sustainability or quality of life?

The past 10 years of the “Cambridge phenomenon,” as some like to call it, has been good for commerce.

Certainly six per cent annual economic growth may seem something to celebrate when many other parts of Britain are in decline.

New businesses have been set up, jobs created and the little city with big universities has become known for biosciences and big data as well as academic excellence.

A map of the proposed Cambridge Northern Fringe East development (7769834)
A map of the proposed Cambridge Northern Fringe East development (7769834)

But scratch beneath the surface of the city and a different picture emerges that should make us sceptical of those pushing the growth agenda – even one allegedly paying lip service to green or humane issues.

The past 10 years has brought unaffordable house prices, worsening car congestion and the unenviable title of the most unequal city in Britain.

There has been a shameful increase in demand for food banks, homelessness and the state of nature, typified by the over-abstraction of the River Cam.

If we are talking about quality of life or sustainability then this city is failing - failing the most vulnerable and above all, nature.

For instance rivers are a source of life for more than the array of insects, fish and amphibians that live in them but also for birds, hedgehogs, foxes and other animals that come for water to drink. Without ponds and rivers there can be no wildlife.

A water vole. Picture: Unsplash (49010484)
A water vole. Picture: Unsplash (49010484)

Yet water companies are taking the equivalent of 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools per day out of the Cam chalk aquifers. They are pumping groundwater to sustain a river that has lost half its natural flow.

The water industry has failed since privatisation 30 years ago to build and open one new reservoir in the whole of the UK. This particularly matters in a water stressed region like East Anglia.

The Environment Agency, which is meant to oversee the River Cam, admits “current levels of abstraction are causing environmental damage”.

It goes on: “We recommend any proposed development considers water resources as a key issue and the council recognises the damage of long-term increases in abstraction due to growth.”

A report commissioned for Cambridge City Council from consultancy firm Stantec, states: “Even the current level of abstraction is widely believed to be unsustainable.”

Terry Macalister, author of Crude Britannia'
Terry Macalister, author of Crude Britannia'

Yet new ever-new developments are planned or under way including North East Cambridge, Northstowe and Waterbeach (never mind the 1.5 million homes envisaged by the unrealistic OxCam Arc) – which depend on the Cam’s chalk aquifer.

These schemes are egged on by Cambridge Ahead even as it talks about its new-found interest in quality of life and sustainability and at a time when public services in the area have been starved of cash due to austerity and now Covid.

The chalk streams – world renowned for biodiversity – can be seen in around the city either stagnant or completely dry.

Just have a look at Hobson’s Brook which runs down alongside the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Post-Covid was meant to be a time to “build back better” but there is little sign of this happening unless you believe, as developers do, that building 1.5 million homes in the OxCam Arc will allow us to “double nature”.

A map of the OxCam Arc. Image: MHCLG (49734004)
A map of the OxCam Arc. Image: MHCLG (49734004)

Really we should start start with a clean piece of paper and ask what would make Cambridge the best possible city to live in.

We doubt many residents would put as their top priority “economic growth.”

More likely they would say we want a clean, peaceful but vibrant place where everyone felt welcome, secure – and empowered.

They would want affordable housing, first class public transport and a real sense of community cohesion.

They would also surely say that during lockdown more than ever they have appreciated nature and green spaces.

Yet more and more unaffordable housing is being constructed while the natural world is being depleted.

The climate emergency demands a new way of thinking where no development should be permitted unless it can prove to be reducing carbon emissions.

Just read the material produced by the UK Fires research group, led by a team inside the University of Cambridge engineering department.

This might be the only way of reducing the threat of the Fens, and potentially Cambridge itself, being flooded in the not-too-distant future.

The future may depend on some kind of “degrowth” and certainly not carrying on as before behind a dangerous but glossy facade of green marketing.

  • Terry Macalister is a former energy editor of The Guardian, a senior member of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and co-author of Crude Britannia, published in May 2021.

Read the Cambridge Ahead articles:

Cambridge Ahead’s Jeremy Newsum: ‘Quality of life is an essential aspect of economic growth’

The six guiding principles that Cambridge needs to achieve sustainable growth

Read more

‘Crude Britannia’: A Big Oil painting of the lies that wrecked the planet

Feargal Sharkey: The Cam is no longer a proper river

The vision for the OxCam Arc explained: Doubling economic output, doubling nature and building one million new homes

Exploring the wildlife impacts of East West Rail approach to city

Government help promised for Cambridge region’s globally-rare chalk streams

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