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Will we really build 19,810 zero carbon new homes in Greater Cambridge?



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By Anne Miller, Carbon Neutral Cambridge

Climate change was identified as the top priority in last year’s consultation on the new Local Plan, and the planners are currently working on the detail before the next stage of public consultation in summer/autumn 2021.

In the meantime, Greater Cambridge has been deluged with more than 650 speculative proposals for housing developments, which all seem to include dramatic claims about being fantastically low carbon. So how should we think about these?

The first Passivhaus student accommodation buildings in Cambridge have been completed for King’s College, built by regional construction firm R G Carter and located in college grounds on Cranmer Road
The first Passivhaus student accommodation buildings in Cambridge have been completed for King’s College, built by regional construction firm R G Carter and located in college grounds on Cranmer Road

Firstly, we should recognise that, these submissions are responses to the planners’ “call for sites”. In total, they far exceed the number of new homes that the planners are looking for, even on the most bullish (ie crazy) assumptions, so most will never happen.

The Local Plan will choose between three options for the number of new homes for the period 2020-2041. The ‘minimum’ option (which is set by central government) is for 36,700 homes by 2041. Of these at least 36,400 are already in the planners’ pipeline, leaving just 300 “additional” ones to be provided. However, the ‘maximum’ option is a literally incredible 62,700.

Insiders tell me that this is completely undeliverable: There’s not enough water, too few builders, too little employment and too little infrastructure. Even the ‘minimum’ option will require unprecedented levels of water efficiency and employment growth.

The first Passivhaus student accommodation buildings in Cambridge have been completed for King’s College, built by regional construction firm R G Carter and located in college grounds on Cranmer Road
The first Passivhaus student accommodation buildings in Cambridge have been completed for King’s College, built by regional construction firm R G Carter and located in college grounds on Cranmer Road

Secondly, the Local Plan is considering options for where these houses should go. Studies show that carbon emission are three times lower if these “densify” existing urban areas, rather than if the new homes are in car dependent villages. This tends to favour development on the North East Cambridge site - the current water treatment works.

Finally, developers are all claiming their development will be low carbon, hoping it will help them get planning permission, but this is meaningless without strong zero carbon policies in the Local Plan and planners brave enough to enforce the developers’ promises..

For example, Thakeham is proposing building 25,000 “zero carbon” homes in South West Cambridgeshire in the general region of Barrington. When I asked them about how they planned to achieve zero carbon, they said all the right things about building homes with better than Passivhaus standard of energy efficiency, low embodied carbon and the full quota of 40 per cent ‘affordable’ homes.

The Mueller District in Austin, Texas, USA, has been designed as a sustainable community with a 'green urbanism' strategy (45777311)
The Mueller District in Austin, Texas, USA, has been designed as a sustainable community with a 'green urbanism' strategy (45777311)

Is this greenwash? It’s getting ever easier and cheaper to achieve zero carbon, so maybe these claims are real. The main problem is that they’re a strategic land acquisition business as much as a housebuilder.

This means that once they have planning permission, the plots will be sold off to other housebuilders so the only way such promises will come to fruition is if they are enshrined in the planning approval.

This has never yet happened, but we need it to.

Read more from Carbon Neutral Cambridge every month in the Cambridge Independent.

Read more

Thakeham ‘will not bypass’ Local Plan with its 25,000-home proposal for South West Cambridgeshire

Greater Cambridge Local Plan: Find out where developers want to build homes near you with our interactive search tools

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