Our growth and prosperity depends on sustainable infrastructure

David Meek, CEO of sustainable homebuilder This Land, examines the issues that could make or break plans for ambitious development in Cambridge.

Local stakeholders, including leaders of the City and County Councils, are rightly questioning the deliverability of the government’s ambition for an urban quarter that is three times the size of the existing City of Cambridge housing stock, in just a couple of decades.

The region undoubtedly has huge potential to become the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe’ and is rapidly expanding, attracting innovative businesses, particularly in Knowledge Intensive sectors including life sciences and information technology.

Corporate employment in Cambridge is outperforming the national economy and grew by 8.5% in the year 2022-23 but, with this growth, comes an urgent need for housing and amenities and, whether we need to build 150,000 (the Government’s Cambridge 2040 vision) or 50,000 new homes (the Greater Cambridge Local Plan), sustainability and infrastructure are the most pressing considerations.

In 2023, Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire Councils wrote to central government, warning that water shortages risked undermining the region’s development plan; and analysis from the Environment Agency’s shows that there is insufficient infrastructure to deliver the growth set out in the existing Local Plan, let alone the Government’s 2040 vision.

So, it seems imperative that Government and local authorities now come together and coordinate a long-term strategic and fully funded plan for the next 25 years plus.

It is hard to think of Cambridgeshire as one of the driest regions in the country after the torrential rains and local flooding this year. However, with no local reservoirs and a reliance on abstracting 99% of our water from the ground, the current infrastructure is insufficient to meet these future domestic and non-domestic population growth and development plans.

Such concerns are highlighted by the Environment Agency’s objection to plans for 9,000 new homes and 300,000 m² of commercial space due to a lack of a sustainable water supply.

Cambridge Water’s 2024 Water Resources Management Plan recognises the challenges of increased water demand and the negative environmental impact caused by current water extraction methods.

Proposed large infrastructure projects, such as a new Fens reservoir, which will supply 100 million litres of water daily, and a transfer pipeline from Grafham reservoir (due to connect in 2032), will partially ease concerns.

But, reservoirs are complex, expensive and take a long time to develop effectively; work on the Fens reservoir has been in progress for over a decade already and will likely not be completed until 2036. Once built, however, reservoirs deliver much more than just water, with tremendous long-term community and environmental benefits including natural habitats, renewable energy generation, outdoor leisure activities and learning opportunities.

Solutions to major challenges are rarely linear and require a combination of approaches which, ultimately, build a resilient infrastructure framework. So, while it is imperative that new reservoirs form part of our response to increasing water demand and adaptation to climate change, there are complementary strategies which should be adopted for improving the efficiency of usage and recycling of water in new homes.

For example, Cambridge Water has a target for universal metering of homes (currently 73%) by 2030 to encourage better consumer decision-making about usage.

The housing that we build in future must be high quality, low carbon, energy and water efficient. Part of This Land’s recently released ESG strategy is the commitment to surpassing the Future Homes Standard of 110l/person (UK average currently 142l/person) on all our developments by 2025 and targeting lower in subsequent years. These standards relate to the devices or appliances installed in the home and their flow rate, such as shower heads, cisterns, and so on, and are governed under Building Regulations, section G.

In addition to the homes themselves, the planning for Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) for surface water will ensure that the existing infrastructure is not overloaded, which is an equally important element of design planning.

Our proactive management of surface water run-off seeks to mitigate flood risk, enhancing existing drainage and discharge. For example, our designs provide a minimum of a 20% betterment to the extant discharges for brownfield developments.

Without doubt, there are many ways in which households can reduce their water usage, installing smart meters, using rainwater for gardens, fixing leaks and installing more efficient equipment. It has been estimated that businesses such as schools could save up to 3,100 litres per day by installing water saving measures, including sensor taps and boundary flow regulators.

The highest water usage sectors are being assessed by government and regulators, exploring opportunities for voluntary and innovative solutions to support the implementation of efficient water practices.

The establishment of the government’s Water Scarcity Group is welcomed and will bring together relevant expertise and key actors, such as Cambridge Water, to find sustainable solutions.

Our regional water infrastructure shortage has now come to the fore due the continued success and the attraction of working and living in the Cambridge area.

 It is therefore incumbent on all of us to collaborate on sustainable solutions to ensure the future growth and prosperity of the area, while protecting our environmental heritage.

This Land is wholly owned by Cambridgeshire County. Since 2016 it has been working with partners and landowners to meet local housing needs.

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