Smarter Cambridge Transport

Is ‘sustainable growth’ even possible?

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 twenty years requires another 3,000 homes. So, why do our Local Plans clear the way for 66,000 new homes (which includes all the land allocated for development up to and beyond 2041)?

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.

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’.

This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 24 November 2021.

Edward Leigh

Edward Leigh is the leader of Smarter Cambridge Transport, chair and independent co-opted member of the Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Panel, chair of the South Petersfield Residents Association, business owner, consultant, and occasional blogger about making the world and Cambridge a better place to live.

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