How can we stop water scarcity from stalling development?

Matt Clarke is a director at Boyer

The ambitious plans initially labelled Cambridge 2040 (albeit that deadline has now advanced to 2050) will undoubtedly create opportunities for the construction sector. Plans to create ‘Europe’s Silicon Valley’, with a significant number of new businesses and a further 150,000 new homes, are set to more than double the size of the city.

“The government is undertaking a pilot to understand the scope for nature-based solutions”

But Cambridgeshire is already challenged by its existing growth targets, let alone the political impetus to exceed them. This is primarily due to infrastructure sustainability – specifically infrastructure sustainability in the case of drinking water.

This growing issue is not unique to Cambridge. Development plans and approaches to construction increasingly require new approaches to address water recycling, sustainable water capture and the increased use of nature-based solutions.

However, as the driest region of the UK, the East of England is particularly impacted by the problem, especially in the context of planned growth. Contractors in this region will be required to find and utilise innovative solutions and to impart new expertise elsewhere.

Compounding the problem for Cambridgeshire is the fact that the area relies primarily on ground water. Already in contention with the local authorities on new development, which is well advanced through the planning process, the Environment Agency (EA) has stated that any new development must avoid increasing abstraction levels and risking deterioration to the existing water bodies.

Progress on the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan has been impacted, resulting in both current and future development being delayed and as many as 9,000 new homes on committed strategic sites stalled, along with 300,000 square metres of commercial space.

In its recently published report The Case for Cambridge, the government commits to resolving the problem, stating: “Our first priority is water scarcity, which is holding back development and risks causing environmental harm. It is vital that the city has the water supply it needs to support long-term growth.”

The government also promises to deliver a unique offsetting intervention (as set out in Addressing water scarcity in Greater Cambridge: update on government measures), having already established a Water Scarcity Group to unlock the current blockage.

But while there has been some progress in terms of strategy, construction cannot commence until the implementation is resolved.

In February, Cambridge Water issued its third draft Water Resources Management Plan (WRMP), the earlier iterations having been objected to by the EA. The plan’s targets include a 50 per cent reduction in leakage from 2017/18 levels by 2040 (10 years ahead of the government target); a reduction in household consumption (to 110 litres per head per day) by 2050; building on the already low household consumption (as compared to other regions); a 9 per cent reduction in non-household consumption by 2038: and universal metering by 2030.

Supply options include a short-term water transfer from Grafham Water (25 miles west of Cambridge); a proposed new Fens Reservoir near Chatteris (25 miles north of Cambridge); and reuse of effluent water that feeds into Cherry Hinton Reservoir in Cambridge. Due to the significant infrastructure associated with this (and projected costs of over £700m), the benefits will be staged: the Grafham transfer in 2032, Fens Reservoir in 2036 and effluent reuse in 2041.

Clearly a lot rests on the EA supporting the latest WRMP before the planned supply options are fully in place, and that remains in doubt.

Short-term solutions

Fortunately, shorter-term solutions are also underway – solutions that involve the construction sector more directly. The government has announced a “one-off commitment” to introduce a water credits system in Cambridgeshire. This would give developers the opportunity to offset the water demands of development through the purchase and sale of water credits to ensure they have a neutral impact on water demand. The system would be overseen by a market operator and the credits would initially be provided through the retrofitting of properties (both commercial and residential) with government investment.

Alongside this, the government is also undertaking a pilot to understand the scope for nature-based solutions to enhance the long-term flow of water bodies and improve resilience to floods, as well as seeking innovation in agricultural water resource management.

There are no details available about how these innovations would work, but the announcement states that the government will work with the construction industry, along with the local planning authority, developers, the EA, and other key stakeholders, to deliver the most appropriate solution.

Clearly the construction sector requires the water scarcity situation to be resolved quickly for development to progress – both in Cambridge and elsewhere – but the solution will not be found by the government or public bodies alone: contractors will have an important role to play in using innovative solutions to unlock opportunities.

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