Saving the River Cam

Summary: Our river is struggling due to over extraction and the climate emergency – and the proposed level of house building isn’t going to make things any better.

Tony Juniper, the Chair of Natural England posted the following:

The article by Donna Ferguson for The Guardian is here.

At the same time, our county has an ambition to double the geographical area of rich wildlife areas and natural open spaces from 8% to 16% by the year 2050. One of the reasons it is so low is because so much of the county is used for food production.

Having read Donna’s report, one of the first things I thought of was why so many of our buildings in Cambridge & county were not incorporating things like rainwater harvesting, and greywater harvesting – something I remember being discussed in civil service circles in the early part of my career in the mid-2000s.

I also picked up on the point musician Feargal Sharkey (yes, that one) made about the poor enforcement of privatised water companies over-extracting from chalk streams. This was something that came up in a debate in the House of Commons two months ago when the MP for Broxbourne Charles Walker in an adjournment debate – which unusually had contributions from other MPs. Watch the debate here.

So I cycled down to my nearest chalk stream in Cherry Hinton – Cherry Hinton Brook. I made a video on what I saw:

Cherry Hinton Brook – a struggling chalk stream

It’s not just Cherry Hinton Brook – which flows into the River Cam.

Mr Sharkey quotes local poet Rupert Brooke.

This was also the same Rupert Brooke who spoke in favour of nationalising the land in a lecture in Cambridge in 1910 on Democracy & the Arts.

180829 Rupert Brook on democratizing the land 1910

…and in the same year after campaigning against the Conservatives in the general elections of 1910…

“I have cut off the only man in Rugby I know at all well, for he was a Tory and very wicked just now.” Rupert Brooke in “Letters of Rupert Brooke” edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes [younger son of Florence Ada Keynes]

which made this choice of VIP a controversial one to unveil a statue of him in Granchester!

***Roooopert, you communist!!!***

But as one of the MPs in the Commons debate alluded to, it doesn’t really matter what your political persuasion is when it comes to responding to the climate emergency. We’re all going to be doomed by it if we do nothing. Also, nationalising water companies by itself won’t automatically save the chalk streams. (Much as I quite like the principles on the grounds that water is a natural monopoly and also essential to life). The mechanisms for preventing over extraction – and also reducing demand, need examining.

“So, what are we going to do to save the Cam?”

One of the things that I’m due to post in a future blogpost is how we do not have the institutions to respond to the climate and political crises. Governance sinkholes if you will. Whether it’s burning rainforests in the Amazon – (and yes I want the President of Brazil hauled before an International Court to answer charges of Crimes Against Humanity and Ecocide) to the state of the River Cam (the authority for the river I’d incorporate into an expanded & empowered unitary council for Cambridge), we don’t have the structures, systems or processes.

“Is that why you went on that protest bike ride through town?”


This is Cambridge – cycling is what we do.

Environmental activism over the past 12 or so months with XR Cambridge has grown a life and a dynamism of the like I’ve not seen before in Cambridge. The next few months will be crucial with the climax of the Brexit shambles, further scheduled climate protests following Greta Thunberg’s call, and a general election all happening.

Commons Science and Technology Committee calls for a ban on petrol/diesel motorcars by 2035 – including hybrids

In a nutshell, collectively we haven’t a clue about the huge changes that we will have to make to our villages, towns and cities to cope with the changing climate. Have a look at the recommendations here. If MPs are recommending to ministers that no new petrol or diesel cars should be on sale by 2035 – just over 15 years away, then think about the huge infrastructure changes we will have to make. It’s not just about where charging points might go. Replacing like-for-like the UK’s motor car fleet with electric cars will require two-thirds of the world’s cobalt supply.

And ministers want to go ahead with a new Oxford-Cambridge motorway to open in the year 2030? Madness.

Retrofitting existing buildings.

Look at New York’s approach to glass and steel towers that we’ve become familiar with. What will the approach be to retrofitting homes and offices? Note that one of the most prominent of glass towers in Cambridge is the Mills and Reeve one – which won an award in 2013…while also being featured as a piece of ‘hideous’ architecture in Hideous Cambridge by Jones and Hall.


Botanic House at the corner of Hills Road/Station Road – photo Cambridge Network.

Just by looking at it you can see it will need a major retrofit in the next decade or so should we get much tighter energy efficiency requirements on existing buildings. Furthermore, on the brick-faced south side of the building, there are no solar panels even though they have a huge canvass on which to fit lots of them on – and many buildings surrounding it that could benefit from that renewable power – not least the greenhouses of the Botanic Gardens next door.

“Isn’t it all too late?”

It feels like it – and Laurie Penny wrote an interesting thread on the mental health impact of the climate and ecological crisis.

…It’s worth reading her posts on the thread in full.

One of the saddest things from my perspective was that successive ministers (as well as the rest of us) knew about this from 1990. It was when Blue Peter on Children’s BBC published their Green Book. This was in the day of no internet and only four channels on TV – channels that also closed broadcasting overnight. Therefore the publicity this book got was massive.

We knew what was happening. But it’ll only be future generations who can know whether humanity succeeded in preventing an environmental catastrophe. And at the moment things are not looking good. Not looking good at all.


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