Grower Clive Hayden says his well no longer has enough water.

New town causes water shortage on local farm

A new town close to Cambridge is at the centre of a dispute around water shortages on a local farm and fears of flooding.

A small-scale grower is part of a crowdfunding campaign to force a housing development to review its environmental impact after facing “significant” water shortages.

Clive Hayden, a berry and salad veg grower and owner of Larksfield Nursery, in Cambridgeshire, had to move away from growing flowers after drainage works to build a new town reduced his water supply.

Hayden, who said he has turned down several offers to buy his land, said: “I’ve certainly lost a significant amount of water from my well. We’ve always had low rainfall but I’ve never had any issues with water. It’s never been a problem.

“I was offered a lot of money a few years ago but it’s of no interest. I moved here with my parents 60 years ago and my dad added the glasshouses and built it up the way we wanted it. I don’t see that I could ever leave this place and I still enjoy the work. I would like to supply the new residents with fruit and veg.”

Water extraction can only be done with a licence, and Hayden said he has “jumped through no end of hoops” and paid his fee to the Environment Agency for permission to use his well, which no longer provides enough water for the full growing season after he believes the water table was lowered.

Hayden’s farm is next to a long-term development to create the town of Northstowe, around five miles north of Cambridge. Set to provide 10,000 new homes in total, it is described as “Cambridgeshire’s newest town”, which will “promote health and wellbeing”.

Daniel Fulton, a member of local campaign group Fews Lane Consortium, said: “The local council has a major policy focus on sustainable and locally-produced food with minimum food miles and carbon footprint. It just doesn’t make sense with a perfectly good agricultural holding in the area to then drain the water from it.”

Fulton said the group, which was set up four years ago to save a public footpath and has since taken on the water impact of the Northstowe development, wants a repeat of the environmental assessment of the next and third phase of development on the town.

“Under the environmental impact assessment, the council had a requirement to look at the impact on soil, water and air. They excluded groundwater on the basis that impact was ‘not significant’ so that’s what we’re going to challenge in the High Court,” he said.

South Cambridgeshire District Council’s lead cabinet member for planning, Tumi Hawkins, said: “As the Planning Authority, we consulted the Environment Agency as a statutory consultee. The Environment Agency have primary responsibility for groundwater protection on both applications, and raised no objections to the development on this basis.”

The government’s development arm, Homes England, is carrying out the work but the defendant would be South Cambridgeshire District Council, which approved the planning application.

A hearing is set for 29-30 November of this year and Fulton said he estimates the cost of the proceedings could be up to £40,000. The group has so far crowdfunded £16,000 out of a £20,000 target.

Fulton said campaigners haven’t been able to establish exactly what drainage has taken place, because the planning applications were difficult to follow with multiple amendments.

“There were very major environmental interventions underground and no one is telling us exactly what. There was a crucial period in 2020 when we saw extreme variations in the local ponds that didn’t correlate to the weather,” he said.

A local pond to the new town of Northstowe that is now dry.

He said although Hayden’s story has come to the fore due to the interest in local food, “the big risk is actually groundwater and flooding”. “The flow of groundwater seems to have been stopped. In winter we’re getting flooding where we never had it before. There is a shortage of water at present but longer-term the risk is flooding,” he said.

A spokesperson for Homes England said: “Impact on ground water was fully considered as part of the Phase 3A planning application in a Ground Water Management Note produced by technical consultants, and it was concluded that the development is not anticipated to change ground water levels in the surrounding area. However, Homes England is committed to monitoring groundwater levels going forward as a precautionary measure.

“We would strongly disagree with the suggestion that we have put pressure on Mr Hayden to sell his land to Homes England. On the contrary, the town has been planned in such a way that his small-holding could remain if that is what the Mr Hayden wishes.”

The case brings to light what is likely to become a growing tension between a critical need for more housing, with the environmental need and social demand for more locally-produced food.

As Fulton put it: “We don’t mind the housing being built there, we just want them to be developed without trashing the environment.”

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