Water scarcity threatens £300m Laing hospital

The Environment Agency (EA) has objected to the building of a £300m cancer hospital in Cambridge, to be constructed by Laing O’Rourke, over fears that the development could be a drain on the local area’s supply of drinking water.

The Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital (CCRH), one of 40 new hospitals promised by the government by 2030, is the latest major development in the city to face EA opposition due to water scarcity.

According to council planning documents, last year the EA formally objected to the hospital, warning that the increase in demand for drinking water posed a risk to bodies of water in the area.

The agency said its main concern was the “cumulative effects from combined growth in Greater Cambridge”.

It also said it needed to see evidence that a water credit market, proposed by the government in March, would effectively offset demand.

The project team said the development would create demand for around 20,000 additional litres each day.

Phil Clisham, specialist adviser to the Institution of Civil Engineers on water and sanitation, told Construction News that hospitals use more water per person than other buildings because of the cleanliness required.

He said the “threat to water” is “getting more stark”, adding: “It’s now limiting development because there isn’t enough water to support further growth.”

The EA has objected to several new developments in Cambridge over the past year, including 3,500 homes at Bourn Airfield and 1,500 at Darwin Green.

But this is the first time the agency has opposed construction plans over water concerns.

The government’s “water credits” system would allow developers to offset their schemes by paying for water-saving retrofits to other properties in the area.

Cambridge councillors welcomed the focus on resolving water supply problems but called upon the government to provide greater detail on its plans for the area’s population growth.

Council leader Mike Davey said: “The public will be rightly sceptical about the pace of growth the government wants and they need to acknowledge this.”

Laing O’Rourke was appointed as the preferred construction partner in August to build the seven-storey building. The facility would house three new research institutes aimed at developing methods to detect and treat cancer. It is part of the second cohort of schemes in the government’s New Hospital Programme, unveiled in 2020, to build 40 hospitals by 2030.

The National Audit Office estimated last year that the hospital would cost £300m, with construction set to be completed by early 2028. Enabling works are planned to start in summer.

Councillors will decide whether to approve plans on Wednesday (17 April). Council planning officers recommended that the development should be approved, despite the EA’s objection.

An EA spokesperson said: “The Environment Agency has objected to some proposed development applications in the Greater Cambridge area on the basis that the water supply for these developments will pose a significant risk to the local water environment.

“We are continuing to work together with DLUHC [Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities], Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], Greater Cambridge Partnership planning authority and Cambridge Water to find a solution for people and the environment, as outlined in the joint statement released at the start of March.”

Laing O’Rourke and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust declined to comment.

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