Hundreds of trees in an orchard designated as a habitat of principal importance in England should be felled to build a new busway to tackle climate change, councillors in Cambridgeshire voted on Tuesday.
The county council voted by 33 to 26 to approve a new public transport busway, which will use optically guided electric or hybrid buses on its route, to provide links between Cambridge and Cambourne, an expanding new town eight miles outside the city.
Huge public opposition to the felling of trees in Coton Orchard has led to thousands of people signing a petition calling for them to be saved. Coton Orchard contains about 1,000 trees and grows 26 varieties of apples, as well as pears and plums.
The vote came a week after Plymouth city council felled more than 100 mature trees in a scheme to regenerate and “transform” the city with a new walkway from the sea to the city centre.
Anna Gazeley, whose family owns Coton Orchard and who is part of the Coton Busway Action Group against the threatened destruction of part of the orchard, addressed councillors in Cambridgeshire on Tuesday. She said: “Traditional orchards are hotspots of biodiversity in the countryside, supporting a wide range of wildlife as well as an array of nationally rare and nationally scarce species.
“They are designated habitats of primary importance and rightly accorded protections … There is no question that this route … will result in this loss to the environment.”
She said the contention by the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership – which is putting forward the bus route – that the effects would be mitigated off-site to be “non-significant” in 15 to 30 years was contested.
Steve Oram, the orchard biodiversity manager at the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, has said unequivocally that the loss of such an orchard “cannot be compensated for”, she told councillors.
Oram has described the £160m bus route plan as an “utterly destructive proposal”, which “could never achieve biodiversity net gain due to the vast amount of damage that it will do to an ancient orchard full of veteran trees”.
Gazeley said the dissection of the orchard by the busway and the loss of the trees would make it unviable economically and practically to manage and as a result the whole orchard would be lost.
But the deputy leader of the council, Lucy Nethsingha, said the UN report published this week emphasised just how urgent it was to take steps to decarbonise our economies. She said: “Quality public transport links are a key part of decarbonisation … moving to a net zero economy cannot be done without changing the way we travel.” She committed personally to making sure there was biodiversity net gain built into the plan.
The bus lane is being built to provide transport infrastructure for a major expansion of the city and its surrounds, which was announced in 2014 and is being implemented by the Greater Cambridge Partnership. At least 6,000 new homes are being built, which would be served by the bus-only road running from Cambridge over the M11, through the village of Coton to Cambourne.
The council voted in favour of the proposals and will submit a Transport and Works Act Order to the government for approval. The secretary of state would hold a public inquiry before a final decision was taken, the council said.