Cambridge Success Story ‘not all that it seems’

According to the latest report of the Centre for Cities, Cambridge, if not exactly booming’, is certainly bucking national economic trends.  Unemployment is low (although jobs as a proportion of population is also low) the number of new patents taken out in the city is higher than in the next six cities combined, average incomes are high and the equality gap appears to be lower in the city than almost anywhere else.  But before we throw our hats in the air in celebration of our good fortune let’s take a sober look at some of the issues the report fails to confront or skates over.

Keep in mind that this is an economic report and although a successful economy brings many benefits it may also have high social costs.  For example, Cambridge is plagued by congestion and high housing costs and its ‘vibrant’ night time economy has arguably eroded the quality of life of city centre residents.   Many people, perhaps especially those who have lived here for many years, find Cambridge’s ‘unsettledness’ disagreeable.  Community life may not be as cohesive as in less prosperous places simply because of the high turnover of population, and  local shops which give a place character get squeezed out by the retail multiples.

Of all the cities in the survey only Milton Keynes’ population is growing faster than Cambridge’s, an inevitable feature of economic success, perhaps.  But Milton Keynes covers a huge area and its nodes are widely dispersed; Cambridge is tightly concentric.  Nor does Milton Keynes have a tourist industry attracting four and a half million visitors a year, adding significantly to the pressures on the city. There’s no escaping that the current rate of growth of the city is putting considerable strains on its outdated infrastructure and compact historic core.

There are some outright disappointments in the report.  For example, for a city whose council trumpets its green credentials, it is sad to discover that its level of carbon emissions is only at the national average and higher than Ipswich’s or Luton’s where they make cars and have a busy airport!  And there are worries too.  Cambridge is over dependent on vulnerable public service jobs and who knows how continuing austerity and recession will affect employment in that sector in years to come.  Worrying too that Cambridge’s total number of businesses is shrinking faster than in most cities and there may be serious long term consequences for an economy as dependent as Cambridge’s on a relatively narrow range of industries.

There is also some statistical bamboozling.  The report tells us that the gap in incomes between high and low earners is lower in Cambridge than almost anywhere else in the country.  But not all salary earning residents work in Cambridge so their earnings are left out of the calculation and of those who commute to London daily or work abroad most will be on relatively high incomes.   Who, then, really knows how wide is the equality gap in Cambridge?.

My purpose in applying dampeners to a report which most cities in the UK would be extremely happy to get is simply to emphasise that economic prosperity has drawbacks as well as advantages and that if growth on the scale and at the speed it is happening in Cambridge is not properly managed it can end up doing more harm than good.

On the topic of growth the report is forward looking in ways which put it at odds with establishment opinion in the city.   It points out that ‘cities rely heavily on their regions to supply workers’ and ‘that understanding this interdependence can help policy makers target scarce resources.’  By contrast, the orthodox view among Cambridge’s political leaders and some opinion formers is that commuting is a curse and must be counteracted by stuffing the city to the limits with dwellings in order to reduce congestion.  What seems to escape both supporters of this approach, however, is that the superabundance of one and two bedroom flats that swamp the city do not accommodate key workers who formerly came into the city by car but are acquired increasingly by high earning commuters to London and buy to let landlords.  Far from solving the housing crisis these trends only serve to push up house prices, curtail family housing and push local communities out of balance.

The report is right to stress the ‘interdependence’ of the city and its sub-region and on this subject it is forthright: ‘Cities are not islands, they are intrinsically linked to their surrounding areas.  And it is these relationships which influence the economic success of cities,it argues.

Interestingly, the concept of Cambridge as a regional city in which growth is dispersed to new and existing communities connected by efficient transport routes is gaining favour in influential quarters.  The Labour group on the City Council has recently announced a shift in thinking toward a sub-regional solution to Cambridge’s growth challenges in which transport, economic development and housing supply form part of an overarching strategic plan. Cambridge Past, Present and Future is also taking a cautionary approach to current growth plans.  This shift in thinking echoes what Cambridge Futures concluded a decade ago, namely that of all the viable scenarios for city growth that of dispersal was most popular among city residents.

The fact is development space in the city is in short supply and if we are to avoid urban sprawl or over densification within the city we must plan for a number of growth hubs separated from the city by wide green tracts and connected by fast and efficient public transport.  Such a policy would also spread the impact of economic prosperity since companies would find accessible, low-rent sites outside the city extremely attractive. I have long argued that to confine the notion of a Cambridge sub-region to new communities such as Cambourne, Northstowe or Waterbeach (should that come into the picture) is not visionary enough. Just a little further out of Cambridge than the new settlements but too far away for any serious risk of coalescence are market towns such as Chatteris, Littleport and Wisbech, once one of England’s great ports.  These Fenland towns are among the most deprived and disadvantaged of any in Europe but they languish because of a lack of vision and of investment.  I believe it is in Cambridge’s long  term interests as well as its ethical duty to give more thought to how this larger sub-region might reap the benefits of economic success.

So let’s welcome the report of the Centre for Cities and take pride in Cambridge’s undoubted achievements but let us not be complacent.  We need to plan for a future in which Cambridge prospers but in which the fruits of that prosperity are wisely and widely deployed.


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