Sam Davies

Cambridge’s dysfunctional development trajectory

Thanks to everyone who read and responded to last week’s blog on the North East Cambridge development. Today I’m pulling together a few more strands in the story of Cambridge’s dysfunctional development trajectory.

As we know, one important driver of the extreme pressure on Cambridge’s housing market is our booming tech sector, particularly life sciences. There was an event at the Biomedical Campus on Thursday called Levelling Up the Conversation: Building a Life Sciences Superpower in the UK, with panellists including the Minister for Science, George Freeman MP, and the Mayor of the Cambs & Peterborough Combined Authority, Nik Johnson.

There are many questions about the relationship of Cambridge and the wider area to the ‘levelling up’ agenda. The last twenty years of full-throttle Cambridge Phenomenon development have not ‘levelled up’ opportunity and quality of life within the city, let alone delivered prosperity into Fenland and beyond.

In fact, as I’ve described before, the intense concentration of investment and employment growth in the city and South Cambs, has not led to ‘trickle down’ benefits, but has actually made life less affordable and more difficult for those who are not part of the tech scene.

So I watched Thursday’s event more in hope than expectation that anything relevant to the lives of ordinary residents of the city might be said.

Warm words and platitudes

The discussion was very much for players in the life sciences industry and even when Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge, asked a pre-submitted question about how the benefits of growth might be shared more widely, the speakers had very little to offer other than warm words and platitudes. However, George Freeman’s answer gave an interesting insight into how the geography and communities of the city are seen, when he explained that he had lived for a short period in Arbury “during my Withnail days”. Those unfamiliar with the reference might like to read the Wikipedia entry on the 1987 film Withnail and I and draw their own conclusions as to what he was implying by this statement.

The event was recorded, though I don’t think the footage is available yet. I would want to watch his comments back very carefully to make sure I’m not misrepresenting what he said, but if I recall correctly, he later commented that the relationship of Arbury residents to the biotech sector might be by participating in research trials, as well as something along the lines of ‘if they can’t be scientists, then they can benefit from jobs in warehousing …’

And it’s not just the residents of Arbury who are on the margins of what’s happening in the city. Take a look at the list of ‘stakeholders’ invited by the Combined Authority to participate in an event focussing on its Local Transport and Connectivity Plan.

Where is the representation of the interests of the ordinary residents of the city? Where are the schools, FE and HE colleges, sports organisations, cultural organisations, the voluntary sector? Just a deafening silence …

Is unaffordable housing unavoidable?

So is it even possible to manage a high-income, fast-growing global city in such a way that it enjoys the agglomeration advantages much vaunted by the business sector, while avoiding high housing costs and social inequality? This critical issue also came up on a Twitter discussion I was following this week. The question was ‘Who should we copy?”

The answers, covering cities across the world, were pretty much unanimous in stating that it can’t be done, unless radical measures such as majority state-owned housing as in Singapore are introduced.

This adds yet more weight to my belief that Cambridge cannot build its way out of housing affordability problems. It does not matter how much we increase supply, the operation of the market – and the attractiveness of Cambridge as a global investment centre – mean that demand will never be sated. As noted in a recent report by Savills:

And more than that, trying to do so will of course cost​ the City Council money! The Budget proposals coming before the council in the next few weeks recommend that it looks for £7.5million over savings over the next five years. They state: “These savings requirements stem from reductions in government funding, the additional net cost of services for every new home in the city and unavoidable cost increases and income pressures, including those expected to arise from the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.”

This funding crisis then sits alongside the natural resources crisis, particularly the crisis of water supply which we know is going to hit home hard in future years, and the crisis in quality of life for many in our city. Sustainability has three components – economic, environmental and social – and we are failing on all three of these.

My conclusion? There are profound structural problems which are being intensified by the trajectory of the city’s growth, and an apparent code of omerta in place when it comes to acknowledging this.

How and when is that going to change?

Sam Davies


  • I was in hospital this week but the RedCross Residents Association & Neighbourhood Watch Scheme did submit a question prior to the meeting you mention above, completed to timescale and through the right channels; it was submitted again at the meeting, but was not covered:
    “Whilst welcoming building a Life Sciences Superpower what lessons can be learnt by the unintended consequences from the previous 25 year expansion of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus site – for example, the negative impacts of massive year on year increases in traffic/footfall through tiny residential areas abutting the site which were not built for the thousands of staff/patients/vehicles competing and fighting over the street space to reach work/treatments? Areas surrounding CBC/NHS site are now swamped by the negative impact of traffic/footfall/pollution and noise to and from Cambridge Biomedical Campus 24/7. The level of human activity accessing the site was not planned for. Our area for example had two gates opened up and now we have become a cut through which was never intended for 3 cul-de-sacs. This level of human activity on these 70 homes is far beyond the capacity planned for the area. Can you commit to a Safer Spaces Strategic Review for 2022 for _______ to plan for and mitigate for any further effects from future CBC site expansion and the consequences of Cambridge building its ‘Life Sciences Superpower’ base on our doorstep?”

  • Unrepresentation in stakeholding – quite agree! Is it essential for some stakeholders (Cambridge Ahead, Arcadis, Urban & Civic) to have more than one rep.? How about replacing the duplication by one each from the absent areas of Education, Sports/Cultural, Voluntary sectors? The total would remain at a sizeable 23.

  • I think that is a fair summary. When you drill down to individual developments like NEC there is ample evidence to support this. Unfortunately, the councilors from mainstream parties seem to be unaware of this situation when it is obvious to everyone else.

    We really need members of the mainstream parties to start asking serious questions as the system is seriously failing at the moment. I remember Humphrey from Yes Minister saying, “Let me put this is in a way you will understand MInister, this will cost you votes”. Until this starts happening I am not sure what will change, and this needs an alternative.

    It doesn’t help that the local government system is not set up to deal with the amount of growth Cambridge has from the point of view of its residents, nor do councilors have the time and expertise to control the situation. It might have worked for a fenland town in 1970.

    I have heard it said by a senior person on The Science Park that developers are commandeering the value created by Cambridge Science, so I am not sure it is really helping Science as much as it should either.

    I don’t think the new Cambridge will be a particularly attractive place for Scientists either with poor developments (see NEC) and high property prices however many £1m houses are built. My son is in Frankfurt where there is a better quality of housing, which is much cheaper in relation to salaries, and much better transport.

  • I concur with Sam – who has said similar to what I wrote but with far fewer words! Credit to the Mayor Dr Nik Johnson who kept on reminding his fellow panellists that he’s the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – the host kept on referring to “Cambridge” which made me wonder “Whose Cambridge?” is she referring to (as a Vice President of a multinational health and data firm). Local government structures, the environmental limits to growth – eg the water crisis, and the hostility from local residents (The Mayor could have had the Science Minister for (metaphorical political) breakfast if he wanted to – as his message and policies are totally at odds with his local political party. The challenge for politicians in the main political parties is how to account for differences between their national policies on housing and development vs local public opinion and local environmental evidence bases. Note too that Bidwells, the estate agency posted a blogpost asking whether the emerging local plan had planned for enough growth.