I attended a Centre for Cities/Cambridge Ahead event this week, entitled ‘Realising Regional Growth: Cambridge City Region‘, intending to write a detailed account for those of you interested in the subject. But having mulled over what I heard, I think I can distil my response down into some very simple observations in the context of the intentional aggressive pursuit of the ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’ for over two decades.
A Cambridge Mafia
Much emphasis was laid on the importance of ‘a single powerful voice’ and an overarching narrative representing ‘Cambridge’ to government and to potential investors. But the voice and the narrative only serve the interests of the organisations represented in the room: the global high growth, high tech organisations based here.
One speaker laughingly referred to himself and others in the room as part of a ‘Cambridge mafia’ where ‘everyone knows everyone’. But this insularity is not a laughing matter.
Not a single reference was made to ‘the other Cambridges’: the independent local businesses priced out or told to move on; the school pupils who aren’t set for STEM careers; the residents who aren’t part of the self-described ‘village’ of the select few.
It was clear that those hoping to be the single powerful voice representing our city to decision makers and investors don’t see it as their responsibility to include the rich plurality of Cambridge which so many of us value.
I found it profoundly depressing.
Will enough ever be enough?
This graph, showing housing supply vs population growth since 2021, was shown.
It comes as no surprise to see how housebuilding locally has been way ahead of the national rate, nor that population growth has continued to outstrip even that accelerated rate. But there was no sense that anyone in that room acknowledged any limits to growth.
On the contrary, the commentary accompanying the slide was “There is demand to live in Cambridge. Supply must keep ahead to ease affordability costs.”
Sadly, there was no opportunity to ask questions about this presentation, but the challenge to this logic is long overdue.
We’ve built so much for the last two decades, yet the gap between housing and population has got worse, not better. So just how much more do the advocates of growth believe we need to build in order for these factors to reach equilibrium? Or is the demand effectively infinite and therefore insatiable, for all the reasons explained in Deborah Potts’ excellent presentation to Cambridge Commons?
And of course that’s without beginning to think about environmental limits, water supply, etc.
It is just staggeringly blinkered – and not remotely democratic, if it is the outcome of that ‘single powerful voice’ working without reference to the rest of us.
Footing the bill
Cambridge is a recognised ‘cold spot’ for social mobility. In 2016, the city scored in the lowest 20% of local authorities when outcomes for disadvantaged local young people were assessed against 16 indicators. Think about that.
The discussion suggested that there is now a focus on training a home-grown ‘technician class’, working with local schools to raise awareness and aspiration, etc. But I suspect progress will continue to be slow for as long as Cambridge schools continue to receive per capita funding well below the national average, way short of London boroughs experiencing similar levels of growth, immigration and population churn.
These population dynamics may well be advantageous to businesses which recruit global talent to maximise their competitive advantage, but they also come with costs to local services which neither national government nor the businesses themselves seem willing to address.
To illustrate this, Ofsted reports for local schools often comment on the large proportion of children who only speak English as an additional language. Additionally, because of parental employment patterns, there are children who are at a school for a short time or join the school part way through the school year. All of this increases the complexity and cost for our schools of meeting pupils’ needs. Yet Cambridgeshire County Council decided that, due to budgetary pressures, it would no longer provide support services for pupils arriving in the area who don’t speak English. The cost of helping those pupils to acquire the skills necessary to participate in the classroom now has to be met by individual schools out of their existing budgets.
You could make similar arguments about unfunded negative externalities on multiple fronts, transport obviously being the issue generating most debate. But the critical point I learned this week is that the East of England receives less funding per capita (£12,482) than the England average (£13166), the impact of which is compounded by the fact that in the last decade regional population growth has been 9% (17% in Cambridge) vs national average of 6%. No wonder we are feeling the impact on living standards and quality of life.
The final speaker, David Braben, made two statements which I found frankly extraordinary. The first was that “Local government is not generally supportive of business”. When pushed by Cllr Lucy Nethsingha to justify it, he did retract it somewhat, but offered the example of the GCP’s proposed congestion charge (his terminology) as evidence of why he believes this.
That would be the same ‘congestion charge’ proposed because of the aggressive business-led growth of the city over the last two decades I assume?
And when Lucy pointed out the £28million gap in the County Council’s finances, his insightful solution was that local government should make the case to retain more of the wealth generated locally. Good job he suggested that, because otherwise no-one would have thought of it, right?
His second assertion was that there is a “cultural hostility towards success” in Cambridge, though there was no attempt to interrogate whether this is really the case, let alone understand why that might be. But if it does exist, I wonder how much of it relates to the fact that not only is wealth unevenly distributed, but that so little of it seems to come back into the civic realm as philanthropy to benefit the town and its residents.
Talk to US citizens who are resident here and they will tell you they are amazed by the differences in cultural attitudes to philanthropy in the US and the UK – from what I’m told, in the US it is simply taken as a given that, once you have achieved a certain level of wealth, you will give back generously and visibly. There are, of course, many critiques of the role which philanthropy should play in society – but at the moment, particularly when central government is steadfastly resistant to calls from local government for financial support, I would argue it could make a transformational difference to outcomes for local residents, and perhaps to the attitudes Dr Braben feels he encounters too.
There is so much more I could say about what I heard but (having been told recently that at least one household sometimes finds this blog too depressing!) I will stop there.
Instead I will close by drawing your attention to a fantastic charitable initiative launched by a local business which has long roots in our neighbourhood. The family at the Taj Tandoori on Cherry Hinton Road has followed up their generosity during the pandemic by launching the Dolly Foundation in memory of their parents. The Foundation is raising funds in support of people locally, nationally and internationally, with a particular focus on cancer sufferers. I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch dinner, straight after the Cambridge Ahead event. Not only was the food extremely tasty, the whole evening was a warm and loving celebration of the importance of family, community and giving back. I had a wonderful time.
Unfortunately the video of the Cambridge Ahead/Centre for Cities event doesn’t seem to be available yet, but you can download the slides.