Sam Davies
Tourists on King's Parade, Cambridge

Tourism, growth and balance (Your Councillor, Week 4)

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and emails on last week’s post. Today I’d like to go into a bit more detail on a topic I mentioned a couple of weeks ago – the current consultation on the future of the Market Square – and also extend the conversation wider, to think about what’s sitting behind the proposals and what that might mean for residents in the future.

Council finance

As with all things, the advice to ‘follow the money’ applies here. Newly elected councillors were recently given a presentation on the council’s finances. As you might expect, the message was one of “significant challenges ahead”, with the need for around £5million in cost savings over the next five years from the £100million spent on services.

This is set in the context of council climate change commitments, leading to increased spending on retrofitting council housing and commercial property; and potentially reduced income from the central car parks, if measures to keep private vehicles out of the city are successful.

So you can see why this would make the council keen to leverage its assets to generate additional income, both directly through rental fees from events held in its public spaces, and indirectly through growth in business rates achieved by supporting successful businesses in the local area. And that’s where the role of attracting tourism comes in.

The importance of tourism

Another recent presentation to councillors brought home the huge increase in the importance of tourism to the city in recent years. As you can see, both the number of visitors and the financial value to the local economy have more than doubled in a decade.

Obviously we don’t yet know what a post-Covid era might hold, particularly for prospects for international tourism, but an item is being presented for approval by Environment and Scrutiny Committee on 1st July regarding the revival of Visit Cambridge, a ‘destination management organisation’ designed to drive tourism to the city.

The levers that many cities reach for when competing for the tourist £££ are based on persuading visitors how “buzzy” “vibrant” “dynamic” “creative” (supply your own cliches) the city is. Bizarrely, this leads them to adopt almost identical strategies. For example, the ‘Cows about Cambridge’ trail of decorated fibreglass cow sculptures, which is soon to be launched, is run by the same arts organisation which is also this summer overseeing elephant trails in Luton and Worcester; rams in Derby; hares in Southend; and rockets in Leicester.

In other words, there’s a formula that cities feel they need to apply to demonstrate these valuable qualities of vibrancy, dynamism etc, but that formula actually makes it harder for them to retain their own unique qualities!

Academics have noted this as a marketing problem: “The more attractive cities become as tourism destinations and the more experienced tourists become in consuming the experience of urbanity, the more difficult it is for cities to distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace.” (1)

But it’s also a big problem for the residents living in those cities. In 2019, the City Council acknowledged that the pressure of increased tourism on the city’s infrastructure is leading residents to stay away from the city centre. And now we have the market consultation…

The market consultation

This consultation, which runs until 7 July, asks for views on the City Council’s proposals to “transform the design, appearance and day, evening and night time use of this key city centre space, whilst being sensitive to its rich heritage value; and safeguarding the future of its daily local market”.

It has been widely criticised by the market traders. Among other things, they say that the new design for the market stalls (which have yet to be seen in the flesh) won’t be robust in bad weather, and that the proposals for regular events in Market Square will force them to shut their stalls early or perhaps not be able to trade at all in the run up to Christmas. They also very clearly state that they do not feel their views have been given adequate representation in the ‘stakeholder’ discussions until now.

The majority Labour group on the City Council, who are supportive of the proposals, respond that the proposals will “secure multi-million pound capital investment” which will improve conditions for the market traders as well as creating a space “befitting of the city’s profile and reputation as an international visitor, university and business destination.” Exec Cllr Rosy Moore spoke on the subject at last week’s Council meeting, and described the counter-proposal of a more modest refurbishment of the Market Square as a “missed opportunity”.

I’m sure there will be a wide variety of views on among residents. As ever, it’s important that people understand what’s going on and how they can have their say on this issue and I hope I’ve added to that here.

However, I also believe it’s important that people develop a deeper understanding of the forces operating on the council’s finances and how these shape the decisions which are taken. We are told that growth – be that of tourism, housing or employment – brings financial benefits to the city, including much-needed revenue to support council services. But we all know that growth comes at a cost to the environmental and community life of the city.

Are we striking the right balance? And whose interests are being prioritised? We are going to return time and again to these themes.


(1) Greg Richards (2014) ‘Creativity and tourism in the city’, Current Issues in Tourism, 17:2, 119-144

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Sam Davies

9 comments

  • It is such a pity to change the market square for a possible advantage. The Council are short of money…then they should do things which MUST be done. The new roundabout at Fendon Rd. is a case in point. It cost a fortune and seems to have little advantage to anyone. Tourists love Cambridge as it is …concentrate on keeping it very clean.

    • Hi Jill – Fendon Rd roundabout was a County Council project so the money spent on that was not the City Council’s decision. But certainly street cleaning falls within its remit. In the city centre, this is supplemented by the Cambridge BID (Business Improvement District) organisation, which charges businesses a levy to provide additional services: https://www.cambridgebid.co.uk/ Whether that BID mechanism is healthy for the city is another matter – it is certainly a major advocate of the ‘vibrant city’ agenda I described in the post.

  • Keep Cambridge Market as it is – nothing wrong with it. Tourists love authenticity, the quirky parts of a city, don’t sanatise the market so it looks like any market anywhere in the UK. As a tourist I like to visit market and pretty corners of a city away from the main sites.
    Your point about councillors not following the trend and not taking the traders view into account doesn’t surprise me – remember when they closed the market down due to COVID worries. That said, I do think the cobbles need a bit of a clean and the market could do with a bit of a tidy up. The council should be encouraging people to buy local produce to support a green campaign.

    If they are looking at using public spaces to make money, a German Style Christmas Market would be lovely . .. not in the market square. Ask the locals what they would like.

  • It would be nice to know more about the evening revenue opportunities that the market space could bring. Has someone been to the Flower Market in Rome? Or do they have somewhere else in mind? Maybe that market in Bombay which magically disappears every time a train runs through? Seeing we have trouble filling the Corn Exchange most evenings, it’s hard to visualise just what delights a re-engineered Market Place would bring that would keep tourists in Cambridge after 4pm.

    • This is a good point – I know that there’s some disquiet on the part of existing venues that their business might be harmed by this.

  • In some cities in Europe there is a tourist tax and free bus rides within a 10 mile radius

    This encourages tourists to explore further afield There will be surplus and this money is ploughed back into public services

    • Pre Covid the destination management organisation was called ‘Visit Cambridge and Beyond’ – I’m not sure how successful they were with the ‘and beyond’ element. I suspect, as you indicate, you’d need much better public transport options – and information – to make it viable.

  • Market Square desperately needs at least a face lift, if not more radical change. My reference for comparison is market squares abroad, particularly in Germany where the climate is similar and traffic issues are much the same. German city councils have been much bolder in restricting traffic from town centres, and this has been a successful approach, surprising the local traders who were convinced that it would lead to less trade. We need a genuinely traffic-free zone, including the market area. Closing off King’s Parade (at last) has helped, but there are too many narrow streets where traffic is still allowed, even if it consists mainly of taxis.
    As for the market itself, the ground surfaces need repair and the central fountain needs restoration. I am not convinced that “events” will magically produce an income stream. Not least, the public toilet facilities in the area would need to be increased and more (secure) bike parking would be necessary.
    It’s a problem, I admit, but this is an area which is central to the image of the city so the council will just have to give it some priority.

  • Thank you, Sam, for showing us how many sides there are to these issues. They are not just the simple yes/no decisions we are so often asked to endorse in public consultations questionnaires!
    I do not understood the lust for growth. If we cannot run the city on revenue from 100,000 residents/visitors, will it be any easier with 200,000 residents/visitors? As shown by the tourist figures you quote, doubling the number of tourists doubles the revenue, but what does it do to the costs (social/environmental/financial etc)? Do they go up or down?
    We need to make some fundamental changes to reduce the existing stresses on the system before we can contemplate adding to them.

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