Cambridge University’s proposed Enterprise Zone in life & physical sciences – what they miss

You can read the brochure here

I’m feeling particularly vanquished and washed out at present, awaiting test results to see if I’ve got moderate Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and basically give up all hope of a future that various people and institutions told me I’d have many moons ago. (The CV19 tests I’ve done have both come back negative).

Above – exhausted eyes.

In the vlogpost for the University of Cambridge Library’s Covid Diaries Project that I recorded today I look and sound even worse!

Their strapline is Connect: Health Tech #jointhedots

So ironically they have gone and missed out a number of essential larger – and I think more important dots that could make or break the very ecosystem they seek to build.

The Climate Emergency – It’s here. Now.

Whether you look at the floods sweeping Germany – 120 dead at the last count, to the heat dome covering the US & Canada, the climate crises that we perhaps only saw in far-away countries has now arrived despite decades of warnings. Germany of all places, which was supposed to have been the example to aspire to, has taken a huge hit, with towns and fields washed away in the deluge.

Where is all the water going to come from?

The proposed expansion is going nowhere if they don’t have the water to supply to all of those extra homes that will be needed to house the people working in the cluster. And at present Cambridge is already a water-stressed area, with the aquifer already being used beyond its capacity. Where will the additional water come from to supply the new laboratories and built environment? Have they consulted with the University’s experts in this field? Is The University putting funding and resources into the problems on its own doorstep? This is an issue that comes back every few generations – whether it was Eglantyne Jebb in the early 1900s, the Cambridge Preservation Society in the inter-war era, to today’s generation of student activists in the Cambridge Hub.

The democratic deficit

At least until the 1970s the presence of University council seats on Cambridge City Council meant that nominally the representatives of the University could be questioned by local councillors. But the way the brochure covers local government makes it read as a buzzword to be included in a tick-box list of ‘stakeholders’ rather than giving some substantive insight into the roles that local government will play – because it has multiple roles that including being a champion for the local economy, critical friend in terms of the future direction of the city, and possibly as an opponent if the proposals have too great a detrimental impact on the lives of residents.

In one sense, the democratic deficit is not their problem. Local government in England is structurally broken, and we saw more evidence of this locally with the approval of the Greater Cambridge Busways Project despite the local election results. My view remains that a unitary council for Cambridge on the boundaries similar to the old Cambridge County, along with a refresh of legal and financial powers that a nationwide review of local government could give, would enable local government to meet the University as an equal, rather than as an impoverished and fragmented group of bodies.

Above – the old Cambridge County in pale red, showing the 1945 boundaries. From a history of local government in Cambridge from 1835-1959.

Further questions they need to consider

How does the proposed University Enterprise Zone sit within the University’s ecosystem of organisations and alliances?

How does the University and all of its organisations fit into the functioning of both the City of Cambridge, and of Greater Cambridge and Cambridgeshire generally?

What are the limiting factors to their ambitions? (What and who can stop them?) These include:

  • Consent from the people (local political limitations)
  • Consent from central government (easy to take for granted)
  • Constraints from land – Cambridge has a Green Belt that people are willing to fight for
  • Constraints from water – Again, where will the water come from?
  • Constraints on fuel – gas and electricity
  • Constraints on waste – the City Council is already adopting the principles of Doughnut Economics, and a new city group has been founded.

All of the above asks the very serious question of how the economy of which the University Enterprise Zone is going to be part of, going to fit within an ecosystem to the extent that it does not damage the lives and prosperity of future generations?

Because questions are already being asked in South Cambridge about the future vision of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus by Cllr Sam Davies (Ind – Queen Edith’s). And that was following her receiving the biggest number of votes in the recent Cambridge City Council elections, gaining more votes than any other candidate in the city. Without a party political ticket.

Note previous University schemes have fallen through in the distant past. Such as the Three Towers proposed in 1960. This was for the New Museums Site – see here for how they would have ruined King’s College from The Backs. They were never built.

Best to work constructively and collaboratively – in particular at design and concept stages, with the people of Cambridge, rather than against them. It’s our city too.

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