Our local government structures were not designed to deal with this intensity of town planning activities
What’s the point on having gleaming science parks if the local councils cannot afford to maintain the pot-holed roads that lead to them?
At the moment, Cambridge feels like it is under a speculative attack from international organisations looking for high returns from the life-sciences bubble. Furthermore, none of the professional services organisations nor Cambridge University and its member institutions have come up with comprehensive proposals for improving the structures and financial sustainability of our system of local government to deal with the complaints they have been making about Cambridge City Council’s planning services for years. I have not seen high profile, sustained calls from the consultancies and from senior University figures demanding that ministers provide local government in Cambridge with the powers and resources it needs to govern our city competently while meeting the needs of the people and the environment that make it what it is.
Cambridge is the UK’s most popular city according to the readers of one travel magazine for affluent people. And it is also the UK’s most unequal city. Something has gone badly wrong
“That’s right, travellers love Cambridge for its winding lanes, old buildings and notoriously good university. It’s also got great little cafés tucked down cobbled streets and some seriously nice walks. What more could you want?”Ella Doyle in Time Out Magazine, 07 Oct 2022
A socially-just and sustainable city?
“Behind the tourist’s view lie areas of deprivation. Cambridge is officially the UK’s most unequal city. The top 6% of earners who live there take home 19% of the total income generated, while the bottom 20% of the population account for just 2% of that total.”Donna Ferguson – The Guardian 12 Jan 2020
And Ms Ferguson was writing before the CV19 outbreak that resulted in the retail catastrophe that resulted in stores like Debenhams disappearing from our high street.
Cambridge’s unequal status is not something that is lost on this new generation of students. And University authorities would be mistaken if they thought their academics were aloof to this as well – the inequalities are hitting them as well, something reflected by their recent industrial action by Cambridge’s UCU branch.
The proposed new science parks
The ones that have been reported in the media are:
- The Beehive Centre
- The Grafton Centre (contrary to the Cambridge Local Plan)
- The East Cambridge Lakes
There are also a host of more speculative proposals also on the table (here’s my guide on how to scrutinise them), the most prominent being the extension of Trinity College’s Science Park – Cambridge Science Park North.
How do we avoid the risk of Cambridgeshire towns becoming dormitory towns for big hi-tech employment campuses?
This was a question I asked in an earlier blogpost here. This was way back in May 2021. (It’s now late October 2022). I also raised the question of Cambridge City Council’s town planning function – and its very low capacity. Ben Hatton reported on this back in 2019 and the problem has not gone away. I’ve tabled a public question for the next Planning & Transport Scrutiny Committee at Cambridge City Council (17th Jan 2023) asking if they’ve had any conversations with course providers on town planning. It’s also something I’ve asked the Combined Authority about. (Feel free to drop them an email here)
On Cambridge Science Park North, their 2019 document they submitted to the Greater Cambridge Planning Service – you can read it here <<– Click on “Vision Document”
Above – personally I’d like the potential country party to be and to form part of a wide land/nature bridge between the country park and King’s Hedges ward due to the lack of park land and green space for children and the community in what is one of our most economically-deprived wards in the county.
If you agree with the above and live in Cambridge or South Cambridgeshire, you can email your councillor to make the case for this via https://www.writetothem.com/ – noting that the need for a major park in North Cambridge has a long history.
There are proposals to turn that the Science Park North site into a country park – the Cambridge Nature Network told me on Saturday that this is what they are campaigning for.
Above – you can see that the site has not been designated as part of their vision (see the full map here) but when I put this to them at an event on Saturday they said this was one they are still working on.
My guess is that there will be some compromise between the land owner and the councils on how much of the site is re-wilded and how much is made available for the sci/tech sector. But again we still haven’t solved the issue of civic, transport, leisure, and environmental infrastructure.
One property sales brochure shows how much the bubble has grown.
“Cambridge rental growth is expected to surpass £50 psf in the city centre and £37.50 psf on Cambridge Science Park.
“Long Leasehold – 125 years commencing 25th March 1987 and
expiring in 2112, therefore 92 years unexpired at a peppercorn.
“Seeking offers in excess of £62,500,000, subject to contract and exclusive ofVia Bidwells here.
VAT. A purchase at this level reflects a NIY of 6.66% after allowing
standard purchasers costs, and a low capital value of £391 psf.“
“Where will the housing and transport go?”
This is one of the reasons why the Government needs a proper and well-thought through and evidenced industrial strategy. Which they don’t have. “Let the markets sort it” is their now discredited cry. Which is also why the report from Transport East on their consultation earlier this year will be important. Even though Transport East does not cover the city of Cambridge, it covers the towns east of Cambridge where many commuters live. There are further documents on their plans here. For example their Regional Evidence Base mentions Cambridge over 60 times (you can read it here – all 245 pages of it). You can see the awkward Cambridge-shaped gap in the maps such as the two below.
There’s also the issue of Freight – which inevitably crosses Cambridgeshire around Ely.
Above – successive governments have under-prioritised railfreight infrastructure as a policy area – in particular reducing road freight.
And electrifying things will be a task-and-a-half. As Gareth Dennis of Rail Magazine, and David Shires show.
Above – possibilities of electrification of railways.
“Why does electrification matter?”
Simply because we already have a housing shortage in and around Cambridge, and the existing local labour market cannot provide for the vacancies that will come with the construction of those science parks. Therefore the highly-skilled workforce will have to come from elsewhere in what is a very competitive international market.
“Wouldn’t it have been better to have invested in a life sciences hub in the north of England given the challenges they have there?”
That comes back to the core issue of a national industrial strategy. Had ministers of previous governments chosen this, Cambridge would probably have held its own while one of the northern regions would have benefited from much-needed urban renewal with the much larger capacity to absorb a new expanding economic sector. For example the greater number and areas of post-industrial brownfield sites versus Cambridge. Politicians like to talk up brownfield sites for town planning-related comments but seldom go into where these are distributed, and the land remediation costs that have to be met to get such sites in a state where the private sector is then prepared to invest in them. The fact that the private sector has already bought up Cambridge’s former town landfill sites for redevelopment speaks volumes about the high land prices for sites with the potential – even at huge remediation costs, for the science/tech sectors.
We’ve chosen to limit the expansion of Cambridge, so the only alternative is for people to commute in, or to set up science/tech parks in surrounding towns.
I’ll finish on this point with these three familiar-looking diagrams from local history.
- Thomas Sharp’s diagram from 1931 – the City-and-spokes model with a city protected by a green belt and linked to towns via road and rail. (He also wrote about Cambridge back in 1963 – you can read it here)
- Nathaniel Lichfield’s model the Cambridge sub-region from 1965 – which, less the rail links is almost a picture-perfect example of Sharp’s model in real life.
- A detail from Redcliffe-Maud’s proposal for administrative boundaries of a new Greater Cambridge Unitary Council. You can download the maps here, and/or read his summary here, and/or read the main report here.
Either way, the present structures do not suit anyone other than the speculators. Which is why the national political parties must be pressured into including manifesto commitments to overhauling local government structures and systems – and not just for Cambridge, but for the whole of England (note it’s a devolved issue for Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland).
Food for thought?
If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to: