Dr Andy Williams [formerly] of AstraZeneca demonstrated Cambridge’s governance structure cannot handle the sci-tech boom

Around 50 of us rocked up to the AGM of the Queen Edith’s Community Forum – one of the wards on the southern edge of Cambridge that has seen rapid growth in more ways than one during my lifetime in and around the neighbourhood.


I was on filming duties for the first gathering since the first lockdown of 2020 and turns out I had forgotten half the settings on my camcorder that a grant from the CFCI many moons ago had acquired for me to film such meetings. So I’ve spent the past four hours trying to rescue and publish something useful from the evening! It’ll be a few days before the full playlist is ready.

“Where’s our pavilion damn you?!?”

This is what happens when institutions end up in a mindset of ‘capital spending good, revenue/administrative spending bad’. All too often departmental and organisational budgets become ‘capital heavy’ and money that could otherwise be allocated to permanent administrative staff are bundled into project costs involving bringing in outside staff who again, all too often either end up costing more or who don’t have the job security that otherwise comes with being a permanent member of staff in an organisation.

The problem with the Nightingale Rec saga (See Cllr Sam Davies here) is that Cambridge City Council were able to allocate some capital spending for the pavilion, but no revenue funding for anyone to staff it. This is what happens when Central Government cuts your grant from the Treasury (which had been built up over time after previous generations realised that local property-based taxes and rates could never meet the costs of comprehensive public services). Furthermore, the failure of successive Chancellors of the Exchequer to overhaul local government finances has meant that greater burdens of council revenues come from a very regressive council tax that clobbers people on lower incomes while barely touching those most affluent.

Now, imagine having a debate about trying to work out which voluntary organisation or community volunteers might staff the place, followed by a presentation about the future planned expansion of one of the biggest biomedical parks in Europe – something that has sparked a speculative bubble in and around Cambridge.

“What happened to the old 2020 vision?”

I wrote about it here a couple of years ago. Dr David Skinner of Anglia Ruskin University who was also there and will be doing some site tours later in the spring, is doing some research about the community engagement aspects of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. I mentioned to him that this would make for a useful extended project for students to compare the 2020 vision’s statements from the late 1990s (when it was published – see the links in here) and compare them with what we have today. What was fulfilled? What was missed out? What failed? And why?

The simple reason is public-policy-land is (or at least was in my day) notoriously bad at evaluating policies. Picture the scene. You’re a high-flying civil servant in your mid-late 20s. Everything is all very exciting and you’ve just been thrown into a new public policy area that is just about to publish a White Paper and have some new legislation tabled in Parliament at the same time. You don’t have time to think or breathe. Everything is going at breakneck speed because your ministers wanted everything done ages ago because they might be due a promotion and want to have something to say for it! That was me (sort of) 15+ years ago. Everything is new and shiny, and who wants to go through old stuff from failed politicians anyway?

Actually, it was the long-serving civil servants – not necessarily the most senior ones either, who kept me in line. They had seen it all before. I quickly learnt that they were worth more than their weight in gold and often passed things in front of them just to get their take. Basically if you get students in the social and political sciences into the habit of evaluating past policies – especially close to where they are living &/or studying, it stands them in good stead for the future.

Did ideological contempt for the public sector / adoration for the private sector result in the catastrophic failure to construct sound systems of governance, oversight, and democratic accountability?

One of the things Dr Williams mentioned was the failure of previous governments to built the necessary infrastructure needed for previous expansions. Cambridge South railway station has been long called for over the decades. I mentioned the cases of the two sixth form colleges recently, both of which massively expanded in the 1990s (I lived through it as a full time student at one, and then a part-time student at the other before heading off to Brighton in autumn 1999). Austerity under John Major and Norman Lamont/Ken Clarke meant that the transport infrastructure amongst other things simply was not there for the teenagers. As a result, the more affluent ones (or the ones with more affluent parents) got their offspring new cars and Queen Edith’s became a battle ground between residents and sixth form students for the next quarter of a century until a new system of residential parking was brought in.

That’s not to say Labour got it right either – recall John Prescott’s promise of an integrated public transport system within ten years of a Labour Government? Again, there’s a project or three there as to why Labour failed to deliver on what was a very ambitious policy objective.

‘A small city with a global brand governed like a market town’

It is a phrase I am going to come back to over and over again because for me this is one of the biggest weaknesses of the future of Cambridge – whether the University of, our city, or the economic sub-region – or all three. It is the biggest fault line that is conspicuous by its absence in the public, corporate, and academic discourse. Michael Gove’s dismissal of the report Governing England by the Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Select Committee resulted in the Secretary of State being hauled back before irritated MPs to account for the lack of substance in his department’s response. All too often the business sectors have taken whatever structure has been given to them rather than challenging ministers on behalf of the cities and the societies they are located within, demanding better systems of governance, more equitable and fairer systems of taxation that ensure more than the essential basic public services are properly funded, and a built environment with easy links to the countryside that our societies quite rightly demand.

The inequalities have now become so great as to be insulting

I was astonished to find how quickly The Perse managed to get its plans for a new private swimming pool in South Cambridge approved so quickly while the University of Cambridge continues to drag its heels over the long overdue swimming pool for its sports centre that was supposed to be open to the public. (See my blogpost from July 2021). Furthermore, in response to a(nother) PQ from myself, councillors on Cambridge City Council confirmed that unless someone acquires the Milton Road Garage site, there’s no chance of that being allocated for a much-needed swimming pool for North Cambridge – despite my pleas here. In the meantime, the Frank Lee Centre remains out-of-bounds – and in anycase is long overdue a massive expansion given the huge growth in the numbers of staff eligible for membership.

“Won’t there be some community use?”

That’s what one headline says re The Perse, but I cannot find the community use agreement with Cambridge City Council. (Search https://applications.greatercambridgeplanning.org/online-applications/ and either Ref: 22/00922/FUL or the postcode CB2 8QF to see all of their planning applications, only the expensive consultants’ reports make for interesting reading and should really be archived and publicised for the rest of us to access when it comes to assessing future needs of our city for sports, arts, and leisure.

Things like this matter because the above-report slams the University of Cambridge over their delays.

“The University of Cambridge have [sic] been planning a pool for a long time and it is still not clear when it will be built. The University is currently at master planning stage of providing a new 8 lane 25m swimming pool. This will still leave insufficient water space in Cambridge City and there is no certainty if or when this will be delivered.”

Perse School – Demand for School and Community Use New Sports Hall and Swimming Pool
December 2021
. In https://applications.greatercambridgeplanning.org/online-applications/ Ref: 22/00922/FUL under the ‘documents’ tab. Keyword search ‘Community’ and scroll down.
“How is an under-staffed, under-resourced, district-level council supposed to keep up with all of this?”

I have not a clue.

One of the things I wanted to put to Dr Williams and everyone else was about city and region-level facilities given the size of the biomedical campus. A new conference centre was mentioned – and is something that I believe is worth consideration. The problem is that they should have planned for this ***ages ago*** for either Cambridge North or Cambridge South Stations, with the station entrances spilling out onto a square with the main conferencing venue being across the square, and looking like a real magnificent local landmark. Not the mediocrity designs Brookgate and chums have been cursing our city with. Which reminds me – I’ve been that angry middle-aged bloke in the media again.

“At this rate the authors of Hideous Cambridge will need to write a second edition!”

Antony Carpen to the Cambridge Independent, 29 March 2023

Given the rail access the site will have, what’s in it for the residents of the villages along the railway lines out to Harlow on the Liverpool Street, London line, and out to Hitchin on the King’s Cross route? Also mindful that there are still quite a few of us campaigning for a re-opened rail link to Haverhill.

The final comment by Dr Williams I thought was the most interesting – and it was where he indicated his support for the OxCamArc as was.

His point was that Cambridge was too small to cope with the huge interest from all over the world. Therefore something needs to be done to spread that investment around – eastwards towards Norwich, and westwards towards Milton Keynes, Oxford and beyond. The problem is building all of the science parks and the associated housing, transport, and other infrastructure won’t come cheap – and will have a massive environmental burden on it. On top of that, we come back to our broken governance structures at a local level, and the massive imbalances across England’s economy generally. Levelling up is too feeble a policy approach to dealing with it – essentially a traditional civil-service-designed programme enabling ministers to get some positive press coverage as they hand out small sums to impoverished communities that have been absolutely wrecked by a decade of incompetence in high public office by senior politicians and ex-Cabinet Ministers that should know far better than to ask for megabucks on the side while still serving as MPs.

Food for thought at 3.35am?

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:

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