Academic researchers working on the future of Cambridge cannot ignore Politics in their recommendations

Furthermore, the prominent names associated with large institutions (whether Cambridge University-related or private sector) should not assume that local councillors are willing to take the political or mental health hit on their behalf for policies they won’t pitch to the residents of our city themselves.

I’m not entirely sure when the Cambridge Economic Bonfire article was published – sometime after 2018, but possibly before the Combined Authority’s Climate Report. It was written by Dr Louise Walsh. My remarks are aimed at the institutions, not the author of this particular piece. This just happens to be one of many case studies about the future of the city of Cambridge that I could have used.

“Business, enterprise and employment are flourishing in Greater Cambridge. But housing and infrastructure are struggling to match the jobs boom, and gaps in social equality keep widening.”

Dr Louise Walsh – How to tend an economic bonfire

Dr Walsh quotes Matthew Bullock, the former Master of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge (2014-19) extensively at the start of her article. Mr Bullock is one of the founders of Cambridge Ahead, the high profile business lobby group whose list of members you can see here. Some of you may also recall that he was the Chief Executive of the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society during the Keydata collapse in the late 2000s, the result of which ended in the building society merging with the Yorkshire Building Society.

The reason why I mention this other than it’s all on public record is because of the recent concept of “The CV of failures” as described here.

“The concept behind the CV of failures was originally published in Nature by Melanie Stefan as a way to break down the shame surrounding failure and encouraging us to share openly to inspire others to become more resilient”

Mr Bullock’s page doesn’t mention what was a very high profile corporate failure at the end of his career either on the CA page or on the St Edmund’s page, yet the lessons he must have learnt from that must have been huge – ones that other large organisations may well be able to learn from. This is something that The Institute for Government is trying to tease out of former ministers in their Ministers Reflect series to encourage former ministers to identify policy failures under their own watch as a means to improve policy-making in the future. For all of the biographies and memoirs written by politicians, Westminster is not known for being strong on learning from past historical failings.

“On whose behalf are you speaking?”

Because of the myriad of networks, forums, partnerships and committees that are dotted around the city, sometimes it’s very difficult to pin down who is speaking on behalf of whom. One of the reasons why I’ve rejected approaches to stand as a party political candidate at elections is because I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s opinions, and I don’t want someone else to feel responsible for mine – in particular if they disagree with them! Things get messy otherwise – as the Greater Cambridge Partnership found out in one of its Citizens’ Assemblies in 2019. This featured Alex Plant – briefly my director during my civil service days just before I moved to London (where he had just come back from), before he moved into local government and then into the water industry where he’s about to start at Scottish Water.

As director of strategy and regulation at Anglian Water, he clearly had a corporate interest in the future of Cambridge’s economy – not least because of the firm’s statutory duties on all things sewage processing and disposal. Furthermore he was also involved in Cambridge Ahead because his now former employer is a member. Furthermore, he was also on the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Economic Commission – and on that with good reason having been a former civil servant at The Treasury – working experience very very few people get to have.

“Question: how are all of these interests held accountable?”

This is one of the reasons why for the recent city council elections my proposals for a radically empowered unitary council for Cambridge & surrounding towns & villages the equivalent of a local public accounts committee similar to what Ed Hammond of the CfGS wrote here. That way any proposals that come from executives in large and influential organisations can be cross-examined in public – with the latter being able to suggest questions for such local committees to put to those appearing before them.

“But success often comes at a price. The agglomerative benefits that have brought new and innovative businesses towards the economic heat of this ‘bonfire’ have also brought soaring house prices, social inequality and congested roads.”

Dr Louise Walsh

Are those making their fortunes in Cambridge bearing the burden of those negative externalities to the extent that the impact is at least eased significantly? And if not, why not? It’s something I had a look in the context of the sewage scandal back in November 2021 when I must have been going through an angry phase because a few weeks later I was in Addenbrooke’s having had a heart attack.

Does Greater Cambridge have the right governance structure to give the people who make up our city (including the commuters from the villages outside, and the regular visitors, as well as the students and long term residents) the best chance of addressing the big future challenges, including the biggest of all, the climate emergency?”

Cambridge Town Owl 02 Nov 2021

Which is a different question to responding to the challenges of growth – or even having a desire to maximise the growth and profits.

“Cambridge Futures led to key proposed developments – such as the West Cambridge site, Eddington and the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. This sent a very big signal that Cambridge was open for growth.”

Dr Louise Walsh quoting Matthew Bullock

Given that the Cambridge Futures reports were written between 1999-2003, why was there a massive governance and public policy failure to ensure that the necessary housing, transport, utilities, arts, sports, and leisure infrastructure was planned for, funded, and put in place at the same time?

Because at the moment we’ve repeated all of the same mistakes of previous generations.

“Such as?”

***Anglian Water imposes embargo on new building work due to lack of sewage treatment capacity*** [Cambridge 1974]

And one of them was from half a century ago when Anglian Water – then a nationalised industry, put an embargo that lasted several years on new house building in and around Cambridge because the sewage works at Milton did not have the capacity to cope.

Above – Cambridge Evening News 25 Sept 1974, from the British Newspaper Archive.

The ban remained in place for a good few years.

Above – Cambridge Evening News 14 Dec 1976 in the British Newspaper Archive

We have seen how controversial things like the sewage scandal turned out to be in the local elections earlier this month (May 2023). The long-since privatised water companies did not invest nearly enough into their sewage treatment capacity or sewer pipe capacity, resulting in horrific scenes across the country. The result? It wasn’t just Labour and the Liberal Democrats that rinsed the politically; it was the Greens too – to such an extent that not only did the latter increase their total council seats by nearly 50%, they secured control of their first ever local council – in Mid Suffolk not far from Cambridge.

““The hard to predict includes political votes, large individual investments and breakthroughs of critical technologies such as autonomous driving,” says Jin.”

Dr Louise Walsh quoting Dr Ying Jin, from the Department of Architecture who built the LUISA model which looks at future working, living and travelling in and around Greater Cambridge.

Very few people would have predicted the sort of gains that came from The Green Party – one that is very much against the sort of economic growth that senior Conservative politicians have been supporting since Margaret Thatcher’s Government.

The problem is that unless academics and senior lobbying figures are out on the front line having their findings, opinions and lobbying policies cross-examined by the public, they risk being oblivious to one of the biggest risks of their proposals being implemented: The lack of a democratic legitimacy.

“Bullock is optimistic: “People understand what the issues are now. There’s an easing in the tension about growth in Cambridge and a better understanding of the different economies across the region that the Combined Authority can now shape.”

Dr Louise Walsh quoting Matthew Bullock

The problem was that governance issues were already emerging in the Combined Authority – ones that came out into the open in July 2020 as John Elworthy wrote at the time. The Combined Authority has been beset by governance problems almost since its inception – hence my call to abolish that institution as well and be done with it.

Furthermore, since Dr Walsh’s article was published, we went through the pandemic lockdowns – the pandemic still not having gone away. That has had an impact on public perceptions, perspectives, and priorities – in particular on the importance of inclusive communities and access to open green spaces.

“A sense of community in the local area and work-life balance emerged as more important in affecting overall QOL when survey respondents thought about a time during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic or future levels.”

Perspectives on factors most affecting quality of life in Greater Cambridge – Rand Europe

One of Rand Europe’s researchers, Eliane Dufresne, led a team in interviewing a host of people on the factors that most affect quality of life in Greater Cambridge in a report commissioned by Cambridge Ahead. You can read it here.

Has the tension around growth eased as Mr Bullock claimed? Absolutely not – well not from my viewpoint anyway. Go back to 2019 and recall the climate emergency protests led by the children and young people. Look at the strikes from a host of public sector workers who are essential to the functioning of our city. Skilled workers in our healthcare sectors are voting with their feet – being recruited by countries such as Australia who offer far better terms and conditions than in Broken Brexit Britain.

At a recent Queen Edith’s Forum meeting, members of the public raised the scenario of an under-resourced and under-funded Addenbrooke’s Hospital crumbling in the face of the gleaming privately-funded science labs because ministers had chosen repeatedly to under-tax the economic bubble in and around Cambridge to fund our essential services and infrastructure. At that same event, Dr Andy Williams – also part of Cambridge Ahead, stated (in a personal capacity) that Cambridge’s governance structures could not handle the sci/tech boom.

“Places like Cambridge are among the fastest-growing cities that are suffering the growing pains of a lack of good-quality infrastructure and enough affordable housing to tackle the issue of social inclusivity.”

Dr Louise Walsh quoting Professor Pete Tyler, from the Department of Land Economy

The problem is that one of the major contributors towards the lack of social inclusivity in Cambridge past and present is the very institution that Dr Walsh and Professor Tyler are employed by.

That may sound like a cheap shot, but it’s one at the institution, not at the individuals. We know that a critical mass of academics employed by the University of Cambridge have huge issues with the University of Cambridge and its colleges because of the industrial action being taken by the Universities and Colleges Union members in Cambridge. (It’s not for me to speculate who is/is not a member, only to note that the fact that the strikes and collective union actions are taking place is a matter of public record and a major symptom of dissatisfaction between employees and employer).

Dr Louise Walsh ***almost*** nails one of the big governance issues…but not quite!

“It’s impossible to tell a story about city adjustment without thinking about what will happen to the resource base. Local areas have little fiscal capacity and rely on discretionary finance from central government to put in more infrastructure.”

Dr Louise Walsh quoting Professor Pete Tyler, from the Department of Land Economy

This is where Prof Tyler (in my opinion as local keyboard warrior and former failed independent election candidate…) and others need to speak out about our city’s broken governance system. It’s not like they’ve not got the Political cover to do so.

With my very politically partial view of how Cambridge is governed (261 residents of Queen Edith’s Ward – which Homerton College sits with, agreed with me), how Cambridge and Cambridgeshire are governed need a radical overhaul. One thing that University of Cambridge researchers can do is to commission/undertake projects that explore past, present, and possible future systems of governance and report back in time for their findings to be debated before the next general election. (Maybe Cambridge alumni can encourage them?) That way, their research has a greater chance of both informing the local public debate and national public policy too.

The opportunity is theirs to take. It’s up to them to take it.

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:

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