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  • Writer's pictureResPublica

Cambridge - The need for a sustainable, low stress-high growth model


Cambridge is one of the UK’s most successful cities with a world-class reputation for education, research, and knowledge-based industries, including a thriving cluster of high-technology and bioscience companies based in and around the city.

This ongoing and evolving ‘Phenomenon’ which began in the early 1960s and has continued to widen the range of emerging technologies, has become vital to Britain's prosperity and the nation’s ability to compete at an international level.

Yet this economic success has come at a cost to many who live in the city and the wider region, with worsening housing affordability issues and widening income inequalities, impacting surrounding areas and making Cambridge the most unequal place to live in the UK. There are areas in the city where over 25% of households are living in poverty.

‘One Cambridge Fair for All’ is the City Council’s manifesto pledge to address the challenges which many people in the city face. But this ambition must also extent to the wider region and how the city can be a force for good growth in the East of England.


The resident population, of 125,000 is growing and forecast to reach 150,000 by 2031. The demographic profile is younger than the UK and Eastern region (the working age population is 69% in Cambridge compared with 60% in the East and 62% in the UK) and considerably higher skilled (63% of the working age population has a qualification at Level 4 and above, compared with 40% in the East and 44% in the UK).

Business growth

Cambridge also has a high rate of business formation heavily weighted towards knowledge intensive businesses (KIBs) and the application of ‘deep science’, with the largest share of patent applications in the UK (259 per 100,000 population compared with 18/100,000 nationally). Within 20 miles of Cambridge city centre there are over 5,000 KIBs that were started and are still based in the area accounting for nearly 30% of all employees. These firms, alongside the institutional assets located in the city are responsible for attracting inward investment from international corporations into the region.

Challenges and opportunities

1. Future development

Cambridge is a small under bounded city with limited space for housing development or employment sites to accommodate further population and business growth. The footprint of the city is expanding - it is estimated that by 2051 Cambridge and South Cambridge, which encircles it, could be the size of Sheffield - but the issue is whether Cambridge and its surrounding areas can manage the strains of further accelerated growth.

The demand for housing is outpacing supply. Average houses prices, at 12.4 times greater than the average annual wage, are not affordable to many, including university lecturers. This is forcing people to move further from the city and their workplace. Huntingdonshire has been a net recipient of people moving from Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire. But as places gentrify and prices continue to increase, there is a further movement of people northwards to Peterborough, Fenland and South Kesteven.

This movement places further strain on transport infrastructure. The number of people who work and live in the city is declining, forcing more than 50,000 workers to commute along already congested transport routes at ever declining speeds. Cambridgeshire has the slowest speeds on A-Roads in the country.

Transitioning to a sustainable, low stress-high growth model will be the major challenge. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review identified that if grow on space, and appropriate infrastructure investments for knowledge-based businesses are not provided then these firms will be forced to leave the UK.

However, uncertainty over the East-West rail line and the status of the Oxford to Cambridge ARC, the abolition of the metro-system for Cambridge, and further delays to the proposed Cambridge South Station, all threaten this vision for sustained high growth.

Meeting these needs must be a priority for the city and the region. This can only be achieved via close cooperation between Cambridge, neighbouring authorities, the Mayoral Combined Authority and national government.

2. Spatial planning

It is vitally important that Cambridge continues to function as an international centre for research and innovation. These types of business clustered in and around the city are unique to the UK and can only be found in a small number of places around the world. The growth of these clusters is essential to the region and the UK’s economy and must be developed within the principles of proximity, co-location and agglomeration.

The two most significant corridors for Cambridge are the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc, and The UK Innovation Corridor/London– Stansted– Cambridge-Consortium. These reflect existing economic connections and future untapped potential. However, a wider spatial strategy must also consider how places, around Cambridge, which currently don’t benefit from high growth, can do so. The inclusiveness of growth must be a vital spatial consideration in future development. If this is not achieved, inequalities within the city and between different parts of the region will exacerbate.

A pattern of development that allows for highly dispersed growth in all directions will not optimise the benefits to the city or the region. What is required, as the Cambridge Futures Work identifies, is a model that can consider the interaction between land use and transportation, to allow for various factors, such as where businesses locate, and where people want to live in. Spatial strategies will need to consider a blended approach to include:

  • Greater densification of housing in the city incorporating high and mid-rise development (Cambridge is currently the least densely populated city in the UK)

  • Development of the city’s urban fringe which can expand and concentrate the cities footprint into the surrounding district (requiring strategic reviews of the greenbelt); and

  • Development along the cities key transport corridors, to focus on developing jobs and housing along transport corridors which radiate out north, south, east and west along bus, tram, or train links that can provide rapid transit between Cambridge and Peterborough, Norwich and Ipswich, while helping to connect smaller market towns and villages in between.

3. Skills and education

Cambridge has a highly skilled and qualified population, compared to the region and nationally. The proportion of pupils achieving 9-4 grades in Maths and English at GCSE (81%) is also significantly above the national average (72.2%) and most other cities in the UK.

There are, however, areas within the city, and more generally beyond the city, where low skills are contributing to relatively low wages, with earnings below the regional and national average. The government’s agenda to develop new universities in higher education cold spots, like the new Anglia Ruskin University in Peterborough, will help to address this situation.

But there is more that can be achieved by ensuring that educational success is not confined or concentrated within a small area, with little observable benefit to those outside of it. Expanding the civic role of the university in Cambridge for the benefit of society, so that it is more rooted in place, and actively seeking to benefit communities beyond its very own, would have a transformational effect on the wider region.


Cambridge is already addressing specific challenges in terms of housing, transport congestion and clean air. In the longer term, working with Government, strategies for future economic growth should focus on making the city more affordable for local residents, but also providing tangible opportunities for communities in the wider region so that they too can benefit from high growth in the local economy.


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