Huntingdonshire - Regenerating town centres and improving public transport
Huntingdonshire is the largest district in Cambridgeshire. Based around the four market towns of Huntingdon, Ramsey, St Ives, and St Neots, linked to a large number of villages, hamlets, and isolated dwellings across 80 parishes.
Huntingdon, the historic ‘county’ town, is approximately mid-way between Cambridge and Peterborough on the A14 and has a mainline train station with direct links to London and the north.
Huntingdonshire has a population of 178,000 equally distributed between rural and urban settlements. The population is slightly older than average, with 14.8% of the district’s residents over 70 compared to 13.4% nationally. Health and life expectancy are better than average, with 84.5% describing their health as ‘Very Good’/ ‘Good’ in the 2011 Census.
Huntingdonshire is more than a dormitory district for neighbouring authorities. It has a relatively strong, stable economy worth £10 Billion per annum. Working age residents are more likely to be economically active and more likely to be in employment than average. However, local jobs tend to pay lower wages as reflected in commuting patterns with over a third of employed residents travelling outside the district to work, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A high proportion of local employment is linked to the manufacturing industry at nearly 15% compared to a national average of just over 8%, supporting over 10,500 manufacturing jobs – 12% of the workforce. This sector is responsible for £2.7 Billion of economic output per year. Alongside a sizable representation in construction, utilities and wholesale sectors Huntingdonshire also has a diverse breadth of innovative, higher value industries including world class design, research and development, with a 20% increase of Knowledge Intensive businesses since 2013. The area is home to a multitude of international businesses including the likes of ABB, Bosch, Hotel Chocolat and Xaar as well as thriving base of small to medium size enterprises.
Challenges and opportunities
1. Place development
The local authority is currently developing a place strategy that considers the unique features of location, future growth, and technological advancements that will impact on how Huntingdonshire functions as a place to live and work. This will be important in connecting disparate parts of the county to one another and to the wider region.
There is considerable scope for the future development of innovative business growth with a number of business parks in the district. The Alconbury Enterprise Campus, located between the global innovation hub of Cambridge and the environmental services cluster of Peterborough, provides the space for cutting-edge manufacturers and low carbon companies to locate and grow. This will help provide the sites and premises for expansion of new spin-outs and company start-ups from Cambridge University/Science Park and its unique cluster of the technology firms, as well as the housing development that will allow people to access affordable homes and employment opportunities along this route.
Alconbury is also part of a wider development which includes plans for homes, schools, retail, and community facilities as well as a major transport hub. This will help to take the pressure off overheated parts of the housing market to provide accessible, affordable housing in the region. Last year, Huntingdon, with average house prices of £300k and within 1 hour of St Pancras, was named as one of the top five towns Londoners should move to by the London housing assembly.
The integrated place strategy will articulate the ambitions and aspirations of residents and businesses to improve declining high streets and town centres across the district. The successful bid for the Future High Street Fund to invest in St Neots is an ambitious programme to regenerate a number of local places in the town centre, providing greater access to the riverside, improving the public realm and visitor experience. Programmes for the other three towns will also be developed.
2. Skills and education
Huntingdonshire has a relatively lower skilled population, compared to the region and nationally. The working age population with high level qualifications (NVQ4 and above) is low (37.6%) compared with the East (39.5%) and nationally (43.5%). Low skills are contributing to a relatively low waged economy, with earnings (£589.20) below the regional (628.60) and national average (613.10).
In addition to the Huntingdon campus of the Cambridge Regional College, the new Anglia Ruskin University, which opens in Peterborough this September, will help to improve the skills of the local workforce to meet local economic needs. The challenge for Huntingdonshire will be to understand the gaps in provision and the educational cold spots where residents cannot easily access the assess training they need. This provision will need to be aligned with the specific skill needs of local businesses and ensure a better match between the supply and demands for skills training including upskilling and reskinning requirements in the major industries of the local economy.
3. Transport and connectivity
Beyond its physical geography, the district has three distinct economic geographies - Greater Cambridge, Greater Peterborough, and the Fens. But it also sits within the OxCam Arc, home to 2 million jobs and £111 Billion of Economic Output. Greater connectivity between its constituent parts and along growth corridors will be vital to future prosperity.
Huntingdonshire has strong transport connections via road and rail connectivity with fast links to London, the Midlands, the North, east coast ports and more locally to Cambridge and Peterborough. The completion of the new A14, has the potential to power further economic growth, moving goods more quickly while freeing up the new A1307 for local traffic, which will help serve business parks in St Ives, Godmanchester and Huntingdon. The planned upgrade to the A428 extension, designed to improve journeys from Milton Keynes to Cambridge sits within the development area of the CAM-OX ARC. The next stage of the A141 at St Ives will further improve road infrastructure.
However, stronger road networks fuel dependency on car travel. Longer term capacity improvements to local public transport are needed to support access to opportunities in the local economy as well as improved active transport routes for walking and cycling. Improved connectivity in public transport can not only help more residents access higher paid employment in Huntingdonshire and the wider region but it can also ease the negative and environmentally damaging effects of congestion. The decision by the Mayoral Combined Authority to scrap the Cambridge Autonomous Metro will require an alternative proposal for a fully integrated, greener, countywide transport system, while threats to the CAM-OX-ARC project will also limit development in this direction. Plans for a major new road, the Expressway, linking the two cities were dropped in 2021, although the East-West rail link is still going ahead.
Advancing digital infrastructure will also be important to business growth, underpinning the whole of economy. Building on the free public WiFi, that has been provided in all four towns with support from Connecting Cambridgeshire, 5G and full fibre must now be the aspiration for the district in all settings to ensure that rural business and homeworkers are not left behind.
Huntingdonshire has many features that are attractive to developers both from a commercial and residential perspective, with relatively affordable housing, good road connectivity and a number of high-profile and strategic locations across the district which have the potential to unlock significant economic growth in the region. The ambition to further regenerate town centres and to improve public transport is a priority for the district. It will also be important to develop further linkages to the Cambridge economy and how this interaction can stimulate higher value growth.