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  • Writer's pictureJames Palmer

The case for the East - Our response to Government's plans for Cambridge

How unlocking Cambridge's growth potential can benefit the region

James Palmer, Chair, Eastern Powerhouse

"By any measure, Cambridge is an exceptional city; one that people are drawn to from across the world. Its reputation as a centre of educational enlightenment, innovation, and its extraordinary architecture has always brought the brightest minds to the city. In the 21st Century, Cambridge has broadened its attraction by becoming the leading life science and technology hub in Europe, with the potential to lead the world in the coming years. The next steps for the city are crucial." 

It has taken a long time for government to recognise Cambridge as the pre-eminent science and technology cluster in Europe, but it seems with the Case for Cambridge, there is hope for the future of the city and for the region.

I grew up less than 20 miles from Cambridge and it is, therefore, my home city. I have seen the city change completely from the one I knew as a young man, transformed from a university city with farming as the main industry to one where science and innovation has thrived. The breathtaking speed at which this has happened has caught government, councils and even the university itself on the back foot. Growth has exceeded the ability to plan for this and the consequent pressure on housing and transport, over many years, have contributed to making Cambridge the most unequal city in the UK. Indeed, the cost of housing has forced many Cambridge people to move north into the fens to find housing they can afford.

The solution put forward in the case for Cambridge is to establish a Development Corporation and I believe this is a great leap forward. However, this approach must be integrated with sub-regional housing and transport plans, to ensure all interested parties and authorities adhere to the same strategy. Lessons must be learned from the experience of the City Deal for the Greater Cambridge Partnership, which operated outside of the Combined Authority.

The leader of the Development Corporation must be chosen carefully. The perfect candidate must be able to liaise across multiple stakeholders, stand up to government, keep the university happy, embrace new technology, be mindful of the history and architecture of Cambridge, be sensitive to environmental issues, build homes that are architecturally outstanding, create a UK Silicon Valley and protect the natural environment in one of the finest cities on earth. By any measure, it will be a difficult role.

I am delighted to see that Land Value Capture is included in the document. Nowhere could benefit from LVC more than Cambridge and if there is to be development in the Greenbelt, it must be on this basis. The uplift in land value could pay for the infrastructure needed to link all parts of the city and beyond. Cambridge will need a high-quality public transport system that reaches into and beyond the rural villages of South Cambridgeshire and it is imperative that the remit for Cambridge includes the wider region.

The document talks about agglomeration but also suggests that Cambridge has the potential to nurture innovation and talent across the wider area to foster a broader cluster than Silicon Valley. This is a mixed message and one that needs to be properly defined. Cambridge has the potential to become the central hub of a burgeoning region. By upgrading rail routes to increase the regularity and speed of trains, Cambridge could grow its influence significantly. Polycentric growth should be the ambition, but the Case for Cambridge is too narrow in its thinking. It talks about Silicon Valley but doesn’t really grasp the comparison, the Bay area in San Francisco includes several settlements across 1,854 square miles. The case for Cambridge should be the case for the east.

My strong suspicion is that this document and government thinking has been heavily influenced by the Independent Economic Review, led by Dame Kate Barker. Before that excellent piece of work, the power of the Cambridge economy was not fully understood.


If there were an independent economic review for the east, as there has been in the north and the midlands, I believe the case for Cambridge would be even stronger.  A policy for polycentric growth, connecting cities, towns and villages in the region to the great university would provide the framework for accelerating this growth potential, and distributing the economic benefits more equitably across the region.


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