Blog – Thoughts on the Cambridge and Peterborough Independent Economic Review (CPIER)

The CPIER Final Report was published in September by the Cambridge and Peterborough Independent Economic Commission, with some local publicity.  It has been long awaited, and the Cambridge Commons made some efforts to submit its views to the report.  The final report is 136 pages long, and this comment is based on a quick analysis – the full report is available to anyone interested at http://www.cpier.org.uk/final-report/.  The Commission itself hopes to “continue to serve”, presumably at the behest of the new mayor.

 

The review considered evidence (facts, ideally), in the context of its briefing, and came to conclusions and recommendations.  I propose to discuss briefly the evidence/facts, then the apparent brief, then the conclusions.  I’ll then offer some subjective comments.

 

The report gives an overview of the area under consideration – and notes there are three fundamentally different areas: Greater Cambridge , Peterborough, and The Fens.  These are in fact very different in character; Greater Cambridge bears comparison with for example Oxford, Milton Keynes and parts of London; Peterborough is a market city with some industrialisation comparable with many other depressed cities; and the Fens as an agricultural area are really part of a continuum spreading at least from Lincolnshire to Norfolk.  Although there is an effort to regard the area as “a microcosm of England”, in reality considering them together because of the historic accident of the county borders is a political fix, an effort to average out a region of sharp contrasts.  This is probably the greatest weakness of this project, and of the whole “regional Mayor” and devolution settlement idea as applied here.  (In one section it is acknowledged that considering the three regions together for, for example, infrastructure planning, is only realistic in the rather long term.)

 

That said, the report gives what seems a reasonable canter through the history and current situation of the region, showing population areas, employment types, commuting paths, local politics.  It shows the extraordinary growth of Cambridge as a “Knowledge Industry” (KI) centre.   Peterborough also has its commercial strengths; manufacturing industry (especially the Caterpillar R&D centre and plant), and back offices for insurance companies and the life, and the Fens have some of Britain’s best agricultural land, at least until all the top soil blows away, or global warming floods it!

 

Housing, inequality and social issues are discussed at length in what seems a measured manner; there is no effort in my mind to gloss over the problems of the area, although they probably aren’t highlit as a campaigning organisation like ours would pefer.  Cambridge is famously unequal, but equally very affluent; other regions are more equal because there are less rich people, not less poor people.  Of course Cambridge’s situation is particularly bad for people who can’t afford housing in the area, a consequence of the inequality.  More generally, problems of infrastructure are also discussed – transport, but also power supply, water, digital connectivity, health and social care, education, climate change and so on.  There are a lot of useful facts and statistics in this report.

 

The brief of the Commission isn’t obviously spelt out in the report, but a telling point made more than once is that:

“Economic growth is also the basis for the devolution contract between central government and the area. As part of the settlement for extra powers received by Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the area committed to doubling its economic output (as measured by Gross  Value Added (GVA)) over the following 25 years. The Mayor has asked the Commission to look at this target, to assess how it should be measured, and how it can be delivered.”

 

The implication of this is that the Commission took the implied need for an average 2.88% growth rate of the local economy over the next twenty five years as the context for the report.  (The region has grown at around 2.5% in the last twenty years.)  This is regarded as a stretch even by the Commission, and it leads to the calls for managed growth in housing, industry, transport, and so on called for in the report.  This is where groups like The Cambridge Commons, concerned about the growth in the region, have concerns.  To attack these conclusions one has to unpick the whole “extra powers” settlement for the region.  To do so is obviously very justifiable, but probably not achievable by attacking this report, which is premised on that commitment.

 

The conclusions of the report follow remorselessly from this apparent commitment of the region to growth.   The first recommendation appears to recognise the harshness of this, as it not only calls for the growth target to be monitored in the light of general economic outturns, but also calls for the Mayor to “instigate the development of a well-being and inclusive growth dimension to his GVA target”.  Other recommendations call for minimal impediments to employment of EU and non EU key employees (a nod against hard Brexit), and for housing planning to go above and beyond what is currently planned already, eg in the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor context.  There are recommendations in the social field (eg more SureStart provision) and banal calls for “meaningful conversations” on other aspects, but some of the recommendations will be welcomed by the Cambridge Commons members, even as others won’t.  The Mayor’s hobby-horse, a Cambridge metro, is treated with politeness but slight scepticism.

 

The key recommendation, arguably driving all the conclusions, is perhaps Recommendation 3:

“The UK Government should adopt a ‘Cambridge or overseas’ mentality towards knowledge-intensive (KI) business in this area, recognising that in an era of international connectivity and footloose labour, many high-value companies will need to relocate abroad if this area no longer meets their needs. Ensuring that Cambridge continues to deliver for KI businesses should be considered a nationally strategic priority.”

 

This lies at the crux of the issue that campaigners against “Supersize Cambridge”, those wanting to preserve the greenbelt and attractive small town nature of Cambridge, have to address in fighting the outcome of this report.

 

At this point I will put my cards on the table.  I have worked as an academic in Cambridge University, and also as an engineer specialising in new product development and high-tech consultancy, for decades (with a period in Switzerland in the middle).  I watched the Cambridge Phenomenon take off with a ring-side seat.  And I have to admit there is an element of truth in this sentiment.  The skills and cluster expertise that make Cambridge such a star in this field, perhaps uniquely in Europe, are in a largely relatively young, cosmopolitan (especially with EU nationals), and highly mobile population.  In the early days there was a clear umbilical cord to the University but this is much less the case now in my opinion – companies are second, third or higher generations away from being direct spin-outs.  As a consultant I worked for many well known large industrial companies – but it was rare for the customer to be UK based; they were generally in the EU or the US, and this is typical.

 

And the cracks are showing.  Bright twenty/thirtysomethings with PhD from the best Universities are sharing houses off Mill Road with strangers because they can’t afford the lifestyle their abilities and qualifications would lead them to aspire to.  (Friends in Silicon Valley describe a similar situation there.)  This leads them to move on after a while, replaced by a new generation of bright and up-to-date young things, and this is the churn that keeps the Cambridge Cluster fed with the best experts in the prime of their powers, at affordable salaries.  But if the word gets back to Paris, Berlin, Heidelberg and Bologna that the Cambridge streets aren’t paved with gold, then the whole cluster might collapse like a soufflé.  Or, perhaps a better analogy, the worker bees in the hive will suddenly swarm, and buzz off somewhere else.  And it is rather unlikely indeed that they will alight in tired old Britain.

 

Essentially the high-tech scene does exist in that space Theresa May infamously ascribed to the “international elites”, with more in common with other high tech clusters “than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass on the street.”  In the high-tech corridors of Cambridge everyone’s from somewhere else; it’s very rare and remarkable in those circles to meet someone born and bred in the city.  And as May went on, “But, if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”  Perhaps you don’t know what civic society means.

 

Whether or not this is desirable, I believe it is a significant factor here.  Now, I also think that the cluster is no longer attached to Cambridge University strongly – although it does have very valuable brand recognition by being able to use the “Cambridge” name.  Look at the fuss when the postcode boundaries were first to be changed, then finally renumbered.  Everyone still wants a CB postcode!

 

So, this report describes a possible way to walk along a tightrope of keeping the honey flowing, effectively by sacrificing the small scale and parochial delightfulness of this part of the country on a commercial anvil, for the greater good of the country.  It is worth it?  Cambridge, returned to being a market town with a mid-sized University or two, might be Ozymandian in its grim obscurity.  But we, gentle readers, might just swarm with the rest of the bees.  (There’s a rat analogy trying to get out here, too.)  The citizenry must judge, vote and protest according to their views.

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