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This article is an edited version of a speech that Susan Buckingham gave at the launch event of True Tales for Change – A Project for a Fairer Future on 11th January 2020. Susan Buckingham is a researcher and writer on gender and environmental justice.

If you knew nothing about Cambridge except the introduction from the Lonely Planet guide, you would be amazed that anything was here except the university:

“Abounding with exquisite architecture, exuding history and tradition, and renowned for its quirky rituals, Cambridge is a university town extraordinaire. The tightly packed core of ancient colleges, the picturesque riverside ‘Backs’ (college gardens) and the leafy green meadows surrounding the city [sic] give it a more tranquil appeal than its historic rival Oxford.“

“…the buildings here seem unchanged for centuries, and it’s possible to wander around the college buildings and experience them as countless prime ministers, poets, writers and scientists have done. Sheer academic achievement seems to permeate the very walls: cyclists loaded down with books negotiate cobbled passageways, students relax on manicured lawns and great minds debate life-changing research in historic pubs.”

This is pure ‘Bloomsbury-by-Cam’ and not a Cambridge I easily recognise from the eastern and northern city surrounds which are encircled not by ‘the backs’ but by the A14, the airport, a waste disposal facility, business, science and retail parks, and the municipal housing estates built at various times since the 1920s. Nor from the conversations I overhear in pubs, or from the press of people and cars crowding the city centre shops at weekends. And as for the saturation of Cambridge institutions by ‘sheer academic achievement’ – I hear that the Orchard Tea Rooms, famously frequented by the Bloomsbury Set in the early 20th century, is now owned by the Brexit candidate for Bedford.

But this is part of the story of material success and aspiration that Cambridge tells itself. In its 2018 Local Plan, Cambridge City describes itself as:

“A successful city with a world-class reputation for education, research and knowledge-based industries and its historic environment. It is a place that people want to visit, live, work and study in…Cambridge already demonstrates the success that can be achieved with well-planned growth…”


“As a demonstrably successful place, where economic success, high quality of life, sustainable living and quality of place are inextricably linked. Cambridge’s modern-day accomplishments include a thriving hi-tech and biotech industry, which has developed since the 1960s and is known as the Cambridge Phenomenon…“

“The Council adopts a positive and proactive approach; but this success also brings challenges. The challenges facing the city are complex and often have no easy resolution, requiring partnership working and consensus among many stakeholders to achieve positive solutions…“

We might expect inequality to be mentioned here, but no, the particular challenges are identified as:

“Delivery of infrastructure to support growth, reducing per capita carbon emissions and managing change to heritage assets of international importance – all within a compact, tightly-bounded city…“

It is acknowledged that:

“Management and mitigation of the impacts of growth is…a key challenge. Average wages in the city have not risen in line with the city’s average house prices. This has made it increasingly difficult for people to purchase property in the city, and this has associated impacts on the number of people commuting in from the surrounding villages and market towns.“

But this is as close as it comes to mentioning inequality, focusing as it does on continued growth. And there’s no reference in this 8 page introduction to the Local Plan to Cambridge’s status as the most economically divided city in the UK.

When I was an undergraduate – obliged to study statistics, along with anthropology and various geography courses, I read How to Lie With Statistics. I have distrusted the way in which numbers are used to prove a point ever since.

As an academic I practised feminist research which questioned claims of objectivity and the privileged detached view that statistical data often reinforced. It could serve as a cover for those who did not publicly acknowledge how their own interests, or those of their funders, might influence the research questions they asked or the data they collected. Indeed, some feminist research argues that the most effective or reliable research is more likely done by those who have the least to lose, as in no vested interests. I generally prefer qualitative research, collecting and analysing the stories that people tell about themselves. I find that these can explain so much about wider social and economic processes and how these are unevenly experienced. They flesh out the ‘dry’ averages of statistics.

However, I am here to provide the context for the stories we’re going to hear, and I want to provide some statistics which are themselves marginalised compared to the growth statistics beloved of developers and many politicians and policy makers. Some are taken from Cambridge Commons’ excellent reports in 2015 which brought together data to create a picture of disadvantage in Cambridge. More up to date data are from various sources – from the City Council, Cambridgeshire Constabulary, Central Government’s Department of Communities and Local Government, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the County’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment. It has been a bit of a task to locate these and bring them together. Even the City’s own Map of Poverty in Cambridge only focuses on welfare, and not on relative green space accessibility, ill health, or domestic violence, for example.

And so, to some statistics:

Cambridge is reported to be to be the fourth (Centre for Cities) or fifth (BBC) ranked city in the UK by average weekly wage (£609 a week; compare with London’s £727 weekly). According to research by the Centre for Cities which covered the 62 largest cities in the UK, Cambridge ranked second on mean house prices in 2018, but, in 2014, 62nd on mean welfare spend overall and per capita. But wealth and poverty is never experienced evenly and it is no surprise that Cambridge ranked highest on the GINI co-efficient. This measures economic inequality where a score of 0% represents perfect equality, while 100% represents perfect inequality. Cambridge’s score was 0.46, the highest of 58 cities measured by the Centre for Cities.

And interestingly, according to the ONS in 2019, Cambridge had one of the highest gender pay gaps in the country (in the highest but one sextile: 18-22.1%).

In a city registering a population of around 130,000, almost 30,000 are students. Many more work in higher education. Cambridge University is one of the unfairest employers. Although the University, along with Cambridge City Council, adopted a living wage policy in 2018 for those it directly employs, many of the colleges (who have a combined higher net worth than the University itself) have not followed. It was reported in Varsity in 2019 that only eight of the 31 colleges paid all workers at or above a real living wage (£8.75) in late 2018. At this time, Cambridge colleges had a combined wealth of £6.9 billion. The college which paid worst is Robinson: with 128 non-academic and administrative staff receiving below the real living wage, and jointly with Clare and Magdalen the lowest recorded wage of all the colleges (of £7.38 an hour). Robinson has £89.5 million of assets.

There is a geography to inequality in Cambridge as well. The Department of Communities and Local Government ranks small localities, known as Lower-layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in deciles – tenths – representing their degree of multiple deprivation (Table 1). Those in the second lowest decile fall in Abbey and Kings Hedges; those in the third lowest fall in Kings Hedges, Arbury, Abbey and East Chesterton:

Listed by Their Position on This Ranking:

East Abbey (2nd lowest decile 4,183 / 32,844)
North Abbey (2nd lowest decile 5,217)
East Kings Hedges (2nd lowest decile 6,022)
West Kings Hedges (3rd lowest decile)
Central Kings Hedges (3rd lowest decile)
North Kings Hedges (3rd lowest decile)
North East Arbury (3rd lowest decile)
North Abbey (3rd lowest decile)
East Chesterton (3rd lowest decile)

Table 1: Most Deprived Areas in Cambridge
Source: Department of Communities and Local Government, 2019

Some of the poorest families have only one parent resident, and these are most likely to be women. Two thirds of families claiming benefits are single parent families. In Arbury, 4.8% are lone parent households with children under 15 (92.3% of which are headed by women – a rate that is higher than the national average); in East Chesterton, 5.5% are lone parent households with children under 15 (93.7% of which are headed by women).


These figures have health implications. Cambridge Commons research shows that Kings Hedges and East Chesterton have the lowest life expectancy in the city’s 14 wards (Arbury sixth, Abbey eighth). Men in the most deprived areas in the city lived 9.3 years less than men in the least deprived (women, 7.4 years). The Joint Strategic Needs Assessment reports the gap in life expectancy between the least and most deprived areas in the city to be ‘noticeably high’ for both women and men. Kings Hedges and Arbury have the highest rates of premature death (under 75 years old – though less for women than men).

There is also the question of the quality of life across the spectrum. The Assessment also reports statistical significance for the higher level of reporting long term limiting illness in Abbey, Arbury, Cherry Hinton, East Chesterton, Kings Hedges and Romsey. Likewise, while Cambridge as a whole reports a statistically significant high incidence of reporting good and very good health relative to the national average; conversely, the low incidence of its reporting in Abbey, Kings Hedges and East Chesterton is also found to be statistically significant. This implies a marked divide between the areas most identified with multiple deprivation compared with those not.

Also reported to be of statistical significance for the city as a whole are the higher than average levels of statutory homelessness, diabetes diagnosis, hospital stays for self-harm and alcohol related harm, schizophrenia, bi-polar affective disorder and other psychoses.

Green Spaces

Now we could, if we are paying attention, begin to put together a picture representing links between poverty and ill health on the one side of the proverbial tracks, and wealth and well-being on the other. This can be illustrated further by adding in maps of high quality green spaces.

Access to Council managed open space has a strong geographical dimension (Table 2) and if we include college owned green space, then there’s even more of a skew between different parts of the city. Poverty consigns people to areas with less accessible and usable green space, and to a poorer quality of the green space available. Poor quality and poorly used space restricts use by women (and particularly some ethnic minority women). Survey data reveals what users thought of the care and maintenance and play value of the children’s play areas in different sectors of the city. In Table 2, amenity of green space isn’t necessarily accessible or open to the public.


Natural Green Space/Corridors:
Cemeteries, Churchyards:
Children’s Play (Proportion Relative to Children 0-15):

Play Value +
Care & Maintenance Low


Natural Green Space/Corridors:
Cemeteries, Churchyards:
Children’s Play (Proportion Relative to Children 0-15):

Play Value –
Care & Maintenance Low


Natural Green Space/Corridors:
Cemeteries, Churchyards:
Children’s Play (Proportion Relative to Children 0-15):

Play Value +
Care & Maintenance High


Natural Green Space/Corridors:
Cemeteries, Churchyards:
Children’s Play (Proportion Relative to Children 0-15):

Play Value +
Care & Maintenance High

Table 2: Distribution of Council Managed Green Spaces in Cambridge

Source: Cambridge City Council, 2010

Stress (due to all the above factors combined) exacerbates violence and the Cambridgeshire Constabulary record the highest rates of reported domestic abuse in the North and East of the city.

The Council produces annual ‘poverty mapping’ reports, but this only maps households receiving state benefits. There is no data on ill-health, mortality, homelessness which is much higher than the ‘counted’ number on the street on a single day in the year), use of food banks, access to quality accessible green space, educational attainment, domestic violence. It’s when all these are brought together from disparate sources that the context for the stories that The Cambridge Commons is collecting can begin to be understood in all its complexity. One of the aims of The Cambridge Commons, as well as to draw all of our attentions to the extreme inequality in the city, is to give ‘voice’ all residents: it is the stories of individuals that bring alive these dry statistics and help us to understand what they really mean.


All accessed January 2020

Adams, R and Greenwood, X., ‘Oxford and Cambridge university colleges hold £21bn in riches’, Guardian 28 May 2018

Cambridge City Council 2010 Cambridge Parks: Managing the City’s Asset

Cambridge City Council 2017 Mapping Poverty Report: 2017

Cambridge City Council 2018 Cambridge Local Plan

Cambridge Commons, The 2015 Cambridge: Wealth and Want. Cambridge Fairness Review Initial Report 2015

Cambridgeshire Insight 2017 Joint Strategic Needs Assessment

Cambridgeshire Office for the Police and Crime Commissioner, Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council 2017 Violence Against Women and Girls Needs Assessment

Centre for Cities 2019 City Fact Sheet: Cambridge

Department of Communities and Local Government 2019 English Indices of Deprivation, 2019

Office for National Statistics 2019 Gender Pay Gap in the UK: 2019

Stacey, S. 2019 New ‘Living Wage league table’ ranks Cambridge colleges by treatment of their lowest-paid workers Varsity 8 Feb 2019

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