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Cambridge Ahead’s Jeremy Newsum: ‘Quality of life is an essential aspect of economic growth’

Exclusive: Jeremy Newsum, honorary vice chairman of Cambridge Ahead and chair of the Cambridge Ahead Quality of Life group, writes for the Cambridge Independent.

Jeremy Newsum, Cambridge Ahead
Jeremy Newsum, Cambridge Ahead

There was a time, not too long ago, when local politicians were obliged to pay attention to the views of businesses, because businesses had a vote.

When plural voting was abolished, politicians turned their focus to getting residential votes. But businesses have a huge responsibility for the places in which they operate; they don’t exist to just generate profit, they’re here as part of the community and their interests are wholly aligned with how that community develops in the long-term.

So, business views need to be heard by politicians and, witnessing what had been achieved by London First, in 2013 we formed Cambridge Ahead in the belief that there was a valid place for such a group to be the voice of the business and enterprise community, informing and influencing long-term policy in and around Cambridge.

Since inception, the fundamental objective of Cambridge Ahead – to build the best small city in the world – hasn’t changed. We want Cambridge to be the best small city for everyone, in every respect, now and into the future. Over the years, the credibility and influence of Cambridge Ahead has grown in tandem with the respect it is afforded in national and local politics and the media.

Our approach has never been didactic; rather than try to engineer a pre-determined outcome, we seek to stimulate the right discussions, provide evidence and allow the natural process to deliver the results. So, while our short-term focus may change from year to year, the long-term aims remain the same.

One of the things that Cambridge Ahead has been clear on, right from the outset, is that the ‘quality of life’ sustained by members of our community is an essential factor in the prosperity and long-term success of Cambridge.

A good quality of life requires much more than just financial success. Picture: David Johnson
A good quality of life requires much more than just financial success. Picture: David Johnson

The Cambridge economy may boom but if the people living and working here aren’t able to maintain the quality of life they aspire to, they will soon be moving elsewhere and the future of Cambridge won’t be the one we had all hoped for. We can’t have sustainable growth without a quality of life that is continually improving, they are one and the same.

Quality of life is a nebulous concept, it’s a way of measuring what we all feel about life, beyond the pounds and pence that we typically measure by, whether it’s business profit, salary, the size of our house, the make of our car. It’s the other aspects that go into making us feel better or worse about our lives and how we think about and plan for the future. It is subjective and we all have a different view of what it means to us and how to define it.

There’s no doubt that quality of life does and should relate to place, in that the environment and culture of the place(s) in which we live or spend our time, impact how we feel.

If you consider Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, they are in the same part of the world yet are very different culturally and the people living in each would have different views on who has the best quality of life – this is part of history but also part of how they now plan for the future of their communities.

In 2014 RAND conducted research for Cambridge Ahead among our members, representing 40,000 employees, to better understand key factors effecting and contributing to quality of life in our city. The sample wasn’t designed to be representative of society across Cambridge but the research would provide key indicators and inform our work streams.

When we examined individual contributing factors to quality of life through the research, many were common to all people in a particular area and, in Cambridge, we found that these include transport, congestion, housing, education.

From left Dan Thorp, Jane Paterson-Todd and Harriet Fear, of Cambridge Ahead, outside the Bradfield Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left Dan Thorp, Jane Paterson-Todd and Harriet Fear, of Cambridge Ahead, outside the Bradfield Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell

The emphasis placed on each of these factors varies with the distribution of wealth, opportunity and educational attainment around the city and that is unique to Cambridge in the way that it manifests itself in all of our lives.

Physical attributes are also relevant; if you live in the leafy suburbs of the city, you have a different sense of place than if you live in the city centre where there are fewer trees and open spaces.

Cambridge Ahead can’t be held accountable for how individuals measure their quality of life but we can be ‘held to account’ for the degree to which we’ve tried to get businesses to adapt to take into account quality of life issues.

How does this work in practice? Well, for example, from our research it is clear that people working in Cambridge are concerned about: the quality of schooling for their children, with a focus on better funding and skills development; the cost of housing and the need for more social housing are also prioritised; and traffic and congestion in and around Cambridge. These findings were fed into the Independent Economic Review and into Cambridge Ahead’s dedicated working groups, and the work of these groups has been instrumental in informing decisions about transport, housing and education in Cambridge.

Another important aspect of quality of life is an individual’s sense of fulfilment or purpose. Again, we can’t generalise here and need to be careful not to aggregate our research results and draw broad conclusions. Everyone’s sense of purpose and fulfilment is different and, with human nature, is never finite or complete.

The sadness is that there are parts of our Cambridge community where that sense of purpose is constrained or lacking and people are frustrated with life because it seems to be passing them by – “not for us”. They feel powerless. I went to speak in a school in one of Cambridge’s more disadvantaged communities and I could sense that lack of hope and absence of expectation.

While we can’t ‘give’ people a purpose, we can enable them to feel they have opportunities, so that they can work out for themselves what that purpose might be, and this is the most important factor in determining quality of life.

The Bradfield Centre, home to Cambridge Ahead. Picture: Mantle
The Bradfield Centre, home to Cambridge Ahead. Picture: Mantle

Our young people need to feel enabled by opportunity and this will help them find purpose in their lives and, in this way, quality of life is compatible with enabling business growth and the economy.

Most individuals have some sense of what they want for themselves but may be better at articulating it for their children or their grandchildren, and this comes back to the purpose of Cambridge Ahead. It’s not about what can we, the business community, do for ourselves today, it’s about influencing the sort of place our children and grandchildren are going to inherit and live in.

Businesses have a huge role to play beyond simply the life of their staff while they’re at work. Historically this has been a difficult area for employers, they’re told not to pry into the lives of staff when they’re not at work.

However, I think the pandemic has helped in this respect and the sense of responsibility the employer has to support their employees’ ‘whole life’ is really important. Businesses are built to prosper long-term and if they want to retain their workforce, they need to ‘care’ for them and ‘care’ about the quality of life they are able to sustain.

More recent survey work has shown us that transport, congestion, housing and education remain priorities for Cambridge but, interestingly, there are now a couple of new factors which are seen as important in contributing to quality of life.

Access to nature is one of these – which may well have taken on greater importance in people’s lives during the pandemic, as well as personal relationships.

Access to green space, as seen here at The Bradfield Centre, is highly valued by employees. Picture: Mantle
Access to green space, as seen here at The Bradfield Centre, is highly valued by employees. Picture: Mantle

To help Cambridge Ahead to better understand and contextualise these factors, so that we can accommodate them in our work, RAND will be conducting focus group research among young people and disadvantaged adults in the near future. Our plan is to continue to gauge the ‘temperature’ of quality of life in Cambridge in the coming years, share our findings and feed the insight into our work.

It is fine to dream, and we can all envision a utopian Cambridge. If we work together, bit by bit, we can get there but it must be together, or we will fail. I don’t mean businesses shouldn’t compete; they must compete but with the same long-term objective for the community.

It’s that collective effort towards a long-term goal that we all share, that I hope for, and Cambridge Ahead articulating that sort of view can help knit the community together – our elected representatives, the residents, the businesses that generate the necessary economic output, and our academic community which is truly special – working together that’s a very powerful combination.

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