How Cambridge Ahead is helping to tackle the toughest challenges facing our city
It is arguably Cambridge’s greatest challenge – and there are signs of the struggle wherever you go.
How can this historic city grow in a sustainable way? How can its enormous economic potential be maximised without ruining its special character?
Step forward Cambridge Ahead, the business membership organisation that devotes its time to thinking about such issues.
CEO Jane Paterson-Todd puts its mission succinctly.
“We have a vision for Cambridge as the greatest small city in the world,” she says.
“That’s not overly ambitious. We have an ecosystem here that’s going like a train.”
Jane isn’t one to baulk at a challenge. When we meet, at Cambridge Ahead’s new home in the bustling Bradfield Centre, she has just returned from competing in a gruelling international triathlon in Lausanne.
When not swimming, cycling and running her way to an impressive 11th out of 76 in her category, she was picking up clues from the Swiss city of how Cambridge can develop.
“Lausanne has a wonderful metro system and the number of residents there is not much different to Cambridge,” she says.
“There is an old town and a new town which is hip and cool, with rooftop bars and everything is happening there. You’ve got a young generation who go there, and you’ve got the historic side.
“We need to look at other cities and say ‘We can make it work here’.”
This goes to the heart of what Cambridge Ahead is about: ensuring growth goes hand in hand with improvements in residents’ and workers’ quality of life.
Its chair is Harriet Fear, an engaging former diplomat who worked for the Foreign Office across 17 countries, once leading an evacuation of Brits from the Congo and working on a hostage crisis with Scotland Yard in Khmer Rouge territory.
Cambridge’s problems must seem rather tame by comparison.
“The organisation is all about making a tangible difference in a dynamic, vibrant but also quite subtle way in terms of influencing local and national government,” says Harriet, who replaced Ian Mather on January 1.
“It appealed to me with my diplomatic background, my interest in Cambridge and the wider ecosystem and that really interesting juxtaposition between the needs and sensitivities of politics and business.”
Harriet spent eight years as CEO of life science membership organisation One Nucleus, and in 2014 was invited to be the Prime Minister’s Business Ambassador for Life Sciences and Healthcare by David Cameron, a role she fulfilled for five years.
Hers is a door-opening CV, and that’s the point. Cambridge Ahead seeks to inform and influence local and central government, using high quality research as evidence, and leveraging the skills of its 40 members.
These read like a who’s who of Cambridge – with the likes of Arm, AstraZeneca, Marshall, TWI and the University of Cambridge – while serial entrepreneurs David Cleevely, Charles Cotton and Hermann Hauser are among the honorary vice-chairs.
“This isn’t about big business looking after big business,” stresses Jane.“We’ve recognised that Cambridge-based companies are growing on average by six and a half per cent per annum between 2015-18 and we would like to see this continue in a sustainable away.
“But we want to complement that with a good, compelling quality of life for every resident, of every demographic, across all areas and sections of society.
“Wellbeing goes hand-in-hand with productivity. We need to ensure that work-life balance is in play and that when people come to work they enjoy what they do.”
Dan Thorp, who recently joined Cambridge Ahead as director of policy and programmes, helps ensure its work is focused around quality of life. Projects cover areas such as housing, skills, technology and, inevitably, transport.
“We are working to support the development of the business case for the CAM metro and ensuring there is strong advice and evidence feeding into that process,” says Dan, who previously worked at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
Championed by Combined Authority mayor James Palmer, the £4billion metro system would feature rubber-tyred vehicles that would connect the city to surrounding towns and villages, then dive underground beneath the city.
Following the publication of a strategic outline business case, a more detailed study is under way, with £1.7million funding agreed by the Combined Authority.
Dr Cleevely will chair a technical advisory group, while fellow Cambridge Ahead member Duncan McCunn is chairing a funding and finance advisory group.
“It’s about leveraging the most experienced people from the membership to plug in and make a difference,” says Harriet, who had a spell as director of business and skills at the Combined Authority.
Major infrastructure investment to alleviate what Dan describes as Cambridge’s “growing pains” was firmly supported by last year’s Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review (CPIER), a landmark report to government and local authorities.
“We are also working with the Greater Cambridge Partnership,” adds Dan. “We partnered with them to help construct the Choices for Better Journeys survey to gather the insights of residents and also to ensure that reflected the insights of Cambridge businesses and employees.”
In addition to examining transport corridors, cycling provision and air quality, Cambridge Ahead is initiating research into changing people’s mindset over modes of transport – including examining how businesses can encourage their workers to cycle to work as a short-term initiative.
Tied to the issue of transport is housing, another project area for the organisation.
Last year, we reported how Cambridge Ahead sponsored the Cambridge Futures Project, a study carried out by university researchers.
It warned we will reach ‘peak Cambridge’ in the mid-2020s and growth will take a downturn unless action is taken, as employers struggle to find people who will accept long commutes or high rents for small, shared living spaces.
The study identified four ways Cambridge could grow – through densification, dispersal, along transport corridors or at the wider fringes.
“As anyone who lives in or near Cambridge would know, it’s a major issue that needs to be tackled,” says Dan. “We are supporting that, particularly around affordability of housing.”
Getting transport and housing policies right are key to the future success of Cambridge, of course, and to attracting and retaining employers and employees.
“At the moment, what residents and workers see is congestion on the roads and they see that they can’t get on to the housing ladder. That makes some think you don’t want to see growth and it’s overheating,” admits Jane.
“But if people see the roads become freer, you have a metro system that operates like a tube [underground] in terms of frequency and rapid transport, you have housing along corridors which is affordable and offers a good quality of life and there is cohesion, then people will see things differently.
“You have to think: where do we want to be in 2050? How do you grow for that in a way that is sustainable, that offers a good quality of life and is modern?
“We want young people to feel Cambridge is a place they want to live and work in.
“It should be top of the list.”
With that in mind, skills is another area of focus for Cambridge Ahead.
“We’re working very closely with the Cambridge business and academic community, and also education providers, to understand how apprenticeships can be better promoted and how we can make the most of recent apprenticeship reforms,” says Dan.
“Alongside that, we’re looking at the quality of careers advice provision in schools, with the intention that we will bring some new evidence and insights.”
Jane adds: “One of the major issues companies have is attracting a talented workforce at all levels. Part of our work is asking how can we ensure the next generation is skilled up, understands the world of work locally and that we retain them.
“How much career advice are they getting in schools and what is the quality of it? What can we do about it locally and what conversations can we have with central government about bettering this? I think we can be a catalyst for change nationally by what we do regionally.”
To harness insight from under-35s, Cambridge Ahead has set up a young advisory committee.
“We need to be careful that in Cambridge earning your stripes isn’t based on your age and experience. Some cities are very well recognised for the amount of grey hair around one table,” points out Jane. “It’s so important that we succession plan and that the youth stay here and want to raise families. They are the leaders of tomorrow.”
“It’s pioneering,” adds Dan. “As well as the work on housing, the committee is involved in the quality of life work, making sure we fully understand what people really value.”
But how, exactly, do you measure quality of life?
The Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge believes it has the answer. Or rather, six of them, which Cambridge Ahead is using in its research, often carried out in association with the university or RAND Europe.
“There are six pillars or ‘capitals’ being used to look more broadly at what makes a successful economy,” explains Dan.
“We are interested in these because they value people and nature alongside traditional measures like finance and products. We think this can help us get underneath what a good quality of life in Cambridge really means and how we can help influence future decisions with this in mind.”
Evidence suggests that for all its attractions, Cambridge needs to raise its game on quality of life. For two years running, the Centre for Cities identified the city as the most unequal in the country.
“Hence the reason you’ve got to make the transport systems extremely affordable and housing within a region that is commutable for all demographics and workers,” says Jane.
“The most important part of a business is its people.”
As commuters battle through seemingly endless roadworks, Cambridge’s booming economy may appear to come with a heavy price.
“It looks depressing but it’s not, because things are moving,” suggests Jane. “The CAM Metro is being heavily considered. The Greater Cambridge Partnership has £500million for infrastructure development in the city. We have a Combined Authority that’s energised to deliver the networks that are required and the housing. It’s all there for the making.”
Cambridge has grown from a medieval fenland market town to a world-renowned seat of learning, and now an economic powerhouse.
But what will Cambridge 4.0 look like? Perhaps we can look to the example of the University of Cambridge, an 800-year-old institution that is renowned for its future thinking.
It saw the need – long before it was fashionable to talk of it – for a sustainably built community to support its own growth. The result is Eddington, a development at north-west Cambridge, that features energy-efficient new homes, close to places of work and study, with public transport and cycle links, natural drainage, green spaces and amenities.
It is a glimpse, perhaps, of how the wider region must develop.
“I’m energised about the future,” says Jane. “I think we’ve all the components and ingredients. And if you have an organisation like Cambridge Ahead working alongside, and welcomed by, local authorities, we can say to all residents and workers, ‘Exciting things are in place to make this a sustainable city’.”
More by this authorPaul Brackley