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Life sciences and IT drove Cambridge growth in pandemic’s first year



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New data covering the first full year of the pandemic (April 2020 to March 2021) identifies the life sciences and IT sectors as driving growth in the region.

Final production of filled vials of Covid-19 vaccine: Cambridge science has proved a huge asset to the UK and the world in the battle against the pandemic
Final production of filled vials of Covid-19 vaccine: Cambridge science has proved a huge asset to the UK and the world in the battle against the pandemic

The analysis from the Centre for Business Research (CBR) at Cambridge University shows that corporate employment in the Cambridge city region (within 20 miles of the city centre) grew by 1.8 per cent overall over 2020/21.

The new data shows the full extent of this nationally and globally important cluster, which represents employment of nearly 23,000 people across 627 firms and a collective turnover of £7.4bn generated per year.

Local growth in the earliest stages of the pandemic (2019/20) was higher than the overall average, at 4 per cent. Positive growth was sustained right through the worst year of the crisis. Over the last six years the average annual growth in employment has been 5.3 per cent.

For Cambridge – as with other economically resilient cities in the UK – the strength of knowledge intensive (KI) industries has been particularly evident. The life sciences cluster in the Cambridge city region grew employment by 10.3 per cent in 2020/21. IT and telecomms grew employment by 6.9 per cent. These rates contrast sharply with the 0.2 per cent employment growth across all non-KI industries in the Cambridge region.

The role of Cambridge’s life sciences cluster had added prominence because it led the international response to the pandemic, from vaccine development at AstraZeneca to genomic sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

The IT and telecomms sector comprises more than 3,000 firms that represent a workforce of more than 23,000 and annual turnover of £5.3bn.

Matthew Bullock, chair of Cambridge Ahead’s Regional Economic Planning Group
Matthew Bullock, chair of Cambridge Ahead’s Regional Economic Planning Group

The sector’s local growth paints a stark contrast to the UK-wide picture, which saw an average decline of 1.7 per cent in employment during the period of the study. Equivalent data for the Greater Cambridge area showed a positive growth in new jobs of 3.1 per cent across corporate and non-corporate sectors (eg with local public sector employment included in the CBR dataset).

Matthew Bullock, chair of Cambridge Ahead’s Regional Economic Planning Group, said: “I am delighted that we now have a decade of this important data showing what is happening on the ground in our local economy, and that it is freely open to the local community. Long may this continue.

“We believe strongly at Cambridge Ahead in the public availability of high-quality data and research to inform decision-making at all levels about our collective future.”

The continued strength of the Cambridge economy has been a positive force in the wider region as business activity spreads outwards from the city. New data shows that this is particularly prevalent in recent years northwards from Cambridge. Over the last three years overall, employment growth has been higher in East Cambridgeshire than in Cambridge City, with an increase of 6 per cent per year (compared with 5 per cent in the city). However, in the case of East Cambridgeshire, this has particularly been driven by growth in non-KI industries such as transportation and agriculture.

Dr Nik Johnson, the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Nik Johnson, the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Picture: Keith Heppell

Across the whole of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough there was growth of 2 per cent per year, but there was a more mixed picture across different districts, particularly in Huntingdonshire where a reduction of jobs in high-tech manufacturing (-3.8 per cent) and other services meant businesses were compensated by an increase in the number of employees of manufacturing and transport businesses, resulting in an overall flatlining of growth.

The report also contains a warning: while the resilience of the region’s employment growth through the pandemic is a source of celebration, there remains the “imperative for maintaining the quality of life for existing and new residents of Cambridge”. This includes “housing unaffordability and unavailability, congestion levels, and other detriments to quality of life [which] will only worsen without appropriate investments in infrastructure and the environment”.

Business leaders urge “central government, local authorities, regulators, and infrastructure providers to meet their statutory commitments and to understand and respond to these issues”.

After reviewing the results of the study, Mayor Nik Johnson, of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, said: “The continued growth of the knowledge-intensive industries of greater Cambridge underlines how important the area is for the UK as a whole and why government should continue to prioritise investment for the region.”



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