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Future Cities Forum meets in Cambridge to discuss how best to grow a science city

A forum, supported by The Cambridge Building Society, took place at Newnham College at which the future economy, infrastructure and housing planning for Cambridge and the UK’s leading knowledge regions was analysed and debated.

From left, Jonathan Denby, Vicky Stubbs, Heather Fearfield, Stephen Kelly and Julia Foster. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left, Jonathan Denby, Vicky Stubbs, Heather Fearfield, Stephen Kelly and Julia Foster. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cambridge is in danger of choking itself if it cannot manage to grow in a sustainable way.

That was the warning from Matthew Bullock, vice-chairman of business membership organisation Cambridge Ahead, speaking at a Future Cities Forum at Newnham College on Wednesday, November 20, where the economy, innovations, infrastructure and housing were on the agenda.

Called Science Cities, the discussion explored how housing and social infrastructure should be developed around knowledge clusters – whether they are centred around university, hospital or corporate R&D campuses.

Mr Bullock, who is also master emeritus at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, was on the first panel of the day exploring economy and transport connectivity alongside Rory Maw, board director/owner at The Oxford Science Park and a bursar of Magdalen College, Oxford, Will Gallagher, strategy director at East West Railway Company, and Neven Sidor, partner at Grimshaw.

Drawing on his own experiences, Mr Bullock compared the growth of Peterborough to Cambridge’s. “Peterborough’s entire growth is based on the idea of being on the A1, being on the railways, close to a lot of land and cheap labour, and therefore they can attract businesses,” he explained.

“What went to Peterborough didn’t go to Leicester or didn’t go to Wakefield... Cambridge never grew like that, Cambridge has always grown from the inside outwards and, in a way, we’ve got the eco-system starting to flow here and Cambridge has produced growth which is outside of this model.

"It basically kind of bubbles up through the floorboards and then actually expanded outwards. Rather than being a very extensive growth, it’s a very intensive growth.

“And the intensity of the growth which we see in the agglomeration of particularly technology-based businesses wanting to huddle together puts enormous pressure on infrastructure, in terms of space costs, in terms of labour, in terms of congestion to the point where they choke themselves – and that is the issue we have in Cambridge, which is unless we manage to keep the physical structure of the city expanding gradually outwards, but without losing the elasticity that you have in these clusters, the city will choke itself.”

From left Will Gallagher, Hon Matthew Bullock, Heather Fearfield, Rory Maw and Neven Sidor. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left Will Gallagher, Hon Matthew Bullock, Heather Fearfield, Rory Maw and Neven Sidor. Picture: Keith Heppell

Mr Bullock noted that Cambridge has the largest travel-to-work area of any city in Britain, outside of London. “It’s a huge tidal flow – I think around 65,000 people a day drive into Cambridge, into a medieval city – and that’s the challenge.”

Mr Maw said that almost all of what Mr Bullock said could be applied to Oxford, but noted: “Cambridge has made significant strides on its housing policy, sadly the same cannot be said for Oxford.

"We have five local authorities rather than two – six if you include the County – and we have complete paralysis.”

Asked if he was slightly jealous of Cambridge’s standing as a top science brand, Mr Maw said: “I was an undergraduate here in the 1980s and certainly the view of Cambridge undergraduates then was Oxford was full of classicists and linguists and all the real scientists and engineers were here.

"I think that has changed – Oxford in life sciences has really transformed itself over the last 10 or 15 years.”

He added that businesses on Oxford Science Park are growing very rapidly and that the major constraint is space.

“In terms of the brand, I think Oxford had some catching up to do, vis-a-vis Cambridge,” admitted Mr Maw. “I think that it is happening and my guess is that in five to 10 years’ time, the comparison will be very different.

"I think at the moment the generation of new spin-out companies is actually faster in Oxford than it is in Cambridge.”

But infrastructure help for both cities is on the horizon, with the East West Railway Company set up by the government to link the two.

Its strategy director, Will Gallagher, noted: “Cambridge is unrecognisable to the city of 20 years ago. What is at stake is the global competitive advantage that the UK has with two cities with over-heating economies.

“We could begin to solve some of the issues that are causing the Oxford and Cambridge economies to overheat. We have put more stations in our plan at the expense of faster journey times to allow more people to live and work in these city regions.”

The forum also discussed the growth of other life science clusters in the UK, the search for international talent and the city environments that encourage innovation and collaboration, while creating sustainable and affordable neighbourhoods.

Vicky Stubbs, chief risk officer of The Cambridge Building Society, who was part of the second panel discussion, said: “As a regional building society, we are very aware of the difficulties prospective and current home owners have with buying a home in Cambridge.

“Cambridge is a unique hub of activity – residentially, academically and financially, with multiple developments ongoing in and around the city centre to support organic growth in the region.

"As such, we take our responsibility of helping people have a home seriously. While this is at the top of our agenda, we also recognise the challenges more housing and growth in the city has on congestion, rail links and the general infrastructure of Cambridge and surrounding areas.”

Future Cities Forum hosts Cambridge ‘Science Cities’ event, Dorothy Garrod Building, Newnham College. Picture: Keith Heppell
Future Cities Forum hosts Cambridge ‘Science Cities’ event, Dorothy Garrod Building, Newnham College. Picture: Keith Heppell

Dr Mike Snowden, head of discovery sciences at AstraZeneca, discussed the challenges the company faced when moving from Cheshire to Cambridge.

“When you look at the rival centres where you can turn a protein into a drug, Cambridge is a natural place to go,” he said. “The reputation for blue sky science at Cambridge is second to none, with collaborative and networked communities and we were not surprised at what we found.

"What the pharma industry can do is turn those eureka moments into the drugs of the future. As we are mixing with academics and small bio-techs we can see the community building – and we are bringing on these small companies.

“We are as close to the colleges and the university departments as we could be. We are building a landmark building, one that sits well on the campus, and which is positioned to be part of the community.

“However, getting our people into work on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus in the long term, and currently to Great Chesterford, Milton and Granta Park is a big issue.

"We have worked closely with the council on this, and succeeded in not putting people on AstraZeneca buses but using public transport instead. You need to be part of the community.

"Although you are not always ready to do your best creative work if you have been stuck in a traffic jam on the A14 on the way to work!

“With a properly diverse organisation in mind we have been working to create crèches and gyms at our new site. Traffic congestion can make people arrive earlier and earlier.

"However, we are mindful that we don’t want to create a two phase organisation split between those people working in the labs – where there are fixed times – and those based around office desks who have much more flexible arrival and departure times.”

From left, Heather Fearfield, Rory Maw and Neven Sidor. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left, Heather Fearfield, Rory Maw and Neven Sidor. Picture: Keith Heppell

Ms Stubbs noted: “We have talked a lot about infrastructure problems, but if you really want a diverse workforce you have to think about the whole journey chain.

"That’s not just the journey to work but the dropping off at child-care nurseries and at school breakfast clubs and the picking up at the other end of the day.

"We are one of the few organisations with a call centre in central Cambridge and the fact that the Park & Ride buses stop quite early in the evening can be a problem for call centre staff.

“We also have to build a Cambridge that works for everybody, and that includes the pay-roll staff, the lab assistants, the cleaners and the primary school teachers.”

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