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How do we enhance quality of life for Greater Cambridge residents, while nurturing the economy?

In the latest in our series of articles with Cambridge Ahead, the business and academic member organisation, Alex Plant, Cambridge Ahead policy group chair and director of strategy and regulation at Anglian Water, examines the issues of sustainable growth and quality of life

Alex Plant, Cambridge Ahead policy group chair and director of strategy and regulation, Anglian Water
Alex Plant, Cambridge Ahead policy group chair and director of strategy and regulation, Anglian Water

Cambridge really matters to the UK economy, more so than many other sub-regions.

This is because of the power of our tech cluster, our knowledge intensive economy, our universities, and the fact that a lot of what is happening in Cambridge, just isn’t happening anywhere else in the UK. The value of the Cambridge brand is often exemplified by the fact that if AstraZeneca hadn’t decided to relocate here, it probably would have relocated outside of the UK completely.

Importantly, Greater Cambridge is a net contributor to the Exchequer. This means that it delivers about £1billion more in tax, than it receives in expenditure. So, there’s an understanding in Whitehall that there’s something really important about the Cambridge area that needs to be nurtured to ensure that we can continue to grow in a positive and sustainable way.

Aerial views of Cambridge Biomedical Campus. Picture: CBC
Aerial views of Cambridge Biomedical Campus. Picture: CBC

So. part of what we try to do through Cambridge Ahead’s Policy Group, is to leverage our influence over national government decision making, by bringing together key people from business, academia and local government to provide evidence, increase understanding of the key issues, and ensure that the decisions that are made are the best ones.

This also applies to local decision making, where I believe we share a common goal to ensure that decisions are made that enhance the quality of life for existing and new residents in our area, now and in the long term.

However, in the end, public policy decisions will and should, of course, always be taken by democratically elected individuals in parliament, in local authorities or the combined authority. We seek to engage constructively with colleagues in the public sector and present them with the evidence upon which to base sound decision making.

During my career, I’ve worked in the private sector, in Whitehall, in local and regional government and in local development bodies. My work has focused on skills, competition policy, utilities, aviation, regional development and the environment. I also currently chair the Regional Productivity Forum for East Anglia, seeking to address the problem of why UK’s productivity falls behind some of our European counterparts and the US but understanding this at the regional level.

I’m also on the board of the Centre for Cities, the urban think tank which looks at how cities work and what role they play in the future economy of the UK. All of this means that I hope I have a reasonable understanding of the challenges facing the public sector and that this can help the work we do in Cambridge Ahead to act as a ’critical friend’ to colleagues in local and national Government, bringing our in-depth local knowledge and insight to bear.

Cambridge’s life science sector is of national and international importance
Cambridge’s life science sector is of national and international importance

In the past couple of years, the issues we have raised and discussed through the Policy Group have included the changing impact of Covid on our economy and how employers have responded to the pandemic in different ways, the future of the workplace and remote working, changes in short-term housing lets, the need for better designed and more affordable housing and the associated improvements in public transport infrastructure we need to allow our area to maximise its potential.

In 2018, the policy group was instrumental in driving delivery of the Cambridge and Peterborough Independent Economic Review (CPIER). The CPIER brought together some of the best minds in the country to look at the issues recognised as important within government - recommendations relating to housing, health and wellbeing, education and infrastructure, for example, cut across both local and national issues. The Policy Group now uses the recommendations from the review as a reference for evaluating progress and priorities.

The long list of recommendations within the CPIER recognises that we have three very distinct economic geographies – Greater Cambridge, Greater Peterborough, and the Fens and North Cambridgeshire - and what we need are bespoke plans to help support each of those economies to deliver the most they can for the people who live and work there.

The one-size fits all approach that can emerge from Whitehall is particularly problematic given the unique challenges of our local economies. That is one of the reasons why I have long advocated for greater levels of devolution of powers and funding to the local area, including greater control of tax revenues, so that we can tailor solutions that make sense for us, and instil a greater sense of ownership of our own future, and the pride we should all have in the place we call home.

So, for example, Greater Cambridge has delivered some of the most important innovations and scientific discoveries in the world. It’s really important, not just for Cambridge but for the country and for the world, that we can continue to nurture our knowledge intensive economy so that it delivers all that it can for humanity. That’s very different to what’s happening in the Fens, the breadbasket of Britain, which has huge potential in relation to agri-tech to give just one example, but it’s hugely important that the economy in the north of our area can maximise its own, different potential, and that we strengthen the links between the three economic geographies.

When considering our unique economy and its sustainable future, it is so important that we shift our thinking away from just financial issues. This is why we’ve also been working alongside the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge looking at the concept of Six Capitals thinking, which Jane Paterson-Todd, CEO of Cambridge Ahead, talked about in a recent article.

An Anglian Water pipeline. Pictures: Tim George
An Anglian Water pipeline. Pictures: Tim George

In my day job at Anglian Water, we try to think about the impact of our business’ decisions across all six capitals. The question of what productivity means is key, it has got to be more than just maximising human and physical capital to deliver an economic output, it should be about aligning that with approaches that underpin the long-term sustainability of the area.

The spatial strategy that goes with all of this is really critical; thinking about how the employment market is likely to change in Cambridge and Peterborough; how housing growth needs to be prioritised because we are critically under housed in parts of the region; how transport infrastructure needs to align with the expected patterns of housing and population growth; and all the while trying to balance our social and environmental needs to protect and promote quality of life.

When I review the excellent work of the CPIER now, I think the issue of climate change was probably under-appreciated. This is partly, of course, because our knowledge of the urgency of the impact of climate change has accelerated in recent years and there will always be a certain amount of data-lag. So, the work that Baroness Brown is leading (the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate Change) must be considered alongside the CPIER in relation to things like sustainable transport options, housing policy and land use and water management.

Greater Cambridge as a whole is prosperous and offers many of the people who live and work here more opportunities than in other parts of the country. But still, we manage to leave pockets of the community marginalised and unable to access these opportunities because of their geography, limited transport options, low income, poor housing, and so forth.

It’s a hard nut to crack but, undoubtedly, part of the solution lies in skills development and careers education. We need better vocational routes, better apprenticeships, better focus on skills in schools and colleges, and more control over these issues at the local level, in order to help younger people to have higher aspirations and to build more opportunities for them to access the economic opportunities that are available.

We need our young people to know that they don’t need to have a PhD in physics to have good opportunities to work with major employers in this area and employer engagement in schools is key to this. Though my work as a governor at Cambridge Regional College, I came across people who, for example, didn’t thrive at school, went on to succeed at something vocational at college and then launched into something entrepreneurial and earned a fortune! We can use those personal stories to inspire students in schools and colleges.

Fortunately, more and more employers are working on this and, increasingly it isn’t seen as corporate social responsibility but, instead, as enlightened self-interest because our businesses know they need local young people becoming productive contributors to our local workforce in the future.

However, this isn’t just about young people; the skills question is a lifelong one. Increasingly so, because the pace of change in the way we work, particularly in terms of the technology, requires all of us to adopt a lifelong skills approach.

Therefore, the Cambridge Ahead policy group’s focus is from school right through to retirement and beyond; we need to ensure that everyone is as economically useful and fulfilled as they are able to be throughout their lives. And, to return to our guiding principle of quality of life, if we can achieve that, it gives everyone the ability to have greater control over their own future, and the quality of life that this can realise for themselves and their families.

More from this series

The six guiding principles that Cambridge needs to achieve sustainable growth

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

The future of flexible working: home working is here to stay but the office lives on

Read more

‘Cambridge is an engine of job creation - but don’t take it for granted’ says Cambridge Ahead

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