Keeping Cambridge Ahead of the game
With a membership full of industry experts and influential businesses, Cambridge Ahead has rapidly established itself as the main driving force behind the city's ambition for further growth.
Formed in November 2013, its initial aims were to ‘clarify the growth agenda, promote Cambridge, and improve the quality of life”.
The organisation played a major part in lobbying the Treasury to move Papworth Hospital to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus rather than to Peterborough, and the conception of, and support for, the introduction of the congestion-busting Stagecoach East Route R service from Trumpington Park & Ride to Cambridge Railway Station.
The team is now working on five more projects, transport and housing among them, as they continue to play an influential role in helping the decision makers find the right solutions for the city.
In a week when the Autumn Statement and devolution deal focused the business minds on the work of both central and local government, housing and transport became topical issues not lost on the powers that be at the not for profit Cambridge Ahead.
Chief executive officer Jane Paterson-Todd has enjoyed a varied and successful career in many commercial sectors and, like many, she is well aware that both issues are at the top of the agenda for Cambridge.
“We cannot carry on having houses so expensive,” she said. “This problem needs to be tackled. The housing out in the city is 16 times the average salary now and it is knocking on the door of London.
“Other high growth cities have a problem with affordable housing, the country has a problem with affordable housing. We have an acute problem here and it needs to be sorted out.
“But we have to take much more of a helicopter point of view on this and stand back and look at things. It is not a case of putting sticking plasters on one thing or the other, it is saying ‘here we have an issue and how do we sort it out?’
“Organisations registered and trading in Cambridge saw a 7.7 per cent growth last year. If this is to continue, we can start to work out how many houses are needed and the infrastructure that is required to support them.”
Cambridge Ahead also has a view on the transport issues facing the city. Tunnels, cable cars and trams have all been mentioned as being the answers to the congestion problems and Ms Paterson-Todd believes the solution will come from thinking outside the box.
She adds: “For transport you have to think about a bigger infrastructure project and that calls for radical thinking.
“I think it is really good for people to have radical thinking about what is going to sort out the future problems of transport. Is it a tunnel, is it trams is it cable cars? We’ve heard them all.
“Without that radical thinking though you cannot reach a conclusion and for us it is about finding the right solution and working towards that.
“What will the future look like for transport given that we are going into a huge amount of change. Driverless cars are going to come into play and there will be a radical change in the way we use our own personal transport.
“I think it is a real shame the Cambridge-Oxford link was branded the brainbelt because people will think all we are interested in is linking up with Oxford.
“But it is not just about that. We have got Oxford and Cambridge and everything else in between which means people could live in communities which could access this city, Milton Keynes and Oxford.
“There is a central part called Milton Keynes which links to the knowledge clusters in the north west like Manchester.
“You have to take communities with you on the journey of developing a city that is sustainable and using the right language is key.”
Cambridge Ahead is funded by its membership but all the money is ploughed back into the organisation.
Its own growth and reputation has soared in the past three years, so much so that it has the ear of many influential politicians, both local and central.
The team works closely with all the councils in the city and was asked for its input on the recent devolution deal, which was accepted last week.
Ms Paterson-Todd added: “So much has happened this year. It has been an extraordinary year and the way the world is operating now it is so necessary to have organisations that represent the business community.
“When you think of the growth and development of any city, business is growing it. So, having a business environment which supports and works alongside local government in its decision making is very important. We never negatively criticise what local government is doing. The point is that they have a job to do in providing the means for the infrastructure of the city – we totally get that and respect it.
“But we can bring another voice and additional research to the table. It is about supporting the decision making they already do. I think they see that. We’ve always said that we totally understand the pressures and constraints they have. On devolution they were interested in what the business view was. We were very clear about it. We felt it was best for Cambridgeshire to work together and the whole of the county to come together. We would like to believe the decision they took was because business had some input.”
Ms Paterson-Todd was cheered by the Autumn Statement but adds that uncertainty over Brexit could lead to more uncertainty in the long run.
She added: “What I like about Cambridge is that whatever is thrown at it, it is resilient. Brexit is a radical change. Brexit may mean loss of EU funding but it is not EU money, so what we get back from leaving the EU must be ploughed back into the areas that have lost funding like research. We need reassurances from Government.
“We must not forget we are the fifth biggest economy in world and does anybody really think that Europe is not going to want to trade with us? One of our clients said the biggest thing is uncertainty because that breeds more uncertainty and that means the perception is people can’t work in this country. That drives people away so it is vitally important the Government gets its ducks in a row by March and we understand what the vision and the goals are.
“The Autumn Statement was positive from a business perspective. The fact there is money for infrastructure and housing is really encouraging.
“It is good to see the Government saying we need to invest in large-scale infrastructure for the future of this country, that is music to the ears for business. But then all corridors tend to lead to Cambridge.”