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Opinion: Why Cambridge needs the Eastern Powerhouse

James Palmer, the former mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and current chairman of the Eastern Powerhouse, which was set up by ResPublica in March 2022, writes for the Cambridge Independent.

James Palmer is chair of the Eastern Powerhouse. Picture: Keith Heppell
James Palmer is chair of the Eastern Powerhouse. Picture: Keith Heppell

To many Cambridge-based residents and businesses, it may seem their city has no use for an Eastern Powerhouse. After all, Cambridge has thrived for centuries without being part of a pan-regional entity; and it remains a great place to live and work no matter how you slice it.

Cambridge is home to one of the strongest and most successful science clusters in Europe, and its ancient halls and streets have played host to more Nobel Prize winners and billion-pound companies than almost anywhere else outside of London.

Yet, despite its remarkably strong economic position, the city still faces numerous obstacles to growth that it may struggle to tackle alone. And, for its part, central government at best seems oblivious to many of these challenges – and at worst, actively indifferent.

The recent Levelling Up White Paper is a case in point. Whilst the paper spoke about creating new Silicon Valley-inspired tech clusters in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, noticeably there was no mention of the UK’s pre-eminent science cluster. There were also no plans for enhancing the life science and technology sectors in the wider region, or for linking the Cambridge and Norwich clusters together.

Equally, initiatives like expanding the communication innovation centre at Ipswich by linking it up with Cambridge could be a huge boost for the region, and yet this too has not been taken up.

The message this sends is that places like the East of England which are doing relatively well - we are the 4th largest economy in the UK – are not a priority when it comes to investment from government. In practice, this means that levelling up other parts of the country will often mean levelling down places like Cambridge. This is both poor policy, and poor forward planning.

Part of the problem is that the East of England lacks a unified voice when negotiating with the government, putting it at a severe disadvantage during rounds of national investment.

When I co-founded the Eastern Powerhouse with the think tank ResPublica, one of our key aims was to create a platform where local businesses could come together to hammer-out shared solutions to mutual problems. By working under a common framework, businesses from across the region will be better able to develop a sharp understanding of the economic challenges they face, and be better equipped to plead their case nationally.

Indeed, the remarkable success of the Northern Powerhouse owes much to its ability to bound disparate regions and rival economies together. Whilst it may have coincided with a change in outlook in Westminster, there is no doubt the Northern Powerhouse has created a voice for a part of the country that previously struggled to be heard.

This is precisely our goal for the East, and we firmly believe that Cambridge could be a major contributor and beneficiary of this effort.

If the city is going to maintain its remarkable science cluster, and remove many of the barriers preventing growth in other parts of its economy, it will need to work with its neighbours in shaping a robust set of ‘asks’ from government. It will also need to look beyond its own borders at the obstacles and challenges facing the whole East; and which are not solvable alone.

There is no doubt that Cambridge is the key to the future success of the East of England. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the East of England holds the key to the future success of Cambridge as well.

The city sits at the heart of the East of England, a government-designated region which is home to over 6 million people. They deserve the same attention and investment as anyone else in the UK – and Cambridge could play a pivotal role in delivering for them, and its own residents.

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