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Transport and housing hold back growth in Cambridge, experts say

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Cambridge Ahead - Speaker Tom Holbrook quotes William Morris: ?I want the town to be impregnated with the beauty of the country, and the country with the intelligence and vivid life of the town
Cambridge Ahead - Speaker Tom Holbrook quotes William Morris: ?I want the town to be impregnated with the beauty of the country, and the country with the intelligence and vivid life of the town

Cambridge could grind to a halt if it continues to put profits before quality of life.

That was the message from an event hosted by Cambridge Ahead, a business support body.

There was an overarching sense of optimism in the presentations to public figures and business bodies – but it came with a health warning.

“The most successful cities around the world have a vision for their future,” Centre for Cities chief executive Alexandra Jones told her audience. “And they have one that’s shared by the public and private sector. And it’s one that thinks about skills and innovation and infrastructure and finance, but also quality of life.”

Ms Jones compared Cambridge to California’s Silicon Valley, noting the similar university partnerships, but also highlighted the dangers which come from following too closely. The city must seize the opportunities presented by the City Deal, the new Combined Authority and the growth corridors towards Oxford and Milton Keynes, and London and Stansted, she said.

“Places like Silicon Valley are facing the challenges of not having done that,” she said. “There’s much greater pressure on the city: there’s unaffordable housing and it’s difficult to travel.”

Cambridge Ahead is a business and academic member group dedicated to the successful growth of the city and region. Its members represent a working population of over 36,000 people in the city and a turnover of more than £5 billion.

At its event last Wednesday (January 18), transport was named as the top issue limiting local growth, followed by affordable housing for staff, parking, space for expansion and broadband access.

Matthew Bullock, chair of CA’s growth project group and Master of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, urged companies to get ‘travel to work’ plans – only 18 per cent have them. “Because of longer commuting, people are asking for more flexible working and more working at home, and are not so willing to be available at short notice,” he said.

His survey showed that 22 per cent of companies are seeing productivity impacted by poor commuting and 11 per cent are seeing people unwilling to work overtime simply because it takes too long to get home. “This is going to hit your wallets,” he said. “We have a very clear interest in this being sorted out.”

Cambridge Ahead revealed work it has been doing with Cambridge University and the City Deal around ‘affordable, very rapid transit’. This involved an eight-wheel-drive ‘bullet bus’ that could go from Cambourne to Cambridge in as little as five minutes – about 130mph.

Outlining the moves Cambridge needs to make, Dr Tom Holbrook, co-founder of 5th Studio architects, referenced Zurich’s public transport system – the best in the world, he said – alongside yet another plan for a Cambridge Metro.

He urged a redesign of public spaces. “Cambridge has been voted Britain’s worst clone town,” he said. “Making our city generic is very, very destructive and ultimately reduces value, rather than creates it.

“With some notable exceptions, the quality of what we build in Cambridge is just not suitably ambitious – it’s just not really good enough. It’s still seen too much that architecture is in the province of the colleges, and that’s a great sadness. We need to be building better things within better public realms.”

Prof Holbrook looked to Barcelona’s emphasis on providing ‘good wine and coffee’ as part of its ecology of innovation.

His presentation contrasted this with an image of a queue outside a sandwich van on a dreary Cambridge business park – ‘the only place to buy lunch’. He presented a revamped Science Park that would build positive actions between working and living.

“As they say, talent wants to live well and companies follow talent,” he said.

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