Cash for Cambridge?

Summary

Why the demands for £1billion for Cambridge should not be at the expense of northern cities

Some of you may have seen the headline in the Cambridge Evening News.

‘Spend £1 billion on Cambridge – not the north’

I’m not entirely sure that was the full quotation from Tory MP George Freeman, but the headline reflects the mood music that has been coming from some quarters over the past few years. This was most explicitly put  by Policy Exchange in 2008, saying that people should move en masse to Oxford and Cambridge.

Now for me, the spending isn’t an either/or. My issue as far as industrial and infrastructure policy is concerned, is whether anyone at the top/in positions of influence and power have a strategic coherent vision as to what they want to achieve. Or in plain English: “Can’t you come up with something better than that?”

Actually, Freeman was sensible in the major call he made regarding the railways – calling for the electrification of the Cambridge-Norwich line along with the re-linking of Oxford and Cambridge. There’s no direct road link between Oxford and Cambridge, so getting there by public transport takes the best part of 3 hours. I know – I learnt the hard way. But as far as visualising the possible routs between Oxford and Cambridge by rail go, the two beneficiaries that are immediately visible are Bedford and Milton Keynes – with possibly Stevenage and/or Luton too. Why? Because as far as most rail users are concerned, it doesn’t really matter too much whether the route as the crow flies is direct or not. In their mind you get on at station A, and get off at station B. Think about the Cambridge to Kings Cross line. Between Cambridge and Hitchin the direction is predominantly west-south-west rather than southwards towards London. But most of us tend not to notice unless you’re a regular who doesn’t like the sun in their eyes! (Then you know which seats to aim for at different times of the day!)

“Yeah Pooffles, why should we spend any more money on the feckless poor from foreign places like “the north?” Spend it on bright talented people from reputable schools and families!”

Because you think they’ll spend it on cigarettes, alcohol, flat screen TVs and subscription satellite TV? Behave!

Part of the decades-long problem with UK infrastructure is that it has been London-centric for too long. As mentioned in previous blogs, the pattern of existing UK electrified railways is London-centric. Even the additional expenditure – although welcome – involves upgrading a number of lines into and out of London. The highest profile ones being from London to Sheffield (cynics might say Nick Clegg’s constituency) and London to South Wales.

Given that Cambridge has got lots of things going for it as far as the local economy is concerned given the current climate, one of the risks it faces is ‘overheating’. At the time this blogpost was uploaded, annual house price increases were at 7%, with the average house price being around £340,000. Which is absolutely ridiculous. With a local planning authority – Cambridge City Council – starved of resources, any visitor to Cambridge coming by rail will be struck by the bland faceless featureless boxes that are being put up around the railway station. Yes, this is my neighbourhood too. Yet with such profits to be made, how can the council and the local community stand a chance to demand improved standards of design & construction?

This in part is one of the reasons why transport and wider infrastructure is ever so important. There are parts of East Anglia that are unemployment blackspots. Can improving transport infrastructure between say Cambridge and Peterborough, or Cambridge and Wisbech help relieve some of that? Mention of the Cambridge Science Parks reaching capacity has already been noted. Can improved transport links be used to help provide additional capacity further away from Cambridge geographically, but still within reasonable travel time distance? This is one of the arguments in favour of dualling and electrifying the Cambridge-Norwich line.

“Yeah Pooffles, that’s all great, but what if no one can afford the train fares?”

Exactly.

This is one of the wider problems the economy is facing: Costs of living. At the moment, people on low incomes are taking hits from reductions in social security payments, rents rising faster than wages, costs of food, fuel and transport rising faster than wages, and increased competition for scarce resources like social housing – along with a much tougher assessment environment for social security payments. It’s a triple-whammy. Even today, there were fears (subsequently denied by Downing Street) that the minimum wage would be cut. (My understanding was that fears stemmed from this review of the Low Pay Commission’s functions).

The transport issue is about giving a greater number of people more access to a wider number of jobs. It’s no good putting in all of the infrastructure if the price of the tickets means people cannot afford to use the buses and trains. Hence why I don’t have a problem with the principle of subsidising public transport use. If it means services are more viable (i.e. they can be put on in the first place) and are more affordable (in that more people can use them), more people can go to work or get out and about in general – which is good for the community. The onus on organisations putting on events in this social media world is to have links to public transport information.

One of the ways Cambridge dealt with the shortage of taxi drivers from several years ago was to invite taxi drivers from Peterborough to serve Cambridge and the surrounding area. During my childhood and teens, the taxi drivers were predominantly White middle-aged males. (One of them was my late driving instructor who pretty much taught half the city to drive in the latter part of the 20th Century!) Today, the backgrounds of taxi drivers are much more diverse – also reflecting the increased diversity of Cambridge too.

“But Pooffles, won’t someone think of Cambridge’s posh people???”

“Hey! Those are MY Cambridge posh people! You leave them A-LONE!” 

…as I wrote a few blogposts back. The point I wanted to finish on is that Cambridge as a city needs to become both much more outward-looking to the rest of the UK, and much more inclusive in welcoming and bringing in people who live in the city and in the surrounding areas. It’s making progress, but there is still a long way to go. And it’s not just the university.

One of the things I’ve concluded is that Cambridge’s civic infrastructure needs a huge boost to meet the challenges that are being put on it. The burden of outreach as far as local government and local politics is concerned is resting on the shoulders of too few people. The voluntary and community services infrastructure is one built for a market town, not one for a city with the presence of brand that Cambridge has – as I blogged about here last autumn.

My home. Our home. Your home.

  • I don’t want my home town to be crushed by massive international financial interests.
  • I don’t want my home town to become a bubble where it is a city full of executives who send their children to private schools.
  • I don’t want to see the wider city housing stock being bought up by buy-to-let landlords who then rent them out to the growing number of private language schools and colleges.
  • I don’t want my home town to be somewhere where people who live in social housing are somehow marginalised or not welcome in the life of the wider city.
  • I don’t want my home town to become somewhere where the people essential to the functioning of the city are priced out of it and have to commute in from far distances on poorly-maintained and underfunded public transport systems.
  • I don’t want anymore gated communities.
  • I don’t want anymore high-rise faceless bland blocks that could be built anywhere else, advertised as being very exclusive rather than inclusive. 

Instead…

  • I want my home town to be welcoming to people who have got something positive to contribute to it.
  • I want my home town to become greater than the sum of its parts.
  • I want my home town to realise its full potential.
  • I want my hometown to be somewhere where there is no more ‘town vs gown’, but where movement between the two can be seamless.
  • I want my hometown to see greater interaction between the young people that live here and the young language students, college students and university students that come from outside to study here.
  • I want the events put on in my home town to reach out to people beyond their normal audiences. 

I want…

I want…

I want…

But.

NOT at the expense of my brother and sister fellow citizens who live in the north. I want the benefits of Cambridge to be shared with them, not squirrelled away from them at their expense.

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