Are Cambridgeshire businesses hiding away from tough political challenges?


Some thoughts on the various articles written for the business communities on the future of Cambridge

Cambridge Ahead – who were one of the lead sponsors for the Be the change – Cambridge event I organised a couple of years ago, hosted an event about the future of Cambridge that was aimed at the business community. A number of people have commented on who said what – in particular in the context of Brexit, which wasn’t even on the radar a couple of years ago. One article written about the recent event is here.

‘We are non-political’

I have often heard this line used by a number of people and organisations. What they really mean is that their organisation does not back or is not affiliated to any political party. But we all do whenever we comment on something like the future of where we live is we engage in something innately political. We should all acknowledge that.

What the people want and what’s good for business may not be the same thing

From the Cambridge business community’s perspective, the Brexit vote represented this. How, as a business (or business community) do you try and find a middle ground in politically polarised times? Since the late 1990s until very recently, it was relatively straight forward for the business community to hold that middle ground. Remember the complaints about political parties having very little to differentiate between them? The world we’re moving into now – especially given the first few statements from the new US administration, is going to be very different. Political parties themselves are struggling to redefine and reorganise themselves along the new split in UK politics – not left vs right but pro-EU vs anti-EU.

Accepting the structures given by central government rather than questioning them

This for me is a theme within public policy debates – the focus on details of the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’. The Qs on ‘why’ are put in the box ‘too difficult to answer’ or ‘that’s for the party political arena which we’re not involved in’. One of the few articles that does face the problem of structures head on is this one by Gabrielle Hibberd of CoFinitive.

 “The devolution deal will prove to be a big milestone is Cambridge’s progressive journey. But to tackle its issues head-on Cambridge needs real fiscal devolution. Cambridge has the potential; it just needs the right governance and more fiscal autonomy to deliver better growth even faster. Still, what Cambridge crucially needs to remain successful, is unity.”

Looking at Gabrielle’s Twitter profile I get the sense that she’s examined the problems of Cambridge as they are without worrying about the party-political niceties. Hence the solution she’s come up with cuts through the party-political fog of whether such a solution benefits one party or another. Refreshing – and an example of why Cambridgeshire’s politics needs many more younger people and people from more diverse backgrounds taking part. They will feel less constrained by the restrictions that inevitably come from being part of an institution (in this case party political) for extended periods of time. (Party political should not be seen as all things bad, as I’ll explain later).

The above quotation matches what data analyst and Liberal Democrat campaigner Phil Rodgers posted about the complexity of local government in Cambridgeshire.

Furthermore, Cambridgeshire – or as in Phil’s case, the Greater Cambridge Council (and its counterpart presumably based in Peterborough) need to have much greater taxation and spending powers than they currently have.

“What could those powers be?”

At a top level – and hell would probably freeze over before any Chancellor/The Treasury accepted this, are things like a land value tax, a wealth tax (based on total wealth, not just wealth in the UK), and a local income tax. Which one if any you choose, and and at what level will depend on your political disposition. Some readers of this blog will oppose all three on principle. Others will back all three and will want to whack up the percentage at which the tax applies – again on political principle.

Zero historical analysis

One of the reasons I started Lost Cambridge was because too many of our decisions were being taken with minimal historical context. The last time we had a restructure of local government in Cambridgeshire was in the mid-1970s. Devolution and LEPs are cosmetic compared to past restructures.

I wonder how many of us have looked into past infrastructure plans and wondered why some got the go-ahead and others did not? Or perhaps why some infrastructure projects were delayed for so long? For example Parliament passed the necessary legislation for two new bridges over the River Cam in 1889. The first – Victoria Road, was built in 1890. But it wasn’t until 1971 that the Elizabeth Way bridge was completed. A further – aborted bridge over the Cam was proposed by Professors Holford and Wright in 1950.


Does anyone know why no bridge was built across Ditton Meadows linking East and North Cambridge? Did anyone (outside of local government and local history circles) know that such a bridge was proposed in the first place?

I picked out a few interesting things from the 1950 Holford Wright Report in this blogpost. What stands out for you? Were there any missed opportunities? If so, which ones were they?

Where are all of the women in decision-making roles?

One of the best books ever written about Cambridge was called Cambridge – a brief study in social questions. It was written at a time when women were banned from standing for election to Parliament. Yet despite that, the book was written by one of the most talented women ever to live in Cambridge. Step forward (again) Miss Eglantyne Jebb. If you look in the acknowledgements section in the book, you will find some of the most amazing women who lived in Cambridge at the time contributed to the book – including the first woman to be elected to the city council, Ada Florence Keynes.

Eglantyne’s book on Cambridge was the first social scientific study of multiple deprivation in Cambridge. Despite her very affluent upbringing, she went out to the slums of Cambridge (where the infant mortality rate was one in eight as she states) and wrote a book that was widely praised at the time – even though history has since forgotten about it. (Hence trying to change this). Remember at the time, the men of Cambridge University until only a few years before saw the issue of sex workers in Cambridge as being a problem of morals rather than multiple deprivation. Hence why they were unlawfully locking up young women in Cambridge until 1891 when 17 year old Cambridge hero Daisy Hopkins stood up to the university, metaphorically castrated their constables and got the law changed. The Cambridge University and Corporation of Cambridge Act 1894 was a huge point in our city’s history – in particular its governance. But how many of us knew that, and how many of us knew that it was a brave 17 year old woman who was the spark?

Where are all of the women in the decision-making roles in the business community?

Because if Cambridge was blind-sided to the input of women just over a century ago, imagine what the Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough LEP is blindsided to today. The gender split of the board is quite frankly embarrassing. And to say the talented women are not there simply won’t wash. As an institution the LEP is far too complacent – and has been ever since I first raised this issue a few years ago because we’ve seen so little change. If the LEP won’t reflect the diverse makeup of the business communities in Cambridge, why should any of us listen to the LEP?

Who is influencing the influencers?

Gabrielle Hibberd of CoFinitive hits the nail on the head again in her blogpost saying that Cambridge needs a longer term plan and vision. The City Deal should have been the chance to do that but it hasn’t because it didn’t use its ‘Year Zero’ as an opportunity to host that wide-ranging consultation and community conversation about the city we wanted to become. Several of us did try to persuade them but they were not for persuading.

Cambridge Network representative Claire Ruskin’s point is very well made. We don’t have that common data and evidence base. One thing for Cambridge’s (and Cambridgeshire’s) business community is to think about sharing information – and also to become more public-facing. By that I mean it needs to allow itself to be challenged and influenced by the public and community groups. Are there insights that businesses are missing out on by focusing their attention on senior councillors, quango chief executives and ministers?

And finally…where are your young people?

Given that skills is top of the agenda, why are young people conspicuous by their absence – given that possibly for the first time in history, young people have skills sets that older generations do not have. You only have to look at adverts for internet service providers on TV making a big thing about children having power over their parents because they know how to use the internet. And I write this with my most previous council meeting at Cambridgeshire County Council being one where at least two councillors boasted how they didn’t do social media. Have you got any board members like that? How do you think such attitudes look to your current and future employees and customers?

Food for thought.




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