Devolution is all the rage in Whitehall at the moment, with areas outside London encouraged to band together, elect a mayor and take more control over their finances and future. The aim is to counterbalance the economic power of London – or if you want to be cynical to woo wavering Labour/LibDem voters over to the Tory party.
The first of these projects, the Northern Powerhouse, was trumpeted by George Osborne two years ago, and has seen powers over health spending devolved, plans for elected mayors take shape, and funding announced for transport improvements, although many remain sceptical until things actually happen.
In his last budget, the Chancellor spread devolution even wider, announcing plans for an Eastern Powerhouse, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Except it isn’t all of Cambridgeshire since Cambridge City Council has said from the outset that it doesn’t want to be part of the agreement. And it turns out that it may not be any of the county at all as Cambridgeshire County Council rejected the deal offered by the Government at a meeting on 25th March, calling for the terms to be renegotiated.
In fact, Cambridgeshire was never part of the original plans, which were for an authority to cover Norfolk and Suffolk. But the Government deemed this not large enough, so pushed to add Cambridgeshire to the mix. The fraught negotiations, which involve 22 separate county and borough councils, demonstrate the difficulty of getting any agreement across such a wide area.
As someone who lives in Suffolk and spends a lot of time working in Cambridge I can see the Chancellor’s original idea behind the Eastern Powerhouse – use the energy and buzzing economies of Cambridge and Norwich to revitalise the rest of the East. But as a PR person I’m deeply sceptical of initiatives that are strong on bluster but short on details. I remember the Cambridge 2 Ipswich High Tech Corridor of 2000 which signally failed to generate much entrepreneurship between the two places. For the Eastern Powerhouse to work it has to be more than a paper tiger and, I believe, have the following attributes:
1. Proper investment in communications
The Northern Powerhouse has been criticised for slow progress on improving transport links, but at least there are motorways linking Leeds and Manchester. Roads in Suffolk and Norfolk are simply not up to scratch, and there is no spare capacity – if the A14 is blocked then forget trying to get from East to West in a hurry. Trains are lackadaisical when it comes to speed – you can get from York to London in about the same time as London to Norwich, despite it being almost twice as far away.
The other thing that the region lacks is 21st century (or even 20th century) telecommunications. Cities in the region may have 3G, or occasionally 4G, but in rural areas you are lucky to get any coverage at all. What brought this home to me was when I was in the middle of the Yorkshire moors, miles from anywhere – and I had a 4G signal. At home 2G is the norm. And you can forget Fibre to the Home connections – many villages in Suffolk have yet to receive any fibre connectivity at all. This is all despite BT’s main research labs being located in the county.
So, if an Eastern Powerhouse is to flourish it needs serious investment in transport and communications – potentially billions of pounds. And this isn’t just moving existing spending commitments to a new pot. This is going to have to come from central government and intoday’s straitened times I simply can’t see this happening.
2. Investment in skills
Both Suffolk and Norfolk languish near the bottom of league tables for school achievement, with inspections by Ofsted heavily criticising both county councils. Again, this comes down to investment – government policies have focused money on underachieving inner city schools but have neglected rural and coastal areas. Suffolk only got a university within the last decade, while Peterborough has been promised one as part of the Powerhouse proposals.
3. Change in leadership
Since I moved to Suffolk the County Council has shut my son’s school, tried to build a waste incinerator in an area that failed to meet its own environmental criteria and had to cope with a chief executive who received a six figure payoff after being accused (and cleared of) bullying that led to the suicide of another official. I’ve seen the damage cuts have done to its own education department and the slow speed at which vital decisions are made. Suffice to say I have an incredibly low view of its utility or the calibre of its elected officers. Yet, when there is talk of an elected mayor, it is widely believed it will come from one of the county councils. I therefore heartily agree with entrepreneur Peter Dawe, who says he will stand for the post of elected mayor of the region, criticising local councillors for “their myopic, parochial interests based on the past, and on keeping what powers they have, whilst carping about lack of money.” However I can see party machines mobilising to shut out an independent that threatens their candidates.
4. Change in attitudes
This is probably the hardest thing to change, but people need to be encouraged to realise their potential – and high achievers need to be encouraged to return to the county. More young people need to go to university or college, and more should be done to support innovative new businesses that deliver jobs to the region. This doesn’t just require investment, but a cultural change that opens up opportunities to everyone – however it does rely on the communications, skills and leadership change mentioned above if it is going to happen.
If the Eastern Powerhouse is to achieve anything it needs to address these four areas – otherwise it risks being a solely cosmetic extra and costly layer of government that will fail to improve the aspirations, careers, and lives of those within the region.
The world is becoming increasingly urban, with the UN estimating that 70% of the global population will live in cities by 2050. Making sure that cities can cope with the unprecedented pressure on their resources is therefore critical. Hence the idea of smart cities that interconnect infrastructure, services, technology and culture for the benefit of citizens and visitors alike.
Technology is at the centre of this, providing a platform to make lives easier for everyone and vitally, letting them interact in new ways. At a basic level sensors can collect real time data to make day to day activities (from monitoring air quality to finding a parking space) easier, ensuring there is a reliable, predictable and efficient infrastructure. And, more importantly, using this platform brings people together to enable the free exchange of ideas, letting people interact in new ways and create surprising stuff.
From the outside Cambridge has many of the ingredients of a smart city – a highly educated population, strong technology industry, lots of bright ideas and is concentrated in a relatively small area. So, last week’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas debate discussing “Is Cambridge a smart city?” looked like it might go either way.
But peel back the surface and Cambridge’s smartness seems to be currently focused in people’s heads. Making the case for the motion, the best efforts of Alex van Someren of Amadeus Capital and Claire Ruskin of the Cambridge Network seemed to revolve around having some signs that tell you when the next bus is due and a desire by many geeks to patronise the arts.
In contrast, the speakers against Smartness had an array of arguments. Andrew Nairne of Kettle’s Yard pointed to the fact that Cambridge should be a city of potential and imagination and clearly isn’t delivering, while the divides between town and gown, city and countryside highlighted the lack of a common feeling between groups in the population. And that’s before people got onto transport planning, the cost of housing and a lack of joined up vision as impediments to smartness. Unsurprisingly the motion failed, with 82% voting against it.
So what does Cambridge need to become smart? It has the brains, but from what I’ve seen it comes down to not having a single, unified vision that everyone buys into. There are a lot of disparate groups in a small population – nearly 25,000 of the 125,000 residents are students, while you also have the University of Cambridge and its colleges (which own most of the land), those involved in tech businesses, tourists and the general public. And as the limited space available in the city mean that a large number of people can’t afford to live in Cambridge, you have a sizeable commuting population. Cambridge isn’t even a unitary authority, so there isn’t even one public body to represent the city.
All of these groups have different ideas for what would make Cambridge smart, but there isn’t a single agency that joins up all their needs and provides a dynamic vision for the future. It is time for this to change if everyone is to benefit from Cambridge’s success going forward.
When people think of Cambridge the things that tend to come to mind are the university, technology hub and biotech/healthcare industries. But it is also one of the UK’s creative hotspots, with the creative industries employing 12,000 staff across Cambridgeshire and contributing £1 billion to the local economy. 24 per cent of the UK’s game developers work in the county, which was news to me.
While we creatives have been talking to each other (through initiatives such as the excellent CamCreative) clearly the creative industries have been hiding their collective light under a bushel.
Hence the formation of Creative Front, an Anglia Ruskin University-led initiative designed to be an umbrella for creativity in the county. Perhaps symptomatic of the fragmentation in the sector, it has taken four years to get off the ground, and has just about launched its website. This aims to be a one stop shop for those looking to buy creative services or network with colleagues, get training or mentoring and advertise jobs etc.
Having heard Caroline Hyde from Creative Front talk I can see in principle that it’s a much-needed idea. But I do worry that it’s taken four years to get to an average looking website and there don’t seem to be clear plans for building thought leadership (and business opportunities) for Cambridge creatives nationally and internationally. Asking the 12,000 creatives what they want is going to get you a similar number of radically different answers. In a city crammed full of networking organisations and hubs Creative Front is going to have to differentiate itself and deliver value quickly if it is to achieve its laudable aims.