Early on Wednesday 18th January, more than 200 people packed the main conference room in the Granta Centre at Granta Park, south of Cambridge, to attend Cambridge Ahead’s annual conference.
They had come to hear a number of speakers and panellists talk on the theme of What Makes for a Successful UK City in the 21st century? We were all keen to hear from these experts as to how they define success for a city and how it can be achieved given that our city is one of exceptional growth.
The audience was welcomed by our CEO, Jane Paterson-Todd, who then invited Alexandra Jones (CEO of Centre for Cities and Chair of the London Stansted Cambridge Consortium), to speak first. Alexandra started by saying that as the economy has changed so has the role of cities. The advantage of businesses locating in cities used to be lower costs – now the main advantage is the ability to share ideas and information. The most successful cities have re-invented themselves. According to her, the attributes of a successful city are skills, innovation, quality of life, infrastructure, access to finance, and good leadership. But she identified the challenges of housing and infrastructure that Cambridge must address. We must work with our neighbouring regions and cities to reach our potential and compete on the global stage.
Next up was Dr Tom Holbrook (co-founder of 5th Studio, a spatial design agency). His presentation, The Good City, was hotly anticipated not least because the audience wanted to hear about placemaking and its role in the successful city. Tom agreed that leadership and infrastructure were key factors in a successful city, but he also added a good city is ‘open to all’, has character, and has ‘great landscape and architecture’.
Many of his comments resonated with the audience. Why was it, he asked, that in so many business parks the only place to buy lunch is the sandwich van? There are quality of life issues that ‘urban retrofitting’ can fix in areas like science parks. And why do we build ‘boring’ cities and create clone towns? Tom’s talk was invigorating and was a catalyst for some searching questions in the Q&A at the end.
Our third speaker was Alex Plant (Chair of Cambridge Ahead’s Transport project and a Director at Anglian Water). The subject of his talk was the importance of finding routes to long-term investment to support sustainable growth. His first key message was that to tackle Cambridge’s problems such as congestion and lack of affordable housing, we need fiscal devolution. Citing Joseph Chamberlain’s tax increment financing (TIF) of Birmingham’s expansion in the 19th century, he talked of a ‘virtuous circle’ of inclusive growth.
Next was the research that Cambridge Ahead is doing with the University and City Deal on Affordable Very Rapid Transport (AVRT). This road-based system is a cheaper alternative to the traditional mass transit solutions of rail and tram popular globally and could be an option for Cambridge. In summing up he suggested that Devolution will be an opportunity for the kind of integrated planning and novel financing of infrastructure and housing projects that will drive the sustainable growth that we seek.
Our final speaker was Matthew Bullock (Chair of the Cambridge Ahead Growth project and Master of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge), who gave an exclusive preview to the audience of the latest growth data for the city region. This shows that in 2015-16, growth of Cambridge companies continued at around 7% on a one, three and five-year view. Global turnover of Cambridge companies increased by 7.6% to £35.7bn, up from £33bn the previous year. If sustained and compounded over 10 years this 7% figure would result in growth of 97%, essentially doubling. Given we are already five years through the decade, he suggested that we need to plan to manage this growth in a sustainable way. He also revealed the results of a survey of top businesses on their growth projections and on possible impacts on growth such as Brexit. Read the full press release on the latest growth figures.
The event concluded with a panel discussion of key on how the political landscape through Brexit and the results of Devolution for Cambridgeshire could impact the City’s growth. It was also an opportunity to hear about the research that Grant Thornton is doing nationally on exploring what makes a vibrant city economy. The panel comprised its chair, Jane Galvin (Regional MD, Barclays, and Chair of the CBI East of England), Lord Andrew Lansley CBE PC, Mark Reeve (Chair, Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough LEP), and Darren Bear (CEO Eastern Region, Grant Thornton).
With Brexit potentially reducing access to talent, Darren made a well-received point that business should act and help to address the skills gap by engaging better with schools. The discussion ended with an opportunity for the audience members to ask questions on what they had heard during the morning. A key concern aired was the impact of growth and how the infrastructure will cope with it.
The morning’s event was then brought to a close by our Chairman, Ian Mather, who left us with a message of optimism: Cambridge does have challenges – but we can meet them and attain the goal of a successful, sustainable city.
Speaking after the event, Ian Mather said, “It’s evident from the turnout and the immediate feedback that the event was of great interest to Cambridge’s business, academic, local government and community groups. Some really interesting ideas were aired and the latest growth data continues to show the strength and direction of the city’s economy. This event has shown yet again how Cambridge Ahead is leading the debate on the future of our special city. I would like to thank our speakers and panellists for giving their time and contributing so much to the success of the event.”
Find out more and register for the Grant Thornton Vibrant City Inquiry, Cambridge – 16th March
Sarah Brereton, Director, Limewash
01223 813 557