Growing the Cambridge powerhouse
Cambridge’s infrastructure is struggling to keep pace with the rapid growth of the region - threatening to constrain further development and economic growth.
Given the city’s increasing national and international importance as a hub for high tech industries and biosciences, the importance of finding infrastructure solutions also affects the potential of UK PLC as a whole.
For a medieval city, with strict planning policies protecting its historic and university-dominated centre, a green belt restricting its outward expansion, and an informed and vociferous local population, the road (pun intended) to infrastructure delivery is not an easy one.
However, things may be changing. The recent commitment to the £1.5 billion A14 improvement scheme, an increasing focus from the University in particular on connectivity as part of the Smart Cities programme and critically, the granting of City Deal status means that the many different agencies and organisations that have the power to deliver growth solutions are aligning and potential ways forward being found.
That said, the process is slow, and there are years of deficit to address in addition to the needs of future growth. The process is further complicated by the fact that new tranches of City Deal monies can only be unlocked upon the delivery of the earlier phase schemes.
Many would argue that the transport schemes chosen for early delivery simply, but perhaps understandably, reflect ‘the path of least resistance’ and that the fundamental ‘game changing’ solutions many hoped would emerge are not yet being discussed. However even these ‘easier’ schemes are riddled with controversy (like the Milton Road bus lane proposals or the more controversial West Field bus corridor), and quite how the city and its surrounds would react in reality to more radical major infrastructure proposals is difficult to predict.
So what is the solution when we seem to take one step forward and then move sideways or backwards? How do we get to a consolidated longer term plan that provides the strategic direction needed? Could regional devolution be the answer?
Central Government has recently proposed that, subject to agreement, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk would be given powers to help with infrastructure delivery – with an integrated approach to the planning of road, rail and digital connectivity alongside land for new housing and business, a dedicated mayor to take responsibility and accountability and the aim of making East Anglia a truly connected region comprehensively linking research-based growth.
These proposals have been conceived for the right reason, but there are key considerations that need to be made going forward, such as whether the Cambridge powerhouse can be applied to a wider area, its wealth spread and whether this devolution ambition can be achieved in different entities with very different economies and industries within the region.
The key will be demonstrating more efficient delivery if opposition to the model is to be overcome. Will the mayor have sufficient resources and enough skilled people to deliver a long-term fixed scheme for the region? It will be important that skilled staff is not lost in any wider regional restructuring. The challenges can already be seen, with a much smaller authority struggling to deliver on infrastructure solutions, and different ideas being produced almost weekly.
We await the outcome with interest. A strategic set of problems does perhaps require a strategic delivery agency to develop appropriate solutions, but the tide of development pressures will not wait, and action and direction is needed sooner rather than later or we risk losing or fettering the opportunity that is presented by what has previously been termed the Cambridge Phenomenon.
UPDATE: PBA welcomes the Cambridge devolution agreement update. The £800m funding will stimulate further economic growth locally, help deliver much needed housing, and address connectivity and movement across the region.