Back in June 2016, devolution, the initiative of the former Prime Minister and Chancellor, was at risk with the arrival of Theresa May. With the success of the initiative still to be seen, those assuming the mayoral roles are under pressure to secure some quick wins and demonstrate that devolution can work. With our new Mayor in place for the East of England, we are keen to understand the opportunity he can bring, and from my base in Cambridge, the heart of the East of England area, we are feeling optimistic. Our region is very much a tale of two cities: Cambridge & Peterborough… and everything in between.
On the one hand, we have Cambridge. A highly successful centre for education, science, innovation and technology, and as a result an aspirational location for people of all ages and backgrounds. As a city, it frequently tops the rankings for economic growth, areas of opportunity for large or small-scale business, innovation and employee opportunity. Most recently it was ranked as one of the most desirable places to live in the UK, but these positives also create one of the least affordable cities to live in the country.
By contrast Peterborough offers accessibility and comparative affordability. Sitting on the A1 and the key east coast mainline railway, Peterborough is the East’s gateway to the rest of the UK. Its strengths very much lie in this connectivity, as it’s industry has thrived on accessibility, and it has become a successful economic hub of industrial, logistics and manufacturing.
Already we can see two very different challenges, but when we go beyond these two cities, the Mayor faces something different again. Market towns and villages which have thrived on their rural setting and appeal have become a commuter belt for either city, tourism hubs or successful mini economic centres.
So where does this leave us? What should Mayor Palmer prioritise across the region to really have an impact in his five-year term? What influence or control can he bring to bear, and where can he make a real contribution? Below, I have set out a few areas I believe he should consider.
Learn from other city regions - In Manchester we also have a new Metro Mayor, in the shape of Andy Burnham, but in many ways Sir Howard Bernstein has been pedalling this role for several years already. Acting as an omnipresent figure head for Manchester, he has sought to drive and unite Greater Manchester and all the surrounding Boroughs within it, wherever possible and most notably through the development of a Greater Manchester Spatial Framework. The evolution of this framework has been an epic challenge for all involved, but it has driven cross boundary working, while faced with similar challenges of diversity across the area they were seeking to unify under a strategic approach. Is there something we can learn from this process to date?
Focus on one issue - The challenges are many, but instead of trying to tackle them all, I wonder if focusing on a single issue, which could in turn offer significant opportunities to enable all the others – infrastructure – is not the way to go? Big ticket items such as an improved faster and efficient railway line to Peterborough would reconnect Cambridge with the rest of the UK. Considered local level infrastructure would connect both cities to their out-lying villages and those villages and towns to the urban opportunity. In return, they can accommodate growth/supply in a sustainable manner, and alleviate the pressures of affordability in Cambridge particularly.
Be Visionary – our city needs and deserves a bold vision. Cambridge is one of the strongest hubs for research and innovation within the UK, and yet it is our heritage which dominates much of our planning decision making day to day. I am by no means advocating any proposals which will damage our historical integrity but we also need to embrace innovation and progress. If Cambridge cannot become a test bed for innovation (autonomous vehicles for example) where can? Being visionary isn’t easy, especially when you are confined to a five-year term, but with a non-statutory strategic framework to develop, Mayor Palmer is in the ideal position to draw on the private sector knowledge at his fingertips, to take this on. Think long term, and suddenly anything is possible. Leverage the full might of the Cambridge machine to help deliver this vision and it will become reality far sooner than we could ever have imagined.
This blog also features on Cambridge News online.
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Devolution, Metro Mayor, Cambridge, Peterborough