14 March, 2016 - 14:19 By Tony Quested

Cambridge: A ‘city state’ or a city in a state?

I remember Business Weekly newspaper getting a call from a Tony Blair accolyte in the early ’90s flagging up how the power base in East Anglia was being shifted from the financial stronghold of Norwich to technology tour de force Cambridge under plans being drawn up by the then embryonic New Labour.

Norwich had been considered the capital of the region but in future it would be Cambridge, the Labour politician told BW; it was writ large in a 1994 blueprint being fashioned for the Blair-Brown axis with input from spin doctors Alastair Campbell, Charlie Whelan and Peter Mandelson. And so it came to pass – nominally at least.

Fast forward 22 years and the Government has considered Cambridge’s push for devolution and delivered a resounding raspberry without the Pi. Instead it proposes tri-county governance across Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.

An alliance comprising Cambridge Ahead, Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, Cambridge Network, the Federation of Small Businesses and One Nucleus condemned the proposal.

The partners have urged the Government to work with them to find a formula that recognises Cambridge’s “unique” role in Europe’s Science & Technology pantheon and leverages that kudos for the greater good of the UK economy.

With the Budget this Wednesday and the Chancellor’s axe reportedly  hovering over a raft of spending plans while several UK regions simultaneously clamour for more infrastructure cash something has to give – and in the current circumstances it is hardly likely to be the Treasury.

Tech City and Silicon Roundabout, the Northern Powerhouse, Silicon Fen, Silicon Glen and the M4, London-Stansted-Cambridge corridors – to name but a few  – all believe they have a special case for exclusion from the pack.

A tri-county play of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk doesn’t quite have the same ring as a Golden Triangle of London, Cambridge and Oxford. And so we spin back to the root of the problem – party politics.

Chancellor George Osborne, MP for Tatton, was not best pleased according to informed sources when AstraZeneca uprooted from his own constituency to head for Cambridge.

Every town, city, county and region fights for their own interests and no-one could possibly satisfy all their needs and desires. What we get is political expediency because governments do not want to take unpopular decisions that would lose them votes at grass roots level. And it’s governments that make the decisions on spend and power.

So we have this disconnect between what is best for individual areas and what is most effective for the economy. Do governments fight for the colour of the rosette or the best interests of Britain? Pragmatism suggests they will do both – but rarely at the same time.

The divisions over Brexit, notably at senior government level, illustrate that consensus can prove elusive even among colleagues and clans.

The most enlightened UK politicians have never found a way round this dichotomy – which is a great pity – because Britain will never maximise its full economic potential unless it learns how to leverage its greatest assets and tie in caveats and incentives that ensure the stronger feed the weak.

As we have argued here many times before, nations like the US, China and Japan, for example, have never been adept at drilling down to precise geographical areas when assessing trade opportunities.

Try mentioning Diss or Framlingham in Honshu or Kentucky and test the reaction; mention King’s or Cambridge and you are elevated to a different ball park.

That is not being derogatory to neighbouring areas; it is facing facts. Unless and until a UK government – regardless of political hue – is prepared to grasp that nettle then true devolution will never be a reality.

The potential problem facing Cambridge, given the global clamour for a seat at its technological table, is the possibility of retarding; that instead of being a ‘city state’ it will degenerate over time to a city in a state. While there should be no retreat from the growth agenda and the call for transformation, for the sake of one’s own sanity every push for change should be tempered by the realisation of what is possible – and probable. 

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