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6 February, 2016 - 16:31

Government acknowledges the need to support Cambridge growth agenda

Ian Mather

Back in 2013, Cambridge Ahead was a startup and, like any new venture, it needed to establish itself quickly and start delivering the goods. Thanks to a lot of effort and enthusiasm from our members, progress has been rapid, writes Ian Mather, chair of Cambridge Ahead.  

From a standing start, Cambridge Ahead now has 38 corporate members including the largest employers in and around Cambridge. Indeed, ARM, Marshall Group, the University of Cambridge, Addenbrooke’s and AstraZeneca were some of the first to join. 

Cambridge Ahead members employ over 36,000 people and account for over £5 billion of revenue generated in the region. The membership is diverse.
So what has driven our rapid growth? Put simply, it is the desire of members to make a difference and have a say in the development of this great city. We all have opinions and in Cambridge there are far more opinions than people. What matters are opinions that are backed by evidence and Cambridge Ahead has been busy collecting lots of data.

In 2014 we surveyed over 5,000 Cambridge employees on what they felt were the key issues to address in Cambridge and the overwhelming response was the lack of affordable housing and congestion.

The results of the survey led to the creation of expert groups to look in more detail at the two issues. These experienced and knowledgeable teams have been tasked to consider tough questions such as: How do we bring forward housing delivery? Can private money be used to develop cheaper rental housing for middle income earners? And what is required to cut congestion? Some great ideas have emerged such as private financing for housing through income strip financing.

One short-term gain was to encourage Stagecoach to create a new shuttle bus service from Trumpington Park & Ride to Cambridge railway station. The Route R service, as it is now known, was up and running in record time and is now carrying 1,400 passengers per week – Stagecoach’s fastest growing route.

Other expert groups have looked at digital connectivity, the provision of commercial space and the education and skills agenda. 

On skills, Cambridge Ahead was instrumental in setting up a new portal for employers to connect direct with schools to help inspire the next generations. This is now a cornerstone of the organisation called Form the Future and is a good example of Cambridge Ahead being a catalyst for change.

Underpinning all of this work is the growth team, led by former banker and now Master of St Edmunds College, Matthew Bullock. He, alongside experts from the Judge Business School, has been working for the last two years on a detailed analysis of businesses and research institutions that exist in and around Cambridge. Updated figures due out next month will certainly make for interesting reading.

Our next important task is to start asking some ‘what if?’ questions: What are your organisation’s growth projections and what would they be if, for example, you could recruit and retain all of the talent that you wanted?

Many reading this will recognise that attracting talent to Cambridge is not as easy as it once was. This is linked to the lack of affordability of housing and transport problems. We need Government to hear this message clearly, but to influence Government we need evidence as well as anecdote.

All our work feeds into the campaign known as The Case for Cambridge. This initiative is being driven by Cambridge Ahead but it has the support of local councils, our MPs, the Local Enterprise Partnership and other business groups such as Cambridge Network and One Nucleus.

The message to Government is that the growth of Cambridge should not be taken for granted. The contribution this region makes to the UK Treasury could be much greater. At worst, it is at risk.

Government is listening to this message and crucially they have set a course for devolving powers to local authorities who can demonstrate they are joined up and focused in a way that can deliver economic growth. Manchester has already been granted devolved powers because it ticks all these boxes.

To many in business the world of local politics seems remote and irrelevant. But the devolution debate is vitally important. Businesses need to engage.

To their credit, a number of our local politicians and our new crop of MPs see the need for change but there is a lot of work still to do.

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