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6 February, 2016 - 16:40

The voice of business key to devolution debate

Matthew Bullock

A key part of the devolution agenda is an evidence-based business input into how growth is encouraged and its impacts are managed, writes Matthew Bullock, vice-chair of Cambridge Ahead.

Cambridge has some great examples of where local initiatives have successfully reinforced and channelled its growth. 

The decision by Trinity College to build the Science Park was a hugely important marker that Cambridge was open to new science-based industry. 

The Cambridge Futures work in 1998-2000 drew the councils into the growth debate and resulted in three major transactions – the release of land for the Addenbrooke’s Biomedical Campus, the decision to build new university facilities in West and North West Cambridge, and the potential move of Marshall’s airfield to share facilities at Mildenhall. The first two are well underway and are making a huge contribution to current growth while the latter was blocked by the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.

To underpin the next steps in the region’s growth, the Cambridge Ahead Growth Project is taking the Cambridge Futures work to another level. This has involved economists from the University of Cambridge annually mapping out all the companies in Cambridge – 25,000 of them – by sector, turnover and employment, so that we know what growth is taking place and where. The second annual draw of this data will be published shortly and will confirm that Cambridge continues to grow faster than China.

The second phase of the project is to survey the 100 largest companies in the region and to create a bottom-up forecast of how much they think their sectors will grow over the next decade.

We need to know what businesses think future growth pressures will be and what their growth might be if those pressures were better managed, in order to prioritise the infrastructure initiatives that will need to be taken. Creating such a bottom-up regional growth forecast has never been attempted before, and we have a great learning curve to get round to do it, but it should be very powerful when completed.

The last stage is to work with spatial planning experts at the University of Cambridge – from architecture, land economy and economic geography – to create alternative pictures of how the city and the region might develop. We know that the city alone will not be able to cope with all the growth, and how it connects and works with the other towns in the region will be hugely important to creating growth and goodwill, and in prioritising infrastructure initiatives.

In doing all of this work we have to remember that decisions about how the city grows and about spending on roads and rail sit rightly in the hands of voters and politicians.

But as employers and taxpayers, business does have a major stake in these decisions being taken in a timely and correct way and in making sure they are based on a real understanding of what is happening on the ground. We look forward to being active and well-informed participants in the devolution debate.

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