Published on 24 August 2023
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Levelling Up?  Why plans to make Cambridge into Europe’s ‘Silicon Valley’ would be bad for the city and bad for levelling up

Michael Gove’s proposal to make Cambridge into ‘Europe’s Silicon Valley’ would run counter to the 'levelling up agenda' and the need to invest in those northern cities where considerable potential exists, write Ron Martin and Mia Gray.

A ‘counter-Levelling Up’ policy?

The UK Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, has revealed plans that suggest that 250,000 new homes could be built in Cambridge as part of proposals to turn the area into ‘the Silicon Valley of Europe’. That this proposal – to boost the Cambridge subregion’s population by half a million or more over the next 20 years, and to focus yet more investment and infrastructure on the area’s science and high-tech clusters – should come from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, is, to say the least, surprising.  A key mission of the Department for Levelling Up, as set out in the Government’s 2022 Levelling Up White Paper is to direct resources and policy interventions to the ‘left behind places’ across the country, in an attempt to bring their levels of economic prosperity, productivity, performance and opportunity nearer to those found in London and the South East. Cambridge is most definitely not one of those ‘left behind places’ (Martin, et al., 2021; Martin, et al., 2022).

Indeed, Cambridge is one of the more prosperous parts of the UK, and has been one of the fastest growing for some time (see Figures 1 and 2). It already contains several nationally and internationally leading clusters of advanced technology, bio-medical research and development, and computer and digital activity, and is one of the UK’s top centres for innovation. Together with Oxford and London, Cambridge forms part of the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of advanced, knowledge-intensive and science-based economic activity that is often held up by Government as the UK’s ‘economic growth engine’.  So to build an additional quarter of a million new homes and to direct public spending to foster yet more science parks in the Cambridge node of this ‘Golden Triangle’ would be to further boost this leading region of the country: in effect, it would put the national ‘growth engine’ region on steroids, whilst doing little to promote levelling up the left behind places elsewhere, especially in northern regions of the UK.

Figure 1:  Cambridge’s employment has grown faster than the national average

Source of data: Cambridge Econometrics

Figure 2:  Cambridge’s annual average wage is well above the national average

Source of data: Cambridge Econometrics

Is bigger necessarily better?

Secretary of State Michael Gove has defended the idea of growing Cambridge almost fourfold in terms of population and employment over the next 20 years by appealing to what has become almost a religious credo amongst certain spatial economists, economic think tanks and government policymakers alike, namely the argument that it’s all about agglomeration, that ‘bigger is better’.  Concentrating tens upon tens of thousands of new homes, involving a massive increase in population, and developing several new science clusters in the Cambridge sub-region would, so Gove claimed, produce the ‘agglomeration externalities’ that would make the sub-region still more innovative, more productive, and more prosperous – the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe’.

What this ignores, or seems to play down, are the various diseconomies and negative effects that such a colossal expansion of Cambridge could unleash.  Silicon Valley itself illustrates this potential danger. Silicon Valley may well be a crucible of innovation and technological advance, but it has also become one of the most unequal regional economies in the US (Donald and Gray, 2018).  The level of wealth inequality in the region is staggering: “In 2022 the top 10% of Silicon Valley households held 66% of the wealth; eight Silicon Valley residents hold more wealth than that of the bottom 50% combined (nearly half a million households) (Joint Venture Silicon Valley Index, 2023).  At the same time, approximately one-third of the region’s school-aged children were in poverty and qualified for food assistance (CalFresh – California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). 

Further, those on very high incomes have driven up the prices of housing and basic services in Silicon Valley to some of highest in the US.  These sky-high prices make it difficult for workers on average and modest wages to afford to live in Silicon Valley and forces lower-income, support workers out of the Valley, leading to housing and schooling segregation and the poorest segment of society bearing the longest commutes.

We already see the dynamics of wealth and income inequality play out in the Cambridge region.  Cambridge is a city where highly paid personnel in the several tech clusters, combined with those who commute to well paid jobs in London, have driven house prices well above national levels (Figure 3), while many service workers, health care workers, cleaners, and public sector staff cannot afford to live in the city, but have to commute on overcrowded roads from nearby towns and villages with lower costs of living.  What is required in Cambridge and its immediate environs is more affordable and social housing for those on low and modest incomes, not yet more expensive housing for the very well off (and for overseas clients looking for a safe investment vehicle).

Figure 3:  Average house prices (detached properties) in Cambridge City, 2004-2020

Source of data:

There are also environmental challenges raised by the Silicon Valley ‘recipe’ – everything from high rates of water and electricity consumption and hazardous waste to unsustainable land use (Donald and Gray, 2018).  The Valley functions have become a formless suburban sprawl as one corporate ‘campus’ after another spreads out across the land.  The numerous small cities that make up Silicon Valley flow from one to another without marked variation.  The tech firms’ headquarters and nondescript business parks are only broken up with car parks, strip malls and large roads. The result is a homogenised, nondescript landscape, with little sense of a centre or identity. 

The Valley has also become the epitome of unsustainability – low-density sprawl, inadequate public transport, and car dependency which exacerbates air pollution and climate emissions.  Much of Cambridge’s new developments over the past decade would not be out of place in Silicon Valley – a series of ‘new towns’ and ‘new villages’ have been developed or are under development just beyond the city, typically containing little new employment opportunities, necessitating commuting into Cambridge on an inadequate public transport system. Added to this, Cambridge is located in one of the driest regions of the UK, so that the addition of 250,000 new homes and several new or expanded science parks would put additional stress on an already over-stretched water supply system. 

Thus, the case for quadrupling the size of Cambridge is not persuasive.  We are not opposed to more development, but would argue that expansion on the scale proposed by Gove could well produce a region that is environmentally and socially problematic, and destroy much of the existing physical and cultural attractiveness of the area.  Crucially, it would run directly counter to the ‘levelling up’ agenda, and the need to invest in those northern cities where considerable potential exists to develop other regional centres of science-based, high-tech activity linked to major universities, focusing for example, on advanced manufacturing and green technologies. The Government’s declared aim of making the UK a ‘global science and technology leader’ would be best achieved not by focusing policy on the Golden Triangle or Cambridge alone, but by enhancing and developing the potential of other city region tech hubs across the UK. Such a policy mission could be a win-win strategy: of pursuing and expanding the UK’s global science and technology presence whilst at the same time ‘levelling up’ the economic geography of the country. After all, ‘levelling up’, is supposed to be the prime focus of Gove’s political remit.

Image: Cambridge Science Park Napp Pharmaceutical Group building from the A14 interchange ramp, by cmglee, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Ron Martin

Professor Ron Martin

Affiliated Researcher

Ron Martin is Emeritus Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Cambridge, UK, and Emeritus Professorial Fellow of St Catharine’s  College, Cambridge, UK. From 2015 to 2020 he was...

Mia Gray

Mia is Professor of Economic Geography and a Fellow of Girton College, University of Cambridge. She researches austerity, labour, debt, gender & sustainable regional economies.

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