Published on 1 April 2021
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What does levelling up mean to Cambridge and the wider region?

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy hosted an event as part of the University's Cambridge Festival that asked what does 'levelling up’ mean for Cambridge and the wider region? Owen Garling reflects on the panel discussion and outlines some of the arising key points.

Cambridge is a city that many hold up as an example of how knowledge-intensive hi-tech industries can support local, national, and international economic growth. In a recent publication from the Social Market Foundation, Conservative MPs Bim Afolami and Laura Trott asked, “Why aren’t more places outside London like Cambridge?” and held the city up as a blueprint for others to follow. And yet, away from the policy papers and strategic documents, what does the success of Cambridge feel like to the people who live and work in and around the city?

For this Cambridge Festival event, the Bennett Institute brought together local people working in the community, government, policy research and with business to discuss this issue.

The panelists included Sam Davies, a resident of the city’s Queen Edith’s ward and member of the Queen Edith’s Community Forum, whose service to the community has been recognised with an MBE; Alex Collis, the city’s deputy Mayor, Labour city councillor for the King’s Hedges ward and driving force behind the city’s anti-poverty strategy; Lawrence Morris, Policy and Programme Manager at Cambridge Ahead, a representative business organisation with a particular interest in the balance between the success of Cambridge and the conditions that make that success possible; and Rehema Msulwa from the Bennett Institute, whose research interests focus on the role of infrastructure in tackling the types of issues that Cambridge is grappling with. The panel was chaired by Julian Huppert, Director of the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College, Cambridge, and former Member of Parliament for Cambridge.

The panelists described Cambridge as a small and compact city experienced differently by its many different communities. Sam Davies spoke of the two worlds of Cambridge – the knowledge intensive businesses attracting global talent, and those who found it difficult to afford the bus fare into town. As preparation for the event, Sam had asked the first 25 people attending the Queen Edith’s community food hub whether they had heard of AstraZeneca, ARM or Abcam. 17 people had heard of AstraZeneca, primarily because of the COVID vaccine, only six had heard of ARM and no-one – “Is it a taxi firm?” – had heard of Abcam. Yet the headquarters of these globally important businesses are all within a mile of the centre of the Queen Edith’s ward. Alex Collis painted a similar picture in King’s Hedges and highlighted the physical and aspirational barriers in place between the community and the Science Park on the far side of King’s Hedge’s Road, “It might as well be a mile wide”, she said.

In his opening remarks, Lawrence Morris presented a different perspective on Cambridge – one that considered the voice and views of younger people living and working in the city – and outlined the work that Cambridge Ahead’s Young Advisory Committee had been doing to understand their concerns. Whilst their work represents the priorities of only one community in the city, Lawrence is keen to see how this work could  become more representative of the views of young people from across the city.

The panel also considered how these “two worlds” had affected the physical development of the city. Rehema Msulwa spoke of the how employment and business growth across the city had led to an infrastructure deficit. Whilst this was most visible in terms of the locations of businesses – generally in the south of the Greater Cambridge area, and the planned housing in the north of the area – which contributes to Cambridge’s traffic problems, she also spoke of the stresses that this placed on the underpinning infrastructure such as Cambridge’s supplies of electricity and water, both of which are reaching a point where their capacity could constrain further growth. Looking further afield, she also spoke of the divide in digital infrastructure between the city where virtually all premises had access to 4G and Fenland where fewer than half had access. This will affect the decisions that businesses and people make when deciding where to locate.

The panelists also spoke of the polarisation of the city centre, with areas like the Grand Arcade shopping centre and King’s Parade being the preserve of ‘global’ Cambridge and places like the Grafton Centre catering for more ‘local’ communities. Over time, this polarization has affected people’s sense of belonging. Alex Collis gave the example of how public buildings such as the Corn Exchange were not seen as a shared asset, but rather the preserve of particular communities.

So, what can be done? None of this is new and the debate will be familiar to those who know Cambridge, as well as those who know other, similar, towns and cities across the region and country.

First, this is not a new problem. Inequality has been baked into Cambridge’s streets for hundreds of years. Take, for example, Alex Collis’ ward of Kings Hedges, named after the hedges that were planted following it’s enclosure in 1558 to funnel the game from the King’s warren towards those with the privilege to hunt them (other versions of its naming attribute it to the hedges on which the washerwomen of Cambridge dried the laundry of the Fellows and students of King’s College).

Old problems take time to fix, and so, as Lawrence Morris indicated, ‘levelling up’ Cambridge needs to be seen as a generational challenge to tackle deeply embedded systemic issues. Decision-making processes need to be designed so that decision-makers both understand the context in which decisions are being taken, as well as the future impact that their decisions will have. This needs to be about more than short-term decisions to meet the need for “ribbon-cutting” projects created during electoral cycles and rather understanding the longer-term impact of today’s decisions.

‘Levelling up’ as a concept was also questioned. Panelists saw the ‘levelling up’ agenda as being driven by central government and meaning many things to different people. The need for a local understanding of what ‘levelling up’ means and what needs to be ‘levelled up’ was highlighted. A key question to be answered if it is to make a difference to Cambridge is how can it help to bring the city together to address inequality? This was seen as one way in which the ‘top-down’ nature of ‘levelling up’ could be tackled with a more bottom-up approach.

The importance of community was a theme that cut across the discussion. Alex Collis spoke of the importance of understanding communities, emphasising that “you can’t legislate for how communities work” and called for deeper listening to communities. Sam Davies spoke of how working at the Queen Edith’s community food hub had enabled her to watch the community coming together. In particular, she noted the importance of encouraging visitors to the hub to volunteer themselves, and how casual conversations between visitors and volunteers was a valuable source of trusted advice and helped build connections across the community. Volunteering was also seen as a way in which members of the universities’ communities could also interact with others across Cambridge, for example through mentorship and youth development.

This hyperlocal, community-based approach to build resilient and sustainable communities, needs to be reflected through decision-making processes, from approaches to consultation and engagement right through to where decisions are made and the devolution of power. The need for people from the public, private and voluntary sectors to work together was stressed a number of times.

And of course, it’s not possible to have an event in Cambridge without mentioning the city’s universities. The University and colleges of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) are all major employers in the city. Whilst the ‘Cambridge phenomenon’ has generated world-class growth, it has also exacerbated the inequalities within the city. As ‘anchor institutions’ they have a role to play in sharing in the aspirations for the city as well as understanding how their work impacts on the people and communities of Cambridge. Both Sam Davies and Alex Collis mentioned that members of staff from both the universities and colleges attend their foodbanks. As major employers a shift towards paying the living wage would be a great step forward.

To conclude, what are the lessons on ‘levelling up’ that can be learned from our discussion on Cambridge and the wider region? For me, three key lessons stand out. First, this is a systemic problem and not one that can be fixed in line with local or national electoral cycles. This is the work of at least a generation. Second, how can we make sure that decision makers listen to and take heed of a plurality of voices in the development of a vision for all. And finally, for places like Cambridge with a dominant anchor institution or institutions, how can different parties work together to ensure that they have a positive impact on all of the communities that support them.

Watch the event

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.


Owen Garling

Knowledge Transfer Facilitator

Owen Garling is the Bennett Institute’s Knowledge Transfer Facilitator and he provides an important conduit between our own researchers and policymakers in the UK and internationally. His work helps to...

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