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Can Cambridge politicians rise to the challenge?

The Cambridge News recently reported leading local entrepreneur David Cleevely’s lament  that in Cambridge, our politics “are pedestrian and sub-scale.” He continues: “we need to have enough local political ambition to match the world-beating technology here, the ability to promote Cambridge on the world stage in a way that is appropriate for a world-class centre, and we don’t do that.”   All of us, but  particularly those responsible for political leadership in Cambridge, should wake up to his challenge.

I doubt if our politicians here in Cambridgeshire are significantly better or worse than those in other places.  But the Cambridge phenomenon  – it’s scientific and technological pre-eminence – is precious, not only in terms of our local prosperity , but nationally and internationally. Political leadership that is ‘no better and no worse’ than elsewhere is simply inadequate.

I should declare an interest – not only do I want to be Cambridge’s Member of Parliament, and to pick up the challenge, but I have been closely involved in regional policy, or the lack of it, in Eastern England over many years.

David Cleevely isn’t alone in complaining about the difficulty of getting anything done with a multiplicity of local councils. Many other business leaders frequently make the same complaint.  One answer to the problem would be a unitary council for the Cambridge sub-region, which could help get us past the different political priorities of the different local authorities.  Many have long despaired at the illogical muddle of our local government system which gives us Southend, Peterborough, Thurrock and Bedford as unitary councils, but leaves the key economic drivers of our region, Cambridge, Norwich and Ipswich marooned within their own counties.  As well as offering clearer strategic leadership and accountability, significant financial efficiencies could be available..

Of course just creating a single council wouldn’t solve all the problems – in the modern world the key to getting things done is building alliances and working with others, but I can’t help thinking that one strong voice for Cambridge with a public mandate would be a significant step forward. But the challenge goes beyond the issue of local government boundaries.  Cambridge has a national and international responsibility to nurture technological and scientific innovation.  To do that, it needs to grow in a sustainable way.

Vince Cable has identified Cambridge’s key clusters as crucial. And very recently Mid Norfolk Tory MP George Freeman has argued similarly. The destruction of the regional structures put in place by Labour in the coalition’s early days has left a void which isn’t filled by a poorly-resourced and toothless Local Enterprise Partnership, though following Michael Heseltine’s report there are signs that the coalition has recognised the error. The last Labour Government was looking at ways of bringing all local public spending together, and emerging City Deals take that work further.

But currently we have a planning system in which developers complain about planning regulations and red tape, and planners complain about predatory developers and land-banking; while the list of those waiting for homes in Cambridge rises above 7,000 and continues to grow.   What is required  above all is a fit-for-purpose planning regime, with parameters set by government, which gives not only investors and government , but also local people,  confidence to support what Cambridge is potentially capable of delivering for us all: sustainable growth to support its entrepreneurial dynamism.

But will we get the structural change that is needed? It seems unlikely from a Conservative government. Labour is cautious – there is little appetite for expensive reorganisation unless for a very clear purpose. So far the word is that if there were local agreement, then no objection. That puts the ball back in our court locally.  We clearly need more people like David  Cleevely to stand up publicly and say : this isn’t working:, we need a political system that helps Cambridge go forward, instead of holding us back. The response requires local politicians and other stakeholders to look further ahead than the next set of elections and take a wider view beyond party interest.  I’m optimistic enough to think that there are people in all parties who could rise to the challenge. A strong, broad-based public campaign to give Cambridge the powers needed to make the most of our unique city’s attributes is long overdue .  It’s time we made a start.

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