End of term report: How is James Palmer doing as mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough?

Cambridge. Image: Getty.

Continuing the Centre for Cities’ round up of the first half-year of metro mayors, we look at James Palmer, Conservative mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

The collapse of the vast East Anglia devolution deal in November 2016 looked to have killed off devolution in the East of England. But a late push locally saw Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (C&P) announce a deal to set up a Combined Authority in March this year, ahead of the mayoral elections in May.

The rapid nature of this process meant that there was less time to prepare the ground politically and institutionally for the new metro mayor than in other city regions. As a result, the successful candidate James Palmer (previously Conservative leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council) is working with an entirely new political geography – which throws up a range of issues which some of his mayoral counterparts don’t face.

Six months into the job, we look at the challenges this poses for the new C&P mayor, and the progress he has made so far on achieving the objectives he set out upon taking office.

Progress and opportunities

To gauge Palmer’s headway so far, a good place to start is his ‘first 100 days’ strategy, which set out 32 priorities focused on transport, skills and housing. These included plans to explore options for a county-wide light rail scheme to link smaller towns into the jobs of Peterborough and Cambridge (which will report back in December), and for an underground transport system in Cambridge. They also included a pledge to launch new affordable housing schemes across the city regions.

These priorities reflect the need to deal with the costs of growth in the city region, such as high house prices (Cambridge is the third least affordable city in the UK), congestion, and economic disparities. And while many of Palmer’s ambitions are long-term projects which will take years, not months, to be completed, the new mayor has already made progress towards realising them. For example, he has launched feasibility studies into his transport ideas, and has announced 11 new housing schemes which will bring over 250 new affordable homes.

There is clearly much more to do to address housing and transport issues in the city region, but these steps indicate that Palmer recognises these problems and intends to tackle them. There is also a real opportunity for the mayor to use his strategic planning powers – which include oversight over a housing and infrastructure fund worth £100m, and the ability to implement a non-statutory spatial plan – to unlock more housing sites and transport.

Moreover, as a Conservative mayor for a city region which the National Infrastructure Commission has highlighted as strategically important, Palmer might expect to draw on government support as his feasibility plans become concrete proposals and plans. This theory will be put to the test if (and when) the government responds to his calls for greater Land Value Capture powers, and when the Department for Communities and Local Government makes a decision on C&P’s bid for £200m investment to build 7,600 homes in North Cambridge.


Toughest challenge

Geography is the main reason C&P stands out from the other areas electing a metro mayor in May. Largely rural, with two distinct and separate economies – Peterborough in the north and Cambridge in the south – the geography of the city region places unique demands on Mayor Palmer. Spending and policy geared to Peterborough will have little impact on (and may be potentially unsuited to) Cambridge, while those living in small towns or villages in rural areas may feel completely ignored. Making policy at the C&P level that works for everyone in the city region will therefore be a bigger challenge than in other places.

However, the strong economic performance of places across the area should make this a more manageable task than in more geographically coherent mayoral combined authorities which are less economically buoyant. Moreover, Palmer’s ambitions to improve transport connections between the north and south of C&P – and to better link people across the city region to jobs in Greater Cambridge – show that he is attempting to deal with the challenges that the city region’s unwieldy geography poses.

Biggest moment

The one institution that existed at the C&P geography before the combined authority was the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), which in October had its funding frozen due to a National Audit Office investigation into its finances. Mayor Palmer responded to this development by writing an open letter to say that the LEP was causing reputational damage to the area and failing to represent or support local businesses. He also called for a new governance structure that would bring the LEP in house, to restore confidence and address some structural issues in the LEP.

This represented the most high profile moment in Palmer’s mayoralty thus far. More importantly, his call for the LEP to be integrated into the combined authority makes sense, as it would allow the mayor and LEP to work more strategically and coherently, while maintaining a strong voice for local businesses. Indeed, in other city regions such as Tees Valley and the West of England, the Combined Authorities have grown out of the LEPs, which are therefore highly integrated with the mayoralty. The resolution of issues with the LEP in C&P will have a significant impact on ensuring there is a shared, efficient and effective vision for the C&P economy in the coming years.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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