What are the big issues in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough mayoral race?

A generic stock pic of Cambridge. Image: Getty.

The Centre for Cities’ recent Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoral hustings showed that the city region’s new mayor will face a unique challenge when they take office: namely, addressing the diverse issues that Cambridge and Peterborough face in growing their economies.

The discussion at the event highlighted that, when it comes to areas such as housing, transport and skills, very different policies will be needed to ensure that both places – and the rural areas between them – can thrive in the coming years

Cambridge is one of the least affordable cities in the UK when it comes to housing, and so it was no surprise that this was one of the key issues in the hustings. Labour candidate Kevin Price made great play of the fact that as Deputy Leader of Cambridge City Council he’d been closely involved in negotiating the housing component of the city region’s devolution deal. In particular, he referred to the two deals the Combined Authority has done to boost affordable housing, including £100m for housing associations in the county beyond Cambridge.

Liberal Democrat candidate Rod Cantrill also focused on housing affordability, arguing that this discussion should not focus solely on houses for sale, with rental properties in high demand and just as unaffordable. He proposed a Local Living Rent set at no more than 33 per cent of the average local wage.

For independent candidate Peter Dawe, the key to addressing the city region’s housing needs is removing prohibitive planning restrictions and the intransigence of local councillors (including some of those sharing the platform with him). He proposed tearing up the planning system so that individual plots were put in the hands of potential buyers to expedite construction.

The need to get around planning restrictions was also highlighted by Conservative candidate James Palmer, who raised the example of the Community Land Trust in local villages Streatham and Wilburton, which enables local residents to neatly sidestep a planning system designed to protect the existing environment at the expense building new homes. However, to what extent this kind of initiative can be applied more widely is unclear.

Another big area of priority for Palmer in the debate was skills and education, which as our analysis shows is a particularly big issue in Peterborough. James Palmer argued for greater esteem and incentives for apprenticeships, and proposed that schools in the area should get league table points for getting young people into apprenticeships. He claimed that he could use his links to national government to make the city region a pilot area for the schools league table reform.

Peter Dawe echoed this idea by suggesting that schools had become factories for sending kids to university, in the process devaluing manual work. He recounted a recent conversation with civil engineers working on a local bypass who could not see the next generation coming through the ranks – put off by an education system biased against jobs in which your boots would get dirty.

A technology millionaire who made his fortune in the county, Dawe unsurprisingly saw technology as the solution to another of Cambridge’s big issues, traffic congestion. He proposed apps to facilitate greater use of taxis and buses in rural areas, and new single-seater pod-vehicles that would turn Cambridge City Centre’s roads into free-flowing four-line highways. In contrast, James Palmer promised to introduce a light rail for the county and an underground for city of Cambridge as one of his key election pledges

However, a cheaper way of reducing traffic and generating revenue to improve public transport across the city region would be to implement a congestion charge in Cambridge, as proposed in our recent briefing for the city region’s metro mayor.

James Palmer opposed this idea completely, in favour of digging tunnels and laying track. Kevin Price also rejected the idea outright, preferring greater investment in a Park and Ride facilities and a workplace-parking levy in the city centre, while Rod Cantrill seemed more open to the idea of a congestion charge without committing to it.

What the debate lacked, however, was a clear sense of the different needs of Peterborough and Cambridge when it comes to growing their economies. As has probably become clear, much of the discussion focused on issues which are particularly relevant to Cambridge, but less so in Peterborough – where neither housing shortages nor congestion are significant problems.

That is perhaps understandable given that the event was held in Cambridge. But whoever becomes metro mayor for the city region will have a mandate that stretches across these two separate and distinct urban areas, and the wide expanses of countryside, fenland and agricultural land that lie between them.

Setting out a policy platform which recognises the very different approaches needed in Cambridge and Peterborough, and which also offers a coherent narrative and vision for the whole city region, will be critical in making a success of the role.

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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So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).

The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

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

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