What's in the in-tray of the new mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough?

Mayor of two very different cities and a chunk in the middle, James Palmer will have to be a bridge over troubled water. Image: Steff

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

So, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough has a metro mayor to cover the newly-created combined metro area. 

Obviously, let's just start by saying this is ridiculous. The clue's in the last syllable of the first word. Cambridge-shire. Shire!

Anyway. Obviously, because the vast bulk of this 'metro' mayor's area is literally just fields and villages, they've gone and elected a Conservative mayor, James Palmer. 

But what will he have to tackle – other than working out how to travel most effectively from one village to the next? It's time to hunker down and take a look at the Centre for Cities' data, on their new-fangled 'Metro Mayor Dashboard', to see what's cooking. 

In all sorts of ways, things are very very good in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The proportion of the population with no qualifications is far lower than in the rest of the country. (In all these grapsh, Greater Cambridgeshire is in green, the national average is in grey.)

Click any of the following images to expand. All images: Centre for Cities.

School performance is quite a bit higher too, on average, as measured by the rather nebulous Progress 8 score, which tracks how well pupils perform versus expectations. 

The total number of jobs has increased much faster than it has in the rest of the country, too. 

And those are well-paying jobs. Average weekly earnings are markedly ahead of the national average. 

It makes sense, then, that the employment rate is also higher than the national average by quite a way. 

The youth employment rate, though skittish, is also higher than the national average, and has been consistently – even after some strange sudden dips. 

As a result of all this, the claimant count – the percentage of the population claiming state benefits – is lower than the national average. 

You'll really want to click to expand this one. Image: Centre for Cities.

The region's economic success is also apparent in other ways. Its goods exports – aka, the amount of stuff it ships off to other countries – is higher than the national average. 

And looking at the region as a whole, it's not even as though all this success has come back to bite the people in other ways. 

Housing is still slightly more affordable than the national average, though that gap has closed a little more recently. 

The total number of dwellings has risen faster than the national average, too, which is a good sign in terms of trying to keep that housing affordable. 

But given that the region is so vast, such figures cannot be entirely representative. 

Cambridge, for a start, has vastly inaffordable housing that is well beyond the reach of most people in the city – and has property prices constitently ballooning at wildly unsustainable rates. 

So while housing in Peterborough and the swathes of countryside encompassed by this region might still be relatively affordable, the key city of Cambridge is a different picture. 

And it's sadly not all good news for James Palmer, though his in-tray does look really remarkably light on the ground. 

For a start, good school performance isn't universal. 

Those on free school meals – aka, the poorest kids – are underperforming relative to the national average, and vastly underperforming relative to their more affluent local peers. The region's schools have a serious onus on them to do something about that. 

And though the population is very highly skilled, the region could still do with fostering more new apprenticeships – which currently sit well below the national average. 


Despite the good news of goods exports, services exports are lower than the national average, which definitely has room for improvement. 

On a more immediately practical level, bus journeys are tanking even faster than they are across the country.

Either the buses are rubbish, overpriced, unreliable, or all of the above – and something must be done about it.

And as more and more of us become aware of the negative effects of air pollution – and how severely some of our cities are affected by it – Cambridgeshire & Peterborough should be wary of the cleanliness of its air. 

At the moment, air pollution in the region is higher than the average, though there are some signs that it's falling faster than it is nationally. 

In essence, James Palmer has a pretty good deal. 

He gets the title of metro mayor for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough – which is undoubtedly a promotion from his former role as leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council – but doesn't actually have all that many problems to deal with on a general level. 

That said, the region is so vast, disparate, and largely not very metro at all, that Palmer will have to proceed very carefully. 

Cambridge, for example, is a vibrant, economically successful, liberal, staunchly pro-EU, academically minded, high-wage city. It's home to a plethora of huge hi-tech scientific conglomerates, as well as the university – not to mention the thousands upon thousands of people who are desperate for day-to-day solutions to issues from how rubbish the busses are to how sky-high the rents are getting. 

Peterborough is a very different story. It's a eurosceptic city, with industry centred on logistics and retail – a place where out-of-town sprawling retail parks are much more likely than out-of-town sprawling laboratories. 

There's a very good piece on how different the two cities are here, from Jeremy Cliffe. Have a read. 

Then throw in an army of villages – and, more terrifyingly, villagers – and the whole thing's a mess. 

While James Palmer may nominally only have bad buses, a bit of pollution, and slightly low goods exports to deal with, he has a huge challenge on his hands. 

He must somehow find a way to serve the two extremes of his 'metro' region – and the rural interests stuck in the middle – which will often have needs and demands that are totally at odds. 

Rather you than me, Jim. 

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Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.

He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”