Cambridge’s knowledge economy is oven ready but should taste good to everyone

29.1.20 3 MINUTE READ

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The early days of the general election campaign saw several overdue announcements in support of science and technology research. But places like Cambridge and Oxford played a bit part in the national debate.

The election was fought and won in the Midlands and the North.

Both the Conservatives and Labour party campaigns focussed on ‘levelling up the country’, each with contrasting interpretations of what this meant in practice. Labour’s traditional voters didn’t appear to believe in Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for wealth redistribution, but they liked the sound of Johnson’s plans to level up the geography of government investment.

The next phase of British politics is now beginning, with the build-up to March’s Budget underway, and a new battle in British politics. It’s a familiar but redefined political fight for the votes of the left-behind and ‘squeezed middle’ not yet feeling the benefits of globalisation, many of whom were persuaded to vote for the Conservatives and an end to the beginning of Brexit.

In this new battle, politicians must better explain how the UK’s new economy, its globalised, science-driven, high-tech economy will work and deliver on the ground for the public, and particularly the wider population already living in these innovative areas of the UK.

Places like Cambridge and others across the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, should lead the way in showing how the new knowledge economy can look and feel on the ground.

One Nation R&D

The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Chris Skidmore has just made the government’s first post-election speech explaining how its ‘levelling up’ narrative will apply to science and technology research.  

The speech had three key political themes: ‘rebalancing regional research investment’, ‘business-led innovation’ and ‘capturing the imagination of people’.

Skidmore revealed new UKRI data that showed 52% of current investment goes to London, the East of England and the South-East and set about name checking dozens of successful research centres across the UK, certainly well worth greater support. So far, so general election.

He went on to praise burgeoning innovation districts across the UK as essential for raising regional prosperity. “Research excellence and innovation strengths can mesh with local and regional industry,” said Skidmore, “Supported by the right mix of infrastructure investment and regulatory freedoms that will deliver real jobs and real growth.” 

Bidwells’ Radical Regeneration Manifesto - 16 policy ideas to deliver knowledge-industry led economic growth across the Oxford-Cambridge Arc and the UK – provides the detail around how the built and natural environment can support this new economic strategy for the UK. 

We think that university-driven regeneration can work all along the Red Wall and help kick start local economies around the research centres namechecked by Skidmore.

Unleashing Cambridge's potential

High up in the speech, however, was a confirmation that the government is “not going to disinvest in its existing research and innovation ecosystem, created over decades of sustained and careful management.” Skidmore knows that Cambridge and Oxford are going to be the engine of the car driving the future UK economy.

Our latest office market research out this week found more new office space was taken last year than at any time since 2014 – with 81 percent of these businesses being knowledge intensive firms - but there is still an unmet demand for 1.2m sq ft of office and lab space in the city. That is a substantial amount of unleashed economic potential.

Investment across all UK regions is important but if this government now believes in state spending to turbo-charge the private sector then why not first focus on an area with huge unleashed potential and use it as a shining example of the UK’s post-Brexit future?

Spreading growth, capturing the imagination

In places like Oxford, Cambridge and the Arc region, however, inequality is high on the local political agenda, with a recent Guardian story lamenting Cambridge as the most unequal society in the UK.

Cambridge 2030 should be praised for its injection of energy into this debate. They are right to recognise that strong economic growth figures are not always good news for everyone. The Greater Cambridgeshire Local Plan being published later this year will be critical in addressing these challenges in a meaningful way and engaging the public in this debate.

Jobs are where it begins. Simple numbers matter in many parts of the UK but the right type of jobs for all sections of society matter too. That must mean supporting scale in the Arc. Helping the many burgeoning successful science and technology business across the region grow and boost UK productivity by investing heavily in high tech manufacturing is more critical than ever. Cambridge, Oxford and the Arc can be the engine room that drives high tech manufacturing across the rest of the UK.

Skidmore also recognised in his Durham speech, it’s not a zero-sum game, or a new manifestation of the north-south divide. But in March’s Budget, we must see further investment in transport infrastructure in all parts of the UK – including the Arc - all types of housing and the kind of big thinking Bidwells has been lobbying government for during the past months.

Cambridge and its knowledge Industry-led economy could set a benchmark for the rest of the UK and all those other nations struggling to bring its left-behind electorates with its high-tech economy, something globalisation has so far failed to do. Boris should not miss this oven ready opportunity. Reassuringly, he rarely misses one.

To view Bidwells’ most recent business space research for Cambridge please click here.

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Ben Lee

Senior Communications Manager

Ben instinctively knows what makes a good story and how best to tell it.

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