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Cambridge City Council at 'Science Cities'

Image - Waterbeach masterplan looking south towards Cambridge (Urban & Civic Plc / Fletcher Priest Architects on land owned by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation)

As the UK Prime Minister urges making visa applications easier for leading scientists and their families to work in the UK, we speak to the Director of Planning and Economic Development at Cambridge City Council, Stephen Kelly on creating the best environment for attracting global talent.

Stephen will be joining us in our panel discussions on science cities at our November forum in Cambridge.

He stated: 'For me the planning process is akin to adjusting a mixing desk with 100 channels. Our greatest city competitors on life sciences research are in the USA but Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Copenhagen and Lund, offer strong rivalry. It all pivots off attracting the best researchers and while UK is world class at discovery we are not as good at the commercialisation (of intellectual property) as Germany and the USA.'

According to the Financial Times the 4,700 companies, many of them world-class, that populate the knowledge cluster employ 61,000 people, producing substantial tax revenue for the UK government. The continued success of the city economy puts complex pressures on both local and regional infrastructure planning, at times in conflict with ambitions to move to a low carbon society.

Stephen commented:

'Cambridge has an extraordinary economy which creates nuances that most planners would never have to worry about. Do we prioritise a planning decision for the life sciences or for the agri-tech community? Do we assess a request on a global or on a national priority level?

'We have the biggest City Deal in the UK - at £500 million - and this has to work in collaboration with county council, with the University, the elected mayor, and the sub-national transport boards and also the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. Our aim - as a city council - is to give communities confidence that there is a plan. Some Cambridge-based employers are growing at 100 new workers per month, which gives you some idea of the growth issues we face, with stretched housing and transport resources.

'What business wants is to know who to talk to and then to know that (decisions) will happen, but with each level of governance it gets more complex. Horizons for business planning are much shorter than for the public sector and for infrastructure. Planning and building a new railway station can take 10 to 12 years, for instance.

'How do you provide certainty for communities and business in a complex governance environment? We need to think about what our strategic strengths as a city are globally,

relative to places like Stanford in California and science and technology clusters in France and Germany as it's competitive world. The world changes faster than the pace of a local plan.

'The real issue on infrastructure is that we have a deregulated utilities sector which has different delivery plans compared to public infrastructure and also different to big national projects like HS2 In the Cambridge economy companies often grow at rates which are incompatible with local delivery time frames. China, with very different political governance, can build infrastructure at a radically different pace so how do we compete?

'We need to be more sophisticated in how we resolve planning complexities. Planning permission for much needed housing at Waterbeach seven miles north west of the city - with 6,500 new dwellings - has recently been agreed but permission for the additional and vital road capacity, which involves the combined authority, will take longer to achieve.

'The USP of Cambridge is not infrastructure but who is based here, the University, and the quality of place. Our interventions as the city authority have to be about ensuring quality of place and quality of life. This is now tangible in presenting our global USP.

Stephen joins our panel discussions in November with the Hon. Matthew Bullock (Master of St Edmund's College, Cambridge and Chair of the Transforming Pathology Partnership) and Alex van Someren, Managing Partner at Amadeus Capital Partners.

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