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Developing innovation and density in the UK's science cities

Image: opening panel discussion at Newnham College (from left): Hon Matthew Bullock of Cambridge Ahead, Ellie Evans of Volterra Partners, Heather Fearfield of Future Cities Forum, Dr Araminta Ledger of Cambridge University Health Partners, and John McElgunn of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (with RSHP's British Library extension at King's Cross on screen)

Future Cities Forum’s first panel discussion at ‘Science Cities’ looked at the levelling-up agenda and how this affects the growth of the OxCam Arc, the creation of new districts to help with housing and density in Cambridge, designing life science buildings to be less carbon heavy and making innovation centres more connected to station infrastructure and more porous to communities.

AstraZeneca and East West Rail set up our discussions for the morning by commenting on how Cambridge contributes to the levelling up agenda and how biodiversity and net zero ambitions are being attended to across the Arc.

Dr Andy Williams, Vice-President Cambridge Strategy, Astra Zeneca said:

'I am often asked where the next piece of commercial development should go in Cambridge and we really need a good spatial plan. We need to think about collaborations along the Arc and generating some tax revenues to support infrastructure and development. I don't think it is right to take investment away from Cambridge because we produce the ideas here and then, for instance, we also have our manufacturing base in the North West. We are supporting the economy around the country. Our work here supports some 45,000 jobs elsewhere, so I think there needs to be that understanding in how we are supporting levelling up throughout the UK.'

Will Gallagher, Strategy Director, East West Railway Company, commented:

'In the first phase of government supported development of the railway line, we will deliver over 10% biodiversity net gain in an area rich in natural habitats. As we move along the route to Cambridge we will continue to do more. We have asked people through our community hub to highlight on maps valued green spaces so that we are drawing in all that environmental data and building a rich picture. We also want to be a greener railway and I recognise that there are challenges and work to do on understanding the right way to power the railway. If we are going to create value for money for The Treasury there may be new technologies that are cheaper than electrifying the railway - it's right we look at them.'

The debate then brought together speakers from Cambridge Ahead, Cambridge University Health Partners, Volterra Partners and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

Matthew Bullock, Founder of Cambridge Ahead, spoke of the importance around developing the individual cities of Cambridge and Oxford (and also Milton Keynes), rather than focusing on the OxCam Arc as a whole:

‘My own view is that the Arc is something that the UK government has been very excited about and they think of it as a corridor. That is a fiction. We should acknowledge and concentrate on the major centres within it and not as a corridor. So the important cities are Oxford and Cambridge and eventually Milton Keynes with the development of MK:U. The issue is that the growth in Cambridge has been stable and high for last 40 years with growth over the last 10 years of businesses showing an 8% increase in employment.

‘Recent data has shown that growth kept going through the pandemic, so issues around sustaining infrastructure investments are very important. The Silicon Valley Index in the United States reveals that over 50% of companies don’t want to be there (in Silicon Valley) because of poor infrastructure and they want to move out. We need to make sure here in Cambridge that infrastructure such as sewage, water and energy is dealt with. Oxford and Cambridge in the Arc are nice to have but infrastructure here is important. East West Rail will be a long saga, but housing and water are immediate issues.’

Cambridge University Health Partners’ Deputy Executive Director, Dr Araminta Ledger emphasized the growing importance of developing ‘place’ and connecting with communities in the city:

‘CUHP is a government selected health sciences centre involving the University of Cambridge and three local NHS Trusts with the recent decision to include Anglia Ruskin University as well, but we have a broader remit in how to ensure Cambridge is globally attractive – working around place and physical infrastructure – and what we need as a community, so that we can future proof the city over the next 20 to 30 years. We think about the themes that will enable us to attract and retain talent and give people working and living here a good quality of life.

‘We ensure that we create good quality space and physical infrastructure and we want to bring our communities with us. We are looking forward to the new AstraZeneca building opening and to watch how porous it becomes to our communities. The entire ground floor will be open with meeting spaces and cafes and we want to bring local schools onto the campus. We aim to hold festivals and events such as bulb planting and arrange scavenger hunts so that we break down the idea of it being a fortress.

‘The concept of place can be nebulous but when we talk about this we mean the creation of innovation districts. We want a ‘walkable collaboration’ as part of the development of the biomedical campus and to ensure affordable housing for staff. Life sciences employs a lot of shift workers who need amenities and I would say across Cambridge we are guilty of not having quality of life in our places yet.’

The issue of creating infrastructure for place and the development of innovation centres was taken up by Ellie Evans, Managing Partner at Volterra Partners:

‘I think this discussion is really interesting and important to note that I don’t think we should be talking about connecting along the Arc. We are too quick to give something a name and we did it with HS2 - as it's not about 'speed' but connectivity and that connectivity hasn’t worked. I agree with Matthew Bullock, we should be concentrating on developing individual cities such as Oxford. Cambridge had a bad station about twenty years ago and our work in Oxford is around demonstrating the value of improving the city’s station and building a linked innovation centre to it. It is not just about building a train station by itself, you need all sorts of infrastructure such as housing along with it. There are a number of schemes backed by the University and the NHS, but you need a catalyst like a station to bring them together to form a whole masterplan.

‘When we talk about the challenge of levelling up, we shouldn’t talk in terms of the North or Oxford or Cambridge. We are competing globally for investment money and if we don’t attract it, we won’t have the money for any levelling up infrastructure. Different parts of the country have different challenges and there is deprivation in both Oxford and Cambridge as well as the North. The expansion of the Cambridge Science Park that we are working on shows that and we need to create diversity. The Park is moving in the direction from high tech jobs to more mid tech - manual jobs - and is linking into Cambridge Regional College to help teach those necessary skills. Cambridge isn’t entirely wealthy and that deprivation needs attention.’

Creating healthy and well-designed places where people can live, work and socialize was a topic that John McElgunn was keen to comment on as his firm Roger Stirk Harbour + Partners is developing a £190 million MK Gateway mixed-use scheme in Milton Keynes.

John McElgunn said:

‘We do have confidence in the Milton Keynes development. We got the planning for it very quickly. It will be an open and accessible place where industry and talent can mix and the boundaries are dropped. In any city or town you have got to be buying into health and wellbeing when planning places to live and where education is blended into the design. Life sciences is a diverse but incredibly specialized industry and you have to consider in planning buildings where the next piece of new kit is going to sit in a workplace, where people are going to live and how they travel to work, how they can walk or cycle. There’s a whole series of things to consider in such places and especially how carbon heavy the buildings that you want to create are going to be. They need to be responsible and responsive.

‘With our work for the British Library - in the King's Cross Knowledge Quarter - we are very aware that this institution is making huge efforts to be less fortress-like. When I was a student 20 years ago, I couldn’t get in but now there is a queue of people round the block wanting to come in to drink coffee and mingle. Of course it is next to the Crick and with Google around the corner, Wellcome Trust and UCL, the area is becoming a strong science and tech district. I think there is still a campaign necessary to de-mystify the institutions so that the people of local Somers Town, some of whom have literacy problems, can see a worthwhile connection and benefit. We also need to watch the cost of housing and make sure there is affordable accommodation for people who work at these places, also to live there.’

Matthew Bullock concluded the debate by talking about the spatial plan for Cambridge:

‘The question is what is the built form of a city like Cambridge going to be in the future? We have five major quarters to be developed and there is a great deal of capital available to make these quarters happen. We need to get away from the idea of suburbanization and the South Cambridgeshire Conservatives have to stop wanting the villages outside the city to remain as they are. We have to create density and we have to go higher. Funds from L&G, Lloyds Bank and Aviva all have the capital to help but we have got to stop this current scheme of making the city expand outwards and into the green belt.

‘The North East Cambridge plan has a low level footprint and we have calculated that we can have 38,000 people on site. The whole issue of where we create quarters and density is not being addressed and we also have to tackle car congestion with a 25% reduction. We can only do all this by planning – the capital is there but the planning policies need to address it.’


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