Richard Taylor – A Vision for Cambridge in 2020


Friday, February 19th, 2010. 5:51am

My Vision of Cambridge in 2020

For anyone considering what Cambridge will look like in a decade’s time the city’s fringes, currently designated as development sites, have to be prime consideration. We’ve seen development in the North at Arbury Park building on other sites round the city is getting ever closer; though the fate of the Airport site appears to still in the balance, and I think the airport, and Marshall shouldn’t be pushed out of the city. There are still key decisions related to if and how those developments take place which can be influenced by this year’s elections.

We mustn’t build poor quality sprawling housing around the edge of the city; we mustn’t repeat the mistakes of Arbury Park. Genuine mixed use extensions of the city are what I think is required and what I’d like to see well underway by 2020. We must not allow developers to cherry pick the profitable elements of developments; on Arbury park the proposed commercial units weren’t built, on the CB1 development we’re seeing developers attempt to make a quick buck from the highly profitable student accommodation avoiding making their due contributions to the city’s infrastructure. We shouldn’t allow the current economic conditions to push us into building poor quality housing, we should wait, until we can afford to expand the city in a way which does it justice. The way we plan our cities needs reform; planning needs to be an inclusive and democratic process. Strategic vision needs to have a greater place. That will require a change in the law.

When we build new homes they need to form part of the same market as the existing properties in the city. We need to tackle the underlying problems of property prices being too high as multiple of income. Providing so called “affordable housing” doesn’t address the supply and demand imbalance; and supply and demand is only one factor in making housing unaffordable. Excessive borrowing driving up prices is another. Simply building houses alone is not going to be enough to solve the city and country’s housing problems.

I’d like to see Cambridge send a representative to Parliament to argue that investment in transport infrastructure ought follow new housing. That isn’t happening at the moment. Members of all the main political parties have been involved in the attempt to impose a congestion charge experiment on Cambridge as a condition on us getting the investment in our transport infrastructure by national government which needs to accompany the new homes being built in the city.

Upgrading the A14 is critical for Cambridge; the opportunity for the nation to invest a significant sum; this will bring massive economic benefits to Cambridge as it will more effectively link us with the rest of the country. The current road is unsafe, costs lives, and journey times are unpredictable.

I would like to see less road freight on the A14; I think need to make sure we’re spending our hard earned foreign exchange wisely, and I think we could encourage more freight to be brought into other ports around the country, for example into Swansea and the Mersey ports, and the new port in Thurrock, so goods are landed closer to their destinations.

A key reason we need the new homes, and improved transport infrastructure in Cambridge is to assist the UK in trading its way out of the economic situation a decade of Labour recklessness has left us in. As a country we need a strategy focused on generating income abroad to pay back our domestic and overseas debts. Key parts of that will be tourism, higher education, and the high tech and knowledge based industries; all sectors where Cambridge has a significant national role to play.

I think Cambridge’s major contribution to the future of the planet, the national economy and in taking steps to reduce our dependence on largely imported oil and gas comes from the universities, and the high-tech industries in the region. We should focus on supporting those sectors, and not on making Cambridge a less practical place and more expensive place to live and do business as a result of misguided and relatively inconsequential attempts to save energy.

My vision for Cambridge in a decade’s time involves Cambridge University remaining a world class institution. I don’t think that’s a given. Access has to be on merit, to achieve that we have to get rid of tuition fees for UK students doing first degrees. We need to strengthen the university as an independent and democratic institution I think a key part of that is ensuring is a strong student union keeping standards high. I worry that the current situation where we in the UK can export our higher education won’t last if we don’t take steps to keep the quality high; the Chinese aren’t stupid, they’re not going to carry on paying over the odds for a second rate education.

A lot of crime and anti-social behaviour in Cambridge is down to younger people without enough to do; one thing I’d like to see is all those under eighteen given opportunities to be in full time education, work or training; too often those taking non-academic routes are only engaged for a few hours a week. Policing and civil liberties are areas where I’m personally very worried about where we could end up in a decade’s time; with ID cards, all police carrying TASERs, and more oppressive policing. I want to see everything possible done to retain policing by consent, appropriate and limited use of force. I am very concerned about the direction the county is currently taking. I want to see the policing strategy under firm democratic oversight at the local, regional and national level.

Lastly, while higher education is synonymous with this city it is education in early years which has the greatest potential to change lives and produce the kind of city and country I want to see – one which is meritocratic and all have as equal opportunities to succeed. Education is the most important tool to do that; it’s also the most important way of securing the future of the country in all other ways too from health through economy to the environment, we need a well educated population so that we make good decisions and so we’re in a position to compete internationally. The aim being to make Cambridge and the UK a place where we can enjoy happy worthwhile and healthy lives.

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8 comments/updates on “Richard Taylor – A Vision for Cambridge in 2020

  1. Edward

    Some of this I entirely agree with. Some of this just seems silly to me. I’ll skip over the bits where I agree, but there are several bits of this manifesto that on the face of it seem facile or unworkable.

    Firstly, how on earth does building more affordable housing not affect the supply and demand imbalance? It’s extra housing at a cheaper price. If that won’t bring prices down, what will?

    Yes, excessive borrowing is a problem. Yes, ‘affordable housing’ is sometimes a misnomer. But there’s no other way to lower prices in a big way, bar a sudden spate of geographically localised arson. And not even the Greens will go for that – the carbon emissions would be huge!

    More seriously, how about rebalancing the market away from a continual pursuit of house-buying. Shouldn’t we be encouraging more long-term renting, along the continental model, or shared ownership schemes? For that matter, why not some more council housing? You mentioned Juniper suggested that, and everything I know about Zeichner suggests he’d be in favour of that too.

    As far as freight goes, I’ve got one minor niggle. Why do we need Thurrock? Felixstowe is not much further, and if the A14 is sorted out then that problem is solved immediately. Especially since Thurrock is going to be busy enough serving London and South Essex. Mind you, rail freight is a rather better idea. And as far as Cambridge’s needs go, the solution is a simple one: improve the Cambridge-Ipswich line so that more Felixstowe freight is routed that way rather than through north London.

    I’m not seeing where Cambridge’s sudden fall from grace is going to come from. I’m as anti-fees as anyone, but right now they aren’t affecting selection by merit. Cambridge continues to be heavily over-subscribed and its social intake (although still heavily slanted) is much better than it was before fees came in. That’s not to say they’ve improved the situation, but they haven’t ruined things entirely and the funding situation has improved these past few years.

    And it’s not China that’s the issue, and they aren’t getting a second rate education in Cambridge, where contact hours remain high relative to the rest of Britain. It’s much more North America and south-east Asia. Even under the worst case scenario, Cambridge will be better value than American unis whilst there’s little enough of any quality in Singapore and environs.

    Oh, and I see no sign whatsoever that the student union will be any use. They don’t care about standards and even if they did couldn’t carry the student body with them. Their only involvement with student issues is on saving subjects and fighting tuition fees. Those are both causes I support, but they just aren’t going to go beyond that when they can have a pie fight over their no platform policy or whatever other cause celebre is in fashion that week.

    Also, whilst I’d like to see fees replaced with a graduate tax, I’d concentrate less on the first degree. Better funding for PhDs and Masters degrees is probably more important, because that’s where the innovations come in. As a PhD applicant I may be biased, but I don’t think that’s a totally unreasonable position.

    Otherwise, I mostly agree. The only problem is that I agree because those read like Labour policies to me. Stand as an independent if you want, but what I see is a mix and match set of policies, not something radically different and better from what the major parties offer.

  2. Martin

    I don’t really agree that the urban extensions of Cambridge are really “urban sprawl” – they are to be much more compact than that term implies. Drive round places like Buckinghamshire (e.g. Aylesbury), and you’ll see urban sprawl.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    Firstly, how on earth does building more affordable housing not affect the supply and demand imbalance? It’s extra housing at a cheaper price. If that won’t bring prices down, what will?

    Affordable housing very rarely means selling houses at cheaper prices, or building cheaper houses. Affordable housing isn’t housing made available to buy on the open market. It has no effect on property prices.

    It is also certainly not “extra” housing either; every property on a new development which is “affordable housing” is one less property made available on the open market.

    Generally affordable housing is property made available to rent via housing associations or offered via part-ownership schemes.

    While these schemes do make housing more accessible; and more affordable for some in the short term, they don’t tackle the underlying problem which is property prices as a multiple of income. If we tackle that underlying problem then the benefits will cascade down to those who are renting. Reducing property prices will result in people paying less over the course of their lives for housing.

    Making loans more easily available, and cheaper, wherever they come from be it housing associations, the government or banks pushes prices up. Often I think part ownership schemes, especially the likes of the “first time buyer initiative” push underlying property prices up as people seeking to move into an area focus on the marginal cost of “buying” the house – the bit they’ve got to pay for (or take out a mortgage on). It appears to me that fractions of part owned properties often change hands for significantly more than the relevant fraction of a comparable wholly owned property.

    I think more people need to look at what “affordable housing” really means. I would like it to mean as you suggest: “extra housing at a cheaper price”; in practice this could manifest itself as high density smaller houses on developments to be made available on the open market, eg. the presence of smaller, perhaps terraced, homes on a development. That’s one way I’d like to see planning authorities obtain cheaper homes on developments; this does happen in places, its been seen to a degree in Cambourne, but I’d like to see more of it.

    Another way to make homes more affordable would be to take more control over timetables for development and initial sales of properties. Planning ought be conditional on selling properties in a certain timescale; preventing developers sitting on development sites during downturns and waiting to cash in when the property market recovers; similarly developers shouldn’t be able to drip properties out slowly to keep the market artificially high or even to stop selling altogether when the market wobbles. More stringent conditions on phasing and timetabling (and adoption of roads) would also reduce problems associated with living on a part-built development for those who move in early on.

    More seriously, how about rebalancing the market away from a continual pursuit of house-buying. Shouldn’t we be encouraging more long-term renting, along the continental model, or shared ownership schemes? For that matter, why not some more council housing? You mentioned Juniper suggested that, and everything I know about Zeichner suggests he’d be in favour of that too.

    I think we should have a mixed market when it comes to renting, shared ownership and other schemes, though I think that buying a house while earning is a really great and resilient way to set yourself up for retirement; saving and investing in your own home has many benefits. As for obtaining council housing I agree too, we should certainly replace what is lost; I would like to see council housing being built in new developments. I think we need to see some reforms in the way council housing is managed to go with that; it is currently very inflexible and makes it difficult for people to move from one place to another which is not good for the national economy; there is also a problem that as those with permanent tenancies are now in a very different position than they would have been in when they were first allocated their council housing. I think there needs to be a mechanism to ensure that council housing goes to those in need, particularly in expensive places to live like Cambridge. I’d like to see a lot more of Cambridge’s council housing rents being reinvested in the city, allowing the city council to buy or build new council homes. That’s a specific example of my general point, saying I’d like to see more of Cambridge’s wealth retained in they city.

    Thurrock is going to be busy enough serving London and South Essex. Mind you, rail freight is a rather better idea.

    We’re such a small country that bringing goods in at multiple points has the potential, if appropriately encouraged, to massively reduce the amount on the roads. I don’t disagree that rail, and more inland rail freight terminals have a role. If we could discourage through traffic to Ireland that might well be beneficial too.

    I’m not seeing where Cambridge [University]‘s sudden fall from grace is going to come from.

    One thing many hoped tuition fees would drive was an increase in standards as students became consumers and demanded more for their money. This hasn’t happened; if anything the position has got worse as students paying fees are less likely to kick up a fuss and challenge things much as many in jobs with mortgages to pay and children to feed find it difficult to fight for what they believe in. It used to be, relatively recently, that while academics were so constrained, students were freer to pursue improvements, now academics and students are finding themselves in the same boat.

    and they aren’t getting a second rate education in Cambridge, where contact hours remain high relative to the rest of Britain.

    A lot of the Masters courses which have been created for the export market are particularly dubious in my view, but my main point was a general one. In Cambridge University we’ve seen a huge increase in student numbers, particularly graduate students in the last decade without the change in attitude particularly with respect to the colleges, needed to go with that.

    Oh, and I see no sign whatsoever that the student union will be any use. They don’t care about standards

    CUSU has a very poor reputation in Cambridge; many of those who’ve only experienced Cambridge University don’t see how powerful an agent for keeping standards high and pushing the institution forward an active student union can be. An effective students union should care about academic standards, as well as have a significant influence on the direction of the institution. The Quality Assurance Agency have been taking some steps to encourage this, but there is a lot more which could be done. For some reason many in Cambridge associate “union” with socialism and labour politics. At Imperial I experienced a students’ union which represented the interests of students as students; that created an environment a world away from that I saw in Cambridge with CUSU under Wes Streeting who has since gone on to two years heading up the NUS. A particular problem in Cambridge University arises as the institution fails to recognise the democratically elected student union leaders and independently elects student representatives to the top university bodies via less well promoted and less well run elections.

    Better funding for PhDs and Masters degrees is probably more important, because that’s where the innovations come in.

    I agree that funding for PhD students ought be improved. We need to ensure that the UK state gets value for money in the same was as overseas students paying for themselves do. I have suggested that PhD students ought be paid a salary (resulting in the same take-home pay after tax and council tax as the current studentships), and therefore gain an improved status not least in terms of employment rights. I think we spread research funding too thinly at the moment; and in relevant areas there needs to be much better working between companies and universities; too often a commercial link is just a tick-box on a grant application form. Innovation at universities could, and ought to, result in a significant income stream for them.

    Otherwise, I mostly agree. The only problem is that I agree because those read like Labour policies to me.

    As long as I’ve got, as I have been experiencing recently, a fairly equal number of people saying I sound like a conservative as saying I’m in tune with their core Labour views I think I’m doing the right thing (two weeks ago I even got a round of applause from some Lib Dems).

    What I want to vote for could be seen as a mix and match; I want the pro-civil liberties stance offered by the Liberal Democrats (which is in stark contrast to the direction taken by the current government), I want a fair and just meritocracy (which could be seen as “Labour”) and I want to see my taxes spent wisely and carefully, and would like to see minimal state interference in people’s lives and businesses (a rather Conservative point of view). I don’t see any contradictions there; what I do find often though is people who would like to do what I am doing and making a judgement on the best way to go in the interests of Cambridge, and the Country, find themselves constrained by party politics.

    not something radically different

    Perhaps explaining my stance on housing further might have led you to see what I’m proposing there is something quite different; but there are other areas where I think we need a radical change. As an example I don’t think a hereditary monarch ought play any role at all in the way we run the country. While the policies of two of the main parties (Lib Dem and Green) generally agree with me I expect their candidates would drop that stance and take an oath of allegiance if elected; I’d rather send someone to Parliament who’ll stand by what they believe in and not cave in within the first few minutes they’re in the House of Commons. I want a revolution; but I’m not proposing upheaval. What I’d like to see is a moderate mainstream sensible individual not constrained by, or distracted by, party politics represent Cambridge; I think that in itsself would be radically different.

    this manifesto

    I’ve always put my views into my articles. I thought in this case I’d share how I would have answered the question asked to the candidates; these are just comments on a fairly narrow set of challenges facing us.

  4. Edward

    Thanks for the reply on housing. It cleared up quite a few of my objections. The difficulty as I see it is in transforming aspiration to reality. I’d obviously be interested to hear more about what you say there.

    I certainly agree that reducing the rate of increase of property prices in the area needs to be a long-term objective – we can’t afford to become just a slightly more remot unaffordable London suburb, as it’d drive out both the local population and grad students and recent graduates, therefore kicking away two of the bedrocks of the local economy.

    As far as rail freight goes, I don’t think Irish through traffic is necessarily a bad thing. Capacity on the lines need to be expanded and more freight needs to switch – forcing this is about the only good argument against road improvement schemes, although not a convincing one – but you can levy fairly decent charges on through traffic if there’s a political will.

    When you consider the slow speed of the ferries to Ireland, the woeful nature of their transport infrastructure and the uncertain future for air freight, there’s liable to be a continued demand from Ireland for goods brought through the UK by rail. We just need to monetise that demand more.

    I’m afraid I frankly don’t see Cambridge University ever being receptive to student power. It’s fantastically reactionary as an institution and in many ways still a century behind its time. It really shouldn’t work as an institution, it’s just that it’s prestigious enough and rich enough for it to have fantastic scholars and sufficient resources for more or less anything, and that papers over the cracks.

    But short of two months of riots, I can’t see student complaints changing that. The dysfunction has always seemed inherent to the institution to me.

    And to be honest, whilst I’m also sceptical of M.A.s for the export market (who isn’t?) there’s no reason for students to complain about them. M.A. Cantab still counts for a lot on a CV and until that stops, complaints about quality will most likely be muted.

    As far as more academic masters courses go, I still maintain that Cambridge’s courses, whatever their shortcomings (and some of them are very rigorous indeed), are better than elsewhere. My M.A. from UCL was a lot less tough than my Cambridge B.A.

    I don’t disagree that a good student union would be nice. It’s just that I don’t see how we’ll ever get one. Most people ignore it so it’s infested with student politicos and managerial types. And I use the term infested literally, as interest in it is so low that you’d only be able to get rid of them and constitute an effective CUSU is most college JCRs disaffiliated and a new CUSU was formed. Whilst not impossible, that’s unlikely at present.

    Point of clarification, however: what do you mean by ‘ignores democratically elected student union leaders’? I hope you aren’t referring to JCR heads, as from my perspective they’re no better (they’re often the same people) and student interest and turnout is no better for JCR elections than CUSU ones.

    I entirely agree about paying PhD students. I’m aware that Norway does that (and pays them pretty well, even when you take into account tax and cost of living) but unfortunately I think it’d be a struggle to get that introduced. Government would oppose it and I suspect universities would too, as it’d reduce competition for Junior Research Fellowships.

    I wasn’t trying to suggest you were secretly a Labourite. It’s quite clear that you aren’t. I was merely suggesting that the bits I agreed with met with my agreement largely because they were also things I could plausibly see a Labour government doing.

    I’d question whether one can create a fair and just meritocracy without a fair amount of state interference (to my mind it’d look a bit too much like what we have now) but that’s why I vote Labour and in internal elections vote for the soft left.

    That said, I don’t want to sound unnecessarily critical. I think this manifesto (and I realise you don’t like the term here, but I think it’s appropriate as you’ve given a fairly clear statement of principles and priorities) is a strong example of what you might call ‘reasonable libertarian’ thinking. I wouldn’t vote for you, but the contributions are gratefully received.

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    Point of clarification, however: what do you mean by ‘ignores democratically elected student union leaders’?

    Undergraduate and graduate representatives on the Cambridge University Council and General Board are not the elected union presidents but are independently elected in a university run ballot. That’s one of the core problems with student and graduate researcher representation in Cambridge. See the “Democracy” subheading at:
    http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/cambridge-university-council-external-members.html

    I think there is a potential to sort out Cambridge University and maximise it’s potential as a key national asset which can play a major role in lifting the country out of deficit. I’m aware its an institution which is coasting along, there’s a lot of potential there to be tapped.

    ‘reasonable libertarian’

    I’ll go with that description.

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