Silicon Fen plan alienates the locals

June 13, 1997

Low participation meets blue-chip research: Phil Baty reports on the East in the latest of our regional focuses

An already uneasy relationship between Cambridge University and its local community looks set to sour amid gossip that billionaire Bill Gates is coming to town.

It is understood that computer giant Microsoft, founded by Mr Gates, is in the late stages of negotiations to create a multi-million-pound research centre at Cambridge, making the city a centre of UK computer technology comparable to America's Silicon Valley.

The idea of a Silicon Fen has been widely welcomed as a huge vote of confidence in the UK's brain power, and a laudable source of inward investment for the region. The gossip has provoked endorsements from foreign secretary Robin Cook, who has said he was "delighted" by the news of the negotiations, and science minister John Battle, who hailed the plans as "a most welcome inward investment in key future industries". Even rival computer experts at Oxford University have been enthusiastic.

Cambridge is already a major centre of computing and high-tech research. But the institution's international reputation is alienating the locals.

Alan Maltpress, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Training and Enterprise Council, acknowledged the contribution the university makes to the local economy, but said: "Cambridge is so world class that it looks to the world rather than to its local region. They are not as involved as the other universities in the area."

And the inward investment is creating housing problems. Anne Bond, at Saville's estate agents in Cambridge, said the university had a big impact on house prices. "The university owns a lot of houses and land and they're keeping things pretty tight. There is already a drastic shortage of houses here."

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