Town & Gown: City of bricks and mortars

August 15, 2003

Claire Sanders looks at Cambridge in the latest in our series on university towns

More than any other city in the UK, Cambridge is a university city. On a hot summer day the sense of overheating is palpable. Bicycles jostle with cars and pedestrians for space. As well as a full-time student population of at least 20,000, the city attracts 3.5 million tourists a year.

And Cambridge and its two universities are still growing. Cambridge University is spending £600,000 per working day on building works.

"We have 40 major projects on the go," said David Adamson, director of estate management. It is by far the biggest expansion undertaken by the university in its history - and it is research driven.

The university expects its postdoctoral research numbers to increase 10 per cent by 2011, its postgraduate numbers by 2.5 per cent and its undergraduate numbers by 0.5 per cent. This is on top of a 90 per cent increase in postdoctoral and technical staff since 1991. And while Cambridge University is busy expanding to the west of the city, Anglia Polytechnic University is an increasingly significant presence in the east.

The well-documented Cambridge phenomenon - the establishment of science parks and numerous small companies exploiting new technology - has brought jobs and prosperity to the region.

The council has encouraged cycling to cut traffic jams and 28 per cent of people in the city cycle to work. But for some residents it is all too much. Roger Akester, who moved to Cambridge in 1947 as an ex-serviceman student and who is a member of the Storey's Way residents association in west Cambridge, said the city centre was a no-go area for him. "It is cycle chaos," he said. "Students ride with total disregard for the rules and regulations. The university is what makes the city, but it is also the prime cause of several major problems."

In the office of Select Appointments, executive manager Helen Colton said that travel and housing were big problems. "Few people working in Cambridge can afford to live here," she said. "I drive in and it takes me over an hour to do 13 miles."

Average house prices increased by 18 per cent in East Anglia in the year to June 30, according to the Halifax, with Cambridge seeing the highest prices. These are expected to continue to grow faster than in any location in the region.

But Ms Colton, who has been finding jobs for people in Cambridge for the past ten years, added that many people were keen to work for the university. "Five years ago there was a difference in pay of about £5,000 between secretarial jobs at the university and in the private sector, but that has evened out," she said. "As private companies have gone bust, what the university offers is security, a good pension and decent hours."

The university is the region's biggest employer, with 8,000 staff. On top of this, the colleges employ their own staff, and Addenbrookes, the university's teaching hospital, employs 7,000 people.

Brian Human is head of policy and projects at Cambridge City Council. "We have a very good relationship with Cambridge University and have developed a joint vision of how the university and the city as a whole should develop," he said. About 12,500 homes in the city are planned by 2016 to accommodate the new workers, with a stress on affordability. A further 5,000 homes are planned for the east and a new town is planned at Oakington Longstanton, which will have 6,000 new homes.

But the council and the university do have their differences. The university is keen to expand beyond the west Cambridge site into greenbelt land in northwest Cambridge. There are plans for two postgraduate colleges and one undergraduate college, as well as housing developments.

"That will be an interesting and robust debate," Mr Human said. "If the university wants land released, it will have to show us that it does not have sufficient land in west Cambridge. We will look at the real needs of the situation and not adopt a doctrinaire approach."

Mr Akester had no problems with the west Cambridge developments but was concerned at plans for the greenbelt in the north-west. "What is the point of having a greenbelt if you are not going to stick with it?" he asked.

Robust debate has also dogged Cambridge's application to build a £24 million animal testing centre. South Cambridgeshire district council has twice rejected the laboratory plan and now the government will decide if it can go ahead. Objections are based on fears for public safety as a result of protests by animal-rights activists, rather than concerns about the building or its site.

Mr Adamson agrees that the success of Cambridge is creating housing problems, but argues that new development and "propinquity" are the solutions. "Propinquity is the latest buzz word and it is important - people should be able to get to work easily and the northwest site will contain homes for those working in the new buildings in west Cambridge," he said.

Propinquity is also the key for students. Colleges have been consolidating their student accommodation so that nearly all students can live either in college or in a hostel or hall of residence in the centre of town. Anglia, which has seen its total student numbers expand rapidly in the past ten years and expects them to reach 11,580 by 2009-10, can offer accommodation to 90 per cent of its non-local first-year students in Cambridge. After that they are reliant on the private rented sector. Accommodation service manager Paul Harris said: "The average rent is £76 a week - not cheap."

But despite the pressure on space, Mr Harris said relations between students and townspeople were largely positive. "Periodically we get tensions, when the odd party gets out of hand, but on the whole people recognise that students contribute a great deal to the local economy," he said. Overall, about 75 per cent of students at Anglia are local.

A spokesperson for Cambridge police said: "There really is little trouble between students and local people. Some students get drunk and behave badly - but so do young people from the city."

Mr Adamson was also keen to stress that many of the university's new buildings were award-winning. "A few years ago we had a debate in the Cambridge union along the lines of, does this house believe that new Cambridge buildings do not respect history," he said. Historian David Starkey led the charge and was defeated.

"The debate focused on the history building on the Sidgwick site, which caused a great deal of controversy," Mr Adamson said.

Causing a stir at the moment is the new Centre for Mathematical Studies in west Cambridge, which has been nominated for the prime minister's awards for better public building and the Stirling prize for architecture.

Mr Human and Mr Adamson stressed that consultations were a key part of all new developments. The university was awarded £180,000 by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council to fund a project called Web-based participation for campus-scale project design. Its building website offers bird's-eye views of all the new developments and webcams provide up-to-the-minute views of progress.

"It is my job to ensure that this university has the buildings to see it through the next 30 years," Mr Adamson said. "We are determined to have top-quality buildings that will last, and to work with the council to develop the accompanying infrastructure. Many research centres and businesses that locate here are of international significance. It is crucial that we have the space to grow."

CREATING COMMUNITY LINKS

Penny Wilson is Cambridge University's community liaison officer in its corporate liaison office.

For the first time, the university, through the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Active Community Fund, has £500,000 over three years to give away to local community groups. Projects must develop partnerships between university staff and students and local charities.

"Student community action has existed for years, so we are really just building on very widespread activities," Ms Wilson said. "But the fact that the university has a pot of funding to distribute gives us a new standing and attracts lots of applications."

One application was from Umbrella Autism, the Cambridgeshire branch of the National Autistic Society, which approached the university for volunteers.

"They particularly wanted students or staff who might come across autism in their studies to volunteer to work with them," Ms Wilson said. "The idea was that the society could learn from the volunteers and the volunteers could learn from the society."

The fund has also given money to Stimulus, part of Millennium Mathematics, a charity set up by the university to support maths and science in schools. The money will be used to train student volunteers to help in maths and science lessons and to create new links with schools.

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