Professor Lord Mair is one of the world’s great engineering brains, a tunnelling expert who worked on the Jubilee line, the Channel Tunnel, on tunnels in Singapore, Amsterdam, Bologna, Warsaw, Barcelona and Rome and is advising CrossRail.
Now Professor Mair has turned his attention closer to home; to Cambridge, where he lives, and where he is head of geotechnical engineering at the university. He’s behind a new feasibility study being carried out by the university’s engineering department to establish whether it’s viable to build a series of mass transit tunnels under the city.
So far, the prognosis is good; the alluvial soil overlying chalk and flints beneath Cambridge is perfect for tunnelling, even better than London’s clay. But even more pertinent than whether the Fens could support its own underground network is whether the government will give the city the powers to solve its chronic traffic congestion. Building rail or road tunnels under the medieval city is one of many transport projects being explored by the Cambridge councils and the local business association, Cambridge Ahead, in their bid to improve the region’s rail and road links; the consequence of the city’s stunning growth.
For new figures show that the Cambridge Phenomenon gets more phenomenal by the day. Between 2014 and 2015, Cambridge companies – that’s 22,000 companies within a 20-mile radius – saw their turnover rise by a stunning 7.7% to £33bn as well as a 7.7% growth in employment. That’s well above the UK average of 2.6% and faster growth than the US (1.3 %) and China (1.5%). For very £100 generated in the UK, one £1 is earned in Cambridge.
What’s more, the growth is not an aberration: it’s home-grown on the fertile Fenland soil; the numbers don’t even include the jobs created by newcomers such as AstraZeneca, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. As well as the jobs created by local companies, there’s a 10% rise in people working in research.
Since 2010 turnover of Cambridge businesses has grown by 31%, employment by 26% and the number of companies by 25%. By far the biggest sector is still the knowledge intensive industries of computing, life sciences research services and high tech manufacturing which make up nearly a third of employment, a third of turnover and which have shown a compound growth rate of more than 7.9% per annum to £11bn, and employment growth of 58,000 jobs.
But Matthew Bullock, master of St Edmund’s College and chairman of the Cambridge Ahead growth project, warns that if the city doesn’t get more powers from government to raise local taxes and private funds to create its own transport systems, new housing and schools, the area will over-heat.
“I’m not sure that Whitehall gets just how fast Cambridge is growing. These figures show growth is not a flash in the pan. The city’s growth is extraordinary and its sustainable. Most of the growth is coming from medium sized companies and continuing. These are serious high-tech manufacturing companies.
Unless we can find ways of improving the transport and housing in the district, we are stuck. People are spending two hours commuting. Housing is in short supply with sky high prices. Yet these problems can easily be solved by expanding existing rail lines to the east, and by building new stations along the route to cut out commuting by road.
Only Whitehall can give us those powers to build new infrastructure; what we need is a new body similar to Transport for London. Big pension funds have already indicated an interest in new projects. We know private money is ready to invest, now we need the powers.”
Getting the travel time down between Cambridge and the rest of the country is another huge challenge, says Dr David Cleevely, one of the city’s most successful entrepreneurs, angel investors and chairman of Raspberry Pi, the fast-growing tiny hand-held computer company.
“It’s vital we have fast connection to other cities in the region to Kings’ Lynn, Norwich and Ipswich in the east – and to Manchester and Leeds in the north.
We should be asking how we can share our prosperity with Norwich and Ipswich which are only a short distance away where people need employment. They are only 60 miles or so away but it takes them hours to get here so we need new stations and fast-train links. Cambridge station handles 10 million people a year – Kings Cross takes 28 million people, and we will soon catch up. But the station can’t handle more.
We also need new rail lines to the north– it took me four and a half hours to get to Manchester recently; what investor is going to travel more than an hour?”
Without bold action, Cleevely ’s great fear is that Cambridge’s potential will be wasted if the city can’t build the infrastructure to support new jobs in East Anglia; a region which has plenty of space, many underprivileged areas and six million people. “Rail speeded up the industrial revolution in the Victorian era. Cars, then jet engines, brought wealth around the world in the 20th century. We must have our own travel revolution; the French created their departments to be small enough so that people could gallop across by horse in a day. Today, that travel time should be brought down to an hour.”
Privately, local businessmen estimate the region needs around £10bn to update its infrastructure – whether it be with Mair’s tunnels under the city to new road and rail links to new housing. Ironically, the money is available but Whitehall is proving intransigent. Cleevely adds: “There are a lot of myths about Cambridge we need to challenge; politicians still think of it as all punts and King’s College and a rather clever science cluster. But it’s more than that and they need to wake up.”
To date there has been no formal response from Whitehall to the five point charter – the Case for Cambridge – submitted by the local councils, the Cambridge Ahead group, local MPs and the university, sent to government last October laying out their blueprint for devolution. There have been some hints that the Chancellor may announce new powers in the forthcoming Budget but locals are not holding their breath.
That would be tragic for the region; an Eastern Powerhouse would be relatively easy to achieve and help the entire economy. Building tunnels deep beneath King’s College may sound heretical but it’s the sort of apostasy Cambridge brains like to juggle with; and have solved, whether its figuring out the laws of nature, gravity, DNA or indeed black holes. As Bullock warns: “Here in Cambridge we think about things but more importantly, we do them.”