Levelling up the UK’s most unequal city

By Robert Pollock | 20 October 2021

Cambridge is a wealthy, fast-growing city renowned internationally for knowledge creation, the tech industries and biosciences. It is one of the best small cities in the world and one of the best places to live in the UK. You might not expect it to hold the unenviable title of being the most unequal city too.

The relative difference between the haves and have nots is extreme. Before the pandemic around 6% of top earners took home around a fifth of total income, while the bottom fifth of Cambridge earners accounted for just 2%. Silicon Fen has not significantly benefited communities that don’t have the skills or opportunity to access well paid jobs.

As a result, we have low social mobility. Average life expectancy differs between rich and poorer wards by as much as 11 years. World-class companies and start-ups nestle cheek by jowl with our most deprived communities. Some young people don’t venture into the city centre. The affluence, historic architecture, and cloistered colleges feel out of reach.

With average house prices over 12 times average earnings, essential workers are priced out of the city and more than a tenth of households claim housing benefit. Last year the city council supported 316 homeless through ‘Everyone In’ and prevented a further 450 people becoming homeless. Rises in energy and food prices, the end of furlough, eviction ban, and the Universal Credit uplift will put more people at risk of becoming homeless this winter.

The city council aspires to make Cambridge ‘fair for all’. Tackling inequality and promoting food justice are our top priorities alongside the biodiversity and climate emergencies. These are big and ambitious goals and we only have a few levers. That’s why we work closely with statutory partners, the business community, our universities, and organisations like Cambridge2030, which campaigns for a more equal city.

Our anti-poverty strategy is evidence based and focused on improving living standards for individuals and communities on a low income. We want to become a Real Living Wage city. We top up housing benefits, reduce council tax for vulnerable residents, provide additional support for financial inclusion and fuel poverty, have recently completed 500 new council homes and plan to build 1,000 more to Passivhaus equivalent.

We were the first local authority to provide modular homes for people sleeping rough. We channel some of our £1.7m community grants into local charities that support digitally excluded households.

Through our Region of Learning partnership with Anglia Ruskin University we will support 1,000 disadvantaged young people to connect with their aspirations by providing mentoring, technical and life skills to access jobs in the digital and creative sectors.

The pandemic forced us to find better ways of reaching individuals and families that needed immediate help. With support from the council, Cambridge now has an amazing network of eight community food hubs overseen by Cambridge Food Poverty Alliance. Last year they distributed 110 tonnes of emergency food using over 18,000 volunteer hours.

A pioneering urban farm – CoFarm – donated ten tonnes of veg to these hubs, while Cambridge Community Kitchen, offers free plant-based meals ordered via an app and sent Deliveroo-style to residents.

Even before Marcus Rashford brought national attention to the issue the city council provided thousands of free lunches for low-income families during school holidays.

Over the past few years, we have tried to connect the dots between environmental and social justice and health inequalities and recently achieved Silver Sustainable Food Place status.

We know there is much more to do working with our partners and alongside our vibrant social sector to break the cycle of inter-generational inequality and level-up pockets of our city.

Cambridge also needs to rediscover its history of compassionate capitalism. Medieval entrepreneurs would invest some of their wealth in community infrastructure as this was mutually beneficial for them and the city. That enlightened social investment is needed now more than ever as the pandemic has deepened inequalities.

The city council recently launched a recovery strategy to kick-start a more fundamental debate with our partners and communities about the city’s future. One that values wellbeing, sustainability and equality as essential to our growing prosperity.

We are blessed as a city with an enormous wealth of innovation, social and economic capital. Cambridge can and should strive to become a global exemplar for a fairer, greener and more inclusive way of life.

Robert Pollock is chief executive of Cambridge City Council


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