Palmer’s Peterborough Apology

Palmer Admits Government has Failed our Area

Palmer is the second candidate in this picture
Palmer is the second candidate in this picture

James Palmer is the Conservative candidate expecting to be crowned Mayor of the Combined Authority of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough on May 4th. Yesterday he admitted that the two cities of Cambridge and Peterborough have not received “tangible government investment”:

“If the people of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough can be as successful as they are at the moment, without any tangible government investment over the last 30 to 40 years, think what they can achieve with tangible investment.”

This is a startling admission from any Conservative party member at a time when the country is led by his own party and the vast majority of councillors across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough are Conservatives. Cambridgeshire is a deep blue area with North West Cambridgeshire traditionally being the Conservative’s safest seat. So what have our hard working elected representatives been doing over the past 30 to 40 years?

Palmer sees Mayor role as similar to Fairy Godmother

“He talks about spreading both “the gold dust of Cambridge” and “the Cambridge bubble” to the rest of the county.”

It is true that money comes into Cambridge, but does he know how it is got there? Maybe not if he thinks of it as “gold dust” or a “bubble”. ITV claims that Cambridge has “emerged” as a “start-up hub”. Does the media, does Palmer know how important the university is to this “emergence”? Does Palmer know how important the university’s global reputation is in enabling this to be engineered, by does he know how many people? Has he put a value on it or is he relying on the wand of some fairy godmother or (let’s not be sexist) maybe a fairy godfather? Has he investigated the effect of current government policies on the university? And on the population and the huge range of businesses which surround and relate to the university?

Last time I door knocked in Cambridge I encountered the distress of overseas but non EU postgraduate students who were being targeted by Theresa May, then Home Secretary. Suddenly this group, which pays a premium to come here, were not being allowed to stay in the UK beyond the submission of their theses. (By the way that premium they have been paying has helped universities survive a period of catastrophic underfunding.) Previously postgraduates would hang on for a while, until they had got their next studentship or research position was sorted out: it was a key breathing space for them after a sustained period of hard concentrated study during which they could network and write applications. They would then move on to a new period of study or work which might be anywhere in the world. Failing to support students at critical moments for them is also failing to support the university. This suggested to me at the time a lack of understanding of the environment provided for research by universities and a lack of knowledge about how career paths open up for people in and around universities. Some of those paths include enterprise and innovation, the words Palmer uses, but I don’t think he has a clue how these things happen. Basically it is his own party which is blowing away the magic gold dust.

And the problem is not just one for overseas students. Now that UK students have to take out loans to study, many of the best students will choose not do so in order to try to remain debt free or because they would like to buy a house at some point in the future. Student debt will not help in either endeavour. This affects all universities very badly and is a punch below the belt to universities and colleges who were trying to open up admissions to all sections of society. This is very slow work in a society still divided by class and money and the university sector did not need a setback like this. Slowly admissions are closing to sections of society which were already less well represented in UK universities. Because talent can and does pop up literally anywhere, over time this will put the UK at a competitive disadvantage when compared to institutions based in more inclusive societies. The character of the UK student will change over time, as those with more risk averse personalities simply won’t go. The children of those who have not paid back – or not been able to pay back – their student loans will be locked out from being awarded a student loan. (I believe this may already be happening). Financial dependency is not a good seed bed for intellectual freedom and the flowering of ideas which in turn give birth to breakthroughs and sometimes a realisable innovation. Dependency enslaves the mind as well as the body. It is Palmer’s own party which decided to do this to the UK student and it is his party which continues to do this. This is why I have no time for a Conservative fairy godmother.

Palmer doesn’t get Peterborough

This article has been published in Peterborough’s one and only local newspaper. I’ll give him this: he doesn’t even pretend to understand Peterborough.

Palmer doesn’t talk about rural issues

Given a background as a Soham councillor and in farming, leaving out rural topics is odd. Palmer doesn’t mention them. Isn’t this his strong suit? Perhaps he thinks that Peterborough is all urban. Big mistake: Peterborough is partly rural. Unfortunately the city is split between two parliamentary constituencies each with large rural hinterlands. It is these rural areas which traditionally keep Conservatives in power. Even the unitary authority area (which includes the city part of both constituencies) takes in a large rural area. The magical fairy dust which does work round here (but to date only for the Conservatives) is electoral boundaries. There are many unsympathetic developments in the pipeline in villages and on green belt. The mayoral role Palmer is standing for comes with significant powers to push plans through despite local decision making. Palmer comes from the countryside but doesn’t mention the countryside. As I said, odd.

Palmer doesn’t get the relationship between Cambridge and Peterborough

This is really why I sat down to write this.

When are people going to stop apologising for Peterborough?

…and stop behaving as if Peterborough was the poor neglected cousin of Cambridge? Palmer fell into this one, just like all his Tory colleagues keep doing and have been doing, probably since the eighteenth century. Further back, when the church was the biggest power in the land, Peterborough also fell foul of diocesan power struggles. Having a cathedral hasn’t stopped the city being passed about from county to county. Paradoxically this is a key strength: Peterborough is used to being on the border of everywhere else and it doesn’t enjoy being bossed about. It likes looking after itself. Doesn’t mean it is good at it, mind.

But, back to Palmer:

“So could Fletton Quays be discussed in the same breath as Facebook? Maybe not, but under Mr Palmer’s vision Peterborough will not be seen as a poor neighbour of Cambridge, but a dynamic city doing big business with the rest of the world.” 

Facebook was of course born in a university. It was designed for students, by a student. For those who don’t know Peterborough Fletton Quays is a place by the Nene where grain was landed, stored and moved on and the city council is demolishing everything down there, ready to rebuild and move itself there, in order to encourage others to do the same (see Alconbury, this post). Yes: there is a dig here, but Peterborough already does business with the rest of the world. We’ve done it for a while. We kept Europe in bread after peace was declared in 1945. Peterborough’s was a massive contribution to the international effort to save more lives than the total lost during hostilities. Peterborough made the bread ovens which travelled on railway rolling stock and kept desperate populations in hot bread all over the continent. The devastation of the war had left most of Europe starving, with no food stocks and absolutely nothing growing in the fields. Peterborough made the machine which dug the Channel Tunnel. We just don’t make a fuss about what we do and what we’ve done. And sometimes we fail to tell ourselves and our children. If you want to get a good job done, Peterborough has always been a good spot.

Firstly, Peterborough is BIGGER than Cambridge.

I occasionally make just this point and people look at me as if I was mad. But yes it has been for a while and it still is. I’ve just double checked last census data available on Wikipedia:

Centres of population in Cambridgeshire, in order of size of population
Centres of population in Cambridgeshire, in order of size of population

Not only is Peterborough bigger, but it is growing faster (in terms of population) than Cambridge.

How exactly does Palmer – and all those other politicians – help their cause by telling us here in Peterborough that they will make every effort not to forget us, not to overlook us, not to indulge in the intra city fist fights of the past?

Perhaps it is a good thing to be reminded that this area has (no doubt like many others) a history of testosterone fuelled and corrupt politically motivated thuggery and bullying. And not all of that was put to bed in the eighteenth – or even the nineteenth – century. Older folk still around will tell you tales of punch-ups and bags of potatoes given away in exchange for votes. Political disengagement and cycnicism has a long history here and so does political satire.


Incidentally, going back to that same population table, after Peterborough (first) and Cambridge (second) Wisbech is next. That means Wisbech is bigger than every other conurbation in the county of Cambridgeshire. Bigger than Huntingdon. Which even a local Conservative MP has remarked gets all the pies. Wisbech is bigger than March. March is bigger than Ely. Have a look. We know which places get all the representation, and which places we hear nothing much about. It is obvious which neglected spots are looking a bit woebegone, even if they are historically and architecturally distinguished.

It is not hard to find urban areas in Cambridgeshire which have missed out on government cash.

Steve Barclay MP may understand that this problem with infrastructure funding presents a major problem for large parts of the county, but does Mr Palmer? And then, looking at Mr Barclay’s decade of effort, it is one thing to understand that a problem exists, but resolving it requires an entirely different set of talents and sometimes you need a team. Barclay has been trying to sort the Wisbech railway line out for a decade. The story of what hasn’t happened points to core structural problems which the whole UK (not just Cambridgeshire) faces. How easy it was for Mr Beeching to cut the railway, but can the best will in the world now put a single station back? It is hard to believe this country ran an empire, when now we are either governed by people who don’t know how to do things, or they are actively being prevented. Or maybe they just don’t do teamwork?

Cambridgeshire is a politically sleepy county where hard work as a politician can get you precisely nowhere.

Where there’s a will there’s a way, but that is not what we see in Cambridgeshire when we look at how the area’s apparently argumentative and uncooperative elected representatives behave. This probably arises out of sheer frustration. The Conservatives fight with people on their own side, there being barely any political opposition and the riven party always having been more of a club than a coherent political entity. There is also an obscure corporate culture lurking in the background of most things, which once you probe it, helps to explains what really does happen. But it is not immediately visible, even to elected representatives sitting round tables and making (or not making) decisions:


In order to make something perfectly clear to your colleagues in a democratic forum it is a legal requirement to declare your interests. It is a criminal offence not to, if it happens to be a pecuniary interest. For some obscure reason, this requirement appears not to have been applied (at least by means of a publicly accessible document) by our Local Enterprise Partnership, until the MP complained. The Register is now available online and forms part of a section on Corporate Governance.

In the example discussed by Barclay, it fell to Chatteris to lose a local company which is valiantly trying to save Alconbury’s face by moving to the unpopular site. With lots of tax breaking help from the LEP and (it turns out) a not unrelated construction company.

When I look around, baffled by the sheer quantity of miserable brown field sites (some of which make bits of Peterborough look like a concentration camp), I wonder what on earth goes on (or doesn’t) behind all those closed doors.

What has happened is that in order to achieve one political objective – i.e. occupation at a promoted development site – (and one hopes for its sake a few profits), a company has been persuaded to move, but the move has created a new but exactly similar problem for the place it left behind. (It is a much less embarrassing problem in Chatteris because nobody ever goes to Chatteris.) And the construction company: I hope it has made plenty of money too. But aren’t profits “pecuniary”?

Hence my hashtag #neverbeentoWisbech in relation to another mayoral candidate altogether. But if you are not involved in the mayoral race:

if you really have #neverbeentoWisbech you absolutely #mustsee

And it seems entirely appropriate now to add #neverbeentoChatteris

So, is Peterborough really poorer than Cambridge?

Well, firstly, according to Neighbourhood Statistics, (easier to read than ONS) Cambridge residents are poorer in terms of incomes than people living in the areas which surround it. But organisations in the city pay out salaries which exceed those paid by organisations based in areas around it. People from outside the city come in and take their incomes home with them. Hence Cambridge congestion.

Peterborough suffers from exactly the same phenomenon. But perhaps more so in Peterborough than in Cambridge, residents who travel out to earn less than the city average bring back those smaller wages to spend in the city. And increasingly lose spending power as they pay more and more in non discretionary costs, such as housing. But both cities export a lot of their earned incomes.

So it is perfectly possible that the two cities are more similar than their spokespeople care to admit.

I have not found a good green source of data for the two cities’ relative prosperity.

What I can find depends on 100% unreliable figures. I am not interested in measures of GDP (which I know perfectly well is a very faulty measure of anything – even its designer is horrified that it is still in use). Nor do I set much store by house prices (which, just like GDP, reflect structural issues and indebtedness just as much as wealth). For these reasons I can’t rely on the Barclays Prosperity Map. I wish Palmer had provided his sources for his implied comparison.

Meanwhile I’d love to know what you think.

It might not surprise you that I’m still backing Julie Howell for Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. She knows about universities. She knows about Peterborough. 

And if you happen to live in Chatteris or in Wisbech, I hope you vote for Julie too!