17 July, 2012 - 07:06 By Tony Quested

Cambridge: Choke or evolve!

The results from the March 27 UK census, published yesterday, underline the pace of population growth in Cambridge and its sub-regions that is likely to put intolerable strain on future service provision and infrastructure.

The population of the East of England is now more than 5.8 million – an increase of eight per cent from 2001.

And the population of England and Wales rose seven per cent to 56.1 million – the largest growth in population in any 10-year period since census taking began in 1801.

It’s when you drill the figures down to trade hotspots in Cambridgeshire that the potential backlash becomes evident – 16.6 per cent growth in Peterborough; 14.2 per cent in East Cambs; 14 per cent in South Cambs; 13.9 per cent in Fenland; 12.7 per cent in Cambridge and 7.8 per cent in Huntingdon.

That’s before any new residential and commercial developments currently in the pipeline – and there are many – convert from drawing board to bricks and mortar.

More households, more businesses – more problems. Britain is already under pressure in terms of energy, power and utilities provision and some of the projections for further population growth would suggest that the strain is only likely to escalate.

So how does Cambridge, for example, cope with the overload and save itself from overheating? The obvious answer is by working and living smarter; driving efficiencies in energy consumption; easing or eliminating traffic congestion; improving waste management; enhancing medical care – by generally improving infrastructure through integration of smart technologies and exemplar practices.

The Technology Strategy Board’s Future Cities programme is entering a crucial phase and is clearly a stepping stone towards achieving more efficient communities.

TSB has asked local authorities to consider how they can harness best practice and integrate functions more effectively.

Richard Miller, head of sustainability for the TSB, told Business Weekly that the programme was deliberately called Future Cities rather than Smart Cities because IT formed only part of the equation.

Offering a rare insight into the challenge facing UK plc, Miller said that major infrastructure providers felt they lacked a lot of the answers to the problems they faced in developing urban environments.

They were keen to develop their respective networks to embrace specialist SME partners who had bright ideas not just in technology but also in other areas of urban evolution.

So there is clearly potential for developing ecosystems – honeycombs of synergistic businesses from architects to app creators – that working together offer genuinely turnkey infrastructure solutions.

Twenty authorities initially will be chosen to prepare feasibility studies and the best will be chosen to work on creating a demonstrator model. But that is just the start.

Miller said that improving the way urban environments functioned was a long-term play and that the Government wanted to see local authorities working with the private sector on integrated schemes.

TSB had thought long and hard about how best to deliver the programme but felt that city fathers had to be at the heart of the initiative because they held the reins regarding planning and other controls. No infrastructure improvements can be undertaken without their full buy-in.

TSB is hopeful that corporate players with bright ideas will then hold dialogue with local authorities to take proposed schemes further and higher.

Indeed, successful cities in this project will be offered initial funding that will enable them to engage with key operators in the private sector.

Miller is realistic enough to understand that the Future Cities initiative will not instantly round up all the urban areas with bright ideas about how to improve the way in which their communities function. But it creates a new business model that can be replicated and built upon.

Business Weekly has already started dialogue with companies in Cambridge whose technology can be bolted onto the infrastructure strategies of authorities successful in the early stages of the TSB venture.

It is important to keep the debate alive if momentum is to be maintained in one of the most important phases of urban development that Britain has ever faced.

Cities can either choke or evolve: it shouldn’t take Cambridge and others too long to realise which roadmap to follow.

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