Our Editor-in-Chief, Nicolas Mavreas, interviewed the Mayor of Cambridge, Mr George Pippas, at Cambridge Guildhall on Wednesday, 7th March 2018. The following is a transcript derived from the interview, covering the fruitful exchange between La Nouvelle Union and the Mayor, edited by Petros Petrikkos. Due to the size of the interview, we have split it into two parts. The first part focuses on history and how that has laid the foundation for Cambridge’s success.

So, we are here with the Mayor of Cambridge, Mr George Pippas. Thank you for agreeing to grant us an interview. So, would you like to tell us a bit about yourself first?

Thank you for this interview opportunity. My name is George Pippas. I was born in Cyprus, in a village called Paliometocho, and I’ve been here 40 years. A mayor is the first citizen of Cambridge, and his main role is to promote Cambridge in the best possible way, whilst holding the office of mayor with great dignity

You are the mayor of a small British town that is internationally renowned and attracts students, researchers from around the world – what is it like being the Mayor of Cambridge?

I will answer your question in a different way, if I may. Cambridge was always famous, even if you go back a thousand years ago. We were a famous river port. The King of England had always cared for Cambridge; people would always use flood boats to commute to King’s Lynn, where they were loaded to go around the world. People settled around the first stone bridge around the River Cam – the Cambridge. People back then had been wealthy, and they would use their wealth to build quite a few churches. The first one was St Clements, the Saint of Mariners.

A church for seafarers

Yes. Then, they built St Benet’s church, which is actually near my office. Then Queen’s College Church would follow. The King collected a lot of taxes from Cambridge, like he does today, and wanted to ensure no interruption. There was a sheriff responsible for the collection, who also took a cut. The people would often complain to the King because of that. King John gave a royal charter and enabled the people of Cambridge to elect a mayor, who would in turn hand in the taxes to him, and then every other king. If you look outside the office, the strongbox is still there.

The mayor was given absolute power for the charter. Consequently, he also had four bailiffs – tough guys

They were the enforcers

Yes, with maces. If you did not pay your taxes, they would put you in the basement of this building.

Very medieval.

Soon after, some scholars came to Cambridge, asking the Bishop of Ely to settle there. They came from Oxford…

The other place.

The other place. Then they settled. Over time, these Oxford scholars would push the townspeople out of the centre, and they would take over the centre.

The Grant of the City Arms
Photo: Nicolas Mavreas

Now it is the opposite, the town is expanding.

Yeah, but then this very act had caused some animosity. The scholars petitioned the King to get some privileges, whereas the rest of the Cambridge townspeople went across to St Marys church and burned the university library down. Some were killed by soldiers. The mayor, who had sided with the colleges, was ultimately executed in the process.

A new charter was issued, with the mayor gaining power absolute, but not over the colleges. The colleges were made to pay for the links on the Mayor’s Chain of Office [visible on the cover photo], and that is why the colleges’ crests are now on the chain. All doors must open to the mayor, as they are a representative of the King or Queen. And that is why you see the city’s Coat of Arms symbolising the royal emblems given to Cambridge.

That is a fascinating story

So, coming back to your original question, I think it is the most privileged position to be mayor of such a wonderful city. We are blessed to live in Cambridge, and I am the proudest person to be the 1st citizen of such a wonderful city that has excelled in the UK and around the world. Any knowledge derived from here, we shared it with the world. Newton from Trinity, others came later on…

So you feel the weight of history

I’m the 811th mayor, there have been 810 mayors before me. Great people, who have helped to make made Cambridge great. And when you step in their shoes, then if not better, then just a little bit, everyone adds a little step.

That’s a nice analogy. Now more practically, can you explain what the relationship is between the two universities, the rest of the city council and the mayor?

Today, the two universities, the city, the church and the military, to put it in Layman’s terms, we are all in bed together. You have the political authority as the mayor, the educational authority as the university. The high court judge, historically, was the Scriber of the Mayor. Now all these authorities work together, with great synergy.

Do you often meet with authorities from the university?

Almost every 2 weeks. I was in the court 3 weeks ago, I met with the judges – it was very interesting. I regularly meet with the chief of police, whereas last week I met with Stephen Tome, we had dinner together. Last Sunday at 8 o’clock in the morning, I was with the Bishop of Ely. We had breakfast together and then we went to mass. We like both universities – Anglia Ruskin and University of Cambridge – as they bring lots of money to Cambridge. And they love us back, because we give planning permissions, and we extend them to provide them with facilities. It has been a wonderful relationship.

So, it is not an adversarial relationship

It’s a partnership, a common aim. We are the knowledge economy. We have various sources of income, with one being the knowledge. The universities and the research we have here, start-up companies, English language schools – they offer a great deal of growth. Another source of income is tourism. We have 13 million people visiting Cambridge a year, and I set an aim in May last year to increase it to 14 million.

I’d like to return to Cambridge’s name and resources. I understand there has been a proposal for an underground train station

Before you go there, you see the brand name – the Cambridge name – it sells everywhere. You get many private companies as well as countries that want to be associated with us. China is the best example: they keep coming to Cambridge, bringing millions, wanting a picture with the Mayor or me to witness them signing a memorandum of understanding. When something says “Cambridge”, it sells. The Chinese are also looking for technology. I have signed an agreement with Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu in the Sichuan province. Here is something interesting: they took a picture of this Cambridge map, and they want to copy the colleges and build on the river there. Not the houses, just the university buildings.

You mean full size?

Yeah, almost full size, they are copying the structure, to build a university in the image of Cambridge. They want to attract people from Cambridge to teach there.

How much of the success of the university do you think is due to the fact that it is a college-based university like Oxford and not a unitary university like most universities in Europe?

Cambridge used to be isolated, but now the time is ripe. People like the small college environment, the quiet environment, and with the decline of industry elsewhere, knowledge is coming out of this unique place. You have different colleges and that old tradition, and not a campus like Bath or Stirling University.

Do you think part of Cambridge’s success is the physical environment? That the centre wasn’t built up completely? And that the university takes care of its members well?

if you go back on the history of the place, the centre used to be the fens, and people used to live there.

More recently, in the last 50 years, do you think the small college of 600 people provides a better community compared to a large university of 20000?

The admissions process is very strict, takes about 3500 incoming students a year, 100-150 per college. They also assess based not only on academic achievement, but also on extracurricular activities and how that person would do in life. It creates a lifelong loyalty. People that have finished Cambridge are coming back to donate to the university. And people have key positions in society, becoming ambassadors in a way, like that actor from Queens.

Stephen Fry

Yes, or Dolby who did the Dolby Noise Reduction. But the university had originally wanted to keep Cambridge secluded [in the 19th century], with, for example, the station having originally been built outside Cambridge to preserve the studying environment. When I came here 40 years ago, there were only 3-4 restaurants in town; Don Pasquale, Varsity, the first one of which still exists. After 6,7,8 pm, there would be nothing happening, so you had to study, thus was no temptation as to pursuing anything else other than that. Therefore, they have kept the high level of education without temptation. This is reflected in our 97 Nobel prize winners.

With regards to more recent events, with Cambridge being the start-up capital of the UK, what do you think has made other places in the UK or Europe unable to do that? What do other places have to do to have an entrepreneurial culture?

Firstly, both universities are known for their technology. Most start-up companies are engineering-based. We don’t have start-up lawyers, start-up doctors, start-up accountants. If we look at ARM Ltd, they were 3 guys. They were part of the Peterhouse College, they had an idea, they spoke to the university, the council and they helped them. They invented the microprocessor for smartphones.  And eventually you will find their processor is in almost every single device. It enabled this phone to become a smartphone. Their company is over 25 billion pounds worth and is only 10 years old. I know those guys, I have met them, and I have given them my advice, for whatever it is worth.

If you had to distil it in a few sentences, why was Cambridge successful?

You have people with ideas, and the university and the council give them space to start up. We have council properties and we have given them at low cost to start-ups, we started the Science Park. Two-three people start an idea, which in turn reaches 100 people. The idea may worth between 50 and 100 million pounds, they sell it and they move on. Cambridge has provided a fertile ground for all this. I don’t think you have a fertile ground in, for example, Manchester or Nottingham. Here, you can always go back to the university, speak to your former lecturers. You get the help from the university, if you need planning permission form the council you get it straight away. This is because we know they’ll bring 10-20 jobs [at the start of a company].

The Mayor of Cambridge, Mr George Pippas, ex cathedra
The Mayor of Cambridge, Mr George Pippas, ex cathedra

The second part of our interview can be found at this link!


On the history of Cambridge:

Cambridge has always been famous, for a variety of reasons: as a river port, for St Clements and Queens College Church, and of course, for the academic community of the University of Cambridge. In the past, the King would grant tax collection privileges to a sheriff, then to the mayor, who would proceed collecting taxes through his four bailiffs. The bailiffs would ensure that the tax payer would either comply, or they would wield their mace and send people off to the Guildhall’s dungeons.

The formation of the various colleges in Cambridge has a rather interesting background story. Scholars in the 13th century from Oxford had then asked the Bishop of Ely to settle to Cambridge. The scholars moved to the centre of the town, and over time, they managed to replace the townspeople of the centre. The first Cambridge College, St Peter’s House, was formed near St Peter’s church. As a result of the conflict, animosity had been generated.

Whilst the scholars were petitioning the King for privileges, the rest of the townspeople went across to St Mary’s church, burned the university library, whereas others were killed by soldiers. With the then Mayor siding with the newly-formed colleges it was ruled that the Mayor should be executed.

From that point on, a new Charter was made, giving the Mayor of Cambridge absolute power in the district, but not over the University Colleges. In the 16th century, the Colleges were made to pay for the links on the Mayor’s Chain of Office, which explains the reason as to why their crests are part of the Chain. Furthermore, all doors must open to the Mayor, who is a direct representative of the King or Queen of Britain. This explains the city’s Coat of Arms, which makes up the royal emblems granted to Cambridge.

Nicolas Mavreas was born on what later became Europe’s eastern frontier, on the island of Cyprus. He lived through Europe’s enlargement and the turmoil of the early 2010’s. After completing his two-year compulsory national service, he went to the University of Cambridge to study. He observed the Brexit debate and result. Being a European in another member-state sharpened his awareness of the European “we” and spurred on a search to understand the European interest.

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