Special

Interview with Mr George Pippas, Mayor of Cambridge: Part 2

[continuing from Part 1]

Thank you for that answer. If we can discuss Cambridge the city in a way. A city of 130,000. Something our readers may find interesting is the transport issues for which many solutions have been proposed, including an underground

We are predicting by 2030 we will have 40,000 new jobs in Cambridge. 40000 new people who will come to Cambridge, with husbands, wives and children. To cope with that, we will build 18000 new houses, which will inevitably create congestion. It will be almost impossible to drive into the city. We cannot make the roads bigger, as they were built for the horses and the carts. We cannot knock anything down, we have to find alternative solutions to ease the pain and the congestion. The city council has responsibility for everything else but the roads. Roads belong to the Queen, and they are taken care of by the county council, which also has Peterborough and Ely in their jurisdiction. The only body that has the authority is the County Council. We cannot enlarge or build new roads. We have a representative from the city council working with the county council, and there is a plan now for money to be spent in Cambridge.

An underground is one option but there are other options, one of which is to have smart traffic lights to optimise traffic flow. We have so many electronics in Cambridge, we could easily have smoother throughput in the roads. I was part of a meeting with the mayor of Heidelberg; it’s also a university town and they have similar problems. Same size as we are, the same traffic problems. We talked about having an underground. Instead of full size, using smaller trains, if I use the analogy that a normal underground is the size of a bus, a smaller one is the size of a taxi. So, we don’t need to build a big tunnel. This would also vibrate less, so it wouldn’t disturb the historic buildings of Cambridge above. We have an expert in drilling, the man who did the Channel tunnel.

The benefits of being here

We are also lucky that the soil is soft, while in Heidelberg, half of it is soft and half is granite. If people want that, we’ll go for that idea. We’ll share the buying power. If Cambridge wants 2 and Heidelberg also 2, we’ll buy together and possibly get a better price. Everything is at the consultation stage now, it has not been decided. It is one of the benefits of twin towns. Once the response is given back to us, we will vote on it.

As you are saying, Cambridge is going to grow and this will cause upward pressure on property prices. It has already been at the fastest growing prices. Is there something the local government can do to make living in Cambridge as affordable as possible?

What we must do is get more and more council houses built and for them to be affordable. On a political side – my office is non-political – the Lib Dems suggested at the last council meeting to build lots of houses and to make the rent based on the renters’ income e.g. if they are on 15,000 a year, the rent will be based on it. Same for 50000 a year, although it will still not be the current market rate of 1300 GBP a month. These were mainly designed for young professionals that need to live in Cambridge for a job. However, it was voted down. The other party – the opposition – said we’ll get commercial people to build them for us and charge proper rates and proper rents. They give us 40% – when we give them planning permission to build houses, the law says 40% of houses go to the council. We suggested 100% by the council and make all of them affordable for young people. Unfortunately, it was not passed as a law. It depends on what happens in the future, and how it may be implemented.

Thank you for explaining the various policies. It is interesting to see that Cambridge is essentially a Labour/Lib Dem island in a sea of Conservatives in Cambridgeshire. Where would you ascribe these political leanings to? Why is there such a big difference? Does it have to do with the ambience in Cambridge?

Yes, the ethos of Cambridge is very liberal. We also like to call ourselves “champagne Labour people”. We have expensive houses, yet most are Labour. We are not the same Labour that is in the north. Our Labour and Lib Dems supporters are very similar, very close, both affluent, entrepreneurs, most people are business people or academics. I welcome anyone of any idea, of any inclination. Cambridge abides by that, in that respect. Politically, the Lib Dems have run the city council for the last 14 years. We paid for the penalties of coalition government, and people voted for Labour. There’s nothing bad with voting for a change, nothing wrong with that. If you are in power for 14 years, you may get too relaxed. It’s nice to have a different opinion as well. Conservative voters don’t have much power in Cambridge, even though a lot of people vote Conservative in the general election, but vote Lib Dem or Labour in the local elections. This is because they usually say things like: “We know these people work for us, we see them all year round”. Cambridge people are smart. When you go on the doorstep, they really challenge you. They ask you what you have done, they are highly educated, they know what you have done and what you haven’t done. They know that we work all year round.

King’s College, viewed from the Backs.
Source: Martin Pettitt

Regarding the liberal ethos of the city, and the Lib Dems being the political party most inclined to the EU, what do you think the EU and European citizens have contributed to Cambridge?

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the European people who live and work in Cambridge. We know that without them we would not be the Cambridge phenomenon. Cambridge is a patchwork of groups from different backgrounds. There are about 10,000 EU citizens who live and work in Cambridge. The city council has voted twice, both Labour and Lib Dems, that whatever happens with the central government, we’ll support EU citizens in Cambridge, who live here and work here. So, irrespective of what happens with the central government, whatever Ms May decides, everybody who lives and works in Cambridge would be protected and we’d support them. In addition to that, Cambridge decided to show its affiliation to Europe by electing a European-born mayor. We don’t just say we love Europeans, but they have elected me, and I was born in another European country. This proves the point that it’s not just Cambridge-born people who matter. So, we are very grateful, and the message is that each and every one of us who lives in Cambridge, irrespective of background, we all make a positive contribution to Cambridge’s ongoing success, whether we are taxi drivers, or hoteliers, or doctors, each and everyone – we need everybody.

That’s a good thing to hear, given some of the rhetoric. In more practical terms, what are the city council’s plan about Brexit? Since it will happen soon, and clarity is hard to come by

The city of Cambridge voted – about 75% of us to stay. Most of the politicians are pro-Europe. We are doing everything we can, building up relationships with Europe, to have friends with the Brexit side, if we leave. We had organised, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, a tour to Europe. I was fortunate to be with them with my wife. They have done more work for us in one day in Germany than what you would have had, had you sent a hundred politicians. It was quite popular, the schools closed, we had people lining the streets. We had 6 live channels, including the New York Time and the Boston Globe. The Duke of Cambridge was there, and I also made a speech on television.

So, does the Cambridge City Council have any powers to mitigate the effect of Brexit on Cambridge?

The city council writes to the ministers, the relevant people. We have great authority, with decentralisation. The central government has given us authority to run the city day to day. We’ll try to exert some influence if possible. We have relationships with various cities in Europe – I’m going to Latvia quite soon. We are also twinned with Szeged in Hungary. We do not stop here though. I’ve just signed a memorandum of understanding with Cambridge, Massachusetts, to twin it with Cambridge, UK. John Harvard was a student here, he went to America, they started Harvard in the image of Cambridge. They also have MIT there; we have Anglia Ruskin here, they have the same name, we have a river called Cam, they have a river called Charles, we have a lot in common. So, whatever happens after Brexit, we are building friends, we are building relationships.

Do you think this is indicative of a wider turn for the UK from Europe towards the USA?

Yes, I think so. Our biggest friends in the future will be China and America. If we come out of Europe – yes, we love Europe and we’d love to stay there, I can see us diverging our energies to China and America. China is a fertile ground for us to start relationships with, for them to make investment and for us to sell technology.

From what you said before, one Chinese delegation has offered to build an exact same copy of Cambridge [in China]? Just the university buildings, and then invite people to come and work there?

Yes, they bought a huge piece of land, there was a lake, in Chengdu. I was there around the 22nd of October, I went there and laid the foundation stone. They aren’t just claiming that they might do it, they’ve already started the work, and it will be done by 2020. Their officials came as well to the inauguration. They want to have similar education to what we have in Cambridge, college-based. Half of it will be in English and the other half in Chinese. They want to attract scholars to go and teach there from here, they want to improve their cooperation between our two cities.

Is this a glimpse into the future, of Europeans and British people? Of people moving to China to teach and stay there?

Yes, there are huge opportunities. They need more technology, more education to go beyond what exists.

Would it be a very good outcome for us if they do take the next step?

If they become a superpower? They will become a superpower, no doubt, whether we help them to become a superpower today, or in 10 or 20 years’ time. They will overtake America, that is my humble opinion. You know, every empire rises and falls.

Clare Bridge, Cambridge
Source: Nigel Brown

 

 

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