How do you solve the bridge-related problems with Mill Road?

TL:DR – I don’t know either, but the problems facing people in the neighbourhood are intrinsically linked to a whole host of other things happening in and around Cambridge.

If you want the very long history going back 200 years, I recommend going to the pages of the Mill Road History Society. The much shorter history is that railway, cyclepathway and utility work meant that in 2019 the bridge over the railway was closed for a couple of months. We learnt a few things – in particular on traffic flow and pollution. Some businesses struggled, others thrived.

Fast forward to 2020 and on the back of three months of lockdown in the face of a pandemic the likes of which Cambridge had not seen for a century, and the city (much like the rest of the country) was caught unawares as ministers announced a screeching change of direction on transport policy, putting significant amounts of money behind walking and cycling infrastructure – and not before time. This was in the face of a noticeable change in public opinion as people experienced traffic-free streets for the first time in their lives. Furthermore, the nature of the Corona Virus meant that according to initial research, public transport was more risky than travelling outdoors. The public had good reason to be worried – as did public transport staff: London bus drivers were some of the very early casualties of the virus.

We are also now in a situation where there is disagreement as what to do next following the installation by Cambridgeshire County Council (the highways authority) of big plastic barriers at various points along Mill Road in order to widen pavements. When these were first announced in June 2020, traders along Mill Road expressed disquiet. Shortly before, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign – one of the more influential campaign groups in Cambridge (With over 1,500 members, including myself) announced that it supported the plans in principle. This was followed up by more exchanges, writing on the road, and a street march on 01 Aug 2020. All this happened at the same weekend a new roundabout opened near Addenbrooke’s along the bit of the incomplete ring road that links Mill Road’s eastern end near Sainsbury’s to Mowbray & Fendon roads.

There have been extensive exchanges online for those of you interested….

…Above – the Cambridge Antique Centre on Gwydir Street being one of the firms affected. Click on the timestamp to see the stream of comments.

One of the huge changes announced in the run up to the street march was the publication by the Department for Transport of new requirements on high quality cycling infrastructure, which as you can imagine was extremely well-received within cycling and walking groups. Essentially it now means county councils cannot get away with ‘paint-based infrastructure’. Cycle routes now must be properly separate from motor traffic roadways. The results lead to positive comments and articles like this from people cycling.

Mill Road businesses having to deal not just with roadworks and barriers but with a worldwide recession – one that has a very high risk of becoming a great depression.

I don’t think this has sunk in with people yet. There are still many firms and businesses out there that are banned under the emergency legislation tabled by Ministers and enacted by Parliament from trading. The results? Firms have gone bust – like the DW Sports Group today – risking another 1,700 jobs. Debenhams is another major firm making a last ditch bid to avoid liquidation. Don’t think that everything was fine but for the Corona Virus – it wasn’t. Too many firms had become too indebted to various creditors either in the case of the shopping centre group Intu from buying up too many properties leveraged against eye-wateringly high loans, or doing what I sometimes call the Man United style of takeover, where you borrow from financial firms against the financial value of the asset you wish to take ownership of, on the grounds that you reckon you can sweat the asset much much harder, pay off the debt over many years, pay the directors and staff and still walk away with a profit in the longer term.

If you’re one of the people who cashed in before the market crashed, fine. But if your job – and the jobs of people in your community are dependent on them, then that’s anything but. And given the scale and frequency that so many high street names have been toppling, it then becomes a public policy problem with so many people out of work.

It’s not like businesses can close and re-open again, or that there is a buoyant jobs market for former small business owners to go into. There isn’t. Added to that the stress of arranging care for children in the face of schools having been closed for months at a time, health appointments everywhere being cancelled (don’t think there won’t be fallout from this – there will), and the background fear that every time you step outside of your front door you could pick up a virus that at the time of writing has no known cure and no known vaccine.

Wider issues

Some of you will have seen the headlines about ‘automatic planning permission for developers‘ coming from the Housing Secretary – who I think should have resigned over the Richard Desmond lobbying because the paper trail leads many to conclude that he was willing to waive a requirement to pay for affordable housing in one of the most deprived boroughs of London to a man who had paid thousands to Jenrick’s political party in government – going very firmly against the professional advice of the Planning Inspector appointed to assess the case, and his own civil servants. Anyway, it’s not the lack of planning permission that’s the problem – developers are not even building the hundreds of thousands that they already have. The only winners here are property speculators who can bank the difference as they sell on the land they acquired before it was granted planning permission, selling on the land with planning permission at a marked-up price for a new developer to plead poverty in being unable to make a profit unless the affordable housing element is scrapped. The Conservatives have been in power for a decade and this is still a problem.

Cambridge Eastern Access

The consultation is now closed on this, but I posted a whole host of comments at various points between Cherry Hinton and the city centre. So did many others. It remains to be seen what the professionals come up with. There has also been further movement on proposals for an underground Metro for Cambridge by Mayor James Palmer of Cambs & Peterborough. I take a similar view to Smarter Cambridge Transport – do the hard bits (The tunnelling) first. The simple reason being that so many of the city’s transport problems are with the last mile or two inside the centre. Again I’m also in favour of using tried and tested light rail technology as per the Cambridge Connect model. One thing this should be able to do is to remove a fair amount of the through-traffic on Mill Road (and Coldham’s Lane & Newmarket Road as well) that comes in from the villages.

Elections in 2021

The city council and police commissioner elections were postponed from 2020 to 2021, which means Cambridge will be busy combining these with the county council elections and the county mayoral elections. The £5,000 deposit puts off all bar the parties and wealthy individuals with a strong interest in all things transport. The Liberal Democrats have already announced their candidate – Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer, while the other parties are still to confirm their choices. Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson has put his name forward to be their candidate in 2021.

The closure of the bridge hasn’t been the only issue on Mill Road of late. What makes 2021 interesting for the people of Cambridge is that the concurrent elections happening at the same time mean that candidates are going to have to multitask however they manage to campaign depending on the state of the present pandemic. In one sense it might make some things more interesting because things like foreign policy are outside of the scope of the elections. Hence most people’s votes are unlikely to be swayed by such considerations to the extent it decides who takes control of which councils.

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