Refreshing Greater Cambridge’s 2030 vision post-CV19 & Post-2021 elections

There’s still time to get your questions in for the Greater Cambridge Assembly Meeting on 10 June (see start of my last blogpost here). There is also the formalities of the first Mayoral meeting on 02 June with local council leaders from across Cambridgeshire – the papers are here.

The vision of the transport system post-2030 incorporated the soon-to-be defunct CAM Metro. You can have a look through the various stages that make up the above map here. For the next few years, the plan is this:

Post-election tyre-screeching U-turns for local government officers

This is normal

This is part of a political system where a new candidate/party is elected to positions of public office that have executive powers.

Programmes such as the CAM Metro but valued at far more financially have been scrapped following changes of government. You will see headlines examining the amount of money already spent on the CAM Metro. If we’ve spent all that money, shouldn’t we continue with it otherwise it’ll all go to waste? Or will scrapping it as the new Mayor set out before the elections result in saving the tax payer from throwing good money after bad? Well, the electorate has spoken.

The 2021 local election results give the political leaders that rare chance in politics to change course without taking a political hit from their political opponents. In fact, chances are the electorate – especially in South Cambridgeshire who have delivered new political leaderships in South Cambridgeshire District, & Cambridgeshire County Councils, have more reason than most *to expect* some big policy changes. This is something that the Liberal Democrats will need to bear in mind in particular. Even the Tory MP for South Cambs is nervous about continuing as normal.

As I noted here, the statement raises questions for county Tories given they had the party-political majority on the Greater Cambridge Partnership Board 2014-18. And the Mayoralty & County council throughout. What did they get wrong & why? I.e. we are in the position we are because of the decisions taken by his party’s senior councillors when they were in political control of Cambridgeshire County Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council. Other political parties cannot take the hit for those decisions. They (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) are however, responsible for what happens going forward.

Lack of political leadership from the elected councillors at the very start

Here’s the then MP Heidi Allen at Shire Hall putting the Qs to the City Deal Board as was.

“Do you have the courage to go back to the drawing board?” Heidi Allen MP, 13 Oct 2016.

Sat next to Cllr Lewis Herbert (Lab – Coleridge) of Cambridge City Council on his right are the men who held the political voting power – Conservatives Cllr Francis Burkitt (Cons – Granchester 2006-2018), and Cllr Ian Bates (Cons – Hemingfords), both who have since retired from South Cambridgeshire & Cambridgeshire County Councils respectively.

Before then, the Conservative representatives were Cllrs Ray Manning and Steve Count – the former having taken over as leader of the County Council from Martin Curtis in 2013. There were changes after 2016 when Roger Hickford took the place of Cllr Bates, and then post-2018 Cllr Aidan Van De Weyer for the Liberal Democrats took the seat for South Cambridgeshire following a huge election in in the elections that year. Note at the same time, there was the creation of the new Combined Authority and Mayoralty, the winner of the latter in 2016 was James Palmer for the Conservatives – who had also stated he would not work with county council transport officials given the problems he had faced before. Mr Palmer was scathing of the county council’s move to Alconbury, a move enacted by his political party colleagues.

So that gives you some idea of the political turbulence that Cllr Lewis Herbert had had to face – recalling that he inherited an agreement negotiated by his Liberal Democrat predecessors that ran Cambridge City Council until 2014. Cllr Herbert’s last board meeting will be this month after which he hands over the reins to Cllr Dr Dave Baigent (Labour – Romsey), who was previously on the Assembly and has recently become the Chair of Planning and Transport Scrutiny Committee on the City Council. This will make him a very influential figure on shaping the future of our city.

Watching and filming many of the meetings for the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations, I seldom got the sense that the Conservatives collectively took ownership of their roles – particular in those essential early days. Cllr Burkitt was the only councillor I saw who *rejected* a board paper presented to him by senior officials at a public meeting (backed by his fellow board members) and telling them to rethink their proposals. Unfortunately for the partnership he stood down from local democracy in 2018.

Too much county officer control at the start?

The problem from the start was that the GCP did not have its own senior officer cohort. As a result, too much of the burden fell on the senior transport officers of Cambridgeshire County Council – most prominent being Graham Hughes and Bob Menzies, the latter who oversaw the current Guided Busway and who has since retired. Mr Menzies was very much the champion of busways as a concept. The exchanges he had with local residents in West Cambridge over the proposed West-Cambridge busway in crowded village halls on cold autumn nights were electrifying viewing. For local government-watchers anyway!

Above – from 26 Sept 2016, filming commissioned by FeCRA, note the standing-room only.

There’s even a guided busway song!

The opposition to the Cambourne-Cambridge busway started very early on.

This from 2015:

Above – Graham Hughes for Cambridgeshire County Council, responding to Stephen Coates of the Save The Westfields Campaign.

What might a refreshed vision look like?

That depends who you ask. There were only 15,000 votes between Aidan Van De Weyer and Dr Nik Johnson in the first round of the Mayoralty contest. Policy-wise that was the difference between prioritising or not prioritising a light rail metro based on existing technologies, in principle the Cambridge Connect concept.

One of the big criticisms of the Greater Cambridge Partnership is its failure to deliver on ‘quick wins’ that could generate support from local residents. Have a look at their transport projects here. Which are the ones that the general public could point to as being successful GCP projects? Once the Chisholm Trail is opened, I believe that will be one that will become a huge success. I predict it will generate more cycling trips for work, education, and leisure as well as taking off a fair amount of rush hour cycling traffic off of town centre main roads. As some have said, if the budget was only £50m the focus might have been on cycling and walking. At £500m the budget was too small to build a light rail with underground town centre tunnels alone. But it was large enough for people to get distracted by the possibility of ‘big infrastructure’.

Seamless transport interchanges served by a frequent and reliable electric bus network?

In the short-to-medium term, this feels like a reasonable and feasible aim *given the priorities of the Mayor Dr Nik Johnson*. One of the things the New Mayor has made clear from the start is that his mandate is only for four years. He is not assuming that he will get re-elected – perhaps learning from the complacency from his Conservative opponents where very low turnouts in their northern and western strongholds cost them dearly. He also knows that he has to make his presence known in those strongholds *and* deliver improvements if he is to hold onto the mayoralty because it may only take that rise in turnout in those districts (and a corresponding fall in Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire) to deprive him of a second term. So part of the challenge for the local council leaders in and around Cambridge is not to make things unnecessarily difficult for him.

“Does that mean no light rail underground?”

Not at all. Part of the problem with the CAM Metro was that all of the financial risk seemed to be tied up with the public sector. I think there’s room for both the Mayor and the GCP to contribute funding towards the essential technical studies for Cambridge Connect Light Rail, but make it *conditional* on significant private sector and Cambridge University contributions as well. That way the risk is shared, extra finance can be brought in (thus increasing the capacity of improvements that can be done with the limited public sector funding) and work on a much longer term vision (to 2050) is not halted.

I also think that the concept of the first proposed Light Rail line of the Cambridge Connect model could also be marketed at the start as The Isaac Newton Line” as proposed, serving from Cambourne to Haverhill, which serves the two towns and connects with:

  • The Girton Interchange
  • Eddington
  • Cambridge City Centre
  • Cambridge Railway Station
  • Addenbrooke’s / CBC
  • Granta Park
  • Haverhill (where Cambridge City Council owns a business park and commercial properties that might benefit from it in the longer term)

Get that first line and the tunnels under the city done, and the additional lines in principle are much less complex and much less costly. Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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