The approval of the Greater Cambridge Busways reflects the broken governance system of our city & county

The origin of this lie with the Coalition Government and their decision to create the Greater Cambridge Partnership, and later under the Conservatives to create the Combined Authority – instead of undertaking the long overdue national restructure of local government.

It does not, however remove the risk that the general public will look at this and wonder what the point of taking part in democratic processes is, if voting for a different party/candidate – and those candidates getting elected against incumbents, does not lead to any change.

Read Gemma Gardiner’s write up in the Cambridge Independent here.

You can watch the full video of the Greater Cambridge Partnership Board of 01 July 2021 here. I won’t embed it as the video is far too big. You can read the nearly 700 pages of meeting papers here.

Greater Cambridge Partnership Board Approve the busways plans

I’m typing this as the Board has just voted to approve the Cambourne-Cambridge busway and commission an Environmental Impact Assessment. This is despite the continued and persistent objections from a number of different groups and individuals. (See the articles on busways in the Cambridge Independent here).

The Cambourne to Cambridge busway has cross-party support. Individual politicians such as the current MP for South Cambridge, to individual Liberal Democrat Councillors (such as Cllr Markus Gehring (LibDem – Newnham)) representing their constituents’ campaigning, have opposed the busways.

Above – from a GCP Board Meeting in October 2016 – the then Conservative-controlled Board (Cllrs Francis Burkitt for South Cambs, & Ian Bates for CambsCC) approving a previous phase of the Cambourne-to-Cambridge busway

Today’s vote was taken by Cllrs Neil Gough of the LibDem-controlled South Cambs DC, Lewis Herbert for Labour-controlled Cambridge City, and Elisa Meschini for the Joint Administration (Libdems, Labour, Inds) of the County Council. That vote had the approval of the wider Assembly that has three councillors from each constituent council. Though there were dissenting views expressed, no one resigned from their Assembly seat as a result.

Is the Greater Cambridge Partnership only hearing the voices of the most affluent, educated, and time-free who shout the loudest?

I think that’s a fair criticism of our political system generally – Cllr Herbert noted we had not heard the voices of those who commute from Cambourne into Cambridge on a regular basis for work. Having done that bus journey more times than I care to, I sincerely feel for anyone who has to do it on a daily basis to make ends meet. And that’s a condemnation of a previous generation of transport engineers, planners, consultants, councillors, and ministers who enabled this to happen. i.e. they built the houses first before building the essential transport and community infrastructure. I therefore question what the GCP has done to engage with those communities who are most likely to be the users of the new public transport infrastructure it is building.

“Why a Greater Cambridge Partnership? Why a Combined Authority?”

Good question (if I might say so myself).

First of all, what’s the alternative to a GCP or a Combined Authority? Why do we have these two separate transport structures separate to Cambridgeshire County Council, and Cambridge City Council plus South Cambridgeshire District Council?

It’s an issue that comes up every so often.

You can read the article by Josh Thomas from 2017 here.

Put simply, the alternatives for the transport projects being delivered by the GCP are either delivering everything through Cambridgeshire County Council alone as is, or going through an exercise of local government restructuring, and creating a new unitary council for the Greater Cambridge Area that covers all of the functions carried out by local councils in that area.

Above – the old Cambridge County Council area from William Davidge’s first Cambs Development Plan of 1934 – including a proposed ring road that ultimately under-estimated the massive growth in motor traffic. In the end we got the A14, A11, and M11. A significant piece of work, Davidge’s plan resulted in a number of open green spaces being allocated as protected from development – a pioneering piece of work chaired by Cllr Dr Alex Wood, Leader of the Cambridge Labour Party. You can read a short biography of Dr Wood by the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History here.

Above – Dr Alex Wood (Lab – St Matthew’s Ward, Cambridge Borough Council) 1937

Although he failed to get elected to Parliament in the 1930s, Dr Alex Wood’s legacy I think is under-appreciated – even inside Labour circles. He was more than just the present day party’s HQ, and his work chairing what is effectively Cambridge’s first local plan, continues to shape and influence our city today.

Above – from 1945, the boundaries of the old shire-level counties shaded in different colours (with much smaller districts within them) would make for an ideal starting point for negotiations for unitaries in the current Cambridgeshire as is.

“Hey! Who’s driving this flying umbrella?!?”

Asks ‘Little John’ Baloo in Robin Hood of 1973.

Perhaps from the general public’s perspective, that has been the one thing that has been difficult to pin down:

Who is the person/persons responsible for all of this from start to finish?

Back in 1960, Cambridge City Council appointed its first ever City Architect – Gordon Logie.

Cambridge City Architect Gordon Logie:

He may have been a scoundrel in the eyes of conservationists – in particular Dr Alice Roughton, his nemesis, but at least the general public had heard of him and knew what he was about.

Logie was possibly the most prominent public official in the City of Cambridge throughout the 1960s, a time of huge social and technological change.

His grandiose plans on retail for some parts of Cambridge came to nothing – such as these in 1966. The much-promised concert hall came to nothing as well. But one of his legacies other than Lion Yard Multi-storey Car Park was the pedestrianisation of the town centre.

Gordon Logie – his concrete brutalist plans were despised by preservationists in the 1960s

“So….who is the face of the Greater Cambridge Partnership?”

No one – and everyone who is on the Partnership Board. But then therein lies the problem. The partnership was signed off by ministers and local council leaders in 2014 – before the local elections that year. Unfortunately for the Cambridge Liberal Democrats, they were halfway through their post-2010 Coalition Agreement collapse as Cambridge’s electorate punished them for Austerity in national government. Arbury, East Chesterton, King’s Hedges, Romsey – all former Liberal Democrat-held wards fell like skittles in the early 2010s. At the 2014 City Council elections, Cllr Lewis Herbert, leader of the Labour Group, became Leader of the City Council, and inherited a City Deal Agreement that had been negotiated by his predecessor, Cllr Tim Bick (who chaired the inaugural Assembly).

The then Cambridge City Deal of 2014, which had a three-man board (it was all men in those days) had Cllrs Ray Manning (South Cambs), and Steve Count (County Council) (the latter now leader of the opposition on the County Council) joining Cllr Herbert as the decision-makers. But both men relinquished their posts, handing them over to deputies including Cllr Francis Burkitt – possibly the most interested and competent of all of the Conservative board members, and Cllrs Bates & Hickford for the county council.

In those first four years, Cllr Herbert had to deal with various combinations of Conservative board members – until 2018 when the Liberal Democrats won South Cambridgeshire in a political earthquake of a result, with Cllr Aidan van de Weyer the Board seat for the district council. This was then made more complicated by the creation of 2nd generation metro mayors by the new Conservative-only Government, and the election of the new Combined Authority Mayor James Palmer. Mr Palmer had previously made strong statements hostile to both the GCP and to Cambridgeshire County Council, and then formed a new independent commission to look at the governance of Cambridgeshire, calling the current system “massively muddled.”

“Massively muddled” – the mess of Cambridgeshire’s local government structure, by Smarter Cambridge Transport.

Unfortunately the Independent Review did not complete its work in time for the 2021 elections. Who knows where it is now?

That was also the last GCP meeting for Cllr Herbert, who now hands over to Cllr Dr Dave Baigent (Labour – Romsey), the Chair of Cambridge City Council’s Planning Scrutiny Committee.

Did the councillors miss the chance to reset the strategy following the local election results earlier this year? (2021).

I think they did – and as a result risk continuing the long dispute with various villages and communities opposed to the busways. Why did they choose this? Part of the reason is they have an eye on ministers threatening to withdraw funding over non-delivery. The views of a number of the non-voting members at both the Board and Assembly is simply ‘to get on with it’.

The choice by the Assembly and The Board to go ahead with the Busways was a political decision – and it had to be a political decision.

Defending politics

By Matthew Flinders – you can find copies to buy here. It’s not easy defending politicians or politics generally. Especially when they implement stuff that you disagree with.

But this decision ultimately had to be taken by elected politicians. Doing nothing was not an option. This was not an easy decision. Whichever solution they chose, it would involve irritating or angering someone. They had to balance the strategic issue of Cambridge’s traffic problems, with local residents outside understandably not wanting headlights, white lines, and black tar rivers (See The Levellers here – they played it at The Cambridge Folk Festival on past occasions) cutting through their rural areas. But then why should rural areas be free of road traffic that us urbanites have to live with?

Would a unitary council have made for a less politically controversial decision?

Not necessarily.

My take for years has been that the current structures were put in place by Conservative-led governments to keep as much control of the City of Cambridge as was politically possible, while trying to deal with some of the problems that the increasingly wealthy and influential business interests were complaining about. Given the net contribution to the Treasury Cambridge’s economy makes, it became harder for ministers to ignore.

Rather than having a complex overhaul of local government, this is what they came up with. And given the minuscule influence that the local government sector has in Whitehall (I’ve seen it for myself in my civil service days – many London-based civil servants have little experience of two tier council areas, let alone parished areas), councillors had to accept it as the only offer going. Make the City Deal/GCP work or lose all of the money.

What a Unitary Council would have made more clear to the general public are:

  1. The lines of accountability with the councillors in decision-making roles
  2. The ability of local ward councillors to hold decision-making councillors to account
  3. The ability of the electorate to influence and ultimately change the strategy of transport plans and projects through the ballot box

Finally, the plethora of partnerships, forums, bodies, and authorities involved, plus the two-tier structure, means there is an incredible amount of repetition. Some of us have sat through multiple versions of the presentations made today. Why? The general public does not have the time or resources to sit through all of those meetings. The only ones who do generally are wealthy interests or community groups educated and affluent enough to make a stand. Hence some of the latter being able to commission professional experts to provide support and evidence for their cases.

My take is that the local elections of 2021 should have resulted in a change of strategy by the GCP. The electorate in South Cambridgeshire in particular gave councillors that opportunity by removing the Conservatives from control of the county council, having removed them from office at the district council in 2018. The incumbent councillors in South Cambridgeshire now face the next 12 months having some very difficult conversations with their electorates. Given that all three main political parties had decision-makers on the Board, it may be left to independent councillors with or without the increasingly well-known Flatpack Democracy banner to lead the electoral challenge.


I still want the Cambridge Connect light rail option – it was featured in the Cambridge Independent here.

You can follow Cambridge Connect on Facebook here.

In the meantime, anyone living in or around Cambridge can contact any of their local councillors with their concerns

My worry remains that after all of the campaigning and lobbying undertaken by residents, (and this has been over a number of years), they may feel that there’s nothing to show for it. As a result, some could turn away from voting and democracy completely – looking upon any politician and candidate with cynicism.

One of the challenges elected councillors now have is to repair that damage. How much of it is repairable in the short-medium term remains to be seen.

Food for thought?

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