A case for a Greater Cambridge Unitary Council – and a light rail network to service it

TL:DRClick on the consultations by the Greater Cambridge Partnership and tell them their suggestions for an improved bus network do not answer the shortcomings highlighted repeatedly by members of the public and campaign groups, and instead need to commission formal in depth studies of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail. (You will also need to do the same for the consultation on the Combined Authority’s Local Transport & Connectivity Plan at https://yourltcp.co.uk/ in the free text boxes at the start.

Despite the clear signal from the electorate in the May 2021 local elections, and despite the clear messages coming out of the Glasgow Climate Summit (and the protests around it), the Greater Cambridge Partnership has carried on ‘business as usual’.

“Why do we have a GCP and a Combined Authority again?”

This is my speculative guess (I can’t put it out as anything more than that): A few years ago senior Conservatives decided they wanted to figure out a way to govern Cambridge (something of an aristocratic inheritance in their eyes) without handing it over to the woolly liberals or the champagne socialists currently occupying the entire council chamber, and with the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Association lacking any active functioning constituency branches. That’s going by their 2020 annual report. (They still have around 300 members – though how many will be content with the corruption on display and the headlines around it will be interesting to hear come the next general election). (As an aside I have thought for years that the Tories in the city have been under-performing when you look at the number of people who vote for them in general elections).

“When was the last time anyone suggested a unitary council on the basis of in-depth studies & a strong evidence-base?”

That was the 1969 Royal Commission on Local Government – I’ve digitised the main report here. Harold Wilson committed to implementing it but lost the 1970 general election, and Edward Heath’s Environment Secretary Peter Walker went for something different with the Local Government Act 1972.

What the report recommended for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough was this:

Above – unexecuted plans for two new unitary councils: Greater Cambridge, and Greater Peterborough.

One of the reasons the Greater Cambridge Partnership has boundaries that only incorporate Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire is that ministers chose to keep within existing local government boundaries. Had they taken a more radical view – one adopted by John Parry Lewis in his report on the Cambridge Sub-Region in 1973, (also ignored) ministers and officials would have looked at Cambridge’s economic connections with surrounding towns and would have incorporated them into the plans.

Above – the study area of the Cambridge Sub Region Vol.1 (Page xi )

Officials and councillors cannot say they were not asked to study past historical documents

Because I asked them back in 2016 – you may recognise several of us at this Busway briefing at Shire Hall.

Since filming that piece I’ve uncovered more than a few, including:

  1. The Cambridgeshire Regional Plan 1934 by Davidge
  2. The Cambridge Development Plan 1950 by Holford & Wright (Vol 1 here, and Vol 2 here)
  3. The Cambridge Sub-Region Report 1973 by Professor John Parry Lewis Vol 1 here.

The others are still work in progress but we may have some grant money to get some of the other reports in the Cambridgeshire Collection scanned and published. Other proposals I found included:

Also many of you will be familiar with the Cambridgeshire Hovertrain.

Above – the Tracked Hovertrain of the late 1960s at Earith, Cambs.

A holistic transport strategy would have incorporated the surrounding towns, and would have created a network

Above – this later iteration of the Cambridge Connect proposal shows some of the opportunities.

The key feature of the Cambridge Connect proposal is the tunnel underneath the city from in this case near Mill Road, to somewhere close to Grange Road. Note tunnels under Cambridge are not new. Gordon Logie’s plans for Cambridge in the 1960s were full of monster road tunnels for the city, and the Cambridge Futures reports of the early 2000s also proposed similar (see second half of this post)

Above – the Cambridge Futures2 Report 2003 in the Cambridgeshire Collection. Note the tunnels. This is the first mention in contemporary history where busways get mentioned.

Note even the planners in their extended option assumed a tunnel in West Cambridge prior to hitting Grange Road. The GCP Planners have still left this in the ‘too difficult’ pile or the ‘this will be resolved by the bus companies’ pile. My take is that if you are going to dig tunnels (which are expensive – but this paper goes into the different methods), I think it would be better and less disruptive to have the tunnel entrances at the edge of the city rather than aiming for short tunnels with the entrances in the middle of it – as proposed here.

Another thing to note with the Cambridge Futures model is that officials were always vague about the ‘rapid transit’ element of the scheme until later on. Early in my civil service career in Cambridge I recall many-a-meeting talking about a “Cambridge-to-Huntingdon Multi-Modal Study” (CHUMMS).

“The results of the CHUMMS published in 2001 recommended the introduction of a bus-based rapid transit system, traffic calming in the Cambridgeshire villages and improvements to the A14.”

Cambridge – Huntingdon A14 Improvement Scheme 2015 – DCO Application

This was to become the Guided busway.

In the next few decades I predict that the concrete tracks will be replaced by a different track system because the concrete used has turned out to be a lot less resilient to wear and tear than the consultants and main contractors said. Which is why it has cost a lot more than expected and in part is why the case is now before the High Court.

“Would a GCP covering the surrounding towns have worked?”

There would have been a stronger case for it given the number of county councils involved – Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. And that’s before you mention the district councils too. But the board and assembly meetings would have been a nightmare to handle because of the numbers of councillors and people generally involved. Furthermore, my years in the civil service taught me that large meetings where only one person gets to speak at a time are very unproductive. Much would depend on which individuals representing the different councils, how many of them, and whether they were supportive or in opposition to the proposals.

As several people from Smarter Cambridge Transport – who have been even more damning and in even more detail than me have said, the lack of ambition is striking given both the levels of economic growth, and ‘increasing the size of nature’ (whatever that means) ministers have now committed to.

“For transport, that means planning further extensions to the rail network, giving serious consideration to creating a tram network, and building a major transport hub at the Girton Interchangetravel hubs in every large village, and hundreds of miles of new cycleways linking everywhere.”

Smarter Cambridge Transport, 13th October 2021
“Why would a unitary council be better for a sub-regional transport scheme like this?”

Clear lines of democratic accountability in the eyes of the public, combined with far less duplication of meetings. The latter also means fewer things for the general public to have to keep track on.

Furthermore, there is a means of escalation to a full council meeting for anything particularly controversial. There is no such system with the GCP. I have not seen any substantive GCP issues brought to a full council meeting for any of the councils that I can recall (though am happy to be corrected), where the position of the council was voted on in a motion to the council by the party in power.

An interesting Q to the GCP might be:

“What significant changes of transport policy has there been from the GCP since the election results of May 2021?”

The simple reason being that result vanquished the last Conservative councillor on the Board. There is one on the Assembly remaining for South Cambridgeshire’s trio of seats, but I cannot recall any policy changes reflecting years of Liberal Democrat opposition to the Cambourne-Cambridge busway in the latter half of the last decade. Which then begs the question why they are still going along with it?

It’s hard enough for most residents to keep track of having two councils inside Cambridge – rural areas in the county have town and parish councils too. On top of this we got the GCP, and then the Combined Authority which seems to be running to a model based upon metro mayors applying for different pots of funding made available by The Chancellor and administered by Junior ministers in the Department for Transport. Hence the high-profile exchanges of letters between Mayor Dr Nik Johnson and ministers on trying to get things back on track. It also meant that he had to be cautious in his election campaign about promises because ministers then as now are not being clear about how much money will be available for which schemes. Which makes me think it’s not devolution, but a measure to distance ministers from local councils through the existence of mayors. Far better to have the funding devolved to a council where a full council assembly has to scrutinise and authorise the proposals of an executive (mayor or otherwise), just as Parliament has to with The Budget tabled by the Chancellor.

There is more that could be said, but I’ll stop for now.

Have a look at the two consultations:

Like I said, the first one has a very pretty picture of a bus network, but the state of our traffic means it won’t function nearly as smoothly as it looks. As for the second, it looks like they’ve abandoned attempts to reach the railway station.

Above – the vision published June 2020 here.

Officers should be clear on what has been abandoned here and why.

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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