Which councillors will promote this new Greater Cambridge Busway Network?

TL/DR: Having explicitly rejected both the CAM Metro and the Cambridge Connect Light Rail proposals, it now falls on councillors on Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council – and in particular those from the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats to champion the cause of the Greater Cambridge Busway Network.

Above – how local councils once advertised concessionary bus fares!

This stems from what I thought was a well-run meeting of the Cambridge East Community Forum – a joint forum run by Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council in a part of the county where there is and will continue to be significant levels of house-building probably for the next quarter of a century or so. [***Why can’t we have a unitary council already instead of boundaries that were set in 1935!?!?!***]

My previous blogpost covers the new no-nonsense line-to-take on promoting the busways and rejecting alternatives by council and quango officers – which although feeling like a kick in the stomach at the time is actually easier to handle because it means I don’t have to keep pestering them about something they and their predecessors never intended to consider in the first place.

Above – the official response from the Cambridge Connect Project. As I mentioned, anyone who wants to continue supporting the project can join Rail Future here, or (and especially if you are outside of Cambridge) email your MP and start lobbying them. The route via the Greater Cambridge Partnership is now closed as far as I’m concerned (unless a ministerial direction changes this).

There is a possibility in the next few years that the current or future Mayor of the Combined Authority could follow the example of the West Midlands. In one sense it helps that they’ve gone first because they get to identify all of the mistakes and teething problems that other combined authorities can learn from. Furthermore, the short terms of office does not make for ideal long term planning, but given where politics and the climate emergency might be in 2025, it might be that a light rail proposal becomes an election issue around then.

But in the meantime…

The political fingerprints of all three of the main political parties can be found on the busway proposals. Therefore none of the candidates from those parties can in good faith have opposing the busway network or any of the individual busways as a campaigning platform for the all-out South Cambridgeshire District Council elections 2022. Because the electorate will see straight through such campaigning slogans given how high profile the repeated protests against them have been.

Nearly 2,000 people signed the petition from Smarter Cambridge Transport, calling for a rethink in summer 2021. The response from Peter Blake, the Director of Transport for the Greater Cambridge Partnership (a senior officer, not a politician) was as follows in the Minutes:

The GCP would agree entirely that decarbonising road transport, promoting access to public transport, walking & cycling, and reducing toxic air pollution, are urgent priorities alongside unlocking of housing opportunities for local people and managing growth.
The GCPs strategy and proposals are well aligned with many of the potential remedies. The fact is that we are a hugely successful, growing area. That has created enormous pressure on both transport and housing.
To respond to the transport challenge, we need new integrated infrastructure, new services and to refocus the city centre away from the private car. To achieve more people using public transport, it needs to be reliable, frequent and affordable and you need all of these elements to achieve that. We will continue to work with colleagues at the CPCA, CCC and others to meet these aims.”

Draft Minutes, GCP Board 01 July 2021, p16.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership Board’s voting representatives from the three local councils had the opportunity of the huge changes delivered by the electorate to review and refresh their entire approach. They chose not to. That is politics.

What the councillors concerned are now obliged to do is to make the case to the public for their proposed busway network. Sitting on the fence and remaining silent simply will not do. At the same time, I also recognise how difficult it is to be a politician in a decision-making position in public office. There are no easy answers, and every other person who has an opinion appears to think there are. That does not mean they shouldn’t get called out by the public when they get things wrong. That goes with the job, and is an essential function of democracy that goes far beyond rocking up to the ballot box every few years.

“Should councillors from all three of the main political parties be involved in the publicity of the network of busways?”

I think they should because:

  • Between 2014-2018 Cambridgeshire Conservatives had the voting majority on the GCP Board. They could have nipped the busways in the bud early on, but chose not to.
  • Between 2018-21 All three parties were represented on the GCP Board, and continued spending and preparations were authorised by councillors from their parties
  • From the May 2021 elections to the present, it is Cambridgeshire Labour who nominally have the majority, but with the County Council seat representing the Joint Administration of which the Liberal Democrats are by far the largest group, the responsibility is shared.

Note this is not to say that the councillors should stand up in front of an archery target and let the public take pot-shots at them. For all we know, the busways might be an outstanding success and defy all of the nay-sayers (including myself). In which case they too will take the credit for the success because that’s the deal when you push through a project in the face of stiff opposition and everything turns out fine.

The problem up to the present is that I can’t think of any elected councillor over the past seven or so years who has consistently and repeatedly sung the praises of, and made the case for a network of busways as a solution for Cambridge’s transport problems.

There have been individual officers such as the former Busways chief Bob Menzies of Cambridgeshire County Council who have done so in the past – such as this early presentation of slides here. Again, it’s important to evaluate these things – what was promised, what was delivered, what was the gap between the two, and what was learnt. In his case, the opposition to the original guided busway was significant – and you can read the history of this from the opposition’s perspective (with many linked documents) here.

“Does the history of the first guided busway matter?”

Yes because the legal action from its massive cost overrun, overdue delivery and defects identified following construction is still ongoing. See this from 2015 in the Cambs Times. Furthermore, many of the meetings about the policy development of the Cambourne-Cambridge guided busway are recorded in detailed minutes – such as this example from 2016 where councillors from all three parties are represented. There are also a number of videos of meetings – including where things get heated such as this exchange from 2018 between Save the Westfields’ Stephen Coates and GCP Officers. The year before in 2017, Mr Coates raised governance issues with the then GCP Chair Cllr Francis Burkitt (Cons – South Cambs DC). Hence my point about senior politicians from all three of the main political parties having been party to decisions leading to the recent Board decision to press ahead with the Busway Network.

“Making Connections – have your say on greener travel in Greater Cambridge”

There are some ***very big calls*** being made by the GCP over the next 6 months so it’s worth looking at what their consultation says. If anything, the backlash from motorists could be far larger than anything local residents come up with. You can read the Making Connections documents here.

Above – sounds good if like me you have breathing issues, but given that the police continually struggle to apprehend motorists with unlawfully modified engines, what hope is there of applying this charge and successfully collecting the revenue?

Above – it will be interesting to see what impact the policies have on both vehicle numbers and on revenue raised.

“Do you want these to fail?

Heeeeeeyeeelllllll No! These policies potentially make the air cleaner so makes breathing easier, and may reduce the number of unlawfully loud vehicles in my neighbourhood. So quite the opposite – I want the policies to be an outstanding success. At the moment though, I’m not convinced they will be. But given where we now are, the onus is on the councillors on the GCP Board and Assembly to ensure that their proposals succeed.

“Did the local elections of May 2021 – and even the change of power at South Cambridgeshire District Council in 2018 result in ***any*** meaningful policy changes on the GCP?”

That’s a good question – why don’t you submit it to the Greater Cambridge Assembly meeting for answer later this month? Because whatever the answer is will also deal with some of the issues several people have raised about the democratic deficit with the GCP. If there were no meaningful policy changes following the May 2021 elections – especially given the transport issues raised, what was the point? This may well be a point of debate in the run up to the South Cambridgeshire District Council elections (where the full council is up for re-election) in May 2022. Like the one in 2018 where the Lib Dems crushed their Conservative opponents in the post-Brexit aftermath, this could be a very interesting one too – especially in wards affected by the proposed busways. Many of us inside the City that sits within South Cambridgeshire will be watching with interest.

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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