Sustainable Growth Ambitions for Cambridgeshire

Council leaders were unable to agree to a new Sustainable Growth Ambition at the last Combined Authority Board Meeting. Should we be concerned? Is the impasse the result of broken structures and systems that should be looking at more radical solutions over a longer period of time?

You can read the article in the Cambridge Independent here. Had ministers not abolished their government offices, they might have had their eyes on what was going on here. But given they got rid of them in 2010/11 and given the chaos in Downing Street resulting in the MP for North East Cambridgeshire taking his eyes of his constituency in his new Chief of Staff role, it’s not clear who is expecting what.

The Sustainable Growth Ambition Statement for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough

It was the comment by Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham), the former MEP for the East of England, now the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council that hit the headlines. You can listen to what she said at the Board meeting from 46mins here.

The substance to all of this stems from the election victory of Mayor Dr Nik Johnson (Lab) over his predecessor the former Mayor James Palmer (Cons). The arguments about buses vs CAM Metro have been done before. What the present disagreement relates to is the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Economic Review of 2018 (you can read it in the papers of the meeting 28 Nov 2018 here), the Growth Ambition Statement 2018 that quickly followed it (Agenda Document Pack – p84 here), and the one that was supposed to replace the latter statement, the Sustainable Growth Ambition Statement 2022, (item 2.2, p17 of the Business Board Papers of 26 Jan 2022 here)

“What’s the difference?”

As Mayor, Mr Palmer’s key projects were listed in the 2018 statement as:

  • The Cambridge Autonomous Metro (CAM)
  • The A47 corridor
  • The A10 corridor
  • Huntingdon’s Third River Crossing
  • King’s Dyke level crossing replacement
  • Cambridge South Station
  • Soham Station
  • Alconbury Station
  • Wisbech rail improvements.

Dr Nik Johnson has gone with six themes underpinned by his now familiar 3 Cs – Compassion, community, co-operation.

  • Health and Skills: building human capital to raise both productivity and the quality of life;
  • Climate and Nature: restoring the area’s depleted natural capital and addressing the impact of climate change on our low-lying area’s special vulnerabilities;
  • Infrastructure: from digital and public transport connectivity, to water and energy, building out the networks needed to support a successful future;
  • Innovation: ensuring this area can continue to be one of the most dynamic and dense knowledge economies in Europe;
  • Reducing inequalities: investing in the community and building social capital to complement improved skills and connectivity as part of the effort to narrow the gaps in life expectancy and income between places;
  • Financial and systems: improving the institutional capital which supports decision making and delivery.

You can listen to Mayor Dr Nik Johnson on growth -or rather ‘value added’, here.

Is there a “Greater Cambridge vs North Cambridgeshire” split?

This was something that came up in the debate. The Leader of Fenland District Council, Cllr Chris Boden (Cons) said there was, while the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council Cllr Lucy Nethsingha said there was not – or rather not to the extremes that the former was stating.

My view is that there is a clear economic and political divide, and the roots of that are in the policies of national government – in particular with infrastructure investment. Could/should the rail and public transport infrastructure have been upgraded decades ago? Should the University of Peterborough have been founded before this year? Should previous governments have dealt with the problem of how local government is structured and resourced for the 21st Century?

Furthermore, as Mr Palmer stated to an audience of Cambridge students at the Cambridge Union in 2018, there is also the impact of the University of Cambridge which is also far outside of the control of local government. (You can see the full debate, featuring Cllr Hilary Cox several years before she stood for election, here).

“In Greater Cambridge, ‘growth’ is a dirty word – moving the narrative to health and wellbeing works for my residents” – Cllr Bridget Smith

You can listen to her speech here.

“We are living in a very different world to the one when [the previous growth ambition strategy] was signed. Covid has changed our priorities – our choices, business practices – this new strategy shows we are trying to adapt to [this new reality].”

Cllr Bridget Smith Leader of South Cambs DC, 26 Jan 2022 to Combined Authority Board
“In the northern part of the Combined Authority Area, Growth is not a dirty word” – Cllr Chris Boden

“I see a de-prioritisation of growth… In the northern part growth is a desperately-needed concept that needs to be converted into reality. I fully accept there are differences…we need some balance so as to move forward to our mutual benefit.”

Cllr Chris Boden, Leader of Fenland DC, 26 Jan 2022, to Combined Authority Board

It’s perhaps not surprising to see a Liberal Democrat council leader taking criticism from one of her Conservative counterparts who leads one of the partner district councils. What might have missed some people is that the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire criticises Cllr Smith and colleagues over their proposals for ‘too much growth‘ in the emerging local plan, while the Conservative Leader of Fenland District Council criticises Cllr Smith for implying that her part of Cambridgeshire does not need the sort of growth that Fenland, according to Cllr Boden, urgently needs.

And yet when you look at the various indicators and statistics, both councillors are right but in different ways. The studies on water stress in and around Cambridge shows that the level of housebuilding outstrips the environment’s ability to supply water – something that ministers seem to be dragging their feet over, while the child poverty, unemployment rates, low skills levels, and poor transport & communications infrastructure shows that Fenland could do with far more infrastructure investment than successive ministers and county councils have given it.

So the challenge is – as Cllr Smith states, the quality of growth. Can the Combined Authority deliver the sort of ‘quality growth’ that does not reduce the standards of living and lifestyles of future generations? i.e. can that growth be made sustainable?

“Oh Sustainable Development! A concept so generalised as to be meaningless!”

It was the title of an essay I wrote at university some 20 years ago. Politicians can make it mean whatever they want it to mean.

“In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.””

The United Nations on Sustainability.

In reality part of the public-facing problem is none of the councils have got high profile examples of sustainable development in action that have really caught the public’s imagination. Yet.

There is also the ‘more with less’ argument – another one that has been used and abused by politicians, executives, and highly remunerated persons telling staff that they have to increase productivity and output with fewer resources and input. From an economic development / manufacturing perspective, this was something Prof Herman Daly wrote about in the early 1990s about economies using existing resources to produce better outputs, or using fewer resources to produce the same quantity & quality of outputs. For example moving the same quantity of people using a mass transit system that uses more efficient electrical engines that do not require as much energy compared to their diesel counterparts. But then what price the convenience of door-to-door transport?

It’s easy to forget the huge investment from previous generations that made the hydrocarbon economy convenient for drivers today. Perhaps what we forget today when we talk about light rail and cycleways, is that the infrastructure we build now may well be there for many generations in the future. Did the builders of Cambridge Railway Station in 1845 assume that their building and rail line would still be here well into the 21st Century? (And still using broadly the same technology of wheels-on-rails, just a different propulsion?)

“How do we get that growth and investment into places like Fenland, and out of places like Gtr Cambridge?”

Let’s compare the two council areas that Cllrs Boden and Smith are responsible for. On the left is Fenland District Council – with the City of Peterborough immediately to its left, and on the right is South Cambridgeshire, surrounding the City of Cambridge with its 1935-era municipal boundaries, and Peterborough in the top left of the image.

Above: (L) Fenland District, and (R) South Cambridgeshire District.

In 2016, 74% of voters in Cambridge voted to remain in the EU, while 75% of voters in Fenland voted to leave the EU. South Cambs has the A14, A11, and M11 running through it, with the latter linking to Stansted airport. Fenland has no major roads to speak of, with the battle to dual the A47 something that is still going on, even though national political momentum has been swinging away from the pro-build-major-roads-lobby for some time. (That hasn’t put a complete stop to it, as the Huntingdon southern bypass showed).

Above – the now-completed Huntingdon Southern Bypass, whose origins pre-date the year 2000 to the time when the local MP John Major was also the Prime Minister. On one hand is could generate even more traffic, while on the other hand it takes a significant amount of road traffic out of the town of Huntingdon – famous for Oliver Cromwell MP.

Fenland is not going to get a £1bn+ major road project going through its area. It’s not within the Mayor’s budget for a start. So what are the sorts of interventions that can be brought in by the Combined Authority (and the County Council) that can lead to that self-sustaining growth, increase in living standards, & rising educational standards *without degrading the environment?*

“We know that the answer cannot be more roads for petrol/diesel-fuelled vehicles, and we also know that we won’t get a 1-4-1 like replacement for electric cars. So…what are the answers?”

Unlike his county council counterparts, Mayor Dr Nik Johnson welcomed the Levelling Up White Paper – see his statement here. In a sense he had to – four of the seven local council leaders are Conservative, and so he has to represent their views too,

“It is important that the White Paper acknowledges that reducing inequality is a long-term project. Inequalities are found in every city and district in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the roots of which go back decades. It will take a committed and focused programme of investment over many years to fully meet the challenge.”

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson 02 Feb 2022

This is the important part – one that hints at a plan that will stretch across governments and generations. This then brings us to Martin Wolf’s analysis in the FT – where he urges Sir Keir Starmer to commission his own policy work on this – something that I looked at in my previous blogpost here. What does reducing inequalities look like not just nationwide, but for an existing county like Cambridgeshire, or existing unitary cities like Peterborough, lower tier level cities like Cambridge, and small market towns like Huntingdon, Wisbech, and Chatteris?

Horizon-scanning, strategy, policy-making, delivery, evaluation

Here’s a footballing analogy. I was listening to a vlogcast with the longtime Arsenal & England Physio Gary Lewin, who spoke about the importance of players undertaking medical assessments in the process of being transferred between clubs. He said that medicals are risk assessments, rather than a snapshot of a player’s health at a point in time. He gave one example of one player Arsenal bought, telling the then manager Arsene Wenger (whose daughter Lea is a neuroscientist in Cambridge), that although fit, there is a risk that one issue may get worse with time, but will definitely get X good seasons out of him. A few years later, Wenger sold the player on for a massively-inflated price, and a few seasons later said player retired through injury. Which sounds brutal even in a game of such high financial stakes! The point being, Wenger Snr was already looking ahead to sell the player before he had even signed him.

There are similarities in public policy too. That’s one of the reasons why the Combined Authority commissioned an Independent Climate Report for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, led by an eminent member of the House of Lords. The Commissioners did not pull their punches in their report – such was the strength of it that it swayed the opinion of a number of councillors when finances started being discussed. eg firms not being able to get insurance cover, or business loan facilities through to the higher costs to council tax payers to pay for retrofitting and mitigation. Think the impact of the ‘do nothing’ scenario’.

The solutions in parts of Cambridge and Peterborough will inevitably include retrofitting existing properties. The solutions for other parts of the county on housing might involve not just building to the minimum standards required by planning laws and building regulations, but also accounting for changing climatic risks. What is the direction of travel of regulation? What is the direction of travel of the various other emerging risks?

The Mayor and councillors need to be specific – just as I was when asking about who has what powers to establish new adult education colleges. For example, if, on examining the evidence and transport data, the Combined Authority came to the view that transporting thousands of teenagers into South Cambridge daily is a very inefficient method of delivering 16-19 further education, then they may choose to move one of the large colleges out to say Cambourne – a rapidly-growing New Town with a looming East-West-Rail link due to be constructed.

This may provide a chance to use an existing education site (Let’s say Hills Road SFC as I’ve mentioned before) as a new adult education college campus for providing courses for the retraining of adults as well as wider leisure courses. The problem is to establish the latter requires ministerial approval. It should not need a minister to do that. It’s just extra paperwork which Central Government could do without. The net result might be more children from rural areas west of Cambridge having course choices they never had before, while reducing the number of commuting journeys into Cambridge, and at the same time providing firms with a large single training site that can cover both office-based learning and technical (it has science labs) courses.

Politicians and ministers might conclude that the Combined Authority for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough is the wrong type of institution to meet the challenges of the 2020s & 2030s.

Which happens to be my take – just as William Davidge decided in 1934 that a very fragmented scheme of urban and rural district councils should be condensed into four district level councils – and in the 1970s the Conservatives decided that even that was too many, resulting in a much bigger Cambridgeshire County Council and more amalgamations of smaller district councils.

Above – Davidge’s proposals for local district councils within what was a smaller Cambridge County Council before WWII.

For the challenges of the 21st Century would it be better to have two separate larger, more powerful unitary councils which could then devolve area-specific issues to sub-committees that could then form the nuclei of town councils that had additional supporting town councillors elected to them to support the unitary councillors? (Mindful that the unitary councils would be taking on a host of public service responsibilities currently outside their remit, such as local primary healthcare, education, and adult skills- but at the same time having the ability to link solutions to complex problems with multiple causes).

Above – from the Royal Commission Maps of 1969.

Let’s not pretend the existing system is functioning. It isn’t. In Mayor Dr Nik Johnson’s case, I think he’s being asked to deliver growth in the north and de-growth in the south while the international property markets & the biosciences & tech industries are delivering the opposite. He can’t win. No one can win in that set up. The Conservatives have a maximum 2 years & 10 months before the next general election. Can Sir Keir Starmer’s local government policy team headed by the impressive Lisa Nandy MP come up with a substantial policy programme that delivers for both economically deprived, as well as economically affluent areas? (And furthermore, can more of those in the affluent areas be persuaded to change their mindsets and those of the circles and institutions they are part of, to ensure that the whole city and county succeeds together?)

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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