“Mayor Dr Nik Johnson asks *You* to help secure funding for active travel”

(I’m deliberately ignoring the national news announcement today for this post). This could be a positive test for how ‘up for it’ Cambridgeshire & Peterborough are for a combination of grassroots participative democracy and community action. But…and it’s a very big “But”.

You can read the short article by Gemma Gardner of the Cambridge Independent here. It’s on the back of stinging criticism from cycling campaigners such as CamCycle here (*Declaration of interest – I’m a member of CamCycle along with over 1,600 of the people – with membership starting from £3.50 for people on a low income), about the lack of ambition in the Combined Authority’s lack of ambition on active transport.

It was fortunate that Mayor Dr Johnson’s party and mayoral colleague Mayor Andy Burnham of Greater Manchester – a former Cambridge University student, was giving evidence to the House of Lords’ Built Environment Committee over public transport. You can watch the session here. Just under a year ago, Mayor Andy Burnham paid a visit to Cambridge – you can see the video of the two mayors here.

They were also joined by Cambridge MP and Shadow Agriculture Minister Daniel Zeichner in an additional video below, where Mr Zeichner (like Mayor Andy Burnham, also a former Cambridge student) made the point that Cambridge’s reputation as a cycling city was not because of excellent cycling and active travel infrastructure, but in spite of it.

Above (L-R as camera pans round), Mayors Johnson, Burnham, and Mr Zeichner MP.

In the subtitle, Mayor Burnham mentions gold-medal-winning Olympian Chris Boardman (Barcelona 1992) as Greater Manchester’s new cycling commissioner responsible for an integrated approach rather than the piecemeal approach we’ve had in Cambridge for decades due to the nature of funding from the Department for Transport.

Consultation Fatigue

This is the ‘Big But’ I mentioned above.

I’ve mentioned before how Cambridge needs to overhaul how it does consultations. I hope there are people at the Strawberry Fair from the Combined Authority doing outreach work on Saturday. We know that ‘business as usual’ consultations now have limited impact. At least the last one did.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership has burnt up a significant amount of what might have been public goodwill over how it has handled the whole busways fiascos. I’m still yet to hear any confirmation of where the idea for new busways originated from. I’ve got my reasonable guesses – such as the Cambridge Futures studies from 20 years ago.

Above – Cambridge Futures 2 digitised here for you to read from a very old library copy I purchased following its disposal.

Above – one of the proposals for the guided busways (in light yellow) that also indicate new housing developments south of Addenbrooke’s, at Cambridge Airport, and at Chesterton Junction.

How do well-organised campaigning and community groups go about putting together proposals made up of ideas from their members?

A similar set of principles for who organised what for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee might also apply to how communities respond consultations and work together to come up with their own proposals. Some will have the social infrastructure and sometimes the sheer good fortune of having individual/s who are competent at organising things, that enables a greater number of responses vs those that do not.

The problem is the UK’s governance structures are built and hot-wired up in such a way that even the best organised community groups come up against brick walls while well-connected and well-funded organisations and alliances are able to bypass whatever hurdles are put in the way of grassroots groups. Given the amount of work and meeting time backbench county/district/parish councillors, community activists, and campaigners put into feeding into the Greater Cambridge Partnership systems and processes, Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire *did not get value for money* for the time, money, and resources expended in engaging with the system. Ironically the system that ministers imposed on the sub-region (as an alternative to long-overdue local government restructures and reforms) that were supposed to streamline decision-making ended up having the opposite effect, bogging down unpopular large infrastructure proposals into repetitive expensive consultations that ended up alienating hundreds of people who are now even more cynical about local democracy and politics than they were before things started. Rebuilding that trust is going to take a very, very long time.

On active travel, where to start? For me, pick the lower-hanging fruit.

I’d go for the pre-existing community facilities – in particular sports facilities, and start there. Furthermore, I’d be looking at the market towns and their connections with both their post-war housing estates, and with nearby villages. For the simple reason that your user group is more likely to be positively-disposed towards cycling using e-light-vehicles (scooters, bikes, e-peds) and able to take this up very quickly once construction is complete.

The most complex part of any of the schemes are the land acquisition processes. But if these can be overcome relatively quickly – especially along transport corridors in rural areas, then constructing new segregated cycleways should in principle be straight forward. That’s not to say there won’t be challenges – traversing the multiple ditches and dykes (this is The Fens – much of which is below sea level) and the possibility of having to build up raised embankments to make the paths more flood resistant are just a couple I can think of. Furthermore, road junctions will need significant safety improvements both with lighting and slowing motor traffic. But the principle of starting with the sports and leisure centres – and the membership clubs – not to mention the schools & colleges, that use them is one worth exploring rather than a ‘target everyone’ approach of recent consultations.

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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