Institute for Government needs to follow up its report on Metro Mayors with one on local government & local public services – including the historical context

You can read How metro mayors can help level up England here. Given the problems we’ve had in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough from the very start, this report should be of interest beyond local government and party political circles. Hence the short video summary here.

The Institute’s summary of recommendations include:

  • Devolving full responsibility for functions such as skills, transport and (green) infrastructure
  • Giving metro mayors long-term, flexible funding to allocate in line with local needs
  • Giving metro mayors the formal right to request any power that has been devolved elsewhere in England. The government should respond publicly and – if it says no – specify the conditions that would have to be met for the power to be handed over.
  • The government launch a joint review of its relations with metro mayors and publish a framework for consultation, co-operation and dispute resolution between government departments and the mayors.  
  • The government commit not to reverse or amend the terms of devolution without local consent.  

The mainly upbeat report does not sit well with the experience of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough – as the report notes between the lines.

“In some places the [devolution] model has struggled – for instance where the boundaries of the [Mayoral Combined Authority] MCA align poorly with economic activity or voters’ sense of place. The performance of the mayors themselves has also been variable over time and across different regions. Local scrutiny mechanisms necessary to hold metro mayors to account do not work well and need bolstering.”

How metro mayors can help level up England, p5. Paun, Nice, Rycroft, for Institute for Government, 2022
“Why isn’t the model working in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough?”

This is what I had to say back in 2016 at the launch, in a radio interview with Dotty McLeod of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

Above – this interview followed my Freedom of Information request on how the policy was developed to create a Combined Authority for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. You can read the Government’s responses here.

There are a whole host of inconsistencies with what the response shows vs what politicians were briefing at the time. I went after the former MP for South Cambridgeshire and controversial former Health Secretary after reports in the media said he was favourite to become the new ‘Mayor of East Anglia’. This was because when the policy was first launched, the proposals were for a combined authority for a large chunk of East Anglia – you can read the draft deal from The Government here.

The proposals from ministers (who insisted the origins of the policy came from councils in Norfolk and Suffolk in their FoI response to me) went down very badly in Cambridge – at the time a lonely non-Conservative outpost in a sea of blue councils and Tory fortresses. The then Leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert (Labour – Coleridge) wrote to ministers stating the following:

“The [East Anglia Devolution] proposals on offer do not in our view provide for the best deal for Cambridge, Greater Cambridge, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and the document suffers from serious defects because it is a quickly assembled collection, not based on genuine economic and social analysis of our sub-region’s needs.”

Cllr Lewis Herbert to the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, sent 10 March 2016, in meeting papers pack for Cambridge City Council ECM 23 March 2016, under item titled Devolution, Appendix 2.

It’s also worth noting that there was no popular mandate for a combined authority for East Anglia, or for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough. It was imposed by ministers. Note Cambridge City Council’s responses to three sets of public questions from the Emergency Council Meeting (ECM) on 23 March 2016 – including one from myself. The rejection by the then Gtr Cambridge & Gtr Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership caused great disquiet on the merits of the original plan from ministers, which was a factor in it being abandoned. Even though the Freedom of Information Requests show central government stating it was Norfolk and Suffolk county councils as the instigators of a regional combined authority, it was Cambridgeshire and Peterborough that ended up with one that had no popular mandate from the people, with Norfolk and Suffolk being without one in that 2016 round.

Cambridge separated from its southern and western neighbours

Cllr Herbert then made the point about the lack of connections between Cambridge and its near neighbours on the routes to London.

“While the aspiration of a regional transport board is very welcome, there is no direct mention of the major players, Network Rail and Highways England. We also believe that the Regional Transport Board needs to extend beyond the three counties to include Essex and Hertfordshire, and preferably Bedfordshire too, which represents the true region that Cambridge is interdependent on.”

Ibid. p2-3.
This is where the historical context comes in – something that does not appear to have been considered by ministers at the time – or anyone since.

In Lichfield’s Cost-Benefit Analysis in Town Planning – Cambridge Case Study from 1966, which I have digitised my copy here, he produced an interesting map of the areas of interest in the towns (plus the cathedral city of Ely) that surround Cambridge.

Note St Neots and Biggleswade are just outside the area that looked to Cambridge as a Main Centre back in the mid-1960s.

Lichfield’s diagram looks suspiciously similar to the principles that town planning pioneer Thomas Sharp came up with in Town and Country back in 1931 – again I’ve digitised my very old copy.

Above – from Lichfield, Town & Country 1931 p172,

Furthermore, Lichfield’s analysis in part explains why the Redcliffe-Maud Report (The Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-69) proposed creating a new unitary council for Greater Cambridge along similar boundaries.

Below – abandoned proposals for a Greater Cambridge Unitary Council, and a Greater Peterborough Unitary Council, in Redcliffe Maud’s report from 1969 – the main report which I’ve digitised my copy here. The detail below is from the third map in this digitised pack of maps from the same report – attached to Vol. 1

Above – From the maps of Vol. 1 of Redcliffe Maud’s Report for the Royal Commission on Local Government 1966-69.

You can get a sense of how small some of the district councils were prior to Peter Walker and Sir Edward Heath’s reforms of the early 1970s, which created larger districts and merged the two existing shire councils – Hunts & Peterborough, and Cambridge County & the Isle of Ely. Again I’ve digitised my copy of the original short official guide that dates from 1974 here.

Note Redcliffe Maud’s report includes proposals for a new regional tier for East Anglia. Hence the thicker red line in the top-left of the map detail above. This was at a time of intense debate on the restructuring of local government, and of continued infrastructure spending. The next decade or so would see the construction of the A45 (today the A14) Cambridge Northern Bypass, and the M11.

Another rejected report from the 1970s examined the Cambridge sub-region.

This was John Parry Lewis’s report which scared the living daylights out of local councillors with two proposals to double the size of Cambridge to over 200,000 people. These were his two options below. Which one would you have picked?

Above – from The Cambridge Sub-Regional Plan Part 1, by John Parry Lewis 1974

You can read Part 1 which I’ve digitised here. (The other two parts are works in progress). Note the study area that Prof Parry Lewis was commissioned to work on, and how it cuts across multiple county boundaries.

Above – the study area for John Parry Lewis’s Cambridge Sub Regional Plan 1974

By this time, local councillors had already abandoned his ideas before the Professor had even finished. The latter had been commissioned by a regional quango set up by Harold Wilson’s Government that the Conservatives did not like – and one that was ultimately abolished by Margaret Thatcher. The exchanges in the local newspapers from half a century ago are striking – you can find the full set in the Cambridgeshire Collection. I blogged about a sample of them here.

Why the Institute for Government now needs to consider local government – including structures, powers, financing & fundraising, and working relationships with other organisations.

Because this.

If ministers think that the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the UK’s economy should be governed like a market town, then they have gone about it the right way. Things to note about Cambridge in particular.

Above – by Smarter Cambridge Transport, which tried desperately to persuade the decision makers in the diagram above for something better than busways, but has now retired – unable to persuade transport officers of the merits of alternative proposals...

…such as the Cambridge Connect Light Rail Project

Note that Mill Road stop with the future extension to Burwell has suddenly become much more important with the proposals for a new large science park development at The Beehive Centre – you can see the consultation boards here. And it will go ahead because of the unprecedented demand for laboratory units – despite the continued construction and granting of planning permissions such as the latest Granta Park one here.

Should the current Beehive Centre – the graveyard of the once mighty Cambridge and District Co-operative Society be converted to a development of high density science labs alongside the railway lines, that will need new public transport infrastructure to bring in the thousands of scientists who will work on it – because the local population does not have the capacity to fill all of those job vacancies alone.

Above – the Cambridge Connect Light Rail line (the Darwin line marked in Yellow in the last-but one image above) would need to diverge at Mill Road, with one line heading to The Beehive Centre, then out to what will be the long-awaited Cambridge Airport Development (See the plans from nearly 20 years ago here), and to Bottisham, Burwell, and beyond.

Under the current structure of local government, getting a light rail based on existing technology with a limited underground section has so far been impossible to get political agreement from. The two-tier district/county structure (not including town & parish level councils) has been in place for nearly half a century. Cambridge’s municipal boundaries (And those of Cambridge City Council) are the same as they were in 1935. And lots of firms want to establish themselves within that small boundary. Which is overheating the economy.

“Is the Combined Authority broken by design, or broken because the local political leaders cannot work with each other?”

For me it’s more the former than the latter. As mentioned back in 2016 by a number of us, the geographical area is too great and too diverse to accommodate a unified set of policies. This was reflected in the EU Referendum where Cambridge City voters voted 74% Remain, and Fenland District Council voters voted 75% Leave.

Furthermore, the fragmentation of public services makes it (in my opinion) impossible for any politician to carry out their functions properly. Successive governments have ignored proposals to diversify the taxation powers to raise revenue for much needed infrastructure improvements – despite the supposed wealth Cambridge is creating. Look at the state of the pavements and some of our public services and you’d be forgiven. Healthcare structures are not aligned. Network Rail and Highways England are regularly accused of not co-operating with local level organisations. The Environment Agency and East Anglian Ambulance Trusts all operate and regional levels. DWP – don’t get me started.

Finally, the party political context in which the Combined Authorities were drawn up in has changed. In Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s case, dramatically. Between 2013-16 the county council had 12 UKIP councillors – mainly on the northern edge. Two elections later and the Conservative-led rule has ended with a progressive joint administration – followed this year by their unexpected loss of their fortress of Huntingdonshire (John Major’s old patch) along with a crushing defeat again in South Cambridgeshire (Where they managed to lose *even more seats* to the Liberal Democrats in contests they were expected to regain lost ground). Below shows the seat distribution for Cambridgeshire County Council following the 2021 local council and Mayoral elections that also saw Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson unexpectedly elected as the Mayor.

Above – in 2022 the Liberal Democrats solidified their hold on South Cambridgeshire – although lost two seats in Cambridge City, while Huntingdon moved to No Overall Control, with a new progressive joint administration with a Liberal Democrat councillor as the new council leader – Cllr Sarah Conboy.

Cambridge and Peterborough as cities won’t meet their potentials under the present structures. Neither will the historic market towns of Wisbech, Huntingdon, St Neots, Ramsay, Chatteris, and March.

Something’s got to change. Because this present structure is unsustainable.

Food for thought?

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