Will a Conservative Transport Secretary have to sign off the controversial transport projects that are unpopular with their party’s local politicians?

In the olden days, such things fell under various different brand titles – such as Blueprint For Cambridge, which dates from times when Conservatives were dominant within Cambridge, not just in parts of the county.

Major infrastructure projects in and around Cambridge – briefing by council officers

You can look at the list at item 8 of the meeting papers for 17 Jan 2023. It states:

“Projects covered by the delegation [by councillors to senior council officers – in part to enable officers to negotiate with civil servants and the organisations carrying out the projects on behalf of the council as an institution] are:

(a) Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) which are known/believed to follow the Development Consent Order (DCO) route:

  • Cambridge Water Treatment Works relocation
  • East-West Rail

(b) Projects for the construction of guided transport schemes, which will follow the Transport and Works Act 1992 (TWA) Order for consent:

  • Cambourne to Cambridge Rapid Transport Route (C2C) public transport corridor project.
  • Cambridge South-East Transport Route (CSET) public transport corridor project
  • Cambridge Eastern Access public transport corridor project
  • Waterbeach to Cambridge public transport corridor project
  • Greater Greenways Project (various routes)

I’ve highlighted the bits in bold to make clear that the processes concerned do not follow local planning or transport works planning processes, but national processes instead that culminate in a submission/recommendation to Government ministers, who then have to decide whether to proceed or reject the proposals in front of them.

South Cambridgeshire, you have a similar set of papers for your council’s meeting on 12 Jan 2023 here.

“Why should ministers take such decisions?”

Such has been the complaint from localities everywhere for almost a century. For all of the proposals listed, the mindset of ministers and senior civil servants is likely to be that the money is coming from central government for significant transport projects, so therefore ministers should have the final say. (There are other reasons, but it also reflects the over-centralisation of the state in England. In Scotland and Wales, because planning and transport are devolved matters, anything that takes place in those nations only, are the responsibility of the Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly Government. UK ministers don’t get involved. Hence calls for either an English Parliament with similar powers, or a new generation of more powerful sub-regional government organisations such as metro mayors and combined authorities.

“So…this means that Conservatives in Government will have to sign off these very controversial projects if they are tabled before the next general election, right?”


Which could be fun. Or not. Actually, it reflects the dysfunctional working relationships as a result of the flawed and now broken structures that were put in place by ministers between 2014-2016 – in both cases signed off by George Osborne the Chancellor, as he mentioned by the Greater Cambridge City Deal, and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority in the respective budgets of the aforementioned years.

“Why not have a unitary authority for Greater Cambridge with its own transport passenger executive similar to say London or Greater Manchester, and have those senior executives up before councillors on a regular basis to scrutinise what’s happening?”

That would leave junior ministers with less to do, making parliamentary discipline harder (fewer posts to promise aspiring future senior ministers on the political ladder) and risk giving party political control of prize cities like Cambridge to opposition political parties – which was one of the reasons why the current Combined Authority for Cambs & Peterborough was established in the first place. This is despite many responses telling ministers that Cambridgeshire is polarised politically, and that it would have made more sense to have linked Cambridge to nearby surrounding towns instead? Instead, we have the mess of today.

Above – from Item 10, p6 of the papers – why does Cambridge have four separate organisations covering housing and transport?

  1. The Combined Authority as the Transport Authority (including buses – hived off from the county council in the mid-2010s)
  2. The County Council as the Highways Authority (doing pothole repairs on neighbourhood roads
  3. The Greater Cambridge Partnership (dealing with the chunk of money that was not enough for a light rail, but far too much for a network of cycleways and footpaths alone.
  4. Cambridge City Council responsible for town planning – the buildings that have a huge impact on the amount of new traffic generated.
“Hence inviting people to submit public questions?”

And for those who are particularly vocal and persistent in their campaigning, to consider standing for election at the next local elections as an independent candidate, and putting yourself out there to take questions from the general public and from local reporters (who are under no obligation to make it easy for you either!) Far, far easier said than done, but once said and done you’ll get more respect from elected councillors *after* having challenged them at the ballot box to make your point.

Furthermore, in my experience the learning points from standing for election are so strong that hopefully you’ll come out a more informed and better person as a result of having your views, opinions, and political principles put under the microscope by the local electorate. Also, it means you get to go to “the count” at the end of polling day, which is an incredible life experience – to which you can take up to ten people with you for support. There is *a lot* that happens away from the TV cameras at a general election and local elections at counts – and you need to be there to get a feel for it.

“What’s the point of standing for election if ministers end up taking the big decisions anyway?”

Parliament has said similar – see their report here on 31 Oct 2022.

Above – the call from Parliament for a Royal Commission on Local Government similar to the one from 1966-69, that I wrote about here.

Furthermore, Sir Keir Starmer MP made a speech today – see here for the summary. There’s a full transcript here.

“Anything special?”

Here’s one quotation:

“Yet [micromanaging] is exactly how we try to run Britain. It’s why for all the talk of levelling-up, nothing ever happens. It’s just that old game of passionately identifying a problem. Rather than facing the real solution and accepting Westminster must give power away.

“Well – no more. No more sticking plaster politics. No more Westminster hoarding power. No more holding back this country’s economic potential.”

Sir Keir Starmer MP, 05 January 2023

This bit is where the details matter:

“Devolve new powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and how councils run their finances.”

It’s all very well having the powers but if there are no methods of raising the revenue independent of The Treasury and of ministers, then the powers won’t make much of a difference. As I have said repeatedly about Cambridgeshire, the north of the county needs a greater level of direct funding from central government because Fenland with its very poor infrastructure and rural poverty cannot raise the funds it needs from its local economy to pay for the improvements it so desperately needs. Cambridge and southern Cambridgeshire on the other hand are over-heating, and need a structure of local governance that enables a single unitary council to tax that speculative bubble (especially on expensive housing and science park construction) to pay for excellent and comprehensive public transport networks that are both accessible and affordable to those on the lowest incomes, while are also the transport of first choice for the affluent.

Above – a familiar-looking musician using public transport (yes, it’s the first class section but that’s not the point!)

This for me is where I believe Cambridge (and its economic sub-region, so most of the villages and towns within a 30mile radius) should be aiming for: a transport system where a critical mass of people are both willing and able to leave the car alone and use either electrified public transport (light rail, trams, electric buses), or active travel (walking, cycling, e-scooters etc).

The problem is too many of the blockages are in Westminster and national politics. With a general election happening within the next two years, it’s essential that we have the debate on what needs to happen in national politics to remove those blockages. We cannot carry on with the same failed systems and structures. Not with the climate emergency staring us in the face.

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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