How much ability does the City of Cambridge have to solve its own problems? A point-by-point analysis

This stems from two letters to the Cambridge Independent, and also following the recent votes at Cambridgeshire County Council’s full council of 21 March 2023

I posted the question about what law changes people thought were needed for Cambridge to be able to solve its own problems – and followed it up here.

Two letters from the Cambridge Independent of 22 March 2023 have a list of points about what needs to change – and understandably don’t go into detail on how. After all, democracy, politics, and the law are not taught in nearly enough detail (and for my generation, not at all) in schools so why would anyone know where to start about changing public policy?

I’ve paraphrased to shorten the length and have posted the above without commenting on the merit of each point. This gives some idea of what the Greater Cambridge Partnership officers will be dealing with in the 24,000+ responses to the Making Connections consultation, which itself is part of the City Access programme.

This is separate to the “Making Space for People” document by Cambridge City Council – the draft from 2019 you can read here.

Let’s start with Mr Willan’s list, stating: “No one has ever asked me whether I want our city to explode – an additional 51,800 homes and 66,600 jobs” (CIP – 01-08 March 2023). The same has been said about busways – no one ever stood for election on a manifesto commitment in favour of the network of busways.

Mr Willan’s list is as follows:

“I can tell you what I am for: First things first. This was my school motto.

  1. Fill in the potholes.
  2. Repaint road markings – esp pedestrian crossings
  3. Make traffic lights ‘intelligent’ (eg favouring buses, changing as an when traffic builds up rather than on fixed timings)
  4. Recognise Cambridge is not congested all day but only during rush hours
  5. Make cyclists more accountable and penalise law breakers
  6. Use fines income to subsidise buses
  7. Fire Stagecoach – introduce some proper competition
  8. Embrace light rail and stop investing money in third rate busways
  9. Expand park and ride facilities
  10. Ignore the Greater Cambridge Partnership

Make our infrastructure fit for purpose and see how we go from there”

A quick response to them from me are as follows:

1 – 3: Requires sufficient funding to local councils. We know that central government does not provide sufficient funds to councils that are responsible for local roads (in our case, Cambridgeshire County Council) because at The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced ring-fenced ‘pot hole funds‘ in Budget 2021 here, and also in Budget 2023 here. The fact that Chancellors announced such funds reflect how existing systems of financing local councils are not sufficient to meet the needs. Ministers were told this by the Select Committee responsible for local government back in 2021 which concluded the system for funding local councils is unsustainable. See also the data for the cuts to Cambridgeshire County Council from the House of Commons database here (use the drop-down menu to find your council of choice)

4 – A statement that public policy officers would expect to see evidence from traffic monitors. Assuming they matched, this would then feed into the discussion of what future transport policies should be brought in. It’s not a solution in itself.

5 – An enforcement funding issue. Here are some things cyclists can be fined for. Newspaper archives show that law-breaking cyclists were regularly up before magistrates for things like cycling without lights, or cycling in a manner that endangered the public. Again, cuts to local council budgets, and also to policing budgets means that enforcement activities are some of the first to be cut. Whether it’s ‘bobbies on the beat’ to enforcing ‘no parking’ zones to cyclists cycling in the dark without lights, or now e-scooters being used illegally, some people are now acting as if the law is not being enforced – or not in existence at all.

6 – Use fines to subsidise buses – This is where HM Treasury rules kick in. There are restrictions on how revenues from fines can be used. There is also further uncertainty as to which personnel have the legal powers to issue and enforce fines – as this article reflects. So to implement such a policy, changes to the law need to consider which institution of the state should have the legal powers to issue the fines, where the revenue should end up (i.e. in Town Hall or Whitehall/Treasury), and if the former (i.e. if the money stays in the local area where the offences took place), should those revenues be restricted to specific functions (bus subsidies), specific policy areas (anything that can reduce traffic congestion or pollution), whether the money should be spent on capital (eg new buildings or structures) or revenue (the provision of services eg the wages of frontline council officers) or go into a general fund that the council can spend on what it likes.

7 Fire an unpopular bus operatorPrivatisation of buses has failed. The debate now is on franchising (as explained by the Cambridge Area Bus Users) vs full on no-nonsense nationalisation. The statement about introducing more competition was one of the things that underpinned the bus deregulation of the 1980s – the assumption being that competition would raise standards and reduce costs as firms competed with each other. The problem now is that there are a very small number of very large transport firms – the barriers to entry being huge. Any new firm has to find the money to pay for a new fleet of buses, a new fleet of drivers, and buy the land for bus depots. To bring in a policy of ‘more competition’ would mean central government having to bring in new policies – and funding – to reduce those barriers to entry. Not easy in the current circumstances – including a shortage of trained bus drivers.

8 – requires either central government funding and/or significant new revenue raising powers, and also the authority to build new infrastructure that Cambridgeshire County Council on behalf of the GCP is applying to the Transport Secretary for regarding the proposed Cambourne-Cambridge busway.

9 – Same point as above on local government funding

10 – The Greater Cambridge Partnership was established by ministers as the delivery mechanism for the ‘City Deal’. Therefore it cannot be ignored without consequences – including ministers pulling the funding for transport projects through to direct intervention and sending in Government-appointed commissioners to run councils instead of councillors and council officers. Liverpool City Council was seen to be underperforming, and so ministers sent in commissioners to run council services in their place. Councillors would have to consider what the risk of this happening would be.

This was followed by Mr Megson’s nine points:

“It was suggested that those against the congestion charge do not have alternative proposals. I response I would comment:

  1. The road user charge will have little impact on congestion or emissions. The major cause of traffic delays is commuting… Cycleways, ‘adequate’ bus provision in the city and tinkering with long distance bus routes will not remove this commuting requirement. Proposals to expand businesses within the city and continuation of out-of-town housing and lack of affordable and social housing will ensure the problems continue and increase.
  2. The root causes of the road problems lie with developers, local authorities, and the university: they should be the source of funding for the problems they are creating.
  3. They should also be involved in provisions of solutions. Employers could facilitate and contribute to bussing in of workers (as PYE did) and make firms justify why they need to locate workplaces in the city – surely many would be better placed outside and closer to where people live?
  4. Schools and colleges (Esp private) could move over to bussing in of pupils as is the usual practice of local authority colleges
  5. Improvements to rural bus routes all over Cambs and beyond would have a far bigger impact on congestion in Cambridge
  6. Improve rail service – there are many settlements on existing lines which could be provided with platforms – and [restore[ the train line to Haverhill
  7. Provide affordable housing and social housing in Cambridge so people could live near to their jobs
  8. Rather than just accepting development should occur in the city because it is ‘good’ for the area, perhaps the promotors should be expected to look into the impact and implement accordingly?
  9. Stop traffic calming experiments – road narrowing, road closures etc, and spend the money on bus services.

“What I see proposed is a focus on the elite fo the city, what we really need is a solutions to real problems”

Responses to the second list:

1 & 2 : Town planning is one of the most heavily lobbied policy area in Whitehall. The core principle of town planning is that any application that meets the conditions of the Government’s national planning policies, and of any local development plan (eg the Cambridge Local Plan 2018) will be recommended for approval by planning officers. Hence why housing is a very heavily lobbied sector and also why concerns get raised when large developers donate funds to political parties. Developers and Cambridge University with their political connections would make the case about how making them pay for things would be ‘burdens’ and ‘bad for business’ or ‘bad for investment’

3 – some firms already do this – for example the private commuter services from Cambridge Station to places like Granta Park. Again there’s nothing to compel them to do this. The political debate is whether a better public transport system can replace it, and if so what form it should take and how it should be funded, as there is no mechanism to make firms contribute towards the construction and running of new infrastructure and services. That said, Ministers and London councils were able to negotiate large contributions towards the cost of Crossrail. Was the same tried for Cambridge? And if not, why not?

4 – compelling school bus services for private schools that have many of their children living outside of Cambridge has been a longstanding issue on Trumpington Road. The problem is that there are no legal powers for any institution of state to enforce this – many parents might simply ignore the service and carry on driving the children to school. How many firms treat parking tickets as ‘business expenses’? Should the UK move towards a system of income/wealth-based fines as in Finland? Which arm of the state should do the enforcing? What should happen to the income? These would all need to be considered in new legislation

5 & 6 – Improving bus and rail services brings us back to who should run the services, and what part of the state should raise revenue to subsidise services that on their own might be loss-making but ensure the proper functioning of a network. For example when people go out in the evening, the bus service they use might make a profit because it has more people on it going to other places or going back home, while the late evening service is run at a loss. Remove the late evening bus service and you create an incentive for a car-based journey both ways – also reducing the revenues on the profitable service. The same principle applies for rail services – especially where the gaps between services get longer. No one wants to miss the last bus or train!

7 & 8 Providing affordable housing near to where people work sounds fine in principle. The problem again is the planning system. At the moment we have two bubbles: The sci/tech bubble and the housing bubble. That means any sites that might be suitable for district/city-wide services are snapped up and not available for the services that cities need to function. For example my proposed site for a swimming pool for North Cambridge would provide a much-needed leisure facility for one of Cambridge’s most economically-deprived wards (King’s Hedges) as well as a facility for Cambridge Regional College. But Cambridge City Council told me they cannot afford to buy the site let alone convert it to a swimming pool, even though in the long term the public health impacts could far outweigh the costs through getting people swimming. So the question then becomes one of changes to the planning system to enable cities to have more powers to designate land for specific purposes and facilities – and the funding streams to buy the land where necessary.

9 – This is ultimately a Political question. Do you favour a motorist who wants all obstacles removed, or do you favour the pedestrian who does not want to have loud, speeding motor vehicles zooming past their houses? Who’s interest should take precedent? When we look at the Holford Wright maps of the Cambridge Planning Proposals of 1950, we see the former taking priority, with entire rows of houses and streets listed for demolition – as ultimately happened with East Road, Newmarket Road, and also for the construction of Elizabeth Way Bridge. Today, we are seeing residential roads (especially ‘rat runs’) being nominated by residents for traffic calming measures. The same applies with the Mill Road Bridge proposals. Surveys of local residents in Romsey Town – along with their local election results have indicated support for the traffic calming measures, while those living outside of Cambridge – esp those that drive down Mill Road regularly, have been highly critical. Whose interest should come first?

Furthermore, would proposals for road restrictions for motor traffic be less unpopular if they were planned and presented as part of a clear set of proposals with clear aims, such as this segregated network of cycleways, linked to secondary schools and new housing estates, from The Future of Cambridge report 1966 by Gordon Logie for Cambridge City Council?

Above – Logie’s proposal for the expansion of Cambridge (note the green bar separating a merged Cherry Hinton & Fulbourn)

The above example is for me one reason why having knowledge of past proposals is ever so important when considering new plans. Had Greater Cambridge Partnership Officers done this as I had invited them to back in 2016, they might not be facing such huge opposition to their proposals that they are currently facing today.

Above – My Q to GCP Officers 22 Sept 2016 at Shire Hall, Cambridge

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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