The new Local Transport Plan shows why the Combined Authority is not fit for purpose – and ministers own this

For all the criticisms I have of the content – and I have more than a few, the buck stops with ministers for establishing a tier of administration with few powers, convoluted systems of democratic accountability, and funding systems that keeps Whitehall in control of things that should really be devolved to local areas – removing ministerial involvement entirely.

You can read the papers at item 6 here

Also, read the statement by Mayor Dr Nik Johnson here

Greater Cambridge – or Great Cambridge?

I prefer the latter because it also indicates what I think our city should want to become: Great! There are district-level reports including one for “Greater Cambridgeshire” (see here) which, by the fact of its very existence supports the case for a new unitary council or at least combining Cambridge with South Cambridgeshire at a lower tier level as a starting point. (The present system of joint services leads to too many duplicated meetings.)

Above – the Greater Cambridgeshire report of the Local Transport & Connectivity Plan from the Combined Authority

“How long does the LTCP last for?”

That’s what I’m not clear on. The next mayoral election is in May 2025 – which is after the next general election. (Will Labour – if elected, have reversed the Conservatives’ law change on metro mayor voting systems by then?)

“What does contemporary history tell us?”

Lots of things. In 2014 Cambridgeshire County Council (then run by a Conservative minority administration propped up by UKIP) approved the Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire Transport Strategy, authored by Graham Hughes, who at the time was also dealing with the City Deal negotiations in the middle of a massive programme of funding cuts.

Above – from p11 the gap between the guided busways is painful to look at!

“[The Strategy] will be subject to monitoring and review throughout its lifetime. Review of the strategy will be undertaken when needed, and may be triggered by a number of factors… …The action plan contains an outline programme of improvements to 2031 and details the key major schemes proposed to deliver this strategy in the short, medium and longer term.”

CambsCC Transport Strategy Cambridge SCambs 2014, p12

What’s even more painful to look at is the strategy map for Cambridge that implied building a busway across Stourbridge Common.

Above – see the document “Cambridge City Plan”

…only that looks a bit like what Holford and Wright proposed in 1950 – something that was rejected.

Above – Holford and Wright’s proposals from 1950

…which itself looks like the proposals by William Davidge from 1934 – the opening introduction by the former Vice-Chanceller A.B. Ramsay (you can read it here) is a lesson to today’s generation of decision makers in the ivory towers of Cambridge’s university colleges.

Above – a detail from Davidge’s 1934 map of proposed protected green spaces, and road improvements (we’re still waiting for the bridge over the railway at Foxton – next year being the 90th year from which this proposal was published! (Something for the local rail user group to pick up on?))

“Nothing on light rail in this LTCP?”

Nope – something that inevitably caused party political clashes back in 2021 when Mayor James Palmer unexpectedly lost the mayoral elections that year to Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson who campaigned on a ‘buses first’ theme. I say ‘theme’ because he didn’t publish an in-depth manifesto. But then neither did Mr Palmer. The only one who did was the Liberal Democrats Candidate Aidan van de Weyer. Added to that the ongoing governance issues which are still in the process of being resolved, and which talk of a ‘target 2025’.

Speaking to Mayor Dr Nik Johnson back in 2021, he told me that the simple reason for putting buses first was that they could be scaled up quickly to serve areas that had faced over a decade of service cuts under Conservatives’ austerity imposed by George Osborne (his Lib Dems Coalition partners paying a much heavier electoral price at the ballot box in 2015 from which they are still to recover) and continued by his successors, and that four years is not nearly long enough to develop and build a light rail network. Finally he said that the budget for the CPCA was so small that the CAM Metro proposals could not be funded without serious changes to central government policies on taxation – which never looked like materialising (eg a land value uplift tax).

While I didn’t disagree, I think it was a huge missed opportunity not to put funding behind some feasibility studies for Connect Cambridge Light Rail – in particular challenging the sci/tech bubble to match fund that investment given that their proposals are dependent on comprehensive public transport system that buses alone simply cannot provide for. This is why I think it’s up to us the people to put pressure on politicians and the wealthy economic sectors in/around Cambridge to fund the feasibility studies in the absence of the state.

Which reminds me: Cambridge residents – you need to tell the sci/tech people that they have a responsibility to stump up some cash towards new transport infrastructure. There is an ideal opportunity to do this on 14 June 2023

Above – Cambridge residents: Sign up (for free) for the Cambridge Wide Open Day where you can cross-examine people in the sci-tech bubble about what they are going to contribute towards the commonweal of our city.

The changing policy environment: What will it look like after a general election?

In 2014, there were no plans for a light rail. Post-2016, there were.

“The current funding environment is challenging. Opportunities such as the Government’s City Deal process offer potential opportunities to invest in infrastructure. It is important to maintain a level of realism over what might be delivered in the current funding environment; but a strategy that sets a realistic assessment of the needs of the area is necessary.

A strategy that is constrained by known funding will not provide the evidence base to support calls for investment through mechanisms such as City Deal. An ambitious strategy is therefore presented, but without such investment plans will take longer to deliver.”

CambsCC p12 2014

Turns out it was not nearly ambitious enough, and that further cuts to bus budgets by ministers have turned out to be catastrophic for local communities across the country – to the extent that it’s long accepted that the Conservatives’ deregulation of the bus network was a major policy failure. The ownership of Stagecoach by a German infrastructure fund – and the Stagecoach service cuts from last autumn that had to be covered by the first mayoral precept – an addition to council tax bills – reflected for me what was a massive transfer of wealth from the commonweal (the collective wealth and welfare of the general public and society) to private interests. But that is a party-political decision and one for party politicians to account for.

“So…what happens now?”

Again, read the statement by the Mayor – in particular the final few sentences.

Also, there’s still one final hurdle:

“This paper provides an update on the Local Transport and Connectivity Plan (LTCP) inviting the Combined Authority Board to approve the final version of the Plan. The Plan will be submitted to central government on the agreement and approval of the Combined Authority Board.”

CPCA Agenda item 6 – main paper

The LTCP requires ministerial approval. It will be interesting to see what amendments civil servants recommend ministers make.


That’s not the only thing that ministers have to approve. Bus franchising is turning out to be an excruciatingly long process. The first thing the Combined Authority needed was a bus strategy – which you can read here. That acknowledged the impact that the CV19 Pandemic (which is still with us) had on bus services between 2020-22, meaning that the initial work under the previous mayoralty in 2019 (see here) never proceeded as planned.

The structural problem with the Combined Authority model is that local transport plans and bus franchising business cases still need ministerial approval.

Which makes me wonder whether other countries of a similar size have such centralised structures. Does national government really need to sign off such things? Or would it be better to have a better structure and system of governance with the scrutiny and approval being taken by an empowered and more resourced tier of local or regional government?

Above – you can read the guidance from the Department for Transport here

One of the things the guidance states is that ministers will require convincing that each Combined Authority has a robust set of proposals before giving approval. Which means submitting a business case.

Far better in my opinion for Parliament to legislate for what unitary councils as transport authorities need to consider when assessing business cases, and requiring a vote at full councils in order to approve it. At the same time there’s always the backstop of legal action / judicial reviews if the authorities concerned did not properly consider specific issues as set out in the legislation – but such actions should be the exception, not the rule. There should not be a need for ministers to get involved in micromanaging local transport services.

Bus franchising business cases are not written up overnight

The further problem is that the acting Chief Executive of the Combined Authority estimates it will take two years to develop that business case – with all of the consultation that goes with it. The Overview & Scrutiny Committee concluded as such in its annual report – See item 10 Appendix 1 here.

So by the time the business case is submitted, it will be election time. How many more years will it be until that business case is approved, implemented and up and running? Will it be time for the next mayoral election? By that time a decade might have passed since the legislation enabling franchising was enacted.

The fault of that isn’t Nik Johnson’s – or James Palmer’s for that matter. The buck stops with the ministers who signed off such a convoluted process in the first place. Which also begs further questions about effective consultations and consultation fatigue. Consultations over the bus strategy, the local transport plans, the franchising plans/business case, the implementation – all of these things the general public are expected [by the system] to read, analyse and respond to. That requires a level of familiarisation that (most) people don’t do for fun. It also takes time, and time is money – therefore there’s a social cost to this work that’s not accounted for. What would consultation exercises be like for big policies if the consulting organisations ***had to pay members of the public to participate*** – and that their plans would not go through without a comprehensive evidence base of showing how the public had been able to influence and improve the proposals?

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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