A politics review of the year - part 2


Some of the plans for the university in Peterborough (Photo: Supplied)

James Palmer vs GCP

The leader of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and the area’s directly elected mayor, Conservative James Palmer, spent much of 2020 at odds with the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) – made up of Cambridge City Council, South Cambs, the county council, the University of Cambridge and business community, with government backing of £500 million.

In February, the mayor announced a halt to the GCP’s plans for a £160 million busway connecting Cambourne and Cambridge for the second time. “It has become clear to me that GCP lack the vision, strategic thinking and the ability necessary to deliver any of the transport priorities for the Cambridge area,” he said.

The ensuing saga saw the GCP pause, attempt to continue in summer, only for the Combined Authority to raise the prospect of legal action – and the mayor went as far as to suggest he may even dig up the GCP’s route if they went ahead.

After almost a year of strong rhetoric, all eyes were on the mayor when he sought the support of his transport committee to take his “indicative alternative” to the GCP board for consideration, only to find no seconder. The mayor blamed a technical glitch, but the GCP said the mayor’s Combined Authority had “no mandate” for the alternative, and restarted its own plans.

The GCP has said the 2024 target delivery date for the project is now “unlikely”.

The mayor also made the case that the Combined Authority that he leads should absorb the GCP, and one of his political allies even asked in parliament if the government would consider scrapping the multi-council partnership. Answer: effectively, no.

But the GCP also announced this year that it has secured the endorsement of government to continue with its own programme, after its first of a number of progress reviews. The mayor on the other hand received a letter from government, leaked to the Ely Standard, which the paper described as telling Mr Palmer to “put his house in order”

(it was also revealed the government is withholding funds to the Combined Authority for affordable housing for reasons which have not been fully disclosed, but the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed civil servants have raised doubts over progress).

The mayor and GCP have subsequently pledged to improve relations and work better together, but since then the mayor has described having both the GCP and the Combined Authority as a “waste of money”.

Major projects

It was quite a year for investment in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

After four years, work was completed on the A14, bringing to an end (well, nearly) what was described as Britain’s biggest road project.

The Combined Authority and its leader, the Conservative mayor James Palmer, celebrated construction starting on a number of major projects, including a new university for Peterborough, a new railway station for Soham, and the first homes to be sold at a discount to help people onto the housing ladder as part of the £100K Homes scheme.

Together with the county council, work also started on the long-awaited Kings Dyke crossing, near Peterborough. The mayor said progress on the projects – some talked about for many years or even decades – shows what can be achieved through devolution.

Meanwhile, the Combined Authority set up a new company to help delivery of a Cambridge-centred metro system. The metro has been long in the planning, and it remains unclear if it can ever be fully funded, but millions of pounds were committed in 2020, and a number of industry leaders, including civil engineer and tunnelling expert Lord Robert Mair CBE, were brought in to help run the new company.

In July, prior to establishing the new company, experts had advised the Combined Authority its strategy for the metro would prove unaffordable. An alternative was suggested, which the mayor accepted as a positive step, saying it would cut costs by more than half, to an estimate of less than £2 billion.

The change in technology being considered was welcomed by the leader of the city council, Labour councillor Lewis Herbert, but he said in August that he has doubts over whether the Combined Authority can deliver the metro in its stated timeline of 2023 to 2029.

The county council oversaw the construction of a new “Dutch-style” roundabout in Cambridge, which though eye-catching, cost about three times the initial estimate. Significant progress was made on another county council cycle infrastructure project in the city, the Chisholm Trail, with a new bridge put in place over the River Cam.

But once again councillors found themselves venting frustration at spiralling costs, up from £14 million to £21 million, just for the northern half of the route.

Not a great deal of progress was made on the GCP’s Cambourne to Cambridge busway project, but a route has been selected for another busway for the city, CSET, which will connect the Biomedical Campus with Granta Park and a new park and ride by the A11. Meanwhile a handful of residents in Waterbeach discovered that the GCP is currently considering a busway route through part of the village which could require demolishing their homes. They will have to wait until after Christmas to know for definite whether or not their homes are safe.

A preferred location was also announced for the much-discussed Cambridge South Station, and a preferred route for how East West Rail will reach the south of the city.

Not everything got the green light though, the Combined Authority scrapped plans for a new pedestrian and cycle bridge over the River Great Ouse, and the government “paused” plans for the Ox-Cam expressway.

Notable gaffes

What happens on Zoom doesn’t always stay on Zoom, and so we will always have the video, captured by editor of the Ely Standard, John Elworthy, of the moment in September when one East Cambridgeshire councillor left his microphone on and was accused of calling another councillor “thick”. Conservative councillor and school governor Alan Sharp appeared to aim the remark at Liberal Democrat Charlotte Cane.

“Excuse me, what was that?” she replied. “Somebody just called you thick,” another councillor chimed in, “perhaps because they had forgotten to mute themselves”. The chair of the meeting said he was not aware of who made the remark, but that it was “obviously not appropriate”. It was suggested that whoever it was should apologise, which drew no response from Cllr Sharp, who was safely back on mute.

In April, Lib Dem county councillor Ian Manning apologised after beginning a one-day “solidarity” Ramadan fast by posting a picture of his breakfast plate of bacon on social media. Cllr Manning said he was “tired and not thinking clearly” when he posted the image.

“My main worry was that I’d let my friends and the Muslim organisers of LibDemIftar down – but they didn’t see what the fuss was about as I’m not Muslim,” he said. Not the case for the national press however, after many publications ran the story, and it even went international, with coverage in Arab News, based in Saudi Arabia.

Another Lib Dem county councillor, Barbara Ashwood, apologised after she was spotted on camera smoking whilst she attended a virtual council meeting from home in July. The incident drew criticism from the leader of the county council, Conservative Steve Count, who said on Twitter: “I can’t believe what I’m seeing. We have responsibility for public health! We run massive campaigns to help people pack up smoking”.