Politics: What 2021 holds for Cambridgeshire

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Cambridgeshire

There is still a great deal of pain left to get through, and serious concerns have been raised about the risks from Covid-19 in the first few months of 2021, but with vaccinations already underway, next year could also see Cambridgeshire, the UK and the world leave the worst of the pandemic behind.

Politically speaking, 2021 could well be the busiest in many years for Cambridgeshire. Here’s a brief run through of some notable things to come from some of the area’s democratically-led organisations.

Local elections May 2021

With elections planned for May 2020 postponed owing to the pandemic, 2021 is set to be a bumper year for electing our representatives in Cambridgeshire.

The biggest individual seat up for grabs is the role of directly elected mayor for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and leader of the area’s Combined Authority. An example of English devolution, the organisation has offered greater powers and finance for major projects in areas such as transport, affordable housing and developing economic growth.

The incumbent, Conservative James Palmer, has attracted significant attention during his term as the first ever directly elected mayor for the area, and he will face strong opposition. The mayor is the executive leader, but the Combined Authority board is filled by the leaders of councils across the area and is majority Conservative, which could pose an interesting political question should another party snatch the mayoralty.

The May elections in 2020 were cancelled, meaning the post of police and crime commissioner will join the ticket in 2021. The Tories currently hold the position, but the party will face tough questions owing to the departure of Conservative Jason Ablewhite from the role in November 2019. Mr Ablewhite stood down and it was revealed he faced an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct in relation to messages sent to an adult member of the public on social media – in April 2020 the Crown Prosecution Service announced it would not seek to prosecute.

(Mr Ablewhite was not arrested or charged with an offence, and has not commented on the situation publicly.)

His deputy, Ray Bisby, currently holds the position on an interim basis, but the party has selected someone else to contest the election in May 2021.

Every seat will be up for grabs at Cambridgeshire County Council, which has responsibility for overseeing schools, adult social care, highways and other key services. The Conservatives currently hold the majority with 36 of 61 seats – that’s not a particularly large margin, but they do have twice as many councillors as the biggest opposition party, the Liberal Democrats.

Economic recovery

In October, an economic report on the impact of the pandemic, commissioned by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, said the area’s economy has suffered a contraction of “historic significance,” and that the fall in economic output is “far exceeding the worst effects of the 2008 recession”.

The number of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants rose by 147 per cent across the county, to just over 3,000, from February to July, compared with an 86 per cent increase nationally. In the same time period the number of Universal Credit claimants rose by 107 per cent to a “record high” of 60,910, compared to a 90 per cent national increase, according to the report. The number of children receiving free school meals has also risen.

More residents will need supporting, and the council tax base – a major funder of the area’s services – could be reduced.

Cambridgeshire’s councils and the Combined Authority, as well as other organisations, will play a crucial role in recovery.

Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro

A Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority project, it seems like the planned Cambridge-centred metro system is always being talked about, but material progress – infrastructure you can see and touch – still feels like a long way off. The last delivery timescale given was 2023 to 2029, but some political leaders, such as the leader of Cambridge City Council, have expressed doubts. Greater clarity over the nature of the plans is at least expected in 2021, after major financial commitments and engineering experts were brought in to establish a new company, One CAM, this year.

Further development is also expected on the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s plans for new busways in the city, which could also form the first part of the metro system if it does get the green light. A decision on the “preferred route” for the £160 million Cambourne to Cambridge busway project is due to be made, unless significant issues are found by the newly announced independent review.

County council on the move

Cambridgeshire County Council’s new headquarters in Alconbury is expected to open in late summer. Brookgate, the company behind the controversial CB1 redevelopment in Cambridge, looks set to turn the current HQ, Shire Hall in Cambridge, into a “prestige” hotel and offices as part of a 40-year leasing agreement.

Climate change

The Combined Authority established an Independent Climate Change Commission this year, and the initial recommendations are due to be published in 2021. The findings could have significant implications for the county’s transport and housing strategies, among other things.

Railways

Following investment of £18.6 million from the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, construction on a new railway station for Soham is underway, with the first services expected in towards the end of 2021.

Further consultation is also expected in 2021 to increase the railway capacity through Ely.

East West Rail is also expected to launch a public consultation on a set of options for a new railway line, which is envisioned as connecting Oxford and the east coast via Cambridge. Thanks to a residents’ campaign group, Cambridge Approaches, parish councils in the area are now watching this space closely.

Brexit

The consequences of Brexit should finally be made clear, although what that will mean for Cambridgeshire and its elected councils remains stubbornly unclear. If the terms of the deal do bring about fresh and noticeable changes in residents’ lives, expect political capital to be made of it by one side or the other, depending on how it all goes.

Greater Cambridge local plan

Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council are currently working on their first ever joint local plan, which will outline the nature and extent of development to be permitted in the area over the next 20 years. The number of new homes, and where they will be, is yet to be revealed. Expect much more detail – and in all likelihood much more controversy – when the next formal public consultation starts on preferred options in summer or autumn 2021.

Further detail may also be provided on a proposal for a new town and villages comprising 25,000 homes to the south west of Cambridge, which while still only a speculative proposal with no formal planning status, was met with considerable controversey when it was announced in early December.