In 2016 Ann Sylvester, a Labour city councillor at the time in Peterborough, described the prospect of an elected mayor for the region as being “about as popular as turning an M&S into another charity store”.
But a promised university for Peterborough was the carrot that carried the day and led to a devolution deal with the Government that, ultimately, created the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
It was not the ‘Eastern Powerhouse’ first announced in the Budget of 2016 that would have seen 22 councils from Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk coming together under an elected regional mayor.
But in 2017 devolution did happen, albeit with a Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, James Palmer duly emerged as the first mayor, and Peterborough, of course, got its university.
Fast forward to May 31, 2023, and with six years of devolution under our belts, this was the probably the day the dream, already teetering on the brink, slipped even further towards the precipice.
Mayor Dr Nik Johnson summed up as diplomatically as he could.
“In today’s Combined Authority Board meeting, it was agreed to defer a report recommending approval of a plan to transform our transport future,” he said.
The deferment came as three Conservative council leaders – all members of the Combined Authority – spoke out against the plan.
The significant objection was that of Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald, leader of Peterborough City Council.
Only Peterborough City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council can veto transport initiatives by the Combined Authority.
Cllr Fitzgerald used his veto.
“I want to be perfectly clear; nobody at an officer level has had a conversation with me as a politician about Peterborough signing up to this LTCP (Local Transport and Connectivity Plan) in terms of its content,” he said.
“Officers may have had conversations, but they don’t make the decisions in Peterborough.
“I do and the council does
Dr Johnson’s reflection on the use of the veto was couched in conciliatory terms, with no specific reference to any of three dissenting council leaders.
He said: “The Local Transport and Connectivity Plan (LTCP) sets the vision, goals, objectives, strategies, and policies to help make transport in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough better, faster, safer, more reliable, and less polluting.
“The LTCP and its associated documents were tabled for discussion today.
“They are the result of over 18 months of work by Combined Authority, collaborating closely with our constituent councils.
“There has been a significant amount of engagement with stakeholders, the public, delivery bodies and our constituent councillors and officers, which is detailed in the appendix to the report to the board.
“The LTCP has been on the agenda in nine strategic meetings of the Combined Authority Board, six transport committees and four Combined Authority boards at its various stages of development.
“But at a late stage it became clear that further work with the Combined Authority board and constituent councils is needed to develop the LTCP further.
“Therefore, and to ensure a timely approval of this very important transport plan, I put forward a motion to defer the item to allow that further work to take place.”
The ‘further work’ he referred to was the backlash the LCP, in its current form, received from Conservative members of the board.
As Dr Johnson explained the LTCP sets out a future for transport “which will grow our economy, support our communities, boost prosperity, health and wellbeing, protect our environment, and support our ambitions for a net zero carbon future”.
In itself a multiplicity of ambitions that most would share but Cambridgeshire and Peterborough comprises of all the local councils that serve vastly different communities and require vastly different interventions.
Despite this being recognised in the LTCP – it provided appendices detailing each area and focusing on the challenges and requirements – the expectation of a shared set of values and commitments under one umbrella was not to be.
Dr Johnson had, at the 11th hour, been made aware of the reality that he would not win approval for although, as mayor, he has numerous powers, the devolution deal compels him to reach consensus on transport.
Cllr Wayne emphasised in no uncertain terms he would use it if the LTCP, in its current form, was put to a vote.
The mayor had no option other than to table a motion to defer it and it will come back to the board at the end of July, with the expectation of an all-party agreement.
Whether that happens will depend on the outcome of what are likely to be hastily arranged meetings to see if 18 months of work and documentation can be re-shaped into a workable formula satisfying both the Government and those with the power of veto.
“Planning for a better transport future in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough requires all partners – the Combined Authority, local councils, the GCP, and others – to work together,” says Dr Johnson and in the coming weeks we will see if that’s possible.
Officers of the constituent councils clearly felt they had already achieved that consensus but with millions of pounds of investment involved the stakes are high to find a formula upon which all can agree.
Wednesday’s board meeting opened with Dr Johnson moving the motion to adjourn the report.
“I’m very conscious that there are many people in the room that this document is almost the sauce, the bread and butter that we do here at the Combined Authority and in bringing this excellent document to the public we need to make sure we’ve got it completely right,” he said.
“We need to kind of have make sure that the strategy is one that we can all agree.”
He said: “It has come to my attention despite huge amounts of effort lots of discussion at the leaders strategy meetings, some of the wording in the document at the moment isn’t quite ready.”
Dr Johnson said the Combined Authority said the LTCP had received “positive feedback” from a wide range of transport bodies but “we just need to make sure that all the alignment is right before we get to a full discussion”.
Fenland Council leader Chris Boden agreed that postponing debate was the right move as “there are still some quite fundamental weaknesses in the papers which have been presented in front of us.
“I think it’s important for me to explain why I support your deferral because of those weaknesses.”
At that point he was interrupted by the mayor who reminded him it was a debate about deferral and not about the content of the report.
“We, as you know, have had plenty of time at leaders strategy meetings and obviously within officers to get this debate,” said Dr Johnson.
“I’m not going to stifle debate, but I do want to make sure that we have a collective response.”
Cllr Boden said he had been assured by the deputy mayor, Cllr Anna Smith, that board members would be able to explain their reasons for wanting a deferral.
“That’s what I was trying to do if you don’t mind and yes there have been a lot of discussions but unfortunately some of the voices in those discussions have been ignored which is why we need the deferral,” he said.
“We need a policy to be passed by this Combined Authority and we’re in danger of not getting a policy passed if the voices which have come from around this table have not been taken into account.
“And I’ll give you two or three examples of how those voices haven’t been taken into account which is why we need the deferral.
“If we look at the strategic framework which is the really important document, we’ve got 20 appendices to this to this paper but the really important one is appendix one which is the strategic framework and that gives a one-size-fits-all approach to the whole issue
“In other appendices we have specific issues surveys on specific districts which is fine but within the strategic framework itself we are not referring to the fact that in many areas what is in the strategic framework really should not and cannot apply.
“For example, the idea on page 21 of shifting two days a week to remote working to reduce travel. That’s actually quite an interesting and good principle.
“But the thing is that’s fine if you’re an office worker; it’s fine if you’re in senior management. It doesn’t work if you’re if you work in a shop or a factory and so for an area such as Fenland where we have a large number of individuals who have to be physically present at their work that policy doesn’t really apply.
“Whereas with respect in South Cambridgeshire where you have far more individuals in senior managerial roles or office-based roles it’s a much easier policy to apply and that isn’t explained within the strategic framework.
“There are other issues as well. The whole issue of traffic demand management which is mentioned in the report restricting car use effectively within Fenland it’s a war on motorists as far as we’re concerned…”
Dr Johnson stopped him, saying: “It doesn’t help the debate when you start talking about a war so could I ask you to rethink the way that we articulate that sort of point of view.”
Cllr Boden: “I’ll absolutely do what you say mayor, but the danger of stifling debate is that we fail to reach agreement and understand each other’s positions, but I’ll do exactly what you say mayor.
“We do have a situation where there is a much greater reliance on the motorcar in Fenland than there is in other parts of the Combined Authority particularly it has to be said within Cambridge City.
“I would not wish to see policies which are appropriate for Cambridge City to be applied automatically to an area like Fenland where you don’t have the same problems and you need different solutions to the problems
“And that within the strategic framework just isn’t emphasized; it’s not even mentioned.
“I very much appreciate the fact that each of our areas have the comments which are made about them in separate appendices but even in our one I would have issues with individual items within that and I’m happy to take those outside this meeting.
“But as it currently stands, I personally wouldn’t have been able to support this paper which is why I support your proposal for a deferral so that we can reach a consensus between us all before a paper comes back again.”
Dr Johnson said: “I appreciate you acknowledge that all different areas have had their quite specific discussions with officers in those different areas and you know it’s not it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all.
“I am sure working together we can look at some of the wording in that first document
“I know some wording was obviously shared with some of the members last night as to where there were challenges and I know we haven’t been able to work on that so far but it’s a point well-made and I appreciate that thank you.”
East Cambridgeshire District Council leader Anna Bailey said: “I’ve had some similar concerns to do with the wording and some of the wording that’s been taken out of the East Cambridgeshire section as well.
“I do think we need to recognize that where it talks about the individual sections you know a place like Cambridge City and what happens there you know on the face of it you want the agreement in cooperation with Cambridge City Council but of course Cambridge is our county town and what you do to Cambridge has a very significant knock-on effect to the districts and the people that need to access Cambridge.
“And references to area-wide user charge and cordon-based road user charges and accessing capacity constraints work place parking levies are not going down well in East Cambridgeshire.”
Dr Johnson said that “with respect we’re talking about the deferral. There is a danger here you’re trying to bring in you are trying to bring in a discussion about the document which we quite clearly do need to have because we want to get that cooperation and working around which kind of was pointed out by councillor Boden”.
Cllr Bailey said: “I was trying to explain my reasons for supporting the deferral and some of the issues that I have with the document, so the public know the debate that is that is happening.”
“Another reason for deferral is that the document has a bare-faced comment that says the plan supports the work of the GCP (Greater Cambridge Partnership) and The Making Connections project and East Cambridgeshire is never going to be able to.”
Cllr Anna Smith (deputy mayor and Labour city councillor, Cambridge) said: “I am supportive of deferral, but I am disappointed that we have to defer.
“This has come to nine leader strategy meetings, six transport and infrastructure committees and four boards in various forms. I therefore find it very disappointing that we are still discussing detail in the run-up to the board meeting we were supposed to discuss this.
“We need an agreement around this room in our next leader strategy meeting or whenever we’re going to discuss this.
“We thrash this out, we discuss the issues and that we do not get to the night before a board meeting again where these issues are being discussed because it is just not helpful.
“So, I would urge all of us in this room to commit to raising all of our concerns in the way that I believe we all do want to raise any issues and have them resolved in really good time so that the paper that is presented to the next board meeting is one which we do feel able to debate and discuss and vote upon.”
Cambridgeshire County Council leader Lucy Nethsingha said: “I’m disappointed that we’re in this position.
“I think that it doesn’t make this board, or this authority look good to be deferring a paper at this point and we all need to recognize that.
“I wanted to say how disappointing I think this will be for many of the officers of the Combined Authority who have worked incredibly hard to bring this paper forward.
“I think there’s a lot of really good stuff in there particularly the work looking in detail at all the different areas trying to make it so that the document was not a one-size-fits-all document.
“And I think it’s important that we recognize that work was done and that that work was done in collaboration with transport teams and planning teams from all of the different councils.
“It would not have come forward to the board at this point if there hadn’t been a sense that it was going to be supported.
“There is some really important work that needs to be done between now at the next board meeting to try and understand what went wrong in the communication that led to officers feeling that this was likely to be acceptable when that was not in fact the case.
“If had been clear that this was not going to be passed then it should never have come to the board in the shape that it has, and that lack of clarity is something that I think is really important that we all look into.
“But I do think it’s important to make clear in this public space that the officers would not have brought this forward if they hadn’t understood that it was likely to get through and so clearly there’s been some failed communication there.”
Cllr Fitzgerald said: “I’ll try not to stray to the detail although I do believe what Chris (Boden) and Anna (Bailey) were trying to do was give rationale to the reasons.
“But let me tell you quite clearly, I’ve never supported this document in its current form.
“For weeks Gordon (Mitchell, interim chief executive) knows this because he’s been talking to my chief executive.
“My officer team know this, and I’ve made my position very clear, Nik.
“You made mention of the leader strategy meetings. If you go back, you’ll notice I never said a word on this policy and the reason being is I was hoping that before we got to this meeting what I was asking for would be incorporated and it was not.
“So last night or in a call with you at the weekend or in a call with the officer concerned which I won’t name you know trying to change things at the last minute on the back of a packet -it’s not good enough.
“Let me tell you Peterborough’s position.
“I am not for congestion charging and I am not for low traffic neighbourhoods’, 15-minute cities, 20 minutes or whatever you want to call them
“I have some reservations I know they’re shared about workplace charging/
“I want to be perfectly clear; nobody at an officer level has had a conversation with me as a politician about Peterborough signing up to this LTCP in terms of its content
“Officers may have had conversations, but they don’t make the decisions in Peterborough.
“I do and the council does. So, at a granular level I would have expected given that I’ve already made the position clear that somebody from the Combined Authority at an officer level would come and have a meeting with me and officers in order to reach consensus
“I’d be happy today to be agreeing a policy because I think it’s essential but I I’ve waited and waited and waited so I don’t I don’t want to be accused of holding it up unnecessarily.
“Nobody’s had a conversation with me to say, ‘Wayne what is agreeable to you’.
“Because at the end of the day we have the transport powers veto as does Lucy. I guess you’re happy with it and maybe you’ve had a conversation. I haven’t.
“Not an officer, no I’m sorry Lucy you can shake your head all you like but the person I’ve spoken to this morning has said to me perhaps we should have done that anyway.
“So, mayor I won’t labour the point I just want to be clear where I’m at.
“By the way I don’t want to come back here and have debate. I want agreement so let’s try and agree it before it comes up, okay?”
Cllr Fitzgerald added that “I’ve polled every member of my group and they are in agreement with me.”
Cllr Nethsingha said: “Just as a point of personal explanation I have not had individual meetings because my officers and my council have been working with the Combined Authority on this for months.
“If there were concerns, they would have been raised a lot earlier.”
South Cambridgeshire District Council leader Bridget Smith said: “I don’t recognize what’s been said about stifling debate. We have regular leader strategy meetings, and this level of opposition was not raised In those leader strategy meetings
“It is wrong that this plays out in public. As responsible political professionals the onus is on us to have these debates and reach consensus so that when we come to a public forum like this you know we are working together and speaking with one voice
“And that’s really important. We are being watched by government and this is just five days after the announcement by government of £650 million pounds investments in life sciences along with the final commitment of money to East West Rail.
“Our principal function is to sign off a local transport connectivity plan and we’re not able to do it
“It looks like a shambles quite honestly and I do not lay responsibility for that with officers quite the quite the opposite.
“This goes this goes back to political dysfunctionism if there’s such a word.
“If there’s no updated local transport policy to support Peterborough and Cambridge’s future growth plans and ambitions that makes it more difficult for us to deliver.
“It could potentially weaken future funding bids for government investment not just the second devolution deal but all of our bids to government.”
She added: “It might deter private investment if there’s a lack of certainty over local transport policy
“It certainly makes planning approval for certain schemes more difficult to obtain if there’s no up-to-date local transport policy
“And it’s an absolutely critical component of the local plan review which we South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge City are doing.
“We are desperate for a strong and up-to-date local transport policy that sets a powerful framework for growth and the cornerstone for all of our councils, so we know we need to think really long and hard about how long this delay is going to be.”
Cllr Smith said: “We are working so hard to improve government’s view of us and the work the mayor’s been doing with the other mayors we don’t want to be excluded from that if we can’t get through a local transport plan.
“It doesn’t force any measures on any of us; it’s a strategy. It’s a menu, it’s a recipe from which we can all draw and it’s not forcing anything on Peterborough, so you know whatever your political preferences are you’re not being forced to do anything
“The new emerging plan that we are now deferring actually is far more granular than the one that went before it. It identifies real benefits for all of us and we risk jeopardizing that.
“I think it’s a this is a crying shape quite honestly.
“I will support the deferment, but I hope to heck it doesn’t go on for too long.”
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