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OPINION: Bungled devolution and shattered public transport ambitions

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Two years ago, I was proud to win election to Cambridgeshire County Council.

I had wanted that seat at the top table of local politics so I could shape decisions and improve life for the 650,000 of us who live and work here.

The sad reality is that I have spent far too much time and energy grappling with this region’s tangled mess of governance.

There are simply too many layers of local government: too many cooks, and none agree on the recipe!

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Take public transport, for example. Would you believe there are five separate transport authorities in Cambridgeshire?

It frustrates almost every decision of consequence, and it needs to change — and we could start by disbanding the GCP.

It is all down to a series of bungled devolution deals. First, in 1998, Peterborough quit the County Council to form a Unitary Authority, leaving Cambridgeshire with five ‘second tier’ district councils: Huntingdonshire, South Cambridgeshire, Cambridge City, Fenland, and East Cambridgeshire.

Next came the 2014 City Deal to establish the Greater Cambridge Partnership — effectively adding another tier of government for South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge City.

The GCP was charged with delivering £500 million of investment over 15 years, for vital improvements in infrastructure, accelerating the creation of 44,000 new jobs, and 33,500 new homes”. Hold on to that thought.

In 2016, the County signed up for another deal, this time to create a Mayoral Combined Authority.

Originally conceived as the top tier of government for a vast region, Norfolk and Suffolk got cold feet — leaving us with the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA). This has exactly the same footprint as Cambridgeshire County Council before 1998!

CAPCA’s ambition under its first mayor, James Palmer, was to deliver “substantial economic growth, 72,000 new homes and world-class connectivity transportation schemes” in 15 years. Sound familiar?

To his credit, Mayor Palmer realised this was an ungovernable mess and tried to absorb the GCP into the CAPCA. Sadly, he failed.

So, the Combined Authority is not much bigger than its third-tier County Council. South Cambs and Cambridge residents have four layers of local government. Peterborough is a two-tier authority, and the remaining districts have three.

When conceived, most of these authorities were under the control of one political party, so party unity papered over the cracks.

But from 2017, the Conservatives lost control of South Cambridgeshire, the County Council, the GCP, CAPCA and Huntingdonshire — and the various tiers have often found themselves in open political conflict.

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This has manifested most obviously inside CAPCA, which has been paralysed by board disputes, questions of governance, failed bids, and aborted projects.

In the meantime, the GCP (which represents only a third of the Combined Authority’s residents) has grown to fill the void, and now dictates public transport policy for the entire region.

It is unacceptable that a body that is only very loosely democratically accountable to 35% of the CAPCA population should dictate transport policy for the rest of us.

Cllr Ferguson welcoming the Duke of Edinburgh to Cambridgeshire on Wednesday

Cllr Ferguson welcoming the Duke of Edinburgh to Cambridgeshire on Wednesday

But worse, the GCP is delivering local solutions for a regional problem — and if the public reaction to its single-option consultation on a Cambridge congestion charge to fund the region’s buses is anything to go by, it is not really working either.

It will be difficult to resolve these problems without a wholesale restructuring of our local government. That will probably happen as a consequence of Peterborough’s economic woes, but solutions forged in a crisis are rarely the best.

Better to act now, and the sensible solution would be to abolish the GCP, and immediately hand its powers and funding to the more democratically accountable CAPCA.

Cllr Ferguson on a recent visit to Wisbech

Cllr Ferguson on a recent visit to Wisbech

Of course, this would require CAPCA to remember its mission to deliver “world-class connectivity”. To my mind means committing to building something ambitious — like a light railway network that connects the entire region — rather than the GCP’s unambitious network of busways that serve only a fraction of it.

One thing is clear: the people of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough choose Dr Nik Johnson as their democratically elected Mayor.

None of us voted for the GCP.

Now would be a wonderful time for Mayor Johnson to emerge triumphantly from this devolution-inspired mess and fix Cambridgeshire’s transportation woes once and for all.

He has my full support in doing so.

 

(Cllr Stephen Ferguson is chair of Cambridgeshire County Council)

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