James Palmer is the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
As we prepare to leave the European Union, one of the key issues facing this country is the way in which we go about delivering improvements to our strategic transport infrastructure. The status quo isn’t good enough and if we’re to compete on the world stage we need to challenge the current unsatisfactory and slow delivery process.
Personally, as a former council leader and now as Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, nothing frustrates me more than the constant delays and lengthy timescales involved in delivering key pieces of transport infrastructure that everyone agrees are essential. I appreciate that the situation is not unique to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and that up and down the country there are similar tales of plans to deliver key transport projects which are tangled up in a web of bureaucracy and inertia and which breeds mounting frustration from the public. It’s for this reason that we need nothing short of a revolution in the way in which we go about delivering improvements to transport infrastructure.
I would argue that now, more than ever, it’s important to address this issue and to break the cycle of negative thinking that so often leads to regions of the UK being starved of the transport infrastructure they need. Our impending exit from the European Union heightens the need to equip ourselves for the challenges ahead and provide the framework within which we can be nimble and dynamic on the world stage. At the same time, the housing crisis in our country demands that we act. For if we are to deliver housing on the scale we need we must upgrade the infrastructure first.
However, as it stands, with the current low expectations associated with the ability of public bodies to deliver transport infrastructure, I have concerns about the ability of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough to meet the challenge unless we’re prepared to do things differently.
Take the example of the proposals for Cambridge South railway station. Rarely, if ever has there been such a cut and dry case for a new railway station. The proposed site is at the heart of the biomedical campus, with much of the land owned by Astra Zeneca. The businesses based on the campus, such as Astra Zeneca, are international in their reach and are at the cutting edge of the life sciences sector. Astra Zeneca alone employs over 2,000 people on the campus and that number is scheduled to increase tenfold once its new research facility opens. With the roads around the campus being already congested, the need for a new train station is urgent and in time will become acute.
Astra Zeneca who own the site of the proposed station are keen to do everything they can to move the project forward. However, according to Network Rail, it’s likely that the station won’t open for another five years, that is, in 2022. The main reason for the very lengthy timescale is the incredibly complex and cumbersome Governance for Railway Investment Process (GRIP) that Network Rail must follow before the station opens. Last month I attended a meeting at the US Embassy to push for increased trade links between Silicon Valley and Cambridge and I had some difficulty in explaining the reasoning for the long timescales associated with the project.
Another example of the extraordinary timescales involved with delivering rail infrastructure is in Soham where there are plans, not to build a new station, but simply to reopen an existing station. These plans have already languished in one Network Rail GRIP stage for eighteen months costing over £1 million.
Unfortunately, such inertia isn’t confined to rail. The A47 is a crucial road linking East Anglia to the A1 and the rest of the country. Though in parts a dual carriageway, the section of the road between Wisbech and Peterborough is a pinch point undermining the productivity of the region’s economy. Last month Highways England announced their proposed improvements to the A47. One of which is an enlargement to a key roundabout near Wisbech which is unlikely to be completed before summer 2021. The planning inspectorate proposes to spend over a year assessing this small project.So clearly, there is a huge need to do things differently and to question the current process.
As the new Mayor, I hope that the new Combined Authorities will play a key role in addressing these challenges. A Combined Authority commissioned study into dualling the section of the A47 between Peterborough and Wisbech has already begun and is scheduled to report to me by next spring. I am also exploring the possibility of using land value caps to part fund significant pieces of infrastructure.
The National Infrastructure Commission also has a key role to play and, as Chair, Lord Adonis has brought much urgency to his brief. East-West rail is one of the Commission’s top priorities and it’s worth noting that much of the new line will actually be built by the East West Rail Alliance, a consortium which is separate from Network Rail.
A key issue that needs to be considered more often is organisations other than Network Rail leading on the relevant studies and managing the GRIP process when it comes to delivering rail projects. Network Rail does not have exclusivity when it comes to managing the process and, if relevant councils or combined authorities believe that they can move things along more quickly, they should be prepared to take the lead. This is something that I’m keen we explore here in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
There are many ways in which greater urgency and efficiency can be injected into the delivery of transport infrastructure projects to cut the timescales. Not all of which rely upon changes promoted by the centre. There is significant scope for local leaders, councils, combined authorities, and businesses to ask more questions, demand more, and intervene where necessary. Delivery of local infrastructure projects should be planned in terms of months, not years. Planning authorities cannot be allowed to luxuriate in planning processes lasting for years and years while local people suffer congestion, inconvenience ,and frustration.