James Palmer is the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
Since being elected last May, arguably the biggest frustration for me has been the time it takes to deliver rail infrastructure. As a country, we used to be the best in the world: in 1835 the Great Western line was subject to legislation in Parliament, five years later, in 1840, over 90 miles of track had been laid. You compare that to now, where in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough we have to wait almost a decade for a one platform station to open in one of our fastest growing market towns.
I know that for every case in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough there are another 20 across the country. What’s clear to me is that if we want to be competitive on the world stage and compete with the best, we need to start nothing short of a revolution in the way we deliver transport infrastructure. For me locally, this must involve considering whether Cambridgeshire and Peterborough needs to be a Network Rail free zone with regard to the delivery of new rail infrastructure.
The Labour Party’s proposals to revolutionise the rail sector would take us back to the costly inefficiencies of British Rail and would make a bad system even worse. Nationalising our railways is not the answer but where the Labour Party touch upon a home truth is in identifying a system that is disjointed and a million miles away from being streamlined. The extent to which Network Rail, rail companies, and, on occasion, the Department for Transport pass the buck to explain away the inefficiencies of the rail system make it extremely difficult to make any headway. Superficially, bringing the rail sector “in house” through nationalisation in order to provide a greater degree of coherence and order to the system has an appeal. There is no doubt that at the last election Labour’s plans for the rail sector struck a chord with significant sections of the electorate who are fed up with the current system.
What we need is a clear Conservative position on the essential reforms for the rail sector, one which fully takes on board the concerns of rail users and shows that we have the answers and are on their side whist sticking true to Conservative principles. Rather than be on the defensive, we should be on the offensive in setting out a positive vision for how things could be transformed whilst demonstrating that Labour’s plans are unaffordable.
It seems that the Labour Party likes to forget that a significant part of our rail sector is already nationalised. Network Rail is a bureaucratic behemoth with an effective monopoly on the delivery of rail infrastructure. This is the key issue that needs to be grappled with in order to reform our rail system. Network Rail is an extraordinarily inefficient, unresponsive and wasteful organisation. Interestingly, last month it was the TaxPayers Alliance who revealed that there are 52 officials at Network Rail earning over £164,000 a year.
Bearing in mind the experience I’ve had with Network Rail in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, I find it hard to believe that there are 52 officials deserving of such remuneration. Frankly, if the 52 officials in question were heading up an efficient and cost-effective organisation that was delivering for the public, I would have no issue with the salaries. The sad reality though is that it isn’t delivering; in fact, it’s crippling the economic potential of our regions and contributing to the housing crisis.
I’ve previously written on this website about the importance of a new Cambridge South station for the Cambridge life sciences cluster and my frustrations in dealing with Network Rail. The biomedical campus is home to over 15,000 jobs, this number will shortly increase to over 20,000 when AstraZeneca move their new global headquarters to the site. The case for a new station could not be more clear cut yet Network Rail can’t do better than 2022 at best for the planned station opening. The cost of the new station, which will probably need four platforms, has been quoted at over £200 million, a pretty astonishing sum when you bear in mind that the new arrivals terminal at London Stansted will cost a little over £100 million. Cambridge is currently the number one centre in Europe for life sciences and it aspires to be the number one centre in the world. Such ambitions, crucial to the UK’s future post-Brexit will be futile if we are unable to provide the rail infrastructure necessary to support our thriving science parks.
There are other examples in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough where Network Rail’s inefficiency is having a negative impact on our ability to deliver the homes we need to build. Alconbury Weald in Huntingdonshire is a key case in point, one of only two enterprise zones in the county that when complete will provide three million square feet of bespoke commercial space and 7,000 new homes. The importance of Alconbury Weald to meeting housing needs in Cambridgeshire was underlined in January when Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, launched Homes England there. However, what’s needed at the site to accelerate housing delivery is a new train station. Although this has been talked about for a number of years Network Rail continue to drag their heels despite the business case being incontrovertible and supported on all sides locally. Having discussed the matter with the developer in question and the local planning authority, I’ve been informed that a train station would increase the delivery of homes by over two hundred per year, doubling the existing housing output.
Another example is my home town of Soham, one of our fastest growing market towns with a population that is scheduled pass 15,000 within the next decade, effectively doubling in size. Last month we were awarded £6.3 million through the Government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund to bring forward the construction of 553 homes in the town.
However, yet again, we have an example of Network Rail’s startling inefficiency which inhibits our ability to provide much needed housing. For the last ten years, as a local councillor I have been campaigning for the station in the Soham to be re-opened in order to help support the growing population. Re-opening the station is within Network Rail’s plans but again the timescale for delivery is extraordinary. In short, I’m being told that what is essentially an off-the-shelf straight forward one platform station won’t be opened until May 2022. The next stage of Network Rail’s opaque “GRIP system”, titled “GRIP 3C” will take 18 months to complete at a cost of £2.5 million, including six months devoted to “estimating costs”. Work on “GRIP 3C” shot up from £1.5 to £2.5 million with little to no justification and led to the scheme being further delayed. I have a meeting with the Project Managers coming up but I suspect that they will resort to the old trick of ensuring that you never meet the same person twice.
As Conservatives we should not be comfortable with this broken system. We ought to be prepared to be radical in reforming a failing organisation and break the monopoly that Network Rail currently enjoys. We should attack Labour for essentially promoting more of the same and an extension of Network Rail’s inefficiencies and a return to the darkest days of British Rail. We need a Conservative solution, one that involves more competition and exposure to market forces within the rail system not less. The Hansford Review has called for greater private sector investment in the rail sector. We need to go further in actively promoting third parties to deliver rail infrastructure and take projects out of Network Rail’s hands. This is currently being tested in Windsor and as Mayor I’m keen to drive pilots throughout Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The goal is for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough to become a zone free of Network Rail involvement. I would like the Mayoral Combined Authority to take on new rail projects and deliver them at a pace that delivers promotes businesses and assists those desperate to get a foot on the property ladder or access affordable housing.
The time has come to turn our back on Network Rail’s tired old Stalinist five-year plans and put in place infrastructure quickly to get ahead of the game.