Tom Hunt is the Conservative candidate for Ipswich and the Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
During the selection process to become the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for Ipswich I made clear my support for a northern relief road for Ipswich. I’m fully aware of how significant this issue is for Ipswich and the benefits that a new road could bring. Since my selection as the candidate at the end of September, I’ve been out and about across the town talking to residents and the importance of the road has been impressed upon me strongly. When I launched my campaign website last week campaigning for the road was listed as one of my top priorities.
However, something I have also picked up whilst discussing the issue with many people locally is the lack of optimism that the project will ever happen. The reality is that the road is long overdue, and I can understand why there is a degree of cynicism. The sense I get from many people I talk to is that it’s great in principle but is unlikely to ever happen.
I know I say this as someone who is coming at the campaign fresh, but I think we need to try and change this mindset. Ipswich needs and deserves a northern relief road and everyone who supports it should look to pull in the same direction and fight for the investment that is needed to make the project a reality.
This does make me think back to my first experience of local government as a 22-year-old in early 2011. I spent a wet and windy Saturday in February wandering around Ely market square collecting signatures for a petition calling for Ely to have a new southern bypass. A much-needed piece of infrastructure that would deal with a key bottleneck that was blighting the City. This is something that I have previously written about for this website. I remember vividly the conversations I had on the day, many who signed the petition did whilst also adding the comment, “It will never happen”. In fact, in the local elections that took place on May 2011, the local Liberal Democrats actually ran on a platform that essentially said: “There is no point campaigning for a southern bypass because it’s never going to happen”. As local Conservatives we were almost branded as being fantasists for leading on the issue.
However, last week I had the pleasure of being at the official opening of the Ely southern bypass. Seven years after I originally started campaigning for it, longer than I would have liked, but delivered nonetheless. There is no doubt in my view that this will be a game changer for Ely and the surrounding area. The reason I raise this is that I’m considering whether there are any lessons for Ipswich in this and how it goes about looking to secure funding for a northern relief road.
I believe there are. I say this whilst appreciating the significant differences between the two projects. The Ely southern bypass cost just under £50 million. If the northern relief road is to be a dual carriage road the cost estimate I’ve heard is around £250 million, the reality is it could well be more. The fact is it’s a bigger project and will cost more.
What made a significant difference in Cambridgeshire was the County Council, LEP, MPs, District Council, City Council and key local stakeholders such as Ely Cathedral speaking together with one voice and very loudly.
Ultimately the funding for the project came from a mixture of the County Council, LEP, District Council, Network Rail and Central Government. It’s clear that to win the ear of Government for significant investment it’s a huge help to have consensus locally.
As a group on the District Council we were relentless in our campaigning. We fought local elections on the issue and set up a number of petitions, one which attracted over 10,000 signatures.
It was this commitment and dedication to the campaign that enabled us to overcome a formidable opponent in English Heritage, a weighty institution with significant clout that was blind to the massive need for the bypass and the universal support for it locally. It was always difficult for me to get my head around national figures from English Heritage thinking they knew more about the setting of the Cathedral within the fens than the Bishop and Dean of Ely Cathedral.
English Heritage ultimately succeeded in delaying the bypass by a number of years which has cost the local economy. Their pressure led to a call in by Sir Eric Pickles, when he was the Communities and Local Government Secretary, that created significant uncertainty. But again, as a local team we were very well organised in making our representations directly to the Secretary of State, making clear the strength of support locally for the scheme and how important it was to the area. Funnily enough, I remember raising the matter directly with the Secretary of State at the Conservative Councillors Association drinks reception during the 2014 Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. We were delighted when the Secretary of State came down in our favour.
Despite all the challenges and the naysayers Ely now has its bypass. This is proof that these things can happen. What are the key ingredients that are needed to run a successful campaign to deliver a significant piece of transport infrastructure (beyond just a good Benefit Cost Ratio score)?
- A clear ask.
- All key local decision makers and stakeholders pulling in the same direction.
- Evidence of their being significant local support.
- Relentlessness and tenacity in making the case and persevering.
As the Conservative PPC for Ipswich and someone who hopes to win the honour of being the MP for the town, I’m determined to play my role in campaigning for a northern relief road. I will work with whoever I can to make it happen. I’ve already discussed the matter with the Leader of the County Council and plan to raise it the Roads Minister over the coming months. What we do know is that in the Budget the Government highlighted the importance of investment into the road network and putt aside £29 billion for the purpose. Let’s make sure we get our fair share.