James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
When it comes to Government investment in infrastructure, there is much talk of the need to redress the north-south divide. There are many myths around this debate, but while much focus gets placed on Greater London versus the north, there is less attention on the central heart of this country, and transport connections east and west.
So of course I welcome the development of East West Rail, which will connect Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge, as well as the emerging plans for an expressway linking the two University cities. The economy of this central belt is flourishing, supporting pioneering enterprises which are at the world’s forefront. It is rightly labelled as the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley. This growth corridor hosts clusters of businesses in life sciences, digital and advanced engineering and technology, and competes internationally for research and development funding and other inward investment.
The Cambridge to Oxford ‘Arc’ alone supports 1.8 million jobs and generates £90 billion in “gross value added” (GVA) for our economy. The National Infrastructure Commission estimates that with the right Government investment, that GVA could increase by a further £163 billion, with an additional 700,000 jobs created, by 2050 – double the economic growth that could be achieved if the Government does nothing.
In short, this rail scheme will be vital for UK plc. So vital, in fact, that I think the Government needs to appoint a Minister for East West Rail.
The good news is I understand it is the Government’s intention to do just this. To have a Minister pounding the corridors of Whitehall to drive this project forward will be hugely significant, and will improve on the already good levels of inter-governmental working there has been.
Let’s have a Minister with a vision for a true East West Rail too. Why does it have to stop at Cambridge? The economy of the East will be hugely boosted if the route also connects centres like Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket, Ipswich and the major port at Felixstowe. I know from the western side too, there is real appetite to extend the line to Bristol. What we would then get is a real East-West link that will deliver growth across a key central southern belt of this country.
But we also need to be clearer on what the benefits are for local people. It’s about how this will grow the economy, create new jobs, and ease the pressure on housing through the delivery of a million much-needed new homes. It is also as much about better transport connections along the route, as it is connecting Cambridge and Oxford. People in Bedford and Sandy, for example, will suddenly have a fast route into Cambridge. East West Rail is a transformational project, but this isn’t yet cutting through to communities. Key to this will be improved local engagement. The last meeting I went to on East West Rail saw Government officials talking to a room about what they intended to do, with little dialogue. The approach needs to change.
We now have the Cross Corridor Leaders Group, which encompasses the leaders and chief executives of the 28 relevant local authorities, and which is still in its early phases. We also have the strategic alliance England’s Economic Heartland which I believe should expand to include more authorities in the East. There is great potential for a Minister to work with these groups representing people and businesses, to ensure a clear strategy can be developed that satisfies as far as possible both the local and national priorities.
The Government clearly needs support from local leaders too. Kit Malthouse wrote to me last year asking where we can accommodate our share of the million homes along the corridor. My response was: “first tell me where East West Rail is going”. We can’t plan for housing without certainty of the route of the rail line and the expressway, including how this will impact on local plans in some of the 28 local authorities. I know in the West there is uncertainty over where the expressway will go and here in the East we don’t know, for example, if the rail route will go through Sandy and southern Cambridgeshire, or follow the existing A428 corridor.
Let me also sound a note of warning. East West Rail should not be seen as simply a boost to an already prosperous area. The 2018 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review report, led by economist Dame Kate Barker, stressed that to secure the continued growth of our unique economy, a range of challenges need to be overcome, with transport infrastructure and housing key among these. We have ageing transport networks and house prices which in Cambridge are 13 times average household earnings. It is not sustainable and we need solutions urgently.
We need East West Rail to integrate with existing transport and housing plans, such as the emerging Cambridgeshire Metro, which will deliver a world-class mass transit system that can complement the new rail link. We also need to ensure East West Rail dovetails with our plans to build more homes, including through garden villages, which will be unlocked by the delivery of the Metro system and other infrastructure schemes we are developing.
I know as Mayor, delivering even simple infrastructure upgrades is not easy and requires unrelenting focus. East West Rail is essential, but it will stagnate without drive from central Government and partnership working with local representatives.
East West Rail is too important to the future of the UK economy to fail. We need a Minister in charge who will ensure that is not an option.