Politics hasn’t got the best reputation at present, as the chaos of Brexit and the Trump presidency bring politicians into disrepute, with little consensus on the way ahead. Does it seem a stretch to apply this to the politics around whether the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) can force their preferred off-road route option through the Coton Corridor?
It had seemed that democracy had resolved the issue. The new Mayor of the Combined Authority for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, James Palmer, (a Tory) had stated as part of his election campaign his opposition to an off-road busway through the Coton Corridor and the West Fields. Then, in the South Cambridgeshire District Council elections in May 2018, councillors (LibDem and Tory) were elected who had also stated their opposition to the proposed busway, the LibDems taking control of the Council. That seemed to establish clearly that the scheme would be stopped on principle.
Enter into the political equation the Mayor’s desire for a region-wide ‘Metro’ solution to solving the transport and growth problems. In May 2018 he imposed a six month pause on GCP while there was a review of his Metro proposals. That ended in October and to everyone’s surprise he handed responsibility for the Cambourne to Cambridge busway back to the GCP, provided it was compatible with his proposed Metro concept. This is remarkably bus-like, since it runs on tarmac track, doesn’t have rails, and is effectively a tram-like long bendy bus which can also run on ordinary roads, but could be in tunnels under Cambridge city centre. Any other solution than tunnels looks unfeasible for the volume of buses GCP proposes to feed into the City Centre.
GCP have responded by proposing the off-road route through the Coton Corridor again, despite this being rejected by 64% of those consulted in December 2017/January 2018. Frankly, the GCP have dreadful form with this approach.
GCP appears to value consultation and public engagement, judging by the huge sums it spends on it, but it has a track record of ignoring public input and the views of participants in their engagement processes.
It is worth noting that despite emphasising consultation, the development of route options for Cambourne to Cambridge went through a series of five iterations, reducing 34 options to four, then becoming six with cosmetic variants, BEFORE any public consultation started in 2015. The public said the County Transport Officers chose the wrong routes but the officers have championed their chosen route ever since.
Now the GCP has the effrontery to claim that “gathering and then reflecting public and stakeholder support and views are a key factor in option selection. As such the robust public consultation has informed and shaped the scheme and optioneering process which has led to the strategic option.”
That is quite simply not true. (Politicians would call it a “lie”)
The County Council ‘s lawyer had told Coton Parish Councillors that consultations were not statutory and the County Council (which services the GCP) had the power to ignore the responses. So why the expenditure on consultation if it is meaningless?
Attenders at the LLF, “workshops”, “focus groups” confirm these have been ‘contentious’ between participants and the officers and their consultants, because of the clear intention to push forward with the officers recommended scheme, despite any public views to the contrary. The route options suggested by the public but not chosen by the officers have never been fully evaluated.
The latest GCP report has a table purporting to show the actions taken in response to public input, presumably to justify their approach to an off-road choice, but no reference to the public and their elected representatives proposing alternative routes since 2015.
This table under-represents the public supporting an on-road route; independent analysis of the data shows that over 64% rejected the off-road route options and wanted on-road bus lanes. The pattern of ignoring the public input has recurred throughout the progress of this scheme – and is a feature of other GCP schemes such as Milton Road, Histon Road, Harston/Hauxton, the South-East Corridor.
What is distressing is that this press-on-regardless approach completely negates local democracy if they proceed ignoring public input, including from local elected representatives and councillors. By what authority do they think they can trample over South Cambridgeshire District Council for example, whose leader Bridget Smith and newly elected councillors are all in stated opposition to this scheme?
Can we remember that the Coton Busway Action Group, behind Cambridge Credible Transport, are not NIMBYs (though Fiona Reynolds did give an invigorating talk in November 2017 which made us want to be BIMBYs – Beauty in my back yard). We have always wanted better transport solutions for Cambourne to Cambridge, including for cycling and walking. We know there are better solutions than the limited options the County Transport Officers chose back in 2014, without consulting the public.
For example, there is unanimity amongst most Parish Councils and elected representatives that the preferred route should be along the A428 to an all-ways junction at Girton with the M11 and A14, and a Park+Ride transport hub, which would be an ideal connection into a Metro for Cambridge, whether bus or tram. Now that the Government has announced an Oxford to Cambridge Expressway (along the A428 locally) and the expediting of the Oxford to Cambridge rail link, for which a northern route linking to St Neots and Cambourne is proposed, the A428 and Girton Interchange look to be critical solutions. But this has never been properly evaluated.
So now is the moment when democracy has to intervene. The County Transport Officers need to understand that it is not about the public versus ‘their scheme’ but about getting the best solution for Cambridge. South Cambridgeshire has to stand up and insist that better solutions be found.
Is it worth saying that the officers choosing a route through the Green Belt which put a Park+Ride site on top of one of the highest points in view for miles around, and then slashing across a view described as one of the most splendid in Cambridge, through fields owned by a conservation charity to protect them from any development, covenanted by the National Trust, into the West Fields where a High Court judge had ruled to protect them from development, does seem peverse if not madness? Quite where this act of environmental vandalism came from is known only to them, but it certainly looks like a deeply prejudiced choice.
South Cambridgeshire deserve better.