This week I’m going to concentrate on one meeting I attended – a public event organised by the Greater Cambridge Partnership about its Cambridge South East Transport (CSET) project, held last Monday.
The CSET project comprises a new park and ride site at the A11 near Babraham; a new dedicated busway which runs close to (but not through) the settlements at Sawston, Stapleford and Shelford before reaching the Biomedical Campus via Francis Crick Avenue; a ‘non-motorised user’ path alongside the busway; and areas of ‘environmental enhancement’ along the route.
The current estimated cost? £132,000,000. That’s one hundred and thirty-two million pounds.
There continue to be many sources of opposition to the project. The local parish councils assert that, because the route passes outside the footprint of their villages, it will bring little practical benefit to their residents but will conveniently carve off swathes of land between the busway and the village which will then be ripe for development.
Environmental groups led by Cambridge Past Present and Future are concerned about the damage to the landscape of laying the new P&R site, the out-of-village stops along the way and a 7-mile concrete road with two bridges in the Green Belt.
Transport groups like Smarter Cambridge Transport argue that it is an expensive red herring, and that there are alternative solutions which would be more cost effective, sustainable, socially equitable and speedily delivered.
But the CSET juggernaut rolls on regardless, and the purpose of Monday’s meeting was to present the papers to be considered at the GCP Joint Assembly on Thursday, the Assembly being the scrutiny body which makes recommendations to the decision-making GCP Executive Board. (If you need an introduction to GCP governance, try this).
The first problem was its timing relative to the Joint Assembly, as the deadline for submitting public questions to be asked at the Assembly was 10am Monday morning, i.e. 8 hours before the public meeting. To me, this did not seem to be in the spirit of encouraging proper engagement with a group of commentators who have real concerns about the direction of this project and who have followed it closely now since 2016.
However, you might say, the papers for the Joint Assembly were already available, so surely nothing was said on Monday evening which wasn’t already in the public domain? This is correct, in as much as the 150-page CSET information started on p.465 of the Joint Assembly agenda pack, and everything I’m about to talk about was in there if you looked in the right place. However, there was zero attempt to draw the reader’s attention to aspects of the project which had changed since the previous iteration, and so I – in common with everyone on the call – was very much taken by surprise with what followed.
The most significant was that the car parking capacity at the new Park & Ride had been reduced from 2000 spaces to 1250. This was actually originally positioned on the call as an example of an ‘enhanced landscaping’ win, and only by questioning was it made clear that the functionality of the car park – providing parking spaces – was nearly halved.
We asked questions about the justification for this change. The explanation was that because the GCP’s ‘City Access’ project (a suite of measures to keep cars out of the city centre which might include physical road closures or some form of road tariff) has made so little progress, the CSET scheme can’t assume it will absorb large numbers of vehicles, as in all likelihood they’ll still be ploughing on into the city!
Further questions were asked about the impact of this change on the business case (i.e. the economic justification) of the scheme, which was already showing a low rate of return. GCP couldn’t share this with us as it hasn’t been signed off yet. And no, they would not commit to when that sign-off was likely to happen.
Various speakers raised the continued growth of the Campus (a given, at least for the next 10 years), which will generate increasing numbers of journeys; and rapid housing growth just outside the GCP area around Haverhill, where many of these journeys will start. Surely with this context, a case could be made of retaining the original level of parking? No, but if demand merited it in future, GCP could consider expanding the parking spaces – presumably by digging up the ‘enhanced landscaping’.
The rest of the discussion continued in a similarly surreal way. Starting at ‘our’ end of the scheme in Queen Edith’s, there is no onus on either CSET or Network Rail (with its new station) to specify how these two major pieces of infrastructure will work together. Apparently the planning regime requires that both are specified in isolation from each other, in case the other scheme falls through. We were reassured that the two teams are liaising closely, but based on evidence to date, I have to confess to not having a great deal of trust in what might emerge from that.
We were shown a revised cross-section for Francis Crick Avenue on the Biomedical Campus. Carriageway widths have been reduced to 3.7m to make space for segregated walking and cycling infrastructure. I asked (as I have done at several of these meetings) where space was being made available for bus-stops for non-CSET buses. There then followed a bizarre discussion which appeared to indicate that the CSET team didn’t understand that any services other than theirs would be running on Francis Crick Avenue; followed by a grudging statement that “in principle we would seek to retain the single existing bus stop”.
This is completely unacceptable and totally contravenes the Biomedical Campus Transport Needs Review (published 2019) which very clearly describes how the number of bus services running to Cambridge South and the new employment areas at the railway side of the Campus will need to increase significantly. The excuse offered on Monday was that “none of the bus operators has responded specifically to the consultation about what services they might run”. That is disappointing but nevertheless I cannot understand how the CSET team can remain in either ignorance or denial of the importance of proper transport interconnectivity at this location.
We were also presented with revised diagrams for the area around Nine Wells Local Nature Reserve. This will be temporarily surrounded by construction compounds for both CSET and Cambridge South; and permanently impinged on by the CSET busway and the four-tracking of the railway line to service Cambridge South.
However, in previous CSET presentations, there had been discussion of, you guessed it, ‘environmental enhancements’ around it. What we discovered on Monday was that the area for those enhancements has now been halved. Why? Because the landowner is not willing to host biodiversity offsetting for the CSET development on his field, because he will need it to offset the impacts of his own developments on the Biomedical Campus. Basically, there is now so much development going on in that area that land for mitigating its impacts is in as short supply as development land itself!
Alternative routes proposed by Shelford and Babraham parish councils were dismissed, the latter on the basis that it would add 25 seconds to the journey time!
There was no commitment to running fully electric vehicles on the route – the most that was offered was electric within the city, with an ‘aspiration’ to avoid diesel on the Green Belt sections.
The CamCycle representative on the call was astonished to find that, after years of discussion with GCP about how this project could improve the active travel bridge over the A11, officers had now summarily decided that cyclists would have to dismount to cross, in contravention of both equalities legislation and also any pretence that this project will deliver real improvements for non-motorised users.
I could go on, but I think we’d all find it too depressing. And the Joint Assembly on Thursday approved all of this with an hour or so’s discussion, so all of the above now goes to the GCP Executive Board on 1st July. Look out for a final flurry of protest between now and then – not because people are nimbys, or unable to see the bigger picture, but because this is an eye-wateringly expensive shambles and we could and should do better.