At the GCP Executive Board meeting back in March 2019, I had specifically asked about the funding and governance arrangements on the Campus. Prior experience had demonstrated to me that these fundamentals were not in place and were making progress difficult to achieve.
I was told at the meeting that the GCP was “seeking to deliver an action plan”.
This didn’t sound sufficiently urgent to me: with 40% growth forecast in trips to the Campus between 2019 and 2024 on our already congested roads, we do not have the luxury of time to waste, particularly since it is now clear that the alleged ‘game-changer’ infrastructure, namely Cambridge South Station, will not be open for business till 2025 at the earliest.
In the intervening year I have been looking closely for signs that the action plan was indeed being delivered, alongside some actual action! Such signs have been hard to discern.
So yesterday I returned to ask the Board if it was content with the progress that has been made in the last 12 months.
The GCP Board comprises Lewis Herbert (Leader of Cambridge City Council); Aidan Van de Weyer (Deputy Leader of South Cambs District Council), Ian Bates (Chair of the Economy and Environment Committee at Cambs County Council) plus Phil Allmendinger (Cambridge University) and Claire Ruskin (Cambridge Network). These are people with significant power in their own organisations, who come together in the GCP to dispense a £100m budget to support growth in the Greater Cambridge region.
The format of the meeting is that members of the public asking questions are responded to by officers (employees), with a subsequent discussion among the five Board members. The questioner does not have a right to reply to challenge or query any comments made. You can hear my question and the officers’ response in the four-minute video below, but I will summarise and put my own perspective.
The first officer to speak – Niamh Matthews, Head of Strategy and Programme – started by acknowledging the economic and societal benefits arising from the Biomedical Campus. I’m not sure why that was necessary, as I have never heard anyone contest that viewpoint – the queries are actually all about why it has been allowed to grow so rapidly despite the lag in the delivery of supporting infrastructure.
She went on to say that the GCP is “aware of the challenges” which is why they had undertaken the initial review. They “want to (continue to) work constructively with the Campus”.
The second officer – Peter Blake, Director of Transport – then chipped in. Peter is well known to Queen Edith’s residents, as he spoke at the QECF AGM in 2019, where his comments about how the transport demands of the Campus were going to be dealt with were met with a fair degree of scepticism.
Peter’s contribution on this occasion was to say that Campus transport situation falls within what they’re calling ‘City Access’ and they “would expect some proposals to come forward from that work as well”.
Totally content-free statements
Niamh and Peter’s statements took 76 seconds and told me absolutely nothing I didn’t already know. They were in fact totally content-free, an achievement which the two officers seemed to congratulate themselves on with a dismissive conspiratorial wink and smile at the end of the exchange (yes, really; watch the end of the video).
The Board members then had a chance to weigh in. The main contribution came from Lewis Herbert who said the GCP had “spent a fortune on the Transport Needs Review” and he was “disappointed at the amount of money spent” for such a poor return to date.
He suggested the GCP needed “to pressure the main employers (on the Campus) to get moving” and that there was a problem with commitment and staffing: “it’s been all talk for five years”. In order to move things on, he asked that the matter be brought back on the agenda for the next GCP Board meeting in June.
At this point, the most senior officer present – Rachel Stopard, Chief Executive – basically told the Board that that wouldn’t be happening.
And that was the end of the discussion.
Fiddling while Rome burns
So, to recap:
- Work has only been undertaken on “around half” of the potential so-called ‘quick win’ measures identified in March 2019;
- The plan for delivery of appropriate Campus-wide governance structures will not be finalised before March 2020;
- GCP officers are happy to defend this lamentable state of affairs even in the face of pushback from Lewis Herbert and Ian Bates;
- GCP officers find it amusing to fob off residents who care about what happens in their communities;
- I didn’t go to the GCP Board meeting with high expectations; and yet I was still disappointed.
The political tussle between the GCP and the Combined Authority under its Mayor James Palmer looks like it’s going to intensify over the next few weeks and months. I would like to see Greater Cambridge retain control over its own destiny – but frankly, with this degree of fiddling while Rome burns being sanctioned by officers, and uncontrolled by councillors, it does not seem to be fit for purpose.
And we will all be the losers.