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Will Cambridgeshire’s transport power struggle end up in court?

The courts may be asked to resolve a dispute between the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and the Greater Cambridge Partnership over the planning of a busway. As Andrew Forster reports, the case centres on who has ultimate responsibility for making decisions about the area’s transport

Andrew Forster
12 June 2020
The recommended route of the Cambourne to Cambridge busway runs off-road, with park-and-ride at Scotland Farm
The recommended route of the Cambourne to Cambridge busway runs off-road, with park-and-ride at Scotland Farm


A long-running transport power struggle in Cambridge may be heading to court. The legal path was suggested by Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority mayor James Palmer a fortnight ago, ahead of a meeting of the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) board on 25 June. Board members will be asked to proceed with the planning of a £160m busway between Cambourne and Cambridge, a scheme design that Palmer strongly opposes. 

The GCP comprises Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, and the University of Cambridge. It was set up to deliver the Greater Cambridge City Deal struck with Government in 2014. Included in the deal was up to £500m of Government funding for new transport infrastructure over 20 years, with the first £100m guaranteed and the remainder subject to five-yearly gateway reviews. 

The GCP’s programme includes a number of bus-based corridor investments, including the busway between Cambridge and the market town of Cambourne, west of the city. The future of the programme was thrown into doubt in 2017 when Palmer was elected the Conservative mayor of the combined authority, which is the local transport authority for the area. Palmer had pledged to deliver an underground Metro system for Cambridge and a light rail line between Cambourne and Cambridge. 

The two contrasting visions of the mayor and GCP were eventually fused in the form of the Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro (CAM) project, a network of new segregated public transport routes using rubber-tyred vehicles. The GCP’s bus priority/busway projects now form the inner parts of CAM, with Palmer leading the plan for tunnelled operations in the city centre and pursuing extensions of the GCP routes out into the wider county.    

This odd arrangement seemed to be holding together until February when, on the eve of a GCP board meeting to approve the Cambourne to Cambridge route, Palmer wrote to the GCP requesting it cease work on the project (LTT 21 Feb). The mayor said the scheme “as it is currently imagined must be immediately halted” and made some critical remarks about the GCP generally: “It has become clear to me that the GCP lacks the vision, strategic thinking, and the ability necessary to deliver any of the transport priorities for the Cambridge area. The combined authority will now take direct responsibility for delivery of additional public transport solutions for the Cambridge to Cambourne corridor.”

The combined authority subsequently set about preparing a CAM sub-strategy to its local transport plan. This was published in May and said the GCP’s plans for Cambourne and Waterbeach CAM routes would both need revisiting (LTT 15 May).

Combined authority interim monitoring officer Dermot Pearson had written to GCP chairman Aidan Van de Weyer in March saying the preparation of the CAM sub-strategy was a “proportionate response” to the Government’s announcement that the East West Rail route between Bedford and Cambridge will run through Cambourne, and also to Palmer’s wider concerns that the GCP’s Cambourne route did not reflect his overall objectives for the CAM project (LTT 03 Apr). 

“The announcement of the East West Rail alignment would of itself have required some reconsideration of the Cambourne to Cambridge route by the GCP regardless of the mayor’s letter to you,” said Pearson. 

If the GCP were to proceed with its plan for the Cambourne to Cambridge route, Pearson said this could be in conflict with the new CAM sub-strategy. “If that conflict did arise then the combined authority’s view is that the altered local transport plan (LTP) would prevail and that the Cambourne to Cambridge project could not lawfully proceed in a manner contrary to the LTP.”

Pearson added that the combined authority remained “committed to the content of its LTP and to the delivery of Cambourne to Cambridge [CAM] in collaboration with the GCP”. 

Pressing on

Last month the Government informed the GCP that it had passed the first of its five-year gateway reviews for the city deal, unlocking up to a further £400m for its programme. The GCP has presented this as a vote of confidence in its work. “By committing to further funding in Greater Cambridge, the Government has demonstrated its trust in and commitment to the work of the GCP,” Niamh Matthews, its head of strategy and programme, told a meeting of the GCP’s joint assembly last week. 

In a separate report to the assembly, Peter Blake, the GCP’s director of transport, discussed the combined authority’s new CAM sub-strategy. Recounting events prior to Palmer’s intervention in the Cambourne project in February, Blake said GCP officers had worked with counterparts in the combined authority on the busway and this had “culminated in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority officers giving their support for the final GCP proposals for the C2C [Cambourne to Cambridge] scheme”.

Blake added: “The [CAM] sub-strategy does not change the local transport plan, including delivery by the GCP of the inner CAM corridors [Cambourne to Cambridge; Cambridge South East; Waterbeach; and the Eastern corridor], which are explicitly referenced in the sub-strategy. Indeed, the sub-strategy reaffirms the three elements of the CAM network: city tunnelled section; GCP corridors; and regional routes.”

Furthermore, he said the sub-strategy “provides no technical reason why the Cambourne to Cambridge (or Waterbeach scheme) is non-compliant”.

Blake said the GCP could choose to delay decisions about the inner corridors until the combined authority’s sub-strategy was finalised, but pointed out that the projects had already been delayed a number of times. “The progress of, in particular, the Cambourne to Cambridge (C2C) scheme has already been significantly delayed due to a number of interventions: firstly, the mayoral pause in 2018, which caused a nine-month delay; secondly, the need to cancel the December board meeting due to the General Election; and finally, the current delay caused by the mayor’s withdrawal of support for the C2C scheme two days before the GCP board meeting in February. 

“The impact of further delay is potentially significant. The success of the Bourn Airfield, West Cambourne and West Cambridge developments relies in full or part on the C2C scheme. Failure to deliver in a timely manner will impact both the individual schemes, but may also have implications on Greater Cambridge’s local housing trajectory and five-year housing supply and undermines the confidence in the development community that promised infrastructure will be delivered. 

“A delay would also impact significantly upon the combined authority’s CAM programme timeline as Cambourne to Cambridge and Cambridge South East [in the A1307 corridor] are the only two elements of the CAM network deliverable by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority’s target 2024 date.”

Legal matters

Blake also addressed the legal argument about who is responsible for making decisions about the busway route. “The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA), the county council and the GCP collectively asked for further clarification on the respective powers of each authority and this work has been done by officers, including our respective legal monitoring officers, who have reached agreement on the applicable governance framework and each body’s legal powers and responsibilities. 

“In terms of the respective roles of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA) and GCP, work by the monitoring officers concluded: 

  • the CPCA has responsibility for producing the local transport plan (LTP) and passenger transport services including concessionary travel 
  • the county council [which is the highway authority] has delegated a range of powers to the GCP and this is sound legally and gives the GCP all the powers needed to deliver transport schemes provided those schemes are in conformity with the adopted LTP. 

Blake said there was “no formal process for the transport authority [i.e. the combined authority] to provide consent for a major scheme development”. 

“It is entirely for the promoter [in this case the GCP] to demonstrate how it conforms with policy as it progresses through the statutory planning and approvals process.” 

As for funding the projects, Blake said: “The GCP is charged with delivering the Greater Cambridge City Deal and has significant financial resources available, from both Government and local sources, to deliver its objectives. The funding available is assigned to approved schemes, which include the Cambridge South East Transport Scheme and Cambridge to Cambourne schemes.”  

The mayor: feeling ignored

The GCP board meeting on the 25 June will be recommended to press ahead with the Cambourne route, albeit with some amendments, including changing the alignment in west Cambridge, after cyclist group CamCycle and residents complained about the plan to route buses down Adams Road. 

Palmer has already had his say ahead of the meeting. “In these amended plans, it would appear the GCP has listened to the concerns of Cambridge residents but anyone outside the city has been ignored, including me. I believe that, as the directly elected leader of the transport authority, I should have some input into schemes that are purportedly a part of our local transport plan. 

“The GCP have decided to proceed regardless, which risks significant delays and wasted public expenditure in contentious legal proceedings.”

Even with the proposed route change, the Cambourne to Cambridge busway remains controversial, with local people accusing the Liberal Democrats of doing a U-turn from their previous position of opposing the project.  

The route will use an off-road alignment and serve a park-and-ride site at Scotland Farm. The busway will be served by three express services: 

  • Cambourne to city centre at ten-minute intervals 
  • Cambourne to the Biomedical Campus at 30-minute intervals  
  • A428 park-and-ride site to Biomedical Campus at 30-minute intervals in peak periods. 

Blake told the joint assembly that the busway and East West Rail (EWR) were “complementary”. The railway was focused “substantially on longer term growth beyond the Local Plan period and not the immediate and worsening issues of congestion and lack of connectivity for expanding communities west of Cambridge”. 

The railway would offer “good connections for those in Cambourne travelling to destinations easily accessible from the Cambridge stations”. “However, any new rail station would not offer the same level of local service access to areas along the A428/A1303. Neither would it serve other housing and employment locations along the corridor such as Bourn Airfield and West Cambridge.

“Once a preferred alignment has been agreed for EWR and clarity established with regards to the location of a Cambourne station there will be a programme to ensure integration between EWR, the busway and the wider CAM network can be maximised.” Until this time, the busway scheme will run through Cambourne on existing routes rather than new segregated infrastructure. 

The value for money of the busway project is strikingly poor, at least according to a conventional appraisal. The project has a benefit:cost ratio of just 0.43, which rises to 0.48 when taking into account the additional wider economic impacts (a level 2 analysis in DfT parlance). 

The GCP says land value uplift turns the BCR positive. Assuming 50 per cent of the land value uplift is achieved, some £458m, the BCR rises to 1.22. If the full value is realised, then the BCR would rise to 1.95.

The current estimated capital cost of the project is £160.5m, of which £37.7m is anticipated from Section 106 contributions from third parties such as the developers of the Bourn Airfield site and West Cambridge. The cost includes a 25 per cent risk allowance but does not include optimism bias (which is applied in the economic appraisal, at 44 per cent). 

The GCP envisages making a Transport and Works Act Order application to build the busway early in 2021. If authority to construct is forthcoming in 2022, the busway could open in 2024.

The GCP board will also be asked to  approve the development of the ‘brown route’ for the Cambridge South East Transport Scheme (CSETS) – another busway –?to full business case stage. The route ends at a ‘travel hub’ (park-and-ride) site located to the southwest of the junction between the A1307 and A11, which could provide parking for up to 2,800 cars.

The preferred option has an adjusted BCR of 0.81. The adjusted total present value of benefits is £69.8m compared with a present value of costs of £85.7m. 

“As there are currently no development sites that are dependent on Cambridge South East Transport, the adjusted BCR does not include Level 3 wider economic impacts associated with land-use changes,” reported Blake. “There are three residential sites and one employment site identified in the South Cambridgeshire Local Plan that are not dependent on the scheme but can be supported by it.”

The estimated capital cost for the project is £129.9m, including £26m of risk but no optimism bias. Funding is intended to be sourced primarily through the Greater Cambridge City Deal, though the GCP will seek to recover some costs from developer contributions. “Although no immediate opportunities to secure developer contributions to the scheme have been identified, significant development in the area in the pipeline is expected to result in a level of developer contributions to this scheme over time,” said Blake.

As with Cambourne to Cambridge, the power to construct the CSETS scheme is likely to require a Transport and Works Act Order. The planned opening for this route is again 2024. 

Consultant Mott MacDonald is assisting the GCP on the busway schemes. 

Business case for Wisbech rail reopening

The Cambridgshire and Peterborough Combined Authority has published the full business case for reopening the Wisbech to March railway line.

The Wisbech branch closed to passengers in 1968 and to freight in 2000. 

The combined authority wants to restore passenger services, ideally with two trains an hour from Wisbech to Cambridge. It believes there is currently only capacity on the existing network for one train an hour, with the second dependent on additional capacity provided by the Ely area capacity enhancements project, including at Ely North junction. 

In the interim, the second hourly service could therefore form a shuttle between March and Wisbech. 

Wisbech town centre is the preferred location for a station.

The full business case, prepared by consultant Mott MacDonald, estimates the cost of reopening at £218.5m (2019 prices). 

Of this, only £71.9m is for the restoration of the railway formation. A bigger cost – £75.6m – is for highway works – the Wisbech branch is crossed by 22 level crossings, and road closures and diversions will be necessary. The combined authority says the highway elements of the project will be peer reviewed. “We are optimistic that efficiencies may be found here.” 

A risk adjustment of 19 per cent – £34.9m – has been applied to all costs.

Design work on the project has reached Network Rail’s GRIP 3b stage.

Paul Raynes, the combined authority’s strategy and delivery director, said significant levels of national grant funding would be needed to deliver the project. 

Combined authority mayor James Palmer has written to the DfT suggesting that the scheme is an ideal candidate for the ‘accelerating existing proposals’ stream of the Government’s new Restoring your Railways Fund.

The business case recommends that the combined authority takes the lead in the sponsorship and delivery of the project, working closely with Network Rail. 

“A hybrid approach is recommended within the commercial case with the combined authority retaining overall management control of delivery, while some of the rail packages should be procured and managed directly by Network Rail,” said Raynes. 

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