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A Change of Direction in the East of England?


By Vikki Slade, Associate Director

On May 6th the first big test of the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority will come, as the position of the Conservative incumbent, Mayor James Palmer, is contested by Labour candidate Dr Nik Johnson and Liberal Democrat Cllr Aidan Ven De Weyer.

Created in 2017, this combined authority spans seven council areas and covers around 800,000 residents. It is the only combined authority in the East of England after the proposed system with a directly elected mayor covering Norfolk and Suffolk, and was abandoned following the withdrawal of several district councils.

As we approach polling day, it will be fascinating to see whether the politics of Westminster will overshadow the contest locally. Can the focus be kept on the number of homes actually built in the last four years and on the contentious CAM Metro autonomous vehicle project?

During recent hustings, the differences between the three candidates have become evident. Mayor Palmer has been focusing heavily on the projects he had announced within 100 days of his previous election; the creation of a University for Peterborough, the dualling of the A10 between Ely and Cambridge, and the CAM Metro scheme, which he explained was key to enabling New Towns to be built around the public transport network.

His focus on the Metro was criticised by both opponents. Dr Johnson stated he ‘did not see a long-term future for the current plans and Cllr Van De Weyer was concerned that the scheme was overly reliant on ‘expensive tunnels and, as yet unproven technology around autonomous vehicles’.

Both challengers used their time at a recent hustings to champion the future of local buses and active travel, with the Labour candidate keen on a Tiger-branded fleet of electric buses. The Lib Dem candidate talked about the potential of e-bikes to link up neighbourhoods alongside buses, trams, and trolleybuses. Mayor Palmer has a mixed background with cycling, having introduced e-bike share schemes in both Cambridge and Peterborough. Having previously scrapped a pedestrian and cycle river crossing in St Neots after costs escalated, he described the area as ‘too dispersed’ for cycling and walking to have much impact as the economy recovers and grows.

Returning to a theme he had championed when leader of East Cambs, Mayor Palmer talked about the use of Community Land Trusts to build homes for local people caught in the high-house-price, low wage trap by creating the £100,000 home. The format of the hustings did not allow for candidates to challenge each other, but in his later speech, Cllr Van De Weyer was scathing in his criticism around affordable housing. He reminded those in attendance that only four homes had been delivered so far from this scheme and that the Government had withdrawn £45m of funding due to lack of progress and value for money concerns.

Dr Johnson compared Peterborough to a northern town and the market towns of Wisbech, Ely and others as ‘middle England’ with the area around Cambridge likened to London and the South East. He shared serious concerns about natural resources including power and water and was keen to look to the town centres as a potential source of new homes. Dr. Johnson spoke of how he would include specialists in both public health and green technology if he were successful in being elected Mayor.

Cllr Van De Weyer shared his view that the role of Mayor was to speed up delivery and to provide strategic oversight when it comes to housing, and he welcomed the Strategic Framework of the OxCam ARC. He stressed that the area needed to be greener and fairer and said the area had been ‘let down’ and seen a lack of real leadership under the current Mayor. Mayor Palmer stated that his opponents lacked the experience needed for such a strategic role.

While neither challenger responded to this comment, both did have plenty to say on the skills gap for the region; Dr Johnson on the delivery of green jobs and Cllr Van De Weyer on creating an apprenticeship strategy and a focus on agri-tech training in the Fenland areas.

As a hustings, it certainly lacked the energy and frisson of a live event. The insight into the approaches of the three candidates, all of whom have spent time in local Government within the Combined Authority area, was clear. Both challenges showed a shift towards fairer communities and a more realistic, collaborative style of leadership. This compared to the previous approach of the current Mayor and his ambitious focus on driving forward projects, developed in his first 100 days, when elected in 2017.

It will be interesting to see whether the electorate continue to put their faith in the big-ticket schemes which do not appear to have borne fruit yet. Or will they be willing to change direction and back a candidate keen to empower communities to develop and grow?

A Change of Direction in the East of England?