Fears Covid-19 could have funding impact on Cambridge metro plans
Concerns have been raised over funding for parts of the proposed Cambridgeshire Metro, with councillors warning the impact of Covid-19 will exacerbate uncertainty over financing.
The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority has proposed a cross-county transport system, which includes ambitious plans for tunnels under Cambridge.
But the leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “There’s so many unknowns now. The biggest unknown, and the biggest unknown all along, is where is the £4billion [the estimated cost of the project] coming from. £4billion to fund this was a big ask prior to Covid. And it’s actually a much bigger ask now.”
Cllr Smith was speaking after a discussion of the Combined Authority’s board on Wednesday (April 29) where councillors from across the county debated an amendment put forward by Cllr Smith to make a technical – but she argued legally significant – change to a strategy document, to remove phrasing saying the Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro, or CAM, is “essential” for growth in the area.
Cllr Smith was cautioning against the wording used in a strategy document – which may have legal implications for developments in the area – that she said could be interpreted as saying development and growth are reliant on the CAM being completed as a whole.
Instead, Cllr Smith said that while completing the full network is the right long-term aim, “intermediate growth” can still be supported by a “staged delivery”, such as completing individual routes like Cambourne to Cambridge. Cllr Smith argued uncertainties over funding certain parts of the CAM route should not hold up work on other parts of the network, which would still, she said, provide value even if the entire network were never joined up.
The plan for the CAM is to use the same routes as the busway system being implemented by the Greater Cambridge Partnership, but to extend it under the city and out to the rest of the county, and to operate a trackless metro.
“I think it’s a bit dangerous to be saying that the whole of the CAM project – even though I, like everyone else, am very supportive of it – but all the tunnelling sections and all the outreach sections, it’s dangerous to say that they are essential and critical to the future long-term growth and wellbeing of Cambridgeshire because there is more uncertainty now about that. We also are going to face a government with an absolutely massive national debt,” Cllr Smith told the board, adding that
“I think it’s a bit dangerous to be saying that the whole of the CAM project – even though I, like everyone else, am very supportive of it – but all the tunnelling sections and all the outreach sections, it’s dangerous to say that they are essential and critical to the future long-term growth and wellbeing of Cambridgeshire because there is more uncertainty now about that. We also are going to face a government with an absolutely massive national debt,” Cllr Smith told the board, adding that post-Covid-19 “there simply might not be the money around for some of the most expensive elements of CAM”.
She added: “And while that would be very, very distressing to all of us – I think it’s really important that we are quite clear of what the delivery phases are going to be of each element of CAM and that we make sure that we fully recognise the importance of the existing local plans and the importance of getting those stages out the door as quickly as possible, and that we then do quite a serious review of the other elements of it to make sure that they are suitable for a post-Covid world.”
Cllr Smith said certain aspects of the CAM’s route in her district need to be completed because they are linked to development strategies in the authority’s local plan.
The combined authority board voted down the amendment, with the leader of the county council, Cllr Steve Count, arguing the wording of the current draft sub-strategy does not make growth dependent on the CAM’s completion as a whole, and that it would not prevent stages of the CAM’s completion being linked to certain developments.
The leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert, said afterwards that delivering the entire CAM network as currently envisioned is still “plan A” but said “we need to have a plan B, as backup” for if the more ambitious project cannot be delivered for any reason.
“We have got to be able to deliver improvements in public transport, firstly before any tunnels are dug under Cambridge because that might be a period of a decade, where we might have traffic gridlock, and second, we are designing a system with sufficient flexibility to transform transport, whether or not the CAM happens,” Cllr Herbert said.
Also during the board meeting, Cllr Count took issue with the draft of the sub-strategy, saying that he wanted to see more detail and faster plans for routes in the north of Cambridgeshire when the strategy is finalised.
“I want to have something on the map and some indication about what you’re going to be doing about the other routes because for me this is an incomplete plan that doesn’t seek equalisation across the county,” Cllr Count said. “I have quite strong feelings on this. I have raised this before, and I will carry on raising it, and at some point in time I may dig in my heels if that isn’t moved forward at speed.”